Film

The Natural: Meet Bill Camp, Hollywood’s Biggest Little Guy

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Here’s one recent example of a moment when Bill Camp might have surprised you at the movies: Nearly ninety minutes into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), down-and-out actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) chugs a martini and saunters out of a bar near Broadway’s St. James Theatre. Immediately after Riggan enters the shadowy street, a voice booms from somewhere offscreen: “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow!” Riggan wanders into a garishly lit liquor store and buys a pint of whiskey, the disembodied yelling (“Out, out, brief candle!”) echoing through the neighborhood as he deals with the cashier. As Riggan exits, the camera at last reveals the source of the bellowing: a haggard-looking fellow in sloppy clothes, directing his barks at no one in particular, his right hand gripping a piece of scaffolding overhead. He screams the end of his monologue (“…signifying nothing!”) as Riggan walks by, then drops his performative veneer entirely. “Where you going, man?” he asks Riggan, suddenly sounding like a worried child. “Was that too much?”

Who is this stranger, declaiming Macbeth on 43rd Street in the middle of the night? According to the end credits, he’s the “Crazy Man” — a label that reads as a sort of badge of honor in this movie populated by lunatics, where cartoonish Times critics sulk over their notepads and Method-minded thespians attempt to fuck onstage.

But the actor playing the Crazy Man is no punchline. A revered veteran of the theater, Bill Camp has headlined challenging productions of Shakespeare (Macbeth, back in 1999), Molière (The Misanthrope, 2007), Dostoyevsky (Notes From Underground, 2010), and even Fassbinder (In a Year With 13 Moons, 2013). In 2002, he won an Obie for his work in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/ Kabul; in 2008, he and his wife, the actress Elizabeth Marvel, were invited to host the Obie awards; and, just this year, for his turn as the Reverend John Hale in Ivo van Hove’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, he earned his first-ever Tony nomination.

And unlike his wayward, here-and-gone Birdman character, who seems to be auditioning for a lead part that has long since gone to the other guy, Camp today finds himself in the thick of a seemingly overnight career renaissance as one of the most reliable stealth weapons in Hollywood, laboring in the margins of lavish, award-winning productions with his wonderful bulldog face. If the Tony citation feels like hard-earned recognition for work in a medium that Camp has long mastered, his more intangible productivity in the movies has occurred almost invisibly. Between 1990 (the year of his first screen credit, as an extra in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune) and 2011, he appeared in a total of ten feature-length movies; he racked up the same number of screen credits between 2012 and 2015 alone. And this year, he has parts in three major releases (Midnight Special, Jason Bourne, Loving), a headline-making HBO miniseries (The Night Of), and two projects currently in postproduction (Stephen Gaghan’s Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey, and an untitled movie about the wrongful conviction of Colin Warner, in which Camp plays the lawyer William Robedee).

“I got a call from my agent that they needed somebody,” Camp tells the Voice, referring to his one-scene vocal marathon in Birdman. Dressed in a dark T-shirt and a beaten-up Boston Bruins cap, his face partially concealed by a scruffy beard flecked with gray, Camp blends in easily among the backpack-carrying crowd seated in the courtyard of a midtown Le Pain Quotidien. He occasionally takes a breath to put on sunglasses for relief from the glare of a summer afternoon. “I think it was the day before, or the night before. And [Iñárritu] needed somebody to be that guy, but he wasn’t really sure who that guy was. So I got there the next day, not knowing what I was going to be saying or doing.” Camp spent all of five or six hours on the set of Birdman; months later, he says, “When I went to see the movie, I was like, ‘I don’t even know when this scene is supposed to happen in the course of the story.’ ”

Camp is a scene-stitcher — an emergency repairman with a prized spot in the phone book of some of the industry’s most powerful players. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), the winner of two Oscars; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), winner of three, including Best Picture; Birdman, of course, which won four, including Best Picture; Paul Greengrass’s just-released Bourne installment; and Jeff Nichols’s Loving, a Cannes favorite slated for theatrical release in November, are just a few of the high-profile films to which Camp has lately lent his hand. His roles are mainly bit parts — generally only lasting for two or three scenes, tops — but they serve an all-important purpose. He doesn’t take over movies; prestige projects with large ensembles depend on actors like Camp to do just the opposite, to furnish the periphery without attracting undue attention. Camp’s ubiquity serves as quiet proof of just how urgent this function is: “It’s been a nightmare for line producers,” he says of his globe-trotting schedule, which can have him jetting from London to Albuquerque and beyond over the course of mere days. “But the great thing was, they could have said, ‘Fuck it. We’ll get somebody else.’ But they didn’t.”

Unlike a lot of character actors in the movies, whose appearance immediately signals a certain brand of personality, Camp — with his everyman physique and deep, earthy voice — is a chameleon. According to Joel Edgerton, Camp’s co-star in Black Mass, Midnight Special, and Loving, this is one of the essential reasons behind Camp’s ascent. “Part of the reason Bill is so usable and durable and constantly on the screen is that he’s kind of the center of the wheel,” Edgerton tells the Voice. “He’s not just a villainous guy. He can play sleazy and he can play lovable and he can play menacing.”

Even more to the point, argues Black Mass director Scott Cooper — who is currently shooting his next feature with Camp in New Mexico — Camp has the temperament to pull off a wide range of roles without upstaging his co-stars. “I really believe that small parts are what typically make a film experience unenjoyable,” Cooper says. “Because they so often pull you out of the picture. Bill is without question not that kind of actor. He just seamlessly fits right into the pocket. I tend to write for actors, and I absolutely wrote [this particular character in the New Mexico project] for Bill Camp. He’s really indispensable, and I hope to work with him continually.”

“I sort of see that as my job. It just seems natural,” Camp says of the challenge of playing roles all across what seems is an increasingly broad spectrum. “I’m just so lucky that these great directors have said, ‘OK, Bill can play this little guy in this movie.’ ”

Crazy Man, it turns out, might not have been the worst nickname for Camp in his past life, back when he was making a name for himself in the New York theater scene — not just taking risky roles, but relishing them. “When he was a young man, he was definitely the go-to guy for any [character] who was in extremis,” Marvel, Camp’s wife, tells the Voice. “He was definitely, definitely the guy to call,” she adds. “He just was fearless.”

Camp’s appetite for high-wire work dates back to his years at Juilliard, in the early Nineties, when he played multiple roles in Ellen McLaughlin’s experimental Infinity’s House, a sprawling historical drama that opens in 1850, concludes in 1945, and features a cast of more than thirty. (In an interview with Kathryn Walat in American Theatre magazine in March 2009, Camp said of Infinity’s House: “I’ve spoken to some artistic directors about doing it, but they’re as intimidated as fuck — they’re afraid of it.”) Later projects, like van Hove’s staging of The Misanthrope, had Camp burrowing headfirst into roles of comparable extremity: That 2007 piece raised eyebrows for a memorably messy food-fight encounter in which Camp coated his body in chocolate sauce.

But perhaps even these confrontational triumphs take a backseat to the agony Camp etched in Homebody/Kabul, in which he played Quango Twistleton, a disaffected British NGO worker strung out on heroin in the Afghan capital. The story called for a hotel room scene where Quango, desperate and thinking himself alone, removes a woman’s underwear from her luggage and starts sniffing them and jerking off.

“One day in rehearsal, Bill was doing the scene, and his character was getting more and more turned on,” the prolific Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (Angels in America) who has also written for the screen, recalls. “And he took the pair of panties and put them over his head. It looked like this sort of weird mask. And he stuck the crotch in his mouth. Then she comes in wearing a burqa, and they just stare at each other. It was this great moment that [Bill] was the author of, and it’s now in the script, because I thought it was such genius. It was a great stage image.” Adds Kushner: “There’s no actor I’m aware of who’s his superior. He has a very deep soul. He seems to have lived many, many lifetimes.”

But accepting roles like these eventually took a toll — a fatigue that led to his decision, in 2000, to step away from acting. “I think that I just got caught up in the identity of being an actor,” Camp remembers. “And that kind of divorced me from the rest of the world. Like I had blinders on.” Camp’s short hiatus heralded a cross-country move to Topanga Canyon and a widely reported (including in this publication) foray into short-lived odd jobs in restaurants and garages and on landscaping crews.

Kushner eventually convinced him to return, and Camp resolved to leave his closed-off, inward-looking ways behind. “It can get pretty incestuous, microcosmic, in a way,” he says of acting — in this town or any other. “But you just have to live in the world. I think it’s important to understand yourself as a human being in the world — outside of being an actor in the world.” In 2004, having met over a decade earlier, he and Marvel finally married. Two years later, they gave birth to a son, Silas; today, the three of them live in Brooklyn.

Camp has continued working apace in the theater, but it’s his humbler roles in the movies that most clearly signal his change in mentality. He looks back on Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe (2010), a sunny comedy set at a writers’ retreat in Dorset, as a notable turning point. “That was a real departure. And that was the first thing, really, [in this new phase]. Silas had just been born. And not long after he was born, things kind of started to shift, in a way.” To watch Camp in Tamara Drewe is to see a lifelong dramatist liberated by the spirit of comedy: His character, Glen McCreavy — a jolly, bespectacled academic struggling through a book on Thomas Hardy — combats his writer’s block by stuffing his face with “cookie things” prepared by a woman with whom he is smitten. Here’s this restless Off-Broadway legend, at last saying silly things like, “If it were possible to have an orgasm from food, these mince pies would do it,” with a big, goofy grin on his face.

In his subsequent bit parts in movies, Camp has likewise foregrounded the mellower impulses of his new acting self, making his presence felt through the barest of means. In Lincoln, as one half of the Jefferson City couple that arrives at the president’s quarters to inquire about a piece of family property, Camp stands rigid, saying little and doing even less. (Marvel plays his wife.) But the sharpness of his gestures — the way he greets a tangential Lincoln anecdote with a confused, blank stare, or his nervous coughs in response to the cigar smoke encircling the office — creates a snapshot as vivid as his time on screen allows. “It’s just this gorgeous, tiny cameo,” says Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for the film.

Camp’s other toned-down efforts include John Hillcoat’s Lawless, in which small-town Sherriff Hodges battles a sadistic federal enforcer; McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in which his sleepy-eyed Radburn glowers in patches of darkness and mutters lines under his breath (“rags and tatters”); Black Mass, where he so underplays the role of the small-time, in-over-his-head businessman John Callahan that the character’s swift death in the trunk of a Cadillac comes off almost as a pathetic afterthought; and Midnight Special, in which Camp’s Doak — a silent monster in a suit jacket — stalks the heartland with a mechanistic efficiency.

“I think there’s a lot of actors that can grab hold of the monologue and do a bunch of gymnastics with it,” Michael Shannon, another Midnight Special star, tells the Voice. “But it’s harder to just be a human being. Not many actors can do that. He can.”

Camp’s latest bathroom-break-and-he’s-gone turn is in Jason Bourne, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s $100 million–plus return to the espionage franchise. Like so much in Jason Bourne, an action movie about backstory, Camp’s character comes freighted with the heavy burden of the past: His Malcolm Smith is first glimpsed in print — his name typed in a Treadstone report next to the ominous title “surveillance officer” — before he’s seen in the flesh. After learning of Smith’s participation in the black-ops program that lured him into the assassination business, the rogue Bourne (Damon) goes looking for Smith in London. He plucks him from a chaotic crowd in Paddington Square and takes him to a crummy building, where he hurls Smith into an elevator and sticks a gun to his throat, pressing for answers. When they reach the roof, the scene becomes a harried three-way standoff, Smith caught in the middle of two opposing forces: Bourne in front of his face, demanding that he spill the beans; a CIA honcho yapping on the radio, ordering him to stay silent. The scene turns Camp’s face into a panicked knot.

The movie itself is preoccupied with old conflicts, sputtery flashbacks, and franchise mythos. But in that one moment, Camp cuts through all that baggage and does what he always does onscreen: direct our attention to the now. His Smith is nothing like this Bourne installment’s hardened killer, Vincent Cassel’s “Asset,” or its resident warmongering blowhard, Tommy Lee Jones’s CIA Director Robert Dewey. He’s an in-between guy, probably with a lot of shady dealings in his past, but who here looks scared, sensitive, and like he really isn’t ready to die. When his sequence is up, you feel like you could have spent more time with him, but that’s not the point: The show must go on, to louder set pieces and more glamorous faces. Bill Camp only exists in the present tense.

If Camp has a genuine mass-market breakout in the offing — one that takes him beyond “New York theater fiends,” as Kushner puts it — it’s probably with Steven Zaillian and Richard Price’s HBO procedural, The Night Of, which details the intricacies of a New York City homicide investigation. Camp’s performance as Detective Dennis Box — a captivating mix of fatherly compassion and cerebral remove — has already provoked a round of interviews regarding the motivations of his mysterious character.

For now, though, Camp continues to labor in the pivotal place where good scenes are made and elevated — or lost. For Daniel Day-Lewis to fully sell Lincoln’s endearing eccentricity, his digressive anecdote about a parrot must be met with precisely the kind of befuddled reaction shot that Camp gives. And for Bourne to end a head-spinning chase across the streets of London with an appropriately emphatic beat, Matt Damon needs an adversary to dangle over a rooftop precipice. When I ask Camp what it feels like to be handpicked by a Greengrass or an Iñárritu, he responds almost in disbelief. “It’s just information that I don’t really need to know. If they want me to do it, it’s enough. I don’t want to be sniffing around where I shouldn’t be sniffing around. Because then I build on it, and it starts going into fantasy and it takes me out. All I [worry about] is showing up and knowing my lines.”

Several weeks after our café chat, Camp writes me from New Mexico in the wee hours while working on the Scott Cooper set: “If you can, just say I am still learning.”

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