Peter Gallagher: Why Bad Boys Make Us Feel So Good

After experiencing Max Mayer’s directorial debut, the thought-provoking drama Adam, I couldn’t wait to put in my request for an interview. Adam features hot young talents, Hugh Dancy (Confessions of a Shopaholic), Rose Byrne, (Damages) and one phenomenal log line: “A Story about two strangers. One a little stranger than the other.” And boy howdy, is Adam strange, at least compared to us normal folk — (if such a thing actually exists).

Adam has Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of high functioning autism that limits his ability to read other people’s thoughts and feelings. His condition is touchingly illustrated in a scene with his new neighbor Beth, (Byrne). Struggling to carry several heavy boxes up the stairs of their apartment building, Adam politely inquires how she is doing.

It went something like this:

“Good,” Beth grunts. “Just, you know, trying to get these boxes upstairs.”

Beth waits expectantly for Adam’s offer to help with her awkward load.

And waits. And waits…

“Boy, they sure are heavy,’ she finally says, smiling at Adam.

“Oh?” he replies. “Yeah, they do look heavy.”

He gives her a sweet smile and continues reading his book.

While Hugh Dancy’s journey into the mind of Adam was fascinating, the guy whose brain I really wanted to pick was only on screen for a couple of memorable scenes. And it was those few and far between moments made Peter Gallagher the true star of this little gem of a film.

Gallagher plays Marty, the reluctant father who encourages Beth, his daughter, to steer clear of Adam, hoping she’ll find a nice, rich, “corporate-type” like him. Preferably, a nice, rich corporate type without Asperber’s.

At the film’s press day, Gallagher bursts into the interview room with the energy and poise of a jazz dancer 30 years his junior. His warmth is palpable, and every journalist at the table simultaneously exhales and leans forward expectantly.

Sidenote: Before our one-on-one interview, I participated in a “Gallagher warm-up” with journalists from every media type of media outlet.

“Hello, ladies and gentlemen!” Gallagher beams, arms outstretched in welcome.

“Where’s everybody from?”

He proceeds to listen intently as we all go around the table, introducing ourselves and our respective media outlets. When one reporter gushes about his expert portrayal of Marty,

Gallagher blushes, admitting that he wasn’t even sure if he should come [to the press day], since he “just plays the dad.”

In this supporting role, however, Gallagher ends up facing just as much turmoil as the two lead characters. Cutting a few corners throughout the course of his high-profile career turns out to be anything but harmless. Even worse than being sentenced to white collar prison are the effect Marty’s actions have on his daughter. Mayer (writer/director) presents a beautiful juxtaposition between Marty’s lies and Adam’s blunt honesty. It is deliciously ironic when Marty’s deceit becomes the force that drives Beth straight into Adam’s arms; the last place he wanted her to be.

While it was fascinating to experience a group response to Gallagher, our one on one interview provided a more intimate, relaxed look into the man behind Marty. And I’m grateful that Acted By magazine was selectively chosen to have some more in-depth “alone time” with an outstanding actor.

In many of your feature films, you play the “bad guy.” Is Marty another classic Gallagher man who can only do wrong?

Playing Marty is like falling off a log because after the Sundance screening, a woman came up to me and said, “You rat!” And you know what? It hurt. I thought, ‘I slept on a friend’s couch – I slept in a friend’s apartment and brought my own clothes so we could make this movie.’ But I also knew [that] half of the audience would feel that way, and half of the audience will think it’s hot.

I never play bad guys — in my mind. And I don’t think bad guys play bad guys, necessarily. They just go, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go out there and do the best I can.’ And for some people like Bernie Madoff [multi-millionaire thanks to stealing all his client’s money], who probably thinks, ‘Hey, I’m gonna do the best I can until I get caught,’ I wouldn’t compare Marty to someone like Madoff. There’s an angles guy, and then there’s a pathologically evil guy. Now, had we seen this movie six months before the Madoff scandal, Marty would have probably been heralded as any of the other titans of industry that we’ve seen in the business. He’s no Bernie Maddoff.

He’s more of a…‘Well, we’ll just cut a little corner here, we’ll cut a little corner there.’ That’s him, that’s Marty. He’s the angles guy. But he didn’t lie on the stand about [the choices he made behind his families back.] And in the end, what I found compelling was Marty’s wife, Amy Irving’s response to our daughter. She urged her to be forgiving. I think from there, she [Beth] finally realizes that her father isn’t perfect. And life…it is really complicated.

What did you like most about this particular movie?

I think one of the reasons the movie is so refreshing is that in the last ten years, we’ve been urged to believe that there is no nuance in life. There is good, there is bad. You’re evil or you’re wonderful. And we all know that is bullshit. And anyone [filmmakers, etc…] who diminishes what the audience can understand, [or] thinks that they’re above the audience; they’re full of shit. Anybody who gets out of bed in the morning and tries to go to work and raise a family is more than qualified to understand what’s really going on in the world. The last thing you want to do [as a filmmaker] is insult them with pure entertainment and no substance. See, when you tell a story that has that nuance, it gives people the freedom to respond differently.

Have people been receptive to the nuance in your performance?

You know, there was a young intern in the last round table – it was like I was watching her family history. [She] said, “What was it like playing such a terrible father who was trying to control his daughter?” I said, ‘You know, I never thought of it that way. I just saw him as a guy who was thinking, ‘Oh God, please don’t throw your life away. I’m not perfect. But please, God, give yourself a chance because it’s tough out there.’

Could a romance between Beth and Adam work in real life?

I’ve been married for 27 years now. I still don’t know what’s in my wife’s mind, which is why I think the story works. No one can ever really know another.

At this point Gallagher accidentally knocked over my recorder. We’ve got a recorder down, people!

He suddenly stopped, sheepish.

“Is that ok? asked Gallagher. “Did I ruin that?”

I assured him that he hadn’t ruined my battery-operate Wal-mart special, and urged him to continue.

Just last week, I said to my wife; ‘Honey, how am I supposed to know if you don’t tell me?’

That’s why the movie works! Every guy says to themselves, “Gee, I must have a little touch of the Asperger’s.” Adam is not saddled with the things that most storytellers use to saddle a romantic comedy [in order] to make it interesting.

So, to you, was Marty a good father?

Unless we have reason to believe a character is completely psychotic and wishes his family ill, Marty, like every other father I know, loves his kids beyond belief. I have a daughter who is 15-years-old, about to be 16, and a son who is 19 and this is what I know; There is nothing you care about more than the welfare of your children. You are also painfully aware that once they’re over the age of 12, you’re essentially powerless. You could use every word in the world [to change your kids’ minds] and it would not make a bit of difference. Half [of what you’re saying]…you’re not even sure of yourself because you’ve never been in that situation before [as a parent]. You say, ‘I don’t know what I’m talking about, [but] please don’t die early and make all the right decisions and let me die before you, please.’

Being a dad is like being a pin cushion because you work hard trying to make a living. The hours at work take you away from home, though, it creates trouble when you get home. You’re the boob [a.k.a douche bag] because you haven’t been there, either. So, there’s no real sanctuary. You’re an asshole at work and you’re an asshole at home. You feel completely powerless at home, and are losing power at work. It becomes an interesting dilemma.

How would you respond to your daughter dating a guy like Adam? Where’s the fine line between protecting your children when you know they’re making a decision that’s going to hurt them, and letting them make their own mistakes?

I guess it’s the severity of the potential injury. If it’s life-threatening, I will throw myself in front of a train. If it’s not, I will try to shut my mouth, and tell them I love them and to do whatever…I trust them. But, you know what I find being a father? Just when I think my kids really have a lot to learn, I realize that I’m the one who has to up their game.

How did you get involved with the project?

I’ve known Max [Mayer] for 25 years. We’ve been working really hard at trying to get good at what we do, and if you have enough “at-bats,” every once in a while the tumblers fall into place just as I believe they [have] in this movie. I think this is a great movie. And I think there is an audience out there for it. And when I tell ya’ we made no money, we made no money! We’re not here for that. It’s for the thrill of getting one more chance to maybe get it right.