Interview: R. Lee Ermey

You can leave me alone in a room with Leatherface. I might soil myself but at least I’d know where I stand. But please, please, PLEASE keep me away from R. Lee Ermey. That guy is scary. His Sheriff Hoyt may not swing a chainsaw around, but he can articulate and he’s got the law behind him. How can you defend yourself against that? Now he’s back in Texas Chainsaw Massacre : The Beginning.

“I love the character,” said Ermey. “Number one, I think he’s one of the best characters I’ve ever played. The beautiful thing about Sheriff Hoyt is the simple fact that he’s a sexually perverted homicidal maniac. How do you go over the top with this guy? You can just go crazy with him. Basically, I was allowed to do exactly that. Every character I’ve ever played, I always try to take him right to the edge and not allow him to fall over, but directors have a tendency to pull me back a little bit. I hate to hear ‘Less is more.’ It’s a crock of crap. I think more is more and with this character I was allowed to go just completely berserk, and that’s what I love to do.”

Calling Sheriff Hoyt among the best of 75 characters is saying a lot, especially when one of them is the drill sergeant to end all drill sergeants in Full Metal Jacket. “It’s a different character but I work hard on every character that I do. I think in this genre, it’s as good as I could do and that’s all anybody can ask for. I was never dissatisfied with any scene that I walked away from. I guess the proof is when you sit down and you watch that movie or that show for the very first time after it’s been edited and you see the final product. I look at [some of] them and say, ‘Gosh, I should have done this. I wish that director would have allowed me to do this instead of that.’ But at the end of the day, I watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning and I really don’t see any areas where I could have improved on that. I’m totally pleased and totally happy with everything we did.”

Jonathan Liebsman takes over directing from Marcus Nispel, but gave Ermey the same respect for the craft to allow him to deliver the scary goods. “Marcus and John both are very conscientious. They just want to do the best film that they possibly can and I think both did well. I don’t think either one of them brought anything different as far as style or anything like that. I think both were excellent. I enjoyed working with Jonathan and he was a breath of fresh air. They all accept the input of their actors. In order to be a good actor, I’m a firm believer that you need to bring something to the table.”

That said, Ermey won’t reveal which of the creepy Hoyt lines he invented, so leave it up to your own imagination to figure out where Ermey inspired the character. “I look at every script I’ve ever read has basically been a guideline. I think that’s what scripts were actually meant for. It shows you how to get from point A to point B and then it’s up to the actor to bring the character to life and make it work. I spend a lot of time with my characters.”

Ermey means no disrespect to the screenwriters, but he’s able to focus more on his own work than someone in charge of the whole story. “A writer is great. He sits down and writes for 10 different characters. The trouble is, the actors when they come in and the director comes in and the producers are all sitting there, the actors all they have to worry about or concern themselves about is their character. So there’s always room for improvement and I don’t care if Hemingway wrote the damn script, there’s still room for improvement.”

I joke about Ermey being mean and scary, but he’s really perfectly respectful in a conversation. He just has a certain air and that works for him on film. “I generally do play authoritative roles but I’m not competition to Pee Wee Herman by any stretch of the imagination. My demeanor happens to be a bit more authoritative and film directors, producers want to capitalize on that. I do occasionally play sentimental or gentle or emotional characters. It’s no problem. It just depends what the script calls for. I played a gay homicidal high school football coach in Saving Silverman. When they offered that to me, I thought, ‘Oh boy, that’s a stretch. That’s a challenge.’ But it worked out okay.”

See Ermey get scary in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning this weekend.