Maria Tallchief to “Perfect Crime”: An Interview with Gary Busey

Gary Busey
Gary Busey

Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Busey — regarding the arts in general but, maybe more importantly, his professional stage debut in Perfect Crime, the long-running (since 1987) Off-Broadway play, a stint that ends on Dec. 4.

I admit that when I got this assignment I was a little bit nervous, as Busey has a reputation for being eccentric. As we began talking, though, I realized that a lot of the impressions people have of him are based on speculation and not actually sitting down and having a conversation with the actor. While I admit he may sometimes seem a bit…eclectic, I found him incredibly genuine, caring and passionate about his art. I was honored to have the chance to do this interview — and it turns out that we have more in common than I thought. I knew that Busey was raised in Oklahoma, and that he likes to come back from time to time. As Executive Director of Oklahoma City Ballet, though, what I didn’t anticipate was talking about the influence of ballet on Busey’s career. Actually, we covered a lot of ground through our talk — so hold on and enjoy the ride. I know I did.

Shane Jewell: I have got a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.

Gary Busey: Well, I got something I want to say to you. When I was playing college football, they would take the football team to a ballet school. We would learn to do tour jete’s to prepare us when you are running in pursuit to tackle a ball carrier and you get hit, or somebody comes from another angle. This way you can spin away from the hit and your foot is out so you can go right into your run — basically, it pushed us toward the tackle. There’s a good tweet: “Take ballet — it will push you towards the tackle.”

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SJ: I might steal that.

GB: I went to see a ballet in Los Angeles years ago, I believe it was The Bolshoi. I saw that and I couldn’t believe the athletic art that it was and still is, and I have played football all my life. The first time I saw Mikhail Baryshnikov it was like he had an anti-gravity machine in his pants. He would jump and stay in the air for 10 minutes. You know I am Native American? I have Delaware and Cherokee blood — and did you know there is a ballet dancer that came out of Oklahoma named Maria Tallchief?

Maria Tallchief
Maria Tallchief

SJ: Yes of course, she was a big part of Oklahoma City Ballet.

GB: Well, God bless her — she was my first ballet teacher. When she taught our ballet class I thought, OK, that is all I need to know. I mean, the pirouettes she would do were just incredible. Maria was a hero of mine: I have done over 157 movies and she is a great inspiration to me. Seeing that power she brought to those dances — I knew I could do that in my own line of work.

SJ: You began your career as a drummer playing with Leon Russell and Willie Nelson?

GB: Yes. And God bless Leon, he just passed onto the concert in the sky.

SJ: What made you want to change from music to acting?

GB: I didn’t want to change; it changed itself. Music and acting are the same thing: you must understand that art is only the search, not the final form. That’s the truth of what I give. You know what ART stands for? Above Real Truth.

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SJ: Many actors have a movie or a stage production that inspired them as a child. Do you have one and what is it?

GB: Yes, I was six years old when my mother took me to see Cecil B. DeMille’s film Samson and Delilah. When the movie was over I said, “Mom, where did all the people go?” She said, “Well, this audience goes out and another audience comes in to see the picture show.” I said, “No, those people,” and pointed to the screen. “Where do they go?” She said, “Well, they go off and make another picture show.” So I responded, “Well, that is what I want to do — I want to make pictures with light.”

Light is actually the first word I said as a little baby. Light, to me, stands for Living In Gods Heavenly Thoughts. That’s a good place to live. That is what influenced me to tell stories in light and that happened to be movies and plays. My football team dared me to go audition for a play when I was in high school and I did. I got the part: it was South Pacific. I remember the people in the audience laughed at the right time and I thought, Well, this is good! Then I went on to college and starred in the musical Bye, Bye, BirdieI didn’t do another musical until the film The Buddy Holly Story in 1979. In that film, I sang the songs and danced and did everything in one take.

SJ: One take, really?

GB: Yeah, but that is not because of me. That’s because of my director, Steve Rash, and because of the incredible influence Buddy Holly had on me as a young child.

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SJ: How do you feel like stage acting differs from film acting?

GB: Oh, it’s completely opposite. When you are on the set, you have different departments — you got camera, sound, props, hair, makeup, catering, executives. Imagine each one of those are spokes on the wagon wheel. All the spokes come into a hub: the hub is the director. The wood the spokes go into are distribution and promotion; the steel wheel around the hub is the film. None of these have anything in common with each other.

The stage is the opposite: you are talking loud so you can project to the back row and you know the whole play. In a movie, you are scene-to-scene; you only know the purpose of that scene. On the stage, that is artistic science. It is real, it is loving, it is truthfully you. It is two different formulas to make two different art pieces, but it is all about truth. Truth stands for Taking Real Understanding To Heart. Your heart is the face of your spirit, it holds everything you have been, you are, and what you are going to be.

SJ: What attracted you to come to New York City to join the Off-Broadway production of Perfect Crime?

GB: They presented me the offer for the past three years and I finally said OK because I realized plays were my roots in this business. It is just beautiful being here right off Times Square near Central Park.

Catherine Russell in her 9,000th performance of 'Perfect Crime'
Catherine Russell in her 9,000th performance of Warren Manzi’s Perfect Crime.

SJ: How do you feel about playing opposite Catherine Russell?

GB: It’s a miracle, it’s a blessing. She holds the Guinness World Record for most performances in the same role. She also teaches acting. She’s going; she is a go-getter.

SJ: Other thoughts you want to share — on art?

GB: Art is only the search, it is not the final form. It’s unlimited, it’s forever. Critics of art are like eunuchs in harem. They see how it’s done when the men come to see the women, but they can’t do it themselves.