Abnormal Interviews: Actor James Marshall of “A Few Good Men”

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our week-long tribute to A Few Good Men with an interview with James Marshall, who was kind enough to agree to an interview with our own Rob Green earlier this year. In the film, Marshall’s character, Pfc. Louden Downey, was one of the accused Marines defended by Lt. Daniel Kaffee, played by Tom Cruise. Marshall’s credits include roles in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” Gladiator, and “China Beach.” Our interview with Marshall, which features his memories of the filming and set and observations on his acting career, is as follows:

ABNORMAL USE:  It’s kind of hard to believe it’s been 20 years since that movie came out.  It kind of seems like it was almost just yesterday.  How has it been for you, I mean, does it feel like it’s been 20 years?

JAMES MARSHALL:  No.  Not at all.  One of the funny things about it is A Few Good Men seems to be playing almost every night, it’s not like weekly, like every other day, it was on some channel. To me, it was such a unique part of my life.  That’s why when I look at some of the guys, everybody is starting to look a little older, and I think, wait a minute, that can’t be happening, we just did that.  It was such a great opportunity to be a part of something that cool and that big.

AU:  That was such a big name cast that you guys had in that movie.  How was it filming a movie with all those big names, Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon?

JM:  It was literally – at first that kind of feeling like maybe skydiving feeling.  At first, I was really, really scared. Even going to the set for the first time for the first rehearsal.  I genuinely had a feeling of like, “Whoa.”  Every day, it was like very surrealistic, very dreamlike in a really good way.  It was just so cool.  There were so many people walking around, and you’ve got to understand, these people who are that big have friends.  So, they had their big movie star friends visiting the set.  There were some I didn’t get to know, but the ones that I dealt with mainly were Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak.  I only spoke to Jack a couple of times, but I just watched how he dealt with peopl,e and he was a very good person to look at for that kind of thing.  As big of a star as he is, from the extras to just anybody, if somebody asked him a question, he just was right there looking them in the eyes and answering.  It was very cool.

AU:  Your role in the movie, you played Pfc. Louden Downey, who was a young Marine wrongfully accused of murder, what sort of background research or what did you do to prepare for that particular role of playing a Marine?

JM:  Well, the Marine stuff, that initially I had worked on a military movie called Cadence that was directed by Martin Sheen that  starred Martin Sheen, Charlie Sheen, and Larry Fishburne.  It was shot in Canada, and we actually had to shoot it twice.  So, I actually went through real two boot camps to prepare for that movie, which was pretty much the kind of thing that you don’t forget.  Yeah, I had had it pounded in for many months before the shoot of Cadence.   I was a little rusty by the time A Few Good Men came around, but it came back pretty quickly. Somebody on the set actually came up to me, I think it was the first day, and said, “You’ve got to get these guys, they’re marching’s horrible. ” And I go, “You guys need to do this and that to march properly.”

RG:  Anything else?

JM:  I also got to see A Few Good Men on Broadway when I was in New York doing promotions for “Twin Peaks.”  This was way before A Few Good Men was thought of as a movie, they were probably just talking about it.  And I got to see the Broadway show, they took me to the show and stuff.  So, seeing the other guys’ performance, what he did with Downey and stuff, really helped me to, because on stage it’s much bigger, broader, so it helped me to understand how his character was.  Because on film, you tend to downplay things.  And had I not seen what they did on stage, I may have downplayed it too much.  It gave me a good background emotionally where the characters were.

RG:  Now, you had so many big names in the film, but the actor you shot the majority of your scenes with, Wolfgang Bodison, that was his first role wasn’t it?

JM:  Yeah.  He’d never – he wasn’t an actor.  He was Rob Reiner’s assistant, actually, and I think Rob just started looking around because he was having trouble finding the right person for the part, and Rob thought Wolfgang just looked perfect for the part. So, I think Rob just read him and made sure he could do it, and yeah, that was that.  He was a good guy, too.

RG:  A Few Good Men is considered to be one of the best legal movies and, in fact, the American Bar Association named it number 14 on the list of 25 greatest legal movies of all time.  What do you think makes the movie resonate so well with so many people, whether lawyers or not, after all these years?

JM:  There’s all-star casts with many movies, and they just come and go sometimes. I mean, the script is phenomenal, and there was a certain something in that script that was very special. Even when I saw it on stage, that time in New York, there was something about it that vibrated.  . . . [S]omething about it had a life of its own.  I’ve gotta hand it to Rob Reiner. When you have Rob Reiner come on, who dealt with everything so responsibly, he had the emotion in everything he did.  He is also able to humanize all of the characters. He dimensionally showed you through his direction of each character, what they’re doing when they’re not in uniform, and what they’re doing off the job.  Then, he was willing to go to a place that was really, really almost emotionally invested in the character by giving a sense of vulnerability of each character.  Like Nicholson’s character’s vulnerability was his arrogance, you know what I mean?  I mean, the movie’s just so dynamic, and it moves so well, without being self-conscious and artificial, has this great old school Hollywood movie feel to it, which makes you feel good about.  There’s something so redeeming, and it’s the fact that they – it just feels good to be human for a minute, and that’s really what, that’s really to me what theater and Hollywood is about ultimately.  It makes you interested in life, inspired about life, and to feel good about being human.  And most movies don’t do that. It’s either a thrill ride, or whatever, or an attempt at something like A Few Good Men, and usually it falls short.  No, you know what it was, it was a compilation of incredibly talented people coming together with a really, really good story.

AU:  Do you have a particular scene or a particular moment from the movie that kinda stands out to you that you particularly look back on with and go “Wow, that was just amazing”?

JM:   There’s probably a couple of parts.  There’s the final scene with the classic build-up of Jack Nicholson’s character [“You can’t handle the truth!”] and the fireworks . . . between Cruise and Kevin Bacon with Demi Moore and Nicholson, and you just feel their – it’s like where it’s going to go, how is this going to happen and it’s happening so effortlessly and quickly, and then – that’s something that everybody remembers. But as far as other stuff, for me, when I see some of the scenes, some of the scenes make me remember what we were doing at the time, that kind of thing.  And it’s like when I look at scenes at the table in the courtroom, sometimes with Demi, Tom, and Wolfgang, we’d be sitting there for hours because of other thingsoff camera.  And then we’d also have Kevin Pollak there.  He’s a comedian.  Between takes, Kevin would be making jokes, and it was just tremendously funny stuff coming from him. Then, Demi would stick something in, and Kevin would crack up. And Rob Reiner would come over and hear it and start laughing.  It’s little moments like that stand out.  But yeah, I don’t remember a lot of things from most movie shoots, but A Few Good Men, I remember nearly every day.  It was so dynamic.  It was just . . .  it was overwhelming.

AU:  One of the interesting aspects of the movie that I found as a former JAG officer was the interplay or tension for most of the movie between Kaffee and Dawson and Downey with, you have Kaffee’s kind of laid back lawyerly personality and then you have the very militaristic Dawson and Downey – do you know how that aspect of the movie came to be?  Was it just something that Aaron Sorkin wrote in, was it something that Rob Reiner developed?  Do you know where that came from?

JM:  Actually I think those were the dynamics of the play, so I think a lot of that was Aaron’s stuff that was in there already.  I’m pretty sure, yeah.  It was, everybody was pretty well defined from the play and from the initial script.

AU:  Do you think you get recognized most for your role in “Twin Peaks” or A Few Good Men?

JM:  A Few Good Men.

RG:  Definitely?

JM:  Yeah, because “Twin Peaks,” although it had a bit of a cult following, I think everybody has seen A Few Good Men. And like I said, A Few Good Men is on television a lot.  I also tend to look more like the A Few Good Men character.  On “Twin Peaks,” I had dark black hair, blah, blah, blah.  And the role was an ensemble cast.  It was a whole different thing.  But yeah, I’d say definitely A Few Good Men.

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