When it comes to playing a movie villain, some actors have “it” and some actors don’t.
Actor William Sadler has it.
Best known for his villainous roles in “Die Hard 2” (as Colonel Stuart) and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (as the Grim Reaper), as well as a more sympathetic role in a little film called “The Shawshank Redemption,” Sadler has the uncanny knack for making bad look good. And one of his best baddie roles is one you may have never heard of.
In 1994, Sadler starred as a crooked town sheriff called Sarge in the little-known Robert Rodriguez film “Roadracers.” Rodriguez, fresh off the unexpected success of his low-budget indie film “El Mariachi,” was hand-selected to direct “Roadracers” as part of the Showtime series “Rebel Highway,” which aimed to put an edgy ’90s spin on ’50s-era B-movies.
“Roadracers,” which is now available for the first time on DVD and Blu-ray, stars a young David Arquette as a rebellious greaser named Dude who seeks to escape his dead-end small town and run to a life of rockabilly stardom with his girlfriend Donna, played by Salma Hayek in her U.S. film debut. He might have made it, too, had it not been for the pigs-in-a-blanket-loving Sarge and his spoiled son, played by Jason Wiles. Oscar nominee John Hawkes also stars against type as Dude’s quirky friend Nixer.
I recently caught up with Sadler for, presumably, one of the longest conversations he’s ever had about “Roadracers,” as well as his prowess in villainy and love for dough-covered hot dogs.
David Onda: You’ve been in so many classic films, did you ever think “Roadracers” would be the one you’d be talking about in 2012?
William Sadler: You want the truth?
Onda: Yes, I really do.
Sadler: No, I never did. It took me quite by surprise. I get asked to do interviews about lots of things and different movies and current movies and “Shawshank,” but this one I don’t think has ever come up in interviews. But it’s a terrific film. I enjoyed doing it a lot.
Onda: What initially attracted you to a made-for-TV movie on Showtime?
Sadler: The thing that reeled me in, that got me hooked, was Robert Rodriguez. I had seen “El Mariachi,” which I think he had just done moments before, and he was suddenly the hottest unknown director. They asked for me. He requested me for this role. There wasn’t any audition or anything like that. And I read the script, I thought it was fun, I thought it was exciting. And I was really excited to work with Robert. … The other reason was the pigs in the blankets scene.
Onda: I’ve always wondered who actually made the pigs in a blanket.
Sadler: On the set? Probably craft services. I think it falls under the heading of props. [laughing] But I remember thinking the scene was hysterical. I thought the scene was very funny, his relationship to these pigs in blankets and the irreverence he holds for them. That was one of the draws for me as well. I love it when you can bring some humor to serious shows. Any time you can splash some humor around a serious show it’s great.
Onda: How did Robert differ from other directors you had worked with up to that point?
Sadler: Well, my favorite recollection was, because he had just done “El Mariachi” – he held the camera himself in “El Mariachi” and shot the scenes, and then he would go back and have the actors talk and do the dialogue, and he would hold the microphone and record their voices, and then he sat and did the editing himself. So, by the time he got to “Roadracers” – my favorite memory of him was him picking up these gigantic cameras and just learning his way around, because suddenly there’s a crew. There are five guys standing around the camera, focus pullers and camera operators and dolly grips. It was a movie for television, but people were laying tracks and there’s a whole crew doing sound and dozens of people at his disposal and it took a lot of getting used to on his part. It was fun watching him hold himself back from just grabbing a camera and aiming it himself.
Onda: David Arquette is so great in this film and your back and forth with him is so effortless. What was your relationship with him like on set?
Sadler: We sort of came to it from different places. I don’t think we had ever met before we did this film. He just, I don’t know – he’s a gifted actor. The good ones are always easy to work with. You just sort of slip into it like an old pair of jeans.
Onda: What makes you a good villain?
Sadler: Gosh. I think part of it, if there’s a secret to it, is you don’t think of yourself as a villain. Villains – they’re smart, they’re brave. If only they were fighting for the other side, they would be heroes. They’re fearless, they’re ingenious. They’re just fighting for the wrong team. Don’t play them like villains. They can have humor like Allan Rickman in the first “Die Hard.” If they can be funny, if they can be – you know, make them human, make them believable, because then they’re really scary.
Onda: Do people come up to you on the street and challenge you to a game of Twister?
Sadler: [laughs] Not Twister. People quote lines to me all the time. I’m always surprised – everybody has a favorite movie and they’re always different. I’m always shocked. People stop me on the street and throw lines at me from “Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight” and “Deep Space Nine.” “Shawshank” happens a lot because they play it so much on TV.
But because I was under so much makeup [in “Bill & Ted”], people are usually surprised when they find out I was the Grim Reaper. And the Czechoslovakian accent, it throws them off. You know who recognizes me? Correctional facility people, police – people who are used to looking at faces. Like, they’re really good with faces. They spot it.
“Roadracers” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray and features director’s commentary and a “Ten Minute Film School” featurette starring Robert Rodriguez.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.