THE MOD SQUAD: GIOVANNI RIBISI INTERVIEW
* By Prairie Miller *
You could say that Giovanni Ribisi had lots of training to meet the requirements for an undercover cop in the movie The Mod Squad. The twenty-four-year-old actor has already tried out multiple personalities on both the small and large screen, from Saving Private Ryan, That Thing You Do! and subUrbia to TV's The X-Files, NYPD Blue and The Wonder Years. Ribisi, who's coming out right now as well in The Other Sister, talked about his role in the Scott Silver directed movie as a rich kid gone wrong. He also clued me in to just how mod you can expect this updated version of the '70's TV series to be.
PRAIRIE MILLER: I remember your performance in Saving Private Ryan, you were impressive.
GIOVANNI RIBISI: Wow. Is it still going? Saving Private Ryan is still out, right?
PM: Yeah, they re-released it. So you're all over the place right now.
GR: Well, I've known that The Other Sister and Mod Squad were going to come out at the same time. I didn't really know about Saving Private Ryan. But yeah, I'm just kind of taking it all in stride as they say, you know what I'm saying? I'm just going along, doing the work, and trying to find time to spend with my wife and my daughter.
PM: How old is your daughter?
GR: Nineteen months.
PM: And where is home?
GR: Home is Los Angeles.
PM: Why did Mod Squad appeal to you?
GR: Mainly to work with Claire Danes, Omar Epps and Dennis Farina.
PM: Your character Pete in Mod Squad is very different from the original role. There's a real comic edge. Was that in the script, or was that your idea?
GR: I didn't watch the TV show, I've never seen it. It wasn't like an insult to the show, I just didn't want to do what somebody else did. I wanted to try to do my own thing. I think absolutely that anything requires humor, and you've got to have that balance between the dramatic thing and the humor thing.
And yet I just pictured Pete like this guy who got arrested for sniffing glue on Hollywood Boulevard or something, you know? Which is very specific actually, if you're from Los Angeles. And he's just kind of a little punk who gets excited about things and is probably not that educated, but came from a wealthy family.
So we kind of just did a lot of talking, and rehearsed a little bit. A lot of it was trying to let it be off the cuff, because comedy has to be kind of like that. It has to be coming from a new place, you know?
PM: That makes sense. What do you feel audiences today want from that character as opposed to the original audience?
GR: As far as the TV show is concerned, I wouldn't know. Mainly because I was born in 1974!
PM: Well, you look younger.
GR: Really? Oh, good! But getting back to your question, I guess it's only in so far as this is The Mod Squad, and it's a fun movie. And it's a great opportunity to work with Claire Danes, Omar Epps and Dennis Farina. I think our main focus was to really try to leave the show behind and create its own entity. You know, for better or worse to exploit the commercial Mod Squad thing but create another story. And really try to evolve the relationships and make it a good movie unto itself.
PM: So what was in your head about the original show when you started out on the film?
GR: I honestly have no idea. I know that it had social aspects, and that it was really influential like that. But honestly, I didn't know. I had heard of the TV show, but that was the extent of it. Yeah.
PM: Your characters in Saving Private Ryan and The Other Sister are obviously very far away from where you are. So is Pete in Mod Squad more like the real you?
GR: Gosh, I don't think so. No. I mean, maybe when I was younger. But I knew people like this.
PM: Did you feel that if you were in his situation that you would see things the way he does?
GR: Yeah. Always you personalize. But Pete is actually very far from me. He's a guy who's just like kind of crazy and very instinctive. He doesn't plan things out, and just wants to handle a situation immediately. He doesn't think too far into the future. Personally, I get really analytical with things. I can sit down for hours sometimes in my room and go over characters. I have found myself like reading something and writing essays about it for this or that script, and then eight hours will go by. But right now I'm really into the family thing, and watching my child grow up.
PM: How did you like doing The Other Sister with Juliette Lewis?
GR: That was really one of the greatest experiences I've had in moviemaking, because of Juliette and Gary Marshall. Not only does he direct a movie, but he hosts a movie. Everything was just so creative about that, and so inspiring. Ask anybody doing a Gary Marshall movie, and they'll tell you it's an incredible experience. I'm very, very proud of it.
PM: Did you do any research with mentally challenged people?
GR: Absolutely, yeah. For weeks I went to schools, and basically took various aspects from people that I'd been talking to. And I just kind of made this amalgamation of a guy. You know, I got the physicality down, but then it's a love story and I think that's the most important thing. So it was about cultivating that relationship with Juliette and just being there with her, having that emotional core. It's very specific, very honest and out there. But if you really want to do a character like that you want to be honest, because the character is. Did that make any sense? All right!
PM: Don't worry, you're on a roll here. What are you working on after this?
GR: A movie called Boiler Room. It's like Wall Street on crack. Ben Affleck is in the movie too. It's a bunch of crazy, kind of bridge and tunnel crowd of kids who are given a chance to make millions of dollars as brokers. It's about an illegal brokerage house that my character gets involved with. And he has an emotionally abusive relationship with his father, who is a federal judge.
PM: Is this character anything like Pete?
GR: Not at all, actually! No, this is like suits and a high profile thing. The only similarity is that I play both characters! Yeah. But I hope he's not like Pete, just because I want to do different things!
PM: You're also in All The Rage. What's that about?
GR: It's literally about rage. It kind of covers the whole caste system. You know, you have a Bill Gates character who is Gary Sinese, down to my level of guy who's like the prostitute street person having an incestuous relationship with his sister, and who is like a devout avenger of God. My sister is played by Anna Paquin. The movie has a great cast. There's Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels and David Schwimmer. It's an ensemble thing.
PM: Boy, you're pretty busy! So is life a little crazy for you right now?
GR: Yeah. I mean, it's not like there's this flurry of activity that's like, hey Ginni! Nor would I want it to be like that. There is a higher magnitude of action and activity happening, yeah. But I'm just kind of trying to take it all in stride and just do the thing. It's easy to just say great, let's rock. But at the same time I really want to look at the long term, like when I'm on my death bed however old, and thinking about my life. My main thing is to do good work with a good character, something that I can relate to.
PM: You started out in TV. Why did you switch to the big screen?
GR: I was on TV since I was nine years old. TV gets very comfortable, and there's like that paycheck every week. I got to where I decided not to do that. I turned that down and just tried to focus on film.
PM: Was that a scary period for you?
GR: Yeah. I mean, I would go down to having seven dollars in my bank account, and not knowing what I was going to do. But being an actor can fluctuate, and you just give it your all. I decided to really commit myself as much as I could to it.
PM: Winona Ryder said that acting as a child can be dangerous. What do you say?
GR: I think it's more than just that. Obviously it can be, with the stories you hear from the '50's about giving those kids amphetamines. But my parents are incredible, and when I was growing up I could go and talk to them. They were just there for me.
PM: Were they involved in the movie world?
GR: No, but my father was a musician in the '60's. He was in a band called People.
PM: What is your definition of mod?
GR: I think originally it meant what was on the outskirts of what specifically was the trend, societal, status quo type thing.
PM: You were also in The Postman with Peggy Lipton, who's that original Mod Squad woman. Did you guys have a Mod Squad summit on the set, or something like that?
GR: No. Mod Squad wasn't a project yet, it was not there at all. And we didn't cross paths. I was in a different section of the movie.
PM: What did you do in the X-Files?
GR: I was Lightning Boy. I played the guy who could transmit lightening through his body. And not die from it!
Source: Copyright 1999 by Prairie Miller