R. Lee Ermey
Interview by Dan Epstein, Joker
Most of us first discovered R. Lee Ermey in the Stanley Kubrick film Fill Metal Jacket, in which he played Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. But he has also appeared in over 60 movies, usually playing soldiers or tough guys. Before that, he was in the Marines for thirty-three years, and eleven of those years were spent in the Vietnam War. Good preparation for appearing and consulting in both Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now.
Recently, he has turned towards comedy, with hysterical turns as a homosexual football coach in Saving Silverman and a psychotic in the Survivor parody part of the Mr. Show film Run Ronnie Run.
R. Lee Ermey is also a cottage industry unto himself with his new Motivational Action-Figure, which speaks. He played it for me and it was the first time since I stopped ingesting hallucinogens that an inanimate object yelled at me.
His new show Mail Call airs on the History Channel and uses emailed questions such as:
How do you drive a tank?
Why is a Samurai Sword so powerful?
Then R. Lee Ermey goes and talks to experts for answers, then he himself will drive a tank and use a samurai sword, usually on unsuspecting watermelons. It's a great show and will provide you with great facts to pass along to your friends.
Check out the website for Mail Call at: http://www.historychannel.com/mailcall
Check out R. Lee Ermey's website at: http://www.rleeermey.com
Dan Epstein: Hello, Mr. Ermey.
R. Lee Ermey: Hello, Dan. You can call me Lee. Just don't call me late for dinner.
DE: How did you first get involved with Mail Call?
RLE: Well, I did a show for Digital Ranch called Sergeants. It went on the History Channel, and they liked what I did for them. So when they got ready to do Mail Call, they called me and asked me to host the show.
DE: Who writes your copy?
RLE: It's myself, my producer, and we have a writer that works with us.
DE: Do they write your style of speech as well?
RLE: Well, they write it rough, then I embellish when we start shooting, but most of it is not scripted, anyway. When we interview people, go on location and meet re-enactment people, it's all off the cuff. Generally, it's just off the cuff.
DE: Is that the way you like working?
RLE: Well, it's real simple to work like that. When there's nothing written, you can't screw it up, can you? [laughs]
DE: You have any near misses when doing these stunts?
RLE: We're pretty safe, and we haven't had any problems or screw-ups.
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DE: You must be having a lot of fun on the show.
RLE: I'm having a great time doing the show. I can't wait to get out of bed in the morning and go on another adventure.
DE: Were you always getting questions at your website?
RLE: I get probably about 100 - 150 emails a day.
DE: I see on your website that you sell a Motivational Action Figure of yourself. What is that, exactly?
RLE: Well, have you seen it?
DE: No, just pictures.
RLE: I'll play you one of them. I will push the button and play it for you. [R. Lee pushes the button on the figure]
THE DOLL: You just pushed my button again, you sorry sack of ****. What in the hell is your major malfunction? Are you trying to be cute? What the hell is it going to take to motivate you any goddamn way? Get your head out of your ass. Wake up and smell the roses, numbnuts. You are the ******* in charge of your own destiny. Motivation and confidence is the key to success. Now, drop down and give me twenty-five, and wipe that ****-eating grin off your face. Ahhh. Semper Fi, do or die. Hold 'em high at eighth and I. Let me hear your war cry, scumbag. That ain't a war cry, WAAAAHHHHHH! That's a war cry. Don't screw with my button again, numbnuts. I am Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey. I am your senior drill instructor. You just pushed my button again, you sorry sack of ****.
RLE: There you go [laughs].
DE: It must have been fun recording that.
RLE: Well, I wrote it and did it. Sideshow Toys [http://www.sideshowtoy.com
>] came up with the idea. They called me up in Vancouver when I was shooting Saving Silverman [starring Jack Black, released in 2001]. I told them that I wasn't too sure, and I would have to come down, look over their facilities, and see what their work looks like. A couple of months later, my manager and I checked them out. Jesus, they do great work. They do Bela Lugosi, Wolfman and all the figures at the Universal Studio tours. I figured that, as long as I've got control over what this thing says and how it looks with the uniform...stage by stage, they would complete, and I would go and approve it. It turned out looking pretty good. When it came time to put the voice, I sat down and wrote two versions: The polite version, and I wrote the X-rated version. The numbnuts over at Sideshow Toys mixed them up, and we got one version out of the two.
DE: Speaking of Saving Silverman, is Jack Black a good kisser?
RLE: [laughs] You just couldn't pass that one up, could you? Actually, Jack is a fun guy. They offered me $200,000 to do the role. I asked if all I had to do was kiss him. I was expecting a lot more for that kind of money. I figured it this way: If you've got to kiss some guy, it might as well be someone cute and cuddly, like Jack Black. Jack and I discussed it beforehand. We decided there would be no moisture, it would not be a wet kiss, no tongue, and if anything started stiffening on any party, that would be the end of it. Jack had just as much fun with that **** as I did. Neither one of us is going to be coming out of the closet any time soon.
DE: Do you do things like that to get away from playing soldiers and tough guys?
RLE: Well, it was written in the script, and that was it. I signed the contract to do it, and that's the way we did it. A lot of times, if it's nudity or something like that, I will rewrite a scene. But hell, what's wrong with a little kiss? Nothing. I know what women go through. I got a little whisker burn and now, when I kiss the wife, I make sure I'm clean-shaven. You pick little things up as you go through life.
DE: I heard that you don't think much of the Vietnam War films that have come out.
RLE: Well, I loved Platoon [released in 1986, directed by Oliver Stone]. I loved the Burt Lancaster movie, Go Tell the Spartans [released in 1978]. That was one of the first Vietnam films. I think Born on the Fourth of July [also directed by Stone, released in 1989] is a piece of ****. If it's technically raggedy, I can't get into it. I was in Vietnam during the war. If I see **** that is too Hollywoody, like Born on the Fourth of July, which is a piece of ****, I don't like it. Apocalypse Now [directed by Francis Ford Coppola, released in 1979] is another one. Francis Ford Coppola took a lot of liberties when he filmed that. It's Francis Ford Coppola's huge imagination, is what it is. Nothing in Apocalypse Now was right, except for maybe the uniforms. He took it out of a book [Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad]. So any war would have done it for him, but the Vietnam War happened to be at his fingertips, so that's the one he used.
DE: I would imagine that you and Stanley Kubrick got along well.
RLE: We did. We got along famously. I was with Stanley for 14 months doing that. I was there for three months before we started shooting. Actual filming was nine months. It was as long as Apocalypse Now, I was in that, too. A year in the Philippines for that.
DE: Which one was tougher to work on?
RLE: It was tough working on Apocalypse Now, because it was awfully hot working in the Philippines. Those mosquitoes were huge. The days were long, and I wasn't keen on the movie.
DE: Was the way you played the sergeant in Full Metal Jacket the way it was?
RLE: It was exactly that way. I took a few honorable traits from other drill instructors that I thought were neat, and incorporated them into my demeanor. That's they way we came up with Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Everybody loved him. He's still very popular.
DE: Definitely. I think you did the same character in The Frighteners [released on 1996, directed by Peter Jackson].
RLE: Pretty much [laughs]. I've got one coming out next year from New Line called Willard [based on the 1971 film of the same name]. I rewrote everything I did in Willard. I worked with Glen Morgan and James Wong on the pilot for their TV show, Space: Above and Beyond. So they know my style and that style is to rewrite and make it work. They allowed me to do it and I would say my character in Willard is the best character I've played since Full Metal Jacket. He's Willard's boss. Ernest Borgnine played the role in the original.
DE: Crispin Glover plays Willard. What is he like to work with?
RLE: Crispin is a prince. I love him. He's a hard-charging young actor. If I was looking for someone to play Willard, and I was walking down the street and I passed Crispin, I would chase his ass down for it. He's the perfect Willard, and he did a great job.
DE: I read somewhere that you said you have more in common with the military than with Hollywood.
RLE: I do, indeed.
DE: How so?
RLE: It means that I don't have too much goddamn respect for the scumbags in Hollywood. Wouldn't you interpret it that way?
DE: Sure [laughs].
RLE: OK [laughs]. There's only one guy in Hollywood that would qualify or even handle being in the Marine Corps. They're not very tough guys. They're more feminine and genteel.
DE: Who's the one guy?
RLE: The guy on Scrubs [NBC show], John C. McGinley. He's the only one. John would love every ****in' minute of being in the military. But John is, there again, a motivated hard-charger. I've done three shows with John. He and I are good friends.
DE: What was it like yelling at John Wayne in that Coors Light commercial?
RLE: Well, John Wayne wasn't really John Wayne until they put it through the computer. I had fun doing that commercial. It was the only chance that I would get to work with John Wayne. That really turned out to be a good commercial. It ran about three years.
DE: I saw that you are going to be in the new version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
RLE: I'm just getting into the limo to take me to the airport this morning.
DE: Were you a fan of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
RLE: I thought it was a hell of a show. It scared the hell out of me, I don't know about you [laughs]. That old Leatherface cranks that goddamn chainsaw up. RRRRR. That's a scary son of a gun. I enjoyed the first one. After reading the script and knowing how they do special effects today, I know it's going to be a hell of a show.
DE: What was your experience of working with David Fincher on Se7en?
RLE: I don't think David Fincher is any better of a director than anybody else in Hollywood. If anything, I think he's a little chicken ****. He's afraid to take chances. He's afraid to let anybody change one word in the script, and you know what? I don't have any respect for a director that does that. He wants puppets. He doesn't want actors that are creative. If you're not worth a **** at acting, and you're not creative, then I would recommend that you go work with David Fincher, because he won't let you act, even if you are a ****ing good actor. In other words, David Fincher can kiss my ass. I don't think he's much of a director. After Se7en came out, everyone was ranting about David Fincher. ****, I didn't see him do anything creative. All he did was set the shots up. Anybody else you want to slam?
DE: What can you tell me about Run Ronnie Run? [The Mr. Show movie]
RLE: Well, I did a couple of scenes in it. I think it might be a good movie. They didn't have any money to speak of. But that seems to be the way in works in Hollywood. If you have a darn good script, nobody messes with it. But the big studios are so busy doing Son-in-Law-type scripts that they don't have any time to take on any good scripts. But anyway, I think Run Ronnie Run will be good. There isn't any huge great special effects or anything.
DE: Have you seen it?
DE: You got an honorary promotion a while back. What rank are you now?
RLE: The commandant of the Marine Corps decided to promote me to Gunnery Sergeant. I had thirty-three years as a Staff Sergeant. It's the first time anybody that's retired has been promoted in Marine Corps. It's pretty honorable.
DE: I was wondering if any other ex-soldiers are ever jealous of your success?
RLE: I am one of them, and when I walk through the gate of any military base, the red carpet is rolled. I treat the military with respect. That is what Mail Call is all about. For the show, we go on military bases and look at 155 Howitzers and talk to the crews. I respect them, and they respect me. They know that I am going to put them into the proper light. I'm not out there trying to **** the military up. I'm out there trying to promote the military and wake the people of the United States up to who these military guys are.
In the old days there was this damn conception that if you were a dunce in civilian life, you got dumped into the military. Now, it's the opposite. The military is very particular about who comes into its ranks.
DE: I read about a screenplay you wrote about the Gulf War called Retreat to the Front.
RLE: Retreat to the Front is actually a better screenplay than Full Metal Jacket. Somebody needs to snatch up on this baby. I really haven't had time to show it around. I've had three days off in the past three or four months. I've got another screenplay that I just finished with my writing partner Dennis Anderson called Blue Fire. It's about terrorists. I just sent it to my manager and he put it into the hands of New Line the other day. Of all the studios in Hollywood, I think New Line has its head screwed the straightest. They're doing Willard and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so the respect is mutual.
DE: I was wondering if you knew anything about these prank phone calls that use your lines from Full Metal Jacket.
RLE: I heard them on Howard Stern a few times. I think it's stupid and ridiculous. I think whoever did it burns in Hell. It's rude, evil and nasty.
DE: Is there more Toy Story coming up?
RLE: I hope so. I think the second one was better than the first, and I think the third would be better than the second. I take copies of those movies whenever I got to children's hospitals, and those kids eat those up.
DE: Thank you so much.
RLE: Okey-doke. Thank you.
See more stills from R. Lee Ermey's career
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Dan Epstein lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City. He is a contributor to such websites as Gadflyonline.com, SlushFactory.com, 3ammagazine.com, Hybridmagazine.com, Ifanboy.com and DavidFincher.net. He is also a former producer for MetroTV, where he worked on such shows as The Daily Beat, Studio Y and New York Eats, and has worked on such feature films as Tromeo & Juliet by the Troma studios and Dinner and Driving. He loves referring to himself in the third person.
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