Frequent collaborators have been a constant since the silent film era as filmmakers have joined forces with an actor due to their talent, friendship or for good luck. Whether it’s Christopher Nolan and Michael Caine, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro or Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, these are just a few of the many partnerships that make up film history. Even Abrams’ fellow Star Wars sequel trilogy director, Rian Johnson, has his own Greg Grunberg in actor/best friend Noah Segan.
What Grunberg and Abrams have that most collaborations do not is a friendship that’s lasted since they were in kindergarten. Naturally, Grunberg is quite protective of his friend and his creative endeavors, including the criticism lobbed at Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
“When the movie came out, I was so pissed off and angry about one specific criticism that I heard. It said, ‘Oh, he’s just pandering to the fans,'” Grunberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s like, ‘What are you talking about? A movie like this is all about satisfying the fans.'”
Several years ago, “#ReleaseTheSnyderCut” entered the cultural lexicon after it became apparent that there was an alternative (yet unfinished) cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Since then, fans have felt emboldened to campaign for different versions of films in the event that they’re not satisfied with the finished product. Shortly after The Rise of Skywalker‘s release, some disappointed fans started a rallying cry known as “#ReleaseTheJJCut,” but unlike with Justice League, this effort was based on rumor and hearsay, something Grunberg can attest to after talking to Abrams throughout the entire process.
“I’m being completely honest here, but not once did he ever tell me that there was any pressure on him to cut things out,” Grunberg says. “Personally, I don’t think there’s any truth to that, and I would be surprised if there’s a ‘J.J. cut.’ Every movie goes through a series of cuts; it’s just the nature of it. I don’t buy into it at all.”
Grunberg — who loved Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, despite his disappointment in not being a part of it as X-wing pilot Snap Wexley — also throws cold water on the notion that The Rise of Skywalker is a rebuke of Johnson or his film.
“I never heard one disparaging thing from J.J. about Rian,” Grunberg says. “It’s one of those things where if you pay attention to the film and engage with it, all it does is keep that story going. … I would absolutely tell you if there were moments here and there. And there weren’t. There just absolutely weren’t. If anybody was going to try and dig that out of J.J., it’d be me. I wanted to work with Rian so badly, and it just didn’t happen. So, I would be looking for any reason to go, ‘Oh yeah, well,’ but J.J. loves that guy. He loves how creative and how brilliant he is.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Grunberg also reflects on his time with Carrie Fisher, Lost and sharing the screen with Tom Cruise.
Thank you for providing me and THR‘s readers with a much-needed distraction.
Are you kidding? I need the distraction as well. Thank you!
Is everything okay with you and yours?
Yeah, everything’s fine. These are not big problems so far. Everybody — knock wood — is healthy, and no one’s got it; at least we don’t know if we got it. My mom brought her laundry over yesterday, and we stayed ten feet away from each other. Now I’m just thinking, “That wasn’t even smart.” I did all her laundry for her and gave it to her. She’s in her 70s, and my dad is in his 80s. We just have to be so careful right now.
So, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. How’s that for an awkward segue?
When J.J. announced he was returning to close out the sequel trilogy, I’m sure you didn’t doubt that you’d return, but how soon did you get word that Snap would be back in his X-wing cockpit?
Well, way before the announcement. J.J. and I have been best friends since we were five. He’s like a brother to me; we talk every day and share information. There are a lot of times where he loves to surprise me with things. First of all, I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of the Star Wars canon in any way. So I was thrilled to be in The Force Awakens. Now, J.J. called me and said, “All right, I got good news, and I got better news.” And I didn’t even know that he was up for consideration; this was way back. He continued, “It looks like I’m gonna be doing Episode IX, the final episode in this story,” and I said, “That’s fantastic! Are you sure?” Of course, I talked to him about the time commitment, because our families are very close and everything. He said, “Yeah, I talked to Katie [Abrams], and we’re really excited about this. This is gonna be so great; I have some amazing ideas.” He was so psyched and excited. And then, I said, “By the way, what’s the better news?” and he said, “Snap’s back.” I was like, “What!?” I couldn’t believe it. Of course, in his incredibly generous way, he said, “I would never do this without you. We have to be together on this.” We just have so much fun together, and we lean on each other. Being away in London where the movie is shot, while his time commitment is obviously way bigger than mine, it’s still nice to have “family” around you as much as possible, especially when it’s just so draining creatively. It’s all-consuming. So, it’s great to be able to spend time together, and when I was there, shooting, I spent as much time as I could with him when I wasn’t shooting. I would be on set, or the second he’d get off, we’d meet for dinner. We also talked all the time. It was just great. It’s a lot easier to get through those long days and nights having somebody so close. It was great for both of us, but hearing that news, I’m still beaming. I still can’t believe it, and I’m thrilled at the way it turned out.
I talked to Dominic Monaghan about how he got his role, and apparently J.J. tortured him a bit by way of a playful World Cup bet. So I’m glad he went easy on you.
(Laughs) Yeah, Dom told me about that. Dom is the greatest, and I’ve obviously known him a long time, since Lost. We’ve stayed friends, and he is another one of those guys that just throws himself a thousand percent into a project. No matter how big or small the role, both of us were all in. When we were shooting, we would have dinner with J.J., and then Dom and I would go out on days that we had off. It was really such an incredible experience. I never thought it could get better from my first Star Wars experience — but it did.
Given the Lost connection, did you and Dom have a “look at us” moment on the Episode IX set?
Absolutely. And not just on the set, but in London as we were walking around together. From the moment that we both realized that we were in the movie, J.J. filled me in on things and said, “Dom’s going to be in the movie.” I said, “Can I call him and talk about it?” He’s like, “Yeah, don’t talk about it with anybody else, but you can call him.” So we congratulated each other and celebrated from the moment we both found out. Also, when you’re shooting a movie like that and a guy like Bob Iger shows up on set to take selfies with Anthony Daniels, no one is immune to the fact that it’s such a special project. It wasn’t even like we had one look and said, “What are we doing here?” It was an everyday thing.
J.J. keeps it so loose and light on the set. He actually engages not only the actors but also the extras; everybody is involved. One of my favorite things to do is watch J.J. when he’s directing, and he’ll say, “I’m sorry, what’s your name, sir?” And he’ll say, “I’m Ian.” And J.J. is like, “Okay, Ian, can you come up here please? We’re going to give you a line.” And J.J. is like, “This guy now has dialogue in Star Wars.” It’s so awesome to see that happen, and he’s done it over and over again. Or he’ll put somebody in a shot where they’re featured in a way they wouldn’t have been before. It was great.
Did you guys agree to a backstory that would explain where Snap was during Episode VIII?
No, we didn’t. That wasn’t my doing. I was just like, “Yeah, whatever they give me.” Let’s go back: When Episode VIII was announced and I did not get a call, I checked with J.J. and was like, “I know you’re not a part of this, but can you check since I haven’t gotten a call?” It wasn’t just me; Jessica Henwick and all these other pilots were saying, “Are we going? Did you hear anything? What’s going on?” Rian just had made a conscious decision not to bring back these other characters, and I was really bummed about that. As a fan, one of the things that I love is seeing those smaller roles — even if they’re just passing by in a scene. I think it’s wonderful. I know J.J. checked with Kathy [Kennedy] and with Rian; it was just a creative decision that they made. I loved Episode VIII; I thought it was great. So that was the saving grace for me, even though I was disappointed. But whatever, I was working on other stuff.
Did you ask J.J. to sacrifice Snap during the concluding battle for dramatic purposes, or was it his own doing?
The conversations that I had prior to shooting — and I can talk about them now — were that Snap would meet the fate that he did. When they were writing, J.J. would call me and say, “All right, I have an idea. I just want to run it by you so you know that we’re thinking about this.” And I said, “What?” He said, “We’re thinking about Snap dying. We need a moment like that to take the audience down.” The way he worded it was very flattering. He said, “Everybody loves you and your character so much. It’d be a great moment.” And I said, “Will it be earned?” He said, “Yeah, I’m gonna give you some decent moments,” and I think he did, especially one scene where I got to “act” with Carrie again. That moment gets a decent laugh, and it’s a warm moment. I also just love working with Kelly [Marie Tran].
So he tells me this during the writing process and says, “We’re thinking about killing Snap.” And I’m like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t want to die. (Laughs) No one really dies in these movies. Let somebody else die.” When I shot the first one, I was in the cockpit, and they had you read all these lines, such as “I got your back,” “Watch your left” and “I see him.” They’re all these positive fight sequence lines. And then they have you read a list like “I’ve been hit!” “I’m going down!” and “I can’t hold it!” So I refused to say those lines, and the second unit director called over to J.J. on the first unit to say, “Greg won’t say these lines.” J.J. was like, “All right, well, if he won’t say them, he won’t say them.” But I knew they could always take my X-wing down, no problem.
Cut to this movie, he told me during the writing that he was going to kill me, and I said, “Let’s talk about this. Are you ever going to do another Star Wars movie?” And he said, “Never say never, but this is the last in this story.” So, I said, “Look, you know best, but I’d rather not die.” A couple months later, he said, “We’re thinking about not killing you,” and I said, “Okay, again, whatever you think is best.” Then, of course, I got the call saying, “No, it’s happening.” Even on the set, they would have these big group scenes, and I was always included in those. We were shooting in this park called Black Park, and they called me to set. This was the day that Lin-Manuel Miranda was there as everybody is celebrating after they won. I get on set and J.J. is like, “Joonas, you go over there, and you two hug.” Then, he looks at me and comes over to me because he doesn’t want everyone to know on the set. He’s like, “Dude, you can’t be here right now. You’re dead.” I was like, “What!?” That’s when it really became real. I knew, obviously; I read the script and had all those talks with J.J.. But kicking me off the set because I’m not alive is when it really sunk in.
Since you and J.J. have a shorthand, did he say that he was going to “Seth Norris” Snap?
(Laughs) Well, we did joke that I’m the worst pilot in the history of TV and film, but he never said, “I’m going to Seth Norris you.” That definitely crossed my mind, but at least he gave me more than two minutes onscreen in Star Wars. I did have a great moment on Lost, though, and we definitely compared it to Lost.
You touched on this already, but it sounds like you were honored to be the last character that Leia dressed down a la Han and Luke.
Yes, for sure. I have such an incredible love for Carrie Fisher. We hit it off very quickly. We’re both filthy, fun, prepared actors, and we have the same sense of humor. I gave her shit the minute I saw her. On The Force Awakens, my first scene was actually a scene where she’s cutting my character down, and then she walks toward me. … She walked right toward me, wrapped her arms around me and grabbed my ass. And I didn’t even know her! I was thinking, “This is Carrie Fisher! I’m such a fan.” So she did that, and J.J. walked up to me and goes, “Welcome to Star Wars.” From that moment on, we became fast friends; Billie [Lourd] and I are close. We all just bonded in a really great way. I know she had that same sort of thing with other people because she has no airs. She just dropped everything for people; what you see is what you get.
I also have videos of her just tearing into me. One night we were on set, and she said, “I have a flat here, and we need to have cast and crew over. Let’s get together. Why not?” So, I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it,” and Billie was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And that was early in the day when we were shooting. At the end of the day, I had this suit on; I was exhausted, but it’s a party at Carrie Fisher’s place in London. So I said that I was going to go back to my hotel, take a shower and meet them over there. So I went back to the hotel, and I was wiped. It’s just the way I am; I’m old, and she’s a partier. So J.J. then called me from her apartment and said, “Carrie is furious.” I heard her in the background going, “What the fuck is going on? Where the fuck is he? Are you kidding me?” She was joking, obviously, and J.J. then videotaped her saying, “Aw, Greg’s a little exhausted.” She did this whole thing, laying into me on why I should be there. There were people at her apartment, and she said, “Greg is the one who came up with this idea. He and Billie thought it was a great idea.” I am going to cherish that video forever. God, I miss her, and I didn’t even know her for very long. In the few years that I knew her, it really was an honor to be able to work with her and to be able to say that I shared that time with her.
Kelly Marie Tran told me that the Leia scenes were like puzzle pieces. She also said they had to reshoot a lot of them. What was your vantage point as far as the Leia scenes are concerned?
When you’re a little apprehensive about that kind of thing, you have to trust who your boss is and who is really the creative mind behind it. So, I knew that J.J. — more than anyone else — would handle it with such respect and do it in a way that wouldn’t seem odd or digital in the worst way. I knew that J.J. would do it in such a tasteful way and represent her in the best light. That’s what I really cared about. I always say this, but as an actor, you have one audience member that you want to please, and that’s the director. If you make the crew laugh with a joke, then you’ve gone too far; it’s a hat on a hat. J.J. and I are best friends, so there’s a shorthand. From the beginning, I just said to him, “I think this is amazing what you’re doing, and I know you’re going to do it in the right way,” and he said, “Oh yeah. We’re reverse-engineering these scenes and looking at what footage we have and how we can write scenes around it.” It was a challenge, but I think he enjoyed it after the daunting responsibility set in. Again, not just putting the puzzle pieces together, but to be able to have a moment where she actually says “Be optimistic” is just wonderful. We got to show a little personality, and that’s what these movies are about to me. When Poe can make me laugh in the first ten minutes of the movie, I feel connected to the movie. It was really interesting and emotional because of the way they did it. The stand-in looked a lot like Carrie, and I know that was kind of tough for Billie. We were there for each other, and we tried to make light of it while respecting what we were doing. It really worked out, because it’s J.J. He knew exactly what he was doing and did a really great job. It was tricky, but it’s one of those things that I can look back on now and say, “Wow, I was a part of that, and I’m in that scene. That’s a part of film history.”
When Leia passed away, what were you thinking and feeling as you were standing around her?
That was really tough. I didn’t have to pull from anything. That was just very, very real. To be standing there — and obviously it wasn’t her — all the emotions were right there. There’s not much that you have to think about; it just all comes naturally. I miss her so much. Also, the energy in that cavern from having 300-plus people behind me was really special. It was difficult, but emotion is what we all try to strive for and tap into as actors. I don’t want to use the term “easiest,” but it was the “easiest” emotion to tap into because it felt so real.
Star Wars means something different to each and every fan. As a result, mileage tends to vary with each new film. With Episode IX, a lot of people loved it, and a lot of people did not. While I’ll never fault anyone who dislikes a movie for their own valid reasons, I do take issue when people make assumptions such as “This person was phoning it in” or “This person was pandering to a certain fan base.” With that in mind, is there an example that comes to mind from Episode IX where you witnessed J.J. toiling away more than usual in order to satisfy everyone?
Oh, I don’t think there’s a moment where he doesn’t do that. J.J. is the biggest fan, and he appreciates all of that. You see that at the end of the movie, especially, when he’s got all of those great callbacks. When we were working on The Force Awakens, we were never not slack-jawed. We were constantly in awe of where we were and what we were able to do. I would say to him, “What is going on?” We made movies when we were 12 together; we talked about Star Wars all the time when we were 12. The secret name of The Force Awakens was AVCO, which is the theater where the original Star Wars opened in Westwood. He has such a deep appreciation, more than anyone I know, and he was so careful to satisfy that.
When the movie came out, I was so pissed off and angry about one specific criticism that I heard. It said, “Oh, he’s just pandering to the fans.” It’s like, What are you talking about? A movie like this is all about satisfying the fans. And J.J. does it in an emotional way as the characters are connected. There’s almost no fat in this movie at all, and that cannot be said for the others. There are moments where you go, “Oh, you could lose that scene, and the movie would still hold up.” Everything in this movie matters, and they did such an incredible job of wrapping up and servicing all the characters. Would I have liked to have seen more of Rose? Yes. Would I have liked to have seen more of the other characters? For sure, but you can only do so much. And things change in the edit. You were talking about Kelly mentioning that we shot and reshot some stuff, but a lot of that stuff didn’t even end up in the movie. I’m excited to see the DVD extras, because there are some amazing moments that I have that I can’t wait to see. It was really, really difficult for them in edit to lose some of that stuff, and selfishly, I’m talking about my stuff. There are so many other things — and huge things — that I think people are going to appreciate when they look at it. But that was the one criticism that really kind of offended me. Like you said, you cannot please everybody all the time, especially when it comes to something that is so important to so many people. The same was true at the end of Lost. J.J. creates these very, very important pieces to a lot of people. It’s what we grew up with, and these characters are so beloved; we consider them family. We have our own fanfiction in our head, whether we put it on paper or in the computer or not. You’re never going to be able to do it in the way that everybody sees it in their head. I don’t think any of that criticism was warranted, but then again, everybody is entitled to their opinion. In their own mind, they have the best way they could see wrapping it up. I personally cannot see a better version of Episode IX than what J.J. put out. I mean that not as his friend, but as a true fan. It was so incredibly satisfying and so beautiful. There are moments that I’ve never seen before, especially the battle at the end. I’ve never seen this stuff so big. He brought it to another level emotionally. I loved the movie so much.
Dom also told me that there was “so much stuff” that didn’t make it into the movie. Even though every movie has more footage than what ends up on the screen, that interview — as well as some anonymous social media posts — helped perpetuate a hashtag known as “#ReleaseTheJJCut.” Can you help dispel this wild notion?
Yeah, I never understood that. I talked to J.J. as friends throughout the entire process. Every night, I’d be like, “How’s it going?” Every time, he was so positive. I’m being completely honest here, but not once did he ever tell me that there was any pressure on him to cut things out. It’s part of the creative process, obviously. Kathy Kennedy is brilliant; the people at Disney are brilliant. They give notes, but ultimately, it’s up to J.J., the director, whom they really trust. Personally, I don’t think there’s any truth to that, and I would be surprised if there’s a “J.J. cut.” Every movie goes through a series of cuts; it’s just the nature of it. You see what works, what you need more of and where you need clarity. So I think that’s all a part of the creative process. I don’t buy into it at all.
When I spoke to Chris Terrio, he was so flabbergasted by the media and fan base’s insistence on pitting J.J. against Rian. Were you surprised by that narrative as well, especially since you first relayed how much J.J. loved Rian’s script for Episode VIII?
Yeah, I was shocked. This is part of Star Wars, which is finding conflict. People are going to make things up. I never heard one disparaging thing from J.J. about Rian. Rian is a brilliant storyteller and filmmaker. It’s one of those things where if you pay attention to the film and engage with it, all it does is keep that story going. But I’m glad you’re asking me, because I would absolutely tell you if there were moments here and there. And there weren’t. There just absolutely weren’t. If anybody was going to try and dig that out of J.J., it’d be me. I wanted to work with Rian so badly, and it just didn’t happen. So I would be looking for any reason to go, “Oh yeah, well,” but J.J. loves that guy. He loves how creative and how brilliant he is.
If you had to sum up your Star Wars experience with one moment, would it be that strategy session alongside Han, Leia and company in The Force Awakens?
Yeah, I think so for sure. That was my “walking across the hot coals.” I was such a fan of the series, and there I am — at least for a few lines — being the guy that’s driving that scene. I also have this picture of that scene that I cherish so much. It’s beautiful, especially with my orange-colored flight suit. I can’t believe I had that moment. That was absolutely the defining scene and image that will always be burned in my mind.
I heard you tell a story about the shooting of that scene and how J.J. came up to you in between takes to urge you to stop “watching the movie” while you were in the scene. Did you avoid doing that on Episode IX?
(Laughs) Absolutely. I didn’t have any of those moments on Skywalker, except for those moments where we were all working with Carrie being there and not being there. Those were surreal moments; it wasn’t a fanboy thing like it was in The Force Awakens. That was crazy. J.J. literally was like, “Dude, you’re watching the movie!” and it was true. I had to get through a couple of takes of that. Then, of course, my response was, “Yeah, but this is Harrison Ford!” and he laughed. So, I just made light of it. It again speaks to how loose the set is and how incredible these actors are. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it takes a lot to throw me off my game. I also worked with Al Pacino not too long ago, and that was another moment where I had to get a couple of takes out of my system. They’re the best actors in the world, so it takes a second. Then you realize that they’re just like you, and we’re all in this together. Then you get over it.
Did you ever get genuinely pumped up during the Resistance pep talks, or are they too mechanical for that to happen?
I did get pumped up, and I’m the guy that gets pumped up so much that J.J. has to come over and go, “All right, bring it down 8,000 percent.” (Laughs) I just love my character, and I loved being there in those moments like standing under the Falcon. One of the most incredible experiences that I’ll never forget is working with Billy Dee Williams. Having Lando right there in front of me and to hear him say, “All right, well, let’s go then!” It was such an honor, and I was such a fanboy in those moments. We had met at a Comic-Con, and I didn’t know if he remembered me, but of course he did. I went up to him and said, “Man, you’re the coolest,” and he’s like, “Nah, man, you’re the coolest.” I was like, “What is going on in my life right now that Lando/Billy is telling me how cool I am?” When listening to Poe or Finn, I’m already at 11 — or 8,000 percent more than the energy I should be — but add the element of Billy Dee Williams and it’s hard to control.
Jessica Henwick told me that she was the only Force Awakens X-wing pilot that didn’t get motion sickness from the X-wing rig. Was that the case, and did you have a smoother go-round on Episode IX?
Yes, she’s 100 percent right. It’s like riding a bull. It’s on a platform that’s about 15 feet off the ground, and they have these green-screen panels behind you. On The Force Awakens, you were really strapped into the cockpit, and I am not a petite flower. So when I watched Oscar [Isaac] do his thing, it looked okay, but then you realize how long you’re in that thing. They strap you in, lock these cameras in and then they put the top over you. It’s hard to hear and a little claustrophobic. Then they just move it around, and they throw lines at you to say. After a while, you realize, “Oh, wow. This is not stopping.” I didn’t throw up or anything, but I definitely felt that motion sickness. When Oscar got off, he came over to me and said, “Good luck to you on this one.” I was like, “That didn’t look too bad,” and he was like, “You’ll see.” We were very close, so we gave each other shit. But Jessica had no problems. She was like, “Yeah, keep it going.” She loved it. I love all the rides at Disneyland, and while I normally don’t get motion sickness, you’re trying to act, look tough and concentrate on your lines. The difference with The Rise of Skywalker was they digitally put the glass over us so we weren’t locked in. I guess they realized they didn’t have to do that for this movie. So I didn’t get sick. When it tilts forward, you’re using your legs to stay stable. So a lot of the blood is pumping to your legs. I think that’s what it was on The Force Awakens. I didn’t expect such a workout.
Moving to Lost, how last-minute was your hiring for Captain Seth Norris? Were you privy to the fact that your character’s death was basically replacing the shocking death that Michael Keaton was originally supposed to provide as Jack?
J.J. called and said, “I really want you to be a part of this. You’re gonna come out to Hawaii, and we’ll figure something out.” So I did not know that I was going to be the pilot before I got out there. I think there was also some discussion that Victor Garber was possibly going to be the pilot. I don’t know why I remember that. Actually, I did know before. I remember J.J. sent me the script, and I loved it. He said, “We’re thinking about Michael Keaton,” and I remember saying, “I don’t think you can do that.” I’m a huge Michael Keaton fan, and I just thought about how disappointed I would be if Michael Keaton drew me to a show, only to see him die in the second half of the pilot. I remember saying to him, “I don’t know if that’s such a great idea.” Then I went out there, and he said that I was going to be the pilot. So I knew what my fate was going to be. There’s a moment where you see my dead body in a tree, and they used a dummy that kind of looked like me. They didn’t digitally alter it either. I remember saying on the set, “That doesn’t look like me,” but in the shot, it really does. Obviously, your mind plays tricks on you, since you know that’s the pilot. It’s probably one of the best cameos I’ve ever had in my career.
You have a beautiful deleted scene with Emilee de Ravin’s Claire where you’re both talking over coffee at the airport. Was that cut for time?
Yes, I’m so happy that it’s still on there. That was a beautiful scene, thank you. I’m really proud of it. In hindsight, it’s funny because I had that moment where I’m like, “That’s my plane. You’re in luck,” and we all know what happens. (Laughs) So, from what I understand, Jorge Garcia [Hurley] is running through the airport, and you see all of the numbers on the jerseys of the soccer players who were getting on the plane They couldn’t cut all those clues. So it is for time; you’re right, but it was more that they really couldn’t cut any of that other stuff out. So yeah, that was a bummer, but with streaming and DVD extras, people pay way more attention to that stuff now. They’ll watch it, and then they’ll really dig in deep. Looking back now, I’m thrilled that people are still able to enjoy it.
Because you’ve maintained friendships with so many people that you’ve worked with over the years, such as J.J. and that Bradley Cooper guy, it’s apparent that you’re not only a good actor but also a positive influence on set. Did someone give you advice early on as far as how to carry yourself on set?
They didn’t sit me down and say, “Hey, this is very important.” But, there are two guys that I learned from very early on, and I saw the reaction and absolute joy that everybody got from working with them — and still do. One was John Ritter, who was on Felicity. It’s also just my personality. I love being on set. I very rarely go back to my trailer, and I’ll stay on set until they need me again. I just like being around everyone; I like the whole “we’re all in this together” feeling of being on a set. I also don’t let people be prima donnas; I’ll call people on their shit. Life’s too short. We’re so lucky to be doing what we’re doing. I learned very quickly from John what a beautiful person he was, and it just showed me that I was doing the right thing. He was so good, such a humble guy and always reminding people how much he appreciated them. He treated everyone equally. It’s not like I said, “I gotta do that.” It’s just the way I am; I learned that from my parents. Henry Winkler is another one. If you ask anybody who their favorite person to work with is on the actor side, it’s going to be Henry Winkler if they’ve had the chance to work with him. He remembers everyone’s name, and he genuinely cares about everyone he comes into contact with. He and I have become extremely good friends. Years and years ago, I cast him in a movie called Group Sex that I co-wrote with Lawrence Trilling, who directed it. I thought that movie was gone, but I bought a Fire Stick and found it. But, I learned from Henry and still do learn from him every day. He’s just one of those guys. There are people who say, “Look, you’re gonna make this role great, but I need your energy on set.” It’s very, very important on projects; some people don’t realize it. When I guest-starred on House years ago, I hit it off with Hugh Laurie right away, and I was like, “Why does everybody just disappear when they set up a new shot? It’s the number-one show in the world, and no one talks.” He’s like, “Yeah, I know.” He’s just so wonderful. I even started a band with him called Band from TV. And Jesse Spencer too. I just don’t let these people go. Castle Rock was also wonderful. It felt like we were in camp together in Boston.
You’ve been on some of TV’s biggest and most beloved shows, such as Alias, Lost and Felicity. Then Heroes took over the world in 2006. As much as you love working alongside J.J., was Heroes more rewarding in a way, since you were able to thrive outside of Bad Robot?
Yeah, it was the moment that I left the nest, and it was a big project. Although I have to say that it was a bummer because I wasn’t able to work with my friend on a TV project for four-and-a-half years. And there were projects in between. During that time, I remember J.J. was doing Star Trek, and I was supposed to be Olson, this character he wanted me to play. So, I ended up being the voice of Kirk’s stepdad. I love working with J.J., and I want to work with him exclusively. I don’t care if people say to me, “Yeah, your whole career…” But it’s wonderful when I break away. When I was shooting Paterno, J.J. was like, “Hey, can you do me a favor and please tell Al what a fan I am?” I was like, “What!? I’ve gotta tell Al Pacino what a fan J.J. Abrams is?” He’s my best friend so I don’t think of him as J.J. Abrams. It’s those moments where I think about how I’m doing something on my own, but it’s not something I strive to do. I strive to work with J.J. as much as I possibly can.
What comes to mind from Mission: Impossible III?
It was such a great experience. That was another one where, as a friend, I just had to say, “Dude, you’re working with Tom Cruise!” And then, of course, J.J. said, “Dude, you’re working with Tom Cruise.” I was like, “What!?” It was in a scene that brought a little levity to the movie. I, of course, would’ve loved to have been part of the team, but I wasn’t at that level of an actor — not talent wise, just recognition wise — to be cast in that kind of role. But, man, it was a blast. Tom is another guy where I learned work ethic from in such a great way — not that I have a stationary bike on set or whatever. My stationary bike on set is craft service. (Laughs) Between takes, Tom used the bike in that scene. He’s all in. He’s such a pro — so sweet and generous. Like I said before, when J.J. is on these big things, we try to hang out as much as possible. I came to the Calabasas set with my kids, and that’s where they built that whole bridge on the ground. They just built this long road and digitally made it the bridge. That moment when he slid under the car with all that glass, I was there with my family on set. My kids were so young that they didn’t realize who Tom Cruise was, but he couldn’t have been sweeter. Those action sequences take so long to set up, and all I wanted to do was introduce Tom to my family. I said, “Tom, would you meet my family?” and he spent so much time with my kids, my wife and me. He was just so sweet and engaged with them, even though he’s producing and acting in the movie. Once a week on the set of The Rise of Skywalker, they had Make-a-Wish kids come to set. When I see a group of these people, I walk up to them and say, “Hey, what’s going on!? What’s with the wheelchair?” That’s what they want, and that’s what I want when someone talks to me about epilepsy. I don’t want to tiptoe around the topic; I want to be able to engage in conversation. I spent so much time with these great families and kids on set. At the time, I didn’t think about it and say, “This is what Tom would’ve done,” but those things stay with you. I would’ve done it anyway, but to see a guy like Tom take so much time with my family, he was just so generous. And he still is every time I see him. Lady Gaga is the same way. When I see her, she’s like, “Greg!” It’s just so great to meet people who appreciate the work and the people around them as much as I do.
Given your connection to the material, have you seen the new Invisible Man yet?
I haven’t seen it yet, but even the trailers have the right message. When I was on Hollow Man, I was a newbie; I was green. When I looked at the script, I thought it was so simple. The first thing the guy does when he’s invisible is grope one of the women in the movie. I never liked it when I saw that; I just thought it was so simple. And I called them on it a little bit. I said to Paul [Verhoeven], “What are we doing?” I loved the special effects, but I just thought the movie could’ve been so much deeper, so much richer in story and how this character dealt with what he was going through. One of my favorite scenes was when he pulls up next to those kids, makes a face and tries to scare them. That, to me, was relatable in an everyday setting. I’m not unhappy with Hollow Man or my relationship with all those people. I loved working with Paul; I loved working with everyone from Lisa Shue to Josh [Brolin] to Kevin [Bacon] and Joey Slotnick, who’s one of my best friends. But, I’m really looking forward to this new one because it looks like the best version of what Hollow Man could have been in certain ways.
Well, it’s perfect quarantine viewing, since it’s hitting VOD early on 3/20. Do you have any deep cuts of your own that would make for some good quarantine viewing?
If people want to watch something they haven’t seen, I did a little first-person shooter movie called Burning Dog, and it just became available on VOD. And that movie that I co-wrote and produced called Group Sex is out there. I can’t believe you can actually find it.
You’ve done some great things in order to raise awareness for epilepsy. For the uninitiated, can you share your story?
My wife and I learned very quickly that there’s such a stigma attached to it. It’s not an invisible disease, but when it does strike, that’s the only time you can see that there’s something wrong. There’s a lot wives’ tales and misunderstandings. My son, Jake, is 23 and has it. He works at Bad Robot. He’s getting into production, and he’s perfectly normal. I hate using that word “normal,” but on the outside, when you see somebody who has epilepsy, you never know. So people keep it a secret. They don’t talk about it because of the stigma. It’s very scary to see someone have a seizure. My son is one of the lucky ones as he’s relativity under control. I think now more than ever, especially given the current circumstances, we need to be able to be open, honest and talk about any condition that we have. It’s important for people around you to know what to do. So I started TalkAboutIt.org for that reason — just to remove the stigma. You talked about me not letting friends go that I’ve worked with, but every time I work with somebody, I say, “Hey, would you mind doing a little PSA video for my website?” At TalkAboutIt.org, you’ll see all of your favorite celebrities asking the questions about epilepsy that we all should know. Never stick anything in anyone’s mouth. You cannot choke on your own tongue. Put the person on their side, and they will ride it out; it’ll be okay. So, we’re just destigmatizing it, and also letting 3 million-plus people with seizures and epilepsy in this country know that they’re not alone. It’s okay to talk about it, and as a matter of fact, it’s better when people around you know what to do. The seizure is not going to hurt you; it’s the fall. So that alone will empower people if they see someone start to bob their head, repeat a sentence or they’re out of it for a second. Grab that person, take them to the ground slowly. Don’t let them fall and hit their head, because that’s where the major damage is. I’ve got a podcast called Talk About It, and I’m helping the people in this community as much as I can. My son and I are both advocates.
Just talk about it.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available on digital; Blu-ray on Mar. 31.