Interviews News

‘Johnny Got His Gun’ star Timothy Bottoms on working with legends, and being refused entry at Cannes

Four years later, it’s still hard to believe that I co-hosted a film festival in my hometown of Norwich, and even less that it featured a guest appearance by New Hollywood actor Timothy Bottoms. Most famous for starring in The Last Picture Show, he flew from sunny California to less-so Norfolk to attend screenings of his earliest and latest films. His presence gave film-lovers in our small city a rare opportunity to pick the brains of someone who worked with the renowned Hollywood troublemaker, Dalton Trumbo – author and director of our centre-piece film, Johnny Got His Gun. In celebration of Timothy’s efforts on our behalf – for which we remain eternally grateful – here’s a reprint of the interview with him which featured in our printed programme in 2016.

The Norwich Radical Film Festival is showing your first (Johnny Got His Gun) and one of your most recent (Welcome to the Men’s Group) films side by side. Does that feel strange to you?

Both roles in both films were good parts. I had to audition for both. I have seen Johnny Got His Gun, many too many times, and have seen Welcome to the Men’s group enough. Yet it should be a radical experience to see them back to back and that is to say the least.

Timothy Bottoms with Nicole Chen, Chris Boyd and Silvia Subiros – all who had films in the NRFF programme.

You’re appeared in 119 film and television productions over a career spanning 45 years, what are your thoughts on how the industry has evolved/changed since then?  And briefly describe your associations with other film festivals and why you feel as an artist it is important to participate in them?

I was never anything more than a journeyman actor, simple as that.  Things in production sure have changed.   The cameras went from Mitchell cameras that needed at least two big strong lads to move them about and exterior night shots used carbon lamps. They gave off great heat, which was welcome on those night locations in the trenches of combat scenes (for Johnny). The first Panavision silent reflex steady cam; now the industry hardly uses any film. Film shooting days back then were maybe two pages a day….now, my lord, 20 pages a day is not uncommon!

A story about festivals… back when Johnny Got His Gun went to Cannes, I was allowed to travel with the director. We stayed in Grasse near a perfume factory amidst terraced olive trees… (really outstanding farm country) anyway, we went to the premiere at the main theatre in Cannes… alas my coat and tie was not “proper dress” and I was not seated in the vidette section. I sat on the steps with my back to the doors and gazed upon the Mediterranean Sea. Dalton said it lost (the Palm d’Or) to Alan Bates and Julie Christie in The Go Between. I was secretly taken by her beauty… weren’t we all?

Three of those performances have been George W. Bush, what kept bringing you back to the character?

President Bush? Clearly the casting people and producers picked me because by enlarging my ears and using lighting and make up to do “movie magic”… All I had to do was stumble around!

Johnny Got His Gun and Welcome to the Men’s Group both center on important political issues of the time, war in the Vietnam era, and support groups during the modern mental health crisis; are projects with a message more likely to attract you?

I do not believe these two films have anything in common, two completely different types of screenplays. I suppose you could point out similarities. But I must admit, my waving golden locks have gone grey with a bit of balding. Hair grows in unmentionable locations, and I need my rest more. Ha-ha, just having fun with this.

Johnny Got His Gun features the talents of Jason Robards (Once Upon a Time in the West) and Donald Sutherland (who appeared in MASH the year before), were they a big help in your first film?

I am so indebted to Mr. Sutherland for his kindness and his wonderful reactions in his scenes.  It was my first day of film work and the scene was Jesus, and me he quite frankly tells me: “bad luck can rub off “and politely to then bugger off. Ha-ha. Dalton Trumbo at his finest!

I was so lucky to act in film scenes with Jason Robards… in two films. First and foremost he was a stage actor. I have always preferred the stage to the film-acting world, at least for me, being a simple journeyman actor. A Thousand Clowns.  I loved that film a lot.

Straight after, you starred in the ‘New Hollywood’ classic The Last Picture Show (1971), which has since been inducted by the United States Library of Congress into the National Film Registry for preservation. How does it feel to be in a film that is categorized “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant”?

The Last Picture Show… [In hindsight] I wish my agent had taken the generous percentage of profit offer, instead of the legal tender compensation…

Is this your first time to the region? (East Anglia). And what do you enjoy most about England?

Last time I was in the Kingdom and in Norwich (where I stayed for several days) was when I was 15 along with other singers in a madrigal chorus: 4 bass 4 tenor 4 altos and 4 sopranos. We were spread in homes all over town. Perhaps some of the readers may remember the singers from Santa Barbara, California around the summer of 1967? I remember the green landscape where I stayed, the owners emerald green XKE jaguar, the tea and biscuits. I believe it was in Norwich where we taped many madrigal songs.

This interview was previously published on the Norwich Radical Film Festival website. Information on the festival, which has since moved to LA and rebranded as the Zeitgeist Film Festival, can be found here.

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