Call him the king of character actors. Over the past 44 years, Ray Wise has popped up in nearly 200 different TV shows and films, from Twin Peaks and the original RoboCop to, more recently, How I Met Your Mother and Mad Men.
But his latest character may be one of his most intriguing. Wise plays a high-powered image consultant for industrial agriculture in the new Chipotle original series (yep, that’s right, we said Chipotle) Farmed and Dangerous, which premiered this week on Hulu. We sat down with Wise, looking tan and sharp in a dark suit, to talk about the new show, his career and why he won’t be watching the new RoboCop.
“I haven’t seen the new RoboCop and I’m not gonna. Not unless I’m handcuffed and forced to watch.”
This Farmed and Dangerous series looks really interesting. Did you have any reservations about doing a project that had an “agenda”?
No reservations at all. I looked at it purely as a theatrical piece. It was a four-parter. The story was interesting. And my character was great and he had a lot of funny lines. So I liked that.
How was the food on set?
Excellent. The best. Tasty and healthy.
You have a lot of monologues in some of these Farmed and Dangerous videos. Is it hard to remember all of that dialogue?
Well, for a script, I have kind of a photographic memory. I started doing a soap opera back in 1970 in New York at CBS called Love of Life. And I guess part of my experience and training doing that show was learning how to memorize a script really fast if I had to. So monologues are no problem.
So like a page of dialogue, how long does that take you to memorize?
Oh, a few minutes. My eyes sort of take a snapshot of it and it reads on my brain and I can conjure up the 10th or 11th line and see how far from the top of the page it is, even.
You seem to play a lot of men of power. Why is that?
It must be a function of my own physicality and how good I look in a suit and that kind of thing.
You do look good.
Oh thanks. I even like to dress up when I go to appointments. Even out on the West Coast, where everybody is so laidback. They’re wearing their Gucci loafers and their jeans, but not me. I like to wear my suit. Some people refer to me as The Suit back in LA, and I don’t mind that. But, now what was your question?
You play a lot of men of power. Why is that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think I have a real facility for it. And those kinds of roles really appeal to me. I’ve been the president on those Red Alert video games. I was vice president on the fifth season of 24. I was a senator in Rising Sun. I was a congressman in an episode of JAG, and I’ve been judges and all sorts of lawyers and doctors.
You also play a lot of villains. For instance, in Reaper you were the devil. What’s up with that?
Well, they’re the best written characters, usually. You know? They’re really interesting and they really have a lot to say and it’s always said in a very eloquent and sometimes witty, funny manner. They have the best lines, always, the villains. The good guys, they’re kind of boring, really. Bland. You rarely ever find a really eloquent good guy.
You recently started an arc on The Young and the Restless. How long are you going to be on the show?
I have no idea. I think the original intent was to do 15 episodes, but I think now that they’ve experienced me, they might want to do a few more. And if they do, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine too. What I hope is that we get this whole Farmed and Dangerous thing going good because I’d like to do more of them. There’s a wealth of material that we could cover that could be funny and very entertaining and yet very informative.
You seem to be working as much now as you ever have.
Even more so. Yeah. In the last five, six years, usually a week doesn’t go by without me doing something. Even if it’s something for an outfit like Funny or Die, you know, Will Ferrell’s outfit. I do a lot of little things for them. Or for Tim and Eric, you know, the Awesome Show Tim and Eric guys. I did their Billion Dollar Movie, and I did that Beach House music video for Eric, where I mouthed it and it’s a woman’s voice singing the song. It’s a bizarre video but wonderful.
No one plays a high-powered lobbyist for Big Ag like Ray Wise.
How did you get into acting?
Well, I always wanted to be an actor from the time I was about 12 years old. If you look at my junior high and high school yearbooks, it said my goal was to become a professional actor. And I’m very proud to say I’ve been able to do that in my life and have a family and be able to support them. And I’ve never really done anything else. I was a theater major in college at Kent State University. I did the productions there, and during the summer I got to do professional summer stock, so when I graduated from Kent in ’69, I went to New York. And I was in New York for a few weeks when I walked into an open audition at CBS and they looked at me and they handed me a couple of pages of a script for a show called Love of Life. And I read it for them, and a couple of days later I was chosen to be on that soap opera, Love of Life. And it’s been great ever since. I was on that show for about seven years. I did around 950 half-hour episodes, roughly. But while I was doing that TV show, I would do theater at night—Off-Off Broadway, Off-Broadway and on Broadway. So it was action-packed even then. And I’m extremely fortunate not to have had to wait tables or drive cabs. I don’t have any of those stories that you hear about actors struggling for years. I didn’t have that struggle. I’m very lucky.
What’s your all-time favorite production?
Well, I’m going to have to say my favorite TV show was probably Twin Peaks. Although I loved playing the devil on Reaper, I think we got cancelled way too soon. A movie that I made for Disney back in 1984 called The Journey of Natty Gann is very dear to my heart. And of course I was in RoboCop—the original, not this… pretender.
Have you seen the new RoboCop?
Nope. I’m not gonna. Not unless I’m handcuffed and forced to watch. [Laughs] And I loved that movie Good Night, and Good Luck. You know, that George Clooney directed? I played Don Hollenbeck, the fella who comes to his own end in that film. And of course, that was nominated for Best Picture and I’m very proud of that movie. So those would be the high points.
When you get stopped on the street, what do people say?
They’re almost always very friendly. The Twin Peaks followers, they always have that little twinkle in their eye and they refer to me as Leland. There are those who want to play 64 questions, like, “What was that thing I saw you in?” I say, “I don’t know!” I get that a lot. But most of the people that stop me do it for a reason. It’s either, “Hey man, RoboCop, yeah!” Or, “The devil, all right!”
Well, I’m a big fan of Mad Men, so it was cool to see you on there.
Yeah, I played the CFO of Dow Corning, the makers of CorningWare and napalm. And I always hoped that Matt Weiner would develop that character a little more and have a little beefier storyline for him, but it never happened. But Matt was a big fan of Twin Peaks and so that was originally why he cast me, I think.
Do you have a favorite actor you’ve ever worked with?
I loved Sean Connery in Rising Sun. Loved him a lot. And he’s my idea of a movie star. He’s larger than life. When he walks into a room, you know it.
What’s your single greatest piece of advice for an actor?
Just be persistent. Be determined. Know in your gut that this is something that you’ve got to do. If you don’t feel that, then go do something else. You have to harden yourself. You have to be immune to rejection, and rejection has to be a common, ordinary part of your day because it’s going to happen over and over and over again. You’re going to get maybe, if you’re lucky, one out of ten roles. You’re going to get rejected nine times. So you can’t be too thin-skinned. You have to look at life very philosophically. But know that right around the corner can come the next big thing. And as long as you believe that, it’ll happen.