Chris O'Donnell is best known the world over for playing Batman's sidekick Robin in Batman Forever (second only to Toy Story in 1995's box-office returns) and its sequel Batman & Robin. But O'Donnell has had a varied career in the company of a number of Hollywood legends, beginning with his debut, at age 17, opposite Jessica Lange in Men Don't Leave. After appearing in Fried Green Tomatoes and School Ties, O'Donnell reached a new level of stardom opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman (the role won O'Donnell a Golden Globe nomination). Subsequent films include The Three Musketeers, Blue Sky, Circle of Friends, Mad Love, The Chamber (opposite Gene Hackman), In Love and War (for Richard Attenborough), Cookie's Fortune (for Robert Altman), The Bachelor, Vertical Limit, and Kinsey. Most recently, O'Donnell romanced Meredith Grey as "McVet" on ABC's Grey's Anatomy and headlined the TV miniseries The Company. His upcoming films include Max Payne and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. In promoting the latter, O'Donnell spoke to me by phone from Los Angeles. (This interview also aired on Celluloid Dreams on June 16, 2008.)
Chris O'Donnell: Hello.
Groucho: Hi Chris, this is Peter Canavese.
CO: Hi, Peter. How are you.
G: Good. How’re you doing?
CO: Good thanks...
G: I once interviewed the 1949 Robin from the old Batman serial and you’ll be happy to hear that he thought you were, and I quote, "fantastic."
CO: Ahh! That’s nice to hear.
G: Not so much Burt Ward. But he liked you!
G: We’re of the same generation, and I grew up on those characters too. What was your experience of Batman, and particularly, Robin, before being approached for Batman Forever?
CO: Well, I mean, yeah, I grew up watching the Adam West /Burt Ward for sure. I had all the toys. I had Batmobile—I mean I think I still have a couple of the cars that my Mom saved and my kids now play with. But, you know, it was so campy in the TV show and the whole thing and the outfits. And I remember when they offered it to me, I was like "Oh God. (laughs) What?! What is this gonna—am I gonna be in that little outfit or—?" But I knew they were kind of doing a whole different take on it and that sort of thing. And you know going into that, it’s a double-edged sword. I mean, you know, you’re going to be instantly known around the world, but at the same time, you're going to be known as Robin, you know what I mean? And I think that you gotta understand that going into it, which I did, and I enjoyed it. I think maybe we did one too many. I liked the first one a lot better than the second one. But hindsight’s a lot easier.
G: Yeah. As a character, I guess Robin is pretty much right there on the page, but in refining how you would play the part, did you have your own compass for how you saw him, or did you rely on Joel Schumacher?
CO: No, it was pretty much there in the script, what they wanted to do with it. And stylistically, I mean, ya know—Joel Schumacher will give you more notes on the look of it than he will on anything else, really. That’s his whole thing. And those movies are—you know, and I haven’t seen this latest one, the Christian Bale versions, which are supposed to be fantastic. But, you know, there was not a ton of character development in the ones we did.
G: Right. I don’t even know how much prep time you get for those. Were you able to—
CO: We spent a lot of time making the suits and a lot of trips down to mold your body. But you never even met the actors until you got on the set...
G: We always have our fair share of the down and out in America, but I’m guessing Kit Kittredge might feel yet more relevant today than even when you filmed it.
CO: Yeah. I think that we could see that the economy was headed in this direction. But certainly when we were filming this just a year ago, I don’t think any of us thought that it would have as much relevance as it does now. I mean there’s just been—these foreclosure rates have been so high in a lot of parts of the country. But I think, regardless, that it’s a story that connects for any time, because I think that there’s a great lesson to be learned there. And my Dad grew up during the Depression and he never forgot the lessons that he learned back then. I mean you never met someone that saved and was this conservative and frugal the way he has been his whole life. And I think that there’s been so much excess with the economy the last twenty years that I think people have lost touch with that in a lot of respects. And I think that this film will be a great way to teach this next generation a little bit about what people went through.
G: Agreed. You mentioned your own father. Did you have in mind to emulate anyone you knew or from your family in playing the role, or was it just a matter of putting yourself in his shoes?
CO: It was a combination of a lot of things. My mom was actually born in Cincinnati. And so I talked to her about some stuff. And I thought about that a lot when we were filming. And when I was watching these kids out there, I thought, "That was my Dad." You know, my Dad was born in 1922. And he would have been one of these kids running around the neighborhood. I always kind of had a nostalgic feeling looking around when we were looking at the cars and all these different things, thinking, "Wow, I can’t believe my Dad lived through this all the way to today."
G: There’s a character motif in the film—it’s also a visual motif—of your character picking up his daughter, Kit, and spinning her around. And it’s a universal fatherly gesture, I think. But it also takes on this quality of family lifting you up even in the worst of times. Was that in the script or something you and the director worked out on the set?
CO: It was in the script. I don’t know if it was in the script as many times as it ends up in the movie, but it was definitely something that Patricia was very specific about, that she really wanted this spin and mentioned it several times. And we did quite a few takes on it. And I said, "Alright, I’m going to have to work on some specific exercises here to make sure I’m in spinning shape." But it’s—yeah, it’s interesting that you picked up on that. I hadn’t really thought of that angle as far as the family picking you up like that. I think there’s a lot of great messages here. You’re right—I mean, the family sticking together and picking each other up is a great one.
G: How cool was it playing a scrupulous car dealer around vintage cars?
CO: (Laughs.) Now I’ve never been much of a car guy myself. And I’ve been known to crash a few. (Chuckles.) I think I crashed the Batmobile when we were filming—which I never heard the end of. But, I don’t know— [the 1934 Chrysler Airflow] was a big car. It had a long driveway to drive down: a narrow driveway—I was a little nervous about crashing it. But it’s fine. I mean, the cars, the costumes, the set dressing—that really helps us, as actors, to get into character and—that’s like when you're doing a play. You rehearse and you’re on a blank stage. When you finally see the sets and you finally get in costume, it just elevates things to a different level.
G: Yeah. Through an anecdote, Mr. Kittridge imparts a lesson to Kit of not letting circumstances beat you. In your work as an actor, do any examples leap to mind of not letting matters beat you?
CO: Well, you know, it’s—I’ve been doing this for a long time, and you start out auditioning for everything. And you go through ebbs and flows in your business, and it’s interesting. You’ve got to stay focused, and for me it’s not so much—if there’s any kind of "Don’t let it beat you," it’s just a matter of trying to keep things in perspective. Because this business is very—the highs are very high; the lows can be very low. And it can really mess with your head. And I think that one of the biggest challenges I've faced in this business is trying to, you know, just maintain my sanity through all the craziness, the good times and the bad times. And I think that a lot of it comes down to, like you said—it’s your family. It's that support group that you have at home. And I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have—I mean, in my life—to have a big family that I grew up in, and now a big family of my own.
G: Mm-hm. What’s a piece of work that you’ve done that you wish people would seek out more or rediscover?
CO: (Without hesitation:) Men Don’t Leave. Definitely.
G: Which isn’t on DVD, I guess.
CO: Which isn’t on DVD. But it’s a terrific film. And I wish that more people had seen it just because I think Paul Brickman’s such a talent. And you know, he’s done two films. He’s done Risky Business and Men Don’t Leave. So we’ve got to get him out there again...
G: I sense that Kinsey was right in your wheelhouse as a actor—the kind of surprising role in a quality film that you like to be doing.
CO: Yeah, I mean. Kinsey was, you know—I just wanted to work with Bill Condon. I thought he was so talented. And it was a great script, and the cast. I mean, you know, at the end of the day, we all make choices, and a lot of times you can go through people’s careers and say, "Wow, yeah. They must have wanted to really do this movie," or "I bet you they got a pretty good paycheck for this movie" or that sort of thing. And, you know, this is what we do. It’s a business. And that was one where I think everyone who was a part of that film really wanted to work with Bill Condon, wanted to be a part of that project. And it was not a long shoot, but I enjoyed every minute of being a part of that.
G: Well, thanks very much for taking the time to talk with me. I wish we had more time.
CO: I appreciate it. You take care.