The S.B. Questionnaire: Perry Lang

Perry Lang at the Riviera Theatre

Paul Wellman

Perry Lang at the Riviera Theatre

“People who have strong faith have a confidence about life that not everybody has,” explains Perry Lang, telling me about his new film An Interview with God. “What happens when that faith wavers?”

Amidst a successful and multifaceted career as an actor, writer, and director, the longtime Santa Barbara resident’s latest film concerns a young journalist whose faith is challenged when he interviews someone claiming to be God.

The project started when Perry got a call from one of his producer friends, Ken Aguado. But instead of asking what Perry had in the works, this time Ken wanted to share his own script. Perry was hooked after page one, and sent it to his good friend David Strathairn, the Academy Award-nominated actor. Ninety minutes later, he said yes to starring in the film.

The movie is being released by the marketing company Giving Films, which focuses on faith-based movies and donates all profits to charity. It’s opening for just three days, August 20, 21, and 22. When I question the limited run, Perry quickly responds with his own question: “How many $2 million movies get a release in 900 theatres across the country?”

Perry is one of the first people I first met when I moved here in 2000, and was one of the reasons that I fell in love with this city. He’s self-deprecating, funny, and down-to-earth. Our relationship feels to me like wearing my favorite sweater — comforting, practical, and reliable. As an actor, he’s worked with Steven Spielberg, Sam Fuller, and several times with John Sayles. As a director, he’s done features and episodes of iconic TV shows such as ER, NYPD Blue, Dawson’s Creek, and Weeds.

Born in 1959, he’s originally from Palo Alto, where his mom attended Stanford while his dad went to rival UC-Berkeley. When they divorced, his mom started a tourist guide called Key Magazine and they moved to Carmel. “I grew up dropping the magazine at every hotel in Carmel,” he remembers of his chaotic young life. “I took one class in high school. It was driver’s ed, and I dropped out. I didn’t understand the benefits of high school.”

Instead, at 14 years of age, he enrolled at the Monterey Peninsula Community College to take drama classes. “I was attracted to the idea that men and women would change in the same room,” he quips. “There were older women everywhere, which was really exciting.”

He then took a six-week Shakespeare acting course at a conservatory program in San Francisco, which won him a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena in 1975. (Coincidentally, his future wife, Sage Parker, was there at the same time, but they didn’t meet until later.) “I was raw,” says Perry. “You could see everything in my face. I had no training, no discipline.”

He was further inspired during a trip to visit his sister in New York City, where he saw the “National Lampoon Review” with John Belushi and Gilda Radner.

One of his first professional gigs was as the leading role in an afternoon special called “Hewitt’s Just Different,” in which he played a handicapped kid who teaches another handicapped kid how to play baseball. “Baseball became a big theme in my life,” he says. “I’ve played a lot of baseball players.”

Roles in classics like Big Wednesday and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. “Fuller was the great raconteur,” said Perry. “As a director and writer, he got to the point of just telling the story.”

He also co-starred in Spielberg’s 1941. “He’d let me watch dailies with him, which he’s not known to do,” he remembers. “I was 19 and Spielberg was 30.” He developed a close relationship with John Belushi during filming, doing Marlon Brando impressions together. Later on, Belushi did a “Dueling Brandos” sketch with Peter Boyle on Saturday Night Live.

Perry started writing in his early 20s. “The idea of being a director seemed audacious,” he says. He co-wrote a baseball film with Roger Hedden and handed it to producer Larry Estes, who told him it was too expensive to film. But if he wrote something for $1 million, Estes would produce it. So Lang went home and wrote Little Vegas, which he also went on to direct.

Perry was introduced to Santa Barbara by his friend, the actor Anthony Edwards. He moved here in 1994 — he ran into his 1941 co-star Tim Matheson at a movie theater within a week — and married Sage three years later. “We knew it was a good place to raise our children,” he says.

About his new movie, An Interview with God, Perry explains, “I love the idea that there are signs everywhere that we refuse to see — signs of wonderment. There are miracles that we choose to ignore.” The film’s closest release to Santa Barbara will be in Ventura Downtown 10 multiplex from August 20 to 22.

Perry Lang answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your greatest fear?

Death. Or, more specifically, what comes right after. Which is also why I don’t smoke much pot.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Travel. I just flew to Asia on Air Canada and the flight attendant said that that living above the United States is like living above a biker bar. Lines like that don’t come cheap.

Who do you most admire?

Tank Man (Wang Weilin), who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. To me, it looks like he’s holding his lunch, which says he didn’t get up that morning and say, “I’m gonna get squashed today by a tank.” Him, or maybe the driver of the tank who flatly rejected orders not to drive over Mr. Weilin’s skinny frame. It seems they were both later executed.

What do you like most about your job?

Watching actors work. They are amazing, truly.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being with family and friends, eating good food together.

What is your current state of mind?

Freaked, I am not at all comfortable talking about myself. Jesus, Roger, how many more questions are there?

What is the quality you most like in people?

Story. Somebody who can reveal themselves through story. I love stories. I love drinking and telling stories. Why the hell do they put TVs in every bar? They are like little story killers.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Meanness. I hate it and once I see it, I can’t leave it alone. Seriously, I always, always kick them (metaphorically) in the shins and it always, always comes back to fuck me. Go figure.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Confused. People (they believe me to be an idiot) are often, over and over, surprised when I actually have a point.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

Mostly, “You know.” But also: “Fuck” and “What the fuck?” And, of course, “res ipsa loquitur” — the translation being; the thing speaks for itself — or “Fuck, you know…”

What do you most value in friends?

Humor. I mean, what else is there? Humor is the most valuable thing anybody one can possess. I’m sure people, in prison, (hey, how about a hacksaw?) don’t feel that way but, you know...

Which talent would you most like to have?

To be able to read and play music well.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

To be more patient. God help me, I know I should just keep my mouth shut, but…

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Being a good father. You might ask the kids about that, but, yeah.

Where would you most like to live?

New York City, Orcas Island, Rome, Northern Thailand, and, of course, Santa Barbara — but, it’s nice, too nice here, sometimes you gotta get off the cruise ship.

What is your most treasured possession?

My grandparents had a wooden chest made (with many drawers and doors with secret latches) for my mother, when she was born in Seoul — apparently, my grandfather worked as a spy and liked secrets. I have it now and my son will have it after I transition on over to my greatest fear.

What makes you laugh the most?

Cheap gags, physical comedy. I have acted in, written, as well as directed, lots of comedy — and I have always tried to make it as low-brow as possible. I’m comfortable in the gutter and, let’s face it, people deserve to laugh. Sometimes I have to shove my entire hand in my mouth so I don’t wreck a take. I don’t always believe in the adage, “If they laugh on the set, they won’t laugh in the theater.”

What is your motto?

Be kind. I mean, why not? It costs us nothing. Say hi, listen to somebody’s angst, keep a door open a few moments longer, give away every dollar bill in your wallet; it’s not that many dollars, unless you’re a valet. I love the Pope’s rule of thumb for who to give money to on the street. Are you ready…? Everybody. If they’re gonna buy booze, who cares, you’re not their parent and if you are, you should be giving them more than a dollar.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

George Burns, Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton. Oh, wait! You said historical?

On what occasion do you lie?

Backstage, at the theater, and, you know, don’t think you can get away with “what a performance!” These actors weren’t born yesterday, so you need to dig-deep with a nice, deeply satisfying bit of fiction and a maybe misty, faraway, look in your eye. I cannot help myself, forgive me.