Scott Wilson: In Cold Blood (The Interview)

The following interview with actor Scott Wilson was conducted in January of 2014.   The interview was done for Shock Cinema magazine.  The majority of the below interview was not included in the Spring of 2014 issue.

BOZUNG:   Is there any truth to the rumor that Quincy Jones suggested you to Richard Brooks for IN COLD BLOOD?

WILSON:  He did.  Also, Sidney Portier did as well.   While we were shooting IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT Sidney had asked me if I was up for IN CLOOD BLOOD. I said, What’s that?”   He said, “It’s something that you should be up for.”   So I called my agent about it and he said, “How much do you weigh?  How tall are you?  You’re not what they’re looking for.”  I said, “OK.”  Then I forgot about it.   On the last day of shooting on IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT the Second AD came up to me and told me that I was wanted over at Columbia.  So I went over and met with Richard Brooks.  I found out later that both Sidney and Quincy had both called Richard Brooks about me and that Norman Jewison had been allowing Richard to watch the dailies on IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. That got me in the door to audition for IN COLD BLOOD.

BOZUNG:  What was the audition for Brooks like for IN COLD BLOOD?   It must have been a hot property considering the success of the book at that time…

WILSON:  Yeah, it was.  But I didn’t know that, because right before I had been cast in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, I had been working as a parking lot attendant at day and then going to acting class at night.  I wasn’t going to see films at the time because I was so busy and plus I didn’t have a lot of money either.  So when I went in to meet with Brooks for the first time, while I was waiting, I met Tom Shaw, who was Brooks right-hand man.  He was like an Asst. Director at the time, but today he’d probably be considered as a Line Producer of sorts.   He said to me, Did you read the book?”  I told him that I hadn’t and he couldn’t believe it.  So he said, “Well, don’t tell anyone that but Richard.”   When I walked into Brooks office he had all of these photos and maps all over the walls in connection to IN COLD BLOOD and you could just feel a energy in the room.   Brooks starts telling me everything he’s looking for and he names off like five or six big Hollywood actors.  I said, “Well you have the wrong boy, I couldn’t play any of those guys, but I’ll tell you what..I’m one hell of an actor.”  (Laughing)   I was really cocky.   

So I went and picked up a copy of the book and read it.  After I read it, I said, “Why did I tell him that I couldn’t play this like any of those other actors?  I can do this.”  So the day after I finished reading the book I called Richard’s office to kind of set the record straight, and Tom Shaw answered. I started telling him about how I had just read the book and he stopped me and said, “Don’t worry, you’re coming back in for this role. I’m in your corner.  I want you in this role.”   I went back and forth to Brook’s office for about six weeks.   We would read scenes together and I did a screen test.  

BOZUNG:  I think I saw somewhere, maybe, in an interview with you at the time of the shooting of IN COLD BLOOD that you saw ‘Dick Hickox’ as being connected to Hamlet?  Could you expound on that a bit?

WILSON:  Well, since you brought it up….One of the first scenes I did for Brooks was a soliloquy from Hamlet.  He said, “Where have you done Hamlet?”  I said, “At home, in my living room, for myself.” (Laughing)  Then he said, “Why did you choose to read that scene from Hamlet for me?”  I said, “Well there’s a correlation between Hickox and Hamlet in that they both were contemplating murder and they both had suicidal impulses.”   

BOZUNG:  In terms of creating that character or personifying him…Was there a collaboration with Truman Capote in that he may give you insights into that character, then Richard Brooks may  also be giving you his own insights into the character…

WILSON:  My only collaboration with Capote was what I got from his book.  Capote and I never discussed a approach to Hickox.  We never even talked about the book.  In fact, the first thing I discussed with Richard Brooks after I had read the book was how it seemed that Capote seemed to have an issue with Hickox.  Capote never gave you a psychological justification for Hickox as he did with Perry Smith in the book.

BOZUNG:  Right, yeah, I’ve noticed that as well in the book.  There seemed to be some sort of sympathetic feelings toward Perry Smith…

WILSON:   Well, you can see how awful Smith’s childhood was and how bad that motorcycle accident was that he was in.   Capote psychologically justifies Smith, and romanticizes him in a way.   You didn’t get that with Hickox in the book. Hickox was just this bad guy, who had no reason to be bad, but was.   I really wanted the film’s audience to dislike Hickox when the film was over, but I wanted them to know that he was a human being.  You can dislike someone but still realize that he is a human being.

BOZUNG:  What do you think that you took from Capote’s book that helped to realize that character for the film?  Was there one thing for example, that triggered any sort of epiphany in regards to understanding that character for you?

WILSON:  It’s hard to say, because that book is so brilliantly written.  I also read books about the psychology of people that write bad checks and molest children.  I love getting into the research for the characters that I play.   You do all that research and then you just give yourself to it and let go and allow it to take you were it wants you to go.   Brooks was very possessive of the script for the film.  He only gave us half of the script to read in advance, and once we were done he asked for it back.  Then when we were shooting the film, he’d only give us one scene at a time to read.  He didn’t want any of the scenes to leak out around Hollywood. He said, “Before you know it, these will end up on television.”  It was interesting, because we had the book…laughing   So it wasn’t like we were in the dark as to what was going to happen in the story.  Yet, Brooks also had the belief that the result from the moment was more powerful than the scripted scene too.  He was a great director.

BOZUNG:  In the film, Robert Blake as Perry Smith calls Hickox an “artist” after he’s just passed off that bad check…Hickox is, as you said moments ago, unlikeable, yet at the same time he’s slick, cool, calculated, and in many ways an actor….Did you see it as an actor playing an actor?

WILSON: Hickox was basically a petty criminal.  He was a crook.  He would probably do anything that he would’ve had to do in the moment.  That was part of the book.  What was the most interesting part of it was that neither Hickox nor Smith would have committed those murders on their own.  Capote writes in the book about how when these two guys got together, it created a third person, and it was only then, that they were able to commit those murders.

BOZUNG:  Right, yeah, I love that aspect of this story.   It’s so wonderfully supernatural.  There seems to be a lot of supernatural undertones in a lot of true crime writing…

WILSON:  It really was, or whatever you wanna call it.  It really wasn’t a healthy chemistry that they shared.

BOZUNG:   How did you connect with Hickox internally?   As the actor, you can’t pass judgement on the character you’re playing, and the bad guy doesn’t know that he’s a bad guy….

WILSON:  You’re right.   Most people don’t think their bad people.  They justify why they do bad things.  When we were shooting it, I came to a estimation that Hickox would have been sorry for having a part in committing that crimes.  

BOZUNG:  If you would have had the opportunity to sit down with the real Dick Hickox before he was hung as part of your preparation for that role what do you think you would have asked him?

WILSON:  I don’t think that I would have needed to talk to him.  I don’t think I would have wanted to pick his brain.  I thought that Capote had done that too well already in his book.   I felt confident in my research.  Plus, I had met several people while we were shooting in Kansas who had known him, and they said, “You’re nothing like him.”   Then later, when they saw the film being shot they said, “You’ve become him.”  There was a lady that was at his trial, and she told me afterward, that I had done some of the same things that he himself had done at his own trial, so that was pretty flattering.

BOZUNG:  I’ve read newspaper and magazine articles that were published at the time of the film’s release that Robert Blake and yourself made a conscious effort to not interact with the locals in Kansas….

WILSON:  That is true.  We had to be outsiders, and we really bonded, Robert and I, and we were very close at that time.  He is a wonderful actor.  We really leaned on each other, and he was very helpful to me.  I hope I was helpful to him as well.

BOZUNG:  I saw an interview with Brooks once where he said that once Robert Blake and yourself realized that you were shooting IN COLD BLOOD in the actual locations where the actual crimes had occurring that you stopping behind actors and became those men…How does that resonate with you?

WILSON:  I think there’s a truth to that.  I think it did the same thing to the crew and to Richard Brooks himself.  I think that all had a major impact on the film for sure.   For me, one of the most interesting things about the entire experience of shooting IN COLD BLOOD was how Richard Brooks never referred to either Robert or myself by our real names.  Whether it was in a print interview or wherever, he always referred to us as “The Boys”.   Robert and I were lucky to get those roles.  He could’ve gotten anyone he wanted to play Hickox and Smith.

BOZUNG:  I read once where he had wanted Steve McQueen for one of the roles…

WILSON:  Right, the studio wanted him to cast McQueen and Paul Newman in those roles, but he was insistent in casting unknowns.  He didn’t want his audience to identify with those guys.  

BOZUNG:  Any truth to the rumor that Capote came to the Clutter house while you were there shooting and gave both yourself and Robert Blake a sort of room-by-room tour of the house and what had happened in each room and when?

WILSON:  That’s not true. But he did come to the house while we were there shooting.  Brooks usually had a closed set, but he opened it for about three days and allowed the World Press in.  That’s when I first met Capote.   In fact, that was that same day I believe that Robert and I went with Capote and shot that photo that was on the cover of Life Magazine.


BOZUNG:   The tough question it seems….Considering your playing this real person, and Robert Blake is playing a real person, and you’re shooting this film in this house where this actual story happened, and you’re re-creating a murder in the house where it happened, on the exact spot in which they actually died in the house…What does that do to you?  What kind of vibe or energy does that offer in that moment?    Could you feel that energy in that house?  Even in that Life Magazine article that came out on May 12th, 1967, the crew members interviewed in the piece even stated that the vibes of the house became too much for them…

WILSON:  That was part of what Brooks created, and maybe there was some of that down in that basement and in the upstairs.  Maybe there was that sort of psychic energy present in those rooms.  We were playing characters, and I know there was a quote where someone said something like, “We get the feeling that we really are those guys..”  And that may be so, but it was while we were working.  You didn’t take that home with you at night.  It was really an incredible experience there, it was incredible to speak to the people that knew those guys, the arresting officers, the people who crossed their paths.  I talked to many people in Kansas but I never had any real probing questions for them about Hickox.  As I said, Brooks created quite a environment on the set, and of course we had the great Conrad Hall as our Director Of Photography too.

BOZUNG:  Do you think with Hickox that you were more interested in interpreting the character or the reality of who he actually was?

WILSON:  I wanted to reincarnate him for the film.  I wanted to bring him back to life for IN COLD BLOOD.   It was one of the few times in any actor’s career where you get the chance to play someone that actually existed, where people knew him.  And when they tell you how close you came to realizing him, it is really validating.

BOZUNG:  Going back for a second to the idea of the supernatural in IN COLD BLOOD…..Was there ever a moment, when you had to step out of Hickox and consider his crimes?  Did you ever step out of the character to feel empathy for the his victims?   Writer Spaulding Gray once talked of “clouds of evil that come over certain moments in history,”  and I can’t help but suggest that same thing here because of the utter submissiveness of the Clutter family in the film and in Capote’s book and how they put up no restraint whatsoever when these two killers forced their way into their home that night and took their lives…

WILSON: Of course.  I think Capote nailed that in his book, and I think the film captures the utter reality of that crime as well. Brooks really captured the essence of the book. Was the dialogue that was said by the actors that played the Clutter Family in the film what was actually said to the real Hickox and Smith in that moment?  I think it probably was.  Brooks once said that Capote’s book was “The Orange” and the film was “The Orange Juice”, and I don’t think the film could’ve captured that crime any more realistically then it did.  

Did the Clutter’s actually succumb that easily to Hickox and Smith?  Yeah, they probably did.  I think Capote was able to capture that intimacy because of how close he was in his relationship with Perry Smith.   

BOZUNG:  Then there’s also that interesting sexual tension in the film between Hickox and Smith…

WILSON: I don’t think we ever talked about that to be honest.   You just got that sense with that dialogue, “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart…”  Then there was that moment in the Clutter girl’s bedroom when Hickox goes in and Smith pulls him away.  Before we shot that scene, we had just broken for lunch and I went to Brooks and said, “I think he should say “OK, Honey.”  If you’re going to have him say that throughout the film then he should say it in that moment too.”

BOZUNG:  Is there any truth to what I’ve read about Richard Brooks buying the actual urinals that the real Hickox and Smith used in prison after they were executed.

WILSON:  Yeah, he bought them and had them installed on the prison set that we shot on.  He was really trying to recreate the whole thing.  He wanted to create the crime in essence on film.  He wanted to capture what Capote had captured in his book.   There was a scene in the film that we shot, where Robert Blake gets off the bus with his box, and Brooks brought in the entire Kansas City football team for that.  He didn’t bring them in because he was a football fan, he brought them in because he wanted to diminish Perry Smith.  Brooks wanted him to appear smaller than everyone else.  He wanted to create something psychological.  You only notice it subconsciously as the audience, and that for me, is what acting is all about too.