An Interview with William Sadler

by Paul Booth

Bring up the name William Sadler in any conversation and you immediately invoke images of tarring the Shawshank prison roof with Andy, Red and Heywood, or think back to when Colonel Stuart joined the list of deadly enemies who tried to pit their wits against Detective John McClane. The Shawshank Redemption and Die-Hard 2 are only two titles out of almost 150 that the popular and hard-working William Sadler is known for.

Mr Sadler was gracious enough to grant INFLUX Magazine some of his time, and answer a few questions by phone and email, regarding his new movie The Historian, and also about his time working on The Shawshank Redemption. In The Historian Sadler plays a troubled Professor trying to meet life on life’s terms and like all of his work, the performance is filled with depth and nuance.

Paul Booth: Please tell us what attracted you as an actor and as a person to this character, and the film itself? You play Professor Valerian Hadley; was it easier because an actor is like a professor? Both teach; enhance our world; have to remember a lot facts; know their craft; perform for an audience.

William Sadler: I found this character intriguing.  That’s my Achilles’ heel as an actor.  I’m always drawn to characters who are not easy to understand. They make you dig for the truth about them. They sometimes do awful things, but for very human reasons.  That’s how I felt about Hadley.  From the opening scene where he scares the crap out of a student, by acting out a crucifixion with him, I started asking “why?”  “What is it he’s going through in his life that makes him do something like that?”  I’m fascinated by those sort of human puzzles.  Hadley was a challenge in several ways.  Not a very likeable person at all, but hopefully, a fully-drawn “human” person.

PB: You are known and well-respected for so many roles, including Die Hard 2. In that film you play a terrorist who takes over a Washington D.C. airport and purposely kills civilians. Since 9/11 has now occurred, would you take this role today?

WS: I would think twice before taking that role today.  After 9/11, that particular form of terrorism–killing hundreds of people by deliberately crashing planes–hits a little too close to home for simple summer action entertainment.  Even all these years later, the trauma of that day is too fresh and too painful.  It would feel disrespectful to capitalize on it for the sake of movie box office.

PB: You mentioned your work in The Historian took around 7-10 days, and you’re in most of the movie. Was there any scene–besides the scene that would spoil the plot–where you felt like you needed more hours or extra takes?

WS: Miles was great about letting the actors have another take if we felt we needed one.  But the pressure of shooting all that material in such a short time does put a strain on everyone.  Part of what you’re doing as an actor on the set is “finding the scene.”  You understand it on the page to some degree,  but an awful lot of discovery happens once you put it on its feet with other actors, on a real set.  Some of the most interesting or telling actions are “happy accidents” that were only found when you actually get on your feet and play the scene.  There is almost no rehearsal on a film set. You walk it through a couple times with the director, get an idea of the shape of the action, then “block” the scene so the camera and sound people, etc., know where you’re going to be. Then they set the lights and we shoot it; period.  Most TV and film gets shot that way.  You have to squeeze a lot of exploration into those few minutes before they start to roll.  The Shawshank Redemption was an exception. We had about a week-and-a-half of actual rehearsal in the prison before the cameras rolled.  It was a huge help.

PB: What is it like to lead an ensemble? I know you respect that everyone is on the same playing field to make the movie, but how much pressure is added when the crux is on your back?

WS: I love being engaged that fully in the process. I’ve played small supporting roles and they can be wonderful.  But they’re a different kind of challenge.  You have a job to do and you bring your best stuff to the table. But playing a leading role gives you a chance to help shape the entire project.  Your investment in it is greater.  It’s not a weight that you carry, as much as an opportunity; a challenge to rise to.

PB: We previously discussed this on the phone (the capability of humans), but your direct explanation was so good, I was hoping we could briefly touch on it again. What is your acting tool to play such an opposite of what most humans are? We’ve seen you play a convict and a terrorist, and here your character is a felon.

WS: Actors are always trying to find the humanity in their characters, no matter how twisted or “evil” they may seem. I am, anyway. If the writing is good, that humanity is right there on the page.  If it’s not, then it’s a puzzle, I have to figure out what’s under that action, what’s driving them so I can make them breath.  It’s maybe my favorite part of the process; trying to understand what moves my character’s hearts’ to do or say what they’re doing or saying.

PB: Your character has a tough relationship with life, himself and his co-workers, which requires such a range of emotion and control. Does your training as a musician and understanding of timing, give you most of your ability to be on track, or is music a side part of you? Do you feel you are more of an actor who can use his musical side, or are you a musician with actor training? It is always intriguing when an artist has both.

WS: Music was my first love and I think it informs everything else I do. I hear it everywhere.  Acting certainly feels like music sometime. The scenes with John Cullum in The Historian, for example, feel like little duets.  The song goes back and forth between us, and together we find the tone, the intensity, the pace, the climax, all of it.  It’s also just great fun to sing with people as gifted as John.  You trust them completely. You can leap because you know he will be there.

PB: You are well-known for playing the character Heywood in that timeless and much-loved classic The Shawshank Redemption. What is it like as an actor to be part of a movie that will never die? Does it make an actor want to replicate it, or is there a sense of gratitude because you know your work will live forever?

WS: I mostly feel grateful that I was in the right place at the right time to be part of Shawshank.  We all knew when we were shooting it, that it was a strong script, but none of us knew it would go on to become what it became. Strong scripts can go off the tracks a hundred ways in the process.  Casting, directing, editing, the music, any one of them can kill a good script.  It’s amazing.  Frank once told me he felt as if “we caught lightning in a bottle.”  That sounds about right.  Here we are twenty-years out, and still when I see Tim or Morgan or Frank Darabont now, we shake our heads and say, “Can you believe it?”

PB: Can you tell us Shawshank fans your favorite story from making it? Or a favorite scene or maybe your favorite moment with Tim Robbins or Morgan Freeman?

WS: Between camera setups, we all sort of gathered around James Whitmore, to listen to his “war stories.” Priceless. My other favorite  memory was Morgan and I singing Do0-wop songs in the yard. You can’t stump the man. His musical memory is encyclopedic.  You asked about the music influencing the work? It was everywhere in this film.

PB:  Back to The Historian; you mentioned you have acted and directed in a television show. For this film the other lead also wrote, produced and directed (Miles Doleac). What was the easiest and toughest part of playing scenes with your director, creator of your words and for all intents and purposes, your boss?

WS: I thought Miles did a terrific job at a very difficult task.  Watching him direct the camera crew, then handle a producer problem, like car rentals, or catering issues, and then step in front of the lens to act in a scene, was amazing.  It is not an easy balancing act. You have to give each of those jobs your full, undivided attention, then shift gears and give the next task your full, undivided attention.

PB: Here you play a teacher who is helping change the course of a student’s life. Can you repeat that great story or tell us about a teacher that means a lot to you or helped put your career on course?

WS: In 1968, I was in high-school back in Orchard Park, NY. I had an English teacher named Dan Larkin who said to me, “why don’t you try out for our senor play this year.”  The play was Harvey and he cast me as the lead, Elwood P. Dowd.  I loved it.  Then a month or so later he said, “why don’t you try out for my community theater group production of The Subject Was Roses.”   I did, and got the role of Timmy, the troubled son in a dysfunctional family. It’s a beautifully written, powerful, Pulitzer prize-winning drama, and for a farm boy with some family issues of my own to work out, it was an epiphany.  I was hooked.  Mr. Larkin then helped my get into S.U.N.Y. Geneseo, where I started my formal training, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fast forward to 2005.  I was playing Julius Caesar on Broadway with Denzel Washington, and Dan Larkin’s daughters brought the now elderly gentleman all the way down from Buffalo to see a matinee.  After the show I brought them back stage to meet Denzel and walk around the great old Belasco Theater.  Then finally, later over lunch, I got a chance to say thank you to the teacher who single handedly changed the course of my life.  We had come full circle.

PB: Thank you for sharing such an inspiring moment of your life with our readers. Are there any upcoming projects you could  tell us about?

WS: I’m currently filming a terrific script called ‘Ava’s Possession,’ and when I’m not acting, I’ve started lending my services as spokesman for a wonderful nonprofit charitable organization called Healing The Children North East. You can check us out at

First ran 18 June 2014