Bright Lights Film Journal

A Man for All Seasons: An Interview with Dean Cain

Dean Cain. All photos courtesy of Steven Woolf / The I.P.A. Network

I feel like I get to go and play at it now. I mean, I take it very seriously and I do the work. But it feels more like play now. I’m not operating out of fears like, “What’s the right career move to make? How do I build a career just right?” I’ve thrown all that out. Now my main goal is to be part of stories that I really find interesting. I had a lot of fears as a young man. Now I don’t. I’m excited for what the future will bring.

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Since soaring to fame as the Man of Steel in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997), Dean Cain has defied the specter of typecasting to forge an impressively diverse and prolific career. His films run the gamut from sunshine noir (Out of Time, 2003) and gay romance (The Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy, 2000) to faith-based drama (God’s Not Dead, 2014) and festive family comedy (The Dog Who Saved Christmas franchise, 2009-2015). He navigates nimbly between film and television. And he periodically adopts, in true polymath fashion, the roles of director, producer, and screenwriter. It is as a screen actor, though, that Cain has found his richest mode of expression. Possessing the star-wattage of a matinee idol, he assumes with ease the mantle of romantic hero; yet he also excels in “character” roles devoid of glamor or charisma. If he often radiates likeability, he is equally capable of repelling audience sympathy (as in The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story [2004]). Not least, Cain has perfected an understated, naturalistic style of screen performance, artfully effacing the mechanics of his technique.

Screenshot from the trailer for The Way Home (2010)

Born in 1966 in Mount Clemens, Michigan, Cain was raised in California, where his adoptive father (Christopher Cain) was directing films. At age eighteen he attended Princeton University, majoring in History. He turned to acting after an injury stymied his prospects as a pro football player. Minor turns in television (and an extensive string of auditions) culminated in his breakthrough role in ABC’s Lois & Clark, which became a ratings success during its four-season run. Critics dubbed the series “Superman meets Moonlighting” thanks to its sophisticated blend of action adventure and romantic comedy.1 Marketed as a love triangle between two people, Lois & Clark owed its success to the peppy interplay between Cain and co-star Teri Hatcher, their verbal sparring but a thin veneer on their mutual attraction.2 To the dual role of Superman and Clark Kent, Cain brought a credible mix of greenhorn naiveté, clear-headed intellect, and innate moral fortitude.

Lois & Clark marked a conceptual departure from its live-action predecessors, enabling Cain to deepen the character emotionally. Whereas Christopher Reeve’s Superman contrives his alter-ego as a civilian disguise, Cain’s Superman is more symbol than essence: “Superman is what I can do,” he says. “Clark Kent is who I am.”3 This revisionist maneuver allowed Cain to minimize Clark Kent’s klutziness and highlight his humanity, in the process harking back to George Reeves’ portrayal in the television serial Adventures of Superman (1951-1957). Though Lois & Clark became Warner Brothers’ most successful show in foreign markets, the series came to an end in 1997 for reasons discussed by Cain below.

Ever industrious, Cain launched his film career.4 His willingness to play gay characters in both Best Men (1997) and The Broken Hearts Club betrayed a desire to thwart typecasting. But these films offered acting challenges too. In The Broken Hearts Club, for instance, Cain achieves a slippery feat: he makes his gay protagonist – a hedonistic, self-absorbed, philandering jock – seem both pathetic and endearing, disarmingly oblivious to the trail of broken hearts left in his wake. The film itself, moreover, represented a beacon in gay independent cinema. Departing from the New Queer Cinema’s apocalyptic tropes (disease, death, homophobia, self-loathing), The Broken Hearts Club flaunts a breezy, upbeat tone, meshing the norms of heterosexual romcom and rites-of-passage youthpic. (Not for nothing did critics dub the film “St. Homo’s Fire.”)

Cain subverted his heroic screen persona in Carl Franklin’s race-against-the-clock thriller Out of Time (2003).

In the early 2000s Cain experimented with his persona still further, delivering a string of performances that tested audience sympathy. In ticking-clock thriller Out of Time, Cain plays a seedy former athlete pitted against his wife’s illicit lover, who happens to be the local chief of police (played by Denzel Washington). The cat-and-mouse encounters between Cain and Washington bristle with masculine intensity. Overall, Cain gives an admirably risky performance, wholly discarding the crutch of likeability. More ambivalent is his portrayal of real-life killer Scott Peterson in The Perfect Husband. Unnervingly capturing Peterson’s physical traits, Cain hints that Peterson’s opacity – the poker face that triggered the media’s suspicions – masks something deeper than guilt: the absence of human empathy. In Cain’s portrait, Peterson is an emotional void, a superficially charming sociopath bereft of feeling. Then there is Lost (2004), a twist-laden crime thriller in which allegiance with the Cain protagonist turns on a dime. Here again the actor excels in a role that stretches the viewer’s compassion to a limit.

His versatility firmly established, Cain has latterly returned to the Superman universe. Major roles in Smallville (2001-2011) and, most recently, Supergirl (2015-date) testify to his status within the Superman canon. Beyond the world of Superman – a character marking its 80th anniversary in 2018 – Cain’s recent output includes the sleeper hit God’s Not Dead and the politically contentious (and as yet unreleased) drama Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer. Cain remains one of the most in-demand and hardest-working actors in Hollywood. In the following interview, he discusses his trademark roles, the pragmatics of building a career in Hollywood, and the technical craft of screen acting.

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I: BEGINNINGS

Cain (left) turned to acting after a knee injury curtailed his football career.

When you were starting out as an actor, whose work did you admire? Which actors were important to you?

You know, I grew up around a lot of actors – people like Chris Penn, Sean Penn, Rob Lowe, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Holly Robinson – but I didn’t think about becoming an actor myself. I went to college instead; I was a History major at Princeton. But I had actually done a number of films beforehand, because my father was a director and I learned a lot just by being on set. Every job that ever had to be done on set, I would do: being a gopher, getting coffee, working in the edit room, holding the boom – I did all sorts of jobs, and so I came to understand the process of filmmaking. I was raised around film. I wasn’t thinking that I was going to be a person in film. I thought I was going to be a professional American football player and go to college – and I did that, but then all of a sudden my football career was all gone and I started inching toward acting. When I was younger, I admired Tom Cruise in Top Gun [1986]. I thought that his performance was cool, it was interesting, but I didn’t grasp it as acting. I don’t think I started to appreciate what actors really did until after college, when I went to acting class. One of the first actors I ever admired was Denzel Washington. This was during his early years in films. Even in films like Ricochet [1991], I would think, “That guy’s amazing.” I just loved his ease. And down the line, I was fortunate enough to act opposite him.

Your father is a director, your mother an actress; and as you say, you grew up around the Hollywood film industry. Did you feel an affinity for acting even before you embarked on an acting career?

I certainly had an affinity for it. It was fun for me to watch the guys I knew in real life playing fictional characters. I was on set when my dad was directing Young Guns [1988], and I saw all these kids who weren’t cowboys by any stretch of the imagination – they couldn’t ride a horse to save their lives, but they became cowboys. I was watching these kids that I knew so well pretending to be these characters, and the truth is, it was fun. Acting can be really fun. I didn’t realize the work aspect of it – and it is work – until I started starring in a television series, Lois & Clark.

What was your life as an actor like before Lois & Clark?

I started out by taking the regular route: auditioning for commercials. As soon as I stopped taking acting class and decided to just be natural, I started to book commercials like crazy. For four years, as I was trying to develop into an actor, I was doing a lot of commercials. Then I started guest-starring on a couple of different shows: Life Goes On [1989-1993], where I played a Hawaiian; A Different World [1987-1993], where I was a racist kid from another school; and then Beverly Hills, 90210 [1990-2000], and that was the one that clicked. That sort of tipped me over the edge. That’s when I felt something changing. I was getting a lot more call-backs, and then Lois & Clark came up. In those early days my concern was basically to get a job and pay the rent, and the first opportunity that “hit” was the job I was going to take. And it happened to have been Superman.

II: LOIS & CLARK AND THE SUPERMAN UNIVERSE

Lois & Clark: Dean Cain in the series that launched his career.

By the early 1990s the Superman film and television franchises had fizzled, and the actors that had portrayed the character struggled to overcome typecasting. Did you have any reservations about taking on the role?

I had zero reservations at first, because I didn’t think I was going to get the role. It was just another audition. I was the first person that the producers saw in session. In the room was Robert Butler, who directed the first episodes of Hill Street Blues [1981-1987]. He was known as “the pilot maker”: if he directs the pilot, it’s going to be picked up as a series. Deborah Joy LeVine, who created the show, was there too, along with a casting director. It was a small room, very intimate, and they were all sitting on a little couch. They said, “Did you read the script? What did you think?” I said, “Yes, I read it last night, and I think I have a different take on the character.” Robert Butler said, “Great, let’s see it.” So I did the read, and then I left. Normally after you do an audition you get feedback quickly: you hear something either that day or the next day at the very latest. But on this occasion, there was nothing. Just crickets. It turned out that the producers were concerned about my age, because I looked so young. Eventually I got a call asking me to go back in. And then it started to be a little more work. I’d go in and do scenes with other actors. Teri Hatcher was in there, though I never was paired with her. After that, I had to audition for the network executives, who were testing myself and one other actor for Superman: Kevin Sorbo. I love Kevin, he’s a great guy, but he’s a different kind of actor than me. I ended up overhearing his audition through the door. You try not to. But he was playing the role completely differently than me. And I thought, “Hmm, I think I’ve got the inside track here!” Les Moonves, who was the president of what was then called Warner Brothers Television, was the one who said, “That kid – let him do it.” He gave me the nod; he made the choice to cast me. And so it ended up that I got the part, and it was great. This was on a Wednesday or Thursday, and then I had to return the following Monday and read with ten Lois Lanes in a row in front of the network. Teri Hatcher came in and was amazing.

Critics praised your “chemistry” with Teri Hatcher, as if chemistry is something mystical or fortuitous. I tend to think that this downplays the work that actors must do to create energy between them. Was chemistry something the two of you had to actively cultivate and develop over time?

Chemistry is a mystical thing, in a weird way. There was an attraction between Teri and I, there’s no question. And there was a respect. Again, Teri and I didn’t audition together; they cast me first. She finally went to network with two other Lois Lanes and there were only two Supermen – myself and Kevin Sorbo. I worked with both the other Loises and never got to work with Teri. They never put us together. So it was really interesting, the way Robert Butler and the producers worked. But I think they can see chemistry. Yes, there’s a lot of work that goes into it as an actor, but then there is something else that happens when two people are together, and I just don’t think it’s a tangible thing. I can tell when there is a spark between actors. You can see it happen when you’re in a scene. I think if Teri and I didn’t have any spark together, if there wasn’t a magic or a chemistry, the show would have died immediately. It’s funny, Teri was a much better actor than I was when we started, for sure. I put her abilities way above mine. I would just try to be natural and react. She had a lot more savvy and a lot more experience. She was great, and it was really easy to play off of her and the things that she did. I really enjoyed that.

The sparkling interplay between Cain and co-star Teri Hatcher was the bedrock of Lois & Clark’s popularity.

You told the producers in your audition that you had a fresh take on the character. What exactly was the concept that you took into that first audition?

I felt that the character was shouldering huge responsibility. That was Clark’s secret. He knew he was the most powerful being on earth, and he was juggling that responsibility with the desires and ambitions of a young man. “Listen, I can do all this amazing stuff. Why can’t I just do it? Why can’t I just be ‘the man’?” It was that shouldering of responsibility that I thought maybe other actors wouldn’t bring to the role. Truthfully, I really respected the character. And there was probably an innocence in me that came through without my realizing it, a quality that I think is so important in the character. Melissa Benoist has that same quality in Supergirl. It’s an honesty and earnestness, and that’s what I think Superman and Supergirl have to have. Henry Cavill is wonderful as Superman, but I don’t see that innocence in him. It’s not that Henry doesn’t have that quality as an actor, but that’s not what Zack Snyder wants to do with the character.5 They want to do something completely different, making Superman an angst-ridden Christ figure. And that’s not my favorite take on the character.

Compared to Christopher Reeve’s dual portrayal,6 the line between Clark Kent and Superman in your characterization…

[Laughs] What line?

Exactly – you purposely didn’t contrive as strong a contrast between Clark Kent and Superman as Reeve did. When Jack Nicholson was asked about playing the Joker in Batman (1989), he said the key to his characterization was to “just let the wardrobe act.”7 Were you relying chiefly on physical elements – costume, hair, make-up – to differentiate Superman’s two identities?

That’s brilliant by Nicholson; that’s why he’s Nicholson, I suppose. Without knowing it, absolutely, that’s what I was doing. Superman was not the character. The character was Clark Kent, and Superman was his disguise. That’s the key difference between my version and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal. My version of Clark Kent was much closer to George Reeves’ version of Clark Kent, and I borrowed from Christopher Reeve for Superman. Yes, letting the wardrobe act … and it’s quite a wardrobe! It was just spandex; there was just tights. Nowadays they cheat. It’s just not fair. I’m not saying Henry Cavill is not in incredible shape. But he’s got more than just spandex on. I have a little bit of costume envy, I’m not going to lie. [Laughs]

You mentioned earlier the punishing work schedule of television stars.

When you star in a series, my friend, that is your entire existence. There is no room for anything else. On Lois & Clark I averaged probably six hours of sleep a night every night, and then I was right back on set. I would be on set anywhere from eighteen to twenty-two hours. The clock would keep moving backwards. Every week, nine-and-a-half months a year, four years in a row. It never stopped.

Screenshot from Lois & Clark

What was your physical regime during the production of Lois & Clark?

Well, I was an athlete through and through. I was the top athlete in my high school, which was a major athletic high school. I was the top athlete at Princeton. I shared that distinction with one other guy who was an Olympian. When I was cast as Superman in Lois & Clark I was a little skinnier than they wanted me to be. They wanted me to bulk up, so I would just try to lift weights and work out as much as possible. But I would just do it in between things. I couldn’t take the time to do cardio because I was always working – no way could I have an hour to do cardio. I would go and play basketball or something. It helped that I was twenty-seven years old. The studio didn’t give me any special dispensation. They didn’t give me an earlier call time. They did pay for a trainer for me, and they did pay for a nutritionist. Anybody who does body-awareness research knows that abs are built in the kitchen, not in the weight room. And I was eating all the time. It just became a means to end. “Feed the beast.” I was in fantastic shape, but it was a hard, hard thing to keep up. I remember it was a struggle.

Two stars of the 1950s Adventures of Superman series, Jack Larson and Phyllis Coates, guest-starred in Lois & Clark. Did they talk to you about working on that series with George Reeves?

Oh, yes. Jack Larson, bless him. I had to physically carry Jack in Lois & Clark. He was heavier than I thought he’d be. I had to carry everybody on that show. I had to carry Penn Jillette when Penn was 270 pounds. I could feel the bones in my ankles going “Errkk.” And I had to carry Teri all day every day. She didn’t weigh anything, and because she was so slight and thin she made me look huge. But Jack Larson told some unbelievable stories. We had people like Tony Curtis and Raquel Welch on the show. I would sit down, shut my mouth, and just listen to them. When Jack Larson came on, he started telling stories about the 1950s Superman show. He said, “You know, we used to take the latest lunches in all of Hollywood. We would not break until we had three-quarters of our day done, because after lunch there was a certain actor [i.e., Reeves] who was not going to be worth much, because he has a five-martini lunch every day.” Unbelievable! Phyllis was much more reserved with the stories she told, but just to be around her was incredible.

The marketing campaign for Lois & Clark emphasized the youth and sex appeal of its two lead actors.

Some reports cite poor ratings as the reason for Lois & Clark’s cancellation in 1997. But the show had been picked up for a fifth season, hadn’t it?

We were definitely picked up for a fifth season. Tony Jonas was the president of Warner Brothers Television at the time. I remember he brought Teri and I into his office, and said, “There are two giant-screen TV sets in there for you – we have been picked up for season five, here we go.” First of all, I loved the giant-screen TV. I don’t think Teri was so happy with the TV. “I’d rather have jewelry” – she said something like that. I remember she left, actually, and I said to Tony: “Tony, if she doesn’t want her TV I’ll take that one too!” Tony said, “Dean, get out of my office.” [Laughs] We were picked up for season five. We weren’t cancelled because of falling ratings. They had started to move our time slot around, which is always a dangerous thing. There was plenty of on-set strife going on, and that makes it a little bit more difficult to continue a show. And then Teri got pregnant and literally had a doctor’s note saying that filming was detrimental to both her health and that of her unborn child. I remember saying to Tony, “Listen, let’s do season five with limited amounts of Lois. Have her be pregnant. Maybe she’s pregnant with Clark’s baby.” Tony said, “No, it’s Lois and Clark; we’re not going to do that.” And there it is: it was over. The truth of the matter is – at that time, for me – it felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I suddenly had time – to do anything, to breathe. I didn’t have to be on set tomorrow morning at 5 a.m. and be looking at the clock thinking, “If I go to bed now I’ll get seven hours of sleep,” every minute of every day. I was on set filming a movie in Toronto when I heard that the show was cancelled, and I was happy. I was ready to do season five and I wanted to. But I was quite happy.

How would you characterize the show’s legacy?

Well, it’s something that I’m extremely proud of. I think the story holds up and the romance holds up. And I can’t tell you how often people come up to me and say, “Listen, I was really bullied as a kid and I would go home and I would watch Lois & Clark, and your character would give me the strength to get through it.” That is something I never thought of at the time. It’s an amazing thing to be able to have an effect on people’s lives. It was a seminal part of their upbringing. But I don’t know what the show’s legacy is, or how it will be couched in the history annals. I think the show was in that Moonlighting [1985-1989] vein, but at the same time it was the only show that was carrying the superhero banner back in the early 1990s. At the time, it was a controversial venture – boy, a lot of people made fun of it, the idea of Superman coming back on television. “It’s going to be terrible” – we heard a lot of that, so we felt a little of that pressure. But the series wasn’t about Superman, it was about Lois and Clark, and we felt comfortable with the characters. I hope that the show’s legacy is as a real strong nineties show that, if you look back at it now, is pretty progressive. You know, it was Lois & Clark – she was certainly the first name in the title, and she was not a pushover of a woman by any stretch of the imagination. She was a very liberated, strong female character. Lois & Clark wasn’t about the patriarchy in any way, shape, or form. Lois ran stuff, and Clark was perfectly fine with her doing that. He wasn’t going to play his “man” card, even though he’s the most powerful being on Earth.

And unlike in many earlier iterations, Lois penetrates Clark’s disguise. She isn’t duped for long.

I wish we could have explored that further. I wish we had taken better risks on the show. Once Lois and Clark were married, I wish they could have had kids and started down that road, allowing us to create something that hadn’t been done before. We did the whole faux marriage plotline, and then Lois was a clone, and some weirdness – I can’t even really remember that plotline, because I didn’t like it so much.8 It’s one of those dark memories that I decided to just forget about. It just didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to go forward and explore new territory. I thought that would be really interesting.

In 2007 Cain (here pictured opposite Tom Welling) guest-starred in CW’s Smallville.

When you went to work on Smallville and Supergirl, did you feel any sense of continuity with the world you had established in Lois & Clark? Or did you regard each series as an entirely separate endeavor?

Well, Smallville I see more as a separate endeavor. Smallville was a different world. It was fun to do, but it was certainly a different animal. But I think that Supergirl is much more along the lines of Lois & Clark – it’s in the same vein, it feels much more like the same universe. So when I go on to Supergirl, it does feel like the same world. It’s a little more serious than our world was, because they’re dealing with more serious issues. I don’t know that they necessarily have to, but they are. And they’re doing it well. I do like some levity, though, in those shows.

Melissa Benoist, Chyler Leigh, and Cain in CW’s adventure series Supergirl.

Do you see yourself as part of a continuum that includes Christopher Reeve, George Reeves, Kirk Alyn, and others that have played Superman?

Absolutely, I do. I see myself in that realm. I see Melissa Benoist in that realm. I think Tyler Hoechlin is in that category as well. I like Tyler’s Superman a lot. The Brandon Routh and the Henry Cavill versions – it’s not their fault, but I don’t see them in that same vein, because they did different things with the character.9 The group of actors that you mentioned – their versions of Superman have a tonally different feel than Man of Steel [2013] and Batman v Superman [2016]. I didn’t really love Superman in either one of those incarnations.

Truth, justice … and the American way?

These recent big-screen portrayals of Superman have not been particularly well received. How do you respond to the view that Superman is no longer relevant to the times we live in?

I think Superman will always be a relevant character. There is a thing about it, though, that does rub people the wrong way. Superman upheld three things: truth, justice, and the American way. Now in this globalist world, people get very upset about saying “the American way” – but the American way is about freedom. It’s the freedom part that people have a real problem with. The American way is supposed to be based on equality of opportunity for everybody. Superman would never choose one person over the other because of their gender or their sexual orientation or their religion. He would do what is fair and just for everybody. The way he is being played these days, though, is not in that same ilk. You know, when they’re flying through the buildings in Man of Steel, as impressive as that is, it results in a thousand dead people. Superman would never allow that to happen, because those are innocents being killed, and that has always been his greatest weakness: he’ll protect the innocent. His goodness is his weakness. Superman would do anything he could to stop civilians being hurt. He’d put himself in peril first. That’s a selfless, wonderful thing, and I think that Superman will always be relevant.

III: THE BUSINESS

You launched your film career as Lois & Clark was coming to an end. How did you handle the transition from television to film?

Well, I’ll say this: when you transition from having played a very iconic television character, there is always the perception that you’re not going to be able to move on. If you play Superman, that’s all anybody is going to see you as. Or if you play Joey in Friends [1994-2004], that’s all you’ll be seen as. As an actor, that is something you’re going to have to fight against. I did feel a certain pressure in that sense, because I hadn’t played anything else. I hoped the audience would like me in other roles. That’s always the big question: will the audience accept you? Television is a great way to make money and it’s great steady work. You see so many film actors doing it now because of that. When I did Out of Time, Denzel made $20 million and I made less than my rent for the honor of being on the screen with him. Now, he commanded the $20 million; he deserved it. But you can’t make a living as a character actor or as a supporting actor in some of those films, because they really pay peanuts. Now film salaries have dropped quite a bit, and a lot of actors are moving to television because there’s a lot of money there. At the end of the day, it’s a business. Actors are always asked, “Why did you choose this role?” I would bet that 95 out of 100 times, the actors took the role because they needed the work. It’s a job like any other job. Michael Caine is my hero for this. When they said to him, “You were just nominated for an Academy Award for this film; why would you go and make a dreadful movie immediately afterward?” he said, “Because I’m an actor. I act. I have to go to work.”

That was probably Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Jaws: The Revenge (1987).

Good for him. And he bought a house in the country, you know what I mean? That’s brilliant. [Laughs] I can’t fault anybody for doing that. There are some true auteurs out there. But it’s a business too, and there is a balance in there. I’m not that precious about it. And I’m of the ilk that says, “Work begets work.” I’m in the Michael Caine school. Jaws IV – God bless him. I don’t have a problem with it.

It’s refreshing to hear an actor talking this way. It seems to me that you’re describing the reality for most working actors…

Of course it’s a reality. You can be nominated for an Academy Award and everybody thinks you’re amazing, but you can’t pay your rent. Think about Moonlight [2016]. You think any of those guys made any money out of the movie? No. These are people who are now on the world stage who still can’t command a price because nobody knows them. They got nominated for an Academy Award – great, but does that mean anybody will go to the cinema to see them? It’s a business at the end of the day. And there are not a whole lot of people who make the decisions as to who can be in these films. If you get on the wrong side of those people – and I’m sure I’ve gotten on the wrong side before – you’re not going to be in those films. That’s the business part of it. And if people think that Hollywood is not a business and it’s just art, they’re fooling themselves. It’s unfortunate; I wish it were just art but that’s not the nature of the beast. Never has been, by the way. As much as we all wish it could be raised to that level.

Cain appeared alongside US Navy SEAL Chris Ryan (left) in NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes (2012).

You say that you may have found yourself on the wrong side of executives at certain times in the past. What do you attribute this to?

It’s entirely possible that they saw me speaking on a political show and decided they didn’t want to hire me just based on my political views. That is just part of the deal. I’m an independent, but everyone considers me to be very right-wing. And I’m not. But I am going to be true to what I believe, and if someone doesn’t want to hire me because of my political views, I will not lose a wink of sleep over it. In fact, I’ll sleep better as a result. As the times move on from the incredible political turmoil and polarization that we have now, I really believe that history will vindicate me in many ways. I do believe that some of the things I’m saying make a lot of sense. Things have gotten so polarized, but I refuse to cower or play the political correctness game. I’m just not of that ilk, and I never will be. And I’m too old now to shut my mouth. But I’m all for equality of opportunity for everybody. Not equality of outcome, though. I believe competition is a great, healthy thing, and I believe in the free market.

IV: THE BROKEN HEARTS CLUB, OUT OF TIME, AND THE PERFECT HUSBAND

One of the first films you starred in after Lois & Clark was The Broken Hearts Club.10

One of my favorite movies that I’ve ever been a part of. I had to fight to be in that film.

So I’ve heard. Why were the studio executives reluctant to cast you as Cole?

Well, Greg Berlanti wrote and directed it; it was his directorial debut. Greg is the executive producer of Flash [2014-date], Arrow [2012-date], Legends of Tomorrow [2016-date], Supergirl [2015-date], and maybe nine other shows. Greg wrote a smart, beautiful, romantic, funny, intelligent film. I read the script and within the first page I was laughing out loud. It was one of four scripts I had to read for the weekend, and I called my agent and said, “I love this one: The Broken Hearts Club.” He said, “Oh, okay, well, that’s an independent production; the people who are making it are literally not making any money on it.” And I said, “I don’t care. Let me go in and read for this.” A little later he called me back, and said, “We’re getting a little resistance. They just don’t see you as the character.” Anyway, my agent pushed it, and then I got to go in and read. And Tim Olyphant was in there and [producer] Mickey Liddell and Greg Berlanti. I came in and I read. I enjoyed it and the reading went great. And when I walked out, Tim turned to the guys and said, “Well, there’s Cole.” After the film was finished, Mickey Liddell said to me, “Dean, I’ll be honest, I did not want you. I did not see you as the character. But now having done the film, I can’t see anybody else in that role but you.” And ah, that felt like victory. That role spoke to me.

You played gay characters – in both The Broken Hearts Club and Best Men – at a time when leading men were actively discouraged from doing so (and perhaps they still are). Were you concerned about the potential repercussions on your career?

I do recall very clearly having a conversation with my agent, who said, “Listen, we’re not so sure you should do this. It could be a problem for you.” I said, “Why? Why would that be a problem? The character is brilliant.” You’re right: at the time, playing gay was met with disapproval. People would say, “No, you shouldn’t.” I’ve never been one to follow the rules. I always feel like I’ve gone with my gut; I do what I think is natural. That is the buzz rule: to thine own self be true. And I try to be true to myself, and that’s why I don’t have regrets. I didn’t worry about making a choice to play Cole. I’m supremely proud of being a part of that film. The script was just brilliant, and the one-liners were so funny: “No one would know that I was gay if it wasn’t for you and your cart of kitchenwares.” I would just howl with laughter. “Dumb gorgeous people should not be allowed to use literature when competing in the dating pool.” I can still remember 90% of the dialogue. It’s so clever and funny, and it still holds up.

In The Broken Hearts Club and Best Men you never “indicate” homosexuality through your vocal and bodily performance; in other words, you never resort to gay stereotypes.

I didn’t feel like it was a strong choice to make either of those characters obvious or camp or effeminate. First of all, I’m never going to out-lady Billy Porter on screen. But there’s a rainbow of different behaviors that people have, and I just felt like I knew Cole. I knew four guys like Cole. That’s why it wasn’t hard for me to turn that on. And listen, trying to bed men or women, it’s the same game – anybody who thinks it isn’t is out of their minds. Here’s the thing: even as much of a jerk as he is, you have to love Cole. I mean, he’s very self-centered, but he’s got such a sweet heart. He’s not doing anything out of spite or meanness. He gets the catcher’s phone number because he sees it as a challenge.11 At the same time, without trying to hurt him, he breaks this guy’s heart. But for Cole it’s a victory, because he got the catcher’s number. Unfortunately, he tends to cause a lot of collateral damage.

It must be very different working in an ensemble cast, as in The Broken Hearts Club, than working on a virtual one-hander like Lost. How do these two challenges differ?

For an actor, Lost was almost like an acting exercise. So much of the film is only me on a phone talking. I was terrified to make that film, because 85% of the time it’s just me on camera, and I thought if I screw up it’s going to be glaring. But when you’re the only person talking all the time, you just get comfortable talking. And there were times when I’d forget the fear and the technical challenges, and I just became immersed in the role. Some of the takes were very long, so I kind of got lost in it. I thought that Lost was a really smart, very cool film.

He got game: Cain squares up to Denzel Washington in Out of Time.

You’ve already mentioned Denzel Washington, your co-star in Out of Time. Did you learn anything valuable about acting with him that you’ve carried into your subsequent work?

When I worked with him, I literally watched every bit of preparation that he did. To watch him be so natural on camera, you just feel that he’s not acting. But when you watch him work, you realize that he’s done a heck of a lot of work in order to become that natural. I like to try to do something similar. I’m not saying I can be a Denzel Washington, but I like to work in a similar fashion. You know, it’s interesting: when you’re acting in television, you become very technical – you’re careful not to overlap your lines with the other actor, and things like that. But when you’re doing film and you’re working with someone like Denzel Washington, the technical rules just don’t matter. He’s going to do what he’s going to do, and you’re going to have to react to it. It makes you better as an actor because you just listen and do. And that’s really what actors are supposed to do. With Denzel, you’d better know your lines, his lines, what’s going on in the story, and everything about the scene, because he could throw anything at you and get right on top of you. Not let you talk. And it’s going to provoke a real response. So in that sense, it confirms an old saying: classically, acting is reacting. And to react opposite someone that good … I liken it to playing tennis with someone who is better than you. Your game elevates.

Actors often talk about “raising their game” when playing opposite seasoned players. How does this manifest exactly? How does an actor like Denzel Washington make you better?

He would try and get in my head a little bit. We were doing this one scene where our characters are in a bar, squaring up to each other. Between Denzel and I, it was like boxers in between rounds. “Ding, ding – cut.” Denzel would go over to his corner, I’d go over to my corner, and we wouldn’t talk. He’d add things and change things up, and my reactions would be real. The way he worked made me a much better actor. For example, he would always surprise me on set. There was one scene where I’m in the kitchen at night and I’m picking on my wife, played by Sanaa Lathan, and I’m starting to get physical with her. Denzel’s character comes and knocks on the front door. Now, when I open the door, his line was supposed to be, “Hey Chris, what’s going on?” We’re doing this scene – it was all shot in one long take – and I’m in there, I’m getting angrier and angrier with Sanaa, getting physical with her. Denzel knocks on the door, I rip the door open knowing full well that it’s going to be him, and with a really calm and snarky tone he says, “Hey, football player.” I was a football player in real life, and my character had been a football player. Denzel and I talked football all the time off camera. And he cut me to the core right there. I was thinking, “You son of a bitch!” And that reaction was written all over my face. He could have slapped me in the face it surprised me that much. Throughout the whole film, he would test me, and do all these little pokes and prods. And it would burn you a little bit more, and it just makes you better. When you work with an actor like that, you’re a fool not to shut your mouth and pay attention.

A menacing performance in the sultry neo-noir thriller Out of Time.

From a career point of view, did Out of Time change things for you?

Well, that film came at a time when I was a new father and I was in the middle of a custody battle. My agents were very good about that, because I had to turn down a lot of opportunities. I had to say, “No, I can’t even consider it, because I’m in the middle of a custody fight, and I won’t forego being a father for anything.” For the last seventeen years I haven’t taken a film that shoots longer than three weeks, except for Out of Time – fortunately, my son’s mother agreed to let me go do that film, and I appreciated that. I have not taken a television series that shoots outside of L.A. I’ll do bits and pieces on it, but I won’t take the whole series. There have been tremendous projects that I would have loved to have taken – Band of Brothers [2001] was one – but I just couldn’t do them. I wasn’t available to do them. Could Out of Time have been a career-changer? Yeah, but I wasn’t able to do it. Maybe I didn’t capitalize on it the way I could have. But it was a really difficult time, because I was locked in a very expensive, very confining custody case. And there was no question where my priorities lie. My priorities were with my son.

Whether or not as a result of Out of Time, you found another definitive role in The Perfect Husband.

I turned it down five times. They kept coming back to me with it. I remember my agent even said to me, “If you play Scott Peterson, people will be chasing you up and down the streets with pitchforks and torches.” And I said, “Yeah, I don’t want to be associated with this guy.” It was my dad that finally turned the corner on that one. He said to me, “Do you think you can be good in it?” I said, “Actually, I think I could be really good in it.” He said, “Well, are you an actor or not? Go to work.” So I took the job. And he was right. I was worried about perception. Actors – we’re all in the game of perception. I used to worry about that a lot, but I don’t worry about it anymore. Even though a lot of what you do in this business is about perception, I just think that other people’s perception – or the industry’s perception – of you as an actor can constantly change.

You shot the film while Peterson’s murder trial was still unfolding.

Day one of principal photography was day one of his pre-trial hearing. We were watching it unfold as we were shooting it. We’d shoot in the day, and then we’d come home and watch some of the footage from the pre-trial hearing and realize, “Oh, we’ve got to add this to the script” or “We’ve got to change that.” It was really surreal.

The role must have presented a rather singular acting challenge insofar as you didn’t know whether to play Peterson as innocent or guilty.

Cain invests the homicidal Scott Peterson with superficial charm in The Perfect Husband (2004).

We didn’t make a choice about that one way or the other. We played it straight across. The director, Roger Young, said, “Look, we’ve got to be careful here, because we can’t convict this guy, nor can we portray him as innocent – we have to really walk a line here.” I studied a lot of Peterson’s interviews. You’ve got to be careful when you’re playing a real person to not ape them. But his behavior in the interviews was so specific. So when we reenacted, say, the interview that he did with Diane Sawyer, I mimicked him. What he was doing was being a bad actor. It was amazing to watch him. I thought, “Oh my gosh, he is terrible – he’s trying to stick his talking points in there no matter what he is being asked.” I felt that he had been coached. That scene was the first thing I shot in the whole movie. And I only shot, I think, two takes. I did the first take and afterward it was dead quiet in the studio. Everybody was just like, “Holy shit.” And I could feel it; it was palpable. It was eerie. And from then on I was definitely Scott Peterson for the rest of the crew. But that was the key to the whole character: he was a bad actor. You never knew what was going on in his head. We didn’t have any of the information that came out after when they found the bodies – none of that stuff was available to us at the time.12

In retrospect, would you have played the role differently knowing what you now know, that Peterson was found guilty?

That’s a great question and I could not answer that. I don’t know the answer. Probably I would have. Probably the easy, weak choice for an actor would be to signpost a little bit that he is guilty. But at the time, I didn’t know if Peterson was lying. That was what made it really interesting to play. When they went to trial, I said, “I don’t know that they’re going to convict this guy, because there is no physical evidence.” I thought he was going to get off as a result. But he didn’t. Obviously, more information has come out that is really damning, and I certainly believe the man was guilty. But I didn’t know that at the time. From an acting perspective, I’m glad I didn’t know. It was a unique acting job in that sense. I was really proud of that performance.

You give him a quite distinctive, halting speech pattern.

He had that. I certainly borrowed that from him. It comes because he was always trying to think ahead; he would start to express one idea and then he’d switch to something else. He was a little scatterbrained in that way. I took mannerisms from him, of course. And I knew I resembled the guy. Again, I didn’t want to ape everything he did. But definitely I wanted the interview scene to look as close to the real footage as possible.

V: ACTING FOR THE SCREEN

Was Scott Peterson a role that was difficult for you to shed at the end of the working day?

No.

Are any of them?

No. Well no, that’s not entirely true. Most of the time, they are pretty easy for me to shed. Even at the end of the take. And I like to work that way. Again, I’m firmly in the Michael Caine school of acting. But there is a film I did called The Way Home [2010] – that was one of the harder ones for me to do. It was based on an actual event. I played the father of a missing young boy, and we were shooting it at the house where the actual situation took place. So, of course, as an actor you substitute your own situation – I imagined losing my own kid. I put myself in that headspace, and it was horrible. That was the only project that I was ever on where I had trouble getting away from it, maybe because I’d made that one so personal. I didn’t mean to. You try not to put those thoughts in your head, but they get in there. And as an actor, you sometimes have to access those thoughts, imagine that stuff, and make it real. Acting is being real in imaginary circumstances.13 And those imaginary circumstances can really become real to you, and they can get you. So I had trouble only on that one. Generally, though, I like to be able to bring myself back to a normal place. There are other actors who like to live it. I would never want to be a Daniel Day-Lewis, even though I think he’s brilliant. I don’t work that way. I like my life enough to not want to do that.

Let me ask you about your taste in acting. Do you admire a particular style of performance?

I admire underplaying as opposed to theatrics. There is a saying: acting on stage is twenty-feet across, so that the audience can see and hear it; acting on television is eight feet across; and acting on film is half an inch. And the little things that you can do on film can have tremendous impact. When you’re projecting across that whole screen space, the littlest eye twitch or movement – even a breath – can be so telling on the screen, whereas if you do that on stage no one sees it. I do prefer the naturalist style of acting. There are transformative actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, who probably speaks with an accent all day long and doesn’t break character. Sean Penn does a lot of similar things. That has just never been my style. I take off my hat to it, but there’s no burning desire for me to do that.

Faith-based drama God’s Not Dead proved a surprise box-office success in 2014.

Are you an actor who likes to give the director a lot of choice in the editing room by making each take different?

I don’t. I like to make a choice and stick with it. Now, if the other actor changes something, I’m going to react to that. I like to know my material really well, and then I like to just let it naturally happen and I make a choice. There are some actors who just don’t give the same performance twice. Now, as creative and genius as that might seem to some people, it’s a nightmare for the other actors. I can think of a number of actors right now that work that way. I always say to the director, “Listen: shoot their coverage first. Just shoot their side first, please, so that I have some idea what I’m reacting to.” Now, the greatest thing is when you can shoot multi-camera, and you and the other actor can just do a scene together. In that situation, anything the other actor does, I can react to. That’s brilliant. If I can react to what you’re doing, brilliant. That is what we’re supposed to be doing. But screen acting is a lot more technical than a lot of people realize. Let’s say you and I are doing a scene that is really intense. For the camera to capture our intensity, or even for the camera just to make it appear that we’re looking at each other, I can’t even look into your eyes; I have to look at your ear. That way my face is turned slightly toward the camera. That sort of technical stuff throws actors all the time. It drives them nuts.

Have you noticed how many actors don’t do that? You see a lot of screen actors looking in the wrong eye…

The farther eye?

Yes, where the intensity of their gaze is weaker.14 Or they may shift their eyes from side to side…

I hate the side-to-side.

It can be effective if there is an emotional motivation for it…

Right, if you’re playing uncertainty, or something like that. I always lock in on one eye. But I’ve always done that. At first, I didn’t realize it was a technique. You need a camera operator who is going to be looking at your performance aesthetically and saying, “Listen, you’ve got to look to the other actor’s ear, because that looks best on screen. I know it feels weird, but it looks right.” And you have to be able to do that, technically. Sometimes it’s a real pain in the tail, because you’re trying to do what you want to emotionally but you’re having to look at the ear, or the take mark on the camera, or the matte box. Or sometimes the other actor did their side and then they had to leave. I’ve seen that happen too. Denzel Washington never did that to me. Not one time. And he could have, because I wouldn’t have said a word. [Laughs] But yes, there are some technical aspects that some actors can just never get over. It ain’t always art.

Do you learn to be a better actor by watching yourself on screen?

That is an amazing question, because everybody has a different take on that. I was a football player. When you play football, especially at the high levels, you study a lot of game film. If you’re going to be guarder or receiver, you watch the way the player comes out of the huddle, you watch his body language, you watch the way he’ll either bring his split closer or wider depending on what route he might run. You study everything. So I became an absolute avid film watcher. I would learn by watching other players. And of course I would watch myself too. I would watch every step I took, every place I leaned, where I didn’t get someplace fast enough. Whatever it was, I watched every little bit. In that same vein, I do watch my acting. I think I make myself a better actor by watching and studying it the same way I studied film as a football player. However, that’s my method. I know tons of actors who can’t watch themselves at all. They don’t watch their movies. It’s interesting. I divorce myself from it when I’m watching myself on screen. I’m watching “me” as an actor, and thinking, “No, that moment seemed false” or “That seemed more real.” And I’ll say, “Take that little piece and use that again. That was a positive moment; use that one.” So I learn a ton by watching myself. But I find that my process is very different than a lot of other actors.

You’ve flouted the W.C. Fields adage that an actor should “never work with animals or children.”

Oh my gosh, I’ve flouted it horrifically.

Do you find working with children and animals, specifically in terms of their spontaneity, liberating?

Well, there is that aspect to it, and I love that. The reason they say “Don’t work with kids and animals” is because kids and animals are 100% committed to what they’re doing. They are never acting. It’s always 100% real. So all actors are like, “Gosh, I want to do that; I want to be that committed.” And it’s hard to do. Kids don’t care. But I love working with kids, I love working with animals. I have no problem with that sort of stuff. I have a lot of respect for W.C. Fields, but yes, I flout that rule over and over again. And will continue to do so.

In 1999 Cain sought greater production responsibility, both producing and presenting TBS’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

When you look back at your body of work, do you have a sense of autobiography? How far does your body of work represent your own personal tastes and interests at different stages of your life?

Well, the first thing I would say is, I truly believe that my career is still in its infancy. That is a weird thing to say for someone who is turning 51, I imagine, but I really feel like that’s the case. And I feel like some of my past work is very representative of the things I was going through and thinking about. Some of it isn’t. Sometimes it was a case of just going into the project with the mindset to do the best job I could. I don’t feel like most of what goes on in my brain has been represented yet. I feel like there is a lot more that I want to get out there; a lot more stories that I want to tell and be a part of as an actor, writer, producer, and director. I do really feel like, at this point in time, I’m graduating from high school. I feel like I get to go and play at it now. I mean, I take it very seriously and I do the work. But it feels more like play now. I’m not operating out of fears like, “What’s the right career move to make? How do I build a career just right?” I’ve thrown all that out. Now my main goal is to be part of stories that I really find interesting. I had a lot of fears as a young man. Now I don’t. I’m excited for what the future will bring.

* * *

This interview took place on 28 July 2017 in Kensington, London. Many thanks to Steve Woolf for assistance.

  1. Cited in Rhonda V. Wilcox (1996) “Dominant Female, Superior Male: Control Schemata in Lois and Clark, Moonlighting, and Remington Steele,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 24:1, pp. 26-33. []
  2. Already an established screenwriter, Cain wrote two episodes of Lois & Clark, including the whimsical “Season’s Greedings” [sic] (season 2, episode 9). []
  3. This line appears in “Tempus Fugitive” (season 2, episode 18). Lois & Clark’s reworking of its superhero protagonist owed a debt to writer-artist John Byrne’s comic-book reboot of Superman in the mid-late 1980s. See especially Byrne’s miniseries, The Man of Steel, published by DC Comics in 1986. []
  4. In the same years, Cain established his own production company, Angry Dragon Entertainment, and produced and hosted TBS’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not! (1999-2003). []
  5. To date, Cavill and director Snyder have collaborated on three films featuring Superman: Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and Justice League (2017). []
  6. Christopher Reeve played the eponymous hero in four Superman movies between 1978 and 1987. []
  7. Cited in Patrick McGilligan (2015), Jack’s Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, New York and London: W. W. Norton, p. 434. []
  8. Throughout the first three seasons, the series writers contrived various obstacles to romance and matrimony, including a diabolical love rival (Lex Luthor, played with brio by John Shea). These obstacles grew increasingly outlandish, much to the dismay of many viewers. Before reaching the altar, Lois would suffer amnesia, gain super powers, and be usurped by a frog-eating clone. []
  9. Hoechlin first appeared as Superman and Clark Kent in the second season of CW’s Supergirl. Routh played the dual role in Bryan Singer’s feature film Superman Returns (2006). []
  10. The Broken Hearts Club, filmed in 20 days on a $1 million budget, features an ensemble cast of actors that includes Timothy Olyphant, Billy Porter, John Mahoney, and Andrew Keegan. []
  11. Engaged in an amateur baseball match, Cole propositions the opposing team’s catcher (Kerr Smith) when he steps up to bat. []
  12. In 2004 Scott Peterson was sentenced to death for the murders of his wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn child. []
  13. Cain is paraphrasing an aphorism by Sanford Meisner, for whom the “definition of good acting” is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” For further information, see Sanford Meisner and Dennis Longwell (1987), Sanford Meisner on Acting, New York: Vintage Books. []
  14. For eye behavior and screen acting, see Michael Caine (1997), Acting in Film: An Actor’s Take on Movie Making, New York and London: Applause Theatre Books, pp. 59-61; and David Bordwell (2008), Poetics of Cinema, New York and London: Routledge, pp. 327-335. []