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By Mike Watt | June 2, 2006

New Yorkers have all the luck. This coming Friday, June 2nd, Jon Voight will be at the Village East Theatre for the premiere of his latest movie, the odd and exhilarating “The Legend of Simon Conjurer”. He’s holding a Q&A and an autograph session “for as many people as the theatre can hold” (so says the film’s official site: Hell, the first 25 people through the door get in free!

Some people reading this won’t be that thrilled with the news. They belong to a sad subsection of our culture who only know Voight as the father of Angelina Jolie (if they’re aware of him at all). The rest of us, those who love film and its rich history and all the talented artists involved, know him as “Midnight Cowboy”’s Joe Buck and “Deliverence”’s Ed Gentry, as well as the myriad of other memorable characters he’s played during his 40-plus-year career. With “Simon Conjurer”, Voight adds the latest persona to his canon, the brilliant and evil novelist/psychiatrist, Dr. Axel Crazx (pronounced “CRAY-zax”, in case the spelling didn’t give it away).

Looking very much like Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil”, buried under make-up and a fat suit, wolfing down chocolate bars in psychotic frenzy, Voight’s Crazx has a beef with the title character, a healer who organizes group-therapy for a variety of addicts. He feels that Conjurer is a blight on society, an abomination… this from the guy whose novel “Nothing Matters Except Death” is advocated by Saddam Hussein! The word “antagonist” springs immediately to mind. “Yes, there’s no other way to describe him,” Voight tells me as he drives across Manhattan to his next engagement. “He’s hiding a dark side, an evil side. He’s a psychologist and an award-winning novelist—a very popular fellow. He’s popular because he’s so negative. Look up on the internet all the novels he’s written—I recommend this because they’re very funny! ‘Life is Not Worth Living’. [laughs] ‘I’ve learned a lot from [Dr. Crazx] and look where it’s brought me!’ Saddam Hussein. They really are hysterical.”

Apparently, there is no correct way to describe this new film. Written and directed by “?” according to the poster and “Q. Mark” according to the Internet Movie Data Base, even the movie’s star seems hard-pressed to summarize the story. “It’s interesting… I just came back from talking to some students at Kingsboro Brooklyn College. Really neat to speak to the people there, the faculty and the kids. They asked how to describe the movie and I said ‘Well, it’s such an unusual movie; it’s difficult to put it into one category.’ The person said, ‘it’s part mystery, it’s part fantasy, it’s part psychological, part spiritual’—and I said ‘You’re right! It’s all of the above. And there’s also some humor in it. It’s very unusual, very interesting piece.’ So in describing it, I’d say that it may be best termed as a fable because it’s a very complex story, brings up many complex ideas and provokes many, many thoughts, but it does it in a very simple form. Which is what a fable does. The names—Dr. Crazx, Simon Conjurer—all have some playfulness to them.”

(At this point, Voight’s car passes through a tunnel and I lose contact with him. A few minutes later, my phone rings. “How’s the interview so far?” the actor asks with a laugh.)

“When someone does something totally original in this day and age it’s to be cherished, you know? And this piece is completely original and quite amazing. And there are some serious considerations there. It’s an intriguing, other kind of experience. We’re asking a different kind of thing from the audience. They’re going to come in to an adventure they’ve never been on before, and they’re going to be asked to ask questions and to explore something. There are many open-ending aspects to it, but there is a conclusion and a hopeful conclusion as well. So it’s a quite intriguing piece. When I got the screenplay I said, ‘Boy, this is a very extraordinary piece of work. It’s brilliant in its structure.’ I really think it’s quite special.”

And the actor insists that Crazx existed nearly in whole on the page when he received the script. “Pretty much, I delivered what Dr. Crazx is—I didn’t fool around with it. The speeches are very complex. You couldn’t improvise Dr. Crazx very much. He’s a lead character and he speaks in an extraordinary way. Here’s a piece of his dialogue in the midst of a river of dialogue: ‘Simon Conjurer is no less than a monster in disguise. A horrid incubation. Let us not wait for him to reach his full maturity.’ Very clever, you know? And like I said, this is at the end of a river of invective about this man’s character and activities. He goes on and on. It’s very ornate language.”

The labyrinthine dialogue was only one of the challenges Voight faced on “Conjurer”. Next comes the make-up that rendered him almost unrecognizable. If it weren’t for his trademark piercing blue eyes, one would be hard-pressed to pick him out of the cast of virtual unknowns that round out the rest of the cast. “It takes a while to get it on,” he says of the facial appliances. “And [the way we designed it] as an all-encompassing piece, it covers almost my entire face. I have some make up on my face as well—and then there’s the fat suit. As I was putting on the make-up I got closer and closer to the character. By the time it was all on, I felt like the fellow. I kind of played around with it. It made me feel quite funny, actually and strange. It was fun. You don’t always find the whole character until you put the makeup on and give it a shot. Of course, I’m doing a lot of other work outside of it, but the make-up helps you come to life.”

At first glance, the “Written and Directed by ?” may strike the callous film scholar as a clumsy marketing ploy, the last act of a desperate publicist. Indeed, the website even plays this aspect up with an article about the pursuit of the mysterious creator, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the lead character. Because this journalist is dedicated to the truth, he was able to discover the truth behind the auteur’s identity, but also knowing how to play the game, I ask if we’re going to keep this a secret for the purposes of this article. Voight laughs. “No, no, I’ll tell you who he is. His name is Stuart Paul and he’s the lead in the film as well,” he says, confirming my information and officially establishing me as “not an idiot”.

Best known for the odd indie “Emanon” from 1987, Paul dropped off the proverbial entertainment map after being credited for the story for “The Double 0 Kid”. But as it turns out, he actually has been fairly active, to one extent or another, if only just writing. He’s just completely under the radar. His recent emergence, such as it is, was only to bring to life a story that he abjectly believed in—one that captured Voight immediately. And Voight applauds Pauls decision to keep quiet about his role in “Conjurer”.

“The reason he didn’t want his name on any of the credits and the reason that started was that he doesn’t like the vanity in Hollywood,” he explains. “He said ‘I won’t put my name anywhere on it!’ Then it became a kind of thing because it was hard to follow through on anything. You call up the IMDB they have to have the name [to list the movie]. And I said, ‘Well, here’s what you do: we’ll call you ‘Q. Mark’. For question mark. It’s a funny thing but there’s a serious root to it. But he’s going to stick with this. He’ll never put his name on any of his pieces anymore. Life experience hones people into different things. This is a very mature Stu we’re dealing with. Very unusual guy. Good guy. I wanna see all his movies now. I want to see what he’s going to come up with next. He’s got a lot of scripts that he’s written lately and I want to see them all done. It’d be exciting to me as a film-goer to see his work and see his ideas come to be.”

Far from being a mystery in Voight’s life, the director and his star have actually had a long friendship prior to the cameras rolling on “Conjurer”. “He’s a friend of mine and a person for whom I have a great admiration for as a kind of moral force in our lives. He has very strong understandings. He’s one of those people who will tell me honestly what he feels about everything. He never lets me get away with anything and always tells me exactly what he feels. He’s the type of guy who keeps my feet on the ground and very humbly. A very, very rare type of pal. It was very interesting [to finally work together]. We’re very close, you know. We don’t always agree—as any two people don’t always agree. But he’s the director and he’s the boss and my very best friend. We had a lot of fun and it was exciting to work with him. Watching him make his decisions was quite interesting.”

Returning to the IMDB, a quick glance at Voight’s page reveals over sixty distinct roles in film and television. He got his his start in a small role on “Naked City”, which led not only to additional television, but also to his first feature, the obscure and goofy superhero comedy “Fearless Frank”. “Frank” has its similarities to his breakout performance in “Midnight Cowboy”, which would come just two years later in 1969. In “Fearless Frank”, he plays a wide-eyed country boy arriving in the big city for the first time, only to be murdered by gangsters and resurrected by a mad scientist. In “Cowboy”, it’s the same story, only with sickly street people and male hustlers, rather than mad scientists and gangsters. When I point out these similarities, Voight laughs. “That’s funny, isn’t it? It IS funny that the silly character, ‘Fearless Frank’, would be prophetic and that I’d go on to play that guy in earnest later. I was just doing a silly thing and then all of a sudden we go and do it seriously. Wow. Any man who knows ‘Fearless Frank’ is a dangerous man!”

Those similarities aside, you won’t find too many other parallels between the rest of the characters he’s played. Granted, he’s played heroes and villains and statesmen and presidents, usually men of stature, but he isn’t an actor that can be accused of repeating himself that often. And I ask if this plays a conscious part in his decision-making. “”I suppose in some ways it is. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing something similar to one you’ve already done. But each character seems to be unique and I want to find that particular person. It could be a quirk that is unnecessary. I set out to play the character and I start with a clean table and work to find things to draw upon. I never know why people think I’m good for this or that [character], but because I am a character actor, people don’t know what I can’t do. They say, ‘Listen, I can’t figure out this role, maybe Jon has an answer’, and they throw the script my way. It usually has to do with a certain kind of presence required for the role. A strength or something—they think that I have a commanding aspect. I’ll play someone with a force of stature or a force of negativity—whatever it is. A coach or a president. Or the wise bad guy in ‘Heat’. A stature they’re looking for me to fulfill. I’m very thankful that I’m working as often as I am and that people are excited to work with me. It’s a great feeling. I think I’ve covered pretty much the gamut, but every time I’m offered a role, it’s completely new territory to me. For some reason, I don’t see things in categories, I guess.”

Which is pretty amazing, I say, given the trash that so often comes out of Hollywood. Voight gets quiet on me for a second, then continues. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he says. “Look, I’m just an actor, a working actor, and there are a lot of wonderful actors working today. And especially, I must say, looking at the nominees this past year. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix and Terence Young, who I’m very impressed with. All these guys are going to have very long careers and they’re all character actors. They’re really strong character actors and they’re all the real deal. That’s a great bunch of guys who have paid their dues and are now stars. People can get movies made when they get one of those stars and I think that’s a wonderful thing. These guys are artists. They’re real and they’re exciting. I remarked watching, ‘look at this year! It’s a great year for character actors.’ Real artists! You think of the leading men, but you don’t always think of the character actors. And there are a lot of them. And when they also have that leading man aspect to them, the charisma, they become a true force. And we have a bunch of them coming up and I’m so happy.”

The traffic noises outside of the car begin to increase. I turn up the volume on my phone and ask him if there are any other movies coming up as exciting as “Simon Conjurer”. “Not as exciting,” he says playfully. “I’ve just done a thing called ‘Pride and Glory’, which is a gritty story about a cop family in New York. I play the head of the family, a chief of detectives with two sons and a son-in-law, who are played by Colin Farrell, Edward Norton and Noah Emmerich. Then there’s… then I have a movie coming out in the fall called ‘September Dawn’. It’s a very extraordinary powerful piece. A Romeo and Juliet story set against a massacre—a historic event that happened in 1857. It’s quite interesting. I’ve done some very interesting pieces now. I’m going to do a thing called ‘Transformers’, I’m getting ready to step into that one. It’s a family movie.”

And, of course, any movie geek worth their salt knows all about this upcoming blockbuster. Some of us can’t wait. Others are just bewildered by the very concept. “Deliverence”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Midnight Cowboy”, “Coming Home”, “The Champ”, and now “Transformers”? Something doesn’t compute, even with the campy TV movie “Karate Dog” on his resume. So I ask: ‘What attracted you to a project like ‘Transformers’?”

“Well, it was offered to me, and I’d worked with Michael Bay before [on ‘Pearl Harbor’]. And I like family movies—like ‘Holes’, other things. I like to stay in touch with younger audiences. I think it’s going to be an extraordinary piece. The imagination that will take to build these Transformers and stuff like that. It’s going to be a visual feast. And my challenge is to make the other story interesting. The human aspect of things. It’s quite a challenge, actually. I’m going to be working with some great actors. John Tuturro is going to be in it. Shia LeBouf is going to be in it. And I know that Michael is relying on me to bring a force to the character and an authenticity. That’s what I’m thinking about now. How do I do that, given the power of this piece, and my character? I’m looking forward to it.”

I take another quick glance at the official site for “Conjurer” and have only slightly more information about the mystery than I had before. Paul’s character stares out at me beneath a shock of curly hair. Voight’s grotesque Crazx looks even crazier than he had been during my first visit to the site. It doesn’t really look like anything else, and I firmly believe in Voight’s assessment that it will be a unique and challenging film. So how have the audiences taken to it? “No idea,” he answers. “I haven’t seen it with too many audiences yet. It’s going to be fun. I’m going to go to the screening on Friday night and then address the audience afterwards. And I can’t wait!”

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