If you’ve been paying attention to the indie film scene, it is difficult not to recognize the ubiquitous presence of Michael Q. Schmidt. The indefatigable actor, who turns 56 in April, has become a much-in-demand presence thanks to his versatility and his willingness to take roles to wild extremes.
Schmidt’s most notable indie screen work is astonishing for its sheer depth and scope. He was the paranormal researcher who mobilizes an army of angry spirits in “Snatched” (2009), Charlie Brown’s slovenly, drunken mother in the “PG Porn” parody “A Peanus Christmas Special” (2008), all of the Three Little Pigs in the wacky “Piggies” (2007), another multiple role turn – as a priest, a naked cabaret MC and a Fertility Demon in “The Three Trials” (2006).
Schmidt is also turning up on television. He performed on “Tom Goes to the Mayor,” broadcast on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, in the drag role of Tom’s wife Joy. Small screen free spirits such as Jimmy Kimmel, Janice Dickinson and Penn and Teller have also called on Schmidt to lend a hand to their antics.
Film Threat caught up with Schmidt at his Los Angeles home to discuss his work as an indie film actor.
How did you first get into acting, and what made you decide to pursue it as a full-time career?
Well, the short answer is that I fell into acting as one of the dominoes being toppled from an early lost wager.
The longer answer is that in the mid 1990’s, I had friend who was taking welding classes at Fullerton Community College. I teased her about it and suggested she take art classes instead, as she would never have a use for a welding certificate. Over the course of a few weeks of banter, I suggested she instead model for art classes so she could do something productive and get paid for it. This devolved over several weeks into a bet where if she did not pass her courses she would agree to actually model for an art class… and if she passed the course, then I would sign up to model. On the last day of her class, I had agreed to give her a lift home from school. She did not have her usual energetic demeanor and morosely directed that I go with her into the art offices. I did so and followed her into the building and to the art department’s secretary. She went up to the secretary and quietly received a sheaf of papers. In my head, having judged her attitude and body language, I was chortling to myself :She lost the bet! She turned back toward me with a grin to rival the Cheshire Cat… confused, I looked at the papers she held and saw my name all over the documents. She had used the previous weeks of chiding as a motivator to apply herself in the welding class. Even as she had been bickering back at my chides, and agreeing to the wager, she knew she would not be the loser. I was hoist by my own petard. I signed the papers and within just a few weeks I was in front of a classroom full of strangers… posing for a drawing class… naked and feeling quite vulnerable. And that day alone, with what went through my mind… my fears and trepidations… is a whole ‘nother story.
So falling into being a nude model for art classes, and being appreciated for it was step one in my becoming an actor.
Many people may not realize this, but you were an off-screen inspiration for the first Harry Potter film. What was your contribution to the film and how did you get that assignment?
So here I was, modeling for art classes and learning that I can quite literally share everything I have for the benefit of others and be appreciated for just being exactly the me that God put on this earth. My name had been passed around from instructor to instructor.. from college to college… from institution to institution. Who would have ever figured?.
In late 1999, animator/artist/writer Karl Gnass had been working as consulting art director for Sony Pictures Imageworks Studios in Culver City. They were on a desperate hunt for a very special model and had been calling around to area colleges and art institutions seeking someone with a certain unique quality. It was though the renowned Artcenter College of Design in Pasadena, where I had by this time been listed and modeling, he was given my contact number. So he gives me a call and informs me that Sony had a contract to do some special CG animation for an upcoming feature film… some new project that will combine live action with special animations… that he hoped I might have the qualities they need for a character of a giant they were designing and that perhaps I would be interested in posing for their animators.. and if I might be willing to send him a few pictures for his consideration.
Well, by this time, I had a small web site set up at mqschmidt.com that had a few pix as an aid to instructors who might wish to know my qualities before booking me for a class. I suggested Karl check out the website in lieu of my sending something through snail-mail. He thanked me and told me he’d let me know. Five minutes later he calls back to offer me the job. A few weeks later, I’m in at Sony’s Culver City studios working with their animators.
Toward the end of this session, I finally got a clue as to what the project was going to be. Apparently they were going to be making a film of the first Harry Potter book. They were creating an animation of a giant to send off to England and some actors there would do some green screen work in reactions to the giant character. After getting home that evening, I contacted my young nieces and nephews to ask them as the family experts on Harry Potter if there was a giant in the series. They excitedly replied that Hagrid was a giant Ogre and a really cool character in the book. So for the next few months I boasted that I was going to be used as an animated Hagrid character. Imagine my chagrin when the early trailers showed actor Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid. My whole family thought I had made the whole thing up. All I could do is sadly shrug my shoulders and repeat that I has been told there were using me for a giant… and if Hagrid was the giant…. I was vindicated a week or so later when additional trailers came out that actually showed my ample belly and my actions holding a character by his heel and swinging my club… as “The Mountain Troll.”
You’ve spent a great deal of camera time without any clothing. Are you afraid of getting typecast as being a nude guy?
Being part of cinematic history through my contribution to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” led to my epiphany that I could contribute more of myself to the arts beyond just posing for artists. I could share for film or TV as well. My acting was a bit hit-or-miss in the beginning as I learned how to find projects that could use my talents and submit myself for consideration. I had a few minor character roles in some minor films and worked on developing my skills.
In 2003, I began working with artist John Kilduff, the host of the bizarre “Let’s Paint TV” call-in painting instruction show on cable… where he would paint a subject while fielding phone calls from viewers about his work-in-progress. Over the next few years his multitasking developed to the point where he was instructing and taking calls… while jogging on a treadmill and mixing drinks or preparing meals.
Working with John is lots of fun, and allowed me to further share my body for art and entertainment… but I am not at all afraid of being typecast as a nude guy. As an fine arts model for almost 15 years now, that boat has long since sailed. And yes… I have been naked for “immy Kimmel Live,” “Penn and Teller’s Bullshit,” “Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency,” “Sunset Tan,” “Comedy Central’s Distraction,” “Tim & Eric Awesome Show,” and several notable films.
In your film work, you’ve played both victims and victimizers. As an actor, is it more challenging to be on the receiving end of the cruelty or to be the one who is dishing it out?
I find both to be challenging, and fun, since both sides of that coin do not represent my personal life. When playing the role of victim, I simply draw on internal resources and place myself mentally in the position being portrayed by the character. Imagining myself to be in that same position helps in accurately bringing such roles to life. This can sometimes be easier, than being the bad guy… as when playing a role as a victimizer, it goes against my grain to be a meanie.
Even more challenging is playing both victim and victimizer in the same film. As Cyrus in “Snatched” (2009) I am an overly friendly researcher who begins as an ally to the protagonists, switches gears to become their oppressor, then becomes a victim of my own machinations. Funny in all, and no sympathy lost on my being punished or how. As Ed Barney in “Delaney” (2008), I begin as a smarmy and lecherous salesman who becomes the victim and has his organs harvested. As Mister Bell in ”Accidents Happen” (2008), I begin as a nasty fellow who deserves what happens to him – as I am poisoned. In “Skeletons in the Closet” (2005), I began as a pompous cop on the take in a realtor’s land grab and then as the frightened cop being pursued by the evil entities. Some of the best and most challenging roles let an actor move from oppressor to victim or vice versus when a transition is required as the plot develops.
As an actor in indie films, what do you see as some of the joys and some of the challenges in performing in low-budget, high-enthusiasm productions?
I recommend actors give as much of themselves to the low-budget, high-enthusiasm indie filmmakers as they can… and this includes student films. Low budget films actually seem to be on the cutting edge as directors look to make a name for themselves and take on challenges the big boys usually shy away from. The joys are found in being part of that fresh presentation of new ideas… of being part of something on the cutting edge. The challenges can be found in being able to look inside oneself and bring the indie filmmakers idea to life.
One way to look at it is that it can be more fun being a big frog in a small pond, then a minnow in the ocean. Sure… having a minor role in a big film can give a bigger paycheck, but one needs to find a balance between paying the bills and honing one’s craft. I have been in dozens of indie films and maybe 300 student films… each one memorable and exciting and allowing me to expand myself as an actor. Now I am not at all adverse to roles in major films, as I have bills to pay just as does anyone. But when one joins the smaller indie team, there is a greater freedom and creativity expected and allowed… so most of my film work has been for inspired indies.
In “Caravaggio: The Search” (still filming), I play the role of a woman as Rembrandt’s Diana at Bath. A bit of a stretch? I made it work. How cool. The filmmaker was so impressed that she would like me to come back as another female model from the age of the classic painters. Its just a matter of scheduling. In “Amhurst” (2009), I had auditioned for a lead role but did not get it… but they remembered me. I love that I made a memorable impression. When one of the cameo leads has advised he might not be able to make it to shoot his scene as his shoot day began, they asked me in to fill his spot. Turns out the cameo guest did show up… so to thank me for being there for them, they allowed me to create a role as a drunk stumbling into a major scene in the motel office to demand change for the soda pop machine.
In “Skid Marks” (2007), I also auditioned for a role I did not get… but was invited to create a funny cameo of a fat jogger eating donuts who, when yelled at by the leads, gets angry and moons them. Would that have happened if I had not made a good impression? Nope. The moral here for me of course, is that I give a project as much of myself as I can. This leads to terrific roles and invitations to step up and give something unscripted and wonderful. THAT is the greatest joy.
Based on the scripts you are receiving, are you satisfied with the quality of screenplays being created by today’s indie filmmakers? And have there been scripts that you rejected for being inadequate or worse?
I love what Indie filmmakers are doing! As I mentioned, they seem more willing to take chances and create more memorable projects. With the major studios able to spend money to promote their super projects and use big budgets to attract the big names, the Indies have been given the greater opportunity of reaching out with ideas that captivate. This opinion might come back to haunt me, but Indies are the cutting edge and the majors are the trailing edge. Like a wing that keeps an airliner aloft, both are important.
Interestingly enough, it is just that big financing that prevents the majors from taking the chances that indie movie makers do. They have themselves investors more interested in “the bottom line” than the product. And yes, indie filmmakers have to answer to their investors as well, but the projects themselves speak toward ultimate reward and will attract what investors are interested in the project. So this tends to give the indies a free hand and a jump start on new ideas.
I satisfied with the scripts I receive? Hell, yes. If they need a daring actor unafraid to stand out from the crowd, I am theirs for the asking. An interesting side note to your question is that the only scripts I’ve ever found lacking were those that tried to emulate their big brothers. An indie’s strength is in being unique and taking chances… to not be afraid themselves to stand out from the crowd. Would an indie benefit from the funding of a major? Heck yes… as long as they did not have to compromise on creativity.
What career advice could you offer to anyone who wants to pursue an acting career in indie films?
My advice to actors who wish to pursue a career in Indie films would be to do as much and as many as their schedule would allow…. and toss in student films for flavor. The opportunities for growth in skills from working with indie filmmakers is tremendous and will benefit every project they might touch in the future. And if this leads to them making a “name” for themselves and being invited to some “major” projects, terrific.
But remember the indies that gave you your start and continue to grace them with your own enthusiasm and energy. On a more pragmatic note.. I advise such actors to be the actor a director needs… to open themselves up to all possibilities… and never say no to any idea that will educate, enlighten, please, shock, awe, or amuse. After all, being on the screen is not about simply being on the screen. It is all about sharing a few minutes of another life for an audience in order to sweep them up in a new world.