Holmes Osborne Interview

Holmes Osborne, co-star in Donnie Darko

Holmes Osborne is one of those character actors who you’ve seen many times, but whose name you don’t know. I spoke to him about his role as Donnie Darko’s father, Eddie, in director Richard Kelly’s first movie Donnie Darko. The role provided Osborne with some interesting acting moments, including the opportunity to spend an entire afternoon crying in front of teamsters.

by Chris Neumer

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HOLMES OSBORNE: Where are you from?


HOLMES OSBORNE: Oh, Chicago. I go in and out of there all the time. It’s a good place to do that.

CHRIS NEUMER: See, those are my feelings about LA.

HOLMES OSBORNE: (laughs) I had an agent there. I did Nicholas Nickleby there at the Blackstone in ’83. I stayed on with an apartment, primarily for industrial films and commercials. There’s not a lot of film that goes through there.

CHRIS NEUMER: And it hasn’t gotten much better.

HOLMES OSBORNE: No, Canada has most of it.

CHRIS NEUMER: Somewhere I read that there are very strict union laws in Chicago. 

HOLMES OSBORNE: I’m not so sure that it’s union. Professionals shouldn’t be working non-union. It’s just cheaper in Canada, with the exchange rate. It’s still union in Canada, but the union is different there. They don’t get any residuals.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s better for the people fronting the money.

HOLMES OSBORNE: And the producers.

CHRIS NEUMER: Let’s just in here.  I wanted to say that you captured the mischievous father very well.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I enjoyed working with that cast. It was a strong group of actors. Have you seen the DVD?

CHRIS NEUMER: Yes, I have.

HOLMES OSBORNE: So you saw the scene I lost.

CHRIS NEUMER: Is this the one where you tell Jake you had problems yourself?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Yes. That was the arc of my character. Richard Kelly was very apologetic, but they had time factors on this film and once they got a distributor, they demanded certain times for it to come in at. That was a two-minute scene and they needed two minutes to come off.

CHRIS NEUMER: Rich actually said he wished he could have put that scene back in.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I think it helped the relationship with Jake and I. But, that’s the way it goes. Lots of times–I do lots of fathers–and when you do fathers if there’s a cheerleader involved, they’re probably going to show the cheerleader rather than the father. I completely understood that.

CHRIS NEUMER: You’re not singling out Bring It On, are you?

HOLMES OSBORNE: I was in it.

CHRIS NEUMER: Hence the reason I asked.

HOLMES OSBORNE: (laughs) I lost most of the scenes that I started with by the time that one got to theaters. But that kind of stuff happens in lots of movies. Most movies you’re going to lose something. I thought the essence of the character remained, and I was happy with the whole thing really.

CHRIS NEUMER: What was the essence of this character? When you say that, I have to ask.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I think that this was a dad who really leaves a lot of the real disciplining or working with the children up to mom. It’s kind of a typical situation–he’s a busy guy, it’s never defined, I thought maybe he was an advertising executive. He has a very busy schedule. It’s not that he doesn’t love the kids, it’s not that he doesn’t take part in the home life, it’s just that when he gets down to conversations on a daily basis, I think he has the mother do that. I thought that the guy had a wild childhood myself.

CHRIS NEUMER: I don’t think he had fully lost that.

HOLMES OSBORNE: Right, right. He kind of likes to buck authority a little bit. If young Donnie is doing something that is a little bit outsides of the boundaries of propriety he doesn’t mind that that much. He kind of likes that. Not malicious things…

CHRIS NEUMER: Youthful hijinks.

HOLMES OSBORNE: He likes to let the kid express himself. In that monologue I was talking about–the dialogue that was cut–the boy tells me “I think I’m crazy” and I tell him “you’re not crazy, I used to be crazy”. I don’t think he gets into the real psychological problems that the kid is having. My part in this is as a part of the family movie. I don’t really have a part in the time travel part of the movie. Or the bizarre things that are happening. Did that answer your question?

CHRIS NEUMER: Yeah. And I hate mentioning examples that take place in the first five minutes of the movie because people sometimes think I haven’t seen more of it, but the first time we see your character, you’re aiming the leaf blower at your daughter, trying to get her away from you. It’s not done maliciously; it’s just a prank. And after you find out what Jake said to his gym teacher, you start laughing.

HOLMES OSBORNE: He’s a bit of a merry prankster. (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m assuming a lot of this was in the script.

HOLMES OSBORNE: You know, the lines were in the script but Richard gave us some freedom. He was very good about that. I think the essence of the character developed during the rehearsal and shooting of it. Those are really more of attitude than they are what’s in the script. Although he does snicker in the principal’s office–he thinks it’s funny–

CHRIS NEUMER: Which it is.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I tried to cover it (coughs) with a cough.

CHRIS NEUMER: That was very good. That was a great recreation.

HOLMES OSBORNE: But he really was getting a kick out of it. Richard allowed the characters to develop during the course of shooting and that’s very important on a film. I do television work too and there’s no time to let anything to develop. As a matter of fact, if you’re one word off, the script consultant will call you on it. Whereas with this, Richard let me take a line like she says “Our son just called me a bitch” and then I look at her and the line as written is “You’re not a bitch”. But then I said, “You’re not a bitch. You’re bitchin’ but you’re not a bitch.” That wasn’t in the script.

CHRIS NEUMER: That seems like it would bring a certain harmony to the script.

HOLMES OSBORNE: And he was young, but he had a lot of wisdom. He knew that things do happen during the course of shooting. He allowed them to happen too. Actors, once we start working on a part, we can’t be expected to fully understand the character when we go to the audition, you know? And some directors are willing to let that grow during the course of the shoot. My first experience out here when I moved out here in 1996 was with Tom Hanks on That Thing You Do. I had done mainly theater and Tom–we went way back together, we’d done a lot of theater together–

CHRIS NEUMER: So, and I can barely bring myself to say this, you guys were like Bosom Buddies?

HOLMES OSBORNE: (laughs) We were at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland during the mid 70’s for three seasons. I think that Tom sensed that I was a little out of my element with the film thing and the first day of shooting he took his own script that he had written and threw it off the set and said, “We don’t need this anymore. Let’s just wing it.” He let me improvise the whole part. I didn’t really know that I was an improvisational actor at that point. I’d done improv in theater but just as an exercise. But I found that I loved to improvise things and that’s what Hanks allowed me to do. And to a certain extent, that’s what Richard allowed me to do. He let us free the lines up a little bit.

CHRIS NEUMER: I don’t remember your performance per se in That Thing You Do

HOLMES OSBORNE: Did you see That Thing You Do?


HOLMES OSBORNE: I was the drummer’s father in the appliance store.

CHRIS NEUMER: I have to confess the only thing I remember about that film was that when my girlfriend and I saw it in the theaters, we were the only two people in this entire 400 person venue. I was running up and down the aisles yelling because, well, because I could. That’s the only thing I remember about that movie.


CHRIS NEUMER: There was a lot of improv on the set though?

HOLMES OSBORNE: I don’t know that I’d call it improvisation, but there was a freedom to experiment with Richard’s approval. But for a young director like that to be seasoned enough to allow performances to happen, I thought it spoke very highly for his directorial skills.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was there any particular part that was harder than any other for you? I remember you guys shot in a real car when you were driving.

HOLMES OSBORNE: That’s perceptive of you. Those things are a problem for the camera people and the crew, but it’s not so much a problem for the actors because all you’re really doing is sitting there. They’re towing the car, so if I swerved it didn’t make any difference, the car wasn’t going anywhere. That’s not too difficult from the actor’s standpoint. Just don’t move the steering wheel too much. (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: And try to keep your eyes on the road for a little while.

HOLMES OSBORNE: The situation that developed that, I wouldn’t call it difficult, but…. I would talk to Richard about the death of Donnie Darko. I felt that the father would just be shattered. Even though we didn’t see that close a relationship in the film, this family means everything to the father. I think that’s why he’s working–that’s his reality. Certainly Donnie is at the center of it. So I asked Richard if it would be appropriate that I would actually cry upon his death. And he said, “You know, maybe. Let’s try it.” So I worked myself up to crying. I’m walking around on the set crying so I could come into it crying which would make it easier, but Hell, if that scene didn’t go on for an hour and a half. I had to cry for an hour and a half because I was concerned if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to start again. (laughs)

CHRIS NEUMER: How did you manage to pull that one off for an hour and a half?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Just kept crying. As an actor training indicates sometimes you’re using affective memory or emotion memory and lots of times when you’re filming, you just throw that out the window. My link to the thing was seeing the body come out covered. And that’s all I needed. I didn’t need any emotional recall. I didn’t need to go into my past. Although that’s how I started crying. But in order to keep crying I was just aware of the body coming out.

CHRIS NEUMER: Prying a little further, what was the image that you were thinking about that got you started crying?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Just personal stuff from my life.

CHRIS NEUMER: I ask because I just read a quote of Julia Roberts’ where she said when she needs to cry, she thinks back to a time back before she had made it big when she put a gorgeous leather coat on layaway. She had it for one day and it was stolen from her place. So she said, “If you ever see me crying, you know what I’m thinking about.”

HOLMES OSBORNE: (laughs) That’s good. I know actors who cry because they’ve been at it so long and they’re still not doing any business!

CHRIS NEUMER: Sort of like the harsh truth of reality. Was there a lot of coverage shot on this? If you were crying in a scene, did you also shoot scenes of you not crying?

HOLMES OSBORNE: We didn’t go back and do the instance with not crying. I thought it was covered very well. It was, I think, a $5 million show and it had good coverage. We never felt like we were cut short.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was this part something that you genuinely aspired and desired? When I spoke to Beth Grant she said that by the time she finished reading the script she was jumping up and down on her bed yelling that she wanted to be in the movie. She was quite animated about it. Was this that kind of role for you?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Not really. I was very excited to work with Mary McDonnell and Drew Barrymore and Patrick Swayze and people of that ilk. Even though I’ve been acting for a long time–I joined SAG in 1969–I still feel like I’m getting started here. Coming out in ’96 isn’t that long ago. At this point, I just went out and auditioned for the film frankly. It was a call and I go out on lots and lots of auditions. I liked the script and I liked the part. I was anxious to play it, but in terms of my having desires to play it, that just really isn’t the way it was. It was an audition and I was cast.

CHRIS NEUMER: Two more questions for you and you’re good to go. You’ve been really favoring the movies starting with ‘D’s lately: Donnie Darko, The Deep End, Domestic Disturbance, Life without Dick–which I actually saw recently and thought was kind of kooky in a weird way.

HOLMES OSBORNE: (mutters) Yeah, I think it was.

CHRIS NEUMER: Correct me if I’m wrong on this though, wasn’t there this time like in ’95 where Harry Connick Jr. was this amazingly good looking guy and all the women were swooning over him?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Yeah, that’s right.

CHRIS NEUMER: I saw the film and it took me a minute to recognize which one was Harry Connick Jr.

HOLMES OSBORNE: (laughs) Yeah!

CHRIS NEUMER: I was afraid he was in a car accident or something.

HOLMES OSBORNE: Yeah. I think I’ve been doing a lot of D roles lately, but for a while there, I was doing a lot of one-word titles: Affliction, Election. One word titles like that.

CHRIS NEUMER: But with all these roles, was Rich one of the youngest directors you’d worked with?

HOLMES OSBORNE: Let’s see… in film? Yeah, he was one of the youngest ones.

CHRIS NEUMER: Did you have any qualms about that that were eased during production? Or was that not an issue.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I’ve kind of lost my age prejudice since I got here. There are a lot of young directors! That doesn’t mean that you think they’re going to be able to lead you in any great direction when you go it. He is so bright though his age was never a factor.

CHRIS NEUMER: If you’ve got the goods, age doesn’t matter.

HOLMES OSBORNE: I never really thought about him being young. From after the time I met him, age never really occurred to me. He’s sharp, he’s bright and he knows what he wants. He’s thorough, he’s devoted to the project and you could tell he was in love with the script and the concept. His age wasn’t a factor. Everybody got along really well. It was like a family. You know there are actually directors who try to create a certain tension and strife. I think that’s a terrible thing to do. A feeling of comfort for the actor lets the actor do things–you don’t really make mistakes, you just test limits. There was that feeling on this production of “you can try anything you want”. It’s friendly and that stems from the top on these things. It stems from Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen and Richard Kelly and Sean McKittrick and they make everybody feel important and treat everybody equally. Everybody’s friendly and that creates the kind of environment where people can work. That’s the way it was on this film and on Tom Hanks’ film and on Paul Schrader’s film, Affliction. I’ve been around a lot of environments where you are allowed to create in a friend non-threatening environment.

CHRIS NEUMER: And I’m sure you’ve probably been around the other side as well.

HOLMES OSBORNE: Occasionally. I think I’ve been very fortunate because I haven’t had many like that. I’ve had such few instances where there was unfriendliness or felt like you were stifled.

CHRIS NEUMER: May that continue for you in the future.

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