Actor Jon Voight on Making Family Films: ‘I Want to Give Those Precious Moments to Other Families’
Jon Voight is a prolific, Academy Award winning actor who has been working in TV and film since the 1960s.
From Midnight Cowboy to Deliverance to Mission: Impossible to the National Treasure films, Anaconda and his celebrated work in the hit series Ray Donovan, Jon Voight is one of the most recognizable and adored actors in cinema. Recently, we caught up with him to talk about his latest movie, a family film and discuss his character. An incredibly gracious man, it was a pleasure having the opportunity. Here’s what he had to say.
Hello Mr. Voight and thank you for taking the time to talk with me. Your latest film is a family adventure called Surviving the Wild, about a young teenage boy who has a close relationship with his grandfather, even after he has passed on. What drew you to the role of Gus and the film in general?
Well, I am a grandfather myself. My father was a teacher of golf – but he was also a great teacher of life and he had a wonderful sense of humor. He used to tell his grandchildren stories, so when I read the script, and this role, it reminded me a little of my own father.
Gus is an amusing character, one that for fans of your work will really find welcome. How much of the part were you allowed to make on your own? Did you have any say in building the character?
I did play with the words for this character, I always play a little bit with my roles. I think of my work as a collaboration, but this script was well written.
Gus is crucial to the story and the growth of the boy, who undergoes a lot of challenges in the film. I really appreciated how he served as a guide but not a problem solver for the young man. How important was maintaining that distinction for you in bringing Gus to life, for a lack of a better term?
It was important. I have to secretly say that I think this is what happens with our guardian angels. They can’t solve the problems for us, but they can gently nudge us towards the answers.
You spend a good deal of the film outdoors at Red River Gorge in Kentucky. On a personal note, do you consider yourself an outdoorsman?
I am a lover of the outdoors but my oldest brother, who is a volcanologist is the true outdoorsman in our family.
I believe this is the first time you play a ghost per se. Was there anything different about your approach to the performance?
I don’t think of him as a ghost. As the boy says in the film “Are you a ghost, are you in my mind or are you just in my imagination?” and I say, “What’s the difference … I’m your grandfather.” That was a very touching and true moment for me in the film.
You work mostly with Aidan Cullen, a fourteen-year-old boy making his film debut. Tell me about your experience with the young actor. He seems very natural on screen. It sort of reminded me of the dynamic you had with young Ricky Schroder in The Champ.
This young man is a wonderful actor. He’s a natural. Ricky Schroeder was similar in that he had a wonderful natural talent as well. Ricky has had a long and strong career, and I wish that for young Aiden Cullen.
I have to say, you really look like you’re having a good time playing Gus, and some of the reactions of you and Cullen seem really genuine. Was there a lot of improv between you two and did you build a relationship off camera?
We became friends and yes, we did improvise a little bit. Aiden did an improv class and fell in love with it. It was a useful tool for us.
While your career is full of films in all genres, you’ve also made a number of ‘family films’ – I say knowing that anyone can enjoy these titles. What attracts you to making these movies?
Well I feel that a family unit is tremendously important. I remember fondly when our family would do things together. We would watch movies together, we were secure, we were having fun, and so I want to give those precious moments to other families.
Taking a moment to reflect on your filmography, if I may, you’ve obviously made a career of sorts playing the complicated villain, a role you do very well. How is it for you to step out of that figure and play characters such as Gus?
It’s a very big jump actually, but it’s a happy jump. Every character I play, is completely unique. I start each role with a clean table. I put the character together piece by piece. But I see the story that we are telling and its effect on people and it pleases me to be part of it.
We’re all the happier for it. So what’s next? Anything you can tell us about any other projects we can pass on to your fans?
I’ve just finished a movie called Orphan Horse – another family film, that I have high hopes for, but it won’t be out for another year.
I look forward to seeing it. To wrap up, on our site, we dedicate a lot of content to discussing great moments in movies – I even wrote about you in my thoughts on Mission: Impossible and Anaconda – considering their impact and influence on cinema. With such a long history in movies, I’m wondering, are there any favorite or important moments in your films that you would like to share?
I actually have a great joy of many moments that I have participated in. I think many actors in my generation have moments in film that become helpful to examine for young filmmakers. The very first film I made was with Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy). There is a moment he tells me he can’t walk, and my character has just come back from a successful rendezvous with a woman and he is full of himself – that scene is especially brilliant and the story of how we achieved it is very worth telling. And if any young actors ask me about it, I’ll tell them.
Great movie and moment. Thank you again for talking with me. I wish you the best of luck with Surviving the Wild and your continued career and hope our paths cross again.
Thank you for this interview – which is warm and sincere. I am at your service if you ever need me again.
READ MORE: Our review of Jon Voight‘s Surviving the Wild