When Smart-mouthed Directors Attack

An Interview with Actor Paul Cram By: Joshua LeSuer, Minnewood writer

Whenever Paul Cram hops state lines, something interesting happens. No, he doesn't suddenly find himself hounded by a psychotic truck driver or picking up a supernatural hitchhiker. This isn't The Twilight Zone, after all, although some of the things that happen to him are pretty dang surreal.

When he was in Boston, he was Lance, the naked rommate, in Village Chief Productions' Not the One, an ultra-low-budget romantic comedy. In Iowa, he was a meth dealer for the flick Indelible (demographic nugget: Iowa has one of the biggest concentrations of meth-users in the country).

"I would show up on set and the make-up artist would paint sores on my face," Cram said. "I was not pretty. It was an edgy role. I got to kill a few people."

In America's Dairy Land, he did a commercial for Super-8 Motels,  part of a training program for pineapple people, which is what Super-8 calls its underlings (like how Target calls their employees "team members" and Disney World calls theirs "property with a pulse"). The pineapple, apparently, is the universal symbol of hospitality. A pineapple placed on one's doorstop means all are welcome; wonder what a kumquat says?

In California, Cram notes with some irony, he's done nothing but horror movies, like Intermedio and Chiseled. And in Orlando, he recently got to be in Contract Killers as computer wonk Chuck Dittmer, which Cram considers to be about the geekiest last name a person can have.

It all started last year, when Cram flew out to the City of the Plastic-Faced Angels to audition for a The Office-esque comedy. The audition was, in the director's gentle language, "terrible".

"I am amazed at how blunt people are in LA," Cram said. "People need to remember they're dealing with people with feelings."

Fortunately, the casting director, Christine Joyce, disagreed with the director, and to his face, no less. You know you must be pretty darn good when cinema's answer to Josef Mendel goes to war for you.

"I was actually relieved that she did that for me because I felt about two inches tall," Cram said. "If the director didn't like the audition, he could've just said, 'Next'."

Cram went back to Minneap. Shortly thereafter, he got a call from Joyce, wanting him to come in and do an audition for Contract Killers. Alas, he was doing Holiday Beach, which kept him from winging back out.

So Cram sent Joyce an audition tape he did down in his basement. He got Mary Karcz to do the taping. Karcz is a stuntwoman who'd just finished up as fight captain for the Minneapolis Opera's Romeo and Juliet; incidentally, she holds the distinct honor of having been lit on fire 117 times.

So two days after Cram and the Living Flambeau sent off the tape, he got a call from Joyce, saying it was down to Cram and one other fellow, although she was fighting for him. Joyce really liked how Cram seemed genuinely scared in the scene he shot, a scene where Dittmer has a gun to his head. Joyce sent off the tape to the director and soon Cram was a booked and contracted player.

Contract Killers started off as an Indy film actioner lucky enough to have a few sackfuls of greens in its budget (most Indies are fortunate to have a baggyful of quarters). It has since swelled to the point where it's one of the prime features on Twentieth Century Fox's already high-heaped plate.

Cram was flown down to Orlando for a three-day quickie. The first day he wandered the gator-infested streets, pockets fat with the spending cash they'd given him on top of his salary, a luxury he's never had before.

The next morning, Cram went down to the technical school where his scene would take place. There he met Frida Show, who stars as Jane.

"Frida's from Sweden and she has a thick Swedish accent and she was really surprised I understood her," Cram said. "I told her Minneapolis was, like, the Swedish Capital of the Midwest and we got along real fine."

This being a technical school, and Cram's character being a tech geek, his scene was shot in the cold, silicon heart of the school: the computer room.

"We were filming in supercomputer central, just walls and walls of computers," Cram said. "And they totally ruined the sound on the movie, but they couldn't turn them off or, like, the school would turn off."

Cram was really nervous about shooting his scene that day, especially after he found out he was a replacement, the guy before him given the boot for some unnamed iniquity. Obviously, Cram was a little anxious, and when he's anxious, he needs to keep his hands occupied. When he did his audition tape, he was munching on a burrito, a character thing.

He asked the art department if he could have something to eat, and, displaying a delicate courtesy worthy of a Los Angelean, they gave him a resounding "No!" So Cram went to the director, something he'd normally never do. He felt a bit diva-ish, but he was really that nervous.

"I called over the director and said, 'I think this Dittmer character is the type of guy who never sees the light of day, who lives and breathes computers; this is his Bat Cave," Cram said. "He loved it. He told the art department I could have anything I wanted."

He got some M&Ms, which proved to be troublesome, as the crew had to flip over every copyrighted "M". Cram also got some coffee and an egg McMuffin, because he wanted something messier, figuring an anti-social with a headful of binary code and little else isn't going to too terribly mind some grease stains on his khakis.

A lot of Cram's dialogue was in techese that'd trip even a Trekker's tongue. At one point, when he was going off on IP addresses, the director called cut and told Cram, "You obviously don't know what you're talking about." So Cram was given a quick tutelage in the sacred language of computer code; although, he notes with some pride that he actually did all of his typing for his scene, a scene where Show is trying to extract some important data from his character, at gunpoint.

On Day Three, Cram flew back home. He'd done one day of shooting, shot all day, which totaled up to four minutes in a two-hour feature; but, like the Jeff Goldblum character in the exalted remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a poet proud to spend a month on a single line, it takes an extraordinary amount of pressure and an impossible amount of time just to produce a tiny fleck of gold.

The film premieres next Thursday at Zanck on the Twentieth Century Fox studio lot. Cram will be flying himself out for the premiere. Afterwards, he's taking a crack at another role as a "nervous, neurotic, smart character," something Cram points out, with a mixture of amusement and chagrin, seems to be just about every character he plays.

He was actually over in Chicago a while back, doing an audition for Larry the Cable Guy's third movie, where he learned, quite indelibly, that morons are beyond his range.

"I talked to my manager and he said this was a hard role for me, because I'm so much unlike this character, this guy with an IQ that's, like, borderline zero," Cram said. "And the director stops me during the audition and goes, 'Paul, you're so funny, then you open your mouth.' I must wear this sign on my forehead that says, 'Tell me exactly what you're thinking'."