Since he shot into the public eye with his role as the God-fearing sniper in Saving Private Ryan, Barry Pepper has risen rapid-fire through the Hollywood ranks. Now, as a young goodfella in the new movie Knockaround Guys, he’s once again armed and dangerous. By Dennis Hensley
“Fresh pepper, sir?”
The waiter at the trendy L.A. café Jones offers Barry Pepper his namesake spice, which the actor readily accepts. “A little fresh pepper for Pepper,” he says, gesturing toward his chicken salad, and I can’t help but think he’s just titled this article.
“Has ‘Fresh Pepper’ been used as a headline for you yet?” I ask. "I don’t think so,” replies the 30-year-old actor, who first got our attention as the Bible-quoting sharpshooter in Saving Private Ryan in 1998. “‘Fresh Ground Pepper’ should have been used after Battlefield Earth,” he muses, referring to his most recent appearance on the big screen, in last summer’s widely panned John Travolta–starring sci-fi dud. “That, or ‘Fresh Crushed Pepper.’” I hadn’t intended to scratch the Battlefield Earth sore so early in our encounter, but, hey, he brought it up.
“Were you crushed?” I ask.
“It was tough,” admits Pepper, who’s also played a shady government agent in Enemy of the State and an earnest guard in The Green Mile. “While I had a really good time making it, I was definitely disappointed with the result. I knew the script was weak, so I had conversations with the director [Roger Christian] and John about that, and those fears were put to rest. The first time I saw it was at a private screening with John and the director. I remember my exact words were, ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ I didn’t really know what else to say.”
“Did you ever see it along with anaudience?” I ask. “There was one screening in New York for the critics and it was tragic, man,” he says with a deep sigh. “I was so heartbroken, but it was a good experience because I learned never to compromise when I have problems with things.” Pepper takes a swig of water, then smiles. “But, they can’t all be Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile.”
Things are back on track for the actor who, in 1997, left home in his native Canada to give Hollywood a go and ended up landing the Ryan role just three months later. His latest, released in January, is the flashy gangster drama, Knockaround Guys. In it, Pepper plays the son of a mob boss (Dennis Hopper) who begrudgingly joins the family business when all his legit career options fail to pan out. Soon Pepper and his ragtag posse of wannabe goodfellas, played by fellow Ryan vet Vin Diesel, Dr. Evil spawn Seth Green and newcomer Andrew Davoli, are sent to rural Montana to recover a bag of freshly laundered cash that’s fallen into the wrong hands. “The comedy comes out of the interaction between the four young hoods from New York City and the hillbilly locals in this small dirt town,” Pepper explains.
“Does that include hot farmers’ daughters?” I ask.
“It’s not really a hot farmers’ daughters kind of story,” laughs Pepper, “but there are plenty of sexy Reservoir Dogs–type cigarette-flipping shots and cool suits. It’s all really slick.”
Less glitzy, but just as gritty, is Pepper’s other new offering, the April HBO film 61*. In the telepic, he plays New York Yankee Roger Maris, the right fielder who incurred the wrath of both fans and sportswriters when he broke the beloved Babe Ruth’s home-run record in 1961. “People sent death threats to Maris and his family, and they threw chairs and bottles at him from the stands,” Pepper explains. “The pressure was so intense that his hair started falling out and he broke out in a rash all over his body.”
Naturally right-handed, Pepper had to learn to bat as a lefty to be convincing as Maris. Still, he says shooting the baseball scenes were a day at the ballpark compared to the smoking scenes. “Maris smoked three packs of non-filtered Camels a day,” Pepper says. “I’m not a smoker and there were times when I’d be puking in the bushes just before my close-up. Billy [Crystal, the director] would be going, ‘How ya doing over there?’ I’d wipe my face off and he’d call, ‘Action!’”
Pepper, who makes his home on a five-acre farm near Vancouver, initially passed on the role because his wife of three years, Cindy, a furniture designer, was due to deliver their first child. “Then HBO said, ‘Hey, come have the baby with us and we’ll take care of everything,’” marvels Pepper, who met his wife in high school but didn’t connect romantically with her until years later. “Cindy went for it and a week before production started, our daughter, Annaliese, was born. She’s just such a jewel. My wife and I laugh and smile so much more than we ever did.” He admits, however, that they won’t be laughing if Annaliese decides to take on the values of the town she was born in, Beverly Hills. “Let’s hope she doesn’t want caviar and champagne and stuff like that,” Pepper says with a laugh. “I can just hear her saying, ‘Daddy, I want to go shopping in my town. Vancouver’s passé!’”
Still, there has to be something about the Hollywood lifestyle that floats his boat. “I learned a few yoga moves recently,” he boasts, when I ask him what’s the most L.A. thing he’s done lately. “Lawrence Bender, who produced Knockaround Guys, is very into it and he showed me how to go from a Lotus position into a headstand when we were in the upper-class lounge of American Airlines. All these really uptight suits are sitting around munching Brie and crackers while we’re rolling around on the floor. I’m sure we looked like a couple of [jerks], but it was a lot of fun.”