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Michael Chiklis on How It’s Done, Seriously

Shield star brings “hard-won wisdom” from Hollywood to CFA

| From BU Today | By Leslie Friday

Michael Chiklis (CFA’86) spoke with CFA and COM seniors on December 9 about surviving Hollywood and about his new project, Pawn. Photos by Kalman Zabarsky

Michael Chiklis’ blue eyes bore into his audience with a wattage that makes people want to confess. Anything.

Chiklis (CFA’86), the Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning actor who played morally sketchy Detective Vic Mackey on FX’s The Shield, returned to the College of Fine Arts TheatreLab stage on December 9 to chat with School of Theatre and College of Communication seniors about how to master the business of Hollywood. Chiklis also talked about his latest project, Pawn, an independent film about a petty robbery that spirals into a tense hostage situation after three gunmen hold up a diner run by the mob. The Lowell, Mass., native is producing and starring in the film alongside Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, and Nikki Reed.

Since leaving BU, Chiklis has had a string of starring television and film roles, among them Tony Scali in The Commish, Curly in The Three Stooges, Mackey in The Shield, and Ben Grimm, or the Thing, in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Chiklis is a former Young Alumni Award winner and a CFA Distinguished Alumni Award winner.

Bostonia spoke with the intense Chiklis about BU’s theater program, Pawn, and how the film and television industry is changing.

Bostonia: What brings you back to BU?

Chiklis: I had a wonderful experience here, and I feel a debt of gratitude to the school. They do a magnificent job teaching the craft of acting from a classical, conservatory standpoint. You walk out of here really well-armed as an actor, but there were things that were somewhat lacking in terms of the vocational aspects of the program. That’s really not their purview, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s a university. So I thought, as someone who’s had some level of success in the industry, that it would be good to impart some of my hard-won wisdom to the kids, because I wish I had me to talk to when I was 20.

How did you learn what you came here to talk about?

When I left Boston University, I moved down to New York and it was basically every man for himself. Sink or swim. I didn’t feel a real sense of community or a network. I want to help establish a much stronger network for Boston University graduates. The BU in LA program is an excellent example. I think former CFA Dean Walt Meissner (CFA’81) did phenomenal work over the last decade and with help from myself and people like Nina Tassler (CFA’79) and other BU alumni out in LA, BU graduates come out and they’re not all by themselves in the pool. Well, it’s not a pool. It’s the ocean, feeling like Tom Hanks in Cast Away waiting for Wilson to float away.

It just keeps people in touch with each other and that’s very powerful in this business. If you think you can be an island in this industry, good luck to you. And the Red Sox.

What is the best advice you got from your professors at BU?

I learned so many things at BU as an actor—how to approach material and integrity with regard to how you approach the material. That’s a lifetime of lessons. I walked out of here a very well-trained actor, but with absolutely no acumen, and no business savvy.

Can the School of Theatre inject that into a university setting?

I think they can. This is an ongoing conversation I have with our folks at BU. With second semester seniors, the focus should shift to the vocation, to the how-tos of dealing with agents, business management, lawyers, publicists, branding, raising money, who you need on-set with you—all these different things. And through senior year you have to mix and match the College of Communication kids with the College of Fine Arts kids. It makes no sense to divide those two schools. You’ve got the directors, producers, and actors of tomorrow and they’re not interfacing. Why should the directing students have fellow directing students act in their short films?

Do you see that change happening?

We’ve had some of these conversations and it’s starting. But it’s a university; the onus for the school is on students earning a bachelor of fine arts degree.

Since leaving BU, Michael Chiklis (CFA'86) has had a string of starring television and film roles, among them Tony Scali in The Commish, Curly in The Three Stooges, Mackey in The Shield, and Ben Grimm, or the Thing, in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Tell us about Pawn.

I’m embroiled in one of the toughest independent shoots I’ve ever been involved with. I’m producing this film and I’m playing one of the lead roles. But it’s a true ensemble. There are nine leads in the film, and I’m humbled because I’ve been able to put together a world-class studio feature cast for this little, tiny film. And trust me, no one’s getting rich on this movie. Certainly not up front. It’s a love thing and people are showing up for me. I’m humbled that they’ve said yes.

Is it too early to talk about the next project?

There are things on the horizon. But right now it’s Pawn. The logistics are just maddening because we’re stuck in terms of scheduling. You’re talking about having Forest Whitaker for three days, and you have a hard in and a hard out. It doesn’t matter if it was biblical f——g rain the other day, you still have to get him out. Ray Liotta’s done. Now we have Nikki Reed coming back from China. It’s just a logistical nightmare, but we’re getting it done. Hopefully the fates will conspire to allow us to get this film made, in the can, and actually cut so we’ll be able to watch it.

I know you’re a big comic book fan.

I am. I was much more of a big comic book geeky fan when I was 13 or 14. And then I discovered girls. But I guess anything that you love in your formative years you always have a soft spot for. I also recognize there’s a huge market for it, frankly. I hate to be cynical, but there is a giant market for graphic novels.

Do your two daughters like comics?

Yeah, oh yeah. Go to COMICON, you wouldn’t believe it.

You’ve said Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four was your dream role. Is there another out there for you?

There are many. On the classical side, I want to do a film version at some point in my life of Richard III. But I don’t know if I’ll get the chance.

You’ve been in Shakespeare before on stage.

But film, that’s a tough one, especially in this landscape. It’s changed so much. The business I entered when I was 13 is not the same. Steve Jobs, God rest his soul, has inexorably changed our business for better or for worse. The film and television mediums are changing, it feels, hourly. And keeping up with it—the way people consume it, and the delivery systems in particular—that’s a whole other conversation we could talk for three hours about.

Everyone’s got an iPhone and can create a film.

We are big brother now. It’s crazy. It’s very hard to predict with any accuracy where we’re going next. But let me put a button on that. Even though that last statement’s true, my instinct always refers to quality of storytelling and the basic cannons of drama and comedy. The very human, thematic questions. If you make film or television—even if it’s going to be released on the internet—that applies to those fundamentals, then you’re going to have a better shot at the chest.

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