Brad Renfro in the fall of 1998
* This originally appeared in Time Out (New York), and it will reappear in Smothered in Hugs: Essays, Interviews, Feedback, Obituaries (Harper Perennial, July 2010)
Brad Renfro is best known as a kind of teenager Marlon Brando, beloved of the Hanson crowd. Like River Phoenix before him, Renfro glares from the pages of magazines like 16 and Bop, seeming every inch the high-school outsider forced to attend the prom. The thousand of boys and girls who clog online newsgroups with Renfro-related posts love him exactly for this contentiousness. Well, and for his looks, which are as cute in freeze-frame as his on-screen behavior is moody and implosive.
----The more Renfro the actor ignores the needs of this fan base—choosing roles in R-rated fare like Sleepers and in indie-circuit films like Telling Lies in America—the more his young admirers long to mother, date and save him. Unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, who also straddles the worlds of puppy love and serious acting, Renfro has yet to toss his more innocent fans a Titanic-size bone. You get the sense that he doesn’t have it in him. His favorite word is real, and you can feel that in his work.
----Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Renfro was discovered while performing in a local public-service announcement. Beginning with his first film, Joel Schumacher’s The Client—made when he was just 11—and continuing with his new film, Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil, in which he costars with Ian McKellen, Renfro has turned in consistently fierce, willful, deep and increasingly nuanced performances that make it easy to forget that he only turned 16 this past July.
----But in person, he’s unequivocally 16—a not-especially-hip, not-quite-square, polite, jokey, intensely emotional young guy forced to give an interview in his agent’s L.A. office and visibly weirded out by the prospect. Having been intrigued enough by Renfro’s looks and style to name-check him in my recent novel Guide, it’s interesting to discover that while he’s as disorientingly well put together as I’d imagined, my urge to gawk is outweighed by caution in the face of his awkwardness. It doesn’t help that Renfro’s handlers seem worried that he might say something a little too real. At several points, we’re interrupted by office workers: One woman takes Renfro into the hall, and later, a wary-looking man plants himself in the room, his ears so perked, they’re practically vibrating.
Dennis Cooper: Your agent said you’re not feeling well.
Brad Renfro: It’s just stress. Being in L.A. does this to me.
DC: You live in Knoxville, which looks very nonstressful in pictures.
BR: Yeah, it’s cool, but it’s getting violent these days.
DC: What’s up?
BR: Well, this guy got shot last week outside a club, and he died. A friend of mine works at this café right by there. Luckily, she wasn’t there at the time, but the café’s windows got shot out. So it’s not too scary to live there yet, but for such a small town, that seems pretty hard-core.
DC: So where would you move, if you moved?
BR: Not here, that’s for sure. You can be young and stupid anywhere, but staying in Knoxville keeps me away from the business itself, the whole grind—everybody going out to eat and such. It keeps me real. ’Cause out here, there isn’t much reality. There really isn’t. That’s why Tennessee Williams stayed in the South.
DC: So you don’t have any Leonardo DiCaprio envy?
BR: No, no. He’s a great actor, and now he can’t do anything. It used to be I’d see him all over the damn place, and he wouldn’t get too bothered. But now, phew. Man.
DC: Talk about demystifying fame.
BR: No shit. I don’t know if the money would be worth it, either. Because he does make bank. He makes a lot of money. Hell, I haven’t even made a million dollars. But is $20 million worth no life? I don’t think so.
DC: You and he are both top dogs in the Tiger Beat scene. Does that have any value for you?
BR: No. I’m quite flattered, but I don’t know what to think of it. I don’t strive to be a teen idol, you know? But the teen-idol thing is probably why I’m able to pick and choose the movies I want, because I have those fans. Who says those teens don’t have the right idea? You’re always going to have those who look at you because you have interesting looks or whatever.
DC: It’s not like your films cater to that audience. For the most part, they’re fairly heavy. I guess Tom and Huck is kind of the oddball in your oeuvre, as it were.
BR: Yeah, well, I don’t regret making that movie, because my little sister loves it. It’s just that I thought I was making an American classic, and it was very Disney family. If you really watch, you can see that I’m not in the same damn movie as the other actors. I’m all hard-core and shit, and it seems like I’m bigger than the rest of them. There’s an edge there that doesn’t really fit, but to me, that was Huck. Who’s to say it was tobacco in his pipe, you know?
DC: Disney didn’t want a hard-core Huck?
BR: Not at all. It was constant friction. I just did it and got through it, because it was my job. But, you know, I maybe showered six times the whole damn shoot. That’s where I got this bad reputation, you know. How I’m, like, whatever…
BR: Yeah, trouble.
DC: But you’re not?
BR: No, I’m not. I’m real. Real only seems like trouble if you’re not real yourself. Honest to God.
DC: You seem drawn to characters who have moral dilemmas.
BR: As in, like…?
DC: I think I’ve seen all your films, and from The Client through The Cure, Telling Lies in America and now Apt Pupil, you seem to play the wide-eyed kid with a secret dark side.
BR: Well, that’s me, but that’s also mankind. Someone asked me about Apt Pupil—you know, “Brad, are you saying people are evil?” And I go, “All people have evil natures.” And they go, “What about babies?” And I go, “What about when babies turn two and start fighting in the crib over a toy?”
DC: Babies are purely selfish beings.
BR: Exactly. They are purely selfish. I love children, but….It’s human nature to constantly be in a fight with your own being.
DC: So Apt Pupil must have played into your interests.
BR: Definitely, definitely. I was really excited to get that part. It was the only really cool film at the time. Well, there was that and American History X, as far as what was available to someone my age. And Bryan Singer’s great. Ian McKellen’s a genius to me.
DC: Your styles are so different, though. His acting is so capital-B British, really organized, and—
BR: I’m so off the wall? Yeah, I learned so much from Ian McKellen, but it wasn’t like I could learn the craft of acting. I’m sure you’ve heard of doing something and not knowing how you do it? That’s pretty much where I come from. What interested me about him was how he handled people. He makes everyone feel so comfortable. I tried to learn that from him, because that’s something I need to learn.
DC: How do you approach acting?
BR: Just saying the words and believing them. I literally believe what’s going on is really happening.
DC: Is it like fantasizing?
BR: Pretty much. I’m a person who doesn’t show a ton of emotion until it’s time. I ball too many things up—to the point where I cry for no reason. And I have to sit down and go, “What the hell is this for? Oh yeah, right.”
DC: So I guess I have to ask you about the whole Apt Pupil shower-scene controversy.
BR: I was there.
DC: A number of the extras, who are basically your age, said they were ogled by gay crew members during the shooting of that scene and consider it a form of molestation.
BR: I was there. I didn’t notice anything.
DC: So you don’t support the boys who brought the lawsuit against the film?
BR: No. As far as I know, it got thrown out of court anyway.
DC: Are you into politics?
BR: No. I don’t care.
DC: So you have nothing to say about the whole Clinton-Lewinsky thing?
BR: Oh, I can say a little something about that. I think the only place where Clinton went wrong was in being married. I just think he’s a man of the times. Fuck it. If I put myself in his shoes, I would have lied like a motherfucker too. And there’s the whole “If she only swallowed, none of this would have happened” jokes. But I shouldn’t get into that, I guess.
DC: Are you religious?
BR: I’m a firm believer in God. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for God.
DC: You never question that?
BR: Okay, here’s a great Bible verse. Jesus is sitting and eating with politicians and sinners, you know, one of them asks one of his disciples, “Why does Jesus sit there and eat with sinners and such?” And Jesus turns and says, “He who is not sick has no need for the physician, and vice versa.” I think when we’re all at our rock bottom, there’s nothing else but God. But I think all Christians have questioned Him at one time or another.
DC: Did you ever investigate Buddhism?
BR: I think any religion’s okay, except Satanism. I can’t think of anything in Satanism that could benefit you.
DC: But there’s something flashy about Satanism, don’t you think?
BR: I think it’s more powerful in the short term. That’s the trick that the Devil plays on you. It’s like, cocaine’s great the first couple of times, you know? I think that’s just the Devil. That’s how he works. I’m as firm a believer in the Devil as I am in God. I’m just not a supporter.
DC: So do your musical tastes run to Stryper and that sort of thing?
BR: Fuck, no. I’m into blues and jazz. Wes Montgomery, Buddy Guy, Electric blues and old-school, too. You got your Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. And I still like punk, of course. Anyone who ever liked punk will never not like punk. It’s very easy to like. Being punk rock means not caring what people think of you. At one point, I did have green hair when I was 13 or so, but I thought it was more punk rock to be just kind of normal than to go and pierce my dick or nose.
DC: Are you into old-school punk or new-school punk?
BR: I can’t stand new-school punk. It’s so poppy, like Offspring or Green Day or whatever. I’m more into the D.C. bands—Fugazi, the Teen Idols, shit like that. And the L.A. late-’70s scene stuff—Descendents, Black Flag, Germs.
DC: At one point, you wanted to make a film about the life of Darby Crash of the Germs, didn’t you?
BR: Yeah. It’s funny. I didn’t get to do that. Some other guy’s doing it, I guess. It would have been cool to play a totally reckless punk. I think I could do that pretty well, but fuck it. Right now, I’m wanting to write and direct a film about a boy in a mental institution. He doesn’t speak, and the film’s about his theory that dogs are superior to humans and how there’s really no need for conversation in a perfect world, because everything would be about unconditional love. You wouldn’t have a need for verbal communication. I haven’t written it yet, but I have the thought.
DC: Do you write?
BR: I write poetry and stuff but not scripts. I just have to sit my ass down and do it. It seems a bit overwhelming, like writing a book of haiku or something. It’s a weird form.
DC: Do you have favorite actors?
BR: Steve Buscemi, definitely. I love him, because he just does his thing. Jack Nicholson, Chris Walken. Those cats are cool. I’d love to work with them. But, hell, I’d even work with Ann-Margret, you know? Who’s to say she’s not a genius? You never know.
DC: Do you ever approach actors or directors you like and ask to work with them?
BR: Just the normal shit. I mean, I don’t go, “Hey, I want to work with Stanley Kubrick. I’m going to chase his crazy ass down.” I don’t send fan letters. I don’t make picture collages and shit, like little strips from a magazine. “I’m Brad. I want to work with you.” No.
DC: I guess I’ll end this by clearing up a really common rumor about you. Did Joel Schumacher adopt you when you were making The Client with him?
BR: Fuck. That’s not true whatsoever. When I was 11, I made a joke that he was going to adopt me, or some shit, but that’s all. I think I liked the idea back then, ’cause my life was kind of hard or something. I live with my grandparents, pretty much always have.
DC: A lot of people think the rumor’s true.
BR: What a bunch of dipshits. These rumors, man. I’m like the [rumor] magnet; I don’t know fucking why. Supposedly, I’m doing some movie with Natalie Portman and Liv Tyler called The Little Black Box. I’ve never heard of that in my life. I think Milos Forman is directing it. It would be fucking cool as hell, but it isn’t real.
DC: I heard you were in the Star Wars prequel, too.
BR: Oh, yeah. Go. I’m all over the place. That’s cool. Wait a second. Ouch.
DC: What’s wrong?
BR: Shit, I’m getting a stress cold sore. [pulls out his lower lip] Look at this.
BR: Exactly. I’d better go do whatever with this.
DC: Well, thanks.
BR: Yeah. Have a good day, sir.