Man-to-Man With John Heard

Actor John Heard talks love, devotion, honesty, and the privilege of playing a character that embodies all of those traits in a Hollywood world that obfuscates what’s really important.

Though most people know John Heard as the Home Alone dad, his career features over three and a half decades of success in film, TV, and theater. He stars as Walter Domas in Stealing Roses, an upcoming comedy-drama about a devoted husband willing to do whatever it takes to pay for his wife’s cancer treatments. It’s a rarity, almost a surprise, to see a movie made in 2011 that features an older couple that seem, even after 35 years of marriage, to have no limit to the love, loyalty, and devotion they have for one another.

“We don’t really see lasting relationships in movies today,” said producer Alexia Melocchi. “It’s part of what drew me to the film. It’s a very intimate story, and it’s a different perspective on love than what’s largely seen today.”

As Walter’s wife Rose, played by Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley), deteriorates from illness, Walter finds that he and his wife can’t find access to healthcare. They’re too poor for private health insurance, not poor enough for Medicaid, and too young for Medicare.

“The healthcare issues [raised in the film] really need to have a wider national coverage,” said supporting actor Mark Famiglietti, who plays Walter’s son. “The realities of healthcare are that it’s a business. I think it’s lost focus of it’s main objective.”

Though it challenges Hollywood’s depiction of love and raises questions about the gaps in healthcare, Stealing Roses, which is in post-production and will premiere on the film festival circuit early next year, is ultimately about just making it work in America today.

“Most people in this country are still trying to get a hold of the basics,” said writer, producer, and director Megan Clare Johnson. “People are struggling out there. Millions of people around America are hurting. This is a story happening to a lot of people. The Domas family is every family.”

“It’s about what life is like in America today,” added Melocchi. “It’s a slice of life film, with drama and comedy and everything else life is about.”

The Good Men Project recently spoke with Mr. Heard about playing Walter, being a man, and cutting through dishonesty.

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What first interested you in Stealing Roses, first drew you to the project?

That I read the script and it was about a relationship between a man and a woman who had been together and who were very much in love with each other. That kind of devotion I don’t normally see in a movie. I guess it’s a hard thing to sustain with the kind of conflict you see in other scripts, with broken relationship movies, where the conflict is within the relationship. What drew me to this script was that the conflict was coming from the outside world rather than threatening their love for one another. And their love for one another sustains them right up until the moment when, well, she dies.

We pay a lot of attention in the press to all the breakups and the movie stars going from one to another, the drugs and alcohol affecting our lifestyles and ending up in rehab and a gossipy sort of take of two people who try to make a go of it. But we don’t have too many prototypes out there of people who try to make a go of it and actually succeed. So, I thought, really, that this was a love story.

Did the healthcare issues raised in the film draw you to the project as well?

Definitely. Well, health-insurance issues have been tabled for a while. We don’t hear much about that because we’re hearing about the deficit, mostly. But when we started making the movie we were still very much in the health insurance crisis, the fact that however many millions of Americans aren’t insured.

This guy, Walter, has worked all his life but can’t afford to take care of his wife as she’s dying of cancer. So, that, that story, made it easy—I’m pretty political so that was a sure thing for me to say, “I want to do this.” But, again, it wasn’t high or aloof, it was just this average guy. It was simple and heartfelt. It didn’t go into how the industry is filled with a bunch of crooks, or how this insurance company or that insurance company is ripping people off, how they’re making sure that people don’t get the kind of care they need so that they can realize their profit margin, or blah blah blah. It didn’t elaborate, and it didn’t need to. It was all basically in the context of a marriage, of loving one another, of taking care of each other. He does what he has to do in that respect, regardless.

I don’t know if it’s going to work. I hope it does, because I was in every scene and I’m self-conscious. But seemed like a very heartfelt, honest, good script.

Were you hesitant at all?

Oh, I was still very reticent. I haven’t done that kind of work on film for a long, long time. I’m very apprehensive about whether or not any performance I could come up with would sustain itself. I bit off a lot more than I can chew. I mean, I’m not George Clooney.

What is most powerfully communicated from the story of the Domas family?

What comes through is the love between Walter and Rose and [their son] Johnny, and the bond between them all. Well, you know, they don’t have a fight. They don’t argue. They don’t contest one another’s thinking. They’re there for each other. They take one another’s part. They understand each other. The idea of the relationship is not conflicted. It’s a lot of back and forth, and if that requires this man’s absolute devotion to his wife, then so be it.

What I see on television with Everybody Loves Raymond is the way the wife is always kicking him in the balls. You know, Roseanne is always making fun of fat boy. We’ve kind of anointed women as the boss of relationships. And I don’t know if that’s a little too much Oprah, and a little too much daytime television, telling women that they know exactly what they’re doing and that we [men] are just a bunch of jerks.

So, for me, the movie was an opportunity to say, “My wife doesn’t treat me that way and I don’t act that way. When I do she straightens me out, and when she does I straighten her out.” It’s just a sort of mutual give and take. I didn’t feel like anybody was pulling any power trips.

So would you say it was a more realistic take on marriage, at least a more fair take, one that didn’t have any pretense?

You know, in my industry that’d be hard to exemplify. But it’s certainly not what we see on Extra and ET. It’s not what we get sold. It’s not what we get exposed to.

I don’t really know what a 10-year-old or a 15-year-old would get out of watching the role behavior of a husband and wife today, whether it’s per television or per films. Most everything is about sex, and/or violence, and this [movie] is none of that. There’s none of that in it. It may be silly, it may be farfetched, it could be completely unrealistic. But at the very core of it, the relationship, and the love between Walter and Rose, is very much intact all the time. It’s the engine that promotes whatever else happens. His concern for her, her concern for him being concerned for her, justifying him doing what he eventually tries to do—it’s all between them.

Even when he goes and he asks his friends to participate, they say, “Oh, for Rose? You want us to go rob a bank for Rose? Why didn’t you just say that? You want us to go commit a felony because you’re in love with your wife. OK, now we understand.” As opposed to someone jumping up and saying, “Walter, are you out of your mind?” There seems to be a very complicit understanding amongst every character in the movie that Walter loves Rose and Rose loves Walter, and that’s how it should be.

What kind of man is Walter Domas? Obviously he’s devoted, and loyal, but he’s also a failure in a lot of ways. His business couldn’t make it, and he can’t provide for his family. He’s now cleaning homes with his wife, which seems an odd role for a man to play, at least traditionally. How does he feel about himself?

The fact that he’s cleaning homes with his wife, the fact that he’s willing to do what he needs to do to make a buck to have his family be intact, seems to supersede any self-denigration, or self-criticism, or self-consciousness on his part, that he’s a failure. It’s not Death of a Salesman. It’s not Willy Loman sitting around hating himself. You’re not going to judge him, the way it seems to me. It doesn’t lend itself to evaluating him in any other way except to say that he’s totally devoted to his marriage and his wife and his family. If he has to clean toilets, he’ll clean toilets. They’re a team, and they like being together. It doesn’t matter what they do. The essence of it is that whatever they do, they’re going to do it together.

♦◊♦

Who taught you about manhood growing up?

It was probably a combination of my father, Catholic school, role models, older guys, a sense of values. It all changed during the course of my lifetime. I was born in ’46, lived through the 50s, and then in the 60s there was this sexual revolution that I never really understood, and that has tortured me ever since.

In what way?

In my relationships. You know, not being able to accept this or that about my partner, or not being able to fully engage because I think all the rules changed. Or are they rules? Who changed them? Are we better off? It’s what I call the politicization of relationships. You know, I am woman, hear me roar. But that just may be because I’m incredibly immature.

Certainly there are a lot of changes that have gone down in the last 60 years that people don’t really talk about. I think relationships have suffered from them enormously. This may be a dissembling period, you know, at the result of which things may get better, but it’s remained sort of dissembling for me.

What three words describe your dad?

Handsome, smart, funny.

What is the best advice he ever gave you?

Don’t break the rules until you know what they are.

How would you say you are most unlike your dad?

Well I’m not nearly as handsome as he was, and I’m not nearly as smart. And my humor is probably more “shelly” than his sense of how congeniality can contribute to a humor that is laced with wisdom.

My father had an amazing ability to read people very quickly, but stay within himself. He was a very self-contained guy. He rarely betrayed himself. He was an incredible character.

Who are the best men you know of? How do they earn that distinction?

Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King and Marlon Brando are my three favorite guys of the twentieth century. John F. Kennedy, as well. They earn that distinction because of their ability to withstand conflict, head on. I mean, come on, they’re heroes. But I don’t think that that’s what motivated them. I think they were motivated more by principle. Boy, is there anyone on the American landscape today that could even qualify as some sort of similar male prototype, male hero? I don’t think anybody. I don’t think the kids today have much of anyone to look up to, at least in the public media sphere. They’ve taken away our baseball heroes, they’ve taken away our pop-political heroes, they’ve taken away our activist heroes. I don’t know who [kids today] are going to grow up to be, because who are they going to emulate? Mitt Romney? I can’t think of anybody that anybody actually looks up to in today’s world. Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough, but right off the top of my head I can’t think of anybody.

How do you see the role of men changing in America? Is that one of the ways, that there aren’t public, principled, heroic male role models anymore?

No, I don’t think there are. I think that corporate America has done a pretty broad sweep of eliminating folk heroes from our culture. I don’t even think we have them musically the way I had them growing up, or artistically. I guess Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Martin Scorsese—somebody might see some kind of territorial behavior that’s evocative of, I don’t know … hero status. But I don’t think it’s 100 percent. I don’t think it’s unquestionable.

I think I was lucky. I grew up at a time when Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam were going on and they allowed a lot of forceful people to stand up and contest. People broke the rules, said what they thought. They certainly paid a price but they did it anyway. And I don’t see anybody, any individuals, doing that today, except maybe Cornel West, or Michael Moore, and a handful of others. At least, they have tried. Same with Greg Palast, an investigative journalist I admire. Just people who are outspoken. But even in the world of journalism, somebody like Hunter Thompson certainly isn’t around.

Perhaps it’s repressed now, that kind of outspokenness. Take the protesters in New York, for example. There are hundreds of police officers around the protests everyday. But the time and energy spent to contain a movement that in a lot of ways isn’t even sure of itself—it’s frightening.

I grew up in Washington, D.C. and there was one protest after the other. Tanks on Dupont Circle, people getting tear-gassed. And there was a time when massive protest, I don’t know if they were effective necessarily, but they were huge, they were a huge social and cultural phenomenon. Now they’ve been minimized to something a bunch of hippies do. So, one could conclude that that might be the end of the democratic process.

It’s almost like when a guy goes down and tries to get his wife health insurance because she has cancer and can’t get it and he’s destitute. He’s always in this fabric of bullshit that gets woven by one public relations company after another, but he is the exception. He’s a member of the herd that is trailing behind. He’s not part of that transfixed reality. That’s why something like Stealing Roses is important. It’s not didactic. It’s not a docu-drama. It’s a simple story of a guy who loves his wife and watches her die. And that’s not the norm, but it is, because I’m sure there are thousands of people out there who have watched their loved-ones die because they couldn’t get health insurance. In that way the story is more of an emotional appeal.

So is an emotional appeal one that can cut under a fabric of bullshit?

I hope so. But maybe they should have gotten another actor for that. Should have got George Clooney.

What advice would you give teenage boys trying to figure out what it means to be a good man? Would you give him the same advice your father gave you?

Well my father rarely gave me advice. He was more of a role model. He was very self-contained guy. He was more of an example.

What advice would I give? Well, I have a 24-year-old son, I have a 17-year-old son, and I don’t know if you really can give kids advice. I think there’s some point in your life as a guy when you realize that—my father even said this to me once—when you realize that that equipment on a woman is for something more important than just sex. I think that if you do grow to understand that, then you automatically become that role model. When you divorce yourself from a guy just running around trying to get laid, and start to see that there’s kind of an organic and natural sign to having children, having a family, having that kind of a sense of responsibility, I think that’s the best thing you can give a 17-year-old because hopefully that’s a direction that you want them to go in as well.

What’s been the biggest mistake in your life, and what did you learn from it?

I want to say—and it wasn’t really a mistake, just more a turning point in my life—when I lied to my father about apologizing to my high school basketball coach when I didn’t really apologize to him. You can print that if you want. I don’t know. Sound kind of lame.

What happened is that I quit the team because the coach was picking on me. My father told me I didn’t have to play if I didn’t want to, but to go up and apologize for quitting. I said OK and I went up and I saw the coach and I hated him and I didn’t say anything and I came home and told my father that I had saw him and apologized. My father said, “OK, good.” Then for years later I lived in fear at sports night at my high school that my father would go over to [the coach] and say, “Well, I’m sorry John couldn’t play ball but at least he apologized,” and that the coach would say, “What? He never apologized.” It kind of alienated me from my dad. I lost some of my relationship with him as a result of that lie.

A lot of kids are put in a position where they have to lie to a parent, and it alienates them from the very thing that they need. They need that relationship, and they don’t realize that by not being truthful, even though they may take a beating for it—that it’s better to be honest with your parents. Well, unless, your parents are monsters. I think every kid has to kind of make that decision, has to say, “Well, am I going to be forthright with my parents and accept their insights or am I going to go my own way?”

Have you been more successful in your public or private life?

Well for the period of time that I was successful, I’ve been much more successful in my life as an actor, and miserably unsuccessful in my private life. But right now I would have to say that I’m successful in both, in terms of, well … success.

What is the your most cherished possession as a guy?

Well I have a lot of guy friends. I still have friends that I knew in the fourth grade. Then I have friends in the world of actors, mostly guys, about four or five guys that I trust. For the most part I think that’s what sustained me throughout my life, for better or for worse. I think their friendship and the bond that exists between them and me has been probably been the most rewarding.

How is a friendship with another guy different than friendship with women? Or have you just always been more of a guy’s guy when it came to friends?

I had a girlfriend once who pleaded with me to treat her like I treat my guy friends. You know, she said, “If you would just treat me the way you treat them …” I guess the bottom line was, well, I trust them, and I don’t trust you yet. And, you know, you don’t make the same demands on your guys that you do on your girlfriend. It’s sort of unfair. It’s an unfair comparison.

Ultimately I think it comes down to the battle of the sexes and you just have more in common with your gender. They’re easier to talk to, easier to listen to, easier to be around. I think that’s true for both genders.

The whole female thing that has gone on since I got out of high school has been confusing for me. I don’t get it. I don’t get the multiplicity of partners, I don’t get the abortions, I don’t get the attachment of abortion to some sort of female identity. I’m not opposed to abortion—if you want to abort your child, that’s none of my business. But I don’t free-associate everything women do with them standing up for themselves. As far as I’m concerned they’ve always had the power.

Yeah?

Oh yeah. They can push me around anytime they want.

So is that just a personal feeling?

Well, when I hear what women have to go through, or I have a girlfriend that gets abused at work, or harassed sexually, I’m appalled, you know, I’m just thoroughly terrorized by what some women have to go through, and what they put up with, and, sometimes, what little recourse they have.

So, a lot of it is naïveté on my part. I had a pretty good life. I lived in a good neighborhood. My father took care of us. We all went to college. I’m not really familiar with what your average working gal has to suffer. So it’s spoken from a guy who has sort grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth. But, you know, all the equal rights mandates and the rules and the laws—I think those are all great things. But sometimes those can be turned around and used against men inappropriately and unfairly.

When was the last time you cried?

Last Saturday. It was a couple days after Thanksgiving and I had just come back from seeing my mother and realized that she had to get into assisted care. Kind of made me sad to talk to her, that she was where she was at.

What do you think of the stereotype of the tough man who doesn’t cry?

I think that’s misunderstood. I think John Wayne something like, “If you cry, they won’t.” I think.

I imagine men characteristically save their tears for something larger than life, for something life-changing. But to cry because you’re hurt, or because you broke up with your girlfriend, or you’re having a fight, or somebody’s sick—I think that’s perfectly normal.

What men have to avoid is being angry. If there is any characteristic that is more common to men, I think it’s expressing their anger angrily. It probably gets men in more trouble than anything else. I think if they thought about it, what they’re angry about is something that hurts them, and that they’d be better off crying. What they call getting in touch with your feelings …

You know, I had a girlfriend who accused me of being the woman in the relationship. She said, “You always talk about our relationship. That’s what women do. You do what women do.” So I said, “You mean I should just shoot pool and drink beer?”

—Photo Aaron Whitmore/ © Stealing Roses Film LLC

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About Murat Oztaskin

Murat Oztaskin is the assistant editor of the Good Men Project and founder and editor of Red Branch Literary Journal. He lives in Manhattan where he reads, writes, and relapses into college mentality. Follow him on Twitter @MuratOztaskin.

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