I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to talk to Michael Rosenbaum about his new film, Back in the Day, as well as his career on both the small and big screen, along with his voice work. It was an incredibly fun conversation with the man and I do have to admit, I was rather giddy talking to not only Lex Luthor, but The Flash himself. Michael was incredibly generous in the time he gave us and I have to thank him sincerely for allowing the opportunity.
In your new film, Back in the Day, you play Jim Owens, an actor who returns to his hometown in Indiana to reconnect with friends and hopefully rekindle the romance of a lost love. How much of the film was autobiographical, considering you did indeed graduate from Castle High in Newburgh, IN?
Well you know I did graduate from Castle. But most of the stuff was all made up. There were a couple of friends of mine, like the group of boys, are loosely based off real characters. The movie has a lot of moments based in reality. There’s one scene where Skunk gets drunk and wakes up the next day in a pickup truck naked. And that really happened. The character’s name was really Skunk. That’s what we called him. There a lot of moments and I really wanted to film in my hometown. I wanted to give the sense of a small town and growing up there. And I loved growing up there and I wanted people to see how I saw it. Which was beautiful, on the Ohio River, the neighborhood, and the sense community which I don’t think a lot of places have. I live in LA and I don’t really know my neighbors.
But the movie is really about having fun. I come from the Sandler camp and I love John Hughes. I look up to those guys. Obviously there are some fart jokes and it is a boy comedy, but it’s got a through line with heart in it. It’s not all about booze and dicks. It’s also a lot of fun. I wanted it to be a guy/girl movie, where the guy walks out and is like “That was hilarious!” and the girl actually likes it too. It’s not for one or the other.
Shooting in Indiana, we shot at Pizza King, Green River Road, the Washington Square Mall. It felt really authentic. I felt like I had to shoot the movie. It was going home, and that was my home, and that’s where we had to shoot it.
With the locations, how much was shot in Newburgh?
Between Newburgh and Evansville, I’d say 98% of the movie was shot on location.
Did you have the help of a lot of old friends and locals you knew with making the movie?
My friend Phil gave me his house, my sister gave me her house. The house where we used to play Wiffle ball was used for the scene where we play Wiffle ball in the movie which was really cool. The police, the crews, it was surreal. Smallest kid in my high school growing up and now I’m shooting a movie in the same time I grew up in. I had to pinch myself sometimes. We’re shooting a low budget movie, you know. We’re not shooting $50 million movie. It wasn’t easy but it was certainly worth it.
The movie also has to make its money back. This little indie movies live and die off of video on demand. Word of mouth and paying full the $5 and that’s how we get our money back. We don’t get a big distribution deal to be in thousands of theaters. Our movie was downloaded tons of times, illegally, and I don’t think people realize how much it hurts the industry, especially the independent filmmakers. I put my own money out there and I made this movie for not a lot of money so we’re really relying on this. You have to hope people will go see the movie and pay a few bucks. It’s a tough business, between writing it, prepping it, casting it, directing it, and editing it, it was a crash course in making it. You learn all the bad and good things about the business.
With that in mind, have you found the work to be at all discouraging? Or is directing something you really think you want to do more of?
That’s a good question. I fell in love with it. Once I fall in love with something I have to do as much as possible. I know I have to do another one. And so from what I’ve learned from the first one, making it with pennies, you hope for more money and more days. I would not be the lead actor in it this time- it’s too much work. I really would love to that. I’ve been working a few scripts and I’ll decide on one soon and hopefully shoot it this year. But it’s got to be the right one. The first one is a step. To see how much you like it, how you do it, how much money. The second one is the one you want to be the most special. Now that I have a little idea of what I’m doing and how to work the budget. You have to work with you strengths and what you’re good at.
Again, it comes back to people who support you. It’s word of mouth. It starts out with you talking about and telling one and everyone telling their friends. It’s how movies like these can make it. I think this movie will have kind of a cult following. I can tell people are really enjoying. IT’s really great to see that you can make a movie that didn’t cost a lot of money that was made as a passion project that people can enjoy. Ultimately, that’s what I wanted from it- for people to enjoy the movie. To me, that’s enough.
Isaiah Mustafa, who most people know as the Old Spice guy, plays a part in Back in the Day. Does he smell amazing in real life?
Isaiah Mustafa smells wonderful. He gave me a ton of free Old Spice products. Twenty sticks of deodorant, shampoo and everything. He saved me a bunch of money.
Your primarily known for two things, playing Lex Luthor on Smallville and voicing The Flash on The Justice League, both on TV but one involving you acting and the other involving you doing voice work. Which do you prefer?
You know, I really like both in different ways. The great thing about voice work is that you go in not having shaved and wearing your Jim Morrison t-shirt. It doesn’t really matter what you look like. You go sit down, drink a Coke, and just riff for an hour and you’re done.
As for acting, it is tedious, but very rewarding in a different way. It’s a lot harder with more work. A voice actor does two hours, while an actor can work 15 hours a day for eight days in a row, for a couple of months. I love both and I love the chance to do both. I’m fortunate. I’ve done 20 movies, hundreds of episodes of TV, short films, and theater. I always thought my passion was acting but now the directing bug is in me. Voice work is a treat, and playing Lex and Flash at the same time was pretty nuts. I wasn’t a huge comic book fan, not that I don’t like comics, but I never realized the impact I would have playing Lex and Flash and going to these conventions. People go up to you and they’re like “You’re The Flash!” Well, my voice is! You wouldn’t think it matters but it does. People really respond. I think the most loyal fans are the DC fans. When they were casting the Lex Luthor part (for Man of Steel 2), It was amazing to see all of the fans reaching out on Twitter and all of the kind words to get me to be Lex Luthor again. I didn’t do anything I just sat back and thought it was really sweet. I’m very lucky.
You’re known for playing two of the most famous characters in comic history- The Flash, one of the greatest heroes, and Lex Luthor- one of the greatest villains. If Michael Rosenbaum was to exist in the DC universe, would he lean more towards being a hero or being a villain?
I would lean toward The Flash kind of guy. The guy who wants to take light of the situation, when everyone is so upset and the world is dying he’s like, “Hey everything’s going to be alright! Let’s go bowling!”. That’s always been me. That’s kind of me and I’ve always had that temperance- the ability to make things better than they are. I think that’s my gift, honestly, is to entertain. I’d have to say I’d be closer to The Flash. I have some evil in me but I’d be positive for the most part.
One of my favorite episodes of The Justice League is “The Great Brain Robbery”. In the episode, The Flash switches bodies with Lex Luthor. When voicing Lex, did you channel Clancy Brown (the voice actor of the character) or did you play him like your Luthor on Smallville?
No, I wanted to do his version of it. We were both listening to each other and would go back and forth. It was a little tricky but it was really me channeling his. I remember having a lot of fun with it and doing a lot of different takes. What they came up with was pretty good and its one of my favorites.
How much interaction did you have with the other voice actors? I know that sometimes, with voice-work, the entire cast isn’t together for the production.
I tried to be there when we were all recording and we did that quite a bit. As the seasons went on, it was harder and harder. I was up in Vancouver shaving my head and playing the mastermind of Lex Luthor. We’d be recording at 2pm on a Tuesday but I’d have to fly to Vancouver to film at 6am on a Wednesday. So a lot of time, I had to a patch or come down the following week and I’d be there alone. I didn’t like that as much. I liked working with the cast.
You had a reunion with the voice cast for Justice League: Doom. What was that like?
It was really nice. Hopefully there will be more reunions. People are always asking me why I’m not still voicing The Flash. I’d love to play The Flash all the time. but you’re not that forever. I love playing the character and the response I get from all over the world is amazing.
If you could play any other DC character, be it on screen or through voice-work, who would it be?
I think I’d be a fantastic Joker. I think I could crush The Joker.
Acting or voice-work?
Both, actually. I don’t think anyone can top Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker. I don’t think that can ever be topped. I’d give it a shot, don’t get me wrong. The voice would be fun. And I think I could be Batman. Look, these are the ones I’d enjoy, but I’d do anything. Bruce Timm would always ask me to do this and that. It was always a treat “do one of your impressions”. I got to do many voices over the time. It was very fun.
One thing I like to ask everyone I talk to is what are some of your favorite movies? Gun to your head, what would be three movies you had to choose?
I think if I was on a deserted island with ta Blu-ray player and headphones, I got to laugh, have fun, and be scared. If I had to laugh it’d be Arthur. Dudley Moore’s version of Arthur. Probably Empire Strikes Back and maybe Return of the Living Dead. Or maybe The Exorcist. No, I’ll go with The Shining. You got classic horror, classic 80s fun sci-fi thing, and then you got your comedy. That’s me.
What did you think of the Arthur remake?
You know I just didn’t see it. I cant get myself to see it. After I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I’m not watching remakes ever again. Just not doing it. There’s no reason to. If something’s not broke, don’t try to fix it. I just can’t. They remade Carrie. Maybe it’s great, I just don’t care. They remade The Amityville Horror, I mean.. are you kidding me? The original was so scary. I couldn’t believe they made that hack job.
Shifting focus, Jesse Eisenberg has been cast to join your ranks as those who have played Lex Luthor. Do you have any advice for the guy and what do you think of his casting?
First off, I think he’s a really good actor. I don’t think he needs any advice from me, he’ll do his homework. Do it your way. I’m sure Zack [Snyder] has an idea. He cast you for reason. Jesse’s a good actor. He’ll do it his own way and that’s the best way. If you can do it your way, if you succeed or fail, you succeed because you are being original. If you’re trying to emulate someone, you’ll always be compared. That’s why I didn’t want to be compared during Smallville. I didn’t watch any of Gene Hackman as Lex. He’ll be fantastic. Great actor, no problem with it.
I want to end the interview on a nice note. I know you do a lot of charity work, with both The Ronald McDonald House in Seattle and the Echoes of Hope Charity. Can you talk about those?
RMH work with in Seattle is great. They are a tremendous place. There are a lot of kids sick with leukemia and other diseases and the RMH not only gives the kids a place to stay, but also gives their families a place too. It’s such a supportive group of people. Their operations are expensive and we try and help them out. It’s a great charity all around. Echoes of Hope has fantastic support for foster youth. It gives the kids a chance. They’re talented and have something to offer. We try and give them a family atmosphere and the tools to succeed. We raise money and the success has been tremendous, with many of the foster youth going on to college and graduating. It means a lot. Usually if someone believes you in it makes life a lot easier. It’s the least I can do.
Catch Michael Rosenbaum in Back in the Day, a film he wrote, directed, and starred in. You can rent the movie on demand via Amazon and iTunes. My review for the film is coming soon.