Scott Glenn may have entered the “playing granddad” part of his career, but odds are he could still kick your ass. At least, that’s the distinct feeling we got during our conversation with the veteran actor from his property in the foothills of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
“I’ve always been a person who experiences life through my body first, and in my mind second,” says Glenn, while recounting some of the epic lengths he went to bring authenticity to his acting. The pursuit of those new experiences continues off screen as well, most recently in the study of the Russian martial art systema.
Glenn spoke with Men’s Journal about his latest role in Ric Roman Waugh’s Greenland, his legendary career, divergent training practices, and living the good life in the Pacific Northwest.
What made you want to jump onboard Greenland?
I really saw the potential in the project after talking with Ric Waugh, and realizing the section I would be in is the beating heart of the movie. The idea of dealing with a natural disaster of that magnitude, and what you would do under those circumstances, is a big one. I think what resonates is that drive to find everyone you care about—making sure they’re safe and what’s possible when we all work together. We’re unified under a common threat. I saw that in the script, and I also saw who my character was. He’s, how should I say it, finished the major circle of his life. The love of his life is gone. And to him, whether he lives for another 50 years or another 50 minutes makes no difference.
How was working with Gerard Butler?
Gerry was great—both he and Morena Baccarin were very generous with our scenes together. I work a certain way, and I always have. When a scene begins, I have no idea where it’s going to go. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, or what the audience is going to see, and they allowed me to go with it. That’s all I need.
What drove you to move out to Idaho instead of the usual actor haunts like New York or Los Angeles?
I was drawn here because, in my opinion, it’s the most beautiful country you’re ever going to see. Our house sits at around 6,000 feet. When we have snow, we have some of the greatest skiing in the lower 48 states. During the summer, there’s hiking everywhere and roads made by God for our motorcycles. It’s a great place for me to get back into neutral before I go out to do this crazy thing I decided to do for a living. The air is clean and the water is clear. My wife is a potter, and a brilliant artist. She has a studio on our land so she can just walk across our property to do her work.
What kind of motorcycles are you riding now?
The main bike I ride now is a BMW, but I’ve had all kinds of sport bikes, Ducatis, Triumphs. If you can name it, I’ve had it. I’m really looking forward to getting back on a track again, so I can do high speeds, makes some turns, and all of the fun stuff that goes with that.
What are you doing for fitness these days?
I’ve done one form of martial arts or another since I was a kid, after I’d already done wrestling and boxing. The first martial art I really studied was tang soo do, which is a Korean style that has a little more emphasis on striking. But most recently, I spent a long weekend with one of the great masters of Russian systema, this guy Vladimir Vasiliev. I learned a lot from that experience and a few new techniques I’ve been playing around with. One of the elements I brought into my training is the idea that the workout has just as much to do with your breathing as it does with your physical exertion.
Can you give us an example of what that might look like?
For instance, doing pushups that are completely synchronized with your breathing—inhaling as you slowly press your body up, then return back down, all while still inhaling. Then before you begin your next pushup, start to exhale, and repeat that process all while exhaling. It allows you to concentrate on your breathing more deeply, as well as opening up your senses to places where you may be feeling tension or strain. Not only that, but slow pushups are just harder by nature. Another great one is a variation to fist pushups, where you open your fingers slowly until they’re lying flat on the ground and your weight is evenly distributed on all of your knuckles. I’m still working on it, but you might be taking two minutes just to do one pushup. Sixty seconds down, then 60 seconds back up.
How important is authenticity when you’re acting?
I believe that whatever character you play, there are parts of their life outside of the scenes—hobbies, occupation, behaviors—that are innate to them. For example, starting with Urban Cowboy, there’s a way bull riders tie the rawhide around their gloves. I wanted to learn how to do it realistically, using my teeth and one hand. I got comfortable with it by actually doing it a thousand times a day—150 times before breakfast, after breakfast, and so on. By the time I was doing it in a scene, I didn’t have to think about it. I only do it in two scenes, but having that natural reflex brought a new level of authenticity for me. There were a few bull riders who saw the movie and thought perhaps they’d found a bull rider to play the part or that I was a serious bull rider. There aren’t many compliments better to get than that.
Do you have more examples of that on-the-job training?
For The Shipping News, I got director Lasse Hallström to get me a job gutting fish for two hours every night in the kitchen of the hotel we were staying in. I was hoping for cod, because I knew there was going to be a scene where I’m on my boat gutting a fish and I wanted to be able to do it without thinking. I didn’t want to be staring at my hands. I wanted it to look like I’d been doing it my whole life.
What’s been your most physical role in a film?
The character Stick, the blind sensei to Matt Murdock in Daredevil, was one of the most intensely physical for me. I spent countless hours with my teacher, Dan Anderson. He has a martial arts studio called Anderson Martial Arts at the corner of Broadway and Canal in New York City. Basically, when I wasn’t on set in Brooklyn filming the show, I was with my sifu (teacher) playing with knives. I probably spent more time working with the stunt people on our show than the rest of the cast because of the level of action we were doing.
I recently had a conversation with a NASA astronaut, Mike Massimino, who says watching The Right Stuff inspired him to go to space. What do you remember about playing Alan Shepard?
Really? [Laughs]. That’s great. The hardest part about that movie was I knew there were going to be two people playing Alan Shepard, me and the real Alan Shepard. That’s because our director, Philip Kaufman, was going to be using news reel footage as well as our performances. So there were things I needed to get right. Alan Shepard is right handed, while I’m very left handed. I remember waking up in the morning in San Francisco and I would use yarn to tie my left hand to my belt loop so I was forced to use my right hand.
I have to ask about Vertical Limit, which came out 20 years ago in December 2000. I heard that was a crazy shoot, filmed at these rugged locations in New Zealand’s Southern Alps and K2.
Vertical Limit was a giant adventure for me. Right from the beginning we started rehearsing and training in Queenstown, New Zealand. There were a lot of days set aside for the cast to become comfortable with all the gear we were going to be using. I remember one day they took us to these frozen waterfalls outside of Queenstown, and we learned about going up ice with picks. I was already a fairly addicted rock climber at that point, but I had never climbed ice before then, and just fell in love with it.
What did you find compelling about ice climbing?
The thing about rock climbing is, outside of the physical challenge, there’s an element where you need to be analyzing the rock face for the best route. Your ability to climb is reliant on the options nature puts in front of you. For ice climbing, you can pretty much go anywhere there’s ice, so instead of taking an inventory of your options, you take an inventory of yourself. You need to be honest about your abilities, especially if you have someone following behind you.
Were you able get a lot of ice climbing in during that production?
On one of the rehearsal days they were trying to corral the cast back to the hotel, and I just kept going up one of the waterfalls we’d been climbing and said I couldn’t go back with them. Our ice climbing advisor and guide, Barry Blanchard, who’s arguably one of the best out there, just looked at me and said, ‘You’ve fallen in love with this haven’t you?’ I had. He told me if there was a scene in the movie where I needed to ice climb, he’d teach me everything he could. So I started to pester Martin Campbell about putting an ice climbing scene in the movie. When he finally cracked, Martin turned to me with the whole cast around, and said, ‘You’re turning into an insufferable child. If I give you an ice climbing scene will you shut up and do everything I tell you to?’ I said yes. From that point on, any day I wasn’t working, I had my own helicopter, a big Thermos of English breakfast tea, and Barry fucking Blanchard teaching me to ice climb.
What were those ice climbing days with Barry like?
We would go to this place called the Darwin Ice Bowl, which was right at the edge of the Tasman Glacier. There we would climb all over these great seracs of ice. I no doubt spent more days climbing than I did acting in that movie. I just loved it. Sitting in that helicopter after some great climbing, with the sun setting over Karakoram mountain, with one of the best climbers in the world. It doesn’t get any better than that. Those moments are everything.
Greenland is now available on demand
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