elieve it or not, Rory Cochrane, most famous for his stoner role as Slater in writer-director Richard Linklater's cult classic Dazed and Confused, says he's never done any serious drugs. Yet the actor has shown a keen ability to play various types of drug addicts throughout his career. Cochrane teamed up with Linklater again for his latest role as Charles Freck in A Scanner Darkly—only this time the drug of choice was fictional Substance D.
"Even if I had [done serious drugs], there's nothing to really relate Substance D to, so you just have to use your imagination. You take little bits about what you think might be [the] effects of something," explains Cochrane. In one hilarious scene in Linklater's new tripped-out film, a cartoonlike Freck has a suicidal fantasy in which his sins are read to him by a creature made of eyeballs. The sci-fi movie, due out July 7, is painted over with the same interpolated rotoscope animation Linklater used in 2001's Waking Life—a method that allows performers to be more stylized and over-the-top.
"You definitely have to take those liberties, because that's not going to happen on every picture," says Cochrane. So what did he think of Waking Life? "I liked the concept and the technology. I thought it was good. The thing I like about [A Scanner Darkly] is that it's a little steadier; like, you felt like you were kind of on a boat when you watched [Waking Life]. It's definitely a cool look for a film."
Among a talented cast featuring Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and Keanu Reeves, none fits better into the Philip K. Dick adaptation than Cochrane. Indeed, the film opens with Freck in the shower, paranoid and wild-eyed, amusingly trying to scrub hallucinated "bugs" off himself and his dog. Freck's story line is almost episodic and treated separately from the rest of the characters, and the actor took a different approach to preparing for the role, one that required all of five minutes.
"I've done extensive research on certain characters that I've played—read books, traveled to places just so I could figure it all out," he says. "In this particular instance, I did not read the script or the book because I felt like my character did not necessarily need to know everything that was going on, because he was so whacked out and removed. I would just take it scene by scene…. I definitely knew I didn't want to copy the performance [of Slater in Dazed]."
The Criterion Collection DVD of Dazed and Confused was released June 6, and though the film's cult status continues to grow, it's easy to forget how many careers, including Cochrane's, began with the 1993 film. Dazed provided some of our earliest glimpses of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Renée Zellweger, Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, and Cole Hauser. "In the beginning of the struggle when I was out here [auditioning in L.A.], I was broke. I was living in some [rat-infested] Hollywood motel," says Cochrane, who made ends meet by building doghouses and delivering newspapers. "I'd never flown first class before. Sometimes there's a decent project and they take care of you. They put you in a nice room, give you per diem. To be a part of [Dazed] was really special. It feels great. Those kinds of opportunities don't come around all the time. Especially the group that they had on that movie; all of us were sort of young, coming out of the gate, and for all those people to go on to do other things I think says a lot about Rick [Linklater] and what a director he is because he has good vision and confidence in, you know, we were all no-name guys. Matthew [McConaughey] they found in a bar."
The film had a limited release but flourished on video. Cochrane found himself being offered a lot of stoner and drug-addict roles. "Not a lot of people have imagination," he says. "They don't believe you can do different things, and that's why the movie I did after that was called Love and a .45, which was a completely different character from [Slater]. That's part of the struggle. You have to fight impressions that people have of you—I mean, if you're lucky enough to be able to fight that."
Love and a .45 featured Cochrane as a tweaked-out would-be robber seeking revenge on a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde (played by Renée Zellweger and Gil Bellows). The film revealed a badass, dangerous Cochrane sporting a gnarly tattoo on his bald head. It was beginning to sink in that the actor had more in him than just the lovable Slater. Roles as poor gambler Lucas in Empire Records (alongside Zellweger and Liv Tyler); depressed writer John in The Low Life; a drug dealer who dates very young girls in Flawless (opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert De Niro); and Vince Vaughn's childlike friend with muscular dystrophy in The Prime Gig followed. All Cochrane's characters are quirky and charming in their own ways, like a less-brooding Benicio Del Toro.
Cochrane had a two-season stint on CSI: Miami as levelheaded Tim Speedle, a trace expert whose thesis at Columbia was "molecular mechanisms of neural differentiation, axon guidance, and cell recognition in vertebrate development." With daily dialogue like that and the monotony of being on a one-hour drama, the actor became unhappy and asked to be written off the CBS hit in 2004. The network obliged.
"I know a lot of these people that are going to read this would cut their right arm off to be on a show like that and have a steady job, but that's not why I became an actor, to do the same thing every day like a company," he reveals. "I don't regret doing the show at all. I got along with the cast; they were great. It's just, when you stop caring about being good because you're bored, it doesn't matter how much money they're paying you. I had to take off before it got to that place. People say, 'It's America, and a lot of people hate their jobs.' But you know what? Then that's your problem. I don't want to hate my job."
Cochrane, who's managed by Beth Holden-Garland at Untitled Entertainment, didn't have to wait long to start liking his job again: Linklater had written the Freck role specifically for him. Cochrane loves Linklater's collaborative, relaxed approach. "He's completely at ease with the process of making his films," notes the actor. "It's kind of mind-blowing, the fact that he has a zero level of stress. I think that transfers over to the production. It feels more like going to a barbecue or something."
Out next is art director Chris Gorak's directorial debut Right at Your Door, which already played the Sundance, Cannes, and Los Angeles film festivals. The post-9/11-themed film is set in Los Angeles after a dirty bomb goes off, and Cochrane plays a terrified husband who won't let his wife (Mary McCormack) in the house, convinced she's been contaminated by chemicals.
"When I read the script, I thought, 'How am I going to play this thing?' I battled it for a while, but I'm glad I did it," admits Cochrane. "It's definitely an uncomfortable movie for a lot of people. It was one of the most difficult movies I've ever done because I was afraid of it and it was really challenging. I think if an actor looks at a role that they don't think they can play, they should try to do that, because that's when you get pushed to try to do the best that you can."