Q&A: Bruce Greenwood On the Powerful and Poignant ‘GOOD KILL’

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good-kill-2Preston Barta // Features Editor

On film, Bruce Greenwood is perhaps best known for starring as President John F. Kennedy in 2000’s THIRTEEN DAYS, as well as Christopher Pike in both 2009’s STAR TREK and 2013’s STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. He was most recently seen doing a guest stint on the final episodes of MAD MEN.

But now you can catch Greenwood in GOOD KILL, a war-drama about a family man (Ethan Hawke) who questions whether using drones is an effective way of fighting combat. This is a thought-provoking piece with real human characters with real moral conflict. It doesn’t pull any punches by any means, as it shows the sheer ugliness of war and its ambiguities.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to recently speak with Greenwood about the film, the questions it raises, and his own familiarity with the drone program.

Bruce Greenwood is Lt. Colonel Jack Johns in GOOD KILL. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Bruce Greenwood is Lt. Colonel Jack Johns in GOOD KILL. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

From the kind of roles you choose, I feel like you’re very politically minded, you pay attention to current affairs and have a strong opinion on things. Obviously, drones are the now, and I like your line in the film about it being the now and no longer the future. How has doing this film changed you? Do you often carry your roles with you after you finish films?

Bruce Greenwood: “I tend not to carry the characters with me for very long, but in terms of the question that the film might ask you to think about, this one in particular, these are conversations you do carry. I was completely unaware of the drone program in any kind of detail until (writer/director) Andrew [Niccol] invited me to start thinking about it.

The morality of prosecuting a war, a conflict, an uprising or a perceived threat in this way is something you don’t want to think about, unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time thinking about it. The answers are not easy or readily apparent. The more you think about it, the more complicated the conversation becomes.”

I’m with you on that. I honestly didn’t know anything about the drone program. I knew they existed, and I’ve read about drone strikes in the news here and there, but I had no idea what that meant. I feel as though this movie is going to be a great history lesson for those who are unfamiliar with this program. Growing up, what was that movie that taught you your favorite history lesson?

Greenwood: “Favorite history lesson from a movie– that’s interesting. I don’t really know. It’s not a question I can answer instantly; although, I was recently thinking about DEAD MAN WALKING.”

Oh, yeah? With Sean Penn. That’s a great film.

Greenwood: “Yeah. It is a great movie. The effect it had on me– I was never proponent to the death penalty, but what happened in that movie for me was something I didn’t expect at all. When the credits rolled I was completely undone by the idea that at our fundamental base level we are dark creatures. My wife, however, felt the opposite way. She identified with Sister Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and her ability and willingness to forgive. But I was undone by the unrepentant, the character played by Sean Penn– the tears were opportunistic and false. His falling apart was a display of arrogance. I was just completely undone by it. It was brilliant! It’s not an answer to your question, but it’s what came to mind.

When I did THIRTEEN DAYS, the only thing I knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis was– we lived in Bethesda, Maryland at the time, and I had to run home from elementary school. We all did, because we all wanted to die with our parents. I started to learn how close we had become, the kind of delicate interplay between the major players and how it could have gone either way. It sort of woke me up to the idea that, ‘Wow! This must be happening far more often than we could have ever imagined.’ Maybe this grasp on this western life style is spectacularly tenuous and we really have no idea how fragile it is. And that sort of brings you to thinking about how you protect something that is fragile, and it also asks you to think, well, if it’s fragile, is it fragile because it’s unsupportable?”

That’s interesting. I think that’s one of the great things about movies: how they can give more meaning to things that may have been beyond your comprehension. I can remember in high school reading about slavery, but I never really had a grasp of what it was until I saw movies like AMISTAD (1997) and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013). I feel like that’s what GOOD KILL does. I’m not up-to-date on current affairs, so movies like this are great because they make you mentally and emotionally aware of what’s going on and what happened.

Greenwood: “Yeah. Making you aware of this wicked duality that these pilots have to live under. It reminds you that even though something as contrived as the phrase ‘proportionality’ or ‘signature strike’– as reprehensible as that seems on a certain level, there is less collateral damage than there has been in the past. So, does this mean we are moving forward in terms of our ability to isolate the threats that are real, or does it free us to strike indiscriminately when nobody is even there to see it?”

It causes you to ask many questions.

Greenwood: “Yeah, like how easy is it to abuse the program. Granted, mistakes are going to be made anytime there’s conflict: artillery would fire at the wrong place, intelligence will be bad, and people who pose no threat to us will be killed. But now that we have this ability to reach out surgically – relatively surgically I should say – and strike somewhere, where does it become impossible that, that becomes misused in the profoundest of ways? Where do you draw the line in terms of our ability to reach out and strike? What constitutes abuse in the first place? Some people would say drone warfare is an abuse of military, while other people would say, ‘how is it an abuse when it kills people who are bent on killing us and doesn’t put our guys at risk? How is that wrong?’ Then you get into conversations about killing, period.”

Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in GOOD KILL. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in GOOD KILL. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

There are so many take-away lines about war and the job at hand that your character says. You talk about the realities of the program, how misunderstood it is in the public eye, which you mentioned. In your experience in the film business, do you remember that first hard-hitting moment? Because I imagine before you got in you had your own preconceived notions of how the business works, but did you have a moment where you thought, ‘Wow. This is what it’s really like?’ Or, did it live up to what you originally thought?

Greenwood: “Oh, I had no idea that I would be so dependent on people liking me. I used to think – when I first moved down here – look, if I do this part well in the audition I’ll get the part. But then it would come back, ‘We’d love to hire him but he’s too blonde, too short, too pretty, not pretty enough, too young, too old…’– all those things you think are unrelated to acting. I thought it was all about acting, all moment-to-moment stuff. However, I discovered pretty quickly within my first year that it’s only a fraction of it, an absolute fraction.

When kids ask me today – ‘I want to be an actor’ – I’m loath to say, ‘Hey, go for it. It’s great fun.’ The door is open and you turn around for an instant, not only is it closed but it’s not even there. It’s a wall.”

Lastly, if you could teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?

Greenwood: “Wow. I’ve never heard that question! [Laughs] That’s great. Well, I can’t claim to be worthy enough to stand in front a group of people, telling them things they didn’t know.”

Well, you do it so well in your movies [Laughs].

Greenwood: “Yeah. [Laughs] I suppose I could do that. That’s such a great question, but I don’t think I have an interesting enough answer for you, I’m sorry to say. I’d much rather go to college than be a teacher [Laughs]. There are lots of courses I would take, but none that I would teach, though.”

GOOD KILL opens in select theaters this weekend, but opens in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area next week (5/22).

Feature Photo: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke star in GOOD KILL. Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.