When my agent, Jeremy, sent me the script for Rescue Unit, I expected another vapid story from the Hollywood assembly line. But when I finally sat down and read it, I practically flipped.
I got Jeremy on his cell and said, “You’ve got to get me the part of Cliff Belton. I will kill for this. I’ve been waiting for this role my whole life.”
Jeremy seemed a little hesitant and started beating around the bush, asking me about my motorcycle, how my rehab was going, whatever became of that court order against me, and employing every other stall tactic. (I think it’s because he bills me by the minute.) Finally, he spit it out: “You do understand this is what people call an ‘adult film,’ don’t you?”
Well, it’s about time, I told him. So that’s what they’re calling movies where everyone actually acts like a normal person? Count me in. I had just wasted two weeks of my talent playing a coachman in The Metronome, one of those art-house films the cineastes always love that is shown in tiny theaters with terrible popcorn. I got to drive the main character around while he fought off consumption and a loss of musical confidence. Before that, two other roles in period films where everyone has an English accent.
This story was different. It crackled. From the very first scene, the characters in Rescue Unit (paramedics making ambulance runs) jumped off the page. They seemed more real than most of the people I knew.
They would meet quickly through some inciting incident and then act. I don’t mean like movie acting, I mean seizing the moment. The characters, especially Cliff, would have an encounter, and then, without discussion or exposition, there would immediately be sex. Based on the offhand remarks and interjections (especially from the actresses), the sex seemed to be of the highest quality. The characters would finish an interlude and then, very soon, another encounter would ensue, sometimes in the back of the ambulance, sometimes in the ER suite, once at the site of a five-car pileup.
There was no hesitation, or time wasted on a long buildup in which Cliff stares into the middle distance while a Philip Glass score plays.
After intercourse, there was little, if any, remorse. Nobody felt betrayed, there were no repercussions, no shouting matches, no crying fits, no threats of divorce. Cliff didn’t talk about what a damned fool he had been. There also seemed to be a refreshing absence of class consciousness.
Amid all this, the through line was compelling. I completely bought the idea that this group of paramedics would give their all for a shared objective. I remember the jolt I received reading the incredible scene on page 64, where Cliff, Bambi, and Shasta work together frantically to give CPR to a buxom blond attorney. The repeated compressions and rhythmic breathing, the relentless build toward the moment when the paramedics can no longer restrain their lust for one other—at that moment I realized I understood Cliff’s motivation better than anyone I had ever played. (And then the revived attorney joins in the fun. When was the last time a Hollywood type dared challenge the audience like that?)
The wunderkind who had written the script turned out to be a 19-year-old security guard whose only previous writing credit was a brief narrative submitted to Penthouse. But he’s going to leave some giant footprints; his writing has a brio that reminds me of the Beats in their early days.
Even after Jeremy told me Rescue Unit would probably never play on the big screens and would more likely be distributed by video or motel pay-per-view, I didn’t care. It’s a matter of laying yourself bare for the character. I told him I would work for scale to get this done, and he said the people financing the movie were actually paying minimum wage. Also, if I damage my prosthesis in any way during filming, I have to reimburse them.
Still, in a town littered with broken ambitions, how many people get the chance to work on a project like this? It’s funny; I had just about given up on acting. But this role reminds me once again why I walked out of that theater many years ago after seeing Patrick Swayze in Road House and knew I wasn’t going to be a lawyer after all.