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Film veteran Sanders talks shop during local stop
News Staff
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Bill Wippert/Buffalo News
Actor Jay O. Sanders gets ready to roll during the filming of "The Dissection of Thanksgiving" last month at Island Lanes on Grand Island.


Bowlers waited patiently on the parquet at Island Lanes in Grand Island, hefting their bowling balls, waiting for the movie camera to start rolling. There had been more than a dozen takes already, but the director wasn't happy.

The movie crew, numbering more than 25, were working for two hours and still didn't have the perfect 15 seconds.

The one person on that set last week that American moviegoers might have recognized was Jay O. Sanders. Remember the global-warming-horror pic "The Day After Tomorrow"? Dennis Quaid's trusty sidekick, the one who cuts the rope above the abyss of the mall atrium, saving his buddies? Yeah, that was him.

He was in town for a couple weeks filming "The Dissection of Thanksgiving," an independent film written by the Town of Tonawanda's Kevin Logie and partner Troy Hall. The optimistic shorthand for the picture is " "Little Miss Sunshine' meets "Garden State' with a touch of "Napoleon Dynamite.' "

Sanders plays the dad in a family coming apart, with Kathleen Quinlan (an Oscar nominee as an astronaut's wife in "Apollo 13") as his wife.

Between scenes, Sanders takes a few minutes to talk about the upside to not exactly being famous, ways the business has changed over the decades, and why not even a gay longshoreman is a stretch for an actor with his range.

So your acting career spans more than 25 years?

Thirty. This summer marked my 30th anniversary.

What did you do in between, wait tables?

I've never done anything but acting. That's very unusual.

You show up as the coach, the police chief, and like in this film, you're the dad.

Or the FBI agent, or the Amish farmer, or porno star. There's no one thing that I am. I'm chief investigator in "JFK," I'm Terry Anderson, the press guy, the Beirut hostage in "Hostages."

Don't you ever want to break out of the mold of the big, solid, regular guy? What about a gay longshoreman?

I was talked to about doing that, actually, in a film. A gay longshoreman. My friend Stephen Lang played that role. I forget the name of the film.

I did play a gay opera singer in "Meeting Venus." I've done a little bit of everything.

I'll say.

I can't break out of being big. That's who I am. I've been thinner, or heavier, but I've been 6-foot-4 since college.

In "The Day After Tomorrow," it looked like you were hanging over a crevasse, with the dangerous looking stuff piped in behind you.

That's not quite right. I shot it in an extremely dangerous place, 70 feet in the air, but they didn't like the angle, and the camera was up on top of the studio. It was so hot I was sweating profusely, and they were so cold above me that the camera froze. They shot other angles too, where I was only a few inches off of a stand, and combined them.

Profuse sweating may have rather undermined the dramatic impact of the impending ice age.


Since you've been doing this, you've rubbed shoulders or worked with half of the Hollywood A list. Does it bother you that People magazine isn't buying paparazzi shots of you?

No. You go through times where you say, "If I had this, I could have this other thing." The trade-off is that if you're well known, to a certain degree, you're seen as someone who can help sell a picture. Then they come to you to play a leading role in their picture because people will come to see it. You become part of the economics of it. I've never been there.

The trade off, I can tell you from having friends in that position, is that it's a pain in the ass for them to walk down the street. To sit in a restaurant. I will get approached by people saying, "You look really familiar."

But the fact that I am able to spend my life doing what I do without having my private life taken away is a real - it's a balance that just worked out.

Has the rise of independent film really changed things for actors, or is that just hype?

Part of what's changing is the studios seem to operate from a position of fear. They feel like they have to guarantee success - which never happens, incidentally - by getting the biggest names they can. Of course, the biggest names aren't necessarily the best for a thing. People may come to see them, but it doesn't mean they'll do well.

The paranoia works for people who are particularly well known, but people are also being paid less. The middle class and upper middle class of character actors, which is where I live, is now being fed minimum, or in a range just above that. Substantially less than we were 10, 20 years ago, because now they're paying $20 million to one person at the top, and then begging poverty when it comes to paying everyone else.

It makes everyone feel undervalued. It makes everything a struggle to keep going, and it makes ridiculous expectations on one person, because nobody is really worth $20 million.

There seem to be a lot of fresh faces on this crew. At times it seems like you're teaching out there.

When I started out I watched everybody with an eagle eye. My first film, Alan Pakula directed, was a film called "Starting Over" with Burt Reynolds, who at that time was No. 1 box office in the world. Jill Clayburgh, Candice Bergen, Charles Durning, Frances Sternhagen. Pakula was a great director, "All the President's Men," and "Klute." Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer, his first time working with someone other than Ingmar Bergman.

A crack camera team, we'd do the most complicated shots in one take, and I'm on there for the first time going, "Wow, I guess they just do this," having no idea that if they had to do another setup it would take them 10 times to get it right.

You sit and watch and learn. If I'm giving something to people through my experience, that's part of my job. ... I think I'm teaching by doing it - but that doesn't mean I'm any good.