Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014: Don Johnson set for visit with Cold in July
Stakeland and We Are What We Are director Jim Mickle directs the 80s-set thriller screening at EIFF 2014
Thanks to filmmakers Tarantino and Rodriguez, the Miami Vice actor is now enjoying a new career high. James Mottram speaks to him about his upcoming 1980s-set crime thriller
Moments before I’m set to meet Don Johnson, a colleague asks: ‘Do you think he’ll be wearing socks?’ Even 25 years after Miami Vice ended its five-season run, the fashions that Johnson’s cop character Sonny Crockett ushered in still loom large in the collective consciousness. Thankfully, he doesn’t commit such a faux-pas. With not even a pastel-shaded jacket with the sleeves rolled up in sight, he’s tastefully attired: black shirt, polished shoes and a sleekly cut two-piece suit.
Now 64, Johnson could easily pass for a man in his late 40s, with his tanned skin and brush-thick silvery hair. It probably helps that his career is in rude health right now. He might not see it this way, but he’s been ‘rediscovered’ by Robert Rodriguez (who cast him in Machete) and Quentin Tarantino (ditto Django Unchained). Like so many 80s icons, Johnson is cool again. The cringeworthy rock track ‘Heartbeat’ he recorded in 1986 even got a revival in last year’s video game Grand Theft Auto V.
Little wonder he arrives with a smile on his face. It’s around 8.30pm and we’re sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Marriott Hotel in Cannes, midway through the film festival. Johnson’s latest effort Cold In July has just been presented in the Director’s Fortnight, and he’s arrived with director Jim Mickle and co-star Michael C Hall (of Dexter fame). While it’s an 80s-set thriller, it’s as far removed from the bright lights, bikini-clad babes and souped-up sports cars of Miami Vice as you could wish.
A Texan pulp thriller in the mould of the Coens’ Blood Simple and the 1990 Johnson-starring The Hot Spot, this adaptation of Joe R Lansdale’s novel sees Hall play a family man who accidentally shoots dead an intruder in his home, only to come up against the burglar’s menacing ex-con father (Sam Shepard) and associate Jim Bob (Johnson), a private eye and – believe it or not – pig farmer. Unsurprisingly, Johnson was intrigued when he first read it.
‘If I know where it’s going, I generally say “No, thank you!” But on this, my character doesn’t even come in until about halfway through, and I liked the energy of the character and the story,’ he explains. Then he got to meet Mickle. ‘When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you get an instinct about whether someone has film sense or whether they don’t.’ Needless to say genre specialist Mickle, who nailed vampires (Stakeland) and cannibals (We Are What We Are) in his last two movies, has it in spades.
We start to reminisce about the 80s. Johnson, who was born in Missouri, the son of a farmer and a beautician, was already ten years into his acting career when the decade began. He also had three marriages behind him, including Melanie Griffith (whom he’d later remarry). ‘It was pre-politically correct – and pre-cellphones and social networking,’ he reflects. ‘AIDS was just becoming part of the lexicon, and it was one of those frightening things, but sex was still all over the place. So it was a very, interesting time.’
By the time he won the role of Crockett in Miami Vice in 1984, the decade was in full swing and Johnson was one of the world’s biggest stars. ‘It was a fun ride,’ he nods. ‘Listen – I can’t complain. It took very good care of me and my family [he now has five children, from three different relationships]. But it was also challenging.’ In particular, the constant press attention. ‘It was like feeding the machine, feeding the beast, and then the inevitable happens where it stops becoming stories that are flattering and starts becoming stories that are nonsense.’
When the show ended, Johnson concentrated on his film career – though efforts like Paradise (with Griffith) and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man failed to push him to the next level. He and Griffith divorced for a second time in 1996, when she left him for Antonio Banderas, the same year he returned to the TV cop drama in Nash Bridges, a show he originated with his neighbour, legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson. It ran for six seasons, during which time Johnson married for a fifth time – to nursery school teacher Kelley Phleger.
If the 2000s were leaner, Johnson’s recent revival continues unabated. He’s just revived Sheriff Earl McGraw – a character previously played by Michael Parks in a number of Rodriguez / Tarantino productions – in a brand new TV series of their 1996 vampire thriller From Dusk Till Dawn. He’s also written a script about college football, set in the 80s (natch), and is hoping to direct a movie in Dubai. ‘It’s an incredible story that involves the independence of Arabia,’ he says. Sounds sweltering, I say. At least he’ll be able to take his socks off.
Cold In July screens at Edinburgh International Film Festival, Cineworld, Fri 20 Jun & Filmhouse, Mon 23 Jun, and is on general release from Fri 27 Jun.
Johnson will be interviewed on stage at the festival on Sat 21 Jun.