Peter Coyote sits back in his tastefully appointed Los Angeles hotel room and, with a lightly contemptuous leer, indicates a standard "welcome" fruit basket someone has given him.
"Ah yes, the ubiquitous basket of fruit," he intones, a la W. C. Fields. "You can always tell when your getting hotter in the business--more people start signing the card you get with it."
He laughs, and adds: "When I was an amateur actor, I had a lot more freedom as an artist to perform experiments and do weird things, because I made my nut some other way. Now you see me cutting ribbons at the openings of supermarkets and boat shows."
True to his adopted name, Coyote has always prowled on the perimeter of the Hollywood Establishment. His cynicism toward its trappings comes from his own sharp vision and his prior associations with experimental theater groups like the San Francisco Mime Troupe. And while his appearance--and resume--are beginning to take on the gleam of success, there remains his individualistic outlook on the practice and craft of film acting.
Yet cynicism aside, there is one measure of artistic freedom that Coyote says he still relishes, even in the fruit basket and boat-show-opening era: the maneuvering room he gets when he's playing the villain. It's a process that, he feels, is--among other things--distilled from the social demands we place upon our entertainments.
"We spend all this energy keeping our lives normal and safe and predictable, and the result is that our approved cultural safety valve is the movies," remarks the 44-year-old actor, gesturing broadly with a huge cigar. "So, in films anyway, the hero is obliged to represent the continuance of social values and institutions, and his permission to act is much more seriously limited than the villain's. As a result, the villain gets to be a pipe organ: 85 stops, 12 pedals, all the hardware. The hero--because, stereotypically, he has to exclude evil from his nature--is constrained, for that reason. But the bad guy, who of course personifies malevolence, can really go for it."
Coyote's current film, "Jagged Edge," rather turns those roles topsy-turvy. But about his role as Thomas Krasny, the politically ambitious district attorney, Coyote is certain, and in detail.
"To me, Krasny is a warning sign of the culture whose values and institutions are being defended by people who are completely amoral, completely without principle," Coyote says, frowning slightly. "He's put out there like cops; he's the second line of defense after they've hauled the bad guys in. He deals with hookers and criminals and jive artists all day long, and if he's a pantywaist or if he's too gullible, he's gone; he'll get eaten alive. And he knows that, has learned it."
Coyote comes by his political revisions of culture very circuitously: Here was a man who, in the course of spending a decade living outside of the cultural mainstream in sundry communes, became "so politically correct that all I could do was live in the woods and eat wild food." ("That was a while back there--though it was great," Coyote comments.)
After becoming acquainted with then-Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., Coyote, who had returned to acting, was appointed to the state Council for the Arts--another lesson in political theory and or its practice: that it's not always easy to pick out the bad guys.
"I think that society needs to be protected from the Thomas Krasnys, so he's a villain in that sense, surely," Coyote says. "But in point of fact, you show me a successful man or woman who hasn't bent the rules in pursuit of a strong hunch. I saw guys like that when I was in state politics. It's one of those things: When you break the rules and you win, you're a hero; when you lose, you're scurrilous. Krasny should win, but doesn't--until it's too late, meaningless."
Coyote figures that this dualism of villainy--the bad guy with "good" intentions--represents both archetypes in society (the unscrupulous dictator, the crooked police chief, and of course, the overly ambitious district attorney) and the contrary features of an attractive villainous character that succeeds with critics and audiences, such as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" . . . or Thomas Krasny.
"My own psychological framework for Krasny was that there were three guys involved in a robbery of a neighborhood grocery, and the grocer was killed." Coyote is discussing the Styles case, which in the film drives Close's character--guilty over indicting the wrong person--from Krasny's employ. "So I fingered the Styles kid for the trigger man--only to find out later he wasn't the trigger man. But he was there , you know? He was in on it, somehow. He's still a criminal. So, from Krasny's point of view, Glenn (Close) is like a knee-jerking liberal, howling about the injustices of the system. But so far as he's concerned, he got another criminal off the streets. And that was its own justification for not admitting the mistake."