My worst moment: William Fichtner didn’t know how to ride a horse. Then he was asked to do a horse-riding stunt

Tribune Content Agency

In the thriller “Hypnotic” from writer-director Robert Rodriguez, William Fichtner plays a man who uses high-tech mind control for nefarious purposes and Ben Affleck plays the cop who must stop him.

“I’ve turned down plenty of bad guy roles in my life, even when I needed to work,” said Fichtner. “I can’t find some redeeming quality — something that drives the character — then I don’t know what to play. And I found so many layers with this guy. You gotta find that thing that the character cares about, and if you find that, you can make him a real person, whether we like him or not. I like to joke that if you’re an actor and you try to make interesting choices and you have cheekbones? You kill people. That’s all there is to it. But I’ve done just as many comedies as dramas.”

That includes several seasons on the sitcom “Mom.” His credits also include “Armageddon,” “Black Hawk Down,” “The Perfect Storm” and more recently the ABC heist series “The Company You Keep.”

When asked about a worst moment in his career, Fichtner replied: “I looked up my bio and I went through every movie and, I kid you not, I don’t know if I have a cringey moment outside of being on set for a week and calling the director ‘Pete’ and I find out his name is Robert. So I was racking my brain. And I’ve have had moments where I’m like, ‘Ugh, you gotta be kidding me’ and then you have to find your way through it. So I’m gonna tell you about one of those.

“It’s a story that really stopped me in my tracks and silently inside I thought: How am I going to do this?”

My worst moment …

“This was about 10 years ago. I was taking my wife skiing with the boys, and my agent called and said, ‘Listen, you’re going to get a call in an hour because I’m pretty sure you’re going to get an offer to play Butch Cavendish, the gunslinger in ‘The Lone Ranger.’ And it’s a Jerry Bruckheimer film, I’ve worked with Jerry, like, five times. I don’t say no to Jerry, I don’t care what it is, he’s such a gentleman. So I’m like, ‘You got it.’

“I get to Albuquerque 48 hours later and Tommy Harper, the stunt coordinator, picks me up at the airport and he says, ‘All right, I have a question for you: How’s your horseback riding?’ And my heart sank. I’m like, ‘Uh, 37 years ago I rode a horse for 12 minutes and swore I’d never do it again.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Because the one thing (director) Gore Verbinski wants you to do in this film — and it’s on the schedule for three months from now — not only does he want you to ride a horse, but he wants you to jump out of a moving train onto a horse. And they don’t want to use a stunt guy because of the way they’re going to shoot it.’

“He’s telling me all this while I’m waiting for my luggage.

“He said, ‘We’ve built our own railroad out in the prairie. We have 11 miles of track. We’ve flown in the old train cars. And your gang is going to ride up on the outside of the moving train, they’re going to open up the door and unchain you and then you’re going to aim your guns at Tonto and the Lone Ranger and then the horse nearest to the train is going to have an empty saddle. The train is going to be going 18 miles an hour, so the horses are going at a full gallop. And Gore wants you to give this whole speech, tip your hat and then turn around, jump off the moving train onto that horse with the empty saddle and then ride away.’

“I’m a team player. So I’m like, ‘Heh, sure.’ And he’s like, ‘Instead of going to meet Gore, why don’t we go right to our cowboy camp?’ I’m just terrified. I had three months to prepare for this.

“So we started working on the stunt with a flatbed truck that wasn’t moving, and jumping from the truck to the saddle. A week later we take it up to 3 miles an hour. A week later we take it up to 6 miles an hour. And we kept doing that until we got it up to 18 miles an hour. And your aim has to be perfect, but I remember one of the guys said to me, ‘Bill, I promise you, you won’t hit the ground — I’ll grab hold of you.’

“So we’re practicing and I’m in the high 90 percentile making it into the saddle. But on the day, it’s not just the jump. I have a whole speech I have to do and these busted up teeth in my mouth (that are part of the costume). And the idea is that I never look back over my shoulder. They want me to just turn and almost blindly jump straight out. I will literally see the saddle when I’m in the air.

“The reason Gore wanted to do it that way was because, when you cut away, everybody knows that’s the magic of movies. But he didn’t want to cut away. He wanted the camera behind Tonto and the Lone Ranger, so it was watching me jump. The whole time the camera would see the horse out there galloping with the empty saddle, and then I turn and jump and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, did he just do that?’

“So it was time to go. And I remember the first AD shouted out, ‘All right, the train’s going 20 miles an hour,’ and I thought, ‘You always told me 18!’

“I do the first take, I deliver my monologue, I turn around, jumped out and landed in the saddle.

“On film sets, they say ‘check the gate’ which means check to make sure the last image is clean, there’s nothing in there ruining the image, especially because we’re shooting in dust and debris. And this was the only time I remember on the entire shoot where they were like, ‘Gate’s no good.’ Something got in the lens.

“And I’m like, oh my god, you gotta be kidding me. So I do it again, and this time the horse ever-so-slightly slowed down and I missed the front of the saddle. So I landed just in front of it on the horse’s neck, and that guy I told you about reached out and grabbed my jacket right between the shoulder blades with those big hands and he said, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ But that meant we had to do it again.

“I was always hoping this was a one-take wonder and here we are, take three. By the way, it isn’t easy to reset for a scene like this. To slow the train down all the way probably takes a mile. And then you have to back it all the way up. There’s a lot involved.

“So here we go. Take three. And I’m thinking, oh please land in that saddle because this monologue is feeling pretty good. And I turn, I jump and I hit the saddle! Boom, cut, check the gate. The gate’s good! And away I went.

“And (let’s out a sigh) I was so happy that it worked.

“After that movie, everyone was like, man, you’re a horse rider now — but I’ve never ridden one since (laughs). That’s the moral of that story.”

The takeaway …

“I was happy for me, but I was really happy for Gore. This was a shot that he had imagined long before they even started shooting the film. He’s such a visual guy and he had a storyboard and he explained to me, ‘This is how I want it to look, this is how I want the shot to be.’ And we all worked hard and he got his shot.

“I walked away thinking: I did it.

“I did that.”