In the new Western BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH, now available on the free streaming service Tubi, Butch and his gang are relentlessly pursued by relentless lawman Charles Siringo. Like Cassidy, Siringo is a real-life historical figure. He was a sheriff who gained fame when he joined the Pinkerton National Detective Agency — though the film champions him more as the villain of the piece rather than the hero.
Jeffrey Combs, who plays Siringo, explains that Pinkerton was like the Blackwater of its time, a group of independent contractors who operated largely outside the law.
“Pinkerton detectives were hired guns, basically, with a badge. In the West, the law was really corrupt,” says Combs. “These [executives] in the train corporations were robber barons. So, they hired, for lack of another term, vigilantes, really. Ex-law enforcement was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can make more money being a Pinkerton than I can being a sheriff in a dusty little town? I’ll do it.’ So, they’re already not having to abide by the same strictures as someone who wore that law badge. They were free to not having to abide by the law, to go get people. So, Siringo was one of those guys.”
Combs, a native Californian, started as a stage actor, but has appeared in almost a hundred and fifty films and TV series throughout his career. He is especially famed for his collaborations with the late director Stuart Gordon on movies including RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, and for portraying Edgar Allan Poe in the MASTERS OF HORROR episode “The Black Cat.” This in turn led to Combs collaborating with Gordon on Combs’s one-man stage show NEVERMORE: AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE, which ran and toured for years.
Combs is likewise known for portraying a variety of characters – human, Ferengi, and Andorian – on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, STAR TREK: VOYAGER, STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, and now as a voice actor on the animated STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS.
However, Combs hasn’t often worked in the Western genre prior to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH. He discusses this, and much more, in an exclusive phone conversation.
ASSIGNMENT X: You did AMERICAN BANDITS: FRANK AND JESSE JAMES, back in 2010, and BRUTAL in 2007, but those seem to be your only Westerns. Is this a genre you’re not particularly interested in, or is this just a genre that you haven’t worked in for other reasons?
JEFFREY COMBS: Well, here’s the thing. In this business, I suppose it’s human nature, but people want to just identify you right away, pigeonhole you. They don’t want to think too far about what kind of range or scope you might have; they just want to know you for that thing that you did so well that people paid attention. And so, that’s always every actor’s battle.
Let’s take an actor who breaks in on a sitcom. “Well, you’re a sitcom actor now, aren’t you?” Or let’s say you do soaps. “Well, you’re a soap opera actor. So, if we need a soap opera actor, we know who to think of.” It’s just that way all the way across. “Oh, you’re an action movie star.” “Oh, you’re a horror actor.” “Oh, you’re a STAR TREK actor.” You see what I mean? It’s boxing in, it’s such a battle to say, “Stop it. That’s just not the case. I’m an actor. I should be able to be versatile and not be hemmed in.”
I love Westerns. I’ve watched a slew of them. A lot of them are [similar to one another], but some of them are really spectacular forms of telling a story about people, humanity, issues. And so, I really like the genre, it’s just hardly no one has said, “Hey. You know that guy who did RE-ANIMATOR, or did all those STAR TREK episodes? He’d be great in a Western.” Which is why I so appreciate this opportunity, that someone would think outside the box, and say, “What about Jeff Combs for this role?”
There is a connection between AMERICAN BANDITS and [BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH and its sequel, BUTCH VS. SUNDANCE due out this summer], and that is that AMERICAN BANDITS was directed by a man named Fred Olen Ray, and one of the producers of these movies is his son, Chris Ray. Who I knew as a little boy. It’s so surreal [laughs].
AX: What kind of research did you do on Siringo?
COMBS: Other than a deep dive on Google, really not a lot. There are some books out there. For one thing, I didn’t have a whole lot of time, so it was more thumbnail and quick than it was comprehensive, but enough to get a sense of the guy. Interesting background – he’s half-Italian and half-Irish, and was born in Oklahoma. And I go, “How did an Italian and an Irishwoman – his mother was Irish – meet in Oklahoma?” [laughs] So, that’s a strange turn. Not a lot is known about him. There are some nice pictures of him – dapper in his demeanor, but those are posed pictures, so you don’t know how accurate they are.
He’s a complicated guy. He was, from what I’ve read, fairly ruthless, but always tried not to get his own hands dirty. He would always have some muscle to do his dirty work, which is what happens in these movies as well. It’s [seldom] directly him. I found it interesting that he lived a long life, and he died in the 1920s, I believe in Altadena, California, right above Pasadena. And [in the later part of his life] he was a consultant for silent movies.
AX: Edgar Allan Poe lived and died a little bit before the era of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH, but did your familiarity with Poe give you a feel for the period?
COMBS: A sense of the era, yes. I made kind of a strong choice with Siringo, that he was not a man who could be rushed. I felt, in that time and era, that people were a little more stoic and steady. So, that showed up in the way I wanted to approach him. He thought about his words before he spoke, with just a relentless pursuit of what he was looking after. I suppose tried to be fair and understanding, but he had a job to do.
AX: You have a mustache as Siringo. Is that your real mustache?
COMBS: No. I can grow one, but there wasn’t enough time to grow one. [In reality], he had a mustache. When I got to the set, I went to the makeup trailer, and asked about a mustache, and the next day, I had a nice mustache, made by Juan S. Nuñez. I really lucked out. I really felt he needed a mustache, to be accurate in how he looked, and it also gave me a bit more gravitas, I guess.
AX: How was shooting in New Mexico?
COMBS: It was lovely. We did have a lot of challenges in the middle of COVID. Everybody had to test, often, and if one person was tested positive, then the whole thing shut down, and then they would have to drive the test all the way back from Santa Fe to Albuquerque to the lab there to verify it. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, they’d say, “Oh, yeah, it was a false positive, so you guys can go ahead and shoot.” “Oh, really? Well, the sun’s going down. This is great.” We lost the sun.
AX: How is it being on a horse for you? Do you ride horses recreationally, or is that something you had to relearn from the previous Westerns?
COMBS: I’ve been on horses here and there in my life. I’m not a rider by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not alien to me. It’s just when there’s long stretches of time between when you’ve ridden, and every horse that you get is a different horse, with a different demeanor, it’s a little challenging. But I didn’t have a whole lot of horse-riding to do in this movie, actually. Just riding in, or riding by, or [dismounting], or getting on.
AX: You also got to be in some gunfights. Do you enjoy that? Is that something you played at as a kid?
COMBS: Yes. As kids, unlike many children today, I’m of an age where you went outside. You were outside. I’m old enough that the ‘60s was when I was a kid, and everything neat on TV was a Western, or Army days, mostly Westerns, so yeah, I spent a lot of time playing good guys/bad guys back as a kid. I learned how to die really well, over and over [laughs]. So, yeah. It is a bit like a boyhood dream coming true, although [there was a lot of on-set], “Let’s be careful here.”
[Because the gun did not fire blanks, but instead had the firing effect added in post-production VFX], the challenge of firing a gun and making it appear like it’s got a kick, honestly, that’s the hard part. When you’re a kid, you can do that with a sound effect. Sometimes, I’d go [on-set, makes gunfire noise], and they’d go, “Yeah, yeah, but don’t make the noise.” “Oh, sh*t, yeah, right.” So, that was the only big challenge about it, [and] trusting that it would look real once they put in the muzzle flash and smoke.
AX: Dee Wallace plays Butch’s adoptive mother, Alice Cassidy. The two of you had worked together back in 1996 in THE FRIGHTENERS, directed by Peter Jackson. Was this your first reunion since then, or had you worked together, or at least seen each other, in the interim?
COMBS: We’d seen each other in the interim, simply because here and there we would both be guests at a horror convention. So, we were always happy to see each other, wherever we were. I admire her so much, and think she’s such a wonderful actress, and so brave as an actress. She has a completely different way of working than I have, but it’s so captivating it’s so honest and immediate and instinctual, I really appreciated that about her.
AX: IMDB says you and Dee Wallace have another horror movie together coming up …?
COMBS: It’s called STREAM, which was done a couple of years ago, I think that’s coming out later this year. We’d worked on completely different weeks. I think I was finished, and I was wrapped, and then she came in and did her bit. We never had an overlap at all.
AX: In BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH, you have a great scene together in her cabin, where Siringo is trying to interrogate Alice …
COMBS: I’m whittling, and she’s supposedly making coffee [laughs]. Yeah, that’s a lovely monologue. I really liked doing that. The interesting thing about that scene is, because of the logistics, she could only work certain days – my side of that scene, she’s not there, because she couldn’t be there that day, but we needed to do this scene. She didn’t really need to be off-camera for me, because I’m mostly just telling the story, and looking at her for a reaction every once in a while. But it’s the illusion of film that we were there together. Watching that, you’d never know. I do love that scene where I’m rocking and whittling and telling her the horrifying story of what might happen to her son, an insight into just how manipulative Charles Siringo can be to get what he wants. It didn’t work, obviously [laughs].
AX: And you also got to work with Bruce Dern, who plays Butch’s adoptive father, Mike Cassidy …
COMBS: I did, although again, I got to meet him and I got to talk to him, but quite honestly, both of our encounters in this movie, I wasn’t there when he talked to me, and he wasn’t there when I talked to him.
I’ve always admired Bruce Dern. He’s one of those actors that just captivates you. He’s so alive and interesting. So, I was thrilled. I got to meet him, but it was just a logistics thing. On the day that he worked, I couldn’t; on the day he couldn’t, I could. It was a lot of musical chairs. But the illusion is that we were there at the same time. Because film is all about illusion. If it’s done well enough, you don’t question it.
AX: How was Anthony C. Ferrante as a director?
COMBS: I knew Anthony when he was an entertainment journalist, many years ago. He had interviewed me. I was, “Wait a minute. Is that the same Anthony Ferrante that’s directing? What?” [As a director, he was] wonderful, cool as a cucumber, good-spirited. He had a lot of challenges, and he had to think of solutions on the fly, every day. I was allowed to help with some of the challenges that he had to face, very well, I thought, but he was just a cool general under fire. And that kept us all balanced.
AX: Do you have any favorite scenes that were particularly enjoyable or challenging to do?
COMBS: Sure. A lot of the time, we were solving problems on the fly, and just working with Butch, played by Ross Jirgl, and Sundance, played by Jilon VanOver. Those two guys are really enthusiastic, and dived right in to solve problems. I really appreciate that. We’re all just trying to make this thing good. I really enjoyed both of my sidekicks [the historical figure Tom Horn is played by Anthony Palermo]. That really helps, if you’re paired up with somebody you get along with. So, that was very nice.
I just enjoy being in the realm, being in all these different little Western towns. fake, yes, but still, you’re steeped in it everywhere you look. It’s as if you’re there. I had a great time doing it.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH?
COMBS: As a cast, we just had a grand time making it, and our enthusiasm might be infectious. I really think that that kind of positive focus really contributes greatly to the spirit of the thing. I would say it’s not an accurate historical portrayal, it’s more like an imagining of their history, American history, but it’s not the first time, obviously, that Butch and Sundance, or even Charlie Siringo, have been portrayed in movies. That’s one thing I found out – “Wait, other people have played Charlie Siringo? Wow, okay.”
So, how we approached it, and the kind of team spirit that we had, that even in the face of all those obstacles, we rallied, we kept rallying. And all thanks to Anthony, keeping us close, listening to us, and solving problems all the time. Some of those challenges, and some of the delays that we had in our shooting, were actually godsends, because it allowed Anthony to go back, look, see what he had, and see how he could craft together the most concise narrative. A lot of the time, you don’t have the time to mull over how you will fix a problem. And so, it was having some space and some time to back off and then reapproach and go, “Oh, I know what I can do.” I think we were blessed with that.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: Exclusive interview: Actor Jeffrey Combs gives the scoop on the new Tubi western BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE WILD BUNCH and chats about playing legendary lawman Charles Siringo