Soaps.com Speaks with Y&R’s Eric Braeden – The Man Who Came Back!
Image: Jill Johnson/JPI
This past week I was offered a chance to interview a soap icon, and I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Y&R’s Eric Braeden about his new movie, “The Man Who Came Back”. Eric spent nine years participating in the process of making this film, including starring in it, and refers to it as ‘a labor of love’. The movie, set in the deep south post-civil war, tells the story of a man, Reese Paxton [Eric Braeden], who calls for justice for the black field hands he oversees, only to be framed for murder by the town’s white men, who take exception to his allegiance to the ‘freed’ black families. I asked Eric how he came to be involved in telling this powerful story. He said it all began when he and Chuck Walker (with whom he boxes) set out to tell a story of revenge in a historic context. Their first job was to find the perfect director:
Eric: I had seen a film starring Armand Assante called “Belizaire the Cajun,” and I said, “That director would be good for this film.” We met, and upon further discussion, I asked him to read a book called “Without Sanctuary”. It was a photographic depiction of the extreme racism in the South during the latter part of the 19th century [written by an antique dealer who discovered people had sent postcards inviting one another to lynchings and burnings of blacks]. While researching that, the writer/director called me one day and said he’d been talking to historians about an incident in 1878 in Thibodeaux, that was the second-bloodiest labor strike in American labor history. What the strike was about was, they [the railroad workers] had formed the first union in the South, and they wanted to enlarge their union, so they approached plantation workers who were nominally free (this was during reconstruction). In reality, they were not free. What the plantation owners in some southern states had done, was issue a law saying that as long as you owe money to the company store, you’re not free. So they would arbitrarily set the prices in the company store – so they, defacto, perpetuated that whole system of slavery by economic means. I said I wanted that in the film as well – just to give a historic texture from which we tell this horrendous story. That’s how it slowly evolved. I really love films with a historic context – I’m not interested in just pure entertainment, I do that everyday.
Soaps.com: It was an important story to tell. The film is almost brutal at times in it’s honesty – some scenes were actually intense enough that I almost had to look away – was there a conscious decision made to have the violent scenes depicted so realistically?
Eric: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. It think Hollywood has always been extraordinarily glib about violence – shoot ’em up, but never show the consequences thereof – I wanted the audience to get a feel of what physical violence is really all about! I did not want to have scenes where you just ‘bing, bing, boom, boom,’ and they’re all shot down. The only time [in the film] that really happens is when it recreates what probably happened in Thibodeaux when they approached with Gatlin machine guns to mow down the gathering of strikers. Which they did – they killed 300 of them. That was also the birth of the Ku Klux Klan at that time, so when you see them descend upon that camp, that’s when the violent shooting occurs. I wanted to, as nearly as I could, show what really happens. It’s horrendous! Its end, of course, is to justify the enormous bitterness and revenge. The rage one feels is absolutely overwhelming.
Soaps.com: I was impressed with the way the film went out of its way to illustrate how the mistreatment and terrorization of people in those times was not necessarily just racially-motivated, but also by class distinction; whites bullied other whites based on socio-economic standing, or in Reese Paxton’s case, for their allegiances, and blacks in a higher class, or in a position of power, looked down on the black field hands just as the whites did. So what can we learn from that?
Eric: What we can learn from that is that it took awhile for America to divorce itself from Europe, where they mostly came from. In other words, the class system was deeply imbued in most early immigrants. Anyone coming from Europe was deeply imbued with a very finely tuned sense of class distinctions – it’s horrendous. Americans wanted to do away with that, and both the United States and Canada, I think, have done away with a lot of that. Most immigrants eventually have shed those socio-economic ‘shackles’, as it were, and I think America has largely succeeded in that, except in those years. It took a long time to happen. It took until 1965 for blacks to get the vote – they were the last on the totem pole – to now get to the point that a black man has been elected President.
Soaps.com: After I saw the movie, I felt like we had come a long way, especially thinking about Barack Obama, but it’s important to remember that those [racist and class] attitudes still exist.
Eric: Oh yes, but less and less so, and no longer institutionalized. No longer is it politically acceptable. It is politically incorrect to think that way and to act like that, and I think that’s a good thing. I was moved to tears when Obama was elected, to be honest with you, because I have a number of black friends and if you know anything about the history of that relationship, you just realize what an extraordinary accomplishment and milestone this is. Extraordinary. I came to this country in 1959, so I’ve seen a lot of changes. Think of the anti-Semitism that existed in Europe and here in America – institutionalized anti-Semitism. That’s no longer the case. Certainly that is totally politically incorrect now, so I think we have come really a long way. There is hope for all of us – that is my opinion – I’m not a cynic in that sense at all.
Soaps.com: Your character in “The Man Who Came Back”, Reese Paxton, was very strong like Victor Newman, but had a different essence. As the person portraying these two roles, how did you approach this new character, and did you find yourself drawing comparisons to Victor, or to other roles you have played?
Eric: That’s a very interesting question, and you’re right, I tapped into the same kind of emotional reservoir. I have a very strong sense of ‘going it alone’, and I have a very strong sense of fighting those who are in power. If I see any kind of injustices or unfairness exercised by those in power over those who have less power, I go after them – and I don’t care where it is – I always have. The arbitrary abuse of power bothers me enormously. So, Victor Newman, of course, is a very powerful man, so you have this strange confluence of feelings – one of power, the other one, he never forgets where he’s from. He grew up in an orphanage. In the case of Reese Paxton, it reminded me of growing up during the war, the Second World War, and seeing so much destruction, so much tragedy, that Reese Paxton was easy to draw from that emotional reservoir – for example when he talks about having seen so much killing [in the courtroom scene], and he has nothing but disdain for the guy who stayed home and didn’t fight, and is now abusing his power [Billy, James Patrick Stuart].
Soaps.com: The casting in the film was fantastic, right across the board.
Eric: The character played by James Patrick Stuart [Billy Duke] is the son of a strong father, of a physically bigger father, and of a far more accomplished father, that son has a hard road. Sadly emasculated, he never could reach the level of his father, yet he had the 'power' and exercised it viciously. I've seen that pattern so often in my life [Eric uses George Bush Sr. and son George W. Bush as examples]. For sons who grow up in the shadows of very strong fathers, it's tough to deal with - very tough to deal with. George Kennedy played his part so beautifully [Billy's father, Judge Duke], and James Patrick Stuart played [Billy] extremely well! I knew I needed to have a slightly emasculated, yet very vicious character. He was perfect for the part - so essential for the part. I was so grateful to the actors to have participated in this, some of them were friends, and some were new. They all liked the script and wanted to tell that story, and it was a labor of love - a labor of love and passion - no question.
Soaps.com: The movie has an excellent sharp pace, it never dragged, and it very accurately depicted, not only the corruption of the times, but the frustration, outrage, and helplessness of those victimized - the viewer actually felt those things - almost felt what Reese was feeling at times - which really helped [the viewer] connect with him when he 'came back'.
Eric: I'm really glad to hear that, I really am.
Soaps.com: It was extremely well done and very powerful - the type of film that stays with one for days after seeing it. So, what do you have lined up next?
Eric: It entirely depends on how well this movie does - if I make money on it, then I will immediately embark on another adventure, because I enjoyed this enormously. I will again do it with the proviso that I have creative control, in the end, because I trust myself to listen to other people, but I have very definite ideas about what I want. So, therefore, I trust myself to hire the best people.
Soaps.com: Is there anything in particular that you have in mind?
Eric: I've been in the business long enough to be practical. "The Man Who Came Back," for example, is in the genre of a Western, if it sells because of that, I might do another one. It's been ruminating in my mind for quite some time to just do an interesting love story; the things that are touched upon in soaps, but don’t come to a realistic ending. In other words, the whole notion of marriage, monogamy, infidelity, divorce, all these things that we all live with on a daily basis, but are rarely touched upon realistically. There's something inherently tragic in love. I would have to do it with a very good screenwriter - but the subject matter interests me because I think it's so universal and it is so difficult, and there is no definitive answer to it. We romanticize the idea of love and think, "Oh my God, they're so in love they should marry!" But that is not necessarily the case. It's an extraordinarily serious thing and we just romanticize it, and we sugarcoat the whole thing, and write dripping songs - you need insulin shots to survive it! The ecstasy of being in love is extraordinarily powerful and transformative, but we're not meant to sustain that level of being passionate - I don’t think we are meant to sustain it chemically - it's such an interesting phenomenon. Then there's the notion of Christianity, which has been abused so terribly, for so long, by so many charlatans. How do you survive a lot of crises in marriages? By reminding yourself of the essence of Christianity - forgiveness. There's so much we can learn from Christianity. It's a notion of forgiveness, and of not talking down to anyone [Candace says, "Respect"] Yes! Anyway, it's very difficult subject matter.
Soaps.com: Well, I'm looking forward to anything else you're involved in this way. "The Man Who Came Back" was a very well done story that stayed with me for days after I watched it - and it was an important story to be told.
Eric: I'm very, very happy with your reaction to it.
Soaps.com readers, this is a film you won't want to miss! Whether you just love watching the talented Eric Braeden act, or you love Westerns, or even if you are just looking for a last minute gift, this movie will not disappoint! It is powerful and moving, and the acting from the entire cast, which includes such actors as Armand Assante, George Kennedy, James Patrick Stuart, Sean Young, and Billy Zane, is stellar. To buy "The Man Who Came Back" on DVD, click here!
Don't forget to watch the Y&R News Room for the next installment of the interview with Eric Braeden coming soon, where he shares his thoughts on Victor Newman, the current climate in Daytime, and discusses how the man behind Victor Newman likes to spend his time!
Photo Credit: Jill Johnson/JPI
- Candace Young