There are some interviews which just find a way to you and work themselves out on their own. Case in point, this one with film and television actor Fred Griffith (Brig. Gen. Robert Rodes, CSA), who upon reading my announcement regarding the Gods and Generals themed trivia contest we will be having here in March, contacted me and offered to donate an autograph for one of the prizes or conduct an interview. Surprised by this generosity, I took him up on both his offers, and here we are, learning of the filming experiences of yet another G & G cast-member. Though he did not have any lines in the film, he had plenty of screen-time and proved to be a tremendous presence working alongside Stephen Lang. Fred told me on Facebook, “Rodes did have lines in the original 250 page script, which I read! Welcome to Hollywood!”
Nevertheless, someone thought very highly of his role (his “big break”, as he calls it), because very soon after, he landed guest appearances on the hit TV shows Judging Amy, The District, and 24, and since Gods and Generals, he has appeared in ten films (including the Civil War related The Last Confederate: The Story of Robert Adams), with four more closing production in the coming months. I guess sometimes it pays to be a quiet cavalry officer! I asked him about his filming experiences and more in our conversation below:
GC: How did you first get involved with the production of Gods and Generals? And describe your overall film experience.
FG: My manager in Los Angeles contacted my agent back east. I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina and she knew they were filming in Virginia and Maryland not too far from me. They were looking for someone that could ride a horse, about my age and height, and ironically, Robert Rodes could have been my twin brother. So they called me to Richmond to audition. I got a call on my drive back saying I got the part—a two day role! I was ecstatic and I arrived a few months later to the set at Virginia Military Institute. My first scene was with Rodes, Colston, and Jackson riding off to the war. Lang treated me with the utmost respect and welcomed me aboard. I was given a horse to ride (I’m sorry I can’t remember the name of it) but every time Ron would yell “action” my horse would rare up and spin around. The first time scared the crap out of me, but I held on and they said it looked great on the camera. So we did that scene, I don’t know, maybe ten times, and yes, he would rare up each time. I finally got used to it. At the end of my first day on set, they called me into a production meeting and handed me a new script and said, “Hey we got good news: we have re-written the script and now Rodes will be here for 16 days and in about 20 scenes”. I almost yelled out-loud! So, I went to the wranglers and said If I’m going to be here for a few weeks now, could I have a different horse, and they said when I get back they would have “Cahara” ready for me; she was amazing and had been in around 35 films—a bomb could go off beside her and she wouldn’t flinch. We made a great team! Besides the fact that Gods and Generals gave me my big break and would eventually be my reason to move to Los Angeles, it is one of the greatest memories of my career so far. The day I did a scene with Stephen Lang and Bobby Duvall it seemed almost surreal to me. Here was one of my heroes and a guy who was a big influence in me choosing this career path (Duvall) walking over to shake my hand. I have been so blessed so far in my life.
GC: What was it like working alongside actor Stephen Lang, and with director Ron Maxwell?
FG: Stephen was amazing to work with. He is a consummate professional. The biggest thing I learned from Lang was that he was a “method” actor in the truest form. I could see his theater background paid off for him. He was never out of character on or off the set—he walked and talked like Stonewall the entire shoot, day and night; it was incredible to watch. We had some really great scenes together. Both Jackson and Rodes taught at VMI and had a long history. My favorite line from the film is when Jackson turns to Rodes and says, “Well General Rodes, it appears as though Virginia Military Institute will be heard from today, deploy your brigade”; it was like we were really planning a raid. It was truly an incredible moment for me. As far as Ron Maxwell was concerned, well what can I say, he gave me my first role in a major motion picture, a $60 million Warner Brothers film; I owe him a lot! He was very patient and helpful with all of us and he is the type of director who takes no short cuts. We are going to do the scene until Ron is happy with it, no matter how long it takes. He had a very strong vision about this film and nothing was going to deter that.
GC: What did you do to prepare for your role as Robert Rodes?
FG: Again, I think you need to see the pictures of Rodes online then see the one of me as Rodes. Looking just like your real life character, I have to admit, made it a little easier, but on the other hand, it provided a lot of pressure because after visiting his burial site in Lynchburg, Virginia, I felt like I had a lot to be accountable for—to try to deliver a resemblance of this man, not only in looks, but character, integrity, the whole ball of wax. I read as much as I could. I visited the actual battle grounds, walked the grounds of VMI, and I even talked to him, or tried to, a few times asking for his help. I know that sounds strange but I did! Every time I put on the uniform I would say, “Ok Robert Rodes, let’s do this together”.
GC: Did you know anything about the Civil War prior to filming?
FG: To be perfectly honest, I new some from my early school years but not a lot of details. So I started reading, and I mean reading, everything I could get my hands on about the war and the people who fought in it. However, it was nothing like what I learned actually shooting the film. Here I am, in my first big film, playing a General, leading a cavalry charge with swords drawn. It was a childhood fantasy come true and the greatest history lesson all wrapped up in one. Again, I feel very blessed.
GC: Have you seen the Extended Director’s Cut edition yet? If so, what is your opinion of it?
FG: Yes, I was sent a copy of it. I have very strong, but maybe very different opinions, since I lived this journey with Ron Maxwell. I personally think Gods and Generals may be the most authentic and true to all the facts, movie ever made about the Civil War. Some say it was way too long, some say it was historically boring. I personally think Ron got on the screen exactly what he was hoping for from day one. I think he was not interested in pleasing “Hollywood” as much as he was concerned about remaining true to the facts and to our American history, and I have to applaud him for that.
GC: Do you have any upcoming film/television projects?
FG: Thank you for asking. Yes, I was just in a great little ABC TV movie with John Corbett, A Smile As Big As The Moon. It is a great family film and it will touch your heart. It is re-running currently on The Hallmark Channel. I also have a faith-based baseball story, Hero, making the festival rounds right now and should be out soon, and a couple of indie films due out later this year, A Box For Rob and Deadly Renovations. Let me say this in closing: when you go see a movie in the theater, and then it airs on TV and comes out on DVD like Gods and Generals, I have learned that it is sure close to a miracle happening. Someone writes a script, then pitches it to a producer, who then has to pitch it to investors and the studios, who then has to schedule it and cast it, then pick locations and crew for it, try to take what is written on the page and the vision that the director has in his head and make a film out of it, that the public will actually pay hard earned dollars to go see it, I swear it is a miracle…remember that next time you watch a movie!
I would like to thank Fred for both this interview and his kind donation of a prize for our trivia contest. This really was a fascinating read, especially his last response, where he touches on how much work goes into a film, from page to screen. I guess it really is a miracle after all, and something we take for granted every time we go to our DVD rack looking for something to watch. Good luck to Mr. Griffith in all of his future ventures! Click here to visit his official website.