By SCOTT VOISIN
Every actor dreams of finding success in Hollywood, but the lucky few who achieve it often discover a few strings attached.
Just ask Bob Gunton. After gaining attention as part of the original 1979 cast of the Broadway musical Evita, Gunton spent the next 15 years playing a variety of characters in films and television. All of that changed in 1994 with his chilling performance as the warden in The Shawshank Redemption. The good news is that since then, Gunton has been in constant demand to play antagonistic authority figures. The downside, though, is that he’s rarely ever considered for the colorful, off-beat characters he yearns to portray.
Onscreen, Gunton can exude pure menace, but he initially planned to become a priest until the acting bug that bit him in high school refused to let go. “I was in the seminary for two-and-a-half years,” he recalls. “We’d have monthly get-togethers, and I’d do imitations and impersonations. After I left the seminary, I was drafted and went to Vietnam. I had always looked at theater and performing as just a fun thing to do, but when I got back from Vietnam, I decided that the message from my creator was, ‘These are the talents I’ve given you. Get serious about them and really pursue them,’ so I did.”
One of Gunton’s early film roles came in Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning 1999 film, Born on the Fourth of July, based on the true story of Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), a Vietnam vet who becomes an anti-war activist after coming home paralyzed. Although his screen time was minimal, it was a project that Gunton is particularly proud of. “I was very pleased with Born on the Fourth of July,” he says. “I had a special relationship with Oliver, and still do. We’re both Vietnam veterans, and like all Vietnam veterans, we share a bond that goes beyond the business or anything else.”
A few years later, Gunton’s career changed forever when he was asked to read for a movie based on Stephen King’s story, The Shawshank Redemption. “As soon as I read it, I was blown away by the storytelling and the wit of the writing,” he recalls. “I met with (writer/director) Frank Darabont and the producer, Niki Marvin, and it was one of those times where I knew in my guts just who the warden was. I think they saw that I really understood this guy, but then they had to convince the studio.”
These days, Gunton can be seen in the new season of the Fox hit 24, starring Keifer Sutherland. Unlike his work on other TV shows, Gunton admits the series’ real-time format can be difficult to work within. “I shot three days this week and I’ll shoot one day next week, and all of it basically takes place in the same hour on the show,” he says. “You have to hold in your head what the stakes are and what the emotional intensity is, and there’s no place for the character to kind of sit back and reflect. It’s pretty much moving like a freight train all the time, but that’s the thrill of the show, and it has a style that I think is totally unique.”
Almost 30 years have passed since Gunton began his acting career, and while he’s happy to be making a living doing what he loves, there’s still some frustration due to Hollywood’s tendency to typecast. “Shawshank Redemption is the biggest and best-known movie that I’ve ever been associated with, and it’s probably the best role I’ve ever done in a major movie,” he says. “That has made some people reluctant to look at me for a comedic role or as someone who’s soft and cuddly. I’m very grateful for ever having done Shawshank, but in a way it’s sort of a burden to carry around, too.”
Like any good actor, Gunton is always looking to challenge both himself and audience perceptions. “Over the last five years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of independent movies,” he says. “I’ve been playing comic characters, off-beat characters and some very loveable and noble characters, which I rarely get to do. I’m a father who rarely gets to play just a lovable, goofy father in a movie, and I’d love to do that. At this time in life, I feel very vulnerable in a lot of ways and I’d like to explore that in a role. Who I am and what I can do could potentially come together and present me with an interesting challenge.”