Tim Griffin is the ultimate utility infielder, a top-notch actor who can handle drama, comedy, and action, and a favorite of directors like George Clooney, J.J. Abrams, and Doug Liman. You’ve seen him a dozen times — perhaps on television in “Cold Case,” “Lie to Me,” “Bones,” “C.S.I. Miami” or as George’s brother in “Grey’s Anatomy.” And he’s appeared on screen with George Clooney (“Leatherheads”), Matt Damon (“The Bourne Supremacy”), and Robert Downey, Jr. (“Iron Man”). He will play one of the leads in the upcoming cop series, “Prime Suspect,” with Maria Bello in a role adapted from the UK series starring Helen Mirren.
We are both Chicago natives, and I had a blast talking with him about going on auditions, working on both big-budget blockbusters and tiny independent films, a lucky car breakdown, and getting punched by Matt Damon.
You must be an amazing auditioner to get such an array of roles. What’s your secret?
I call it a meeting instead of an audition – maybe it just sounds better that way in my head.
Auditioning is an underrated art. I’ve had a lot of practice! It depends on the project, but no matter how big the meeting, it is better if you are relaxed. The more desperate you are to impress them, the more it creates the opposite impression. Just let it go.
I’ll illustrate it with a story about my latest addition for Prime Suspect, a television series. I was there with Peter Berg, the director, and the casting directors. I knew them – they put me in Gray’s Anatomy, but I had never met Peter. I had 2 1/2 pages of sides [script], a straight, boiler-plate detective, talking to Maria Bello’s character, and we’re the old boys network types, dismissive, giving her the run-around. I like to have it memorized before I go in. I have a semi-eidetic memory, so that’s one thing I do.
So I read the lines and Peter Berg, who’s just so incredible, he did the movie and the pilot for “Friday Night Lights,” he said, “You’re just a phenomenal actor. You could be any one of these guys.” He wanted me to read for one of the leads, Augie Blando. But I had never even looked at the Blando pages. In the audition process you sometimes don’t want to know too much; you don’t want to know more than your character does. So I had no idea who Augie was.
They asked me to read the Augie sides. I said, “Why don’t you let the next guy in, so I can go out and look these over?” It was six pages, all my character, a totally different character than the one I prepared for, a lot of monologue. I look around the waiting area and there’s a room full of brilliant actors. Luckily, one of my fellow “Leatherheads,” Robert Baker, was there. All the Leatherheads are like brothers now. He said, “Would you like me to read those with you?” By having him read with me, I was able to go back in with the sides totally memorized. They acted like I was Rain Man! There was no way I could have prepared for that; you have to be in the moment. The next thing I knew, I had a contact for a test deal and then just a contract, no test, I had the job.
You appeared in one of my favorite scenes last year, opposite David Andrews as Scooter Libby in “Fair Game.” That was quite a confrontation!
The read-through for that movie was incredible. Every actor there, even those with just one line, had stepped out of a Broadway show or had been handling that level of performance quality. David Andrews really had to fight for that role because the producers said, “If we can get another name….” When we did the read-through, neither one of us had the role. I was still being considered for two roles. Sean Penn set the scene early [as Joe Wilson]. He was immediately confrontational — his intensity ratcheted everyone else up. Everyone had to bring his A game to the table read. David Andrews never took his eyes off me in our scene. He delivered his lines with such razor-like animosity, I said to myself, “I’m going to give it everything I have.”
We got instant offers. And he kept his distance throughout the filming so we could keep that tension between us. I didn’t know he was Southern until after the shoot!
What was it like to get beat up by Matt Damon in “The Bourne Supremacy?”
He deviated my septum! If you look carefully and slow down the scene, you can see it. Watch my eyes. But it was worth every ounce of pain because we got it in the movie. There’s nothing worse than suffering a terrible injury and it wasn’t on camera!
How did you get started?
I come from a non-acting household in Chicago. I started with local theater and a local movie, then went off and did a huge miniseries, a real awakening for me. I wanted something as isolated from that as I could find, so I went to college at the University of Vermont. It turns out they have a phenomenal theater department with the Champlain Shakespeare Festival and more. I ended up acting while I was an English and political philosophy major.
Then I was driving home and my car broke down outside of New York City my sophomore year. My agent said, “As long as you’re stuck there, we might as well have you look for work.” Nothing was going on because of the writer’s strike, so she sent me out for “Taking a Stand,” an afterschool special, the only show that was filming. Because everything else was shut down, it had an incredible cast. As soon as I got to Chicago, they flew me back — I got the part.
I loved working. I was supposed to do a year abroad in school but instead went to LA for a year, worked all year, and then went back and got my degree.
What do you aspire to?
My whole MO is that the variety of all these roles is what makes me most proud, in the tradition of actors like Gene Hackman, who did comedy, drama, and action. Stephen Root, who has become a friend, is always getting to do great projects. He has a wonderful body of work. It’s sometimes considered a dirty word to call yourself a character actor, but that’s what you should aspire to be.