Ron Livingston, who is still known to many as the hapless, disgruntled office worker Peter Gibbons in the cult hit "Office Space," moves seamlessly from comedy to drama as evidenced by his Golden Globe nomination for his work as Captain Lewis Nixon in "Band of Brothers" and his latest dramatic turn as Richard Pimentel, a Vietnam vet who has spent his life fighting for the rights of the disabled and giving a voice to those who can't always be heard, in the inspirational FoxFaith movie, "Music Within," now on DVD.
Livingston is no stranger to funneling his own passions into raising awareness, whether it's for the environmentalist movement, working with World War II vets or calling attention to the child sex trafficking trade in Cambodia which he learned about while working on "Holly." Beliefnet recently spoke with Livingston about his mother's call to the Lutheran clergy, giving one's soul expression, and what it means to be a hero in the world today.
I'm a firm believer in leaving the past in the past, but I have to ask about "Office Space." Why do you think that film still resonates with so many people?
I think the fundamental story of that movie, which is about people trying to find where they fit in life, is just something everybody connects to. And the fact that [director] Mike Judge took it upon himself to make a movie about that without really trying to force a solution down everyone's throat, and that he could do it in a lighthearted way, makes that movie still relevant to people. They just seem to like it.
I read that your mother is a Lutheran minister. What impact did that have on you?
She wasn't ordained until after I was already in school, so, I didn't grow up as a preacher's kid or anything. She is definitely involved in the life of the church, but in more of a lay fashion.
So it wasn't, "We must go to church every Sunday..."
No, no, she's never been a particularly dogmatic person. In fact, I don't think she ever really had any aspirations or intention to preach, really. She wanted to be a hospital chaplain. She had been doing a lot of grief counseling before going to the seminary. I think what she found was that she could just touch the surface, but then past a certain point, they always want it to be a clergyperson. That was kind of what initially sparked her to want to become a clergyperson, so she could continue to do that.
She's very personal and her sermons are almost confessional in nature. I've always found that she opens up and lets people get to know her from the pulpit. You would think that it's about performing, but I think with her it's more about letting all that guard down and just speaking from the heart.
In "Music Within," you play Richard Pimentel, who was instrumental in getting the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. What specifically drew you to this story?
For me, it was a story about a guy with a crazy life. Kind of like the one you saw in "Forrest Gump," except that this one really happened.
[In] the very first opening moments of the script, he's sort of abandoned, left in an orphanage by his mentally ill mother who can't remember where he is to tell the rest of the family. They want to know where he is and she doesn't know. She says, "What kid?" [It] just seemed too perfect to be true.
And Richard's got a particularly wicked sense of humor that, to me, opened up just a whole new ground in how you can talk about people with disabilities. We're sort of used to the politically correct—you have to be very solemn, or it gets preachy or it gets very passionately felt. I think Richard feels passionately about it, but his primary medium is he starts with humor.
And he starts by challenging what you think you know and he goes from there.
The banter between your character and the Art Honeyman character was some of the liveliest.
Yeah, it's funny to think of it as being lively banter when you consider that one guy's deaf and the other guy has cerebral palsy and it takes him ten minutes to say anything.
But I felt that they did a great job with both the script and the shooting of the movie, that what seems like it might be painful in the beginning, by the end of it, the audience is used to it. You really feel you go along with it and it does feel like banter.
You met with Richard Pimentel for a few days before filming. What were your preconceptions and misconceptions about portraying him and bringing his story to light?
I just wanted to get a good feel for him. Any time you play a real person it feels, to me anyway, that there's an additional responsibility to represent them honestly. You don't always have to represent them the way they want to be represented (laughs), but you don't want to be making up stuff about them. You want to try and get them on the nose.
Richard was very helpful as far as being very open talking about what made him tick, what his particular kind of issues were, and how he felt about certain moments in his life. It really helped me right away with a little bit of a framework.
And then there's ultimately a lot of parts to the character that you just have to bring from stuff in your life, or you just make it up and hope that the guy won't mind too much or that it won't be too far off.
His character does show his flaws in the movie...
Yeah, who doesn't have flaws? And I think your flaws and your strengths always kind of go hand in hand. They tend to be one and the same.
There's a lecture of Richard's in the DVD extras where he's engaging—he's funny, he's vulnerable. I wondered if there's a particular characteristic or trait of his that clued you in to what can make an ordinary person into a hero?
I think one of the interesting things that I got about Richard was that, he likes a good fight. I think that there were times in his life that that gave him trouble and I think that was also one of his greatest assets.
For me, probably his biggest triumph was that, if you're familiar with the material for "Windmills," which is his groundbreaking education program on hiring the disabled, there's no fight in it. So much of the Disability Rights Movement came after the Women's Liberation Movement, which came after the Civil Rights Movement, and so it's kind of easy to start with the idea that we're going to fight for our rights, we're going to fight for what we deserve, we're going to fight to be integrated in society.
The reason that he called it "Tilting at Windmills" was from Don Quixote where Don Quixote is going to go fight the giants, and as soon as he does it he realizes there aren't any giants out there. There's nobody to fight back, it's just a bunch of windmills that are actually doing useful things and being helpful. And so, the problem was that he was looking for a fight where there was none.
That's kind of the brilliance of what Richard did with "Windmills" is that he realized he could affect people's opinions and the way they thought—he didn't have to challenge them or accuse them of [anything] or try to make them feel bad. All he had to do was illustrate [their opinions] and call attention to them with certain games that would trick people into putting themselves into other people's shoes. It would sneak up on them and, instantly, the way they saw the situation, the way they perceived things, was different.
He took the fight out of that particular program and that's why I think it was so powerful and groundbreaking, and why the Disability Rights Movement did so much in such a short amount of time compared to the hundreds of years that it took women to get to vote and the hundreds of years that it took African-Americans to be emancipated and take an equal place in society.
The fundamental idea was there's no sense in challenging the person who has the ideas, you just challenge the idea. And if you can find a way where the person doesn't know you're challenging the idea until after you've changed his mind on it, then things happen a lot faster.
I was shocked to hear about the Ugly Law for which your character and his best friend Art were arrested in 1972 at a pancake house. Can you tell us what affect it had on you personally?
I was shocked as well. It was one of those [scenes in the script] where I thought "Oh, well, this part's got to be made up. This can't possibly be true." But, it was a fact that in quite a few states and definitely in Oregon in the '70s, it was a crime to appear in public with a "disfigurement" that made other people uncomfortable, you know, which basically required every citizen to be responsible for the way that other citizens felt about them. [It was] clearly a ridiculous law and something that people can't really have any control over. But it took some people to call attention to it.
The impact that I think it had on Richard and Art was that, after going along with that overall general notion of how society should work for so many years, that particular night and that particular law was so over-the-top offensive to them that they said, "Hey, you know what? We're not crazy here. We're not the ones that something is wrong with. This law is wrong and we need to help change the way that people look at us so that we don't have to hide anymore."
I'm sure [the waitress] thought she was doing the right thing for the other customers, and I would imagine that quite a few of the other customers might have agreed with her.
People respond based on what they're comfortable with. If people don't know what a turban or a headscarf represents, then a turban or a headscarf can scare them or make them uncomfortable. If they're given an opportunity to understand what it means to the person that's wearing it, then they may not be nervous or scared at all. But, it takes a little work to get from one to the other. Ignorance is not always bliss.
Their reaction that fateful night then snowballed into disability rights at large.
This was two guys and they were part of a sort of broad tapestry of what was going on in disability rights. Richard's the first person to say he's not the grandfather of all of it. But it's a story of one guy who finds himself playing a large role in the forefront of a movement at a particular time.
There's a famous quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes very early on in the film: "Most people go to their graves with their music inside them." I think this resonates with millions of people in America who may feel content with their lives but don't yet feel like they've found their music within. Have you found your music within?
Sometimes it's like old top 40, which is a problem, so I try to keep it within [laughs]. It drives people crazy.
To follow that metaphor, it's not necessarily even a matter of finding it because I think most of us have some inkling of what it is. It's about finding a way to share it with the world.
Whatever you have inside of you that's important to you, that is your soul's expression, if you will, it sort of grows and changes throughout your life. It changes with you. And so, if you can, in fact, find a way to put it out there into the world, it's going to change with you.
I think what Oliver Wendell Holmes was saying was that it takes a certain amount of courage to share that with people when you're not sure how it's going to be received, whether it's going to be appreciated or laughed at or argued with or discarded or shot down, or even just celebrated because that can be scary, too.
I think what he was saying was that there are certain individuals, and that's something that we can all aspire to, to share that music with each other.
Do you feel through acting you are giving your soul expression through different projects?
I don't even think it can work that way, honestly. I think through acting you can do so much, but I think it's kind of throughout; a lot of times it's just the way that you live your life.
It can't ever be something, a goal, that you said, "Well, there. I did it." You check it off. I think it's really more a way to live. It's kind of about not being afraid to be yourself—not being afraid to let people know who you are. And let them get to know you.
I can't say it's a necessarily conscious choice, but I can say that when you do a movie and you research a character and you research a story, part of my job is to try to learn as much as I can and then to find what the things are that the character gets worked up about. And I find that the older that I get there are some things that are easier for me to get worked up about than other things [laughs].
That's another reason why I really enjoy my job—I get paid for studying something, for trying to educate myself about something for a couple of months at a time. And with a couple of those things in particular, the sex trafficking in Cambodia— that's something that once you're made aware of it, it's a little hard to just walk away from it and move on to the next thing. It's something that stays with you. You want to check up on it and see where it's at and see if there's not some way that you can help a little bit more this year and stay involved.
In the DVD's "Making Of" featurette, you say that "Music Within" is about "how we see people and whether we see people." Did you ever feel this lack of having a voice in your own life? Have you ever felt disenfranchised over anything?
I actually have been very fortunate in that I was always encouraged to speak out and be myself. So, if I have ever felt that way, that I wasn't being heard or wasn't being seen, it was generally my own fault. It was generally because I was hiding or scared or of the belief that if I was quiet and kept my mouth shut, people would like me more.
Near the end of the film your character specifically says that "after years and years and years of trying to become larger than life (referencing the character's childhood dream of becoming a superhero), I'm now working on maybe being a little bit smaller." Do you find that humbling sentiment to be true in your own life?
Yeah. I don't necessarily even think it's humbling. I think it's kind of freeing, actually. I think in school we're tasked with the impossible responsibility to—capital letters, "Be Somebody." And do something and stand for something. After a number of years, it could be seen as a humbling realization, but it's also kind of freeing to realize, "Well, you know what? I already am, I always was, and so was the guy next to me and so was the girl next to him."
And really, that's plenty. If I can figure out what I can do for them, and if they can figure out what they can do for me, and we can maybe help each other get through the day, all of a sudden, I think it's not only a much easier task to address yourself, but it's a lot more rewarding and it's a lot closer to what a superhero actually does in his day job. Mostly he's getting cats out of trees, helping old ladies across the street.
Do you have a main hero in your life?
I have all kinds of heroes in life and I meet new ones every day. I feel the same way [about heroes] that I feel about angels; I think there are probably full-time heroes and full-time angels.
But, usually, like most other jobs in America today, it's moving towards part-time and it's something that everybody takes a shift at for a couple of minutes at a time when they feel up to it. So it's trying to feel up to it in any given situation. That's ultimately the game we're all trying to play.