Giovanni Ribisi

GQ, Jun 2004

He’s an “all or nothing” guy, a Scientologist, a prolific actor and oh, a father too. But we’ll get to all that. First – breakfast.


You have to hand it to Giovanni Ribisi. After 20 years in the game – with credits including Saving Private Ryan, Lost in Translation and Cold Mountain – he still hasn’t accumulated himself a car and a house. And he has no qualms about admitting as much. “No car in LA, man,” he says, straight off the bat. “It fucking sucks!”

We’re having lunch at the Bel Air Hotel restaurant, where the new money crowd comes for the old money look. All around us are fountains and gardens and swans – Beverly Hills at its country club best. Yet in this pristine idyll, Ribisi looks agitated and baggy-eyed. With cigarette smoke chugging out of his mouth and nose, he’s rocking in his seat like a Jew at the Wailing Wall, as though winding himself up for the interview.

“Thing is,” he says, “I’ve been moving a lot, trying to save up for a house. So, you know, I’ve gone from 1 bed apartments to slumming it with friends. And now I’ve found this place, but it needs all this construction and it’s just… A fucking. Nightmare. Hey, is it OK if I eat something?” In one sweeping move, he discards the menu, orders bacon, eggs and coffee, puts out a cigarette and grabs another.

I mention that it makes no sense for a movie star to be kipping on couches at what is probably the peak of his career. He grins a rueful grin. “I ran into some financial problems. Stock market.” Roll of the eyes, shake of the head. “I’ll never go down that road again.”

Besides blowing his money, Ribisi has every reason to feel unsettled. He has been away from home for a good year now. His feet have barely hit the ground. First he did five months in Namibia making an action movie called Flight of the Phoenix with Dennis Quaid. Then he had five months in Alaska making a comedy caper with Robin Williams who’s “just from another planet, he’s so intelligent.” Then from Alaska to Pittsburgh to shoot 10TH and Wolf, a mob movie by Chazz “Bronx Tale” Palminteri.

“It’s hard, this nomadic life, year after year,” says Ribisi. “I have a seven year old daughter, and a girlfriend [the drummer in the band Autoluxe]. So it takes its toll.” He stops himself and laughs. “I’m not complaining, though. I mean, I’d never been to Africa before and it’s incredible…”

One after another, the Africa stories pour out – how he wrestled with cheetahs at the animal sanctuary, flew over the desert in a single prop Cessna, (“a fucking golf cart”) and found himself trapped in a hut one night “because the lions were at the watering hole 300 yards away.” Yet all of this stuff, he did in his time off. He makes no mention of the actual movie – Flight of the Phoenix – which sounds a relatively humdrum experience in comparison. Ribisi plays a power-crazed engineer, the only survivor capable of mending a plane that has belly-landed in the desert. Shades of Lord of the Flies combine with images of Dennis Quaid and Tyrese swaggering about with their shirts off. “I hope it’s good,” Ribisi shrugs, “but I haven’t seen it so who knows?”

Certainly, his Phoenix experience is a new leaf for Ribisi. The material, for one, isn’t typical. Throughout his career, he has tended to avoid the megabucks popcorn option in favour of more nuanced, cerebral stories. He plays a great rogue trader in Boiler Room, for example, and in A Shot In The Heart, the story of Gary Gilmore’s last week, he is brilliant as Gilmore’s brother Mikal. He takes well to intense, complex roles. And his attitude toward Phoenix is relatively new. In his younger days, he was so cautious of selling out, he made a point of telling interviewers that he had never made a film for the money alone.

He took his work desperately seriously. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he became a professional actor at the age of nine and a star on one of America’s most popular soaps The Wonder Years, by 13. He was inspired by that paragon of intensity, Marlon Brando, to follow acting full time rather than follow his father, a keyboard player, into music. The younger Ribisi would never have taken time off to wrestle with cheetahs. “I would hole myself up and freak out and get pissed off. Like ‘they fucking lied to me!’, you know,” he says. He didn’t watch TV and he even used to avoid watching movies, for fear of being tainted. “It was some sort of lofty concept, looking down on it or whatever,” he says, laughing. “That was just wrong.”

Now he has mellowed out considerably, though he still doesn’t watch television. (It’s ironic that perhaps the part he’s known best for is that of Phoebe’s dimwit brother on Friends, a series that scarcely figured in his world. “I had no idea it was so popular,” he says.) He has, for example, sold out at least once. “I turned one movie down five times until they basically offered me a lottery ticket,” he says. “I was short of money at the time, so I just said ‘ok!’” The film in question is probably Jerry Bruckheimer’s dodgy car heist movie, Gone In 60 Seconds, though Ribisi won’t say for certain.

I wonder privately whether Ribisi’s intensity is related to his dedication to Scientology. The philosophy is famously geared toward self-improvement and he was raised in the Church – both his parents follow the teachings of Hubbard. While the Church, however, is occasionally described in sinister or secretive terms, Ribisi appears the antithesis. He’s friendly, engaging, open and suitably disrespectful of money. He’d make an excellent poster child for the religion, in fact.

“I’m an all-or-nothing type person,” he beams. “That’s pretty much true, always has been.” He remains obsessed with music, for example. He played guitar on a single with Juliette Lewis which he isn’t terribly proud of, and his girlfriend of three years is the drummer for a band called Autoluxe. In between, he has thrown himself into kung fu (he earned a black belt), cars (he built a Camaro 69) and photography (he amassed a huge collection of cameras).

Directing is his latest obsession. “I’m not going to walk away from this one,” he says. So night and day, he’s immersed in manuals and textbooks, learning programmes like Final Cut Pro and practicing with his Africa footage of lions and tribesmen. He is in awe of David Lynch, with whom he worked on Lost Highway, and he can tell you about Orson Welles’ digging holes to get particular shots and how Cassavetes used camera angles to illuminate character…

By the time the bill arrives, we’re onto how Kubrick planned his finances to retain his artistic independence. He peers over at the total and exclaims, “Wow, $60 for a breakfast and a salad!” And I think how nice it is to find a movie star who knows the value of money, as we wander out to the car park where he waits for his lift.