Haley Strode grew up on her family’s 4th generation farm in Owensboro, Kentucky. A highly versatile and talented actress, Strode has landed a wide range of TV and film roles, including “Castle,” “CSI: NY,” “The New Normal” and Only in LA. In the upcoming 40’s noir crime drama Gangster Squad, Strode plays Marcia Keeler, Giovanni Ribisi wife. She joins veterans Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in a stylish film that chronicles LAPD’s fight to keep East Coast Mafia types out of Los Angeles. In this one-on-one interview, Strode reveals her passion for acting and some insights about a film many will soon be talking about.
You play Giovanni Ribisi’s wife in Gangster Squad. Can you describe your character?
Haley Strode: Marcia is this very supportive, loving wife. When we meet John O’Mara, Josh Brolin’s character in the film, there’s a hesitancy on her part on whether John is getting her husband into trouble. But otherwise, she’s there for him.
What attracted you to the role?
HS: I love characters that are heavy hearted. Because I have a heavy heart myself. I’ve always wanted to work with Giovanni. I’ve been a huge fan of his since high school. He’s such a great talent.
Did you audition for the role? What was that like?
HS: My audition tape was the first tape he (Ruben Fleischer) saw. He wanted our family—Giovanni’s family, which included my son, Charlie—to represent the hope of Los Angeles. During that time, Los Angeles was very corrupt, with the likes of Mickey Cohen, who owned much of the police department. It’s funny because I almost missed the audition. I was shooting an episode of “CSI New York” that day. And the following day, I was scheduled to get on a plane to go to Mississippi to do an interview for an independent feature. But schedules were shifted around and I finally made it to the audition. Initially, I was just going to be in one scene, but by the time I got the script, it was up to seven scenes. Anyway, I got the news when I was in Mississippi, and I was told that when Ruben saw the audition tape, he was convinced I was right for the part.
Did you prepare for the audition in terms of dress or makeup—40s style?
HS: Absolutely. I did the whole 40s hair and the red lipstick thing. The 1940s are one of my favorite movie genres in terms of fashion. I’ve had considerable success working in that particular time period. I did the pilot episode of “LA Noir” with Frank Darabont. Interestingly enough, that was a flashback to the 1920s. I just love period pieces. So, yes, I dressed to the nines for that particular audition because when you’re reading for period piece, it’s important that you fit smoothly into the period, that you have the “look” for that particular role. Right after the audition, I was scheduled to shoot “CSI:New York.” So I showed up to the CSI set dressed in full 40s attire. It was an interesting coincidence because that day, we were shooting a 40s flashback scene for CSI. So they didn’t have to put makeup on me for the scene.
What was it like working with director Ruben Fleischer?
HS: He’s such a fantastic talent. He’s can juggle all the different actors in this film. You saw the cast. It was like being a member of the boys club. To be one of the only women on the set. Ruben was incredibly generous and complimentary. Especially, on the last day, he had a lot of kind things to say. He and Giovanni had a little gush fest about me.
What was it like working with Giovanni Ribisi?
HS: I’ve been a huge fan of his since I can remember. Initially, it was surreal, but because he’s so warm and down to earth and so appreciative of the work, we immediately clicked and we got along really well.
Were there any memorable scenes you’d like to mention?
HS: There was a collection of little scenes where, during the first night of the film, Conway and Marcia meet John Omara. It’s really poignant because we see, in only a few words, the kind of relationship that Conway and I have. You see how protective I am of my husband. The scenes where you have to communicate how you feel towards someone without speaking are both challenging and my favorite. It’s much more meaningful. You watch people who know each other and who’ve been in long marriages—for, say 20 years—and they don’t have to say much to each other to know what the other one is thinking.
Like the old married couples in When Harry Met Sally?
HS: I love that movie! In fact, Meg Ryan is one of the reasons I decided to become an actress. I have always adored her work, and my dad always used to say that Meg reminded him so much of my mother. Their mannerisms are very similar.
Same question for Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn? Any memorable scenes you shared with them?
HS: Absolutely. There was a scene during one of the last days I was on set and it was with most of characters in the film—Josh, Ryan, Nick, Michael, Anthony, Giovanni. It was a barbeque scene. All I can say about it is that people were saying it was one of the best scripts they had seen in 15 years.
Why will audiences like Gangster Squad?
HS: Because it’s a story worth telling. Not only were the actors perfectly cast, but this is the kind of story that makes you think long after you leave the theater. There are moments in this film that gave me goose bumps. It’s especially powerful for people who live in Los Angeles or who are from Los Angeles. It all about the city and what it was like at the time, that there wasn’t really a good cop to be found. Josh Brolin’s character rises up from the ashes and inspires his crew who don’t really play by the book. They fight against the likes of Mickey Cohen, which is based on a true story. Nothing makes a story more exciting than knowing that much of what you’re watching actually happened.
You’re also in the TV pilot of “LA Noir,” directed by Frank Darabont. Can you describe your role as mobster Mickey Cohen’s first victim?
HS: I appear early in the pilot. And I was delighted to hear that it was picked up for more episodes. It’s a flashback to 1922, when Mickey Cohen was 9 years old. His first crime was robbing a movie theater. I’m this lady who works at the theater selling tickets and no one else is around. So Mickey walks up with two of his school-aged friends who look harmless—with baseball bats. It’s a danger- and violence-filled scene that was challenging to shoot. I love Frank Darabont as a director. I grew up watching Shawshank Redemption over and over. By the way, mine was the first audition tape he saw. At the end of the day, when we were reviewing my footage, Frank read lines with me. That doesn’t happen a lot to have a director read a script with you. It speaks volumes about the kind of director he is and why he works so much.
You’re also in “Pack of Wolves,” another TV movie about a rogue spy who teaches the Oppenheimer siblings spy tactics to deal with their teen troubles. Can you go into your role as Dr. Harper?
HS: That was such a fun part. I met Jay (Kogen) while shooting the “Wendell and Vinnie” pilot. The way I was dressed for the role, I was like a human Jessica Rabbit with a pencil skirt, tight cardigan and curly, Veronica Lake hair–almost a late 40s early 50s character. She plays an undercover spy who is Wolf’s boss. In the opener, she’s a pilot who was captured by one of the villains that Wolf is constantly fighting against.
Talk briefly about your lead role in Nick at Nite’s new “Wendell and Vinnie” opposite Jerry Trainor?
HS: Vinnie (Jerry Trainor) is a man-child. My character is the new neighbor next door who Vinnie is interested in, but I’m more interested in making sure that Wendell is taken care of. So I end up forming a bond with both of them. Shooting the pilot was such a joy. Nicole Sullivan who plays Vinnie’s sister is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
What were you like in high school? Cheerleader, nerd, class president?
HS: It’s funny because I did a lot of different things. I was in drama, I was a captain in my cheerleading squad in my junior and senior year. I also ran track, cross-country and love hurtles. I was a member of the national honor society. Because of that, I had many different groups of friends. I have two older brothers and one of my brothers is two years older than me, so he was with me a lot, so I had a lot of his friends. My class picture was captioned with “Most High School Spirit.” I’ve always been a very enthusiastic individual. I was described as being a ray of sunshine on more than one occasion.
Gangster Squad will be released by Warner Brothers on January 2013 .