When I interview people in film and TV, I like to take a few moments to get my interviewee warmed up before starting in with my questions. Apart from the usual “how are you?”, I like to make sure the subject knows I’ve seen their work and that I’m enthusiastic about talking to them. The wonderful EJ Bonilla (who plays the pivotal part of CIA agent Raymond Waters in The Old Man) needed no such warming up on my part. I get the feeling that EJ enters every room pre-warmed and ready to go. After telling me a hilarious story about accidentally flooding his hotel room, and being so embarrassed that he soaked up most of the water himself before he could bring himself to call the front desk, EJ jumped right into discussing his experience on this fabulously received FX show starring Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, Alia Shawkat, and Amy Brenneman—four people for whom his admiration knows no bounds.
[On a personal note, I’ve rarely had this much fun in an interview. Get ready for a rollicking good time.]
Awards Daily: I was not looking for another show to cover, but when I saw the trailer and the reviews for The Old Man—and then you have Jeff Bridges in his first appearance since beating cancer—well, how could I say no?
E.J. Bonilla: He found out he had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma while we were on set. It wasn’t since beating cancer. We were filming this before the pandemic hit. We found out on set when Tom Hanks tested positive (for COVID) and all that happened. We were like “Oh.”
Awards Daily: Doing interviews right now can be a little strange, because in the Pandemic Era sometimes you don’t know when a project was started and when it came to fruition.
E.J. Bonilla: Yeah it was wild, man. We started filming, then we had to stop, and then we went back and filmed more. We were supposed to go to Morocco. It was gonna be so cool. We were gonna be in Morocco for three months. It was going to be amazing, and then… mayhem.
Awards Daily: And then for Jeff, this is such a physical role. It’s not anything to say that he’s an older gentleman, but he was also an older gentleman battling Non-Hodgkin’s.
E.J. Bonilla: I look at him with such admiration. Jeff has this way of looking at life, Amy Brenneman said this about him, he looked at cancer almost as another way of appreciating life. He got wisdom from this. To see him sturdy after going through so much and finding a way to still be joyous about a difficult situation is just miraculous. You work with a lot of different people; I’ve been blessed to play with a lot of different people, and he’s a joy. He’s absolutely an amazing human being. I look up to him so much.
Awards Daily: That sounds like the Jeff Bridges that all of us out here who have never met him would expect him to be.
E.J. Bonilla: Honestly, yeah. He is a beautiful soul. Jeff and I were only in the same room because we were on set at the same time. He taught me how to play dirty jams on his guitar and I was like geeking out. He was so cool with me; he bought me a set chair and everything. I get upset sometimes at Hollywood because there’s so much ego in different spaces, and, if I can be candid, I just think it’s fucking bullshit. We get to pretend to be other people for a living. Put your ego in check. We don’t need divas in this space. It’s incredibly refreshing to play with someone like Lithgow too; I’m a huge fan. There’s no ego, no bullshit, they just love being here. It’s one of the easiest sets I’ve ever played on.
Awards Daily: When I was watching Amy Brenneman in The Old Man, I was thinking this almost feels like part two of the character she played in Heat—which is this law-abiding, seemingly normal woman who goes along with a criminal, even after she finds out who they really are. Very few actors can sell that.
E.J. Bonilla: Amy is one of the most powerful actors I’ve ever witnessed. She and I didn’t get to work together. But every time I’d get off a press thing with Amy, I’d just grab her and be like “You’re so fucking powerful.” She’s so good. She’s so nuancy, so textured, and she cares. There’s a scene between them that’s probably my favorite in the entire show—I think it’s episode two maybe—when she gets introduced. She gets off the phone with her bank and the glass breaks. I think it’s just a testament to where we’ve come with good writing. The show reads like one of those old films from the seventies. Time and silence is one of the characters in the show; it’s a part of it. They have this beautiful two shot where you see her and him coming through the door, and then the camera is on like a rail and slowly shifts and backs up a little bit. It’s a three minute scene, and it’s not “the guy that’s taking care of the woman,” it’s this powerful woman allowing this man into her space and allowing him to care for her in that moment. He cleans up the glass and throws it away and she’s like “You don’t have to.” He’s so gentle, washes his hands, and then he cooks for her. She slowly just sidles up next to him and puts her head on his shoulder. That—that’s fucking filmmaking man.
Awards Daily: You’re right, it’s like a silent invitation. When you say she’s “allowing” him.
E.J. Bonilla: Ooh I like that. Ok, poet. Alright, David. [Laughs].
Awards Daily: So, let’s talk about you now. How did you come to The Old Man?
E.J. Bonilla: Actually, it was really amazing. Like every other actor I’m not getting “offered” these roles, you’ve got to audition. It was funny because I was at my buddy’s house, and I had this big audition coming with all these words, extremely wordy. That whole… what’s basically a monologue when he’s in the office in episode three and he’s talking to Alia’s character and he’s talking about who Dan Chase really is. It’s like a six minute scene of just all me talking. They gave me three scenes and I only sent in two. I was like—I didn’t have time, I didn’t have a reader, and I was like, fuck it man, if they like me they’ll take the two and be like we’ll believe he can do the other thing. I auditioned and then three days later I got a call from a manager about Denise, the casting director, wanting me to come in to see her because they had heard that I was going back to New York. While I sat in her office and I was going to do the second scene, I saw Lithgow’s face behind her and I was like “…I’m sorry, why is he on that board?” and she was like “Oh, John?” and I was like “Yeah…” and she was like “Oh, he’s playing Harold Harper. He’s who you’re talking to in this scene.” I was like “Get the fuck out of here, man! Lithgow’s in this?” and she’s like yeah and I was like [screams]. I didn’t know! [Laughs]. It’s rare that a casting director talks to you for eight minutes before you audition, and what I found out later was that they just wanted to meet me and they thought I was leaving.
So I ended up staying in town; I changed my flight so I could meet with the producers. I met with Dan Shotz, Robert Levine, and Jon Steinberg. I remember walking in and they were like “We just want to meet you as an actor, not as the character.” So I put my voice back to normal. I know Hollywood looks at leading men. I’m a fucking character actor, man. They started talking to me about what their goal was with the show. These guys are just so sweet. You don’t ever run into kind, normal, caring people who also do incredibly high level art, you know? They were like “We want to make something that feels like one of those old movies from the seventies.” That’s from them. “We want to take our time with this show. We’re looking for people who are willing to play with us and bring nuance to the character.” And at one point I was like, you guys have to stop fucking with me, and they started laughing. [Laughs]. I was like, I’m being serious, stop telling me all these delicious things in these comfy leather chairs in this high rise building in Los Angeles if you’re not going to cast me! They laughed it off which I thought was sweet. I found out after I tested that they never had another actor. When they saw my tape they knew they wanted me, but they wanted to meet me.
Awards Daily: They probably wanted to make sure you weren’t going to be a pain in the ass, right?
E.J. Bonilla: I’m sure. And then you’re working with Jeff and John and Alia who are so experienced, you want to make sure you have someone who’s gonna be cool. It was really sweet. I’m a huge fan of everyone behind the scenes. They’re so good at what they do, and there’s no ego, there’s no bullshit. It’s just, they care.
Awards Daily: Talking about that long monologue that you have, I imagine there’s two parts of you looking at that: one is like holy shit this is great, this is a lot of good stuff to do, and on the other hand it must be like, oh God I have to nail this thing.
E.J. Bonilla: Good writing makes it all easy. Good writing and actors like Jeff and John and Alia and Amy. You get into this space where you can just fall in and make it so easy. That scene, I do think maybe another actor would have made it all exposition and had fun with it, but once I realized how fascinated (my character) Raymond Waters was by what he was saying, it was easy to get geeked out by it. He thinks “This guy’s a fucking mad man. He’s crazy, he’s wild. Let me tell you this story.” Jon Watts is a brilliant director. I get why he’s the biggest thing right now. He deserves it. He’s not just a cinematic director. He’s not just a camera director. And he came up to me during that scene and he was like “Ok, alright man, now say it like a ghost story.” and my whole body went “OHH YESS.” Let’s fucking go. When you have people like this, it just makes it a lot easier. It was just so much fun to fall into this other human being who’s not me at all.
Awards Daily: In a lot of productions that might be semi similar to what The Old Man is doing, if you took the storyline and put it into a more generic space—
E.J. Bonilla: It could become procedural really quickly.
Awards Daily: Exactly. But your character is allowed to be very peculiar and specific. The line I loved about him was: “He’s the nosiest motherfucker in the history of the CIA.” And you come on with this sort of… I don’t know what you would label it as, maybe passive-aggression, in the way that you interrogate. Your voice never changes. You are constantly probing and needling. Adding those notes to your character makes him so specific, and at the same time you almost seem casual—but in no way are you casual. You are constantly on whoever you’re talking to.
E.J. Bonilla: I love you right now, David. I really do. [Laughs.] It makes me feel good that that’s noticeable. I believe an actor’s strength is in their ability to make choices. I get this from my coach in the city—his name is Anthony Abeson, he’s one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever played with, maybe the only person I trust. I didn’t train a lot; I started learning on set. My first acting teachers were my directors. Choices should move you viscerally. An actor’s strength is in their choices. Sometimes people make choices that work, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the right choice for you. If it doesn’t shake you, if it doesn’t move you, if it doesn’t make you smile or grit your teeth or your stomach churn then it’s not the right choice for you. I think for Ray, what excited me about him is that he is always suspicious.
If my goal is to see behind the curtain, I don’t need to be angry, I don’t need to be aggressive, I just gotta ask you the right questions and see what your eyes do. A good detective does not just ask you a question to hear what you say. It’s almost exactly reflective of what Harold Harper says to him when they have that scene together. He’s like “I remember what it was like to be you. Sometimes I would ask people questions to see what they would say. Sometimes I would ask questions to watch the billiard balls bounce around in their head a little bit.” Then Ray leans in and he says “I’m trying to figure out what you’re doing with me right now.” That’s what a good detective does. I coach actors as well. Whenever we are uncovering and dissecting a person’s profession, and if we get to something like a detective for example, if you’re gonna be something, be fucking good at it. Now what would make you really good at it? What makes a good detective? Someone whos willing to question anyone—even their fucking bosses, man. In my mind, Raymond is what they also describe Dan Chase to be, which is the true believer. That’s what people in our military and other armed services would call it. It’s not that you have the American flag tattooed to your back, it’s that you believe in the ideals of what America represents, which is that freedom. A lot of these men and women, my buddies in the military, would say, “we’re the ones who run towards the fire.” I think Ray served, in my mind—in his history he served, and I think he understands that sometimes even the good guys can be full of shit. Just because he’s in the CIA doesn’t change that.
Awards Daily: You can really see the suspicion in the work you’re doing there, which I think is really admirable. There’s something silent that you’re doing as well as what is verbal. Everybody that he comes into contact with, he is asking questions of them whether he speaks to them, or whether he is just observing their behavior.
E.J. Bonilla: I do think that if you’re going to play a detective he should be watching your hands move as you answer. He should be seeing what your eyes do, and that makes you curious. He doesn’t believe anyone necessarily.
Awards Daily: I was fascinated by the choice you made regarding your voice. Your tone rarely changes, yet it’s somehow not monotone, which I think is just fascinating. But there is something about it that is always sort of the same. I don’t know how you pulled off that duality, almost always being conversant at the same pitch yet never lapsing into anything rote. What was the choice there?
E.J. Bonilla: I think that Ray… you know how the guy that knows what he can do doesn’t have to scream at you? I like to say that real monsters speak in whispers. You’re not afraid of the guy at the bar who’s screaming in your face. You’re afraid of the guy right behind him that is just watching, because that man is waiting. I don’t have to be angry. I’m telling you to stop. Stop. That guy. That guy scares me. I wanted Ray to be aware. He knows the kind of monster he can be. He knows what can come out of him so he doesn’t have to shift. I think when you believe what’s going on, then you know how to control your monster, so you listen and you breathe, and then you answer with the thing that is best for you. There’s a moment where we first see him really face off with Harold Harper, at the beginning of episode two. Behind my eyes I’m shaking. I’m livid. But I have to respect you. But fuck you. Fuck you because something’s going on here and the men I was in charge of died. That’s not a small thing to me. As a man who had served in the military—Raymond, not myself—you are responsible for your brothers. I led this operation. I am responsible for these men. I will be the one going to their wives to tell them they will not be coming home. When that’s underneath, I can speak in a whisper.
Awards Daily: What’s amazing about that sequence is that you never break decorum. You never insult your boss. You never do the thing that could get you into real trouble—but you also make it clear. John Lithgow as Harper is a smart guy. He knows what you mean when you’re saying it. The trust that you had in the dialogue is evident, because there could be a tendency to play it bigger, and you don’t do that.
E.J. Bonilla: I think you’re right. I think maybe other people would have. That’s also what I mean about choices. We can make choices that work, but I don’t want to be a stereotypical male. I know that in my life I’m not. There’s a lot of toxic masculinity out there. I think that if you’re going to play a character, you play them to the top of their intelligence. I think that when you’re huffing and puffing you’re often wasting energy. That energy could be better used here, in your eyes.
Awards Daily: A lot of your scenes are with Alia. Her character is not a stumbler. She’s pretty strong in her own place. The way you address her wrongfoots her, which is fascinating to see because in almost every other sequence she’s not like that. But when she’s with you, you throw her off balance, and there’s a mixture of annoyance and nervousness that she gives off—which is to her credit—but it’s also because we believe that your character would create that response in her.
E.J. Bonilla: As a character, I think it’s because he sees her. She’s a young woman of color, in a world that’s mostly white, and male. I think a lot of people watching the show are going to think Ray’s a dick. I think what they’re not going to necessarily understand is that he is probably the most sincere guy in the show. I’m not going to lie to you. I’m not trying to fuck anyone. I’m looking for the truth. Even taking this job was an opportunity for him. Because he was getting fucking washed over by everyone else at his agency. They don’t like him. This isn’t fucking high school. You don’t like me because I’m good at my job? Fuck you. Now I have this high profile opportunity to show how good of an agent I am. There’s a part of me that’s sad that we won’t get to see more from Ray. I think the writers were a little sad too. They came up to me and were like “So listen….” [Laughs]. Jon Steinberg and Dan Shotz were talking to me that day and they were like “We stayed up all night last night trying to find a way around this, man. We love you so much, but Ray’s gotta die.” I get it, man. I think that Ray sees Angela and I think that he also sees that there’s something there. She’s a good girl, man. I love that he stands up to Harper and is like don’t hurt her, man. She would walk through fire for you and I can’t for the life of me understand why, because I see you have a lot of bullshit in you. She may not. Maybe she looks at you like a dad, I don’t know, but you’re gonna get that girl killed. This is a man who has seen people die in his arms. When you create that type of character, you can be calm and you can spit fire into people. You just gotta mean it.
Awards Daily: What I love about you and Alia’s scenes is she can barely tolerate your presence. In those moments that you’re together she’s annoyed, she’s aggravated—can he ever just not ask a question? There’s this anti-chemistry that is actual chemistry. What was it like bonding with her when you’re playing characters that aren’t bonding?
E.J. Bonilla: She’s totally wonderful. Any chance I’d get. We didn’t get as much time together as maybe I wanted. I’m a big caveman. I want to be your friend. I want to be your best friend. I want to hang out and do stuff, let’s go to the movies. And Alia’s maybe not as extroverted as I am, but is so brilliant and so kind, and so sweet. It’s funny, I don’t know if she knows, but I was a fan before I met her. Of course Arrested Development is the shit. So this girl’s been working on a high level. I look up to her to be honest with you. The woman is just so versatile. And then she has her art studio. I look at her and I’m like, ok, I have to remind myself that I need to have multiple things that feed me so that I can be present and grounded when I do get the opportunity to play. She’s funny, she’s silly, she’s extremely easy to work with.
Awards Daily: The way you eat almonds loudly in her presence. The aggravation it’s causing her. This isn’t a show where you would necessarily have humorous moments. It’s a heavy drama, but that sequence is hysterical in the way that she calls it out and you are so unbothered. You just keep eating them.
E.J. Bonilla: You know, other people don’t want to hear about their bullshit. Ray likes the truth. The truth is I’m annoying sometimes, I get it. Let’s be real. I’m a dick, I know. I’m also a good guy. I don’t think he’s phased by people’s opinions too much, unlike E.J. E.J. is deeply insecure all the time. Like, does David not like me?
Awards Daily: [Laughs.] David likes you, I’ll just tell you that now.
E.J. Bonilla: At least somebody does, Jesus. One of the things that I really admire about Ray Waters is that the truth means so much to him even if it isn’t in his own favor.
Awards Daily: Speaking to that, there’s a scene towards the end of the season where you’re told to suppress your personality and your instinct to ask questions and to just keep your mouth shut and do the job. You get to the point in the finale and your character stays true to himself by questioning this mission that they’re on—the abduction of Alia’s character. In that way, this sort of honor comes out that might not have been as obvious before, but when it happens you believe it because this is the guy that believes in the book and his book is doing shit the right way.
E.J. Bonilla: Going back to the idea of what it is to be a true believer, there are people in our country and in the world who understand that the freedom that we get to enjoy as a society is often based on the actions of men and women who do things we don’t want to know about. He’s not a clean cut perfect Christian boy. He understands that shit has to go down sometimes and dark things happen. In my mind she’s safer with me than without me. I think if it came down to it, he would have shot those two men who abducted her and he would have kept her alive.
WARNING: Spoilers to follow
Awards Daily: Your character is given a pretty complete arc. You think he’s one thing at first, but then there’s a redemptive quality at the end, even though you could argue that he fails in his attempt to protect her. You see him one way at the beginning and another way at the end. There’s a beauty to that.
E.J. Bonilla: I can’t stress it enough: Jon Steinberg, Robert Levine—they’re fucking magical. It’s funny, originally Ray Waters was supposed to be a “recurring character.” But they wanted me on the show so they gave me “series regular” which is pretty cool. Knowing them, that didn’t influence the writing I don’t think. I think they always knew this is what was going to happen with Ray. He was always supposed to die. That’s why he was going to be a recurrent, but they loved me so they expanded the part.
Awards Daily: It’s unfortunate of course that you’re not going to be a part of the second season, but at the same time you got to be a part of something really good. Actors tell me all the time that they work just as hard on things that don’t turn out as well as they hoped as they do on things that do turn out. There has to be that extra level of satisfaction to have been a part of something this great.
E.J. Bonilla: I knew really early on how good this show is. I remember describing it to my family. I’m a mama’s boy; I call my mom real quick like “Mama!” with tears in my eyes. You know that show that you watch that you wish you were on? I’m on it. If I were to see this show out there, I’d be like, where was my audition? I get the honor of just getting to play. I really just love this stuff so much, David. Like I’m getting emotional just talking about it with you. I just want to play, and I want to make good shit. On a personal note, sometimes you’re afraid of how people see you. I got an Imagen award for best lead actor for this thing I did a few years ago called The Long Road Home. No one saw it. I was like number one on the call sheet over a bunch of amazing people. I got this really dope award, and I remember saying, this is for the kids who look like me who are from the places that I’m from who are plagued by this sense of feeling dumb. So, as someone who has felt that, like maybe I’m on set with people and maybe I didn’t read the same books you read and don’t know the same words you do. It’s really easy in this world to feel inadequate and not enough and all that other bullshit. We are often our own worst enemy. But I got to go toe to toe and play chess with John Lithgow. To go toe to toe matching intellect with one of the most brilliant smart actors that I’ve ever met, who often plays the most brilliant smart man in the room, to get to embody Ray Waters and embody him with texture and nuance and real intelligence was like a dream come true.