Dean Winters interview: Daily Radar

Daily Radar, June 2000

Forget about The Sopranos. If you're looking for a gritty crime show that doesn't pull its punches, then look no further than Oz. For three seasons, the cast of inmates at the fictional Oswald State Penitentiary has shocked audiences with its depiction of life inside a maximum-security prison. No subject is taboo on HBO's most hardcore series.

But the stabbings, drug trade, gang wars and seemingly endless parade of rapes are just the window dressing on this award-winning show. Beneath the intense storylines is a group of television's bravest actors. Included among the prison population are Ryan and Cyril O'Reily, a quick-talking heroin-pushing Irishman and his mentally retarded brother. Played by real-life brothers Dean and Scott Winters, these characters are two of the most popular cons ever to share a cell. Daily Radar caught up with the Winters just before they began shooting the second half of Oz Season Four:

DR: So I assume you made it through Season Four alive?
Dean: (laughs) Yeah, barely.
DR: How far in advance do you know what's going to happen to your characters on the show?
Dean: Basically we get seven days. We get the script for the following episode the day that we start. So if we're shooting Episode 6, on the first day, we get the script for Episode 7. It's enough time to absorb it, but it's not like a month in advance. [Series creator] Tom Fontana usually has a conversation with each actor kinda telling him what's going to be happening to him.
DR: Over the course of a season or an episode?
Dean: A season. He'll take the main characters like myself, Scott, J.K., Harold, and he'll say "Okay, you're gonna get breast cancer, and you're gonna fall in love with the doctor." They give you a through line. There are a lot of guys who open up these scripts and have no idea that they're dying. It's a little tough to be around. It's a little depressing.
DR: What's the toughest scene you've had to do?
Dean: Besides being raped, which we haven't gone through, I don't think there is anything we haven't done that anyone else has done. I had to be the first one fully naked on the show. I was thrown into the hole in the first season. Full frontal nudity. It was a mess. I was coming off a heroin addiction on the show, and I was naked in that room. This was back in the first season before the room was padded. I ended up ripping my back up. We definitely had to do our share of tough scenes. Scott was boxing in scenes, and that was physically wrenching for the guys who had to box last year.
Scott: It seems that Tom gives me some real heavyweight emotional scenes. For the last three seasons he's been giving me scenes that are emotionally really challenging, and I so welcome them as an actor. It's such a privilege to be able to go that far emotionally.
DR: Is it tough to do some of the heavier scenes when you're playing a character that's slow? Does that limit your range?
Scott: Something new is inevitably going to come out. I think what I need to do emotionally is understood before the scene. And certainly I'm pretty familiar with the character Cyril at this point, so when I combine those two -- Cyril with the proper emotional reaction -- something new generally comes out that is really scary and even new to me. But it ends up reading truthfully. I don't know if you saw any of the first half of the upcoming season, but there is some more of the same as far as the heavy emotional scenes, but they're very different. You'll see different sides to Cyril. I'm really glad I'm getting to do so much powerful emotional work -- on TV, no less.
DR: You mentioned boxing; you guys have some background in boxing.
Dean: Scott does.
Scott: I was boxing when I was 15 and training for Golden Gloves. This was in Arizona, when I was living out there. I got a kidney injury in football, and I had to stop boxing, but I had definitely gotten to a place where I had established some good talent and a real comprehension of the sport.
DR: How long did it take to shoot some of those fight scenes?
Scott: The boxing scenes? The first guy, I knocked out the Aryan. That took about four or five hours. On film it ended up being a 2-3 minute fight. It was fun. We were slugging it out once in awhile. In acting, they don't usually like to push the real boxing.
DR: Who's the toughest guy on the set?
Dean and Scott: (simultaneously) Chuck Zito.
DR: He's the real deal, eh?
Dean: Oh yeah. And there are a number of extras that you wouldn't want to f*ck with, either. Guys who wouldn't wanna be mentioned in the press because they have some serious pasts.
Scott: Some gang guys and such.
DR: Are they on set as "technical advisors"?
Dean: The first year there was a guy who had done a 10-year bit upstate, and he was on the set as a "technical advisor," but he became kind of a pain in the ass, so they got rid of him.
DR: What kinds of things made him a pain in the ass?
Dean: He just talked too much. A lot of the extras, especially in the bigger scenes in the cafeteria or last year in the boxing scenes, a lot of those guys have done time. They really brought a real flavor to the show. And one of the guys on the show who plays a guard, his brother is a guard. But you don't want to get too many technical guys down there, because then it gets confusing, and you lose the creativity.
DR: Have you heard any prison stories that made it into the show?
Dean: Did you see in the first season where I ground the glass up [and put it into another inmate's food]? That is a real story that the sound guy told Tom Fontana. It's a true story from up in Sing Sing. Last year I also did a scene where I took off one of my tattoos with a piece of sandpaper. One of the extras on the show told us that he took off another guy's tattoo in prison with an iron.
Scott: I've heard about a couple of scalpings. One guy was in Oklahoma, and he was getting transferred to another prison, and he was approached by the baddest guy in the prison -- this is a guy I won't name -- and he ended up scalping the guy. The guy had long hair and he just ripped the hair out of his head and the scalp came off with it.
DR: Did you guys go to any prisons to do research before taking the roles?
Dean: Any actor who tells you that he went into gen pop for research is full of sh*t, because you would immediately become a trophy for somebody. I'm sure you could do it at one of those country club prisons, but nobody is going into gen pop at Attica and be walking around. And personally, I don't know how Robert Downey Jr. is surviving at Corcorcan.
Scott: He's at Corcorcan?
Dean: Yeah, and he's in gen pop. He's walking around at Corcorcan, which is one of the most dangerous prisons in the United States. That's where Manson is. It's a crazy place. I don't know how he's doing it. It's pretty hard to do physical research, but Scott and I are addicted to those A&E and HBO prison documentaries. But I don't think anyone on the show, except those guys who have done time, have a clue what it's like to be inside.
DR: Would you last a day in prison?
Dean: I wouldn't last five minutes.
DR: Are either of you two ever on the Internet?
Scott: Every now and then.
DR: I was looking around the Internet and there are a number of Dean Winters fan pages. On one of them, Dedicated to Dean Winters, you can go on and vote for your favorite Dean Winters haircut.
Dean: (laughs hard) You're kidding me.
DR: And there is one called Lord of the Dance that is a collection of X-Rated Ryan O'Reily fan fiction.
Dean: (still laughing) Wow. I don't have a computer, but I gotta go find that.
DR: Is there any sibling rivalry? I noticed there are no Scott Winters fan sites.
Dean: There will be this year.
Scott: There is a web site where I get to read a lot of fan mail. HBO has a Cyril section, and I got to read a lot of fan mail last year. It was cool, because I didn't realize how seriously people took our acting. You know, HBO being a show with prison content, it's not going to be out front like the popular network shows, so it's nice to hear what America thinks.
DR: Do you think that the fact that the show takes place in prison has prevented Oz from getting acclaim of something more mainstream like The Sopranos?
Dean: Definitely.
Scott: Without question. People have loved gangsters for 50 years now.
Dean: The Sopranos is a great show, and those guys are all friends of ours, but that's a very tried and true formula. There is nothing risk-taking about that show. And that's not to bash them, because they do a really good job. The writing is great. The acting is superb. But there isn't a show on television that takes even half the chances that we take. But we get critical acclaim. The only bad reviews I can remember have come from USA Today and TV Guide. But all the people that seem to matter, like The New York Times and the LA Times, they've all responded really well.
Scott: As far as TV goes, I can't imagine doing a better show than Oz. It's fantastic.
DR: How does the set differ from network shows you've worked on? (Dean was a regular on Law and Order and Scott has appeared on Angel.)
Dean: I think the big difference is that we have no interference from HBO. Because we're on cable, we do pretty much anything we want. And also, the sheer physicality of the set. As soon as you walk through the doors, you really feel like you're in prison.
Scott: There's also no private wars, and no egos on the set. You get a lot of that with the network shows just because there's a lot more dough involved, and they're a lot more mainstream productions. Fortunately enough, as great as the actors all are and as much testosterone as there is in the show, there's really no egos. Everyone really digs hanging out with each other. That's very different than with most mainstream shows, where there is much more at stake.
DR: How'd you like working with the guest directors that came in for Season Two and Three?
Scott: That was really fun because Dean and I actually grew up with the Dillon family. We were friends with Matt and Kevin before. So it was really fun to work with Matt. And to find out that Kathy Bates was a big Oz fan was a bonus.
Dean: And all those directors, like Matt, Chazz [Palminteri], Kathy and [Steve] Buscemi... they're all hardcore New Yorkers. So even though Matt and Chazz had never directed before, and Kathy had done only one episode of Homicide, they all brought a real New York flavor. Even though the show takes place in a non-disclosed place, I think it's pretty obvious where it is. It was great for a lot of the actors who hadn't worked much before to have these movie stars walking around the set. Anyone who says they're not impressed by that is full of sh*t.
Scott: What was really cool about Steve Buscemi was that our brother Brad wrote his episode. Brad is a writer for Levinson-Fontana, and he was up for a Writer's Guild award for that episode.
Dean: Buscemi is coming back to direct another episode, and it looked like Willem Dafoe was going to be in there for a minute, but now he's not. And Cher was going to direct one. I was actually really looking forward to that, because she directed that HBO thing last year, and she really crushed it. But her schedule didn't work out.
DR: I understand that the almighty Gavin "Love Boat" MacLeod did a guest stint in this coming season.
Dean: Yeah, Gavin came in as The Cardinal. And at first we were all like "What the f*ck?" But he was really good. He's got that fatherly thing going on. He was great. There aren't many guest stars on the show this season except for musicians. The lead singer of the Brand Nubians and Pepa from Salt 'n Pepa are on.
DR: How long will you stay on the show?
Dean: Personally, I won't leave Oz for anything. Personally, I think everything else on TV sucks. And the movies that are coming out these days really aren't that impressive. We love working with Tom. We love working in the city. We don't know how long the show is going to last, but I've been there since Day One.
DR: Have either of you been typecast from this show?
Scott: I don't think casting directors know what to do with me. I'm very leading man. If I cut my hair, I'd be doing Harrison Ford parts. As long as my hair is long, I'm getting all these great character roles where most of the guys are jerks.
DR: Do people still come up to you and say "How 'bout them apples?" after Good Will Hunting?
Scott: I get that a lot. "How 'bout them apples? How 'bout them apples?" Actually, I think Damon stole that line from Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners.
DR: Dean, are you still doing Law and Order?
Dean: No, I left that show. I had a contract to do 13 episodes with them. It was a great show for me to do, but I'm more comfortable in a prison than a precinct.