‘Sneaky Pete’ Star Giovanni Ribisi Looks Back on Days as a Child Actor

Giovanni Ribisi has chalked up television and film credits every year since he started acting as a preteen in 1985. He’s played a range of characters in a variety of productions, from a doomed medic in 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan” to Scarlett Johansson’s fashion-photographer husband in 2003’s “Lost in Translation” to an officious administrator in 2009’s “Avatar.” He now starts his second season in Amazon Prime’s “Sneaky Pete,” as a con man who has assumed his cellmate’s identity.

Ribisi calls the show’s shooting schedule “grueling and difficult,” squeezing 10 hours of content within four-and-a-half months. He allows that the job requires stamina but credits the writers, cast and crew with keeping him inspired and focused.

Variety first mentioned Ribisi on Sept. 27, 1985, in the cast list of the second-season premiere of NBC’s hit series “Highway to Heaven,” playing a child battling cancer.

What do you remember about being on the set of Highway to Heaven”?

There are so many things — that was one of my first jobs. I remember being completely bald and just the surreal thing of like, “Oh this is what it’s like to be an actor. You have to do things like that.”

Besides acting, what other career did you consider?

I was so embarrassed by [acting] I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to be a musician. Until somebody pointed out a film called “A Streetcar Named Desire” when I was 16, and that changed everything for me.

What about that film changed your perspective?

Marlon Brando’s performance.  … Everybody in that movie. It was [directed by] Elia Kazan. I couldn’t stop watching it. It was also the nostalgia for another era — I felt that I was transported. It made me very curious again.

What advice have you carried with you throughout your career?

I studied acting for 12 years based on [the principles of] the Actors Studio and the films that were being made around that time. The foundation is about being committed to what you want to do — success is almost secondary. The definition of what might be successful for somebody that came from the industry [then] is different from what it is today, I think.

Did you find it difficult to transition from being a child actor?

No. It didn’t matter about transition as much as it mattered I felt like there was something now that I wanted to chase and aspire to. That never really left me.

Who were some of your early mentors?

The first actor I looked up to was an actor by the name of Geoffrey Lewis, who passed away recently; I knew him when I was a kid. I don’t know if you’ve seen that film “Heaven’s Gate,” but he’s phenomenal in that. He has a scene where he grabs Mickey Rourke’s tongue. It’s perfect. Then from there, of course, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro. Gary Oldman has always been a huge inspiration for me — his sense of humor, his ability to transform himself. He’s incredible. Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, of course.

Starting out, did you want to take specific types of roles?

No, never really a specific type of role, but a lot of it funnels down to storytelling. For me, it evolved into wanting to focus on directing and writing and filmmaking. I love all aspects of filmmaking. I’ve done cinematography; I’ve been a grip and an electrician. It’s my passion.

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