We first meet Eugene Kittridge in Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible, in a Prague restaurant right after Ethan Hunt’s IMF team had all been wiped out. As an audience, we think, well, this is Ethan’s boss, he’s safe now. But, instead, we meet this smarmy, cynical suit who, with a whole lot of sarcasm, accuses Ethan of being a traitor – with a whole holier-than-now speech to go along with these accusations. The way Henry Czerny plays Kittridge, he’s never actually the villain, but we sure kind of want him to be the villain. (Ethan, having enough, then blows us an aquarium and runs away.) Kittridge is a perfect character. But then, that was it. Kittridge never returned. In the next film, Ethan’s handler was played by Anthony Hopkins.
Well, that’s until Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. And what’s funny is, after 27 years since we last saw him, Kittridge is basically the voice of the trailer. Once again taunting Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. This time, Kittridge sends Ethan on a job to recover two keys that control The Entity. And whoever controls The Entity controls the world. Kittridge’s relationship with Ethan at this point is basically, look, we don’t like each other, but we both have a job to do. This is a more world-weary Kittridge. One that has to explain what the IMF even is to Cary Elwes’s Director of National Intelligence (which leads to a pretty hilarious exchange when Kittridge explains agents can turn down assignments).
Why has it been so long since Czerny has played Kittridge? As he explains ahead, he was, let’s say, maybe a little too ambitious at the time. After a lunch with then Mission: Impossible producer Paula Wagner, he laid out a lot of ideas for where Kittridge’s character could go. And that was the last he heard about playing Kittridge … until now.
It’s good to talk to you…
My pleasure. If I can save one person from not seeing this on the big screen, then let’s do it.
Yes, people should.
Well, it’s manufactured in that way as a good meal is or a good car is. You look at every square foot of that screen and you will be entertained. So, if you’re watching it on, even a big screen at home with friends, you’re not going to get the same experience. It’s like going to a concert and there are two people. So, get out there! Otherwise, there won’t be cinema, partly – but most importantly, get out there and see this in the cinema because you’ll be blown away in the best way possible.
I’ve been obsessed with Kittridge since the first Mission: Impossible movie.
The first time you meet him in that restaurant. Akvárium? Am I remembering that correctly?
What a stylish choice for that kind of situation. So, right off the bat, okay, this guy is interesting.
Brian shot that beautifully. It was very weird, first of all. I’d never had a camera up my nose.
Yeah, there are a lot of Dutch angles in that one.
And you know why, right?
Well, it’s Brian De Palma…
Yeah. So, that was great. That was not standard. The tension that he ratcheted up before that thing blew is, of course, Hitchcockian and Brian De Palma’s strong suit.
It’s interesting, because even from that scene, Kittridge is never technically the bad guy, but the way you play him, you really want to think he is, even though he never quite is.
You’re right. Well, his shareholders are the American people, basically, and the Kittridge you see in the first one is far more impetuous than this one. This one, he’s been through 25 years. We’ll get to it later in the interview, but he’s been through stuff over the last 25 years. And I made choices about where he would’ve gotten that world of wisdom. In the first one, he is new. He’s the new head of the IMF and cocky. And he has his ego hurt when he discovers this kid’s the mole, even though it’s erroneous. And so that Kittridge has been chiseled away at, and a new one has emerged. But his purpose is still the same, and that is to serve the American people as best he can.
I love when Ethan is screaming, “My team is dead!” And then you just sarcastically go, “Yeah.”
I’m glad. And if I may, it’s a carry-over slightly. It’s somewhat similar characters, obviously both Paramount movies, but with Clear and Present Danger…
I just rewatched that a few weeks ago.
You’ll remember, he’s eating a carrot. That was a choice that came through me – the idea that he’s eating a carrot in the window and the bomb fell. He just says, “Boom.” He has that kind of disregard for people who he thinks are bad at that time. He’s a little different now. He’s a little less cavalier about the loss of life.
I love your line in Clear and Present Danger, “Computer theft is a serious crime.”
I’ve had the fortune of having great writers write terrific dialogue for these characters through Paramount. Yeah, for sure, I’ve added a little bits and pieces along the way, and Christoper McQuarrie has been very generous about that. Also. Cary Elwes.
That’s the scene I want to talk, about being world-weary. Kittridge trying to explain what IMF is to Cary Elwes. That is a great scene.
Yeah, it is. He does a great job delivering, it’s three lines, basically. And the way he delivers those, the way those come through him, the nuance is so great. So wonderful. It’s such a treat.
Kittridge explains IMF agents can turn down assignments.
There was an iteration of this whereby the idea of Ethan saying “no” was introduced, and that was tried and put into the mix, and that was a flavor that was removed from one of the courses of the meal, if you will.
I assume McQuarrie has a very different process than Brian De Palma?
They do have extremely different styles. McQuarrie is right there on set. He will encourage. If he has three days to shoot a scene, he will. And not because he’s worried about getting it right, because when he gets in the editing room, he wants as much of what the actor wants to offer in the editing room. He’s brilliant with a camera, clearly. His editor, Eddie Hamilton, who’s been working on it, this is a team that they’re symbiotic practically. But Brian was… I rarely saw Brian. I mean, I wasn’t in it a lot, but Brian was very camera oriented. And wisely so, because his angles, they’re iconic. But McQ does both. But, I was going to say hands-on, but he’s not hands-on, he’s actually quite hands-off.
But, this is coming to mind. If you have a child and they’re a creative child, and you have the time, you want to give them a room in which they can create. We know what the character’s purpose is in this yarn. But, within that, what do you want to explore? And we did versions of the scene between Ethan and Kittridge where Kittridge was more brotherly. He was more fatherly. He was more reprimanding. We went through the plethora, not to get it right, but just to explore what happens if, what happens if, what happens if? I mean, it’s written this way. They want to explore what the dynamic is. And, therefore, you have this terrific reduction, to a certain extent, where only the most juicy flavors they feel are presented to the audience. They love to entertain.
How are you not in all of these? That’s what I’ve never understood.
Well, there’s a story there, too. McQuarrie wanted to bring Kittridge back a couple of movies ago, but it just wasn’t right apparently, or whatever. But, first of all, the first Mission: Impossible was my second Hollywood movie. I played Ritter in Clear and Present Danger, being CIA. And here was this other opportunity. At first, I was working in Brazil when I got the call and I wasn’t feeling well, and I’m not sure if I have the chops to do this, and my rep said, “No, no, you’re doing it.”
That was good advice.
Yes, they said, “You’re doing it.” Okay, fine. Then I just said, “Okay, if I’m doing it, I’m doing it.” And I had just enough time on the way to the UK to stop by the CIA and I got some people to call some people. And because of Clear and Present Danger, they said, “We’ll chat with them. We’ll let them know how things work.” So I spent a day and a half there with these people…
So wait, so as an actor, you can just call the CIA and they let you hang out there for a little bit?
[Laughs] No, no. I had people call people call people.
Oh, I see.
Because they want people to know what they do as well, within reason, of course. So, I did all kinds of homework there. And then I had the script with me, and I didn’t try to show them the script, but I knew the questions that I wanted to ask them about it. And so I went to the UK with all these answers – all these suggestions about what should be done perhaps with this script. And, of course, that was not met in the way I expected it to be met. It was, “Thank you very much, but please keep that to yourself. Great backstory for you. I love that you did that for you.” Very Mission: Impossible.
And so I was a bit shit-grinned about that because I’d gone through the effort. “Okay. Fine.” So, after Mission: Impossible, the first month, I had a lunch with Paula Wagner, who was, at that time, Tom’s producing partner. And I let her know all the things they didn’t do with Kittridge, and what they should be doing with Kittridge in the future, if they had options. And she was very polite, very nice, paid for the lunch. And that’s the last I saw of Mission: Impossible. I burned that bridge.
I mean, I don’t know if they planned to do that anyway, because as you know, Ving and Tom are the two tent poles, if you will, from the original. So maybe that was in the works all the time, I don’t know. But I certainly didn’t do myself any favors as a young actor telling Paula Wagner what she missed in this supporting character.
So, I’m trying to go through it in your head a bit. So you do all this research and it was kind of met with, “That’s great, but no.” Then you’re like, “Okay, for the second one here, I have these ideas.” And then the next thing you know it’s, “Anthony Hopkins is now Ethan Hunt’s commander.”
I’m freaking thrilled about that, by the way. Are you kidding? Sir Tony is taking over? Fuck yeah! Let’s see that. Absolutely.
So, when did you actually get the call for this one? You mentioned it almost happened a couple of movies before?
I didn’t know that he was thinking about this, by the way. I had no idea. I got the call 25 years later, almost to the day. January of 2020. I got the first call and I was in Brazil in January of 1995. And I’m doing my errands in Los Angeles. At that time, I was actually shredding my 10-year-old tax documents at this shredding place. A couple of boxes of tax stocks. Very CIA of me. And I got a call from my rep saying they want to bring Kittridge back. And I thought my rep’s got a sense of humor.
I’ve been with him for 35 years, and he said, “No, McQ wants to talk to you about bringing him back.” Oh, well. Okay, sure! So two days later, I’m on a call with Chris McQuarrie. He’s in Venice location scouting on some bridge somewhere. I say, “What do you want to do with the character?” He says, “Well, that’s what I want to talk to you about. I want to develop an arc for him. I have an idea, but would you come and help me with that?”
Oh, so he was more open to some of your research?
Yeah, he’s more open. Yes, he is. Absolutely. He’s more open to what the actor wants to bring, given the genre, given the tone of the scene, given the trajectory of the story. Yes. All within that, thank you very much. But bring it and we’ll see. We’ll see.
And then the trailer hits and it’s basically Kittridge narrating it. After all this time he’s a centerpiece to the marketing.
I know! I was thrilled. I had no idea. And then McQ, when he first played me that, there was a twinkle in his eye. He’s super sweet. So is Tom. They’re profoundly respectful. And I mean, McQ had an idea. They had done the research. “I think bringing Kittridge back won’t be a bad thing for the franchise unless Henry totally screws the pooch, in which case will diminish the character or something.” I don’t know! But the idea of bringing that guy back was, I can imagine… I have all my imaginings! Who cares, but great idea. And they used it well. They allowed me to bring something I think that is interesting for the crowd after 25 years. And they treated him super well in that. When I saw the trailer, I was like, “Come on, man!” What a gift!
‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One’ is in theaters now. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.