Jason Priestley is a brilliant actor. It’s neither his long-running performance on Beverly Hills 90210, nor his appearances in acclaimed films like Love and Death on Long Island that have led me to this conclusion. No, the proof lies in the fact that the Jason who came to my house for dinner was a real stretch from any character I’d ever seen him portray. Far from the brooding, introspective Brandon he played on 90210, the 29-year-old Vancouver native is a large-living, fast-talking, self-effacing, hockey-playing, race car-driving, acting, directing, executive-producing home boy who’s constantly gesturing, lighting smokes and adjusting himself. He’s a renaissance man trapped in the body of Sean Penn’s character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The whirling dervish arrived at my house at 5 pm for his photo session and interview. He’d pulled an all-nighter the day before shooting Kiss Tomorrow Good-bye, the TV movie in which he’s acting and which he’s directing. By 5 pm, he’d barely awoken. I instinctively offered him some juice, but he opted for a beer and lit up a Marlboro. Within a minute he was off and running with colorful stories about his recent illegal and unsanctioned charity road race spanning London and winding through France, Italy and Austria. Interrupting himself for a second, he surveyed my eclectic CD collection and zeroed in on a promotional copy of Brian Adams’ greatest hits album So Far, So Good. Making himself at home, he cranked the volume and unleashed “Summer of ’69.”
“I grew up making out to these songs in North Vancouver, which is also where Brian grew up,” he shouted over the wailing guitar.
With what’s become the standard procedure for my Wine X cover interviews, I promised Jason’s publicist that I’d cook and let Jason select anything he wanted from the converted shower stall I call my wine cellar. Only after I made the offer did I learn that his Hollywood Hills home houses a temperature-controlled 3,000 bottle wine cellar – a collection he’s amassed largely on his own. Its contents, arranged according to country of origin, range from cases of Michael Lynch merlot ($8), Jason’s table wine, to an impressive array of trophy bottles.
As Jason eyeballed my humble wine collection, I feared for my prized bottles. Much to my surprise, he was far more interested in trying wines he was unfamiliar with and listening to my suggestions.
“I’ve got cases of the Insignia,” he said as he passed over it. “And I drink cabs all the time. Let’s try some pinots.”
We settled on a ’97 Optima Carneros pinot, a ’94 Fiddlehead Cellars Willamette Valley pinot and a half bottle of Chappolet late harvest Moelleux.
“Dude, do you think that’s gonna get us through the night?” he asked rhetorically.
Obligingly, I grabbed a ’96 Sanford Santa Barbara pinot and a Voss Vineyards dessert wine. Since my allotted time was ticking away, we began our interview between photographs.
“Palates are like assholes, everyone’s got one.”
Bob Blumer: How’d you get into wine?Jason Priestley: There was always wine in my house. My parents both drank it. But I started seriously drinking wine about eight or nine years ago. I was tired of drinking everything else. I started eating in restaurants and discovering wines I enjoyed. And I began talking to sommeliers and learning to not be intimidated to talk to them. In listening to these guys and talking to them and enjoying wine, I got hooked.
B: Must’ve been a mighty big hook to get you from nothing to 3,000 bottles?
J: I did a film called Calendar Girl. It wasn’t such a great film, but the director, a friend of mine named John Wietzel, is an aficionado and also has a 3,000-bottle cellar. I was just beginning to understand wine, but I was still very intimidated by the French stuff. I knew what I liked, but I had no idea how it related to the region it came from. John gave me a book something like the Idiot’s Guide to French Wine… And I was an idiot. So that got me started. Also, in 1992 I got a catalog in the mail, addressed to Bob Young, the guy I bought my house from, for a Butterfield & Butterfield auction. So I went.
B: What’d you buy?
J: I bought a case of ’66 Cos D’Estournel. It cost me $8,000 – far more than I could comfortably afford at the time.
B: What’s your prized possession in your cellar?
J: I have lots of the classic French vintages, but the coolest bottle I have is a ’73 Stags Leap [Wine Cellars]. It’s known as “the shot heard around the world” because it was one of two American wines to win the famed “Paris Tasting” in 1976, which pitted American wines against French. I actually have two bottles that I bought at an auction.
B: What other American wines turn your crank?
J: My favorite American region is the entire West Coast of California, and here’s why: In Santa Ynez [Santa Barbara County] they’re doing some great things. Like Foxen and Gainey and Lane Tanner. For a fine drinkin’ wine, there’s Firestone. There’s also Zaca Mesa, which is doing some very interesting things. I find that the French wines tend to be a little reserved for my palate. But that’s my palate – I like a big, fat, aggressive, thick, chewy wine. I like the boldness of American wines. Wines that come on strong and make no apologies for it. They [the winemakers] don’t say, “Hey, whoa, this is a big wine, but sorry, we’re workin’ on it.” They go, “Fuck it. This is big wine. You either like it or you don’t. If you don’t, go buy something else and fuck off!” I think that’s the way it’s gotta be. What makes wine so great is that if you’re a producer, you can produce what you want. If people like it, they’ll buy it. The thing about wine is that you just need to find vineyards and vintners that’re in sync with your palate. Palates are like assholes, everyone’s got one. can’t be any more succinct than that. Good night, thank you very much… Now I just wanna get drunk.
After two hours of shooting, during which Jason vogued through his standard poses, hammed it up and obligingly stripped down to his boxers, the photography crew packed it up, and I started cooking.
J: Dude, we’re not gonna sit here on a Saturday night like two sad guys eating dinner alone.
Without waiting for an answer, he extended dinner invitations to the photographer, stylist and make-up artist. Two had previous plans, but Wine X photographer Patrice Bilawka gamely sidled up beside Jason at the countertop that keeps my guests out of harm’s way when I’m cooking. The three of us quickly drained the Fiddlehead and moved on to the Sanford. As I sliced and diced the ingredients for a pan-seared duck breast with cassis sauce, Jason held court, whooping it up with off-color jokes, impersonating the [intentionally] bad comedian on the Beck’s Beer commercial and expounding enthusiastically on the virtue’s of the wine: “Can you get me four cases of this stuff?”
B: Are those capped teeth a Hollywood thing or a hockey thing?
J: I played a lot of hockey. I made it to Junior B for about five minutes – until I got my head split open one too many times. I’ve still got some bad knuckles and some bad ribs.
B: I see, so race car driving attracted you because it was a safer sport. How serious are you about racing?
(I was curious as to whether he was drawn to photo opps or photo finishes.)
J: The car I’m racing this year is a Lola Can-Am car. I’m fully sponsored and win real prize money. The other drivers didn’t take me seriously at first… until I started beating them all.
B: Have you ever had a near-death experience?
J: Many. But I’ve never thought I was gonna die. In one race, I was doing 205 miles per hour, drafting off the car in front of me. My car filled up with smoke and headed toward the wall. The power-steering pump blew. I’m thinkin’, “This is not good.” It happens so fast your life doesn’t have time to flash before your eyes, and all you think about is saving the car. I keyed the radio [to his pit crew] explaining that this one was gonna hurt. All the while, I’m still trying to save the car. I broke one of my sinuses when my head hit the role bar really hard. That walk back to the pits was the longest I’ve taken in my life.
I served dinner.
J: Can I tell you how played-out the Fiestaware is, Bob? You think you’re hip dude, but that’s some played-out shit.
One quickly adapts to the Jason universe and rolls with the punches. Like my sadly maligned Fiestaware, I assumed that Jason would be played out when it came to talking about the Beverly Hills 90210 years. Surprisingly, he was very open.
B: What’s it like knowing a generation grew up watching you on TV?
J: I just realized something yesterday. Beverly Hills 90210 will actually run for the entire nineties decade. In a lot of ways the show typified where the American consciousness was at — especially during the early nineties. It seems funny, but I’ve become a pop culture reference.
B: In the beginning, various cast members were practically regular features on the six o’clock news.
J: It was weird. We all know the media can get kind of invasive at times. Everybody makes mistakes. Unless you’re in the public eye, you can make them, learn from them and move on. But when your job is in the public eye, everything’s different. I started the show when I was 20 – when everybody makes mistakes. On the flip side, a lot of the stories I read about myself sounded kinda fun. There were alien abductions, sex change stories… God, there were some great ones. I died of a drug overdose in Montreal once.
B: Only once?
J: Yeah. I look pretty good for a dead guy, don’t I?
B: And you certainly drink a lot of wine for a dead guy!
As we moved into bottle number three, Jason paused for a rare moment of reflection.
J: I see how you work this Bob. You’re going to ply me with wine, then get me to say shit I don’t wanna say.
On that note of self-consciousness, “OTR” [off-the-record] became the catch phrase for the rest of the evening.
B: How did you segue from acting to directing?
J: I convinced the producers of 90210 to let me direct in year three. I kept hammering them until they finally they said okay. They gave me a very difficult episode to direct. I think they thought I’d be so turned off I wouldn’t wanna do it any more. It turned out to be a great episode. I got Burt Reynolds to do a cameo for me. I got on the phone and said, “Burt, dude, will you do this for me – I only need you for three hours. By the end of the shoot, he had his arm around my shoulder and was giving me pointers on directing.
B: At this point, do you prefer acting or directing?
J: The more time I spend behind the camera, the more I appreciate the time I spend in front of it because I only have to worry about what I’m doing. It’s really made me appreciate being an actor. But there’s amazing satisfaction in taking something that’s just fucking gobs of paper held together by a couple of brass brads and shooting it and editing it, putting music to it and delivering it and having something you’re really proud of at the end. It’s difficult, arduous and frustrating. But at the same time, when you turn that piece of film in and say to yourself “I created this,” it’s an amazing feeling.
B: Tell me about the Bare Naked Ladies [Canadian rock band] documentary you directed.
J: The idea for the documentary started when I flew to Vegas to see them play at The Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel. After the gig, I rode on the tour bus to San Francisco to see ’em play the next night. On the bus I thought “someone’s gotta film this – it’s too good.” By the way, this Optima rocks.
B: I read somewhere that you used to own a restaurant.
J: It’s true. Two Italian friends and I opened a restaurant in Carmel [California] called La Gondola. One friend was the chef and one was the manager. I made the wine list and bought the wine list. I’d go up there on weekends and open bottles for people.
B: Were you out of work at the time?
J: Well, to be perfectly honest with you, I’m just doing this acting gig until a really good wait staff position comes along.
Halfway through our grilled raisin bread, pear-and-stilton dessertwiches and the stellar bottle of Moelleux, Jason’s omnipresent cell phone rang. It was a caller from the nearby Universal Amphitheater informing him that Wynonna Judd was about to go on stage. Jason explained that he had just filmed Eye of the Beholder with Wynonna’s sister Ashley, and had promised to catch the show. We finished the bottle and said good-bye as though a dinner party, not an interview, had just ended.
He turned as he headed out the door.
J: I gotta tell you, that was probably the most enjoyable interview experience I’ve ever had.
I gave him my best yeah-but-this-is-Hollywood look.
J: Dude, come on. Sittin’ in the kitchen, eatin’ food, drinkin’ wine — it was fuckin’ fantastic. I have a ’67 Sunbeam Tiger Mark II. We’ll take it for a spin next weekend, ’cause, dude, this interview isn’t over. We didn’t get to anything.