Chicago-born actor, comedian, producer and bassist Mike Hatton pursued a successful career in many areas of creativity, mostly outside the public eye, until last year.
All that changed with the 2018 release of Green Book, a Peter Farrelly-directed, Dreamworks co- produced movie in which Hatton played a prominent role as an upright bass player. Set in 1962, the film tells the true story of the late jazz pianist Don Shirley, his equally late bouncer/driver Tony Vallelonga and their travails in America’s Deep South.
Green Book amassed takings of $320 million against a budget of $23 million, a mighty return by anyone’s standards, and was nominated for five Oscars – winning three of them – as well as a stack of other awards. That’s quite a coup for Hatton, and indeed having him in our magazine is a coup for us as well.
How many other movie actors of this calibre also play bass? (Don’t worry, Keanu, we’ll get you in here sometime.)
It seems that being a bass player has really paid off for you, Mike.
“Yes! Having that tool in my bag of tricks really did pay dividends. Before, bass was something I enjoyed doing, and I wish I had as much time to play as I had as a teenager and in my 20s, when I was still dealing with bands and things like that, but it finally paid off. I was in bands throughout high school and college. My twin brother is a guitarist and he took it a little more seriously than I did, but for me, it was a hobby.”
For Green Book, did you audition as an actor or as a bass player?
“Well, it was a bit of both. I was friendly with two of the writers, Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, who are also the producers, so they had a hand in the casting. I was pestering them to get me in front of Peter Farrelly: I just said, ‘Get me in front of him and I’ll read one line. I’ll introduce the band. Let me do whatever. I’ll be that one guy who has one line.’
“They kept saying, ‘There’s nothing for you! There’s no role for you!’ Finally Nick goes, ‘Wait a minute – the band! Oh my God, wait. Don’t you play the bass?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. ‘Well, how good are you?’ I said, ‘I’m pretty good. I don’t play as much as I used to, but I used to be pretty fuckin’ good.’ ‘How good?’ I said, ‘I’ll play for you right now, literally. I’m not being a smartass’. He says, ‘All right, wait a minute, hold on. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before. Let me call you back’.
“He called me back and said, ‘I just got off the phone with Brian Currie. He loves this idea, he can’t believe it’. And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you’re talking about George, the bass player. That’s a starring role!’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, they don’t want anybody famous in that role. They want somebody who actually plays the bass, somebody who’s believable. Meet me tomorrow at the music shop on Ventura and Sherman Oaks’. So I did, and I wore a tux, and we went down there and we took pictures of me with a standup bass.”
Were you already a upright bass player?
“I’d never held an upright in my life! I’ve had electric basses, but never an upright. We took photos with it, and I look at those photos now and I think ‘Oh my God, my form’s terrible’. Nick took some stills with his phone, made them black and white and sent them to Peter Farrelly. Peter said, ‘Get this guy in tomorrow,’ and that was it. I went in the next day and I auditioned. The acting part was easy: the bass part was what he was concerned with the most.”
How did you get through it?
“Over that day, I taught myself the intro to Don Shirley’s Water Boy on upright bass, so I played that song in there, and there you go. I got the job. It’s a great film. It is. I read the script way before I had the opportunity to audition for it, and I knew that it was a magical project. I was on a plane coming back from New Orleans from another project, and I read the script, and at the end I actually started to cry. I was really moved. The woman in the seat next to me said, ‘Are you okay?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I just read this script’. I just knew it was going to be awesome. At that time they already had the lead actors cast, but I knew I had to get on that project. I just fought my ass off to do it.”
Roughly how long did it take for you to shoot your scenes?
“The film shot for 10 weeks, and I was there for eight of them. For the musical sequences, everything was spread out because we needed different locations, and when you’re shooting a movie in New Orleans that’s representative of the entire South, you can imagine there’s a lot of moving around.”
In the bass-playing shots, are you actually amplified and playing?
“The way it worked was we would play some of the songs along with a backing track that they had recorded with session guys. Other times we’d pull the back track and just play the song for the audience, so we were really playing those songs.
“We would rehearse for a couple of hours for those, which was great. There were moments when we were jamming in front of the producers, and I was so fricking nervous. I was really scared. In fact, I was more nervous about the bass playing than I was about the acting, because I wanted it to be accurate! The character was classically trained and I just didn’t have that in me. I was a rock and roll guy. But I did it, and in the end we had a total blast. There were moments when we felt like we were a real band.”
History and accuracy
In order to come across convincingly as a classically-trained double bassist, did you need some training?
“I called a guy named Marc Gasway in Los Angeles. I said, ‘I need somebody to teach me how to look and how to hold my fingers’, because, you know, being a rock bassist, you can get kind of lazy. As long as you’re getting to the note, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Mark trained me for a couple of months and he taught me how to have the correct posture and the correct finger placement. At the end of the training he said, ‘All right, now you can take some of your lazy stuff and put it back in, because you’ve got to remember these guys are touring and they’re having fun’. Without his help, I couldn’t have done it. Additionally, since I haven’t read notes in years, I would learn the songs best I could by ear, and he made tablature for me.”
Has anybody been in touch saying, ‘Hey, you played that bit wrong’?
“No-one has called me out for playing it wrong, which is great. That was Peter Farrelly’s hope. He said, ‘This has got to be accurate’. He really did put the fear of God in me. And believe it or not, Quincy Jones hosted a private screening and after-party in Los Angeles. At the party, I approached him to introduce myself, and before I could, he was shaking my hand saying, ‘Man, that was really you rocking up there! You looked great!’ We spoke for about an hour and he told me some incredible stories.”
What’s your history as a bass player?
“In high school we had a pretty popular regional band out of the Chicago area called Chocolate Thunder, and then we had another group in college that played some of the southern Indiana regional schools. We played Indiana State, Indiana University, mostly fraternity parties. We were doing a lot of covers at the time and a couple of originals. This was in the 90s. I’m a decent bassist, but I never thought, ‘I want to be in a rock band’, or I want to be a ‘rock star’. That never crossed my mind. I always thought, ‘I want to be an actor or a comedian’. I enjoyed the music, but I never wanted to pursue the music as a career. I think my brother did, but I never looked at it as a career.”
What gear do you play?
“I’ve got a Fender P Lyte and I love it, and I’ve got a Carvin head. I’m trying to remember what size it is. But truthfully, now that I have three kids, my wife won’t let me use it! I have a Takamine acoustic, and that probably gets more action than the P Lyte now, which is just kind of hanging on the wall. I take it down and play it, but then it goes back up, because if it’s not plugged in, it’s not as fun, so the acoustic gets a lot more action.”
Who were your influences on bass?
“The first song that I ever learned to play on the bass was Dazed And Confused because I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan, but the second song that I ever learned to play on the bass was ‘Rooster’, by Alice In Chains, which was on the charts at the time, and has such an awesome bass-line. This ties in with the next thing I’m doing, because after Green Book I got a call from a friend of mine who’s an awesome director, a Brit called Adam Mason.
“I’ve helped him out on a few projects and produced a stuff for him, and he called me up and said, ‘I’m doing a video for Alice In Chains and I want you to make a cameo in it’. I played a sheriff, it’s a small role. But it’s way bigger than that: he’s making 10 music videos, one to support every song on Alice In Chains’ new album, Rainier Fog. They’re going to release them as a series, and then he’s making those 10 videos into a film called Black Antenna, which I’m producing. It was such a cool, full-circle moment for me.”
That is amazing.
“First of all, Alice In Chains is one of my favourite bands of all time, and now I’m doing their video. And the really awesome thing is Jerry [Cantrell, AIC guitarist] loved Green Book. He was very vocal about how much he loved it. There I was, a 14-year-old aspiring bass player learning their songs and going to their concerts and being a huge fan, and now Jerry’s telling me, ‘Oh, man, I love Green Book! I loved your work in it!’ So for him to be cool and for him to let Adam let us be in their video was just incredible, to say the least.”
Good times all round.
“Yeah. It’s pretty exciting, especially after years of being in this business. There’s times when you’re not working and you wish you were, and there’s times when you’re so busy that you wish you were on a break, but right now it’s great, it’s a happy medium. The Green Book thing is rolling right into other movies. I’ve got another movie coming up in May, a cop feature called 10 Double Zero. It stars Nicolas Cage, and I’ll be playing a drug dealer in it.”
Does the drug dealer get to play any bass on the side?
“No, man. I wish!”
Green Book is available to buy and stream. Episodes of Black Antenna are currently streaming.