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On Deadlier Ground

An Interview with Ryan G. Branaugh

When the old Spy magazine folded in 1994, it left Hollywood columnist Celia Brady temporarily out of work. Before it was revived later that year, she and I briefly planned to launch an eight or twelve page newsletter like the ones investment counselors sell for $300 a year to clients, except that we would target ours to “players” in the picture business. The interview that begins on the opposite page was to appear in the first issue of The Brady Letter. It came about when I was visiting my sister, who lives in Trenton, N.J. I was telling her about my plans for the newsletter when my brother-in-law interrupted and said, “You know, there’s an old law-school classmate of mine who’s got a story you may want to hear.” He got on the phone forthwith, and I shortly found myself hearing an abbreviated form of the following interview from Ryan G. Branaugh, who had no objections to the publication of the story, providing his given name was changed (as he put it, “Some of my current clients kind of look down on show business”). I got in touch with Celia, who had picked up some very vague rumors about Branaugh’s work already, and the interview was conducted in April of 1994. Hope it proves of interest to Baffler readers.

Eli T. Nafni


Celia Brady: Before we start talking about the work you did on this campaign for the Senate that Steven Seagal was contemplating, I want to find out about your background. What led up to all of this?

Ryan G. Branaugh: Not too much to tell. I was born and raised in Toms River, here in Jersey. Big Irish family, always big on politics. I was passin’ out flyers at the precinct booths when I was still in Pampers. Every summer in high school, I was campaignin’ for a cousin or an uncle who was runnin’ for something. It was a natural line of work for me.

CB: So prior to this Seagal thing you had just worked in Jersey?

RGB: That’s right. Now, I had gone out to LA for college, at Loyola Marymount, but I didn’t even run for the student government there. Just studied and surfed, you know. Graduated in ’83, came back, worked for a year at this electric shop one of my uncles had. 1984, I worked in Bob Morris’s last campaign for the Senate.

CB: Bob Morris?

RGB: Famous guy in Jersey politics. He’s from Jersey City. Big Red-hunter in the forties and fifties—he worked on this Senate committee that Joe McCarthy was on, and McCarthy wanted him to be the counsel on his own committee in ’53, but Morris had just been made a judge in New York so McCarthy had to get Roy Cohn instead. So Bob Morris kind of changed history there, not being available for that. He ran for the Senate in New Jersey in ’58 or something, lost in the primary, moved to Texas where he was president of some Catholic college there—he was a pal of Cardinal Spellman’s, by the way—ran for the Senate, was beaten in the primary by George Bush. Came back to New Jersey about ’78 or so, got kind of a small-scale conservative think-tank going, and ran for the Senate again. I knew his kids from spendin’ summers at my grandma’s place which was down in Mantaloking where he lives, so I kind of got roped into his campaign. He lost in the primary, as usual—I think he was runnin’ against Millicent Fenwick.

CB: The model for Lacey Davenport in Doonesbury.

RGB: That’s right. So that was the only Senate campaign I’d worked on before Seagal called me up. The only other national-office thing I’d done was a campaign for a friend of one of my uncles who was runnin’ for the House. He didn’t win either. ’84 to ’87, I was in law school.

CB: In Jersey?

RGB: Yeah, Seton Hall. I graduated, moved to Trenton, and started workin’ for a lobbying firm that handled all kinds of clients, mostly with business in Atlantic City—newsstand owners, contractors, concessionaires. A regular wine ’em—the legislators, that is—and dine ’em thing. So about the end of ’88 some guys in the contracting business invite me to this bash in Atlantic City—can’t remember which hotel it was at—and that’s where I met Seagal the first time.

CB: This would have been right after his first picture came out—Above the Law.

RGB: I guess so. I hadn’t seen it then, still haven’t. Anyway, I’m watchin’ the races on this big-screen TV, and this guy with a ponytail comes in and sits down with us.

CB: No Kelly LeBrock?

RGB: She wasn’t on this trip, no. So one of my hosts comes up, says “Ryan, this is my friend Steven Seagal, visitin’ from the West Coast.” I say hello, shake hands, and I say, “You do movies, right?” He says, “Yes, that’s right.” And I left it at that. I hadn’t seen his movie, like I said. I’m kind of old school as far as these action pictures go. If Clint Eastwood’s name is on the box, I’ll rent it. Same goes for Schwarzenegger. Don’t really follow the rest of ’em. Finished my drink, went down to play a couple hands of poker, and forgot about it for four years.

CB: So then what jogged your memory?

RGB: Well, right toward the end of—must have been September of ’92—I was in Mantaloking for the weekend, sittin’ on the beach, watchin’ the boats go by. My grandma comes out of the house, says, “Ryan, somebody’s calling long distance for you, a Mr. Seagal.” Well there was this Erwin S-e-g-a-l I knew in the newsstand business who lived in Stone Harbor, which is long distance in Jersey, so I thought that was who it was. I get up, head to the house, and get the phone. But it wasn’t the newsstand guy. Instead, I get: “Ryan Branaugh, this is Steven Seagal. We met a few years back in Atlantic City, remember?” Well, as it happened, I’d just watched Out for Justice at my brother’s house the weekend before, so I recognized his voice. I said, “I remember, Mr. Seagal.” He says, “No, call me Steven.” So then he says, “I’m looking to do something in the way of politics, but I’d rather not get into it over the phone. I’d like to meet with you out here in California. When is the earliest you can get out here?” I say, “We got to talk about expenses first.” He says, “Will a cashier’s check for $50,000 cover your limo to Newark?” I say, “I guess so.” Next day, a messenger arrives with the check and the plane tickets. I say, “I am in business.” (Laughs)

CB: So you flew out to LA?

RGB: Flew out and was met at the airport by bimbos with the biggest tits that side of the Rockies wavin’ signs sayin’ “I’M RYAN’S!” We get in the car, I say, “What are you gals doin’ tonight?” They say, “Talk to Steven first.” We go to some office building, I walk in, and there he is with a turtleneck, an Italian-cut jacket, and a tan. We sit down. He says, “So Ryan, you know politics. Should I get my hands dirty in it?” I say, “Steven, whether or not you want to get your hands dirty, the first thing I want to know is if you mean to win if you’re goin’ to run for somethin’. I’ve worked for my share of losing candidates, but they all wanted to win and they’d have walked over their own grandmas to win, like the saying goes. I can’t work for a candidate who’s just runnin’ in order to pile up stories he can tell five years from now at a cocktail party.” Steven says, “Yes, I mean to win if I run. And what I want to know is, if I don’t have a chance to win, are you going to be honest enough to tell me, right then and there?” I say, “That’s always my practice.” He says, “That’s why I flew you out here. There are a lot of guys who would say, ‘Steve, baby, you’re doing great. Landslide, sweetheart!’—who’d be saying that just to get my weekly paycheck. Now, I’ve hired some people to do preliminary polling, and I’ve got the results right here. If you want to go over them, you’re hired.” He pats these folders on his desk, then shoves them over to me. I look through ’em and say, “Steven, I can work with this.” He says, “Name your budget—what kind of payroll you need. The limo will take you to the condo you’ll work out of.”

CB: Where was the condo? Beverly Hills? Brentwood?

RGB: No, Tujunga.

CB: Tujunga? That’s pretty far off the beaten track.

RGB: I knew just enough about LA from Loyola Marymount to know that. But what Seagal said was, “Ryan, I really want to do this on the q.t. I need you to work somewhere where people don’t care about the industry or about politics, where you won’t be perceived as any kind of ‘player.’ So that was my setup. I sat in a condo off Foothill Boulevard in Tujunga, right by 1-210, and worked the phone. I hired four people, one gal and three guys, who I’d worked with on the two races in Jersey. We split the state into four parts—essentially, San Diego to Orange County, LA County to San Luis Obispo, Monterey to Sonoma County, and north to Oregon. The four then hired three people each to work phones, and hired an aide each and went there to do in-person interviews.

CB: You had sixteen people working under you and you were still able to keep this quiet?

RGB: Well, Steven Seagal has that, whatever you’d call it … mystique that really helped out in that respect. We’d just say to the shitworkers, “Steven would appreciate your keeping this in confidence,” and it worked. Also, when my people from Jersey decided on someone, I personally interviewed ’em to make sure no space cases ended up in the organization.

CB: What kind of questions were you asking voters?

RGB: Well, Steven wanted me to concentrate on appearance, first and foremost. He said, “Issues are OK. I’ve got nothing against them. But what the voters really give two shits about is whether I should or should not have a ponytail in the Senate. I could be Warren Beatty and say that the bureaucratic infrastructure is what they care about, but I’m a realist.” So that was my job. We broke the voters down into categories. And our findings were sort of surprising.

CB: So was it ponytail or no ponytail?

RGB: Not as simple as that. We found out early there were degrees. I started with two photos of Steven—a still from Under Siege, where he doesn’t have the ponytail, and a photo of him with the standard ponytail. Then I had an artist retouch the second photo to make four more pictures where the ponytail was four different lengths, and we did surveys with the six photos. Now, we found that women, by and large, wanted a longish ponytail. The younger ones, up to about the 35-40 age group, wanted a long one, the kind that would really flop around and keep the flies off his back. Older than 40, they went for one about as long as what he usually has. Men over fifty didn’t want a ponytail at all, generally. Gay guys split down the middle between a very short ponytail—one that you could just put a rubber band around—and about a five-inch ponytail. Straight guys went for about a four-inch ponytail, they didn’t want it too long.

CB: Any difference by ethnicity?

RGB: Not really, except the cutoff point for Hispanic men as far as no ponytail goes was 40 instead of 50.

CB: By the way, which party was Seagal going to run in? What year?

RGB: What I was told, at the start, was that it was going to be 1994, against Dianne Feinstein. He would run as a Republican, but a different kind of Republican—an environmentally committed one. When I began work on this, Al Gore’s book [Earth in the Balance] was being talked about. Bush was dissin’ Gore, and it was helping Clinton. My surveys showed that except for the far Northeast of the state—kind of a logging area, as you know—the environmental issue was very good for Steven. We were talking about thirty-second spots where he’d give kind of a compressed version of that speech he gives in On Deadly Ground.

CB: Was that picture an outgrowth of this campaign?

RGB: Not at all. Steven had been looking at that script before I came on the scene. But while it was in pre-production, there was some thought given to kind of tying it into a 1994 Senate campaign. The speech at the end, in fact, is pretty close to what would’ve been in the stump speech that Steven would’ve been giving if there had been a campaign this year. But then again, by the time they were ready to shoot the movie I was done, and Steven had decided not to run.

CB: What were his reasons?

RGB: Well, by that time, we knew Huffington was going to go up against him, and we knew what kind of money Huffington was going to spend in the primary. I was told that he and the Greek babe [Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington] were ready to go up to $7 million in the primary. Steven was not willing to spend more than $2.5 million in the primary, five in the general election.

CB: That’s kind of low, if he wanted to win against Feinstein.

RGB: The numbers we were looking at indicated no real problem. If he went out there with a four-inch ponytail, he was going to go 53-47, at least, against Feinstein in November. And that was conservative. My view was that he could beat her by ten points. Sure, she could put spots on TV. But does she have videos for rent? And how about her family? Put ’em up against Kelly LeBrock and Steve’s kids? C’mon. [Note: This interview was completed before Kelly LeBrock filed for divorce against Steven Seagal-ETN]

CB: Did you see much of Seagal’s family?

RGB: I went over to his house about three times. No other guests, really—just me and him and the family. We’d eat sushi—I mean, he’s very much into Japanese stuff, all the way around, and a kid from Jersey like myself hadn’t exactly had much experience with raw octopus and that shit. He used to look at me putting a little too much of that green horseradish paste on my chopsticks, then he’d just break into this big grin when I had to grab the Kirin. Then we’d go to his living room and watch a movie—generally some action picture from the ’60s with the one Japanese actor I’ve heard of, Toshiro Mifune.

CB: Dubbed?

RGB: Not even with subtitles. He’d translate the dialogue for me every now and then.

CB: So, to get back to the campaign.

RGB: As I said, Steven finally 86’d the race against Feinstein when it became obvious that Huffington would be goin’ up against him in the primary. But the last time I talked to him before I went home, he said he was still very seriously thinkin’ about running against whoever won Pete Wilson’s old seat—which turned out to be Barbara Boxer.

CB: Do you think he could get the seat in ’98?

RGB: If Boxer won the primary, and Steven got the Republican nomination, he’d stomp her in the general election. No doubt about it. I would say as much as 70-30.

CB: 70-30? Against an experienced politician?

RGB: An experienced ultra-liberal. I mean, the numbers I was lookin’ at told me Sonny Bono could beat any Democrat who ran. Of course, Bono would first have to win the Republican primary—and he wasn’t much of a match for Steven in the polls, even among Italian voters.

CB: Do you think Seagal’s actually going to take a shot at it? And if he wins, what’s the next step?

RGB: I am not going to give any definites on this, but my gut feeling is that he’ll do it. And if he wins, I don’t see what would keep him out of the White House in 2000. The most popular President we’ve had since Kennedy was an actor, y’know. And Eisenhower, who was probably even more popular than Kennedy or Reagan, was kind of a martial-arts figure, being a general. The intellectuals liked Kennedy, and Seagal does have that Eastern philosophy side to him, kind of like Jerry Brown except more appealing. So I think he could do it. If you’re handicapping, you should keep him in mind. Me, I’m just stayin’ here in Trenton and goin’ back to the statehouse. If you know how to play the game, there’s a lot more money in state politics than national, believe me.