Inside Track: Even a spy couldn’t uncover Lister’s latest film role
GR actor has a part in ‘Batman v Superman,’ but he can’t say a word about it.
Ralph Lister is about to become one of Grand Rapids’ most high-profile actors, thanks to a mysterious role in the upcoming Michigan-made blockbuster “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” set to be released in March.
Lister’s role in the hotly anticipated film has been kept under wraps by both DC Comics and Warner Brothers Entertainment, even though it’s a named DC Comics role. He had to sign three nondisclosure agreements, the first of which was just to audition.
All he can say is he loved working with the cast, but he’s not even allowed to say which cast members those were.
“It’s so weird, this position I’m in. If I say, ‘I met so and so,’ that might direct you to know who I’m playing. And the DC fans, bless them, are very imaginative,” Lister said.
“If you say, ‘Oh, he met Henry Cavill,’ or ‘He didn’t meet Henry Cavill,’ it’ll be interpreted as, ‘Oh, so he’s not in that part, or he is in that part.’ So, I can’t even tell you who I’m in the scenes with. It’ll all be out March 25. We can talk then.”
Lister is a New Delhi born, British/American actor. He’s had a career that almost feels as fantastic as some of the films he’s been in.
His parents moved him and his two older brothers all over the world while he was growing up. The family lived in London, Austria, South Africa, Indonesia and Kenya before moving back to London when Lister was about 16.
“Some of my happiest moments I can remember from my youth are falling asleep to my father reading the classics of Victorian literature,” he said.
“Where does it come from — that natural instinct to be interpretive, to be creative? I think it can just develop in you. I think I always had a very active imagination. And I think actors must have that, and that might’ve been brought forward and pushed forward by all the reading I did as a boy and the reading my father did. It may have come from that imaginative world that was shown to me.”
Lister grew up believing his father worked as a diplomat for the British Council. But when his father resigned and prepared to move the family back to London, he told his son the bombshell truth. He had been an MI-6 spy.
“In 1961, my father had been recruited into the overseas intelligence of MI-6. He then went to London and was trained in London for two years in, basically, spy techniques, and then was sent to Vienna. This was the middle of the Cold War. My father specialized in Eastern Europeans,” Lister said.
“He reckons he was under 20 different passports with the Russians — so many different identities. His secretary would be his wife, or not. His birthday would be several times a year so he could invite people to parties to convince them to stay in their position, or get them to sell us their secrets or give us their secrets, or would blackmail them. This is how real spy-work works — forget Jimmy Bond.”
Lister went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history from The University of Durham in England. After he graduated in 1992, he taught English in Spain for a couple of years before getting a job on the Voice of Peace, a well-known pirate radio station off the coast of Tel Aviv.
He spent the next couple of years jumping around the world with random jobs, working in Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and New Orleans, before heading to Los Angeles in 1999 to try his hand at making a career as an actor.
Then he decided to invest some money in real estate in Grand Rapids, where he had friends and whose growing art scene captured his attention.
“It was 2008. What else could you lose your money in then?” he joked.
Although that real estate investment didn’t work out, Lister’s move to Grand Rapids put him into the local acting community. He got an agent in Detroit so he could audition for films being brought to the state through Michigan’s film incentives.
Moving to Grand Rapids from L.A. was the best career move he ever made, he said.
“Coming from L.A. and having quite a few L.A. credits already under my belt, I was a relatively big fish here — not by any means a big, big fish, but a bigger fish in a pond of actors that was, compared to L.A., relatively small,” he said.
“So, I was getting auditions for projects that needed to pick up local actors to fill out the casts. … It was great.”
Since Lister is "his own product," he also created Malbrook LLC in 2010, which he uses to manage loans and investments.
Thanks to the state’s film incentives at the time, Lister found work in movies such as the 2010 “Alleged” with Fred Thompson and Brian Dennehy, and the 2011 “Setup” with Bruce Willis and 50 Cent. He also played the role of the China Doll’s father in the blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful,” starring James Franco and Mila Kunis.
“I wouldn’t have even gotten to read for that role in L.A. There’d have been 500 other actors placed there through agents that had more muscle than mine did,” he said.
Lister has had success as an actor but he has made a living with his voice work. He’s narrated hundreds of audiobooks and said he made more than six figures last year just from that.
He does the audio work in a studio he built in his basement. He’s a “fairly heavyweight in the narrative community in the U.S.,” he said, adding he splits his time between his house here in Grand Rapids and his house in L.A.
When asked if a person could make a living solely from doing acting work in Grand Rapids, Lister answered bluntly, “No.”
“What would need to happen? Well, the business community needs to employ guild actors and make more commercials in Michigan using Michigan talent. There’s certainly talent and crew, lighting, camerawork — all of that. We’ve got an amazingly broad, dense skillset here,” he said.
“I start to get smoke — not just steam — coming out of my ears when I think about what (Gov. Rick) Snyder’s done to our fledging industry that was so wonderfully started and then so cruelly hacked down as this fledgling was about to soar,” Lister said, referring to the legislation the governor signed last July that ended the state’s film incentive program.
Lister hopes Michigan’s film incentives will return in the future because there’s the potential and skillsets for it.
Meanwhile, he said, it might be a time for independent filmmaking talent to shine, but if Michiganders hang on with “their usual stubborn perseverance, which is to their credit,” he said, he thinks they’ll eventually see the opportunity for bringing “tent-pole” films — movies that are widely released and financially successful, supporting the “structure” of the film studio like a tent pole — to Michigan once again, along with the employment that comes with them.
“If they could really calculate that, they’d go, ‘This is awesome. What are we doing? Why are we killing this? It’s costing us nothing. That’s work we would never have had. OK, we’ve given them a rebate, but they’re here,’” he said.
“If people consider movies coming to states like that — with the analogy of a pick-up truck loaded with money that’s driving slowly through town and throwing money out of the back — that’s what it is, essentially.”