Tom Sizemore Sets Himself—and The Record—Straight

By John Lavitt 06/17/16

Known as a classic cinema tough guy and an extreme Hollywood drug user, Tom Sizemore experienced a battle between his addictions and his talent for many years in the limelight.

Tom Sizemore Sets Himself—and The Record—Straight
Like a firestorm to the brain, crystal meth addiction brought him to his knees.

I have interviewed many public figures, politicians and celebrities for The Fix, but nothing I have done in the past turned out quite like my interview with actor Tom Sizemore. A personal and supportive examination of issues that arise in the process of becoming sober and achieving what is often called "emotional sobriety," the interview fostered a powerful connection between Tom and myself. Bravely revealing his true vulnerabilities, Tom was willing to go to places very few people are willing to venture to in a public forum. It proved to be revealing and enlightening at the same time.

Known as a classic cinema tough guy and an extreme Hollywood drug user, Tom Sizemore experienced a battle between his addictions and his talent for many years in the limelight. A favored supporting player by many of the finest directors of modern film, Sizemore often reflected in his life the hardcore extremism of his characters. Everything came to a head for Tom when his relationship with infamous Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss led to a switch from heroin to crystal meth. Like a firestorm to the brain, crystal meth addiction brought Sizemore to his knees, leading to a short stay in prison and damaging his reputation in the film industry. At the same time, his bottom also led directly to his recovery and the revival of his acting career.

In terms of your career, you rose in prominence throughout the 1990s, establishing yourself as a memorable tough guy actor as Detective Jack Scagnetti in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) and as criminal Michael Cheritto in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Do you think playing such hard-nosed characters helped to fuel your addiction? Did you want to play hard and party hard, given the nature of those characters? 

That’s a very interesting question. It’s the first time I’ve been asked that question, to tell you the truth, so I have to think about it. I think the characters did in fact help propagate or inform the addiction to a certain degree, particularly the two that you mentioned. Both of those characters had a live hard and play hard ethic. When I played Cheritto, especially, I was having a very difficult time with narcotics, and the character provided me with a kind of rationalization. Cheritto had a big peacock tattoo on his right arm, which is a jailhouse tattoo you get when you shoot heroin in order to conceal the track marks. I never shot heroin, but I was using heroin. I kept thinking that Michael Cheritto, like a lot of guys, when he went to prison probably stayed high the whole time. I thought the drugs that I was doing were not impeding me from realizing the character, but in fact were helping to inform the character. I remember thinking that especially with Michael Cheritto, so the answer is yes. At times, the characters did fuel the addiction, but I was looking around always for rationalizations.

I didn’t come to hard narcotics until I was in my late twenties. The reason behind that was my family background. I grew up in a family where there was a lot of that kind of abuse, and I viewed drugs as being really wrong. When I started doing them, it was top secret. Nobody knew I did that drug for a while. At least, I thought no one knew until Bob De Niro put me in rehab in 1997. Prior to that, nobody really knew what I was doing—not my friends, not my family, not Scott Silver who wrote The Fighter and 8 Mile, whom I lived with for a while—nobody had any idea. I had carefully compartmentalized my life from my addiction because I was ashamed of it. When it came to informing my work, however, I wasn’t ashamed of it because it was helping me be a better actor. It was a very strange tightrope I was walking in a struggle to understand how I felt about myself and how other people saw me. 

I know the tightrope as well because I have eight years in recovery from heroin and cocaine addiction. I know the depths of the hypocrisy and the bullshit and all the rationalizations that we go through to justify the insanity of addiction.

Isn’t the depression when you stop just aweing? I mean, I find it aweing how bad it is. It takes so damn long to get back to zero. I just got back to zero recently. What I mean by that, is getting back to a relatively neutral place where I don’t feel good and I don’t feel bad. God, the first year was murder. I never really did it before. I was never really in recovery before. I mean, I lied and said that I was doing it, but this was real. At this point, why should you even believe me because I have lied so many times in the past? For once, I am not fooling around with Xanax or other prescription drugs on the side. I am completely sober. I’m working a program as best as I can, and I have two sponsees. My sponsor keeps telling me that it’s going to get better, but sometimes I don’t believe him at all. I need to have faith that it does. 

I’m curious, you know, how did you find the first three or four years?

I found the first year to be very difficult because, as I wrote in a poem, the dopamine in my head was dead, so I felt a whole lot of nothing for an awfully long time. The more I got into action, the more I became connected to people and formed a real sense of fellowship, the better it became, but it took a while. I had used for so long that it was a long road back.

How many years? Do you mind my asking?

No, I don’t mind at all. I was a hardcore heroin and cocaine addict for about five years. Before that, I used cocaine and crack for close to a decade with a little heroin here and there. But the heroin was not a problem until I started using it everyday and became addicted. People don’t realize that it takes effort to become a serious heroin addict. It doesn’t just happen overnight, and you can dance with that drug for a while, particularly if you are not injecting. I was chasing the dragon, and not very often at first. But the crack took over very quickly.

Wow! You were an everyday user for ten to fifteen years?

Yeah, but there were breaks every now and then—those times when you fight to get sober, but fail over and over again. 

Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. When you took those breaks, what motivated you? Was it a girlfriend or a colleague? Why did you take them?

Often, I was just exhausted, and I would pull a geographic. I would leave the country. In 1995, I went to Paris for two months because a French director I knew let me live in his extra apartment. For six months in 1997 to 1998, I lived on the Greek island of Patmos. 

But couldn’t you get drugs in those places? Or did you not want to get them?

I wanted to stop. I wanted to stop so badly, but I just couldn’t.

That’s so similar to what I experienced. I wanted to stop for so long, but I couldn’t no matter what I did. That’s the thing that was so scarifying for me. The first time I tried to stop was way back in 1993. I got cast in Natural Born Killers and I had 97 days to prepare, and I said to myself the night after I got the movie, 'I won’t worry about this right now, and I am going to have a good time and party, but before the sun rises, I am going to get rid of everything,' and I did it. I really did it. I threw away a lot of drugs. 

The following morning, I could not get out of bed. Mind you, I had been addicted for about a year, and I had never tried to stop. I was very naïve about what would happen when I tried to stop. I didn’t know that much about withdrawal or triggers or really anything about what I would be dealing with. I would have you know that I couldn’t get past two hours that morning without calling my drug dealer and having him rush over to my house and give me more cocaine and heroin. I was up before you knew it. Then, I was in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, trying to get myself sorted out. I remember I was then looking over my shoulder at my phone in the bedroom. I kept looking at the phone, and I kept thinking that I better call my mother. I knew I was in trouble because I couldn’t stop doing this. 

In the past, I had drank a lot and blown off going to class in college. I crammed for tests in the morning after drinking a lot the night before, and I thought that that was what this was. I actually thought it would be the same type of thing. But I had failed to get over this and that suddenly wasn’t true for me. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “If I don’t tell now, it will be that much harder to tell later.” I really thought I was going to tell my mother and ask for help, but I didn’t, of course. I didn’t say anything. I continued to do my work, I did my best to keep everything together, but that was the moment when the dance between being a normal guy and being a guy that used truly began, and that dance was a tightrope that took so much energy and so much time. When I have recriminations about what I’ve done in my life—and I have them still to this day—I always end up back at that morning, that afternoon in ‘93, when I had 97 days to prepare for Natural Born Killers and I could have made a different choice that could have led me on a different path. But I didn’t, and I regret it to this day. Let me ask you a question, John. Did you have opportunities to ask people for help that would have helped you and not injured your career, yet you chose not to ask for help?

Absolutely. I had so many people around that knew what was going on and wanted to help. All my friends got sober before me. They wanted to help, but I was entrenched in a very destructive relationship, and we were using together. I try not to hold on to that stuff. My old sponsor used to tell me that the true meaning of the one-day-at-a-time concept was that the past is regrets, and we’re powerless to change it because it already has happened; the future is fear and we’re powerless to change it because it has yet to happen; that’s why we stay in the present. Only today, right now, do I have the power to be myself and take the next indicated right action. 

If I allow myself to be haunted by all the wasted opportunities, then that’s all I will do each and every day. I will lie down on the couch and be what I call a Couchaholic, holding my hand to my head, bitterly moaning about what could have been, throttled and savaged by my regrets. I don’t want to take the damage of the past and continue to extend the ruins by giving them more power over me. I don’t want it to have a negative influence on my life, so I choose to let it go. 

But I lost ten years of my career, and I can’t get them back. It hurts me when I think about what I could have done with those years. Do you have similar feelings? 

Of course I do, but I don’t choose to feed them. I lost over twenty years, but I can’t change what happened. I can choose to let go of that regret. I chose freedom in the here and now because I was so tired of empowering the wreckage of my past.

It’s hard for me to deal with all of this. Methamphetamine is what later really brought me down at a time when I felt like I was doing the best work of my career. In 2003, I was working with Michael Mann on a TV series called Robbery Homicide Division, and I really though it had the potential to be something great. Heidi Fleiss introduced me to meth, and it took off from there. It led to my arrest when she falsely accused me of abuse. I was working on Paparazzi in 2004 when Mel Gibson told me, “You’re about to be arrested... Heidi says you hit her.” That was when it all became public and the nightmare started. When I got arrested, all of a sudden I had no place to be. Prior to that, for the previous fifteen years, I was always doing a job, usually a good job, with one or two jobs lined up behind it. In very short order, I had no jobs and nothing to get ready for, and what was going on became so ugly so fast. I couldn’t have been more ill-prepared for the scrutiny and the constant press and the sense of always being on trial. I don’t know how you could prepare for something like that. 

After this whole thing started, I knew what I was doing, I mean, I’m not stupid. I actually was taking a lot more drugs because I needed them. Believe it or not, they helped me to actually pretend that everything that was happening to me wasn’t really happening to me. I had to use a certain amount of drugs to get to the point where that kind of extreme self-delusion would work. That went on for a long time. Things eventually evened out because I wasn’t going to be punished, and all of a sudden, there was the possibility that I could work again, but I was in no shape to work. I am trying to work my way in my program through the process of forgiving myself for losing those ten years. I’m having a difficult time forgiving myself for losing that decade from 41 to 51 because those can be the best years for an actor, and I’ll never get them back. I mean, I’m sure you can understand that.

Tom, I do get it, but there is another perspective to consider. When you put yourself up on the cross as a martyr, when you are beating yourself up and punishing yourself for what happened in the past…

I hate doing that. I can’t stand doing that. It’s awful. 

I’m sure it is, and I know it is from my own past experience, yet despite hating it, you also seem to be very good at it.

Yeah, I’m really great at it. Sometimes it feels like it’s what I do best.

Exactly. I felt the same way. But when you punish yourself, when you put yourself into that place of suffering, you prevent yourself from actually learning from the experience and evolving as a human being. Rather than letting it go and learning the lessons provided so you don’t have to do the same shit over and over again, you get stuck in a vicious cycle of unnecessary suffering. You are taking the regret over the damage you did and how it hurt you, and actually giving it permission to hurt you more. When are you going to stop?

It seems so right that we are talking about this today, and it’s helping me. You know I just finished doing Twin Peaks with David Lynch, and now I got a bunch of great jobs lined up. There’s something about Mr. Lynch that I need to mention. What you said about putting myself up on the cross and continuing to punish myself, it has been a never-ending thing for this whole sobriety. I have been sober for three years and change, yet I have been unable to stop that cycle of self-inflicted punishment. It’s something I fight everyday because if I put myself up on that cross, then I can’t go forward. I get stuck in that awful place. It’s like white noise in my head.

It goes something like this: An actor tends to do his best work between 40 and 55, and between 40 and 50, I was unable to work. I mean, I worked, but it was crap. Not the kind of quality work that I was doing before. If I keep focusing on that regret, I feel it’s like digging a hole that could lead to me getting high over in order to avoid the reality of how deep it has become. I have to stop digging because when I do, it’s awful. I have been doing it less and less, but it’s still really awful when it happens. Do you have any suggestions about what I should do?

What I think you are experiencing right now is the disease of perception. When I look back at my bottom, it’s easy for me to see how insane I was and how I truly needed to be restored back to sanity. What it’s not easy for me to see is how subtle the disease of perception becomes over time. My closest friend in the world always reminds me that our character defects are the lies that we tell ourselves about ourselves. One of the lies that you are telling yourself right now, Tom, is that you are totally screwed because of the years you missed, and your career will never be as good as it could have been. That’s all negative conjecture. You don’t know in reality what would have happened. More importantly, you don’t know what the future holds for you. You honestly don’t know what’s around the corner.

That’s true, John, that’s very true. I did not know that shoot I just did was right around the corner. You’re absolutely right.

You have to stop telling all those lies about yourself to yourself. I used to walk into a room, and I could never just be myself. I would think, “Why aren’t these people standing up and clapping? Don’t they know who I am? I am by far the coolest guy in this room.” Or I would think, “All of these people hate me. They all must be talking about me. I am the biggest piece of shit in this room.” In truth, I was neither. They were both lies I told myself to avoid my own reality of being just another guy. More importantly, all of the people in those rooms were rarely thinking about me or paying any attention because they were spending their time thinking about what most people spend most their time thinking about: Themselves. 

Yeah, I always tell my sponsees not to worry about other people because most of them are thinking about their favorite subjects: Themselves. But when I get mired in this thought pattern, I feel just how you felt. That I am either Mr. Cool or a total piece of shit. I am not good counsel for myself, but I am better than I used to be. I am way better than I used to be, but it’s still hindering me, and I’m tired of it. Let me ask you something. Do you consciously say to yourself that this is a lie that I’m telling myself and I need to stop thinking this way?

Yes, I do, and that for me is contrary action in terms of my thinking. If I keep a negative thought in my head, if I don’t vocalize at least to myself or to another person like my sponsor, it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. But the moment I vocalize it and I can hear it and hopefully share it with someone else, then suddenly I can take a step back. I have a little bit of perspective, and that perspective is the pause that provides me with the freedom not to do it again. When I tell my sponsor what I’m going through, he always says the same thing to me: How’s that working for you? 

(Laughing quite a bit) Yeah, that’s a hell of a great question to ask. What do you say when he asks that?

I always tend to say the same thing as well: Not so good. Not so good at all.

Like you, I do my best, John, when I am not thinking about myself all the time, when I get off the subject of myself. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people. I do my best when I am helping other people. 

You mean when you are being of service?

Yes, when I am being of service. Right now, for example, I am working with a group that rescues pit bulls in Los Angeles. When I was reviewing my life with my sponsor, I discovered that I always was a happier person, a more fulfilled person, a less internally screwed up person, when I was—as you say—being of service. That’s true of everybody, isn’t it?

Let me ask you a question first. I imagine those pit bulls that you rescue are pretty damaged when you first get to them, right?

You wouldn’t believe it. This one I just got is a real mess. Yes, they all are. 

Yes, but once you start helping them, they begin to change. They start enjoying their lives, and they become more affectionate and find pleasure again, right?

Yes, absolutely. The change is often remarkable.

Then tell me something: Should those pitbulls be put down because they wasted a big part of their lives?

Of course not…Okay, I get it.

Why are you showing more compassion to those pitbulls…

…than I show to myself?

Yes, and why are you so much more giving to other people than you are to yourself? Why are you able to forgive their mistakes and not your own?

Yeah, I really need to work on that. I know this already. I knew this before our talk, but I just can’t seem to do it. I have forgiven myself of a lot of things, but I can’t seem to let go of that one big one. I can’t stop thinking about the time lost and the roles I might have played.

Do you think that not forgiving yourself for that maybe could hurt you today and prevent you from playing the roles that you could be playing now and in the future? You are walking around in a black cloud.

It’s more of a gray cloud. You gotta realize I’ve forgiven a lot of things. I’ve forgiven Heidi, and I’ve forgiven what we did to each other. We are really good friends again, and that was a huge step. It’s funny because just a couple of weeks ago, I was writing in my journal that I can forgive Heidi, but why can’t I forgive me. I don’t know why, but I am working on it. 

You know why I think you can’t forgive yourself?

Why? I mean, it would be great to hear something that makes sense.

It’s all about expectations. One of my favorite sayings in the program is that an expectation is a resentment under construction. Your expectations for what your career should have been have become this huge resentment you hold against yourself. Your expectations for what should have happened have become a weapon that you constantly use against yourself. Isn’t that right?

(Starting to cry) I’m sorry, but that’s true. That hit me really hard. What you just said. It’s so very true.

And that’s okay because we all do it. But when are you going to let go of those expectations and give yourself a break?

I don’t know when or how that point is going to be reached, but I am hoping to find it very soon. One thing that I’m much better at these days is that I’m patient. I don’t throw in the towel like I did before. I’ve been trying to get sober for a long time. Before, if I was feeling like this on a regular basis, I would have thrown in the towel really quickly. For many years, I thought that I couldn’t get the program because the program and I don’t go together. There’s something about me that’s different, and so forth and so on. I am not doing that now. The reason I’m not doing it is because I truly was sick. I wasn’t just tired, but I actually was sick in the head. My thinking was so messed up, I couldn’t even read a novel. Just in the last year, I have regained my ability to concentrate and to enjoy the simple pleasures that I lost. 

I had been beating myself down for so long that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would go into another rehab thinking that I can’t do this, and guess what? I couldn’t do it. Now I am doing it, but it still seems so hard at times.

Let me ask you one last question about this stuff.

Of course, John, you can ask me anything.

Okay. In the Big Book, it says progress, not perfection. Spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection. What does that mean?

It’s like what I was just talking about. Now I can enjoy a novel and so many of the other simple pleasures in life. I couldn’t do that before. I can actually focus.

Plus you are able to experience your emotions, right?

Yes, definitely. And my family really does notice that.

That sounds like real progress, doesn’t it?

Yes, and I am able to experience my emotions in my work again as well. That’s really brand new. It really came through with David Lynch and my latest work on Twin Peaks. I was really happy about the part he gave me because it was really at the fringes of my wheelhouse, and it really gave me the opportunity to get reacquainted with the process of how I used to work on a part. It was a demanding role, and I felt like I did really well with it. There’s been significant progress.

The whole time I was sick, I was still working, but it was all on B-material. I really wasn’t working at all in terms of how I used to work. I was phoning it in. I’m a firm believer now that when I’m using, my emotions are all lies. What I’m feeling is not true, so how can my work be true? You know what I mean?

Absolutely. That’s a reflection of the disease of perception.

Right, and, God forbid, let’s say I relapse and do crystal meth again. I would have that honeymoon period of feeling euphoric like every move I make is perfect, but it wouldn’t be. Even if it was, it still wouldn’t be because my perception of it would be a lie. That’s where I’m at in my journey. This is the prevailing problem. I just don’t know how to really forgive myself for what was lost.

For me, the key to forgiving myself for all those lost years was connecting to gratitude on a daily basis. When I was able to be grateful for how far I had come and how lucky I was to still be alive, forgiveness came as well. Rather than always looking at the finish line like an addict in their disease, comparing and despairing, I learned how to recognize how far I had come and how I had accomplished so much that I honestly thought was impossible when I was in the pit of my bottom. 

You don’t give yourself credit, Tom, for how far you have come. Why don’t you give yourself credit?

I don’t exactly know why, although I do have theories. I know that letting down my mother was a big part of it, although she has never said that I let her down. And letting down myself. I mean, I don’t know how this is going to sound in print, but I really thought I was one of the better working actors of my generation. I get lost in the thought that I’ll never really know if that’s true because I wasted all those years. I think that’s a lie as well, but it still sticks in my head. Yet, the fact that I’m even talking about all of this with you and you’re a perfect stranger, is progress. I didn’t talk about anything before. I just didn’t talk really, and when I did talk, I was untruthful. 

Yet, I still feel bad. And as I do better with these parts, it doesn’t always make me feel better. I get these parts, like with David Lynch, and it makes me think about all of the parts I could have gotten if I had never given in to the drugs.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.