Six contenders — also including Mahershala Ali, Andrew Garfield, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Dev Patel — on what it takes to play a real-life person, making a drug dealer likable, turning down parts and the agony of acting: "The very thing you love is the thing you hate."
Halfway through this year's Actor Roundtable, just as THR's group was settling in with one another, Casey Affleck paused to look at Jeff Bridges with something bordering on awe. "Jeff," he said, "not to draw attention to your age or anything, but I just want to point out that when I was born in 1975, you had already worked with Peter Bogdanovich, John Huston and Robert Benton."
"Yeah," Bridges shrugged.
"So you were bushed before I was born, man," said Affleck.
That gives some idea of the warmth that flowed among the group, one of THR's younger-skewing actor gatherings, with Bridges, 67 (Hell or High Water), playing patriarch to Affleck, 41 (Manchester by the Sea); Mahershala Ali, 42 (Moonlight); Andrew Garfield, 33 (Hacksaw Ridge, Silence); Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 35 (Snowden); and Dev Patel, 26 (Lion).
Many confessed to being nervous, especially beside the elder statesman. But Bridges surprised them at the Nov. 12 shoot in Hollywood by admitting he was jittery, too — and that after all these years, he still feels fear when he takes on a role.
What do you most like about acting and what do you like the least?
Andrew Garfield I just like knowing everything I can. I love the fact that I get to train for a year as a Jesuit priest and then train to be a cop and learn how to make a rocking chair. I want to know everything about everything, and that's not possible and it won't be possible. I'm not ever going to reach it. Neil Young has a recurring dream where he has the perfect melody — and he wakes up every time and can't remember it. And that's what it is for me. There's something to aspire to always, there's somewhere further to go. And the thing that I hate about acting is — well, everything I just said. (Laughter.) The longing is so f—ing painful sometimes.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt What I don't like is: I guess since the heyday of Hollywood, there has been a merging of actors and royalty and celebrity. It's tough to complain, because it's a really privileged life I get to lead, [but] the whole celebrity thing is unhealthy and I feel bad perpetuating it.
What made you want to be Snowden?
Gordon-Levitt When Oliver Stone asked me to do that part, I was excited, but then the next thought I had was, "Wait. Edward Snowden? I know I've heard that name, but which one is he and what exactly did he do?" Once I did some learning, I realized I'm really grateful for what this man did. There's a lot of misinformation about what he did and didn't do.
Did you meet him?
Gordon-Levitt I met him for the first time a few months before we shot the movie. I went to Moscow and sat with him in a pretty plain office — him and his longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills. We talked about all kinds of things, but what was really useful for me was those little human things, which is what I was looking for as an actor. I was completely focused on all those little details of how he sits or stands or walks or talks. Those were the really invaluable nuances.
Dev, what did you like and not like about Lion?
Dev Patel It sounds really cliched, but I don't get roles like that — ever. To be shot like that, to say such words of gravitas and not be pandering or playing a sort of tech geek, was a transformative journey. It was also something I could relate to: about someone who has suppressed his culture and a part of himself for a while to try and fit in, and then all of a sudden those memories come back. When I first went to India for Slumdog Millionaire [Patel is British of Indian descent], it was a lightbulb moment, you know? And all those cliches I had about the country and the people were dispersed straight away.
When you met the real-life character you played, how did that shape your performance?
Patel It was the most terrifying thing I've ever been through, because I'd shot the end of the film first — so I felt like I knew this guy, Saroo Brierley. He's the epitome of a fiercely driven young man, and he's got this photographic memory, which is incredible. This is a guy who found his mother from space, using Google Earth. And he could remember his past so vividly that he could gather so much information from these pixels. And I [said], "What is that like?" He's like, "Every click of that mouse, I felt like I was getting one step closer to her, where I could smell her." That just blew my mind.
Jeff Bridges I was digging what you were saying, Andrew. It's very paradoxical, man. The very thing you love is the thing that you hate. The first word that came to mind — what do you love or hate, you know? — flop sweat, man. Just the fear, the anxiety. The greater the gift, the greater the fear of not being able to [deliver]. I'm a product of nepotism. My dad, Lloyd Bridges, he loved showbiz so much, he wanted all his kids to get into it. I said, "Oh, but Dad, I want to do music." He said, "Don't be ridiculous. Acting is great." And maybe about 10 or 12 movies in, I had just finished a movie — and usually after a movie I say, "I don't know if I ever want to do that again. My pretend muscle is just exhausted." (Laughter.) And I get a call from my agent, and he's all excited and says, "You've just been offered, by John Frankenheimer, to be in The Iceman Cometh with Fredric March, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan." And I said, "I'm bushed." And about five minutes later, [director] Lamont Johnson calls me up and he says, "You're bushed? You're an ass." And he hung up on me. So I said, "Well, I'm just going to throw myself into this and it'll probably be the final nail in the acting coffin." And it was eight weeks of rehearsal with Fredric March and Robert Ryan. And to see the anxiety that these guys had, and the fear of doing the thing justice, and then to see the joy that they had at the same time — I was caught up in that and realized that this fear and anxiety probably will never go away, and it's your buddy, how you play with it, how you dance with it.
Mahershala Ali In some way it's an indication that I'm in the right place, because the fear is kind of informing me: I'm in the place where the known is ending and the unknown is beginning. And that is our job, to consistently put ourselves in a position where we're uncomfortable and going beyond our comfort zone. If you're fortunate enough to build a career, a little pebble is put out in front of you, and you've got to step toward it, and with each step you're hopefully going further out and getting beyond what you've done before and exploring territory that has yet to be explored. So you have to really make friends with that fear. It's a bit of a tightrope walk.
What was the tightrope in Moonlight? You played a drug dealer we fall in love with.
Ali I've been able to make a living playing characters that are in a certain world — [like in] House of Cards and these FBI-type parts. At a certain point, you find yourself being thought of a certain way. You can become very narrow. And so it becomes a fight to be thought of in a different light, and to fight your own fear, wondering if you can do something beyond what you've done already. What probably concerned me most was that I was literally doing three other jobs, and so every day I was traveling. It was [about] trying to really be conscious of what part I was playing on that day, and I had a lot of fear about bleed[-through] from one part into the other.
Garfield Did you have practices to cross the boundary between each character?
Ali Basically, I made playlists specific to each character. So when I'd be traveling to that gig, I would really only listen to that character's music.
Gordon-Levitt I do that a lot.
Casey Affleck I've never played more than one thing at a time. But music can be so emotionally evocative.
You stepped into a role Matt Damon was meant to play in Manchester by the Sea. Did you talk to him about it?
Affleck Matt was going to direct that movie and then he decided not to. That happened long before we started the movie. And I can't really talk — I don't know how you guys feel, but talking to other people about a part is not helpful for me. It's such an internal and complicated and still mysterious process. It's almost all inside. And it was hard [emotionally]. Three times a week I'd show up and have to stand over someone who's your dead relative and try to be authentically in that place. It broke me into a place where it became much easier to do all of it.
Do you like to rehearse?
Affleck I don't do that much, but on this movie — because Kenny [Lonergan, the writer-director] came out of a theater background — he wanted to rehearse a lot and talk about it. The fun part for me is endlessly talking about why does he do this, or why does he do that, or why doesn't he? I really get into that. [But] on movies that are small like that, with a low budget, you don't feel like you have enough time. So sometimes we would only have time to shoot half the scene, or the whole scene just played on one person. So you spend a week working on that scene and [are told], "We're not going to shoot that half of it." That's OK. It still holds together, which is a testament to Kenny knowing which sacrifices to make and which not to make, and knowing which limbs to cut off and the thing could still live.
Andrew, you had a very tough shoot on Silence.
Garfield When you see Martin Scorsese trekking up the same mountain as his crew, with mud this deep and rain coming down, like a 15-year-old boy, there's nothing to complain about. And he's been wanting to make this film for 28 years. But what the character goes through was deeply uncomfortable. [He plays a 17th century missionary in Japan who's tortured.]
Did you read a lot about Saint Ignatius Loyola?
Garfield Yes. He was a pretty amazing cat, to patronize him. (Laughter.) He was a soldier, he was a warrior and a womanizer. He was all machismo, and then he got very badly wounded and was bed-ridden for months, and had this spiritual awakening and decided to be the most extreme version of what it is to be Catholic, went out into the wilderness and begged for alms and starved himself. He was the extreme warrior version of a spiritual missionary, and he created this Society of Jesus and they called themselves Soldiers for Christ. The biggest gift he gave the world were these things called the Spiritual Exercises, which are actually the basis for all 12-step programs and also inspired Carl Jung with his work with dreams and active imagination. It's a monthlong retreat where you meditate on the life of Jesus — I mean, you imaginatively place yourself in the story of Jesus from his birth to his resurrection. And I'm not a Christian person. I would consider myself pantheist, agnostic and occasionally atheist and a little bit Jewish. (Laughter.) But mostly confused. I spent a year with one particular Jesuit priest, Father James Martin, who was a consultant on the film.
Did he say anything that changed your view of life?
Garfield Yes. He said, "I have two pieces of good news: There is a Messiah, and you're not him." (Laughter.)
That's a great line.
Garfield And it's pretty good for our egocentric culture right now.
Bridges Oh, I had some great advice recently. Do you guys know Kevin Bacon? I worked with him recently [on 2013's R.I.P.D.] and he told me a great bit of advice. We're talking about this anxiety, and he huddled us all together, doing this scene, and he says: "Now remember, everything depends on this." (Laughter.) You know how ridiculous that is! But also, it does in a way.
You're a bit more experienced than these actors. What advice would you give them?
Bridges My mom would send me off to work, and she would say, "Remember, Jeff, have fun and don't take it too seriously."
Do you have fun when you act?
Affleck Not in the traditional sense, but it can be very satisfying. I don't know if anyone does it for fun. Usually if it feels like fun, it ends up not being any good.
Bridges Isn't it wonderful when you have high expectations of yourself and then the thing transcends your expectations?
Affleck That never happens. (Laughter.)
Bridges Come on, man, that's never happened to you?
Affleck I'm still waiting for that to happen.
Bridges And then sometimes you can have the opposite, man, and it's heartbreaking. I did a movie — oh, this makes me sad to even say this —Hal Ashby's last movie, 8 Million Ways to Die . I can see how this would drive the financiers crazy, because the script was just an outline. You would just show up, and Hal would say, "Let's jam." But they had no respect for him, and this one producer sabotaged Hal terribly. He sent a spy to watch us and report back to him. And finally this producer showed up — we had about three days to go, big scenes — and he said, "I'm shutting you guys down. Today is your last day." We said, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Yeah, this is it." So Hal went into his trailer — he probably burned one, you know? He came out and truncated a three-day [scene] into a [single] telephone call. Hal gave it to his editor and the producer went in there, fired Hal, kidnapped the film and just cut it against the grain, and then Hal died. I mean, shit, you know?
Joseph, you worked with a great director, Oliver Stone. Was that fun?
Gordon-Levitt I'll echo my colleagues here and say "fun" might not be the best word to use. But fulfilling and challenging. Oliver, in particular, is really intense.
Did you get criticized for playing Snowden?
Gordon-Levitt Yes. But to me, that's sort of a sign that it's working. The point of making a movie like that is to start a conversation. And that's how a democracy works best. Disagreement is not bad; controversy is not bad.
Affleck I agree with him. No, I'm just kidding. (Laughter.)
Gordon-Levitt I was so happy for a second. I was like, "Yeah, he agrees."
How was playing Snowden different from playing other characters?
Gordon-Levitt You're dealing with a character who does very deliberately think about everything and is in the middle of a very high-stress and high-stakes situation.
Is it good for an actor to think very deliberately?
Gordon-Levitt On one of the movies I did in my early 20s, Mysterious Skin, I remember sitting down for a rehearsal with the director, and I had made all my notes in the script and in the novel, and I wanted to talk to him about all these different things. And he was like, "That's all great, that's all great, [but] you probably shouldn't think about it too much." And I took his word for it, and I'm really glad I did, because it was appropriate for that particular character. It depends on the movie.
What real-life characters would you like to play?
Ali [Boxer] Jack Johnson. Someone who was definitely going to live life on his own terms, who was very much flawed, hyper-masculine, but also really aware of the soil of that time and what he was coming out of, making certain choices that were both a statement of his masculinity but also a cry for help.
Patel I don't know what I would like to play, but I know what I'm afraid of playing: those big studio movies. After Slumdog, I did a film that was not well received at all [2010's The Last Airbender]. The budget of Slumdog was like the budget of the craft services of this movie. And I completely felt overwhelmed by the experience. I felt like I wasn't being heard. That was really scary for me, and that's really when I learned the power of no, the idea of saying no. Listen to that instinct you get when you read those words for the first time.
What roles did you say no to?
Patel Lots since then. [It's about] the work you choose. To be able to have a confidence to say no.
On that film, what suggestions did you say no to?
Patel Oh, I didn't, that was the thing. And afterward, I came out of that and saw a stranger on the screen that I couldn't relate to.
Bridges Andy and I have been in the superhero world. And it's such a —
Garfield It's brutal.
Bridges Oh, it's so wild.
Garfield (To Patel) I love what you just said, that you were looking at a stranger and feeling like you were perpetuating something that's toxic and something that's shallow and something that has no depth, no matter how much depth was attempted. Spider-Man was my favorite superhero, my first superhero costume when I was a 3-year-old at Halloween. I was like, there's millions of young people watching who are hungry for someone to say, "You're OK. You're seen very deeply." And more often than not the opportunity is not taken, and it is absolutely devastating and heartbreaking because there is so much medicine that could be delivered through those films.
Bridges But can I just riff off that? Iron Man, we [director Jon Favreau and actor Robert Downey Jr.] read the script and it wasn't really right, you know? We had two weeks' rehearsal and we basically rewrote the script. And the day before we were going to shoot, we get a call from the Marvel guy saying, "Oh no, no, no. None of this is right." So we would muster in my trailer and rehearse while the guys were in the studio tapping their foot, saying, "When are they going to come?" We were still trying to figure out the [scenes] we were going to shoot.
Would you do another big superhero movie?
Bridges Well, I was in Tron. (To Affleck) I thought one time you would be my son in that thing.
Affleck Yeah. I asked them to recast my father, and they wouldn't do it. (Laughter.)
So would you do another film like that?
Bridges Oh, yeah. I really set out to not develop a strong persona and mix it up so the audience would have an easier time projecting whatever character I was playing.
Are roles more limited for non-white actors?
Ali Take it, brother.
Patel Oh, man. Look, I think everyone at this table has probably faced a pigeonhole in some shape or form. My motto is, you've got to take on the mold to break it.
Ali It has to change from the inside out, like from a Barry Jenkins [the writer-director of Moonlight], someone who is from Liberty City, Florida, and having his own experiences that are worthy of a narrative. But part of the challenge is to transcend race, so you bring something unique to a character that maybe wasn't written for a black person.
Affleck As a group of artists, as a community, we have an obligation to try to open doors. But it's really hard to go just from top down. There also have to be arts programs in schools.
Can any of you imagine giving up acting?
Affleck I can. There are a lot of things I'd like to do — hang out with Jeff a bit. My mom is a teacher, so I spent my life in a classroom with her after school. I could see doing that. It seems like fun.
Bridges Ceramics. I don't have a kiln. I love to go to this place where there's a guy who is a master whom I can hang with, and a little communal camaraderie is nice. But now at 67, I'm living a teenage dream, man. I've got a little band, and we jam. We get out there and just have a ball.
Ali I would, at some point, love to direct. But it's taken me a long time to get to this place and in some ways I feel like I'm right at the beginning of having an opportunity to explore characters in a fuller way. And so I want to be in that place for a time.
Is there one word or phrase you use or others use that you hate?
Ali I say "all good" too much. "But it's all good."
Garfield Because it's not all good. (Laughter.) Nor should it be.
Patel I keep saying, "You know," especially with all this press, you know? And they don't know; they're asking you a question.
Bridges The word that pops into my mind, but I kind of like it, is "man." You know what I mean, man?
Gordon-Levitt I hope you don't stop saying that.
Last question. You're on a desert island and can have one actor or actress with you. Who?
Garfield Emma Stone. I love Emma. [They dated for several years.] She's all right. She can come.
Gordon-Levitt Orson Welles.
Bridges I've got to fire up my dad, man. Why not?
Affleck I want to take the little kid from Lion [Sunny Pawar].
Patel It would have to be Bruce Lee, man. I am the biggest Bruce Lee fan.
Ali My brother Andre Holland. He really inspires me. I told him this the other day. I was like, "Man, I want to do acting push-ups after watching you work."
Tune in to the full roundtable when it airs on SundanceTV Jan. 22, 2017.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.