Samuel L. Jackson, Benicio Del Toro, Michael Caine and Joel Edgerton also gather for THR's awards season Actor Roundtable. Topics? Saying no to Quentin Tarantino, the N-word, Smith’s marriage counseling and the white actor that was "black" when he started.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
What's the difference between racism and prejudice? What do you do to reboot your career when you’ve lost your fire? And why do you need to learn how to pee in a sink (or poop, for that matter)? These are some of the metaphysical questions that were debated Nov. 15 (two days after the Paris attacks) at THR’s annual Actor Roundtable, featuring six of the year’s most acclaimed actors working in film, in a conversation that ranged from funny to frivolous to fearsome: “This man slaughtered 13 women, and Hitchcock wanted me to play it [in Frenzy], and I refused it, and he never spoke to me again,” says Michael Caine (Youth), 82. He was joined by Will Smith (Concussion), 47; Benicio Del Toro (Sicario), 48; Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), 41; Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), 66; and Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), 47.
What advice about acting would you give your younger self?
CAINE No matter how bad it gets, you’re going to get there. Nine years in little theater, and I thought I was never going to make it to the West End. And then an American director called Cy Endfield cast me as an officer in Zulu, which was the start of my movie career. No English director, even if he was a left-wing communist, would have cast me as an officer.
JACKSON I was a kid sitting in the movie theater watching that movie, going, “That dude, he’s f—in’ mean! There’s only eight of those dudes [soldiers], and there’s like 8 million Zulus out there, and they won the fight.” I would tell myself it’s not a normal job. I thought this was like every other job — you start in the mailroom and then you get higher and higher. So I thought, “OK, I’m doing theater, and eventually I’ll get a commercial, and then I’ll become a movie star.” I thought that was the progression. I had no clue. And after 25 years, I finally figured out that it works a whole ’nother way. But I fell in love with the theater, which was the really wonderful thing. My love for audiences, and performing in front of people live, gave me a deal of satisfaction that I don’t get when I do this movie. That’s a very different thing.
RUFFALO I started in the tiny 30-seat theaters here in Los Angeles, of all places.
CAINE In those little dressing rooms, when you’re starting, there’s no toilet, and when you get nervous, you want to pee. So the first thing you learn to do as an actor is learn to pee in the sink. (Laughter.)
DEL TORO That’s where he comes from.
SMITH It was tough for me ’cause I have to poop before. … (Laughter.) It’s probably an American/British thing. We learn to poop in the sink.
CAINE The first time I went onstage, there was a bucket there. I said, “What’s that bucket for?” They said, “Well, in case you want to throw up.” And a couple of times, I did. I threw up in the bucket, I was so nervous.
Benicio Del Toro
Do you still get nervous?
CAINE Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
EDGERTON I don’t get nervous on a movie set so much, unless I’m putting pressure on myself for what’s needed on that day. But theater, I definitely get nervous. Those first few performances, I get terrified. That five or 10 minutes before stepping out onstage, I actually think I’m going to have a little bit of a heart attack.
JACKSON I get frustrated with the rehearsal process. I want to see how people are going to react to this. But I’ve never had stage fright.
SMITH Never done theater. What we did on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was [before] a live audience on Fridays. So it had that effect.
Samuel L. Jackson
Do you get nervous or afraid?
SMITH I live in complete terror. (Laughter.) Everything for me about this business and about what I’ve been trying to build and what I’ve been trying to do with my life keeps me in terror. I am deeply motivated by fear. With a movie, it’s like you never know; you can love it, you can have done what you think is the best work you’ve ever done, and you put it out on that Friday, and everybody hates it — and you’ve taken a year. And they don’t just dislike it, you know? They want to be really creative with how they let you know they hate it.
What’s your biggest disappointment?
SMITH There’s been disappointments, but every time I came back with a newer, fresher attitude. But the first time where it didn’t work the way that I wanted was Wild Wild West. I was coming off of Men in Black, and everything was like, “Oh, we can’t lose,” you know? I was like, “Oh! Tragedy!”
JACKSON It’s ’cause you didn’t use Kool Moe Dee [whom Smith sampled for his 1999 song “Wild Wild West”]. (Laughter.)
How do you deal with that fear?
SMITH I’m trying to develop a more realistic perspective of what this business is. I told my mother this the other day, and she thought it was hilarious. I said: “When I was 15 years old, my first girlfriend cheated on me. And I remember making a decision that nobody would ever cheat on me again. And the way I was going to do that was by being the biggest actor on Earth,” right? So there’s been this weird psychology that I have always felt like: If my movies are number one, my life is going to work out great.
JACKSON Been there.
Mark and Sam, in your superhero films, do you feel personal validation because they’re so popular?
JACKSON Those movies have very little to do with us. They have to do with the event. People love superheroes, and fortunately we’re in them, but they’re not dependent upon us. They could put that eye patch on somebody else, and it would work the same way. The green guy could be anybody. You turn Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle and nobody notices.
Do audiences ever confuse you with the parts you play?
RUFFALO Yeah. I had a 1972 Dodge Dart. It was just a bag of bones, just a broke-down old horse here in L.A., back in the day. And my first acting part was on a television series called Due South. And of course I get pulled over by a cop, and she says, “Don’t B.S. me, I know you’re wanted.” And I said, “Listen, babe, I’ve gone on hundreds of auditions here and not gotten one. I’m not wanted.” And she said, “No, I’ve seen you on a wanted ad.” I said, “Well, I was on a show last night where I played a petty criminal.” She gave me a ticket anyway.
Have you turned down roles because they conveyed a message you didn’t believe in?
CAINE I did. When I first came to America, I was at Universal, and my bungalow was next to Alfred Hitchcock’s, and he offered me a part in a movie [Frenzy] to play a sadistic woman killer, which was a real story in England — this man slaughtered 13 women and cut them up — and he wanted me to play it, and I refused. And he never spoke to me again.
Will, weren’t you offered Django?
JACKSON (Mock outrage.) Django Unchained?! (Laughter.)
SMITH I was trying to avoid that [topic]. It was about the creative direction of the story. To me, it’s as perfect a story as you could ever want: a guy that learns how to kill to retrieve his wife that has been taken as a slave. That idea is perfect. And it was just that Quentin [Tarantino] and I couldn’t see [eye to eye]. I wanted to make the greatest love story that African-Americans had ever seen —
JACKSON They did that already. It’s Love Jones.
SMITH We talked, we met, we sat for hours and hours about it. I wanted to make that movie so badly, but I felt the only way was, it had to be a love story, not a vengeance story. I don’t believe in violence as the reaction to violence. So when I’m looking at that, it’s like: “No, no, no. It has to be for love.” We can’t look at what happens in Paris [the terrorist attacks] and want to f— somebody up for that. Violence begets violence. So I just couldn’t connect to violence being the answer. Love had to be the answer.
JACKSON It would have balanced out that Wild Wild West scale.
SMITH Yeah, right. Exactly.
JACKSON It would have fixed that for you.
RUFFALO Has Quentin talked to you since then?
SMITH No, no, we haven’t talked about it, but we —
JACKSON He did the Alfred Hitchcock on you.
Sam, in Quentin’s movies, the N-word is everywhere. Does that give you pause?
JACKSON No. No more than life. It’s a movie. But, I mean, life is what life is, and in my world, it’s a pretty common word.
What about the violence? Has that bothered you in his films?
JACKSON No, man. I don’t have issues with violence in movies. I like those stories. I watched Hong Kong movies all the time; I spent a third of my life just sitting around watching Asian film. I read violent novels, spy novels and mysteries and murders and horror stories. I have always liked that stuff. We grew up with that. I grew up watching Westerns on television. It used to bother me that when guys got shot on TV, they just grabbed their chests and fell down. I was really disappointed when I was sitting there, watching Sicario. I wanted to see those kids’ heads explode. (Laughter.) Oh, I’m sorry, spoiler alert! When you’re sitting there with these dudes, I don’t want to see blood on the wall; I want to see people falling over from the dinner table.
Benicio, did you talk to the director about violence in Sicario?
DEL TORO Well, I knew that Denis [Villeneuve, the director,] was very elegant with his violence. But the matter is: Whether you play a character that you agree with or not, do you understand the character? So I understand that character. Do I agree with him? At the end of the day, no.
Did you talk to people who had gone through all that to prepare?
DEL TORO Yeah, yeah.
EDGERTON I had a bit of a problem with access to John Connolly [the real-life character he plays in Black Mass]. John is in federal prison for 40 years. But to go and visit a guy in prison and then say, “Hey, I know you have one version of events, but I’m going to go make a movie and say that you’re a bad guy,” feels dishonest. He was very vocal about those events, that he was scapegoated. And the movie was saying something completely different. So I talked to a lot of his colleagues, and I had tons of footage of him, and I just felt like it was a wrong idea for me to go and milk him.
RUFFALO I spent a lot of time with [journalist Mike Rezendes, whom he plays in Spotlight,] because we’re talking about real people’s lives, and the stakes are very high. You have to get that story right, otherwise it’s just going to be picked apart like a hunk of bread in a koi pond. It’s going to be eaten alive.
CAINE I’ve never heard that one before!
RUFFALO That’s how I feel about being a father sometimes.
SMITH I’ve felt like that.
Will, did the NFL put pressure on you to modify your movie?
SMITH No. There wasn’t real pressure that they could put to modify the movie because we were at Sony. Sony has no affiliation with the NFL. Fox and [Universal] both have affiliations with the NFL; Sony has no connective tissue. And I want to give Sony their props, also, because we used real footage, we used the NFL logo, all of that, and it came down to Sony saying: “Just use it. They’ll have to sue us.”
Were you conflicted about taking the role because you’re a football dad?
SMITH Oh yeah. My son was a football player for four years — and I loved it, I loved it. And the last thing I wanted to do was be the guy who was doing the “football is not good” movie. [But] it was a story about an immigrant, it was a story about American values, and it was things that I really believe in. America is the only place on Earth that I could exist. No other country on Earth is producing people that look like me and allowing them to have a global [impact].
Michael, do you agree with that?
CAINE Almost. We’re a little bit behind [in England]. Idris Elba could be James Bond, for Pete’s sake, so he’s not exactly squashed back because of his color. When I started, I was the “black” actor. We didn’t have black people; we had working-class people. And so what your experience was when you were growing up was the same for me. My career started, not because of any talent on my part, but because of timing. English theater never did anything about the working class. Everybody talked what we call “posh.” And I always said that Cockneys were the first blacks in England, so I understand your position very well because I lived through it.
Has prejudice affected your careers?
DEL TORO All you’ve got to do is read the history. If you read the history of the United States, you know that there’s prejudice, and it’s evolving. But I have definitely felt it. One of the first things that they said to me when I came here was, “Change your name.”
CAINE I changed mine. But mine was Maurice Micklewhite, which was awkward.
DEL TORO Maybe that’s one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever done, not changing my name.
RUFFALO No, you’ve got a great name, man.
CAINE When they say your name, they think you speak like a Mexican or Spanish.
DEL TORO Which I do. (Laughter.)
SMITH My wife and I were just having this conversation, and we were going to the dictionary for “prejudice” versus “racism.” Everybody is prejudiced. Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another — it makes them prefer blond hair over a brunette; if you see somebody with dark skin walking down the street, you have a different reaction than you have [with] someone who is 5-foot-1 and white. But there is a connotation with racism of superiority: You feel that your race generally is superior. And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare — someone who thinks their race is superior. I don’t want to work for them. I don’t want to work at that company. And the times I have come in contact with it, you get away from those people.
Have you come in contact with it?
SMITH Oh, God, yes. Yeah, absolutely.
EDGERTON When you’re faced with it, too, with social media, like what happened recently with Michael B. Jordan in Fantastic Four [who played a character who is white in the comic] — people actively being racist, making those sort of comments about Star Wars [casting a black star]. Some of it is very, very alarming.
JACKSON It’s quite alarming. Some of the stuff I read yesterday — I actually posted a thing, “praying for Paris.” People went berserk. I couldn’t believe what some of those people were saying. Just hateful stuff about “the Parisians deserved it.” It’s just horrid.
Can you as actors do anything to combat that?
SMITH As actors we have the ultimate power. Historically, story combined with imagery moves humanity forward. What we do — not that it’s a responsibility, but it is the ultimate forum for changing people’s hearts and minds. So when I’m choosing a movie, I understand the global power of being able to send imagery around the world. A large part of the way that America is viewed globally is from the historical imagery that we have sent around the world through cinema. Any time I put something in the world, I am always connecting to an idea. I’m always asking, “Why am I making this?” With Concussion, Dr. Bennet Omalu was deeply connected to tell the truth. And he said that truth doesn’t have a side. I thought that was such a powerful idea. Whose side are you on? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? I’m just trying to tell the truth. The truth doesn’t have a side.
Would you have felt differently if you hadn’t been famous actors?
CAINE I should have been a fishmarket porter because for 300 years, that’s what my family had been. My mother was a cleaner, that woman you see in a hotel who comes in after you go out.
What would you have done if you had not been an actor?
CAINE I would probably have tried to be an architect. I loved architecture, and my heroes are architects. I would have been some kind of dumbass in the back room at some great architect’s office or something just to be close to my idols.
DEL TORO One thing I was doing right before I turned to acting was painting.
CAINE Real painting or walls?
DEL TORO Well, I did some of that, too. (Laughter.) Painting on canvas. Imagery. But I wasn’t that good. If you liked mud, I was your man. But I would have tried hard to be good.
EDGERTON I was almost going to go to art school. I still paint, and I do it as a personal thing. The thing with me was, my father had started very much working class when I was growing up. I came from a very poor family, but by the time I graduated high school, they were quite well off. He had become a lawyer. He had been on his way to become a sheep farmer, and some guy said, “Oh, we’re going to go and enroll in law,” and he just did that on a whim. So by the time I finished high school, he was quite wealthy. And I felt this debt to him to make out like I was going to do something responsible with my life, something that would guarantee an income. I was terrified to tell him that what I really wanted to do was either paint pictures or become an actor. And he found out, and he took me aside and said, “Look, I think you should follow your dreams, and money and all that other stuff, it comes as a byproduct.” I found out that, deep down, he had wanted to be an actor.
RUFFALO I was well on my way to being a bartender.
JACKSON A mixologist?
RUFFALO I don’t know if you know this, but me and Benicio started acting school together — Stella Adler, here in Los Angeles — and I could see the talent flying off of him, and I said to myself, “I’ll never be able to do what that guy can do.”
DEL TORO You’ve done pretty damn good, brother. He was traveling two hours every day, back and forth, to go to school, and I went, “This kid is strong.”
RUFFALO You were my hero.
EDGERTON We can all leave, if you want. (Laughter.)
JACKSON Get a room.
DEL TORO We already did.
Was there ever a point where you fell out of love with acting?
CAINE Oh no, never.
SMITH I had a brief period, four years ago. In retrospect, I realize I had hit a ceiling in my talent. I had a great run that I thought was fantastic, and I realized that I had done everything that I could do with the “me” that I had. And I didn’t work for about two years, and I [went through] marriage counseling, 50 parenting books, all of that stuff. And I really dived into me, and then all of a sudden it was like, “Oh!” And I found the connection. Your work can never really be better than you are, you know? Your work can’t be deeper than you are.
JACKSON You know what you needed for that?
SMITH What did I need?
JACKSON A play.
SMITH I’ve always been really product-oriented. I want to win. When I do something, I want to be number one, and I want to smash it. And I have a 15-year-old daughter, and she got me and shifted my focus from product to people. It took a couple of years, but as soon as I got knocked off of product and started shifting to people, the whole world opened up for me again, and acting opened up in a whole new way — to not go into day one of a movie trying to figure out what everybody has to do so we win versus opening up and every person is a whole new world. [Before that,] when I went into a meeting with a director, my focus was: Can this guy win, can this girl win? And it was a pathology that broke for me a couple of years ago, and I fell in love and then I couldn’t imagine what else I could do that could add so much to my life other than acting.
JACKSON I’m constantly evolving. I’ve grown as an actor. I’m getting older, I’m a little less patient with people. I speak my mind a lot more than I used to ’cause I used to think I’d get fired, and now I know I’m not.
What surprised you about your Hateful Eight character?
JACKSON That he was the smartest person in the movie. I mean, people say a lot of things about Quentin — that he’s racist, he’s this, he’s that. But every character that he has ever written for me has been a very intelligent, very driven person.
CAINE There was a very specific moment for me, when I got a script and sent it back to the producer and I said, “The part is too small.” So they sent it back and said, “I didn’t want you to read the lover. I wanted you to read the father.” And I suddenly went, “Oh my God. I know where I am now. I no longer get the girl.” And I sort of retired for a couple of years. I kept getting a load of crap, you know? And I was down in Miami Beach with Jack Nicholson, and he got a script [for 1996’s Blood and Wine], and he said, “Do it with me.” And so I did it. And he brought me out of this “slough of despond,” as they say. I don’t get the girl; I get the part now.
Who taught you the most about acting?
CAINE Marlon Brando, [though] I didn’t understand him at all. I met him under strange circumstances: He had just lost a girlfriend, and it was weird, and I was like a young girl with Elvis Presley. I was completely overwhelmed. A friend of mine got a message from him that was 15 minutes long on the phone and used up all his battery.
JACKSON Two days before 9/11, Michael Jackson was having these concerts in New York, and for some reason I was introducing Usher and Whitney Houston. And I was standing backstage, waiting to go and introduce them. Somebody comes up behind me and starts doing the Ezekiel speech [from Pulp Fiction]. People do that to me all the time. “Arrgh, Ezekiel, da da da.” And I turn around, and it’s Marlon Brando. I’m like, “Oh my God!” We end up having this conversation. He gives me a phone number. He says, “Call me, we need to talk.” So I go back, and I call that number, and somebody answers the phone. It’s a Chinese restaurant. (Laughter.) “Is Mr. Brando there?” “Hold on, hold on.” And the next thing, he comes to the phone. And we spent an hour talking.
RUFFALO That was his office.
JACKSON The next time I called, it was a Chinese laundry. And I said, “Is Mr. Brando there?” And then I realized he just filtered his calls by doing that, and then he’d come to the phone.
Who else has taught you the most?
JACKSON Lloyd Richards, who was the director of the Yale Drama School — even though I didn’t go to Yale Drama School, I did two plays for him — and Douglas Turner Ward at the Negro Ensemble Company. They both taught me how to ask myself the right questions when I’m preparing to do a role or how to sit down and read a script and figure out who that person is — write an autobiography, give him a complete life from birth, family, educational backgrounds. And those things have served me, and I continue to do them.
RUFFALO My teacher at Stella Adler, her name was Joanne Linville. She was that rare acting teacher who knew how to act.
JACKSON That is rare, isn’t it?
RUFFALO It is rare.
JACKSON It’s incredibly crazy. I had all these friends in New York that were going to class. I would ask them, “What’s that person been in, that you take classes from them?”
RUFFALO [My teacher] taught me the truth, and to feel what it was like to have the truth, and to constantly strive for it. And then the other thing is: You’re always working. It’s never done. I can’t watch anything that I do without sitting there and tearing it apart.
JACKSON I can’t watch anything you do without doing that, either. (Laughter.)
RUFFALO It’s that old [joke]: How many actors does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Twenty — one to screw it in, and 19 to say how they could have done it better.
JACKSON When I see people going to acting class, it’s like, “Well, I’m doing a scene today.” I said, “What do you mean, you’re doing a scene today? How long has it been since you did a scene?” “Well, other people are doing scenes, too, so it’s been about 10 days.” I’m like, “That’s not acting class. You’re learning to be a critic.”
What’s the biggest mistake young actors make?
CAINE Thinking that they’ve got to have a masterpiece every time. Go ahead and do the bloody thing. If it flops, you’ve had the experience anyway. I had a friend who shall be nameless, and he always said, “You can’t do that, it’s going to be a load of crap,” and waited for great directors, and every two years some great director would give him a role, and come Monday morning, he’s in front of the camera and he didn’t know what in the bloody hell he was doing. You must experience it.
JACKSON That’s why I just couldn’t imagine not acting.
SMITH That is the killer for an actor. Because the camera feels that you’re uncertain and not sure. Let it rip. Fail hard and fail loud.
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