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Awards Roundtable: 6 Top Actors' Uncensored Tales, From Worst Auditions to Leg Waxing

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Huddled together just before the first of this year's awards-season roundtables got underway at the historic Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, the six invited actors were eager to discuss one thing: Christopher Nolan. "Is he a big guy?" one of the participants asked Matthew McConaughey, who was taking a break from shooting the director's Interstellar on the Sony lot. Queried another, "Does he talk a lot?" McConaughey, 43, demurred as he joked with his Dallas Buyers Club co-star Jared Leto, 41, who had flown in the night before from Michigan, where he performed with his band 30 Seconds to Mars. The duo joined Josh Brolin, 45, Jake Gyllenhaal, 32, Michael B. Jordan, 26, and Forest Whitaker, 52, in a candid discussion about everything from flubbed auditions to Brazilian waxing.

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Let's start with a question about reinvention. How do you not get stale?

JARED LETO: Panic. Desperation.

JAKE GYLLENHAAL: Bills.

JOSH BROLIN: Fear -- there's always fear. You re-create yourself in every movie, don't you?

FOREST WHITAKER: There's a good fear, and there's a negative fear. There's a thing you confront when you're going into something new and you come to this sort of abyss, and then you push yourself. It makes you try different things.

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: You mentioned two types of fear, and the one that's good is when you're scared. You don't know what's on the other side, but you're like: "I'm gonna dive in. I know there's something there; I don't know how to define it yet. I don't know the equation, but I'm gonna come up and I'll understand it." It takes you to the cliff, and you should be scared because the cliff drops, and you don't have a net.

BROLIN: I've never had that feeling in any movie where I actually feel like I'm nailing it.

WHITAKER: You don't feel the magic of it once in a while?

BROLIN: Never ever.

LETO: I get a terminal dissatisfaction on films. If I was bad in one scene, it's impossible to let go. And it can make or break my day. If I drank, I would probably drink a lot.

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Have you ever said no to something because you're afraid?

LETO: Oh yeah. I've talked myself out of auditions a hundred times. I auditioned for [Robert] De Niro seven times, years and years ago. I remember auditioning for Terrence Malick, and the casting director upended a couch, and we were supposed to hide behind it and shoot imaginary guns! [Laughter.] In that audition, I literally stood up, took a few imaginary bullets and shoved [the casting director]. I said: "I can't do this. This is like a bad high school play," and I walked out. And then Terrence called me -- you guys I'm sure have met him; he's the most gentle and amazing guy in the world -- and he's like: "Uh, Jared? I'd love you to be in my film."

Have you ever thought of quitting?

LETO: I did for six years, almost.

BROLIN: Six years you didn't work? Wow.

GYLLENHAAL: [Smiles.] It's only appropriate as an indulgent actor to think about quitting 'cause it's such an intense job.

WHITAKER: It takes a lot from you.

LETO: I was focusing on other passions, and time kind of flew by. But it can be heartbreaking. You make these little movies -- most of the time they don't work.

BROLIN: That goes back to what we were saying about feeling like you're [not] really nailing something. I remember [1996's] Flirting With Disaster -- I did the movie and never felt like we were nailing it at all. And then I saw the movie …

GYLLENHAAL: You killed that movie!

MICHAEL B. JORDAN: Exactly. Exactly.

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Matthew, what went into your reinvention? I think you turned down $15 million for a Magnum, P.I. movie.

MCCONAUGHEY: I heard that number. I don't think I ever saw that in the offer.

BROLIN: Makes for a better story.

MCCONAUGHEY: Let me just throw this at you: That same script with that number really is a whole lot funnier than [when they gave it to] me.

So not quite true?

MCCONAUGHEY No, it may be true. [Smiles.]

[pagebreak]

When was the moment you said, "I'm doing it for myself now"?

MCCONAUGHEY: It wasn't an offensive moment; it was ordered by process of elimination. I said no to some things first. I looked around and said: "I'm paying rent; the kids are good. We got a son coming into the world. [Being a father is] a great job. Let me sit in the shadows for a while on my career side." And then, as the world works, some things started attracting me. I guess I became a good idea to some people. And I got a call from [Steven] Soderbergh [for Magic Mike]. Richard Linklater and I were another story: We were hitting baseballs in Texas, and he goes, "Hey, I got this script, Bernie." Things kind of boomeranged and came back to me. I got selfish, I guess, for myself, my own life.

BROLIN: Did having kids have anything to do with it?

MCCONAUGHEY: Sure. It's a natural law. That sort of frees up a whole lot of other things. I'm sure they've helped lower my handicap as an actor.

JORDAN: Do you guys ever feel like you have to stay out of your own way in your own career? Like, if you just stepped out of the equation and let the universe bring it to you …

BROLIN: Like Oliver [Stone] coming to me and saying, "Do you want to do W.?" I was like, "Why the f--- would I want to do that?" Then he kept following me, and he'd show up at a dinner, or I'd see him at the next table at a restaurant, and he was literally stalking me at some point. But I'm so happy that I did that movie.

WHITAKER: Why would you not do it? This is a character that's pretty complex, pretty interesting.

BROLIN: Yeah, but in the beginning I thought, "It's Oliver" -- it was just gonna be a big bash-fest. And then we started talking about it, and I said: "I am interested in finding out sociologically why this guy [succeeded]. How did he do it twice? And why does everybody want to have a beer with this guy?" Then we started to play with that.

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Did you ever meet George W. Bush?

BROLIN: No, no. No interest.

Whom do you lean on for career advice?

JORDAN: Honestly, I haven't had too many people. You're surprised when you see the older generation be very precious with information. [But] as an upcoming actor, I was lucky enough to have Forest and Pete Berg and David Simon. But for the most part, it's been trial and error.

What have you learned that surprised you in acting?

MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, just certain rights as an actor. That you're there to know your man. You're the master of your man -- go be your man. Sets aren't places where we can all get along -- we don't have to. Is it supposed to be easy? No, it's not supposed to be easy. I mean, the first audition I had with Linklater, Dazed and Confused, that was a job interview for me, right? So I tucked in my shirt, man, shaved my hair, pressed my jeans and went in 'cause it was a job interview. And he was like: "Hey, OK. Let your hair grow out, and maybe, uh …" And I was like, "I can do that?" [Laughter.]

What's the biggest mistake you've made?

MCCONAUGHEY: I didn't study acting before I got [my] first job. And I thought: "Hey, maybe you're not the kind of actor that needs to study lines. Maybe -- [laughter] -- you just know your man, and you show up and you just do it." I go do this film, Scorpion Spring, and I got this idea: "I'm not gonna look at anything. I know what I am: the drug lord on the Mexican border in Texas. I'll just show up on the set, stay fresh and loose." Well, I get down there, OK, and I pick up this scene, and it's a page-and-a-half monologue in Spanish.

LETO: Seriously?

MCCONAUGHEY: I felt this trickle of sweat. "Um, can you give me 12 minutes?" I haven't watched it yet, but, "Porque the yellow …" This is bad. And I said, "Never again, man."

WHITAKER: I was playing a schizophrenic [in My Own Love Song], and every night I kept working really hard, pushing my head to the point where I started to see the things that I was imagining. I realized there is a way to screw with your brain. It took me a really long time to get myself back to thinking the way I wanted to -- it almost took a year.

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Is there a point where you can do too much for a role? Matthew, you changed your body for Dallas Buyers Club.

BROLIN: You don't really know until afterward.

MCCONAUGHEY: With Dallas Buyers, it wasn't an affectation for eccentric­ity's sake. It was something I needed to do for the man I was playing, [or] I'd be embarrassed. You commit to something and say, "Let's go there."

When you watch your performances, what's your biggest critique?

LETO: I don't watch [my] performances. I've seen a couple of my films only. When I make music videos, I'm watching all the time, but there's something that stops me from watching the films.

MCCONAUGHEY: You haven't seen any films you've been in?

LETO: I've seen a couple. I saw Requiem for a Dream -- Darren [Aronofsky] dragged me into [that]. I never wanted to see a film that I was in.

Jake, what's the biggest mistake you've made? Do you look back on some films that didn't work, like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and say, "I wish I hadn't done that"?

GYLLENHAAL: The biggest mistake that I've made is not really admitting to myself that filmmaking is a director's medium. We all get into situations where we're working with people, and we try to control that. [But] I realized, once I'm gone, that's going to be this director's vision from here on out. I did that in the past a lot, and now, giving all of that up is such a beautiful and relieving thing.

LETO: Isn't that great about working with [David] Fincher? You know, no matter what, when you walk off that set, you are taken care of.

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But you have to do 60 takes of a close-up.

LETO: Oh, who cares? As long as you have someone fighting to make it great -- that's what the difference is. I mean, apathy and just neglect, or mediocrity …

BROLIN: … Or ego …

LETO: … Or anything. I've been on the set with greatness that's been shattered by drugs and abuse and someone off in the corner smoking a joint when they should have been focusing on the project. But that feeling is one of the best feelings in the world, as an artist, to have that support from your director.

GYLLENHAAL: Sometimes you get a cinematographer who shoots something, and you walk into their light, and they're doing 50 percent of my job. I walked into Roger Deakins' lighting in two different movies, and I didn't feel I had to give a performance.

Josh, what's your biggest mistake in your career?

BROLIN: Before [the past] seven or eight years, for 20 years I worked with a lot of people with not a massive amount of talent. And there was always ego; there were always fights. Working with the Coens -- just kicking back on a couch and watching them edit -- they have two desks that are perpendicular, and Ethan is picking the best takes, and then Joel is on the other desk, and then Ethan hits a bell -- bing! -- and Joel looks up, and he brings down the take and puts it in. I mean, it's such a simple, amazing process to watch.

On No Country for Old Men, you had a terrible motorcycle accident you didn't tell them about.

BROLIN: I did. I lied to them. I had the doctor lie to them that it was gonna heal in a week when it was really a three-month healing process.

LETO: You lie as much as you can …

JORDAN: … to get the job.

GYLLENHAAL: Think of your best lie.

JORDAN: They were getting ready to cast Tupac [for a planned biopic], and when I was auditioning, they were like, "Can you rap?" And I was just like, "Sure!"

GYLLENHAAL: I auditioned for that, too. But I can rap. [Laughter.]

[pagebreak]

People have said this is the year of the black actor in film. Forest and Michael, how do you feel when you hear that?

JORDAN: I feel like -- it's good to be part of that movement.

WHITAKER: I've been fortunate, I guess: I've gotten to play a lot of very diverse roles for quite a long time. But in the beginning, I was thinking: "I'm not gonna do certain characters. I will be willing to say no and live on a couch." And I was really happy. Maybe more happy sometimes than in the latter years when I had more, when I was thinking and considering more things for different reasons -- for family, for my home. But luckily I was able to at least maintain some sort of a line. Even if I would veer right or left, I would stay pretty close to center, and the roles were really interesting.

You mentioned family. How can you have a personal life when you are away shooting so much?

BROLIN: I wasn't working a lot when my kids were growing up, so I got to spend a lot of time at home. And my kids are 20 and 25 now, so I get to go work and don't have to worry about them.

MCCONAUGHEY: Fortunately, mine come with me. My wife and I made a deal, and it scared me more than it scared her in the beginning. She was like, "OK, here's the deal: When Papa goes to work, the McConaugheys come with him." I was used to my Airstream trailer, solo, staying by myself, and I went, "Are you kidding me?" [But that is] a huge privilege.

GYLLENHAAL: My family has been in the movie business -- my weirdly extended and immediate family. The movies are such a big part of our interactions. It makes me anxious being around a table here because this particular scenario just makes me feel like the dinner table. [Laughs.]

WHITAKER: That's tough for me, being away, because my kids are teenagers, and they can't be transported all over the place. You try to balance it. It's more like a dance I have to play.

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What's the biggest sacrifice you've made for your career?

JORDAN: The family, for sure. When I was 19, I left Jersey and moved out here to L.A. to pursue acting. And one of my only regrets was not realizing how that affected my little brother. [There's] a six-year difference between us, and when I'm 19, he's 13, and that's the age that he really needs his older brother. And I was selfishly trying to pursue the acting thing on the other side of the country. [He was] growing up in the shadow of his older brother -- not being his own person in a way -- [with] everybody looking at him: "Oh, that's Mike's little brother." I guess you just have to accept it.

GYLLENHAAL: What you said, which is really true, is there is just a selfish nature. I think there has to be that kind of indulgence. The business can create a real selfishness.

Jared, you play a transsexual in Dallas Buyers Club. What was the toughest thing about that role?

LETO: The waxing. [Laughs.] I was smooth.

BROLIN: The Brazilian waxing.

LETO: But I have to say, I had very nice calves.

BROLIN: Did you shave your legs?

LETO: I waxed my legs. Oh yeah, man, I was a pro. I didn't want that stubble growing back. I waxed my eyebrows, too. And you hear these stories, you know, the old lady who's got like two eyebrow hairs left on her eyebrows. … But I waxed them a couple of times throughout shooting, and the third time I did it, the makeup lady is like: "You sure you want to do this? 'Cause I just don't know if they're gonna come back."

Were you reluctant to take the role?

LETO: I said no [at first]. They asked me to read the script a few times. I hadn't made a movie in a really long time -- it was almost six years. I hadn't read a script in years. I just kind of blew it off because I was busy, and I was in Berlin. I remember hearing that Matthew was involved, and I knew he'd already started losing weight, and I thought, "If this guy is willing to do this, there's got to be something special, and I want to get in the ring with him right now 'cause he's killing it." So I read the script, and I fell in love. And I did this Skype with the director -- [it would have been] easy to blow it off [because] I don't want to get some little project that is gonna break my heart again.

BROLIN: Is that why you did it?

LETO: One of the reasons. I mean, I think the last film I did was called Mr. Nobody, and everyone had great intentions, and it just didn't work. It never got released in America -- they just threw it out on iTunes. You get your heart broken. It's happened to all of us: You pour everything into something, and it just doesn't work. But anyway, I did the Skype with the director, and I reached over and got some lipstick and I put it on, and I had a little pink sweater on and flirted with him a little bit. I woke up, and I got the job. I was stunned.

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What's the strangest audition the rest of you have had?

BROLIN: I did an audition for [1989's] The Fly 2. I was living in New York at the time, and I went in there, and he's in a cocoon, transforming into a fly. So I walked in, and I started reading. You do the voice, and you're like, [choking sounds] you know, doing your thing. And I ended up on the floor, frothing at the mouth. I got back to my apartment, and there was already a message on my machine from my agent that said: "What the f--- did you do in there? You scared them." I said, "Well, did I get it?" That was the worst audition I ever did.

WHITAKER: I fell through a stage once. I was doing a truly African dance, and all of a sudden I hit the ground with my foot and went straight through the stage. I guess they didn't have much money, so the floor was kind of rotting.

MCCONAUGHEY: Worst for me was a Lee Tamahori film. Went for a read on that for the part of the heavy. I knew going out, "Man, you kind of gave 80 percent." And I got in my truck and turned around -- U-turn -- came back in, just [walked] right past the secretary, knocked the casting director out of the way, went right up to [Tamahori] and weight-nailed him against the wall. I grabbed the next guy and put him in the corner and grabbed like a spoon or something. I just wrecked the room and then left. I didn't hear back from 'em. [Laughs.]

GYLLENHAAL: I remember auditioning for The Lord of the Rings [the role of Frodo] and going in and not being told that I needed a British accent. I really do remember Peter Jackson saying to me, "You know that you have to do this in a British accent?" We heard back it was literally one of the worst auditions.

LETO: It is an incredibly strange process as a grown man to go in and let your ego and your pride get deflected. It's a strange thing.

BROLIN: I literally started filming my own auditions. [Then-president of production] Meryl Poster at Miramax 10 years ago said, "You and Benicio Del Toro were notoriously the worst auditioners we've ever seen." [Laughs.]