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THR's Actor Roundtable: 6 Leading Men on Politics, Over-40 Actresses and the Dangers of Success

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Matt Damon revealed why he doesn't want his daughters to become actresses. Jamie Foxx told a great story about accosting Denzel Washington outside a nightclub in his pre-fame days. And Richard Gere promised to hook Alan Arkin up with a visit to the Dalai Lama. Those were just a few of the surprising interactions at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actor Roundtable. Damon, 42 (Promised Land), Foxx, 44 (Django Unchained), Washington, 57 (Flight), Gere, 63 (Arbitrage), and Arkin, 78 (Argo), joined John Hawkes, 53 (The Sessions), for a freewheeling discussion Oct. 24 in a small room at La Descarga restaurant in Hollywood, where they talked about politics, money, making fried chicken for Nelson Mandela -- and their awards-worthy films.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What's the most shocking thing that has happened to you in Hollywood?

Alan Arkin: Gentle, loving kindness.

Richard Gere: What year was that? (Laughter.) I work with really kind people all the time. But it's not really stable people that get into the movie business. I like the challenge of it. I like seeing people under pressure and finding out what's inside. If everything's great, you don't learn anything.

Jamie Foxx: The thing that shocks me is how girls react to you making it big. I remember doing the comedy club at the Regency West in the hood -- I was straight from Texas. When I got there, it was the most beautiful women in the world, and I sat down before I went up, and they didn't know who I was. I said, "Hey, how you doing?" [He imitates their scornful look.] Then I go onstage and get a standing ovation and come back. "Why didn't you tell us?!" It was sort of like a -- what do you call it, a micro …

Matt Damon: microcosm …

Foxx: … microcosm of what the bigger picture is. Before I got my teeth closed up, my teeth were a little jagged, and this girl was just ragging on me about how, "Your teeth is all messed up, your teeth is all messed up!" Right?

Gere: You got real pretty teeth right now.

Foxx: And then I did this movie, and girls were like, "Oh my God, you're gorgeous!" When you're hot, everything is crazy, but when you're not …

THR: How do you know if the women are genuine?

Foxx: You don't. I mean, in Hollywood, when you don't have anything and you're on the outside, and things aren't going the right way, that's when you find your most genuine people, in tougher times.

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THR: Denzel, what shocked you most about fame?

Denzel Washington: Nothing, 'cause it wasn't like it was an overnight thing. I'm just a working actor. I'm still not famous, as far as I'm concerned. The fame part, other than getting a reservation at a restaurant … I'm just a regular guy.

THR: How do you handle it when people come up to you in a restaurant ?

Washington: I just slap the shit out of them. (Laughter.)

Damon: Fame was sobering because I had a couple movies that didn't work, and basically my phone just stopped ringing. But I went to London. I did a Kenny Lonergan play called This Is Our Youth. And then The Bourne Identity opened, and everybody was my friend again.

Washington: You did one of those first movies with me, right? Courage Under Fire.

Damon: That was a huge break for me.

THR: But you decided not to do the latest Bourne.

Damon: That was because they didn't have a script! I was always open to doing it with Paul Greengrass, the director, and they never had a script. A lot of times what happens in these big-budget movies is they'll get a release date, and they'll book everybody's time, and they'll just send you off to a location with no script -- and that's your problem, and you got to figure it out. I didn't want to put myself in that situation again because that takes years off your life. I'd rather have a script and go through it in a sensible way, and even if we throw the script out, there is half a script.

Washington: He needs a script?

Gere: What kind of an actor is that? (Laughter.)

[pagebreak]

THR: Do you think it's dangerous to have too much success at a young age?

Gere: I don't know because I was 26 when I made Days of Heaven -- 28 when it was released 'cause we went back and shot another movie. I was a kid in regional theaters and off-Broadway, so I was working a lot before that. [To Damon] You were probably younger.

Damon: No. When we started [writing] Good Will Hunting, I was 22 and Ben [Affleck] was 20, and it came out when I was 27 and Ben was 25. I always had this theory that you kind of retard emotionally at the moment you become famous: It's not that you change; the world changes in its relationship to you. So your entire reality shifts. And that's a jarring experience and hard to prepare for.

Gere: You can't prepare. If we all told our stories of getting to where we are, and everyone had the information, still you would not be prepared.

Damon: People stop interacting with you. It's like Jamie was saying: People reacted to him differently when they knew that he was the star of the show.

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John Hawkes: Any rise in visibility worries me because if I can't be somewhat invisible in a crowd and observe human behavior, it's harder to be an actor.

Foxx: Sometimes you go on the Internet and see what people are saying about you. Wow, they're saying this crazy shit! One thing that just happened: I had this guy decorate my house -- [to Washington] you've been in my house; it's really, really nice -- but he ended up being one of the biggest drug kingpins on the West Coast, and I had no idea. And I was like, "Oh shit!" And I remember we vetted him because you have to check people out before they come in your house, then find out the feds were watching him for a year. Some of the fed guys were working on the construction, so the shit was always shoddy! That came out in the press, you know what I'm saying? It was something I was going to handle internally, and all these people are talking about it. It's hard to then go into a character when all these people have stories hung on you. I've watched a lot of people become prisoners of Us and OK! magazine, and you can't get that out of your mind. How do you maintain that?

Hawkes: Pick great projects. Things that sing to you.

THR: Denzel, how do you do it? You manage to keep out of the press.

Gere: He's been trying to get in the press for a long while! His wife won't let him.

Washington: That's what having a publicist is for, to keep me out of the press. I'm just raising my family, raising my kids -- got four grown kids now -- and coaching football and basketball. That's what was important to me. Work is work, but fame is -- I don't know what that is.

[pagebreak]

THR: One of your daughters is working for Quentin Tarantino on Jamie's film. Would you all encourage your kids to go into the business?

Washington: They're all movie buffs. I'm the only one in the family that doesn't really watch movies. (Laughter.) Really. I've never been much of a movie person. But they all watch hundreds and hundreds of movies. One daughter's an actress now, and she just did a part with Jamie in a Lee Daniels movie. And my other daughter works for Quentin. And my son went to USC film school this summer.

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Damon: I would try to steer my daughters away from acting. Women are in a different business than we are. It is just brutal for women. For us, the roles get really good at 40 and beyond. And that's really when you start doing your best work.

Gere: And then there's Susan Sarandon.

Damon: It's like being a pro athlete: I have friends who were athletes and are now retired. They're my age, and they talk about the frustration of knowing more about their craft and suddenly they're not able to play anymore. Even if the studios aren't banging my door down, I can go write. I'd write if I didn't act.

Arkin: I would write or take pictures or learn how to play a musical instrument.

THR: Do you worry about your career?

Damon: Always. I mean, every single one of us started out getting rejected repeatedly, and I don't think that ever leaves you. I took a lot of jobs earlier on; had I taken my foot off the gas a little bit, I could have been better. I just didn't want to stop working, partly out of that classic actor insecurity.

Washington: I love the stage. In the last 10 years, I've gone back to Broadway twice now. I'm going back next year.

Damon: What are you doing?

Washington: Don't know yet. I did Fences two years ago and Julius Caesar. And I also direct movies. So I don't feel nervous. I'd go off-Broadway in a minute, and fortunately I'm independently wealthy.

Gere: Really? (Laughter.) We should talk, man.

Washington: I mean, I got enough money is what I'm saying. I got a couple of dollars!

Foxx: Some movie you didn't like, you told me, "I didn't really like that movie, but I made $40 million!"

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THR: Jamie, I heard you passed Denzel a note once?

Foxx: Before [getting famous], I saw Denzel coming out of the Roxbury one night. I couldn't get on the property. "Oh shit, Denzel!" [Raises his arms and starts to stomp in glee.] You know black people -- we march when we see somebody. It was like: "Denzel! What's up?" And I bolt past the security, and [to Washington] you do this move. I swear to God, I went to hug him, and he goes [stands and thrusts out his elbow, imitating Washington blocking him]. I said, "I'm just trying to give you your props, baby!"

Damon: He's had to bust out the elbow many, many times.

Foxx: [Another time] I was the house comedian at this awards show. I got paid a couple hundred bucks. And I just kept looking at Denzel, and he was sitting in the front row. I was like, man, I gotta holler at him because at the time there was this big search for the next James Bond. And I said, if anybody could do it, it would be Denzel. He could take James Bond, whether he's black, white, green or red -- and this goes back to talent. All these guys, it's the talent that's going to keep us preserved. But I snuck up to him …

Washington: Did I get you in the throat again?

Foxx: I stood away, man. I snuck this letter in his pocket, saying: "They're looking for the new James Bond. You could do it." It goes back to talent. Everybody in this city wants that.

[pagebreak]

THR: But for a woman over 40

Washington: I tell my daughter -- she's at NYU -- I say: "You're black, you're a woman, and you're dark-skinned at that. So you have to be a triple/quadruple threat." I said: "You gotta learn how to act. You gotta learn how to dance, sing, move onstage." That's the only place, in my humble opinion, you really learn how to act. I said: "Look at Viola Davis. That's who you want to be. Forget about the little pretty girls; if you're relying on that, when you hit 40, you're out the door. You better have some chops."

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THR: Denzel, you said the other day, "We attract what we fear." What are you all afraid of?

Damon: I'm afraid of great actors! (Laughter.)

Hawkes: David Mamet wrote a line in Edmond: "Every fear hides a wish." I guess I am afraid of mediocrity and cliche, and that's about it. I'm not afraid of being poor; I've done that. Not afraid of it all running out -- that's OK, too. If a bomb drops tomorrow, I'll be in an alley, making up a poem for the five people who survived alongside me.

Gere: I get afraid every time I take a job on -- every single time. There's a buzz I get before every take.

Washington: But that's a good thing.

Gere: I'm OK with it. I'm still trying to figure out the world, myself, people around me, and ultimately part of that curiosity is probably a fear also that I don't know who I am. Is it possible to ever know another human being? Is there a self? Is there a Richard? I don't know.

THR: Do you have any role or thing you've done in your career that you regret?

Washington: Shoot, yes. But I would never say because someone made the film.

Foxx: I did a film called Booty Call.

Gere: I thought it was one of your best!

Washington: I got the Blu-ray. (Laughter.)

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THR: Who is the most interesting person you've met and why?

Gere: The Dalai Lama, for sure. He's got more energy than all of us. He's more curious, more skilled at dealing with people, absolutely willing to be the buffoon if it takes people to the next level. He's deeply funny. He tells dirty jokes. He can do anything.

Arkin: I had the opportunity to meet him 25 years ago, and it got blown somehow, and it's a moment I regret.

Gere: I'll make it work.

Washington: [Nelson Mandela] is up there, for sure. He used to call me on New Year's Day: "Denzel? I'm going to come to your house." He actually came to my house. He wanted my wife to fry him some chicken! It was, like, helicopters around -- it was Nelson Mandela! And he was sitting in the house. One of the security guys where we live was like: "Sylvester Stallone keeps looking over the wall. Think we should let him in?" We had about 50 people, from Stallone to Oprah to Quincy Jones, and they were just hanging on every word.

THR: Is there a danger in associating with political figures or politics?

Damon: I don't think there's anything wrong with saying what you believe, as long as you're OK with people disagreeing with you. For some reason, I was one of the first people to ask, "Are we ever going to get to know this Sarah Palin person before the [2008] election?" I did take it a step further and compare it to a bad Disney movie, with the mom from Alaska facing down Vladimir Putin in the third act. (Laughter.)

Foxx: Republicans don't take jokes well. I've performed for George W. Bush and all these guys 'cause I'm from Texas. I did a big thing at the Cowboys' new stadium. You got Bush there, I'm cracking jokes, and I said, "Come on, man, you gotta lighten up." They don't take it well because all jokes have a layer of truth.

Gere: When we talk about something, we've got to know our stuff 10 times better than anybody else to be taken seriously. And that's OK. I would stay clear about something I don't know. But Asia's my area; Tibet's my area. AIDS was very, very important to me.

Washington: Giving is the most selfish thing you can do because you feel so good -- [that's] the feeling that I get since I'm "independently wealthy." (Laughter.) We've got an obligation to give. I'm the national spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, and [since that began] we've gone from 2 million to 4 million boys and girls that we service. You know that you are affecting in a positive way someone's life.

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THR: Given that a lot of kids look up to you as a role model, do you worry about the characters you play or when there's too much violence?

Washington: No, I don't. I mean, if it's something I wasn't comfortable with, I wouldn't do it. The most violent characters are in Shakespeare, so should they not see Julius Caesar?

Arkin: It's not the violence, but it's the attitude toward it that's the issue. A lot of times I feel as if I'm watching people that are reveling in it, and that disturbs me. I can feel it jumping off the screen at me, being loved for the amount of blood or the graphic design of it. When it gets into that, I feel like it's dispassionate, which scares the hell out of me. Yeah, I think there's too much. I think it's more than necessary.

Washington: Does good news sell?

Hawkes: That's the thing. Doesn't sell here, does it?

Foxx: I watch all that. I'm the Internet dude. I watch when somebody slams somebody -- I just love that!

Hawkes: We love conflict, and we love storytelling. We're curious people.

Damon: And fearful, too. And fear sells a lot, so there is always an attempt to drum up fear.

THR: Has anyone given you a life-changing piece of advice?

Hawkes: Growing up in a little rural community, it was getting on a bus in 10th grade and going 150 miles to a theater in Minneapolis and seeing Arthur Miller's The Crucible. That was the "burning bush" moment for me.

Arkin: Two things. Reading the life of Gandhi, that was a kick in the head. And then somebody gave me The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse. It disturbed me so much that I knew there was a truth in it that I had to find out about. It changed my life radically. It was the beginning of wrenching me out of a kind of psychic despair, into a sense of hope. And the needle started shifting from acting: The first 45 years of my life, acting was the only reason I had for being alive, and from that moment on, it started shifting to what it is now, where it is an expression of who I am, and it's not the reason for my life anymore. And I just feel infinitely happier as a result.

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THR: Is there one role you would love to play?

Damon: I'd love to play Bobby Kennedy. At the end of his life, he really saw the matrix and said some radical and amazing things, and then he died.

Washington: James Bond! (Laughter.) Some more Shakespeare, all of it. I did Richard III when I was too young. I need to revisit that. Too old for Hamlet now, I guess. Lear.

Damon: Too young!

Gere: The big, dramatic, crazy characters are much easier, for sure. The quiet, delicate ones that don't show too much, that you've still got to keep interesting for two hours, I find extremely tough.

Hawkes: It's the opposite for me. It's easier for me to play the more still person, although I'm not above scenery-chewing.

THR: If you gave up acting, what would you do?

Arkin: Become a safecracker.

Foxx: Oh, man, I'd leave this in a minute. I would scratch a Lotto ticket; I'd be history. (Laughter.) I'd be cool, I would be in Thailand, Golden Triangle.

Washington: Eighteen-hand massages.

Foxx: I told my daughter, I said: "If I hit a lick, I'm out." It's just the pressure right now of trying to be "that guy," it's tough. I've mapped myself after D [Denzel]. Me and Leonardo DiCaprio were talking about you the other day, about [how] everything he does, I really believe he does it. And Leo goes, "Buddy, I'm scared of that dude. He'd just grab my trachea and pull it out." I watched him when he went from the television series and then Denzel became "D," the one that everybody wanted to hang with, the one you identified with in the movie, and I thought that was fantastic. My worry is, how do I … without stealing so much from him …

Gere: which is impossible …

Foxx: … find your way to where you're really comfortable? But it's a lot of pressure. That constant pressure sometimes eats away at you a little bit.

♦♦♦♦♦

THE PERFORMANCES

Richard Gere in Arbitrage (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Gere plays a Wall Street wizard whose life spirals down as he struggles with a crumbling empire.

Alan Arkin in Argo (Warner Bros.)
Arkin (right, with John Goodman) plays a fictional producer hired to help free the 1979 Iran hostages.

Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained (The Weinstein Co.)
Foxx (right) teams with Tarantino favorite Christoph Waltz in this slave-era drama.

Denzel Washington in Flight (Paramount)
Washington plays a heroic captain who saves his passengers -- only to emerge as an alcoholic.

Matt Damon in Promised Land (Focus Features)
Damon, who co-wrote, plays a fracking executive hired to convince a small town to allow drilling.

John Hawkes in The Sessions (Fox Searchlight)
Hawkes stars as real-life quadriplegic Mark O'Brien, who engages a sexual surrogate (Helen Hunt).

The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year's most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for roundtables with actresses, writers, directors, producers, composers and, for the first time, costume designers. Go to THR.com/therace to watch videos of the full discussions.