There's an old adage among actors: An elderly actor, Edmund Gwenn, was getting toward the end of his life, living in a retirement home, when he was visited by a friend who commiserated about how difficult things must be. No, shrugged Gwenn, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." That story was the starting point for a powerful, emotional and funny conversation involving some of the leading practitioners of both comedy and drama at this year's Actor Roundtable. Robert De Niro, 76 (playing an aging — and de-aged — gangster in The Irishman) was joined by Adam Driver, 36 (as a man struggling with divorce in Marriage Story and a congressional operative trying to uncover the truth in The Report), Jamie Foxx, 51 (as a man wrongfully imprisoned in Just Mercy), Tom Hanks, 63 (as the real-life Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Shia LaBeouf, 33 (as his own father in the autobiographical Honey Boy), and Adam Sandler, 53 (as a jewelry dealer struggling to survive in Uncut Gems).
So, dying is easy, comedy is hard. True or false?
ROBERT DE NIRO Well, there's all kinds of comedy. Certain comedies are easy for certain people, certain comedy for me is not. I can't do what Billy Crystal does, Eddie Murphy, Adam [Sandler]. But I can do other things. I like to think that I work in situations: In Marty Scorsese's movies, some situations are funny and ironic in and of themselves, which is like life. Working with him, whatever you want to do, you can try and do it and maybe it'll work. With some directors, you don't even go there.
ADAM SANDLER If you have something you're confident in, something you believe in, it's the same. If you believe in a joke, if you believe in a dramatic scene, you go in there with the same approach.
JAMIE FOXX Here's the thing: Comedy is a natural thing. I was watching [Sandler] when I was 18 years old, sneaking into The Comedy Store, watching him go up when it was like titans — it was Chris Rock, it was Eddie [Murphy] working out shit. I remember Eddie had on this yellow, fuckin' Century 21 jacket. (Laughter.) And somebody said, "Yo, what's up with that jacket?" And then Eddie, he said, "Oh, whatever, I'll crush you with my wallet?" And then everybody started laughing.
SANDLER Oh yeah, yeah.
FOXX It's interesting, when I look at everybody here, there's respect. But then I look at Adam and before he even said anything, I'm laughing. That's the first ingredient, right?
SANDLER That's correct.
FOXX And then the second ingredient is: As comedians, you get that liftoff, that launch, where everything you're saying is funny, it's hilarious, people are giving you that light. It only becomes difficult once you reach that top comedic level. Now people are expecting the world. I was at Eddie's house, he's talking about getting back into stand-up. And I don't know if you understand this with comedians, but we can never look good. If I start looking too good, I'm not as funny.
SANDLER You need something, an imperfection is going to relax an audience.
FOXX I said, "Eddie, if you want to do stand-up, first thing you've got to do is: You've got to fix your house." He's like, "What you mean?" I said, "Your house is too perfect. (Laughter.) You've got the candles, scented, and all that shit." I said, "Eddie, at my crib, I have shit at my house that doesn't work on purpose, so I stay funny. I've got this little carpet in the kitchen that's sort of ruffled up and I've got a bathroom where you turn on the faucet and it sprays out." And my daughter's like, "Why don't you fix it?" I feel like if I fix all this shit, I won't be funny.
TOM HANKS Can you be funny if you grew up with a built-in swimming pool in your backyard? I don't think you can. If you grew up being able to swim any time you wanted to, you experienced none of the shortcomings of life that you turn into self-deprecation. You can't do it.
Doesn't it all come from some inner pain, comedy or drama?
HANKS You bet. Look, the whole thing is a struggle. [Especially when] it's 3 in the morning [on set] and the movie is now upon your shoulders, "Don't fuck this up." And then they sit back and you wait and you've got to go there, man, you've just got to go, tragedy or comedy. It happens 10 times a week sometimes. "Oh wow, we shut down the whole street for this. We're ready." "Uh, please give me a gun so I can shoot myself in the hip and not have to do this movie anymore."
You played a comedian in Punchline —
SANDLER (To Hanks) Hey, the Safdie brothers told me to tell you that they love Punchline.
HANKS Is that right? Well, the only way to do that was to go out and develop funny material. And I probably did six appearances. I had no sense of anything.
SANDLER I saw you training. I was a young comedian at the Comic Strip and you were good. You were calm onstage and cool and you were being yourself.
HANKS It took a while to get there. When I was in junior college, taking acting classes, the assignment one day was: You're going to be funny and you're going to make each other laugh. And no one could do anything funny because that was the task at hand. So yeah, comedy is hard, because you know instantaneously whether or not your soup is good food.
Adam, you were in the military. Comedy and drama, do they seem trivial?
ADAM DRIVER Well, with one the stakes are life-and-death and with the other you're pretending they are. But the process in which you work on them is the exact same. It's a group of people trying to accomplish a mission that's bigger than any one person. You have a role and you have to know your role within a gun team. You're only as good as the people that are there with you — and when they know what they're doing, what you're doing feels active and relevant and exciting. And when they don't, it feels like a waste of resources and dangerous. That was the best acting training, actually, because you're just so aware that you're one part of a bigger picture.
How did you switch from being a Marine to being an actor?
DRIVER I was interested in it before being in the military, and I was lucky enough to get into an acting school. When you get out [Driver left following an injury], you have all this false confidence that civilian problems will be small in comparison, which is an illusion.
SHIA LABEOUF Never been in the military, but [acting] feels life-and-death to me. Every time, it feels like your neck is on the chopping block, every time. Just like boxing. Guys train really hard to go put their neck on the line.
DE NIRO Some [roles] are harder than others, [especially when they're written by] someone who writes with a certain rhythm, like David Mamet. There is no way around doing that kind of dialogue without knowing it cold. A big preparation thing for me is just drilling the lines, believe it or not. And after you have that structure, you can improvise or ad-lib.
Which of your movies involved the toughest preparation?
DE NIRO I guess Raging Bull because of [putting on] the weight and all that.
SANDLER King of Comedy. That was a guy that was just so unreal. Did you know a guy like that?
DE NIRO No, I didn't. And it's interesting because there was a script written by Paul Zimmerman, who was a film critic, and when Marty [Scorsese] and I were in Cannes he handed us the script. I said, "This is great." Somehow, Marty wasn't doing it for a moment, so I found myself with Milos Forman, and Milos said, "Well, I like the idea but I want to work on the script with Buck Henry [The Graduate]." And so he had Buck Henry write a script, and then I met Milos in an Indian restaurant in the East Village, and I said: "I read this version. I really want to go back to the original. Do you mind if I go to Marty?" He was a little — he wasn't that enthused by it, so I had to convince him to do it.
You also convinced him to do Raging Bull.
DE NIRO I didn't convince him; we have our own ways of [finding common ground]. He's religious, I'm not, but we converge on the things that are common interests. And so, Raging Bull, I read the book [Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta] while I was doing 1900 with Bernardo Bertolucci. And I called Marty from Italy and said, "The book's not great literature, but it's got a lot of heart." I remember I used to see Jake LaMotta: He'd work in a kind of strip place right on Seventh Avenue in the 40s. He'd be standing right out there near the sidewalk, and he was overweight and this and that. I said, "Jesus, look what happened to him." And I thought the graphic difference of being out of shape and then being a young fighter really was interesting. I thought I'd like to see if I could gain that weight. So that was my interest and Marty had his reasons and both of us just came together on the project.
Shia, what made you want to make Honey Boy?
LABEOUF My back was against the wall. I was nuclear at this point. It felt like survival, like there was no other way to go. I didn't have a lot of people talking to me. I was in a mental institution. And I also had a doctor who was pushing me to explore these dirty parts and write them down.
Did you discover anything in that institution that helped your acting?
LABEOUF Yeah, empathy for my father, who was always the biggest villain in my life. And if you can empathize with the biggest villain in your life and scrape some of these shadows, it makes you lighter and freer. I don't think I was leading with love, and my life has changed. And when you lead with lightness and love, you can get to the heavy easier, you know? It's much easier, much more accessible. Anger and the rough shit is very easy — it's the other stuff that feels quite difficult. Getting an honest laugh is very hard, very hard. I think some of the hardest stuff iS the lightness.
SANDLER I tell you, when I have to laugh in a movie, I can't do that. I never pull that one off. I'm like, "Somebody else better laugh hard. I can't do it." If my character is supposed to have a genuine laughing moment, I'd rather get a genuine anything else.
Is it easier for you to cry?
SANDLER Maybe, maybe not. I'm not great at crying either. (Laughter.) When it's written in a script, "And then he breaks down," that really gets me tense for a while. Every time I see somebody breaking down, I'm like, "Oh man, that's incredible." (To Driver) You had a massive one in Marriage Story.
DRIVER It's not something you push for. You don't push for emotion. It either happens or it doesn't. But there's a lot of things, in that instance, that are supporting you. The script is so good and it's well written. If it's badly written, there's only one way to do it. If it's well written, the language is so rich that every time you say it, it opens up an idea. It feels very much like theater, where the text is the text. And I find that incredibly freeing.
SANDLER It's like a release, after it's done.
DE NIRO Yeah. It's like, "You did that, take a break, come back."
Do you take the role home with you?
DE NIRO There is something that carries over, a residual something that you have to be aware of — not in the crazy way of [if you] play psychopaths, you're going to go home and kill [your family].
HANKS It's a physiological process that incorporates your emotions in the sinews of your body. It's funny: Laughing and weeping are two very physical acts. I mean, when I cry, man, my face turns to rubber. And you can only get there if the text takes you there. But you can't push it. It has to come out.
FOXX Well, I'm just emotional. I'm always crying.
FOXX Oh yeah, I cry for everything. I'll be crying about stuff like: My accountant just called and said, "You tried to buy a private plane?!" I'm like, "Fuck! Run the scene! Shit be goin' through my life!" (Laughter.)
HANKS It gets us all, you know? We get that call.
FOXX Yeah, shit be goin' in my life.
HANKS It just ruins the day for all of us.
Are you hard on yourselves?
SANDLER Oh my God! If there's something great written, that I don't think I got to where I'm supposed to, I'm really mad at myself.
DE NIRO You're disappointed.
DRIVER I don't think you ever get over it. Because you know what your potential is more than anybody else. [And so] I have a lot of regret. Often, when you leave a set, you can't help but think about it, and obviously film is forever, so you never get a chance to go back and do it again. The thing about acting is, regardless of how often you do it, you never figure it out. I've learned from theater that, at the end of a four-month run, the last performance is always the best one. And [along the way] you're like, "OK, now I have a better sense of what I want to do and I can go back."
HANKS There have been too many times where I thought I really cracked something over the fence and then I saw it and I said, "What the fuck? That's as exciting as a closing door."And there's other times where all I could do was stumble around — and it's fantastic. You almost have no control. For me, it has to come down to whether or not the behavior that was asked of you is authentic, and if it is, then you've got to leave it up to serendipity.
DRIVER I would even say in a way it's not your job to feel anything — it's the audience's job. It's not really my responsibility to feel something, it's to telegraph that something is being felt. You could be having all the feeling you want, but no one else is feeling anything.
HANKS When we were doing Captain Phillips and we were in this lifeboat, the script had all these great moments where Rich Phillips looked through the porthole of the lifeboat as the sun was going down and he was thinking of his family at home and whether or not he was going to see them. I'd sit around in Malta, where we were shooting, and say, "Oh, that's going to be a powerful moment. I'm going to line up the porthole and it's going to be really great." And then you go to work and there's no porthole in the lifeboat. It's almost like you cannot prepare.
DE NIRO Couldn't you ask them to put a porthole in there? (Laughter.)
FOXX I remember Oliver Stone, when I first auditioned [for Any Given Sunday], he was like, "You're horrible." And I was like, "What?" He was like, "Just get the fuck out of here." As I'm walking out he said, "Jamie Foxx, slave to television."
FOXX But I learned from that toughness.
LABEOUF He would never look me in the eyes [while working on Stone's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps]. He always looked just above my eye, to the eyelid.
Who's taught you the most?
LABEOUF Bob [De Niro]. Through the performances, I watched him reveal himself and be a presenter of a soul and explore who he was. He made it feel sacred to me. (To De Niro) It's wild to hear you say you're not religious, but I know you're spiritual, and I don't have to ask you because I watched the work.
DE NIRO Maybe I'm spiritual, yes. I mean, I believe in things that are supernatural. I was with a mentalist the other day at some thing in New York. I swear. And he did things that I couldn't believe. He told me to think of a city anywhere in the world and he told me the name. How could he do that?
Who's most intimidated you?
LABEOUF Probably Tom Hardy [on Lawless]. Hardy is a bit of a gorilla on a set. Well, he runs the set. He'd pee in the corners. It's his set, you know it when you get there. It doesn't feel like a shared space, it feels like his space. And he's a very good actor and also super-loving, but on a set, you're in his church.
DE NIRO As you get older, you don't want to be intimidated by anybody who shouldn't intimidate you. We're in a political situation now where I feel that you must stand up to this. Because people are nonplussed. It's like they say, "Did this guy just do that?" I don't even know how to react to that because that's not within my world of common sense or right and wrong. You've got to push him back, you've got to snuff him out. You've got to get rid of him. He has said, "I want to be president for life." He'll pardon himself. He'll do anything. He's just gotten worse and worse and worse and worse and we've got to get rid of him.
Should actors be political?
SANDLER I'm not great at that. I just try to be as good a person [as] I can be and try to conduct myself a certain way. When it comes to politics, I don't think I'm knowledgeable enough to go at it.
FOXX It's actually not politics. He's talking about the human nature of things. I've got to tell my kids, "Hey, this is not the way things are supposed to be." I got a chance to speak with George W. Bush. I asked him something — and I hope he doesn't mind me sharing this story. I said, "Would you ever say anything disheartening about President Obama?" And you know what he said? "No, I wouldn't. It's too hard of a job. I would never knock his legs out from under him because I know what it is."
FOXX And then I watched him and his kids play with Obama's kids. That's what it's about.
When Ellen DeGeneres went to the football game with President Bush, was that OK with you?
FOXX Listen, I've been in football games with Jesse Jackson, George Bush, everybody. They're still humans.
HANKS Not everybody should be political, but everybody must be principled. And we carry our principles with us 24 hours a day. And one of the things I learned from the get-go as an actor in a repertory company is, you didn't have to like those people and you did not have to agree with those people, but you had to respect those people. And the default setting, I think, for so much of everything is conflict and cynicism.
You just played the least cynical guy in history. Is it harder to play nice than a villain?
HANKS They're the same exact beast. Granted, Mr. Rogers is not Iago, but they have their principles and they have their mission statement. Everybody said [to Rogers], "Well, you must be a saint." No, he's a guy and there was the same dark side in him that is in any cracked vessel of humankind. There is doubt, there is a sense of failure, there is always a degree of self-loathing. And that peppered every day of his existence. Not everybody says, "I'm growing tired of this game, Mr. Bond, perhaps you'd like a tour of our installation before we feed you to the sharks." Human nature is not given to a protagonist/antagonist, three-act structure. Human nature is just one damn thing after another in which the only thing that matters is what went on today because yesterday is gone. And that is contrary to a lot of the business that we're in, which makes sure that everybody understands the story by page 30 and is involved in the conflict. The wages of sin are not paid in our real lives.
FOXX The spirit of the character has to sit with you. At some point, middle of the night, during the day, whatever, he sits inside you and they turn the cameras on and he is there.
You played a man who was wrongly imprisoned. Did you draw on anything from your own life?
FOXX My father was an educator for 25 years in the hood. He dedicated his life to saving black kids in the hood and they ended up putting him in jail for $25 worth of illegal substance for seven years. That was a huge thing that I carried inside. I didn't share it with a lot of people.
Did shooting in a prison make you see your dad differently?
FOXX The moment when the cuffs were being put on me, they had a guy who was part of the prison system. "Yo, he's bigger, squeeze it tighter." That's his everyday life. There were a couple times when I was like, "Hey, man, they're tight enough." But I don't want to get used to that. So many people are used to seeing their father, their brother, their mother in jail. And the next thing you know, we start rapping about it.
LABEOUF I hadn't talked to my dad for seven years before I started this, so I didn't really know my dad too well, didn't have a relationship with him. [In acting, I grew up] transposing my pain from my father and it would work in front of a camera for a long time. I didn't have much more technique than that and then was scared to clean it up because I thought, "Well, I don't want to lose the only thing I've got," which was this pain that felt very real for me. I had a strange way of viewing my pain with my father and I used it at work.
Did you ever think of having someone else play him?
LABEOUF Definitely. I didn't think I'd be able to play him, because I was not in a spot where people were like, "Hey, let's put some money on this kid's back and have him carry a movie." I thought my acting career was done. I was going to join the Peace Corps. So I sent it to Mel Gibson and luckily he never emailed me back and it gave me an opportunity. I thought he was the guy to play my dad, and my dad was thinking along the same lines. And it's one thing to want to play your dad, it's another thing to go stand in front of your father after seven years of not talking and go, "Hey, man, I'm going to play you," when there's contention already. So I lied to him and told him, "Mel Gibson's going to play you. Sign right here." (Laughter.)
HANKS Who doesn't want to be played by Mel Gibson?
LABEOUF Yeah. So my dad signed the paper under the auspices that he was going to be played by Braveheart.
If you could go back to your younger selves, what piece of advice would you give?
DRIVER Be more economical. Things that I think I need, I don't.
DE NIRO I was saying something to my grandson the other day: Just be calm. When things are going well, be calm. Don't think you're on top of the world. I've seen people come, I've seen people go. You've got to be chill. You've got to take what's good in your life and move forward cautiously and carefully.
FOXX If I gave myself any advice, I would have gone left instead of right, then I probably wouldn't have ended up in this situation. I wanted to be married and work at Kodak — and all that sort of fell through. So, boom! I said, "I'm on my way and I'll figure it out." You've got to live it and then look back and say, "OK." Anything could have set [me] in a different direction and I wouldn't be sitting here, and I wouldn't change sitting here for the world.
HANKS I wish I had known that this too shall pass. You feel bad right now, you feel pissed off, you feel angry. This too shall pass.
SANDLER I should have stretched more. I have a very bad back.
HANKS I should have flossed.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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This story first appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.