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In a year with an abundance of awards-worthy performances, The Hollywood Reporter’s Elizabeth Guider and Matthew Belloni gathered six top actors — Nicolas Cage (“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans”); Colin Firth (“A Single Man”); Morgan Freeman (“Invictus”); Peter Sarsgaard (“An Education”); Stanley Tucci (“Julie & Julia,” “The Lovely Bones”); and Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) — whose work has been lauded as among the year’s best.
The Hollywood Reporter: Why do you act?
Morgan Freeman: I’m not good at anything else. Certainly not golf.
Nicolas Cage: Because it’s necessary. It’s all I really know how to do. You can take a negative and turn it into a positive with acting. Anything you’re feeling, you can do something constructive and progressive with it, as opposed to destructive and negative. Like any art form, it’s necessary.
Freeman: You think it’s an art form?
Cage: Yes, I do.
Freeman: I don’t think that anything where you start off with something is an art form. If you start off with a blank page or a blank canvas or a blank slab or a blank stone, you’re going to create something. If someone brings it to you and says, “Can you enlarge upon it? —
Cage: Picasso said that art is a lie that tells the truth. So when I say “art form” I mean the word artificial. If you take the “ficial” part out you have “art.” You’re creating something that is artificial, which is the imagination of acting or painting or music, and hopefully in the lie you can get to the truth.
Peter Sarsgaard: I didn’t start acting until I was 19 or so. I was an athlete — a soccer player. And I got too many concussions. I was at school in St. Louis, and Shelley Winters and Ellen Burstyn were coming to teach an acting class. I wanted to meet them. And I also wanted to meet girls.
Stanley Tucci: I think it’s instinctual. You have a feeling at a certain age. Whether you want to be on stage, whether you want to paint, make music, whatever you want to do. What makes you feel comfortable? Even as a kid, I felt much more comfortable on stage than I did in real life.
Cage: One of the best ways to prevent crime is to have more drama courses and give them to young people who are right at that crossroads of making that split-second decision that might put them in prison for the rest of their lives. Have them express it in a play, something that might be worthwhile. That’s why I said it was necessary. If I didn’t have this outlet I probably would have turned to crime. And I didn’t.
Colin Firth: Starting out, people said to me, “Why don’t you get a proper job? What are you doing? You’re putting on a frock and mincing about on stage in front of the camera?”
Tucci: But you were doing that at home, too. (Laughs.)
Firth: True. So (acting) is irrelevant yet it’s critical. When people are at their most desperate, (they) will still draw on the creative process. Even if you don’t have food, that will still be there. Whether it’s an art or not — this is a discussion that I’ve actually had over the years — I don’t think it’s an exact science.
Cage: What is it with the word “art”?
Firth: It’s an evaluation people put on it. I’ve seen acting that is definitely not art. It’s subjective.
Tucci: Do you think it’s a craft?
Freeman: I think it’s a craft. I come at it from the point of view, like, I need a writer. Any writer. It can be books. How many of these (scripts) do we get that come from great books? But somebody else did it. I work within certain parameters set up by the writer. Cage: But what about your interpretation? Isn’t there certain music within you that compels you to speak the words a certain way? Freeman: Absolutely.
Cage: Is that not the art?
Freeman: Well, now, wait a minute. You’re gonna back me into a corner.
Cage: I’m not trying to be right or wrong. I’m trying to learn something.
Freeman: I am trying to be right or wrong! (Laughs.)
Cage: When I see a great violinist like Hilary Hahn and I listen to her play Bach, I know she’s an artist. She’s interpretive but she’s an artist.
Freeman: No argument with you on that.
Christoph Waltz: It’s the result that makes the art, not necessarily the process that leads to it. So when Hilary plays Bach, that’s the music (but) what you perceive is the art. Is she considering herself as an artist? I don’t think so. I think she just puts herself into the craft, into each individual note and ties them together in order to arrive at what the emotion might be. That’s one of the biggest problems with the actor. The piece of art — the person, the performance, everything that leads up to it — is so difficult to separate from each other.
Cage: Why do they call it performing arts? When (Hahn) plays, isn’t she channeling something in her imagination to hit the notes in such a way that makes it unique under her own interpretation?
Waltz: I wouldn’t contradict. All I’m saying is that the art is a result.
Tucci: The technique is the craft. You can take a plot and tell it over and over again but to me, there’s an individual truth to it. First of all, in order for it to be art it has to be truthful. Secondly, it has to be individually true. It’s that true individuality and that real truth that makes it art.
Cage: There are so many happy accidents that happen between the lines that are uniquely Morgan Freeman. I’ve seen him do things where I’m like, “Wow, where did that come from?” And I know where it came from, it came from the imagination, his own personal relationship with the cosmos. That, to me, is undeniable. I’m not going to denigrate acting and say it’s less or it’s not (art) because it is. You have those moments where your whole instrument is your mind and your body. We’re not hiding behind guitars. It’s us. I have to respect that.
THR: Is there a single moment that made you realize you were going to make this your life’s work?
Cage: James Dean in “East of Eden,” the scene where he’s trying to give Raymond Massey the money on his father’s birthday. I was 14, I was at the New Beverly Cinema, and I said, “Oh, no, that is exactly how I feel. Oh my God, I have to do this.” Nothing else ever affected me as strongly.
Firth: I did have a moment like that but it was combined with other things. One was that I was running out of options at school. What else can I do? Brain surgery wasn’t really working out. Rocket science. I’m only half joking. My family is full of doctors. I was about 14 and I said, “Well, this treadmill I’m waking up to face every day of stuff I’m not into — whether it was math class or chemistry or whatever — it does not have to be my destiny for the rest of my life.” Paul Scofield in “A Man for All Seasons” was around that time. I’d seen brilliant performances but I suddenly saw this paradox. How can I see integrity represented through a craft which is inherently fake? That was my young mind saying, “Well, you’re faking it, right? You’re not really Thomas More. It’s all someone else’s lines.” I was seeing something that looked more like truth than I had ever seen.
Freeman: My high school graduation picture says, “Actor.”
THR: Isn’t there also a personal toll that the job can take on an actor?
Cage: Usually it’s very cathartic. The hard stuff is when you’re not feeling great and you have to do a really happy scene.
Freeman: I don’t know about anyone else, but my kids didn’t have me. I was busy trying to be somebody. Now I have all these debts to pay.
Waltz: It’s frustrating. Even though I agree with all of you, I have a less romantic and idealistic approach to (acting). Over there (in Germany), the business is based on mediocrity. On a high level, admittedly, but mediocrity. You reach a certain level, beyond which you will not go. Not just in career but in challenges and opportunity. It’s interesting for the specific issue of how to cope with an actor’s life. To lead an actor’s life. What do you do if you have a stretch of five years where you only get mediocre offers and nothing to sink your teeth into? That’s where it is difficult. Becoming an actor is one thing. Being an actor is entirely different.
Firth: I remember a student writing an angry letter to my drama school saying, “You did not prepare us. You did everything to give us ideals, you did everything to train us. But you did nothing to prepare us for the grim realities of ordinary life or the struggle to prove yourself or the crap that you get to perform, unless you’re very, very lucky.” That is a horrendous frustration. Because that need to do it — you’re very lucky if anyone is going to facilitate that.
Cage: I don’t want to minimize the effort that goes into having a career, but now with the video age, let’s face it, you can write your own stories and you can make your own movies and get it out. Or go on stage somewhere in a small venue off-off-off-Broadway.
Sarsgaard: I did that with my wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and a friend of mine, who said, “How about over Fourth of July weekend we shoot a short film at my house in upstate New York?” So we sat down and wrote it and did it. But the thing about it that was missing is there are the stakes of the moment. Act 1. Scene 1. Go. Even with a director who does a lot of takes, there are all these pressures as an actor that I found out that I needed. The pressure, the structure, had disappeared (shooting the short film), and I suddenly had to become a lot better actor. And I wasn’t. Just popping out a camera, it somehow missed it for me.
Cage: I would like to be invited to your house when you do that, it sounds like a blast. You guys sound great together.
Sarsgaard: We had a great time, I’m just not sure the quality was there.
Freeman: Isn’t there a big, 800-pound gorilla missing here? Money, money, money. You work all your life so you don’t have to wash dishes or sweep floors or pump gas, and still pay the rent. That’s very germane to what you call a career.
Cage: I’m very impressed with this “Paranormal Activity.” This guy made it for $10,000 and look what he’s achieved. It takes a lot of motivation to do what I’m talking about and what Peter’s talking about and making it all come together.
Sarsgaard: You need a serious director who’s capable of creating an environment of acting, because chaos reigns in the normal world when you’re just pointing cameras. No one focuses. You’ve gotta have somebody who’s really focused.
THR: What’s the best way to handle a major disagreement with a director?
Freeman: You just say, “I’m not doing that.”
Sarsgaard: I think an e-mail is a bad idea. (Laughs.)
Tucci: With certain directors you can scream. “Look, forget it, it’s not gonna happen. It doesn’t behoove the situation, it doesn’t behoove your film. I’m not doing it.” And other times, it’s simply a discussion. “Let’s do one this way, let’s do one that way.”
Cage: So many directors are so arrogant. For example, Klaus Kinski — who Werner Herzog has a legacy with — he was very frustrated with the arrogance. We always hear Werner’s side of the story about “Klaus was this and Klaus was that” but you never get to hear Klaus’ side of the story. I was doing a scene (on “Bad Lieutenant”) — it was in my second day of shooting — and we all know the imagination and preparation (required) to think I was on cocaine (for the character). There was a little bottle of baby powder, and I’m snorting that. I’m psyching up, I’m psyching up, and he comes up and says (in German accent), “Now Nicolas, what is in that vial?” And I was like, “Are you kidding me? After four hours of this you’re gonna actually ask me that? Take me out of my preparation? You would think the director would understand the actor’s process and give us the space and the room to do what it is we need to do.
Tucci: Some people need conflict to create. Some people create tension. (Herzog) is a brilliant director but sometimes they think they can get more (out of an actor). In fact, I’ve always believed the opposite. You’re gonna get less. You’re gonna get a mess.
Freeman: I don’t like tension on a set — at all, of any kind.
Cage: I don’t need anyone to provoke me into a performance. Today (in an interview) someone said, “We understand Werner said he got you out of your comfort zone.” I was like, “What? My comfort zone? What exactly does that mean?”
Sarsgaard: You’ve acted with my wife. She told me you have no comfort zone. (Laughs.)
Firth: You don’t want someone provoking you. Let me handle that. Also, it’s a collaboration. What you need to psych yourself up for a take isn’t necessarily going to help everyone else. The best directors are the people who make it conducive for everyone’s imagination.
Cage: Morgan, do you really have directors getting in your way?
Freeman: The most notorious are writer-directors. They think they know all the parts and exactly how they want it played.
Cage: That is real arrogance because if you walk on set I would think everyone would say, “Let Morgan Freeman do whatever he feels he needs to do.”
Sarsgaard: I was acting with one of the best actresses I’ve ever acted with and the director kept stopping her and having her do it again. Somebody I really admire. For a minute I couldn’t believe she was doing it and then I saw her realize, “Why am I doing this?” and she stopped and went, “No, no, no, I’m sorry,” and walked away. It doesn’t happen that often but when it does, it takes a minute to say, “Wait, that thing is happening to me. Somebody has their hand up my ass.”
Tucci: What was that great Marlon Brando quote? “Just because they say ‘action’ doesn’t mean you have to do anything.”
Freeman: I’m a firm believer in that. I’ve had these writer-directors look at the lit
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