Six of the season's top stars — also including John Boyega, Gary Oldman, Sam Rockwell and Willem Dafoe — sound off on everything from dealing with nerves ("I've worked with people who vomit every night") to fending off aggressive suitors ("There are predators absolutely everywhere").
Actors are used to pretending they're other people. But what if they were able to switch lives, or at least jobs? "[I'd do] some brand of daily journalism, like a column," says Tom Hanks, 61, who plays legendary newspaper editor Ben Bradlee in The Post. "Goings-on about town, that kind of thing. I'd like that."
James Franco (The Disaster Artist), 39, also likes writing, which he has done in numerous forms. John Boyega (Detroit), 25, opts for architecture; Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project), 62, for being a cook or a farmer; Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), 59, for continuing his offscreen passion: "My hobby is 19th century wet-plate photography. I could do that until the end of time." But Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), 49, says he has no other options, except "pumping gas. I got no plan B. I don't have any skills, man."
Luckily for him and all the actors gathered Nov. 11 at THR's annual Actor Roundtable, there's no need to update their résumés.
What has surprised you most about being an actor?
WILLEM DAFOE It's never the same job because there are so many moving parts. One of the first things you have to do is figure out where to start; it's different every time. It's not like you can figure out a way to approach things and then use that as a template. The target is always moving. And that's the beauty of it.
How do you figure it out?
DAFOE I like not knowing. And if you've done it enough, it's nice to get comfortable with fear. You get in that place of not knowing; you've been there before, and it gives you courage that you don't normally have in life.
Has fear ever overwhelmed you?
GARY OLDMAN Yes. Just before [the 2011 movie] Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. And I'm not really sure what happened. Two or three weeks before we started, I froze and had bone-crushing stage fright. I had never experienced it before, and I didn't know what was going on, whether it was anxiety or a panic attack or …
SAM ROCKWELL You hadn't done a lead in a while, right? Was that part of it?
OLDMAN Perhaps. But it really —
DAFOE — was the ghost of Alec Guinness [who'd played the character George Smiley before].
JAMES FRANCO Gary, were you always that way?
OLDMAN No, I'm glad to say. I have worked with people in the theater who vomit every night and —
ROCKWELL I heard Pacino did that with [the 1981 play] American Buffalo, had pea soup just so he could have something to vomit.
OLDMAN Of course, we all [have nerves] at a first preview or a first night. But I was always a relatively relaxed performer. I looked forward to going out there and wasn't that sort of person who was terrified in the wings. And I would look at these [nervous actors] and think, "Oh, lord, if I had to do that every night, I don't know how I would carry on."
FRANCO It sounds like it was the pressure of the role.
OLDMAN I think also that it was trying to slay the dragon. For many people, Guinness was the face of Smiley. But I've spoken with other actors: Ken Branagh said he was on a set and [stage fright] started to come upon him. I realized I was not alone. It was like an AA meeting or something. "My name is Colin Firth and I have experienced it."
How did you get over that?
OLDMAN A doctor prescribed me something just to calm me down. And you know what? I walked onto the set and went, "Oh, I know where I am."
DAFOE To overcome this fear, you need to hang on to something, and sometimes it can be as simple as a costume. I always go back to [1990's] Wild at Heart. I had these teeth, they were everything. I put those teeth in my mouth, and it kept me from closing my mouth. I always had this expression and I felt like I knew who the guy was.
TOM HANKS In The Post, I was competing with Jason Robards because he played Ben Bradlee [and won an Oscar for the 1976 movie All the President's Men]. He owns that role. And I was actually given permission to forget about it by Bradlee himself. I watched all the video I could of him, and he gave quite a number of interviews and talked about (in Bradlee's voice), "Well, ya know, they made that movie, and every day someone comes up and says, 'Well, ya don't look like Jason Robards!'" There's been a lot of Hamlets, a lot of Richard IIIs, and I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot of Ben Bradlees.
Have you had a particularly tough moment as an actor, John?
JOHN BOYEGA On [2017's] The Circle.
BOYEGA My second to last day, I had a big speech that basically put the whole movie in context for the audience, and I just froze up. I froze up and I forgot the whole thing. I was there with Emma Watson, who was amazing about it. And I found myself in an Acting 101 class, with Emma trying to say, "Just remember the lines. What are your motivations?" And I just couldn't get it. It was embarrassing.
ROCKWELL How did you get through it?
BOYEGA They had to shoot it chunk by chunk. And I had to re-evaluate this whole thing when I got back into my private time and understand what the issue was. The issue was a fear of schedule.
HANKS Oh, yeah. That pressure.
BOYEGA This is my first year in which I've worked on projects back-to-back. I have never had that opportunity before. One of the hardest things I've picked up is, now I'm viewing my life in chunks. "Oh, I'm filming Star Wars in 2017, and I've got another thing in 2020 —"
HANKS It's adorable when the kids experience this, isn't it? (Laughter.)
BOYEGA It's weird that I never experienced it before because how I grew up was a day-by-day situation: class every day, church on a particular day. But now it's, "Well, you've got this schedule that is six, seven months down the line and you're viewing your life in chunks," and sometimes you forget to rest your mind. You overwork. I mean, you know that you've got time to prepare, but I'm a young man, I try to do the testosterone thing and just juggle and have it all going at the same time. And then I understood my limits.
ROCKWELL James, you do a little juggling, right?
FRANCO Not anymore. I stopped. When you juggle long enough, you drop some balls.
DAFOE It's OK. You can drop some balls when you've got so many in the air, man.
FRANCO It's more like I was holding on to work because it was where I felt the most safe. Subconsciously, it was, "That's where I feel the most comfortable," and then realizing after a while it's diminishing returns [and] that doing so many things was not comforting me anymore. I realized [doing] fewer things with more attention — that will give me exactly what I was seeking by doing so many things.
OLDMAN I go in and out of love. I lose my love for acting because you get there, you're supposed to have a relationship with a person whom you've only met the day before, you don't really rehearse, and [they] go, "You want to do a take? That was good. You want one more?" It's amazing anything is any good. And I just get so sad working like that.
BOYEGA So where do you find the passion for it again?
OLDMAN A Tinker Tailor comes in, an opportunity to work with the late Tony Scott, and you get inspired and you remember why you were able to do it.
Were you ever intimidated working with anyone? Meryl Streep?
HANKS I don't feel like we're really making the movie until about three days in because everybody [is to] some degree a fan [of everyone else on the film], until you get to that place where you're just in the slog of things. But I will tell you, the legends, the heroes whom you get to work with, they all do it the same exact way. They want to run the lines, they try it a million different ways, they start, they stop, they feel confident, they don't. That was a liberating process to witness.
John, you shot a scene in Star Wars with Prince William and Prince Harry. Was that intimidating?
BOYEGA Yeah — and Tom Hardy. But it wasn't intimidating, it was fun. I thought, like, "Of course, it's Star Wars, they're going to bring the royal family." (Laughter.) It felt fun. They were in Stormtrooper costumes.
HANKS When you make the Star Wars movies, is it hard not to go — (makes sound of a blaster) — when you're firing the thing by yourself? (Laughter.)
BOYEGA Doin' it all the damn time, Tom, all the time. You're a child, there is a new planet every day and a new scene to play. It just makes you feel as if you're a part of history and a part of something that you grew up knowing, but now it's your reality. It's strange on a day-to-day basis.
Is it different when you're in a real-life story like Detroit?
BOYEGA It's definitely different. It puts you in a position of responsibility. The world is tainted right now, and this story [about a 1967 riot in Detroit] has much more of a serious tone, whereas on Star Wars everyone's having a lighter time because it's like, "Oh! It's Chewbacca getting his hair brushed."
What do you mean, "the world is tainted right now"?
BOYEGA I mean Detroit is a reflection, even though it's set 50 years ago, of what's going on now in terms of race relations. The lines are blurred in terms of how far we've come.
Do you ever feel you're not doing something meaningful enough?
ROCKWELL Oh! I just want to entertain and make people laugh.
BOYEGA Sam just wanna get that check. (Laughter.)
DAFOE When I started performing, [my dream was] really just to make things and be near people who excited me. I started out in an unconventional theater in New York and was with that theater for 27 years, and we were pretty much reviled for many years. So I always felt like an outsider in the sense that we weren't in the traditional theater scene. But that was a time in New York — we're talking about the mid-'70s — painters were making music, dancers were making films, it was all mixed up. And there was also a kind of subculture that wasn't careerist; they were just doing things for now, and that was beautiful training for me.
Have you ever said no because you just couldn't bear the character?
ROCKWELL The pedophile thing is something I can't mess with. I did that once [playing death row inmate Wild Bill in the 1999 movie The Green Mile] …
OLDMAN I've played some scary people [but also] Churchill, arguably the greatest Briton that ever lived. I came away with enormous admiration for him. He is incomparable to any figure — Lincoln, possibly. But do [people] really know who he is? Or are they remembering Albert Finney as Churchill or Robert Hardy as Churchill? I think I was somewhat contaminated by those other performances.
ROCKWELL How did you uncorrupt yourself?
OLDMAN I went to the footage, the news, apart from the mountain of reading — you'd have to have a second life just to read all the material on him. But I went to the footage, and I saw a man who was energized and had vitality. He looked like a baby, he had a cherubic face, a sort of naughty schoolboy grin with a sparkle in his eye. He was marching ahead of everyone. And it was like moving through space with the fixity of purpose and energy.
Tom, is there anybody you would like to play that you haven't?
HANKS I must say, I don't operate that way. I'm not saying that something wouldn't come across the desk and I'd say, "Oh, my lord, I've never even imagined this." But no. What we do is very instinctive. We have to have some — what do they call it, a coup de foudre? A lightning bolt has to hit you and then suddenly you can't get it out of your head. There are themes, though, that I would love to be able to examine. I made [2000's] Cast Away because I wanted to examine the concept of four years of hopelessness, in which you have none of the requirements for living — food, water, shelter, fire and company. But it took us six years to put together the alliance that would actually examine that. I only had a third of it, and [screenwriter] Bill Broyles only had a third of it, until [director] Bob Zemeckis comes along and provided that other third. I had that original idea. I was reading an article about FedEx, and I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day. And I just thought, "What happens if that goes down?"
FRANCO Whose third was the volleyball in?
HANKS That was Broyles.
FRANCO Because I did [2010's] 127 Hours, [about] another guy isolated, [and the story didn't work until] they figured out, "Oh, he has the video camera and he can externalize the thoughts." The volleyball, that's what you need.
HANKS Bill had me paint a face on it to give myself company. And Bob said, "No, it's got to come out of your own blood." So he made it an accident out of a bloody hand.
OLDMAN That's how Wilson was born.
HANKS That's how Wilson was born, yeah.
ROCKWELL You lost a lot of weight quickly for that. I remember in Green Mile you were heavy and then you had to lose it quick.
HANKS I had a whole year. We shot the fat half of the movie, and then we took a year off. I grew a beard as long as Interstate 10 and lost every pound I could. I don't recommend it. It's no way to live.
ROCKWELL (To Oldman) Didn't Christian Bale call you about the [Churchill] fat suit?
OLDMAN Yeah. Christian is [playing Dick] Cheney [in the upcoming Backseat] and he called me about the jowls because he said, "Man, that makeup is good."
ROCKWELL Didn't he ask you if you'd gained weight or anything?
OLDMAN I'm nearly 60, I didn't want to put on 50 or 60 pounds to mess with my health like that.
BOYEGA Was it prosthetics?
OLDMAN I had two people working on me at the same time. And by the time I was ready and dressed, the crew arrived and the other actors would rehearse and I came to the set as Churchill. So Joe Wright, the director, didn't see Gary for three months.
Tom, you said you're drawn to certain themes. One theme hasn't been explored in film for a while: sexual harassment. Have all the allegations about sexual predators in Hollywood surprised you?
HANKS No, no, no. Because, look, there's a lot of reasons people do this for a living. Making a movie is a life experience that can create an awful lot of joy. You can meet the person you fall in love with, you can laugh your heads off. That's the good stuff. The bad stuff can happen on a movie as well. There are some people who go into this business because they get off on having power. And the times they feel the most powerful, which is why they went into the business, are when they are hitting on somebody who's underneath them, [and] I don't necessarily mean completely sexually. There are predators absolutely everywhere.
Have you ever seen anything like that happen and taken action?
HANKS How do I put this? We produced a project in which someone said, "There is an element of harassment that's going on here." And as soon as we heard, you've got to jump right in. You talk to every one of the guilds and find out what happened and you go there immediately. The difference is, there's stuff that happens on a set that can be really inappropriate, and there can be that type of predatory aspect on a set because you think, "Well, we're in the circus and we're on the road, so therefore the rules don't really apply." The other aspect is, "Come try to get this job from me. You want me to give you a job? Come prove to me that you want this job." That's a sin and that's against the law and that is a degree of harassment and predatory behavior that goes against an assumed code of ethics. I think eventually everybody who has a production office is going to have a code of ethics and behavior. If you don't follow these, you will not work here. And that's not necessarily going to be a bad thing. Somebody said, "Is it too late to change things?" No, it's never too late. It's never too late to learn new behaviors. And that's a responsibility of anybody who wants to obey a code of professional ethics.
If you could put one movie, one performance representative of the best of acting in a time capsule, what would it be?
ROCKWELL [The 1978 movie] The Deer Hunter. It had a huge impact on me when I was a kid. I saw it with my father, and my father looked like De Niro in that; he had a beard and a mole.
HANKS Robert Duvall [as] Tom Hagen in [1972's] The Godfather.
FRANCO De Niro in [1973's] Mean Streets, [1976's] Taxi Driver and [1980's] Raging Bull.
DAFOE [The 1931 movie] Frankenstein. Boris Karloff.
OLDMAN George C. Scott in anything.
BOYEGA I went to the University of Greenwich in London, and one day, in lectures, we heard a massive explosion downstairs, and all the students left the lectures and went downstairs. And as soon as I got there, there was a set, and there was Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow on top of two carriages, filming a cool stunt scene. And I stayed there for half of the day, just watching him. I just watched him because I had never been that close to a set. And I always think back to how I felt, because all there was was raw passion to [act].
This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.