“What You’ve Done Before Doesn’t Count”: The Actor Roundtable
Six leading men — Mahershala Ali, Chadwick Boseman, Timothee Chalamet, Richard E. Grant, Hugh Jackman and Viggo Mortensen — open up about the confidence to lose control, protecting their performances, who can play which roles now and industry changes.
It’s a great time to be an actor — that’s the belief of the stars gathered for THR‘s Actor Roundtable, who all agree that the wealth of content (and roles) in Hollywood now is unrivaled in their working lives. “I overheard one of the Teamsters saying there were 59 productions in New York — that’s a record,” says Hugh Jackman, 50. And at last, he adds, the work is not just for white males. “For women, for actors of color, it’s a whole new world from when I started. And storytelling is only going to get richer, more surprising, more vibrant.” Certainly the cinematic stories represented during this Nov. 17 conversation (edited here for length and clarity) are vibrant and varied — with Jackman as a real-life presidential candidate, former Sen. Gary Hart, in The Front Runner; Richard E. Grant, 61, as a gay Englishman who develops a bond with a con artist in Can You Ever Forgive Me?; Mahershala Ali, 44, and Viggo Mortensen, 60, as passenger and driver in the 1950s-set Green Book; Timothee Chalamet, 22, as an addict in Beautiful Boy; and Chadwick Boseman, 41, as heir to the fictional throne of Wakanda in Black Panther.
When you decided to become an actor, were you scared?
RICHARD E. GRANT My father thought I was completely insane. Because when I was 12 years old in 1969, Neil Armstrong had just landed on the moon and everybody wanted to be an astronaut. So saying that you wanted to be an actor was ludicrous. There was no precedent where I grew up [in Swaziland] of doing that. And my father was genuinely worried that I’d spend my life in tights and makeup and be destitute. All of which has come true. (Laughter.) It was a childhood passion, but people said: “How can you be an actor? You look too weird. You’ve got a face like a tombstone.” I said, “Well, Donald Sutherland has become an actor and he’s very tall and has a long face. So fuck it.”
CHADWICK BOSEMAN [For me] it wasn’t even a possibility. There was nobody — my brother actually was into the arts: He did musical theater, he danced, but other than him nobody around me saw that as a viable career. And even watching him, it’s not the same thing that I am doing. Because it’s not all the glitz and glamour people think it is. It’s really a blue-collar job. And you work overtime. You sweat. You get hurt. You are an athlete. You are everything that is necessary and you are pulling from things that most people don’t usually deal with. You are dealing with the intimate parts of your reality, political parts of your reality, social parts of your reality that most people don’t have to deal with on a day-to-day basis — race in a way people don’t have to deal with, gender in a way people don’t have to deal with. And you have to want to go through that struggle.
MAHERSHALA ALI That’s never really articulated. We really don’t talk about the workman-like qualities within [the business] and how you only actually act between “Action!” and “Cut!” — like 10 percent of the time. The rest of it is looking for material, prepping for it — the wardrobe, the costume elements, building the psychology and getting ready for the piece itself. Getting to act is such a minuscule part of the experience that you have to love it. That’s not to say it isn’t great, because holistically it’s an amazing experience, but there is a real tax within it — the time, the sacrifice your family has [to make].
Timothee, you’re newer to acting. What’s surprised you about the job?
TIMOTHEE CHALAMET A lot’s inspired me. I am not a very cynical guy to begin with, but I have been made less cynical. As a young actor, your first thought is: How can I be economically self-sufficient? The first time you get a check —
BOSEMAN That’s success right there.
CHALAMET People will be talking about the art, and you are like: “But wait a minute! I paid my bills. I am making a living.”
BOSEMAN No matter how well you are doing, you are still trying to find what is the next thing. And when this job is over you’re like, “Well, what’s the next one? What’s going to keep me going?” It’s that same faith you had to have when people said, “You’re going to be an actor?” And if you don’t have that from the beginning, you don’t necessarily have what it takes to do all the intricate moments.
HUGH JACKMAN I had a teacher, Lyle Jones, in my drama school, and on day one there were 18 of us in this three-year course and he said: “So all of you here know how to act. And all of you can be brilliant. And the next three years is about the other 90 percent of the time.” I didn’t quite take in what he was talking about. There are going to be days where something is happening in your private life or it’s just not jelling or it’s just six out of 10, it’s not great.
MORTENSEN That’s where you earn your money.
JACKMAN It’s not just the Super Bowl, it’s the regular season, it’s the 162 baseball games —
ALI It’s practice.
Does self-doubt get in your way?
GRANT Ohh! (Laughter.) A common denominator that I have noticed among actors is this thing of having low self-esteem on one hand and a large ego on the other. And my confidence is so index-linked to whether I am working or what I am working on. What you have done before doesn’t count. You are saying, “I want this job ahead of you guys,” but at the same time you think, “I don’t feel as worthy as those guys for the job.” That’s something that I am beset by.
JACKMAN I was on the phone with a man I met — Richard Marx, the singer — and I said something about being a perfectionist, and he goes, “Stop.” I said, “What?” He goes, “I used to say the same thing. I had my first No. 1 record when I was 19 and for the next 10 years I used to say, ‘[I’m] a bit of a perfectionist.’ And all of a sudden it dawned on me: What have I done that’s perfect? In 10 years, have I done anything that’s perfect?” He said: “Well, clearly, I am not a perfectionist. I am just insecure. And it’s just cooler to say ‘perfectionist’ than to say ‘I am a little insecure about what I am doing.’ ” And that’s not an excuse for shoddy work. But as soon as you take away [the idea] that there is a perfection —
VIGGO MORTENSEN Chaos is always there. We try to [impose] order: We dress, we brush our teeth, we stop at stop signs. But really our world is completely crazy all the time. But the idea is to take on a person’s point of view so that you can come as close as you can to feeling what it’s like to look at the world that way. And when you are doing that with someone else [an actor who isn’t good], it won’t work, no matter how sparkling the dialogue is. With Mahershala on Green Book, we told each other things about ourselves and our lives. We opened up and said, “Well, I am worried about this. I don’t know if I can do this.” You allow yourself to be vulnerable and if someone else does that in return, you are starting to get somewhere.
ALI We met about two years ago at a big luncheon with a bunch of amazing actors. And we found ourselves tucked in a corner and we spoke for a while. That set the tone for us sitting at a table with a script. We got to communicate some of our concerns and fears.
Timothee, were you afraid of playing a drug addict?
CHALAMET Addiction is the biggest killer in the United States right now, more than automobile crashes, more than gun violence. It’s not like the ’60s — drugs that maybe amplified your surroundings — now you have opiates. I can imagine you guys know people that have been seriously affected by addiction [but there’s still a sense of] moral failing around it. I felt a real responsibility, not in a fake way or a facetious way, to point some way forward.
Did you spend time with the real-life character and his father?
CHALAMET Yes. It was such a treacherous experience for that family. Now [Nic Sheff] is living moment to moment.
Hugh, did you meet Gary Hart?
JACKMAN I did. Gary is 82, he lives in Colorado and was generous enough to invite me up there to stay with him and his family. Everybody who has met him said he is hard to get a grip on: He is mercurial, he is enigmatic, he is hard to define, incredibly smart. So I arrive at Denver Airport and he was there curbside to pick me up. The trunk of the car was open and he was just waiting there on his own. And I walked down and I shook hands with him. I was a little nervous, right? He shook my hand. And his other hand he placed on my cheek. And for two or three seconds he just looked me in the eye, kind of to say, “This is going to be OK.” And I went back to his house. His wife had had hip surgery, and they were sleeping on the fold-out sofa, so I slept in his bedroom. He cleared some space and I was putting my jacket up in his closet and he was incredibly open and warm.
Did you ask him anything that you found difficult to bring up?
JACKMAN For those who don’t know about The Front Runner, it’s really the three weeks of his campaign when he went from being the guy who was going to be the next president probably to never going to be in politics again — the worst three weeks of his life. I knew it was going to be super painful. And I did ask him questions. But my main reason to visit him was, I wanted to be able to look him in the eye and let him know that I respected him and his story. That I took it seriously. I never asked [about his alleged affair with Donna Rice]. It felt like being with my father. Something about that generation, there are things you just don’t ask.
Have any of you had a performance changed in the editing?
BOSEMAN You write your poem and you sort of let it go in the wind; it belongs to everybody else. It doesn’t mean that you don’t tell the director, “Hey, I had a better take.” You have a journey that you have charted before you ever get to set. You know what the journey is. So if you don’t see it, you have to say something, I think. At the same time, the beauty of it is that hopefully you have chosen the right script, the right director, right producers, and they are going to make it work better. [Then] you just have to go to the next thing once it’s over. You said your piece, they listened or they didn’t. You have to use those failures, because that’s what they are.
MORTENSEN And then every time you meet ’em, you’re: “I told you!”
BOSEMAN Yeah — “You still owe me money.” A wise actor told me at one point, “You have to protect your performance” — meaning that when you come to set, you trust the people around you, but there are certain things that only you know. And if you don’t protect those things, you are going to be the one kicking yourself later.
GRANT Can I ask about chemistry? It seems almost like magic in a bottle when it does work and you do have a connection with somebody, and I am always riveted by how actors, if they don’t have that connection, then have to deal with each other.
MORTENSEN You see a love story and you know they hated each other, they didn’t speak between takes. And it happens, right?
GRANT You go in with the best intentions: “I am going to fall in love with this person.” You hope that it works out and that you are surprised and delighted by it.
MORTENSEN You can’t have beautiful moments or have something great happen unless you are willing to make big mistakes, either. You have to be willing to make an ass of yourself.
Who taught you about acting?
CHALAMET I went to a drama high school in New York, so there were a number of teachers there I could point to. Harry Shifman [taught me about] the importance of failure; I was bad so many times in front of him, you get used to it. Acting is a remarkable dedication to being present in the moment. You watch actors go in the “control” room sometimes and you are like, “Well, that’s not interesting to me as an audience member.” But when you’re like, “Whoa, that guy doesn’t know what he is doing right now, he is just living it,” that’s exciting.
Chadwick, what was the toughest thing about Black Panther?
BOSEMAN Searching for what my real culture is. As an African-American I have searched for that my entire life. But [I was playing] a person who didn’t have to search for it. Having that, I value it. There is a certain patriotism to something that has never been lost — it’s ancient. And being able to hold on to that throughout the movie, I was like, “Wow, the weight of that is something I have to convey to the world.” And I don’t know it, my parents don’t know it, my grandparents don’t know it. It was that thing. You could do that movie and it’s a parody of that idea. And that is insulting. It was constantly wanting to convey that to the audience and say, “No, we are not making fun of this. This is not Coming to America.” I was like, “We want to make a superhero movie. But that’s not the most important thing here. And the people will love the superhero movie if they get this other thing from it. And you have to have it first.”
Did making the movie change your thinking about America?
BOSEMAN The results of it did, even the way the studio responded: They put so much into it. I never thought I would see a studio say, “Yeah, we are going to put the money behind this movie with a mostly black cast.” It made me more idealistic about the world and about how things can go, and that that could happen in other places, other production companies, other studios, on other projects. That’s aspirational for not just myself but for other people, and not just in film but in other arenas. I don’t think that a film can necessarily solve the problems. Every person makes a seed grow. One person comes in and waters it. Another person tills the soil. But you know you are making an impact on the world. You know you are changing somebody’s mind and making someone think a little bit differently. At the same time, you know evil is always rampant. You know it’s always happening.
Several of your characters are based on real people. Is there a real-life person you’d like to go on a road trip with?
GRANT Melissa McCarthy.
JACKMAN Socrates, the wisest person that’s ever lived. And I’d love a few answers.
ALI Barack Obama. I would love to be comfortable enough to spend time with him.
CHALAMET To pick his brain about how he feels about everything right now.
MORTENSEN Somebody I have talked about in connecting to this movie is Zora Neale Hurston. She was kind of erased as a writer, an African-American woman writer who had a completely original voice; and the vanguard of African-American men, at the time, they felt threatened, I think. And they did as much as anybody else to —
ALI Suppress her work.
BOSEMAN I would want to do the Heavyweight Champion of the World Tour with Muhammad Ali.
Is there any character you wouldn’t want to play?
MORTENSEN There’s no character I wouldn’t play. But that doesn’t mean they are going to let me do it. People have this misconception — especially if you are doing very well and you are in a huge hit movie — “Well, now you can do whatever you want.” But saying yes is only possible if there is an offer.
In the current climate, would you play Othello?
MORTENSEN Oh. I think that would be insensitive.
GRANT Insane. No.
Would it be fair for you to play a transgender character?
MORTENSEN You know, even as a kid I didn’t like being told no. It stimulates me. When I was a little kid and I realized that animals die and therefore we do, I asked my mom, “Am I going to die?” And she’s like, “Yeah.” And I didn’t get scared; I got really annoyed. I was like, “Well, I’d better get cracking.” You know? That’s my motive when someone says, “No, you cannot.” Sometimes I speak before I think. And if you make the mistake of speaking out of turn it’s important to recognize it, and I think [the answer to] your question about Othello is: Yes, I could try, but why should I? No matter how well I played Othello, the overriding concern and interest and criticism would be, “Why is he playing Othello?” So why waste my energy? Aren’t there other characters I could play? So that’s maturing. That’s growing up. As a little kid I would be, “I am playing Othello!” all day long. Kids can do anything. And you have to preserve that as an actor. You have to keep the “I can do anything” on a given day. But sometimes you have to be an adult, too.
BOSEMAN It’s a matter of taste. But taste also dictates that you know what frame you are in and how the audience is going to see it. And if you understand that that’s part of what being a good actor is — understanding what is this movie I am in and what is the time period it’s being seen in? — you’re picking your projects based on those things too.
JACKMAN I went into acting because I was interested in trying to work out: What’s the meaning of life? What the hell am I doing here? You may not get the answer while you are filming. Sometimes you get the answer 10 years later when the film resonates in a way that it didn’t when it opened. Storytelling is about simply trying to understand the world we live in and putting it in some mythological form so that we can open our hearts to understand.
MORTENSEN Every role is different, but we all have certain habits that we develop, certain things that have been proven to work. The thing that I always do is, I ask myself this simple question: What happened before page one? And you could spend the rest of your life answering that.
This story also appears in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.