They shared their fears about showing vulnerability, their sense of responsibility when wielding guns on sets — and an improbable connection over a moody horse named Rain Man. In December, Nicolas Cage (Pig), Peter Dinklage (Cyrano), Andrew Garfield (Tick, Tick … Boom! and The Eyes of Tammy Faye), Jonathan Majors (The Harder They Fall) and Simon Rex (Red Rocket) gathered and bonded at THR‘s annual Actor Roundtable.
If you were teaching an acting class, what would be your first lesson?
ANDREW GARFIELD It would be something to do with freedom, something to do with humiliation, in the sense of allowing oneself to fail in front of a bunch of people that you don’t want to fail in front of. I say that maybe because that feels like it’s been my journey for the last 20 years. I think about myself as a 17-year-old trying to get it right. I think about myself as a 38-year-old trying to get it right. When I try to get it right, I get it kind of half-right, and when I allow myself to be a human being and follow impulses and get it wrong — you end up somewhere much more interesting and much more alive. So, for me, I think it would be about setting up a space, first of all, probably a container, a playground, where we can all be playful children and be foolish and support each other in that kind of dynamic. Hopefully, we can do that here as we talk as well.
JONATHAN MAJORS You just make that up right now?
GARFIELD Just now.
MAJORS That was wicked, bro.
PETER DINKLAGE What is the right way, you know? I remember being in acting class and a lot of people took the classes just because they thought it was perhaps easier than biology, and, therefore, they didn’t really prepare. I felt like the people who loved to do it were really eager and prepared, and we had a couple teachers who were really stricter than some in terms of preparation. “If you want to be here, be here, all in, 100 percent.” So that’s kind of key. Don’t be lazy, you know?
NICOLAS CAGE I would say there’s no real style of acting. It’s almost like a mixed martial art. It can be whatever you want it to be. You can combine, you can create your Jeet Kune Do with acting. Don’t get trapped in a style. Don’t get trapped in naturalism, and be open to your dreams. Your imagination is your most important tool, and there are ways to augment your imagination, healthy ways to augment your imagination, so that you’re not necessarily doing, you’re being. Dreams. Dreams are important.
SIMON REX One thing I learned in an acting class that a teacher said that stuck with me was kind of what you said, is dare to suck. A lot of people want to be famous, and I see people going down that road, and they maybe aren’t really in it for doing it because they love it. So make sure that they are doing it for the right reasons.
MAJORS I would just ask the young artist, “How are you doing?” We first have to be honest with ourselves before you step into a character. I think if we don’t make contact with ourselves, it’s very difficult to make contact with somebody else, and we miss that part a lot. Create a space in which they can give the proper response, and that proper response is the truthful response. You have to build confidence that you can fail, that you’re strongest when you’re vulnerable. The thing that makes you, quote-unquote, famous or original is speaking simply from that tiny, small, little voice that says you’re feeling this way today. To be able to say that in front of a group of people that you don’t know, that’s pretty much, I would say, 65 percent of the job. Yeah.
Vulnerability, as you say, is so much of what makes a good actor, but it’s also what we teach men not to be — men in particular. How were you able to find that vulnerability yourself?
CAGE The other night someone asked me a similar question about the male archetype. In the movie that I’m here for, Pig, there were a lot of men in the movie. “What were you trying to bring from the male standpoint?” I just said I didn’t see it in terms of a man. I just saw it as a person. It doesn’t matter … I think you could be this character. I could be, maybe, Bette Davis in All About Eve. The idea is to have it be genderless and have people relate to it one way or the other. So you don’t have that it’s man or woman. It’s just emotion.
I’d be totally here for you as Bette Davis in All About Eve.
CAGE I’ll tell you, I’ve been Bette Davis in All About Eve in my own life. It’s happened.
MAJORS Just holding your performance in my head, you’re in mourning. Is that fair to say?
MAJORS I don’t think mourning has a gender. Ambition has no gender. Love has no gender. Revenge has no gender. I mean, unfortunately, we all can grow beards and this and that, and we can be stuck in that masculine archetype, but …
DINKLAGE It’s all about the facial hair.
MAJORS Pretty much, and the shoulders, you know? I mean, Meryl Streep said in some interview her goal is that, essentially, a cis, white male can appreciate and connect to her portrayal of any character. I think that’s the objective as an artist. Back to that class, not to say, “OK, you’re an actor, you’re a guy, just do the guy stuff. You’re the girl, just do the girl stuff.” We hold multitudes.
DINKLAGE When you do a period piece, you’re made more aware of the gender roles. Cyrano takes place in the 1600s. It was written in the late 1800s by a man, so, obviously, the character, the female lead, she’s put on a pedestal, she’s put behind glass, like many of those characters were. But that’s not what [Edmond] Rostand’s intention was if you go back and you really read his text. You just completely go in there assuming the gender roles. But if you take that away, especially in our case, our adapter was a female writer [Erica Schmidt, also Dinklage’s wife], it’s really not there. It’s just left open and sort of genderless in a weird way.
REX Being raised as men in the West, we sort of aren’t allowed to be vulnerable. You sort of have this, I don’t know, walls up, at least I did. You weren’t allowed to show weakness. Speaking of vulnerability, all these roles that these guys did, and myself included, I think that’s what it was, being vulnerable as a man. I think that shows strength. That’s what’s interesting to watch. It took me a very long time to get to the point where I was able to let that go and show weakness or vulnerability. I mean, I guess they’re not the same thing, but …
GARFIELD Yeah. It’s interesting, framing it as weakness is how we’ve been kind of programmed against our own very natural impulses to be receptive as well as out there slaying dragons.
CAGE Charles Bronson grew up so poor that he actually had to wear his sister’s dress to elementary school. That’s how poor he was. They had no money. He had to go to school dressed in a girl’s clothes. You see the result of that in his stoic, strong Once Upon a Time in the West performance, which is what I think you’re talking about. It’s like he had to do everything he could to counterbalance that, which is sad, if you really think about it, that it was like that. It was that hard-core then.
What Simon was talking about, growing up in the West and what we were taught … even in many parts of Asia, in Japan or Korea, if you cry as a man, you’re looked … not everybody, but a lot of people think it’s weak … But I’ve seen some great movies out of Japan, like [Hirokazu] Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, and you see a great-looking, strong Japanese man crying in that movie. It’s like, “Whoa,” and it really gets you.
Jonathan, after you met with the director of The Harder They Fall, Jeymes Samuel, you sent him some poems, which, when you’re trying to get a role as a cowboy outlaw, seems a little bit surprising. Why did you do that?
MAJORS It was one of my first times I didn’t have to audition for the role, right? It was a different type of audition process, which I realized I hated. For me, the process of winning a role is me showing you, me representing my take on the character, and then, because of my personal shit, being picked for that, and I go, “Oh, great.” In this case, that was not the case. I felt that I needed to express to him my take on the character, and so I wrote two poems. One was essentially the rage of Nat Love, and then one was the loss of Nat Love. It was to show him me, in a way, to say, “This is what I’m going to do, given the opportunity,” which is actually a security blanket. It’s like, “Please, I need to show you what it’s going to be.” That way, I don’t go nuts and go crazy and not perform. I needed him to see me and show him that vulnerability. He happened to run with it, and it was all right.
GARFIELD That’s so cool, because it’s like, “I want to make sure that you know what you’re getting.” It’s like, “I want to make sure you know what you’re about to deal with here.” That’s self-empowering. That’s crazy mature and wild and kind of bold as hell.
DINKLAGE I’ve never heard the flip of that, people that enjoy the audition process for that reason, that you’ve proven something. Because most actors, myself included, that scares me away from the whole craft, the idea of auditioning.
CAGE It’s terrifying. It really is the worst.
DINKLAGE My wife is a theater director, and some people do great auditions, and they get there, and it’s like that’s all they had, because I think there’s nothing to build off of.
CAGE And how would they really know? In a casting office, how would they really know if something was great? If it was truly great, it would be unlike anything they’d seen before, it would be original, and that would probably terrify them. They’re not going to know greatness when they see it. They don’t know better than we know. They don’t. We know. We know what we can bring. We know what our instrument is. They either, very rarely, have that eye where they can go, “Oh, wow, I felt it,” or they’re by and large going to be terrified of it, which is what my experience was. Was that your experience? Has that been your experience? Do they look at you and they go, “I don’t know what you’re doing”? They’re looking at their nails.
GARFIELD Eating almonds.
REX Sometimes, the more you want it, the less it comes to you. I would overstudy for an audition. I’d want it so bad, and I’d go in there and nothing would happen, or I’d go in there disheveled and half hungover and book the job. So it’s one of those things where sometimes the more tight you hold on …
DINKLAGE Because you’re making it precious.
REX Can people feel that, that desperation?
DINKLAGE … It should be the opposite of making anything precious. That’s why there’s so much pressure put on young actors, because every moment they come in, they fix their hair, they put on their makeup, and their next take has to be really precious. No, you should just — [John] Cassavetes style, “Are you rolling? I don’t care if you’re rolling. This is happening, you film it. It’s happening.” I find a lot of people that I work with, if they’re over-prepared, they’re not listening to you. You’re like, “Are you in the scene with me because we’re just … can’t we just riff?”
CAGE With the risk of sounding like an arrogant you-know-what, I would say, you know what, you can’t be great unless you know you’re great, and you are precious, so be precious about it because what you have to offer them is precious. Whether they get it or not doesn’t matter. You’re precious. Go in and be great like you know you’re great because that’s what you are.
Three of you around this table are working with directors who were making their first feature — Nic with Michael Sarnoski, Jonathan with Jeymes Samuel and Andrew with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is an interesting leap of faith.
CAGE I had the luxury of them, Michael and Vanessa [Block], writing just a script that sung to me. I knew I had the life experience, the dreams, the imagination, to be able to be Rob without forcing it. We didn’t do more than one or two takes. But I sat down with Michael, and we had a quiet little conversation. I said, “I had a dream last night about my cat Merlin, and something horrible happened to my cat. I just know I can play this part because something horrible happens to this pig. But, by the way, did you try the shishito peppers? Aren’t they good?” Then we just started smiling at each other, and we were off to the races. It just flowed. You know.
How do you know when you’re going to click with a director?
DINKLAGE You don’t. You just jump off the cliff. We did a stage production of Cyrano that [Joe Wright] was inspired by to make a movie of. If he’s inspired by what we’re all inspired by, then that’s part of the journey, that there’s a trust there. But you don’t know going in, and that’s sort of scary every time, but it usually works out.
GARFIELD With Lin-Manuel Miranda, obviously, he’s a Pulitzer winner before the age of whatever. Motherfucker. So when he calls, you know that whatever he’s calling you about is going to be rich, textured, joyful, it’s going to be the whole human experience from the work that he’s attracted to. But Lin shares something as a first-time director with Redford and Scorsese and Fincher, who want everyone’s talent: The confidence of best idea wins. Until Lin-Manuel Miranda, I thought that only came with time, only came with a real settling into the self, a knowing of the self as a filmmaker, as a storyteller. The fact that Lin was like, “Yeah, I can direct a film. Yeah, let me give it a try.” He’s missing a couple of synapses.
MAJORS The fear part of it.
GARFIELD Sense of doubt. He’s like, “No, I think I can.” He was raised by parents that just didn’t traumatize him, I guess, so he’s just got this clear runway of not needing therapy and he’s just creating, just like a child still, like this incredibly precocious 6-year-old. Then that becomes infectious.
Simon, in your case, you get this phone call from Sean Baker just a few days before he wants you on the set of Red Rocket. Can you tell us what was going on in your life when you got that phone call?
GARFIELD Holy shit. Really?
REX Yeah. So this was an interesting way to get a job. I’d moved out to the desert right before the pandemic hit. It was July of 2020, and I think everybody was collectively in a very weird place, still kind of are. I get a call out of the blue from a mutual friend of Sean Baker, saying, “Can I give Sean Baker your phone number?” “Of course you can.” He calls me up and he said, “Hey, I need to have you audition right now. Can you send me just basically a cold read of this monologue?” So I did, and he said, “I need you in Texas in three days so we can start shooting.” I didn’t even have time to think. He said, “Do you trust me?” and I said, “Yeah, I do.” Off instinct, just from seeing his films, from seeing Florida Project, I trusted him. He said, “You’re not going to make any money. I’m not going to make any money. We’re going to make a cool little movie. Just get out here and let’s go. I know you don’t know me.” I went out there, and we’re sitting here now because I just trusted it. I remember him saying, “I don’t want to deal with your agent or manager. That’s going to slow down the process. I need you here right away.” So I didn’t tell my agent until the very last day of shooting. I called my agent on the last day and said, “I just wrapped a Sean Baker movie.” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” Credit to Sean for just rolling the dice on me because, quite frankly, the phone wasn’t ringing very much. He saw something in me, so he trusted me and I trusted him, and that’s a beautiful thing.
MAJORS That is what you want, though, right? You want directors to kind of set you loose, say, “OK, go.”
CAGE Werner Herzog used to say to me, “Now, Nicolas, let the pig loose.” That was before I made Pig. “Well, I’m not a pig. I’m more like a shark. What do you mean, I’m a pig?” “Let the pig loose. You know, the bliss of evil.”
MAJORS That sounds like something I would say to my horse. On The Harder They Fall, my horse’s name was Cinco, and if you wanted Cinco to go, you’d say, “All right, go ahead.” You’d say, “Go ahead,” and he’d take off.
CAGE Well, at least you had a nice horse. My horse on Butcher’s Crossing, named Rain Man, wanted to kill me.
MAJORS Rain Man? Where’d you shoot that?
CAGE Montana. I was in Blackfoot Country. Rain Man kept trying to knock me off and would try to run my head into roofs, and then I’d get off and try to be nice to him, and he would headbutt me. It was not fun. I’ve always had good experiences with animals. I always had great experiences with horses, but Rain Man wanted to kill me.
MAJORS Rain Man …
CAGE I’m so glad I got through that movie alive. The director’s name was Gabe [Polsky]. The last shot, it was just like, “Gabe, I’m not getting on a horse again.” Then one of the Native Americans said, “Oh, Nic’s just going to get off the horse. We’ll get on …” “OK, fine. I’ll do it.” So I got on the horse and literally, again, he kept trying to throw me off. I was like, “That’s it. That was my last shot, and you had to make it almost like a stunt. You did make it a stunt. You almost killed me on my last shot in the movie.” As you can tell, I’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder from Rain Man.
GARFIELD We can keep talking about Rain Man if you want.
CAGE I haven’t let go of it.
MAJORS Rain Man is in Montana with, I think, a man named Scotty.
CAGE Do you know Rain Man?
MAJORS I know Rain Man. I’ve ridden Rain Man.
GARFIELD Whoa. Whoa.
CAGE You’ve ridden Rain Man? So was he nice to you? Was Rain Man nice to you?
MAJORS I think he may have been a little older when I got him.
CAGE I just wrapped three weeks ago.
GARFIELD Isn’t it like horses can feel energy?
CAGE No, I’m good with animals. I mean, seriously, it was a clear decision on Rain Man’s part that he wanted to kill me. And they wouldn’t give me another horse. And then we were being chased by a herd of bison, and I’m on Rain Man, and I’m not sure he’s going to get me out of here. I don’t know. I’ll stop talking.
GARFIELD Please don’t. Please keep talking about Rain Man.
Peter, you’re singing in Cyrano. What was that like for you?
DINKLAGE Trying to sing.
REX Did you have to take lessons, or did you already know how to carry a note?
DINKLAGE I took some lessons.
CAGE Well, you have a beautiful voice. You don’t like your singing?
DINKLAGE It’s low. I don’t. Yeah. When you listen to people like Matt Berninger, who is the singer for The National, who wrote the lyrics for our film, and Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen and all the greats that have just everything, a bit of their soul in their voice, that’s what you try to do because you can’t do an imitation of another singer, which a lot of people who don’t usually sing do. I had to stop listening to The National for a few months so I wouldn’t do an imitation of Matt. Because no one ever will sound like Freddie Mercury, but we all want to sound like him when we’re singing along to him. So you just sing from your soul, whatever you have of it.
Andrew, was that your experience on Tick, Tick … Boom!?
DINKLAGE And then there’s real singers, who actually …
GARFIELD No, come on, I’m not.
DINKLAGE You know what? It’s cool, though, about that. We’re not opera singers. It’s just like you want that sort of difference in all the different voices, and we had that in Cyrano. You guys had that in your piece.
GARFIELD Yeah. But I’m not willing to cosign anything you just said about your own voice. I’m not going to enable this bullshit, Dinklage. It’s beautiful, dude. It is singing from your soul. That’s the fact.
DINKLAGE You’ve just got to jump off that cliff and do something you’ve never done before, and I was like, “Never done a musical since I was a kid, so I’ll try that.”
GARFIELD I found it to be another chamber of myself that I didn’t know was there, that I was probably scared to know existed. I had a great teacher, a great woman called Liz Caplan, who basically does what you do, what you just said, what you described. It’s not about imitate. It’s not about being a singer. It’s about just unveiling your voice, how your soul is expressed through your voice. She just kind of peels the onion. She’s just doing wacky, weird kind of woo-woo shit, just to get you in touch with you and increase your range. I had never sung before, and I had to increase my range a lot. As I was going up the scale, I would just sob in the middle of her workshop space. It was just me and her with her Beatles posters and her purple glasses, and she’d be like, “It’s good. This means that we’re doing the work.” I’m just fully sobbing because I’ve reached another octave or another note in my body, like there’s a part of my body that had been shut off. Because what she wants you to get to is ultimately that place of when you’re born and you’re just screaming. There’s no tension. Total freedom, letting the unconscious come through, letting the dreams come through, just being fully, wholly, completely in touch with the self.
REX Sounds like therapy.
GARFIELD This is all therapy to me.
REX I remember I went to an acting class in New York. I was a first-timer, it was some real serious Broadway theater actors, and I was the new guy. I had to pretend that my dad was dead in my arms, and I just couldn’t get the tears to come. I remember snapping on the teacher saying, “Is this acting or fucking therapy?” I remember the students said, “Bite your tongue.” It was like, “All right. This is like therapy.”
CAGE Well, yeah, for me, karaoke was like therapy until someone videotaped my punk-rock version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” and it went everywhere and I said, “I’m not going to karaoke anymore.”
GARFIELD Don’t steal the gift from the world. You need to keep giving.
CAGE Well, singing is therapy, I think. Absolutely. Karaoke’s supposed to be private. It’s like a prayer.
GARFIELD Nic is just using this platform to get out his gripes, I guess, the person who’s leaked the karaoke video …
MAJORS The horse.
GARFIELD Fucking Rain Man.
CAGE Rain Man was behind the leak.
GARFIELD But [Tick, Tick … Boom! playwright] Jonathan Larson, if you look at footage of him singing this one-man show, he wasn’t a great singer, but he was singing for his life. It was life and death. He was literally singing for the lives of everyone around him who were getting sick and, in a lot of cases, dying because of the AIDS epidemic. When you see him singing, he is singing to the back row of the galaxy, no matter if he’s in his apartment or if he’s in New York Theatre Workshop. So I knew I needed to get to the place where I felt confident enough. Whether I sounded good or not was kind of immaterial. It was more like I have to be able to act as if I’m going to reach the back row.
MAJORS It’s back to the masculinity question. So many things happen to young boys that cut us off from those parts of expression. I mean, I grew up in Texas. I’m a Black man from Dallas, Texas. My voice is supposed to be (in a low voice) way down here. I’m not supposed to sing. I’m not supposed to cry, all these things. This is probably too shiny (points to his shirt), you know what I mean, though I love it. We have the phrase, “We’re grappling to live.” Those are the characters we play. For me, that’s the gift of being an artist. You try to find the things that are uncomfortable in a role in order to grow personally. Otherwise, you just hang it up. Singing, to me, represents you’ve actually gone to a place where you can no longer say it. Shakespeare would say, “And they fight.” Words no longer do it. Something has transcended this place of conversation. It’s not enough. And now we’re here, and we’ve got to sing it. Sometimes, it’s rage. Sometimes, it’s heartache. Sometimes, you’re trying to indicate, in the case of Nat Love, trying to get married and understand, “I love you, don’t leave me,” all these things.
CAGE I think the industry is actually going to be fine. When some of my movies first started going to the, quote-unquote, video-on-demand or straight-to-video, what really happened was streaming started building. Through the pandemic, people were enjoying watching movies at home and revisiting movies and rewatching movies. It’s also given a life to movies where they’re going to be there forever. That part of it is good. But I don’t think the church that is the movie theater is gone. I really don’t. We love being in the cinema with other folks, and we love laughing at the screen and hearing other people in the audience talking, throwing our popcorn, or whatever it is. I think that’s still going to be there. Maybe the balance now will be more streaming and less out actually going to the cinema. But I think both are going to be intact.
DINKLAGE I would’ve given anything to live in this time when I was young watching movies. I could watch any movie I wanted. That’s incredible. But the thing is, I don’t think movies should be watched in installments, and that’s what everybody’s doing now. They’re pausing, going to have some dinner, come back into it the next day, picking up. You’ve got to go in … I know our days are busy, but it’s an hour and a half. Watch it as one thing, just from beginning to end.
MAJORS You say the church. I grew up in the church. Yeah, you can stream T.D. Jakes, but you want to be in the church. I think the person that can go to the theater and watch it is also the same cat that sits there [at home] and goes, “No, everybody be quiet. I’m going to watch this for an hour and 30 minutes.” I think we have changed. But I think it’s a necessary act to gather, to witness something together, to feel something together. This is catharsis.
REX I didn’t realize until it’s been taken away how much I missed sitting in a movie theater with a group of people and laughing together. You don’t realize until it’s gone how magic that is.
CAGE Nothing will ever compare to 1972 on 42nd Street in Manhattan watching Death Race 2000 and people going, “Yo, kung fu!” Just screaming at each other. I love that energy, you know?
People are talking about safety more in the industry now because of the tragedy that happened on Rust. There’s some discussion of whether there should be guns on sets at all. What do you think?
DINKLAGE That should never happen again. Anything we can do to move away from that, then we should. That’s our responsibility.
GARFIELD Yeah, it’s kind of a no-brainer. If it can be avoided, avoid it.
DINKLAGE Yeah, and it can be avoided because look at what you can do with movies. But that also calls into question, are there too many guns in movies? We’ve all held guns in movies, probably. I always think about that, being anti-gun myself, but the character isn’t. So it’s a very complicated thing. But that made it very clear that there has to be change now, 100 percent.
CAGE I don’t want to cast blame anywhere. But I do think, and I’m not talking about anybody, but people don’t like the word movie star. We want to be humble actors. But a movie star is a bit of a different kind of presentation because you need to know how to ride a horse. You need to know how to fight. You’re going to do fight scenes. You need to know how to ride a motorcycle. You need to know how to use a stick shift and drive sports cars, and you do need to know how to use a gun. You do. You need to take the time to know what the procedure is. Those are part of the job profiles.
Now, the stunt man and the movie star are two jobs that coexist. Every stunt man needs to be a movie star, and every movie star needs to be a stunt man. That’s just part of the profile, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
What’s a movie that you would love to make, but don’t think anyone would let you?
REX I’m just so excited because I feel like this movie’s going to propel me to take chances and do roles that I didn’t even know I could do. This is all so new for me to even be at the table with these guys.
CAGE This is a very embarrassing answer to your question, OK, because it involves family. So Uncle [Francis Ford Coppola] was doing Godfather III, and I said, “I really think I ought to be in your movie, Uncle. I really think it’s a good idea if you would cast me. I think I could play this part.” He was going to cast Andy Garcia, and I said, “But I just see myself more as James Caan’s son, and he’s playing Sonny’s son. He’s not playing Michael’s son. He’s Sonny’s son. I just feel a little more James Caan.” It just wasn’t going to happen. Nope, not going to happen. So that was a movie I didn’t get let in that I really wanted to be in. There.
MAJORS I left drama school six years ago. I watched these [Roundtable videos] from my dormitory. The projects I’ve done felt very, in my own way, avant-garde, in so far that to lead a sci-fi drama on HBO as a young Black man is not commonplace. It still isn’t commonplace. To do a Black Western is still not commonplace. I’m very grateful, but there’s only one of me. I’m looking forward to the time where I can be doing that and a young Latinx gentleman can be doing that, a trans actor can be doing this — just making more space so we all can coexist. That’s what I’m looking forward to. That’s the industry that I hope to be a part of and continue to talk and meet wonderful fellows like yourselves.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.