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This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A clear cultural split was evident at this year’s Hollywood Reporter actor roundtable, with three Americans and three Englishmen grouped around the table (plus an English moderator). Even as some of the Americans marveled at the Brits’ training (“Our whole culture is worshipping actors who come from this theater background,” said Ethan Hawke), the Brits envied the opportunities enjoyed by their U.S. friends (“Most people, if they were given a part in a Hollywood movie, would jump at it,” said Timothy Spall). Accents, training and education apart, the six award contenders — Benedict Cumberbatch, 38 (The Imitation Game); Hawke, 44 (Boyhood); Michael Keaton, 63 (Birdman); Eddie Redmayne, 32 (The Theory of Everything); Spall, 57 (Mr. Turner); and Channing Tatum, 34 (Foxcatcher) — found a surprising amount in common.
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Benedict played him in 2004’s Hawking. Did you see that before you played him?
REDMAYNE I had to make a quite hard-core decision about whether to watch it. Ben is an old friend and I’d heard it was extraordinary. And I thought long and hard about it and decided not to — purely because I thought I’d try and steal his best bits.
HAWKE It’s interesting that you both played this part.
CUMBERBATCH It’s amazing. There’s a lot for us to talk about. I remember being fascinated by the idea of having to face up to something which, in most cases, is a two- to three-year life sentence [Hawking suffers from ALS]. You know you’re locked into a body that’s quickly degenerating.
If you had two or three years to live, what would you do differently?
TATUM Oh, man.
KEATON Hang out with Jonah Hill less. (Laughs.)
TATUM Or a lot more. I probably wouldn’t be trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. I don’t know — just try to live with the people that I love as much as I can.
Would you work less?
TATUM Probably not at all. I love what I get to do. But I think I throw myself into [movies] so far that I don’t get to experience the rest of the world.
KEATON I wouldn’t even think about doing a movie.
You certainly at one point turned your back on Hollywood to a degree and moved to Montana.
KEATON Not really. I never turned my back on it, really. I just went through a phase of getting tired of hearing myself do the same old thing. I’d hear the same rhythms and tricks. And frankly, it’s not like someone was knocking on my door with a tremendous amount of quality work — [though] if they had, I’m not sure I would have been particularly interested.
Channing, you initially turned down Foxcatcher. Was it because you didn’t identify with the character?
TATUM I wouldn’t really say that I turned it down. The movie wasn’t clear to me. But you’re right, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know what the movie was saying, [but] this was after I’d done, like, my second film, and I just had no idea what I was doing as an actor or as a storyteller or anything.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
CUMBERBATCH Wow, you’re not holding back.
TIMOTHY SPALL I think one of the biggest mistakes you could make is, you think that you know enough — because you can’t, otherwise you’d stop and you’d just keep repeating yourself.
HAWKE It’s funny. I did a movie, I was about 29 years old. And I was feeling really confident at the time. And I remember being very frustrated with the director because I felt that he was an idiot and he was really holding me back from doing the work that I wanted to do. I felt this real need to tell everybody that I knew more than they did, you know? And when I think back on it now, I feel so embarrassed. There was a moment, and then a couple of years pass, you turn 30. All of a sudden, I saw hallways of things I didn’t know. And the older I get, the more I would never be frustrated with a director like that. There’s a great Brando quote: “You have to meet every director as your kind of spiritual spouse.” You just have to marry them to make the movie they want to make. If you watch Last Tango in Paris, that is an actor completely committed to that story — and he’s inside a very dangerous film, a film that deals with erotica. Human sexuality is something nobody wants to talk about on a real, adult level: mourning, death, fear of death, fear of getting old, sex. I mean, you’re talking about Turing and being gay, and I can’t help but think 20 years ago how radical it was for an actor to play a gay person. When River Phoenix was in My Own Private Idaho, this was about a young kid who wants to be gay. It was radical that he was doing that.
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Today, is there any threshold that you can’t cross?
SPALL Pedophilia, probably.
Could you make The Last Temptation of Christ today and get away with it?
HAWKE Martin Scorsese could. It was dangerous at that time. He would have trouble now.
KEATON The Farrelly brothers might have a hard time.
Who taught you the most?
CUMBERBATCH My first-ever teacher taught me extraordinary truth by literally line-reading Shakespeare at me, so I can read it like prose. My modern drama teacher opened the doors of American theater to me and the wonders of Mamet and Miller and Tennessee Williams; the whole raft of it. And then, beyond that, you get incredible nuggets of wisdom — about being present, about grounding a truth from within. I grew up doing a lot of stuff at school. I went from playing Titania, queen of the fairies, [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream] and Rosalind in As You Like It to playing Willy Loman [in Death of a Salesman] at age 17. So I had this huge kind of showing-off period.
REDMAYNE But that’s the thing that drama schools and even schools did in England: You’re playing old people, women, from an early age and you’re pushing the boundaries, particularly in [repertory theater], when you were playing characters that sometimes weren’t your casting type.
What’s the most difficult character you’ve played?
REDMAYNE My first professional play, playing Viola in Twelfth Night opposite Mark Rylance. Having had that experience, being able to play people so far from who you are, gives you a sense of where you can go. That’s the other thing: The [British] films that make it over here are often to do with heritage and legacy and history.
SPALL That’s very true, but Hollywood is a broad church. Never, never underestimate how much the British yearn to work in Hollywood. It’s not like, “Oh, darling, we just do it ’cause we’re slumming.” That’s a load of balls because most people, if they were given a play or a part in a Hollywood movie, would jump at it and they’d say, “You can stick Polonius straight up your arse.”
HAWKE Our system isn’t built to teach young people the craft. You know, Julia Roberts came to New York to do a play and of course the critics are gunning for her — and of course she has no experience. It’s a difficult thing to excel [at], and yet we know there’s a lot to be learned from it because our whole culture is worshipping actors who come from this theater background.
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Channing, what was the biggest challenge for you in Foxcatcher?
HAWKE Kicking ass. Beating up Mark Ruffalo.
TATUM Getting my head kicked in every day by Bennett [Miller].
HAWKE Did you really make Mark’s nose bleed? I wondered in that scene, it looked like you really popped him in the head.
TATUM I had never done anything like this before and I had no idea how to approach it other than just to talk to Mark Schultz [the real-life wrestler I play]. He’s a very interesting person — he’s so factual, he knows what move so-and-so did in the ’84 Olympics, and he just reels off all these things. And you’re trying to sort through them all. I just started to get rid of all the data that he was telling me about his life, and I just clicked into [what he said:] “I never wanted to win. I just didn’t want to lose.”
HAWKE But what is the difference between not losing and winning? What does that mean?
TATUM For him? It was fear of not being the person that he saw himself as, I think. Dave, his older brother, was this shining example of something he knew he could never be. He was never going to be this charismatic individual that everyone flocked to. So he decided to go the other way, and he wanted everyone to be afraid of him. He didn’t want anyone to get close to him. And I think that’s a really lonely walk to choose.
CUMBERBATCH Did he have script approval? Did he look at the script at all? And did you feel, “I need something from you, but you might not get anything back except something that’s going to upset you.”
TATUM That was my fear. Because I knew all these things he was telling me he wanted weren’t in the script — you know, the retribution of people that he felt wronged him. I was terribly afraid that he wouldn’t —
CUMBERBATCH What was the seduction of getting him to open up?
TATUM It wasn’t. He was completely free and open with me, as far as I could tell. Within the first seven seconds of talking, he was welling up with tears. He’s a very emotional person, and I think all of it was pretty overwhelming for us both.
KEATON It’s not surprising that he remembered every move. Athletes, they’re not like the rest of us. It’s a different type of mentality. Baseball players, they’ll remember the pitch, what the wind was doing, they’ll remember everything. And there’s something in particular about wrestlers. I come from a large family, and one of my brothers was a wrestler. He’s like us and he’s totally unlike us. This intense determination.
TATUM Wrestling is very similar in a metaphorical way to acting: You’re wrestling; you’re literally in a fight with [a role]. Because in wrestling you’re not just fighting someone else, you’re fighting what’s going on with you. You’re in a suffocating situation, and there’s no resting. You can’t take a minute; you’re constantly in this uncomfortable state of being attacked. You’re dealing with a lot of emotions, a lot of fear — not that I see acting as exactly that, but there are some parallels.
Fear of what?
TATUM Fear of doing it honestly, of giving everything you could have given to it. And not walking away and being like, “God, I didn’t do the work for that one.”
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Is it harder when you’re a star? The media picks on every single thing you do.
TATUM They pick on us all. And I’m talking about “us all” meaning pedestrians. Everyone gets picked on. I don’t think it’s just because we’re up on a screen.
Do you like being a star?
TATUM I don’t really look at it that way. I’ve been afforded a lot of opportunity in this world and I’ve tried to walk through every door that I’ve been given, and some of them have been great on the other side and other ones haven’t.
Which doors weren’t great?
TATUM The pressure of what school is projected as, when you’re growing up — that going to college is the answer, and to me it wasn’t. I went and I didn’t get it. And I failed at it miserably. And I felt like a failure for it. And so I went and tried to find another door.
KEATON That’s not a failure at all. To me, that’s a victory. He said, “I’m going to do what’s me.”
Benedict, I’ve always felt you resist fame to some degree.
CUMBERBATCH There’s so many strands of it, aren’t there? If you mean being scrutinized in your public life, which isn’t your work; if you mean requirements of your time which distract your focus and your energy from what actually brought you to that point where you’re being distracted, that’s a complete Catch-22: The more work you do, the more attention there is. You try to escape by dissolving into work, and it keeps catching up with you every time you stop because it’s part of the process of work now, to publicize it. But I feel it’s just [about] getting used to it, and knowing how to play with that and have fun, which I do. I really do.
Do you have a role model whose career you emulate?
CUMBERBATCH We talked before the tape was running about Stephen Dillane‘s Hamlet when I was 17. That had a massive impact on me — the sort of essential, quiet, still truth of what he did. Nobody else was Hamlet but him.
HAWKE And then you saw mine!
REDMAYNE I’ve never said this to you, Tim, but when I was a kid, one of the first things I saw was A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The National Theatre. Tim was playing Bottom, and it was all set in mud and there was a contortionist playing Puck, this woman.
SPALL I had a French-Canadian contortionist on my back when I was trying to do Shakespearean comedy. And it felt like hell. You’d go backstage and there were people wearing verruca socks, which are worn [to prevent] plantar warts, you know? It was in a massive pile of water, and one day somebody came in and said, “You’ve not heard the latest. Someone’s done a poo in the mud.” I said, “What are you talking about? I’m lying in that before the audience comes in!” I went to the stage doorkeeper, who had been there for years, wonderful woman. I said, “You’ll never guess what I’ve just heard. You know the fairies who are all diving around in the mud? Someone’s done a poo in it.” She said, “Oh, we’ve had a phantom shitter at the Royal National Theatre for years.” (Laughs.) Here’s a pantheon of the most brilliant classical actors in the world, and someone was dropping a log in the [mud].
CUMBERBATCH I’ve worked in the National Theatre, but I haven’t pooed there. I have peed there.
Spall, Tatum, Redmayne, Hawke, Keaton and Cumberbatch
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