'A Dark, Dark House' Director Larry Moss Discusses Coaching Hilary Swank, Leonardo DiCaprio

Larry Moss - H 2014
Bobby Quillard

Larry Moss - H 2014

The acting coach and director, who's heading a production of Neil LaBute's dark play at L.A.'s Matrix Theater, gets his Oscar-winning actors to "go where nobody else wants to go"

In the Matrix Theater in West Hollywood, there’s a photo of Samuel Beckett with his back to the camera, directing a production of Waiting for Godot. The caption under it reads, “No matter, try again, fail again, fail better.” Director Larry Moss, whose production of Neil LaBute’s 2007 play, In A Dark, Dark House, is currently at the Matrix through Aug. 31, doesn’t worry too much about failing, but instead sees it as an essential part of an actor’s growth.

He should know he’s coached several of them to Oscar wins, including Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets, and Leonardo DiCaprio to three nominations: for The Aviator, Blood Diamond and The Wolf of Wall Street.

“When I did Boys Don’t Cry with Hilary Swank, we really worked on the joy of the character,” Moss tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When she was a boy, life made sense. It was the world that crushed her joy, but she didn’t work from sadness, she worked from joy.” It seems like counterintuitive advice, but the results are indisputable. The performance won her an Oscar, and the movie launched her career.

News spread among Hollywood’s A-list, and Moss’ list of students grew to include Michael Clarke Duncan, nominated for The Green Mile; Hank Azaria, who won an Emmy for Tuesday’s With Morrie; Jim Carrey for The Majestic; and Tobey Maguire (Sea Biscuit), who might have tipped off his friend DiCaprio, because a year later marked the start of DiCaprio's longtime collaboration with Moss, beginning with The Aviator, which earned him his first of three best actor nominations.

“We listened to a lot of audio of Howard Hughes talking, and he had about three notes in his voice, except when he was with somebody that he trusted, then he would have three more notes,” Moss says, summing up the eccentric entrepreneur’s speech patterns. “He was very monotone. So [we were] finding those particular specificities of vocal melody and points of view and the pivotal event in the character’s life that propels them into the story.”

For The Wolf of Wall Street, he offered DiCaprio advice that ran opposite the less-is-more ethos adhered to by most actors. “They say you have to be subtle in film; well, that’s bullshit. Sometimes people aren’t subtle,” Moss says of Jordan Belfort, the real-life scoundrel portrayed by DiCaprio. “We said, 'He’s a dick, but my God, he’s having so much fun.' The episode with the quaalude he talked a great deal with Jordan as well as the medical people about what does a brain do under the drug. Both Marty [Scorsese] and Leo are working toward mastery in each movie, a passion for the work that is beyond being famous or powerful.”

As an actor, Moss worked with the likes of Jerome Robbins, Neil Simon and Michael Bennett and had the honor of studying under two of acting’s most influential gurus, Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler. Meisner taught him to tune into the scene and listen moment to moment, to put aside his ego in service to the character, the material and the greater theater community. From Adler he learned the importance of the socioeconomic status of the character and how it shapes their worldview. Both are concepts he teaches his own students.

The Australian hit Holding the Man, which Moss directed stateside, made its West Coast premiere earlier this year at the Matrix, with plans to mount it Off Broadway currently in the works. And he will soon direct a film on Montgomery Clift. But in the meantime his focus is squarely on LaBute’s pitch-black play about two brothers coming to terms with their childhood at the hands of an abusive father.

“He says in an incredibly honest way at the end of the preface, ‘Was I abused? Yes,' ” Moss says of LaBute’s intro to the play. “Then he goes, ‘This is a work of fiction, but there is some truth in it based on my background, and I don’t want to go into that.' ”

Written just after LaBute's father’s death, the play focuses on security guard Terry (Aaron McPherson), who visits his younger brother, Drew (Shaun Sipos), who is doing a stint in court-ordered rehab. Annie Chernecky plays the 15-year-old daughter of a friend who may have sexually abused Drew as a child.

“I love Neil’s writing because he dares to do what Arthur Penn said about actors: ‘Good actors go where nobody else wants to go,' ” observes Moss, although getting his actors to go where he wants is less tricky than it sounds. The first step is for them to see themselves as characters. He asks his students to list the things about them others would need to know if they were to play them their fears, hopes, dreams, what they love and hate, their deepest shames and desires.

One of the most important lessons comes from Elia Kazan’s three-word summation of his autobiography, Elia Kazan: A Life “Effort is all," concludes Moss. “That’s what I think Neil LaBute does, and it’s what I’m trying to do as a teacher and a director. I think that has a certain meaning.”