The Actors Roundtable

Bill Phelps
(From left) Robert Duvall, Jesse Eisenberg, Colin Firth, Mark Ruffalo, Ryan Gosling, James Franco

The season’s attention-getting performers debate the roles of a lifetime, the movies they regret and when it’s OK to walk off a set.

James Franco admitted he hates a lot of his movies. Robert Duvall questioned David Fincher’s shooting style. And Ryan Gosling opened up about getting fired by Peter Jackson. It was an especially candid Hollywood Reporter Roundtable when six of the year’s most awards-worthy actors -- Franco (127 Hours), Duvall (Get Low), Gosling (Blue Valentine), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right) -- got together Nov. 5 at Siren Studios in Hollywood for an hourlong discussion.

The Hollywood Reporter: Do you remember the specific moment when you decided to be an actor?

Robert Duvall: I come from a military background, and, actually, my parents kind of pushed me into acting, which is the reverse of what it’s supposed to be. I tried it on an academic level in a small college in Illinois, and it kind of worked out. Then I went in the Army anyway, and when I got out, I went to New York.

THR: Did you like the Army? 

Duvall: The only thing I liked about the Army was the marching.

THR: Do you still like acting? 

Duvall: Yeah, I do. It’s like kids playing house. Brando never used to like the profession. He was a guy we all looked up to, but I think it’s a wonderful profession as long as people can benefit from what we do. “I saw you in the The Great Santini. It helped me with my father and the relationship.” It makes you feel good.

Colin Firth: I love what Robert just said. You get to play all your life. It can be a little hard on people living with you when you are stuck in that mentality because other people do need to get on with life. You’re sort of left behind in childhood. And if you are one of those people that wants to remain a child, you can be very susceptible to the slings and arrows. You can love the attention a little too much. And when it doesn’t work out, that hurts just a little too much. The stakes are quite high.

THR: What’s been the worst moment for you? 

Firth: It can be one word in a review or something somebody said. Somebody can come up to you and shower you with wonderful words, and the last thing they say as they walk away … “Wait, you like everything except for what?” That’s the one thing that sticks in your mind. 

Mark Ruffalo: I spent a lot of time bartending before I ever got an acting job, well into my late 20s. I bartended here in Hollywood, so I was serving all the young, working actors. I was doing little plays in Hollywood, and if you mention you’re doing a play in Los Angeles, you’re immediately considered a loser.  (Laughs.)

Duvall: Not in New York. 

Ruffalo: Not in New York, but my biggest mistake was to mention to casting directors that I was actually doing theater here. I would come in and brag about that, and immediately I’d see their eyes glaze over, and for years I couldn’t understand what was happening. (Laughs.) So just seeing all these young guys out partying every night when they were supposed to be acting the next day -- and they were lousy tippers -- I was like, “Where’s my Rumble Fish?” I wanted to be them so badly. That was really rough. 


THR: Do you think you know what makes a great actor?

Duvall: They say [Italian stage actress] Eleonora Duse came into the first act, saw her daughter she hadn’t seen in years, and she blushed. Then in the third act, when she bent over and picked up a handkerchief, her face turned red. To me, that would be a great guide, to try to do what Eleonora Duse did. You know, [legendary acting teacher] Sandy Meisner used to say, “If crying means great acting, my Aunt Tilly can be another Eleonora Duse.”

THR: Richard Burton once said to Laurence Olivier, you have a choice: You’re either going to be a great actor or a great star. Ryan, do you agree with that? You seem to have deliberately stayed away from commercial roles.

Ryan Gosling: Have you seen my work in Young Hercules? (Laughs.) I did a lot of kids TV, so I just felt like I had done that. My family, like everyone’s family, is kind of crazy. We have a lot of characters, and the people I was growing up around didn’t often seem reflected in film. There were good people, there were really bad people; they were funny but doing terrible things. That was just my experience. So I just naturally gravitated towards those kinds of characters because I felt like I knew them. 

THR: Have you been offered big superhero-type roles and turned them down?

Gosling: Yeah, but I think [those roles are] really hard to do. To pretend like something’s there that’s not there, like some monster is chasing you when it’s not actually chasing you, that’s a whole other kind of acting. It’s a lot harder than to sit at a table and act natural, to do what I’ve been doing lately. I think if I did [superhero-type roles], I would probably be trying too hard.   

THR: When you make a film like Blue Valentine, which is harrowing emotionally, does it affect your domestic life? 

Gosling: I learned from Michelle [Williams] because she had to go home and be a mom and leave work at work. For me, it was easy because I was just sitting in my hotel room. I have friends and people in my life who understand that I kind of have to go away and then come back. It’s much harder for you to have families, wives and kids. I don’t know how you do that. 

THR: Do you guys still fight for roles? James, I know that your first meeting with Danny Boyle for 127 Hours didn’t go well. 

James Franco: Yeah, but I didn’t fight for it. He didn’t want me, so I said, “OK.” I don’t fight for roles now. I’ve been to film school, so I have a certain understanding of what it’s like to be a director. When you cast films, you’re just trying to find the best person for the role. So if somebody doesn’t think I’m right for the role, I don’t want to force myself on that project. It turns out Danny thought I was stoned at the meeting, and that’s why he was not excited. (Laughs.)

THR: Were you stoned? 

Franco: No, I was tired. I was doing homework. I wrote him an e-mail and said, “I understand and good luck, I’m a big fan and hopefully we can do something down the road.” And then he asked me to come out and read for it, and that’s how I got it.   

THR: Danny said that Aron Ralston was very concerned about getting the details right in the movie. How did that shape your performance? 

Franco: I’ve played characters that are based on real people before, and the degree to which you try to take on that person’s behavior depends on the movie, it depends on what the director wants, and it depends on the story you’re telling. In Milk, I played a real guy, but there are things in his life that we didn’t put into the film. But the film’s called Milk, it’s not called Smith. If you play James Dean (as Franco did in a 2001 TV movie), people are going to expect James Dean behavior. The most vital part of this film is his experience, not every gesture that Aron Ralston makes. And that wasn’t even my decision. That was Danny’s decision. I can only have one director. I can only have one master. So if I’m trying to please Danny and Aron Ralston, I’m going to go insane.

Firth: I love what James is saying. Though I didn’t have George VI on the set telling me to look left or right, there was, nevertheless, pressure. He’s not James Dean, he was the King of England. It’s not like playing Churchill, you know, where everyone has a model you have to conform to. There was a lot more flexibility in how I could reinvent him in some ways. Most of us here, if we play a doctor, we’d want to hang around with a doctor for a few days, or a soldier or whatever. We can’t spend a week with a king.

THR: Did you approach them? 

Firth: No, we didn’t. There was no point.

THR: Jesse, you knew you probably weren’t going to get a meet-and-greet with Mark Zuckerberg. What did you do for research? 

Jesse Eisenberg: We were discouraged from meeting people at Facebook and researching the characters. But it was so tempting and ultimately impossible not to. In fact, I drove up to Facebook [in Nothern California] twice and a got a call on the way up and was yelled at by people who were working on the movie. They said I should not go, that it would be
a bad thing. 

THR: Really? What was your plan? 

Eisenberg: To go in and just meet Zuckerberg. I just felt like, how could I not attempt to meet the guy I’m playing? 

THR: Who called and stopped you? David Fincher? Scott Rudin? 

Eisenberg: It was a conference call. 

THR: You were actually driving up there with no appointment?

Eisenberg: Yeah, because there was no liaison working with Facebook. I just wanted to do everything I could possibly do to feel as prepared as possible. I read everything about him and watched every video I could find, and it was really helpful. You watch a video and you see the unique way he licks his lips. Why was he licking his lips that way? Is he trying to avoid the question, is he prolonging the point before he has to answer? Where can that work in this movie? In a way, it was kind of like cheating.

THR: Aaron Sorkin said at the Writers Roundtable that he felt a responsibility because he knew that this was going to be the introduction of Mark Zuckerberg to the vast majority of people. Did you feel any moral responsibility? 

Eisenberg: I didn’t feel the same ethical dilemma as him because I wasn’t framing the way Zuckerberg was viewed. I was in a way defending him more than anybody else. I looked at it subjectively. Occasionally. I felt frustrated because [director David Fincher] would do like 50 takes of a shot, and I felt that 48 of them were just terrible and mortifying. I felt like I did a lot of bad stuff, but I also felt like I did two that maybe I wouldn’t have done had I not been given 50 opportunities.

Duvall: Fifty takes?

Eisenberg: I don’t like to watch movies I’m in anyway, but this one was just so disturbing because the character doesn’t convey his emotions. The difficulty for me was trying to suppress everything I had been taught to do as an actor, which is express yourself. In fact, I always try to overcome the lack of expression I innately possess. So for me to suppress what I’ve been attempting to do for a while was difficult, but it was the right thing for the role.

THR: Are you always that hard on yourself? 

Eisenberg: Yeah, usually more so. I did a movie two years ago, Adventureland; I kept a notebook of the takes that I liked, and I gave them to the script supervisor. (Laughs.) The director was upset, of course, because that’s not my job to do. But I was so mortified by what I was doing.

THR: Everyone’s laughing. Why?

Ruffalo: You can’t be that hard on yourself for that long or you just disappear and grind yourself down. Now I just reserve judgment for my wife. 

Duvall: Can I say one thing? The great Stanley Kubrick -- who was known for shooting up to 100 takes of a scene -- was an actor’s enemy. He was an actor’s enemy, and I can point to movies that he’s done with the worst performances I have ever seen in movies. The Shining. A Clockwork Orange. Terrible performances. Maybe they were great movies, but they are terrible performances. How does he know between the first take and the 70th take? What’s that about? [To Eisenberg] I don’t want to be judgmental; maybe it was good for you. I don’t quite get that. 

THR: How do you work when you direct? 

Duvall: I try to turn the processes around and let it come from the actors completely.
Let them dictate what’s to be done. You know what I’m saying?

Gosling: And then you decide the shots after you’ve seen the scenes?

Duvall: Yeah. Well, a few. If you do 50 takes … I don’t know, maybe that’s the new way of working.

THR: What about Coppola? How many takes did he do on The Godfather? 

Duvall: He was trying to get us to be serious. Working with Jimmy Caan, there were a lot of jokes. He’s the greatest guy in the world to work with. Brando’s still trying to remember a joke Jimmy told 25 years ago. 

THR: Have you ever walked off a set? 

Duvall: Yeah, I was doing a series one time and played Eisenhower [1979’s Ike: The War Years], and I quit. Then I went back. I don’t walk off sets. But I think I would fight with somebody if there were 50, 60 or 70 takes. 

Firth: Everyone has a different attitude about conflict. Some people thrive on it and some people fear it and some people are good at it. I find it completely uncomfortable. What’s awful is when you fundamentally don’t trust a person; if you think they’re weak and that’s shared with everyone else, you just know you’ve got the wrong person in charge. 

Franco: I’d never walk off. It’s not a surprise that David Fincher does so many takes. I mean, that’s what he does on every movie. I think he makes great movies, so if you want to do a movie like that, you got to know, OK, that’s what it’s going to entail. Hitchcock, I think, was the same way. He’s got the shots in mind, and the actors are sort of like props. Or maybe not. I actually heard a different story that maybe it wasn’t that way, but if you want to do a Hitchcock movie, this was how it was done. I wouldn’t go into a David Fincher movie and say, “Hey David, five takes.”  

Ruffalo: Working with Fincher, [as Ruffalo did on Zodiac,] you get your first few and you hit your stride, and then all of the sudden, you’re on take 25, and he’s walking toward you and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I hope he’s coming over to fire me.” (Laughs.) Then he walks by you and he takes the extra behind you and he does this (grabs Gosling) and moves him over a couple inches. “OK, let’s go again.” And you realize, “Oh, this guy is thinking of a whole frame. I’m just happy to be 20 percent of that frame.”

Duvall: If you capture that, then why go on? That’s all I’m saying. 

Ruffalo: I hear you. 

Duvall: I turned down a part in [Fincher’s] Seven. Maybe it was a good idea. 

THR: True, sometimes the vision doesn’t match up between director and star.

Gosling: But it’s great if you can work that out beforehand so you don’t go making each other miserable. 

THR: Ryan, you left Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones just before shooting began and were replaced by Mark Wahlberg. Paramount cited “creative differences.” What really happened?  

Gosling: We had wildly different ideas of what the film should be. I’m just an actor. It’s none of my business. It’s the director’s movie, but if you can’t get on board with that vision, then you’re going to secretly be sort of sabotaging it, and I don’t  want to be that. 

THR: Did you say something to Peter or did he say it to you? 

Gosling: I was 150 pounds when he hired me, and I showed up on set 210 pounds. We had a different idea of how the character should look. I really believed he should be 210 pounds. I was melting Haagen Dazs and drinking it when I was thirsty. I really believed in it. I was excited about it. I showed up, and they said, “You look terrible.” And I said, “I know! Isn’t it great?” “No, it’s not. Go hit the treadmill.” What it really was, was just a sign of much deeper things: the way that I saw the character vs. the way Peter saw the character. And, you know, it was late in the game. We didn’t talk very much in the preproduction process, which was the problem. It was a huge movie, and there’s so many things to deal with, and he couldn’t deal with the actors individually. I just showed up on set, and I had gotten it wrong. Then I was fat and unemployed. (Laughs.)

THR: Did you say this isn’t going to work out? 

Gosling: The weight was just indicative of the deeper misunderstanding about the character. And thank God it did happen because it would have been an awful environment for everyone to work in. It ended up being a good thing. It was like the canary in a coal mine. 

THR: A lot of you got into the business at a young age. How has working in Hollywood been different from what you expected? 

Eisenberg: I started doing children’s theater when I was 8 years old. When I was old enough to go into New York City, I would go to the theater. I was 14. I didn’t really have any expectations. I still don’t. I’m always surprised that I’m included. I know that sounds like false modesty, but I feel on the outside of things, which is why I started acting in the first place. I did a movie early on that I didn’t want to do, when I was like 20. I gave the script to my father. He’s a college teacher, so he doesn’t understand the movie business. I said everybody is telling me to do this, and he said, “Well, you absolutely shouldn’t do this.” Then my agent called him and told him the way the business works. But the only thing that you have is whatever you feel about something. I developed, almost reluctantly, a bit of saaviness about trusting whatever you feel.

THR: So was your father right or wrong? 

Eisenberg: He was absolutely right. I mean, the agent’s right too -- but not for me, I suppose. 

THR: Is there one moment you look back on and think, you know what, I’m astonishingly proud of that?

Duvall: The two most successful things I did were American Buffalo on Broadway and then the miniseries Lonesome Dove. I was fortunate enough to be in the two top things in America in the last part of the 20th century: Godfather I and II and Lonesome Dove. Godfather was better directed. The overall arc of Lonesome Dove carried it because it was a great book. When we hung Jake Spoon [in Lonesome], I had a good moment. Actors -- when we talk about actors, we say, “He had a good moment.” When we talk about directors, it’s “Does he leave you alone?” (Laughs.) I recently looked at a thing I did way back on television. I played Josef Stalin (in 1992’s Stalin), and I hadn’t seen it in 20 years, but the closing scene with my daughter is about as good as I can do. Nikita Mikhalkov’s father, who was Stalin’s personal poet and wrote the national anthem, said we did a good job. That’s the best review I’ve ever gotten.  

Firth: There are obviously pivotal moments, but they’re not necessarily my most inspirational moments. There is one I can remember very specifically: I was in a BBC rehearsal room, pre-cell phones, and there was a pay phone, and I’m thinking, “I’m not going to take that job in South America [on the 1996 miniseries Nostromo]. It’s too long; it’s six months. No, I don’t fancy it.” Then I whimsically changed my mind, and on the phone call I committed to it. That’s the job where I met my wife. 

THR: Ryan, there’s a scene in Blue Valentine where you’re playing the ukulele and she’s dancing for you. It’s among the most extraordinary moments I’ve seen in film.

Gosling: The experience of making that film is something that I’ll always remember. The freedom we were given. I had four years to work on that character. 

Duvall: That’s different than doing 50 takes. (Laughs.) 

Gosling: That scene was one take. We never did more than one take. Michelle had six years to prepare, and I had four years to prepare, so we were ready. 

THR: Did you rehearse? 

Gosling: We never rehearsed. These characters, when they’re getting to know one another, so were we. Michelle and I didn’t know each other. All we knew was that for the past four to six years, we were working on these characters, so we were very anxious to show each other what we had come to. For instance, the night that ukulele scene happened, [director Derek Cianfrance] said he would shoot from sundown to sun-up, and whatever happened, it’s up to us. There’s a whole movie’s worth of material in that night, but that one scene came out of it.

THR: Is there any one regret you have? Robert, do you regret turning down The Godfather Part III?

Duvall: No, because it wasn’t as good as the other two. [Coppola] came to my house in Virginia. He always wanted my mother’s Maryland crab cake recipe. So I wrote it down for him and we talked about Godfather III. Then he left and forgot the recipe. He called me more concerned about the recipe than whether I would do Godfather III.  (Laughs.)

Franco: I did a lot of movies that I just hated, to the point that it depressed me. It’s a weird position because I should be grateful, I’m able to work in films. But I hated a lot of those films. So for a long time, there were huge regrets. But it made me reorganize my life, view my life in a different way, approach movies in a differ-ent way, pursue other things that I was interested in. Doing those films -- the bad ones -- changed my life.