Awards Watch: Actors II


Actors answer the question, 'Who inspires you?'

In the mid 1970s, Christopher Plummer remembers working on "The Day That Shook the World" with Veljko Bulajic, a Yugoslav filmmaker known for his war epics -- and, perhaps more alarmingly, for his close relationship with Yugoslavia's dictator, Marshall Tito.

Plummer came to the set one night, all set to deliver a complicated speech that had to be rendered in both English and German for a banquet scene, but, instead of starting with him, Bulajic opted to get reaction shots first. Plummer waited -- and waited and waited. By about 1 a.m., he suggested it might be a good idea to shoot the speech first thing the next day.

"Any director worth his salt would agree to that," Plummer notes. But instead, he says, Bulajic mumbled something to his interpreter, who explained that if Plummer didn't do the speech there and then, the director would throw him in jail.

"I thought, he's got a wonderful sense of humor," Plummer says. "Not at all! He meant every word of it. He scared the shit out of me."

Most relationships between actors and their directors never quite reach that memorable level, though there have been celebrated conflicts. Werner Herzog famously held a gun to the head of Klaus Kinski, the star of "Aguirre, Wrath of God," and Arthur Hiller equally famously fired Al Pacino -- an unusual case of a director having power greater than his star.

Today, their relationships are more complicated, mitigated by factors such as the director's clout versus that of his star; the actor's desire not to develop a reputation for being impossibly difficult; the time available for rehearsals -- and the very different approaches some actors have over to whether to rehearse at all.

All these issues can potentially lead to conflict. So how to resolve them?

"As I get older, I learn to ask a set of questions to avoid that conflict," says Alec Baldwin, who stars opposite Meryl Streep in "It's Complicated." He admits his attitude has changed. When one is younger, he says, "You do these films and you don't have the experience to maximize your efforts." Now, when he first meets a director, "I ask what it is they want, and what they want me to do for them. The idea is: let's get this all set before we start shooting. Otherwise, it's like fixing the car while driving."

There have been legendary performances that have, in fact, been fixed while driving -- like Johnny Depp's in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Depp's mannered, comedic take on Captain Jack Sparrow bordered on being a spoof of Keith Richards and was so far from what his director and studio had envisioned that then-Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook had to call a meeting with him to resolve the matter.

To avoid situations like this, Tobey Maguire says he has gone so far as to work with some directors who storyboard a script, so there is "sort of a blueprint and you go execute the plan," he explains. But that wasn't how he ap­proached "Brothers," for director Jim Sheridan.

Sheridan, one of the great actors' directors, who came to fame when he helmed "My Left Foot" and helped Daniel Day-Lewis win his first Oscar, takes a far less structured approach to shooting.

"It was like being in a dark room," Maguire says. "I was holding hands with Jim and the rest of the cast trying to find our way out. Sometimes you work with a director and they will give you hints about what they hope you will achieve a few days from now. Jim has no expectations. He really creates a tremendous amount of freedom."

That freedom extended from the stars of "Brothers" (including Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman) to the children featured in the film. Unlike some helmers, who put their stars above other cast members, Sheridan effectively turned the set over to the kids.

"I have kids in my house, and it's the kids' world. They do what they want to do -- there is no self-consciousness," Maguire says. "Jim does that for the kids, but also for the adults."

Maguire was lucky to work with other actors who were ready to go along with Sheridan's loosely defined way. That wasn't quite the case on "The Lovely Bones," says Mark Wahlberg, who took over the role of Jack Salmon when Ryan Gosling and director Peter Jackson parted ways -- largely because Jackson came to feel after initial rehearsals that Gosling was simply too young for the role of the father whose daughter is a murder victim. Wahlberg was working opposite Oscar winners Susan Sarandon and Rachel Weisz, as well as relative newcomer Saoirse Ronan.

"There were so many different styles of acting on the set," Wahlberg notes. "There were people who didn't want Peter to say anything. It was different for me; I wanted him to just communicate with me, and not worry about offending me, and allow me to give it to him and not tiptoe around it."

He adds, "I try to be the easiest person to work with, (saying) 'If you do that quickly, we can try to do some other things.' "

Being easy isn't always crucial. There have been notoriously difficult actors -- not least Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe -- who have still given some extraordinary performances. And some stars today still have the ability to make demands their directors don't want. But for midrange actors who don't command millions of dollars per picture, a good work ethic is almost essential.

Peter Sarsgaard is one actor known for his collaborative skills -- and those were fully tested when he was cast in "An Education." Sarsgaard not only found one of his co-stars replaced, when Orlando Bloom dropped out of the picture just before shooting and Dominic Cooper stepped in; he also entered the project with one director, only to have Danish helmer Lone Scherfig come onboard later on.

"The first thing I thought was, 'She's not English,' " Sarsgaard recalls -- doubly important given that Sarsgaard, an American, was playing an Englishman of a certain period and class and wanted his director's guidance. "I was already thinking about the fact I wasn't English." But, he found, "She really appreciates and is interested in English culture. She has a real feeling for it."

With Scherfig, he found a director very sparing "in terms of commentary. We didn't talk about it a tremendous amount. It seemed like the kind of thing where the script was so well written, we didn't have to solve problems."

But when she did comment, he says, "She can be extremely direct. I appreciate that. I can handle bad news; just give it to me."

What most actors can't handle is the sort of too-specific notes known as "line readings."

"If you tell an actor, 'I want you to say it like this,' all you're going to get is an imitation of something that was done badly," warns James McAvoy, who co-stars with Plummer in "The Last Station." "If it was as easy as, 'Say it like this,' everybody would be a movie star."

Plummer himself argues that the less the director says, the better.

"If the director is very good, he has already cast it well," he explains. "That's half the battle. You don't have to worry and push and fret and you can relax and be free."

A case in point: John Huston. "He didn't give me one piece of direction. He filled me with confidence, because he had confidence in me. So I was able to enjoy myself throughout. That is a great director."

And Michael Hoffman, his director on "The Last Station"? Happily, Plummer says, he was more in the Huston vein than that of his Yugoslav helmer Bulajic. "(Hoffman) doesn't have that much power," he quips.