Dramatic tension

ROUNDTABLE: Four consummate actors talk about their often-complicated relationship with the craft.

Giving a dynamic performance has as much to do with raw talent and intellect as it does having a capable director and quality material. The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway moderated a recent roundtable discussion with four of Hollywood's leading actors -- Ben Affleck (Focus Features' "Hollywoodland"), Nicole Kidman (Picturehouse's "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus"), Edward Norton (Warner Independent Pictures' "The Painted Veil," Yari Film Group's "The Illusionist") and Forest Whitaker (Fox Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland") -- asking them what informs their script choices and what, at this stage of their careers, drives them creatively.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why do you act?
Nicole Kidman: I don't think it's a choice. It's all I've ever really known, the desire to do that. If you have a choice, maybe you wouldn't do it because it's a struggle. It's not necessarily always filled with joy. You have to delve into places in your psyche that are not comfortable. But at the same time, I love the intimacy of working with the director and the other actors. That's probably the thing that draws me; that's where I get my high -- and when people give you feedback in terms of being emotionally affected by something that you did. As an actor, you are a conduit -- it's not really about you, in a strange way.
Ben Affleck: I got into it fairly young, and it seemed like it was the only thing I really liked doing. I felt it was something I was getting better at, where I could keep learning, and that felt good and was really interesting. And it was a real challenge. It was a challenge to get a job. It was a challenge to get a chance. It was a challenge to do something interesting, to get people to believe in me, to find an honesty in myself.

THR: Was there a specific moment when you felt this profession could be for you?
Affleck: I had an audition when I was 16 for (1990's) "Men Don't Leave" with Jessica Lange. It went kind of well, then I went to the second audition for the director, and I only vaguely understood who that was. And I did this audition -- this kid talking about the death of his father -- and I had a complicated relationship with my father, and I was able to experience those feelings in playing that scene, which was a big deal for me. I became authentically emotional, and that was when I felt great about it. I felt, "This is something that is wonderful for me to do." Then I came back for the screen test, and it was horrible! I did not get the job.
Forest Whitaker: It is a struggle to maintain being open, to look inside yourself, go inside the dark rooms inside of yourself or the light rooms and uncover the truth. When you reach toward the truth, there is always some sort of trouble. There are obstacles that obscure it when you move toward something that is honest and true. That is a struggle for me, at times. It is a struggle for me to feel like I am being completely honest. There was a period of time where I felt, every time I looked at myself onscreen, "This was false." Inherently, it was false because it was me playing somebody else. At a certain point, not so long ago, I started to figure out how to vibrate a little differently so that I could at least trick my own mind into believing I was this other person. Now, I am trying to work on something different as I continue.

THR: A different process?
Whitaker: Yes. Because I have been through times where it was painful for me -- you have no point inside of yourself where you are enjoying what is actually occurring. And I started to work on that.
Edward Norton: It's a relationship that has changed a lot for me over the years. The way I feel about it or am interacting with it ebbs and flows; I go through very different phases. ... At times, it wells up in you like this compulsion, and at other times, (there's) that feeling acutely conscious of all the artifice in it. And in those moments, you need that lens change -- you need to do something to shake it up and get back into working from a more organic or less self-conscious place. People think that when actors get better-known, self-consciousness ceases to be a factor, and I don't think that's true at all. But to keep doing it, you have got to get a sense that you are doing it to connect with other people and have other people feel connected.

THR: Do you have doubts about the basic worthiness of what you are doing?
Affleck: Oh, definitely. I have a doubt about my own worth, and a lot of times, I experience conflict about what is the social merit of doing this. But for me, acting has been really torturous. It feels like a lot of failure and very little success, and it is hard to divorce it from what is really honest and true. It has only been good when I have been able to put away my own vanity, my own self-consciousness, my own sense of how each piece of behavior that I am engaging in is going to be interpreted by somebody.
Kidman: I have had the same struggle as Forest. That's how I come up with (the idea that) you are a conduit, and it's probably why I choose filmmakers that tend to be more philosophical or idea people.

THR: You've said in the past that you like your directors to be philosopher-directors.
Kidman: I make choices so spontaneously -- there is no rhyme or reason for it -- I just respond. I never make a plan for the future; I try to just exist. But I have seen a pattern with that.

THR: What makes a good director?
Kidman: I am not a control freak; I'll be put in the hands of a director and go, "Mold me, change me." I love to morph and to change and to discover, and that's why you have to really carefully pick the people.

THR: Isn't that scary?
Kidman: Yes. But then ultimately, as much as we talk about acting, if you are in a film, it is about the director's vision. As much as you hope that what you are doing and saying will be heard and remembered, there's the editing room, and the editor and director go and shape the performances. How many times have we seen a film and gone, "What happened?" I've been in the hands of some people I didn't respect, and that's torture. If I can respect somebody, I'll walk to the ends of the earth. I'm devoted. But if they do something where I'm like, "I actually don't think you're very smart or very good," then it is, "Oh, no." And if you discover that after you've signed on to do it, that's a disaster.

THR: Edward, is that why you have at times been involved with writing and editing, as you were with (1998's) "American History X"?
Norton: These things get talked up into more than they really were. I agree fundamentally with what Nicole said. You've got to respect directors' visions of things, or you shouldn't work with them. I would never try and have never fundamentally tried to steamroll somebody because it's pointless. But I think there is a spectrum of experiences. There are times when, as an actor, you come in to service somebody's vision and play that role. The thing about being an actor that's most difficult for me is that there is this fundamental lack of autonomy. There is almost no other place in the arts in which you can't do your work alone in your room. Only actors have to wait for someone else to say, "OK, come and do it." And there's something in that that really messes with your psychology. What's important is to learn to identify the way that you work -- learn to identify your own needs, learn to see in others those kinds of collaborators you trust.
Affleck: Part of being an actor, really, is about how discerning you are, the choices you make. The small choices you make in a scene are up to you, but there is also a macro taste choice -- "How does this screenplay work? Is this director very good?" -- choices that I have made, a lot of them poorly!

THR: Why?
Affleck: For a combination of reasons -- wanting to be successful, wanting people to like me, wanting to make money -- some of them good. You do depend on a lot of things that are unknown.

THR: Nicole, do you have people you turn to for advice when you choose your projects?
Kidman: I'll pool my resources. But ultimately, you're the one who goes through it, so you don't want to be blaming anybody. And I'll make choices because I want to work at a particular time, because I'm running from my life! There are many different ways in which you make an artistic choice, and sometimes they play out, sometimes they don't. What's interesting to me is that when actors years ago (worked) in that studio system, the idea of making a lot of movies and delving into things where some of them worked and some of them didn't (was wonderful). And now, there's so much judgment placed on something not working that it tends to make you recoil from taking chances.
Norton: When you were working with Sean Penn on (2005's) "The Interpreter," I ran into Sean and said, "How's that going?" And he went, "It's fantastic. She's making me realize something about myself: I am so precious about the where and why I do something, and she is just a professional. She is so committed to working." When this was even more of an industry, in some sense, people just went to work.

THR: But was the work better?
Affleck: I've heard this argument made that when the studios ran Hollywood, they made better movies, and when the actors ran Hollywood and they picked the movies, the movies weren't as good. I don't know that that's true. They made more movies.

THR: Why are so many stars not taking risks now that they do get the freedom to choose?
Kidman: To take risks, you have to be willing to fail. It is so hard to make a good film -- that is just a given -- so you are already starting off (with things against you). And you say, "Well, the script may not be there, but maybe this director will find it. Am I willing to gamble on that? Yes." But after it doesn't work a few times, you get rapped on the knuckles for it. And then you've got to have a film come out that makes a lot of money so that you can buy yourself four or five things, and then if you get lucky, maybe one of those risky choices suddenly is extraordinary.

THR: Going back to what you said about knowing your needs, Edward, what did you mean?
Norton: I guess I meant fostering good collaboration with people, in terms of the environment of the work.

THR: What are your needs, Forest?
Whitaker: I am trying to grow. I am trying to become a better artist and a better person. So, I am looking to work on something that is going to push me to understand more about myself and others. If I go into a project, I do hope I can find an environment of trust, an environment where I don't have to wonder, when I ask someone if that was OK, if they are telling me the truth or whether they are
really saying, "We need to move on." I do have certain needs in that. You have a director who is leading the environment, and hopefully you trust him enough to maybe even make it a Eucharistic experience, where he gives you something that you take in, and (something better) comes out.

THR: You said you want to be a better artist and a better human being. Are they connected?
Whitaker: I think so. A lot of our time is spent doing our work, and if our work doesn't allow us to grow as people, then we are lost.
Norton: The best part of the whole gig is this continual learning process. The most amazing privilege of the gig is that it is like a skeleton key into these rooms of experience. It is a license to investigate.

THR: Are great artists necessarily great human beings?
Affleck: I really want to believe that is true, maybe because it will make me believe this is a meritocracy.
Norton: Keep on believing! (Laughter)
Affleck: But I haven't found that it is true. Everybody hated (William Butler) Yeats, right? And yet, he is a brilliant poet. (In the film industry), there is a lot of ego and a lot of competition and a finite amount of space, and that makes people a little bit more cutthroat. And there are attributes of the artist that sometimes don't make them particularly pleasant people.
Kidman: There's a lot of fear. When the stakes are so high, there's fear. But I have worked with what are probably considered some of the most "difficult" (people), between Lars von Trier and (Stanley) Kubrick. I didn't find them difficult.

Not even von Trier?
Kidman: No, I didn't find him difficult. I found him honest and raw.

THR: But you didn't do the sequel to (2004's) "Dogville"?
Kidman: I didn't do the sequel because I didn't want to go to a place that he was asking me to go to. But I would work with Lars again, and I have just been e-mailing him about something else recently. But artists are complicated. They are beautiful, and they are difficult, and they can be awful. At the same time, if someone is obsessed in the right way, then I can forgive them a lot. "Difficult" is someone that doesn't care, who is actually only there for the money or isn't obsessed with what they are trying to achieve and therefore is a fraud. If they are actually trying to achieve something and reach high, then I think, good on you. Whatever the complications that go into getting there, I'll walk the walk with you.
Affleck: "Difficult" is oftentimes the mark that somebody is working hard and cares. That is not being a "bad" person. Manipulative, dishonest, venal, ugly, hateful, petty, abusive -- those are also characteristics sometimes that overlap with great art. It is an easy equation when you have somebody who is killing themselves and wants to push the hell out of you. I wish I found that more.
Norton: Talent and character aren't the same thing. I don't think by any estimation those things are automatically equated. I remember reading where Woody Allen said that he appreciated talent, but he admired courage. I agree with that. There's plenty of people (with whom) I have had intimations that they are not a person of stellar character, but they are hugely talented.

THR: What makes a great actor -- not a good one, a great one?
Whitaker: Someone who tries to commit, tries to connect and is willing to give and live in that space and reach for the truth.
Norton: Stella Adler said (that) an actor's talent is in their choices -- not just within the material, but of the material. When I look at actors whose body of work is really meaningful to me, it is people who have succeeded on both those counts: The work they do is stellar -- it is truthful, it is inspired -- and the choices they make within the material are great. Sometimes, it is about people who have somehow taken the measure of the times they are living in, who have connected to the energy of their generation and, like Nicole said, been a conduit for things that were going on.

So, naturalism and believability aren't enough?
Norton: Naturalism sometimes is overrated. Naturalism can be banal. Stanley Kowalski is not a naturalistic character but a heightened character; Faye Dunaway in (1976's) "Network" is not naturalistic. Sometimes, what a good actor is doing is reaching up and taking things and coalescing them into something that is like a heightened state.
Kidman: Kubrick used to always say that. He would say, "That's great. Now, I am not interested in 'Let's go to the Actors Studio and watch you do a scene, and I'll believe it.' I am not interested in that. I want to elevate it." He would never say what he wanted, though.
Affleck: Sydney Pollack told me a story about that movie (1999's "Eyes Wide Shut"), where he said that he had a really hard time, and Kubrick told him, "Real is good; interesting is better."

THR: How important is intellect in acting?
Norton: I see people romanticizing the idea of the "intuitive actor," as though an actor showing up and doing nothing but working from the guts and splattering it all over everywhere is the primo way to work. It is a bad projection of a certain Jimmy Dean romanticization. The truth is, I have never worked with anyone I would call a really good actor who I don't think begins with an intellectual process of assessing (the work). ... You have got to look at the piece that you are going to service and understand its terms. An actor today can be called on to do such a wide range of work -- how can you ever just apply your intuition? You have to examine the style. You have to examine theme. You have to bring an intellectual component to the work. There is a huge amount of clinical work.
Kidman: It is like you are trying to map out the psychology of, one, a person and two, an overall story, and you've got to fight for moments and ideas that you think will shape it. And ultimately, a director loves that. You want to be surprised -- as a director, as an actor. So much of it is, "Come in, surprise me." Things are discussed, and you go away, and they sit with you. But at the same time, what's very disturbing is if you work with someone who can sit at the table and talk the character -- "I am going to do this and this" -- there can be a lot of talk. I much prefer to go, "Let's try it. Why not?" You can get bogged down in all the ideas and talk.
Affleck: That can exist without talent -- the ability to discuss something intelligently. But the ability to execute does not exist without the capacity for analyzing it.
Whitaker: You are mapping out a character; you are figuring out how he thinks, how he feels, what he looks like, what way he behaves toward this person or that person. There has to be a process of analyzing the script and then hopefully making it organic. And sometimes, that means talking with the director about something that may be missing in the script.
Kidman: I remember with (2001's) "The Others," I read the script and thought, "Great." Then I went and did (2001's) "Moulin Rouge" and went back and read the script, and there had been a rewrite on it, and I thought, "This isn't the film I wanted to make." So then, I arrived in Spain and in this script, I am hitting a child -- and I saw this film as being about a mother's love for her children, not her desire to kill the children. And there was conflict for about two weeks between us (Kidman and director Alejandro Amenabar), and we ended up with a great experience together. (Later) he said, "I am so glad you fought for that." But I had to learn that. That's where my ex-husband actually so helped me. He'd be like, "Nic, go in and voice your concerns. Trust me, it will be appreciated." That's a hard thing for me, sometimes.

To what extent are you morally responsible for what a project says?
Whitaker: I think you are.
Norton: You make a choice to do something like put an 18-inch swastika on your chest -- I don't do that without a very careful consideration of what (the film) has to say. I am not going to do that casually, and nobody should. And I am not doing that film to have it say the opposite of what I think it was meant to say.
Affleck: That's a pretty extreme example, though. What's thorny is where it becomes more muddled and a little bit more nuanced.
Kidman: I agree, in general. But I had an experience on "Dogville" where I was chosen because of my belief for the character. I have a strong spiritual-religious part, I suppose, and Lars von Trier knew that and chose me for the role so that I would argue my point through the role, which was, "Forgive others." The way in which he manipulated me or used that to make his overall statement was interesting to me, even though I don't necessarily agree with his overall statement about humanity. If it was something I was absolutely opposed to and found worked against my own grain completely -- which the film didn't -- (that would be different).

Is there are a conflict between art and morality?
Whitaker: I don't choose to excuse anything that's said in art as being OK (just because it is art). As much as they have the right to do it, I have the right to judge it. There have been many times in history when people have been beat down and oppressed and abused -- and art reflected that (positively). And I am not going to say that is OK.