Reinvention is a hallmark of great actors, so it’s fitting that several of the talents invited to participate in The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Actor Roundtable have distinguished themselves in 2011 by playing against type. Famed comic Albert Brooks, 64, embodies a ruthless criminal in Drive; regal screen presence Christopher Plummer, 81, lets loose as a flamboyant gay man exploring his sexuality at age 75 in Beginners; and Christoph Waltz, 55, so effective as a Nazi commander in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 hit Inglourious Basterds, plays a suburban American father in Carnage. They joined George Clooney, 50 (The Descendants, The Ides of March), Nick Nolte, 70 (Warrior), and Gary Oldman, 53 (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood on Oct. 24 for an hourlong discussion that touched on Nolte’s personal struggles, what Oldman said when asked to play Charles Manson and why Clooney prefers acting to selling women’s shoes.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: Do you have a pet peeve about scripts that will make you stop reading immediately?
Nick Nolte: By page two, you know.
George Clooney: Pretty much by page four or five, it’s got to get you.
Albert Brooks: The first speech that’s over two sentences, where you actually have to see writing, if those start to sound false, then it’s over.
Christopher Plummer: Do you have a habit of going right through to the end to make sure you’re in the last scene?
Clooney: You’re just looking for the sequel. (Laughter.)
Brooks: The computer tells you everything now. What part are you playing? Larry. The computer says you’re on six pages. Well, Jesus, I’ll just read Larry.
THR: Is there any role you would not play?
Clooney: Larry. (Laughter.)
Gary Oldman: Ten or 15 years ago, someone approached me to play Charles Manson. I just felt, out of respect to the family, I’m not interested.
Nolte: There’s too much karma around that. It’s way too heavy. You know, I used to cut off the top of my trucks, and that’s the same thing [Manson] did. So the police used to stop me a lot. They called him Chuck.
Clooney: Chuck, to his friends.
Nolte: Then they’d stop me and say, “Are you related to Chuck?” I always pled the Fifth.
Brooks: Nick, you got stopped for a lot of things. I never knew about that.
Nolte: Yeah. I didn’t tell you everything, Albert.
THR: Is there a role you’ve played where the character has really stayed with you? Christopher, you’ve played King Lear.
Plummer: Yes, that haunts you.
Plummer: The first part’s all right. But the second act, once he’s on the heath, forget it. Then it becomes an entirely other play. It’s a play about Gloucester and Edmund, and you’re sitting in your dressing room getting stoned, waiting to come on again. Then you come on, finally. The audience says, “Hey, that looks like King Lear. Forgotten all about him.” It’s not the magisterial play they all say it is — not the second act, anyway.
THR: What’s the toughest role you’ve played?
Plummer: The part in The Sound of Music. It was so awful and sentimental and gooey. I had to work terribly hard to try to infuse some minuscule bit of humor into it.
Brooks: You mean you didn’t believe everything you said?
Plummer: Oh, shut up.
Nolte: Albert’s actually got some experience in that territory.
Brooks: What? Escaping from Nazis?
THR: Was shifting from the stage to film difficult?
Plummer: Not really. As a young actor on the screen, I was very bad. One is always thinking of how you look when you’re young. You’re always conscious of the profile; you’re so conceited. I thought that was all that movies were about. It wasn’t until I hit the drunk stage of my life, in my 40s, that I suddenly had fun on film playing character roles.
Brooks: Drinking is the key?
Plummer: Yeah. John Huston’s [1975 film] The Man Who Would Be King. I thought that was terrific.
Clooney: Drunk through the whole thing, were you?
Plummer: Poor John Huston. He had emphysema very badly by that time. But he was such a marvelous character. He had an oxygen tent on the set, but he always had his cigar with him.
Clooney: That always works well.
THR: George, is acting fun, or is it hard work?
Clooney: I cut tobacco for a living in Kentucky — that was hard work. I sold insurance door to door — that’s hard work. Acting is not hard work. If you’re lucky enough to be sitting at a table like this, you’ve been very lucky in your life. You caught the brass ring somewhere along the way. I’ve known a tremendous number of talented actors who didn’t get opportunities. Is it hard work? It’s long hours, but nobody wants to hear you complain. I remember I was selling women’s shoes at a department store, which is a lousy job. It sounds like it’d be great, but it wasn’t elegant shoes. It was 80-year-old women [saying], “That’s a hammertoe!” You’re like, “I don’t want to see that!” I remember I would hear of famous stars complaining in Hollywood about how hard their life was — I didn’t want to hear that. So I don’t find it difficult. I find it challenging, and sometimes I’m very bad at it, but I don’t find it hard.
THR: Do you think you were bad and have become better?
Clooney: I think scripts make people better. Direction makes people better. You can find a lot of projects where actors were tremendously good in one project, but you’ll see them not work necessarily well in others. I think scripts make a huge difference in that department.
THR: Did you always know you wanted to act?
Clooney: I figured it out right after I finished cutting tobacco. My uncle was an actor named Jose Ferrer. He came to Kentucky to do a movie when I was 20 with his son Miguel Ferrer, also a wonderful actor. I was an extra for about two months on the set — they got me a gig. Then Jose said, “You ought to go to Hollywood and be an actor.”
THR: Nick, you did big Hollywood films, then walked away. Why?
Nolte: Well, it was obvious I wasn’t going to get any more roles. I could see it coming. The scripts weren’t getting any better. In fact, the bigger the budget, the worse the script — it seemed to follow hand in hand. The better work was in the independents, while the independent studios were still operating. When I was working with Paul Schrader, we were in the bar across the street from where we were shooting. We were having a glass of wine, and Schrader said, “Boy, I want to do one of those $100 million films.” I said: “Paul, you’re just full of it! You’ll never have more control than you have right here. Yet you want to get on one of those nightmarish $100 million collaborative efforts?”
THR: Was there a film you did where you thought: “This is it. I want to change”?
Nolte: I actually didn’t want to do 48 Hrs. [Someone] kept saying the black kid [Eddie Murphy] wasn’t funny. To this day, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg is afraid I’ll blurt out who it was. I won’t. I wouldn’t get my Christmas bonus.
What has been the low moment in your career or life?
Nolte: That’s kind of daily.
THR: Really? Why?
Nolte: I don’t know. I live with death lately because I’m 70. After 70, you don’t think about sex much anymore. You think about death.
Plummer: Wait until you’re 80. (Laughter.)
Nolte: Don’t go into it.
Plummer: I won’t.
THR: Does getting older change your perspective on the roles you choose or the work you do?
Plummer: No. I’m working more than I’ve ever worked in my life. It’s unbelievable. Either there’s only me left in their 80s — but I think there are other people who must be 80 who act. I’m having an absolute ball. I’ve never been happier.
Christoph, you’ve found global success relatively late in your career. Were things hard for you before that?
Christoph Waltz: Relatively? (Laughter.) In all cultures, the actor has ups and downs. That’s the nature of the beast. So I’ve had ups and downs on a smaller level. In the German-speaking arena, you can be a member of a theater company and do that forever. My grandparents did it in one theater for their whole careers. But a certain degree of consistency brings a certain degree of mediocrity.
THR: When you participated in this roundtable two years ago for Inglourious Basterds, you said you were looking forward to the opportunities arising from the success of that film. Have you been satisfied by those opportunities?
Waltz: It made life certainly more exciting, and certain parts more enjoyable and more interesting. But that’s where success late in a career comes in very handy.
Clooney: For me, it was relatively late. I’d been on so many failed television series for such a long time. By comparison, my aunt was a really talented singer, Rosemary Clooney. In 1950, she was on the cover of every magazine. She was a big hit. Then rock and roll came in and women singers were all gone. It became a male-dominated thing. She was on the road and people started saying, “What happened to you? Where’d you go?” She’s like: “I’m here. I’m singing. I’m doing my thing. What the f– are you talking about?” She was gone for 20 years. Because she was so young — she was 19 when [success] first happened — she sort of believed all that shit that you believe when you are 19. People tell you how brilliant you are, all those things. So that meant now she clearly wasn’t. Of course, she didn’t become less of a singer along the way. The elements changed.
Nolte: I never thought she went away.
Clooney: She did. But later on, she came back. She had an unbelievably great renaissance.
Nolte: She was one of my favorites.
Clooney: She was one of the greats. But she was gone for 20 years. She couldn’t get a job. Bing Crosby gave her a job 20 years later. She had some drug issues, prescription-drug things.
THR: Are you afraid of failure?
Clooney: All of us are afraid of failure.
Nolte: I don’t think the downside is about failure. The downside is about not working. I do one European film a year. I just did one in Spain, but I was the only person who spoke English. The rest could only speak Spanish. I can’t remember who was in it, but you would recognize the people. It was a great experience. Now if I had stayed home with no work, then I would have been in the shitter.
Brooks: But the truth is, and without turning this into a men’s group …
Plummer: Tell us [your secret]. You can feel comfortable.
Brooks: It was only once, and I was drunk! I was doing King Lear. (Laughter.)
Clooney: You had too much time off!
Brooks: You are who you are, no matter what happens to you. My father was a famous radio comedian [Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein]. He was very ill, and he died when I was young, I think before I really comprehended anything, I saw that this [fame] stuff had no meaning. He was paralyzed. He didn’t care about people going, “Oh, I love your radio show.” He could barely get out of a chair. People think that success changes you, but your demons are your demons. They’re only magnified.
THR: Has any great role model influenced you?
Brooks: Jack Benny did something when I was very young that showed me more about how to live a life in this business. I was on The Tonight Show early in my career. When they went away for the last break, Jack Benny leaned over to Johnny Carson and said, “When we come back, ask me where I’m going to be performing, will you?” Johnny said, “Sure.” So they came back, and they were saying good night, and Johnny said to Jack, “Jack, where are you going to be performing?” Jack said: “Never mind about me. That’s the funniest kid I’ve ever seen.” He set that up to make a compliment. I was like: “Oh, so you can be brilliant and gracious. They go together.”
Oldman: My mother is a hero. She’s 92 and still gets around. She lives here; I moved her out. Still takes the bus.
Brooks: Get her a car, man. (Laughter.)
Oldman: I’ve never heard my mother say, “Poor me.” She used to do big tapestries and then met my father when he was in the Royal Navy and became a housewife. Then when I was about six or seven, he ran off with his best friend’s wife. It happens. I have older sisters who had flown the coop. I was essentially an only child. She’s a great inspiration.
Nolte: You’re very lucky to have a mom of 92. I lost mine at 86. That was the last parent. When the last parent dies you call your sister or brother and say, “How old are you?” Whichever one’s the oldest, that’s the next to go. My sister’s two years older than me, but it’s not going to work out that way, I don’t think.
Brooks: You’re getting the most calls?
THR: What’s the best or worst career advice somebody has given you?
Nolte: The best advice is to do theater.
Clooney: Sometimes when you work with younger actors who haven’t done theater — because most of them haven’t now; they’ve gotten famous quickly — when you’re directing them, they will try to “win” every scene. But you have to lose some scenes because you’re going to win in the end. If you had done theater, you would go, “No, I’m not going to cry in these next two scenes because I’m going to really lay it on at the end and have earned it.”
THR: Has directing changed your acting?
Brooks: I started as an actor before I became a director. I went to Carnegie Tech, which was a theater school. You were taking mime with this man Jewel Walker and dance with Paul Draper. You did everything.
Clooney: You took mime?
Brooks: Shh! Anything you do helps you as an actor. A trip you take to Spain will help you as an actor. As a director,
I work with actors from an actor’s point of view. I think there are some directors who like the picture more than the person.
Clooney: You are more direct. You simplify a lot of things. There’s this weird dance that directors and actors have to play. The director is basically trying to manipulate the actor into doing what he wants …
Oldman: Yes, but the actor likes to think that it was his idea!
Clooney: Right. So the actor is trying to manipulate the director into doing what he always thought. There’s this weird dance …
Waltz: I read this really interesting article written by a cognitive behavioral psychologist, Daniel Kahneman. The “illusion of validity,” he calls it. Everybody is so convinced about the validity of their actions, their opinion, and so confident about their decisions. It’s complete illusion. It’s really a confidence of communicating your point, rather than being right or wrong.
THR: Do you like your work when you see it?
Waltz: I don’t see it. Not regularly.
Clooney: Do you go back and see old things you’ve done?
Waltz: No. Never.
Oldman: I think it’s healthy sometimes. It’s just, it’s old work. Some of it’s good, some of it stinks, and what does tomorrow bring?
THR: What makes a great actor?
Plummer: The great rage. Someone who can lose their temper suddenly, very quickly, and frighten the shit not just out of the person he’s playing with but the audience as well. That’s the rage. Mr. Oldman has that. Then, the ability to make classic roles seem so modern and fresh.
Oldman: He does that. (Points at Clooney.)
Gary, do you agree you have the great rage?
Oldman: I think a few ex-wives would agree.
Brooks: Fifteen minutes before we started, he was yelling at the hairdresser. (Laughter.)
Clooney: There’s an element of that even in comedy. You’ll see that kind of rage. It doesn’t have to be angry. Watch Joel McCrea in [Preston Sturges’ 1941 film] Sullivan’s Travels, and there is this sort of throbbing undercurrent that’s always going around.
Oldman: Albert has that, too. I’ve certainly seen it in Mr. Nolte.
Brooks: I think it’s an additional thing also, especially in movies. The actors who have always been the most affecting to me are the ones that allow me to interpret on my own. There are some actors that give you 100 percent, but they don’t let you get in. They’re working; you see them working. There are other actors that are instinctively laid-back. It’s really like a painting. I mean, why should any work from a modern artist sell for millions of dollars? It’s only because people are standing there and they’re thinking what this means to them. The same thing happens with a good actor.
Clooney: Good singers will do that. I used to say to Rosemary: “You’re 70 years old and can’t hit any of the notes you used to hit. Why are you a better singer?” She goes: “I don’t have to prove I can sing anymore. I just serve the material.”
THR: Do you have any regrets?
Plummer: There are a couple of parts I think I’d like to have played that I didn’t get. I made a little success in London in Becket, the play about [Thomas] Becket and King Henry II. I was furious when Peter O’Toole, my friend, got [the lead role in the movie, 1964’s Becket]. Son of a bitch.
THR: Have you ever thought of doing something other than acting or directing?
Brooks: I wanted to be an eye doctor for a few years.
Plummer: I started studying the classics as a pianist.
Brooks: Do you still play?
Plummer: When drunk, yes.
Clooney: I’m going to his house.
Brooks: Can I go home with you? You have more fun than me.
Plummer: I’ll think about it and let you know.
Nolte: A lot of what we discussed is the decision of whether to live in real life or not. I certainly prefer not to be in real life. It’s horrifying. The Cold War and the bunkers and all that shit that was laid on us as kids, it’s just not anyplace I wanted to be. So I felt at home when I hit the stage. I prefer it to the horror of real life.
Brooks: Nick, that’s a good title for your autobiography.
Nolte: What, Whore of Real Life? I think it was my fifth wife …
Clooney: No, no — Horror.
Nolte: Oh, the horror!
About THR‘s Roundtable Series: The Hollywood Reporter continues its annual series of exclusive discussions among the year’s most compelling film talents. As awards season unfolds, look for upcoming roundtables with producers and animation filmmakers, and go to The Reporter’s website to watch videos of the full discussions.
Albert Brooks, Drive: Brooks takes a 180 from his comedic persona to play a brutal crime boss opposite Ryan Gosling in the violent thriller.
George Clooney, The Decendants, The Ides of March: Clooney directs himself as an ambitious presidential candidate in Ides and stars as a lawyer forced to deal with his comatose wife in Descendants.
Nick Nolte, Warrior: After a career spanning five decades, the gravel-voiced Nolte co-stars in the mixed martial arts drama as an alcoholic father seeking redemption from his two sons.
Gary Oldman, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Oldman, who came to prominence in 1986’s Sid and Nancy, leads an ensemble cast as a veteran spy in the adaptation of the John Le Carré novel.
Christopher Plummer, Beginners, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: Plummer steals scenes as a terminally ill man exploring his homosexuality in director Mike Mills’ drama Beginners and appears in David Fincher’s adaptation of the Stieg Larson novel.
Christoph Waltz, Carnage: The Austrian uses a convincing American accent in Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the play God of Carnage. It’s a far cry from his role as a Nazi commander in Inglourious Basterds.