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Awards Roundtable: 6 Top Actors' Uncensored Tales, From Worst Auditions to Leg Waxing

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When was the moment you said, "I'm doing it for myself now"?

MCCONAUGHEY: It wasn't an offensive moment; it was ordered by process of elimination. I said no to some things first. I looked around and said: "I'm paying rent; the kids are good. We got a son coming into the world. [Being a father is] a great job. Let me sit in the shadows for a while on my career side." And then, as the world works, some things started attracting me. I guess I became a good idea to some people. And I got a call from [Steven] Soderbergh [for Magic Mike]. Richard Linklater and I were another story: We were hitting baseballs in Texas, and he goes, "Hey, I got this script, Bernie." Things kind of boomeranged and came back to me. I got selfish, I guess, for myself, my own life.

BROLIN: Did having kids have anything to do with it?

MCCONAUGHEY: Sure. It's a natural law. That sort of frees up a whole lot of other things. I'm sure they've helped lower my handicap as an actor.

JORDAN: Do you guys ever feel like you have to stay out of your own way in your own career? Like, if you just stepped out of the equation and let the universe bring it to you …

BROLIN: Like Oliver [Stone] coming to me and saying, "Do you want to do W.?" I was like, "Why the f--- would I want to do that?" Then he kept following me, and he'd show up at a dinner, or I'd see him at the next table at a restaurant, and he was literally stalking me at some point. But I'm so happy that I did that movie.

WHITAKER: Why would you not do it? This is a character that's pretty complex, pretty interesting.

BROLIN: Yeah, but in the beginning I thought, "It's Oliver" -- it was just gonna be a big bash-fest. And then we started talking about it, and I said: "I am interested in finding out sociologically why this guy [succeeded]. How did he do it twice? And why does everybody want to have a beer with this guy?" Then we started to play with that.

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Did you ever meet George W. Bush?

BROLIN: No, no. No interest.

Whom do you lean on for career advice?

JORDAN: Honestly, I haven't had too many people. You're surprised when you see the older generation be very precious with information. [But] as an upcoming actor, I was lucky enough to have Forest and Pete Berg and David Simon. But for the most part, it's been trial and error.

What have you learned that surprised you in acting?

MCCONAUGHEY: Oh, just certain rights as an actor. That you're there to know your man. You're the master of your man -- go be your man. Sets aren't places where we can all get along -- we don't have to. Is it supposed to be easy? No, it's not supposed to be easy. I mean, the first audition I had with Linklater, Dazed and Confused, that was a job interview for me, right? So I tucked in my shirt, man, shaved my hair, pressed my jeans and went in 'cause it was a job interview. And he was like: "Hey, OK. Let your hair grow out, and maybe, uh …" And I was like, "I can do that?" [Laughter.]

What's the biggest mistake you've made?

MCCONAUGHEY: I didn't study acting before I got [my] first job. And I thought: "Hey, maybe you're not the kind of actor that needs to study lines. Maybe -- [laughter] -- you just know your man, and you show up and you just do it." I go do this film, Scorpion Spring, and I got this idea: "I'm not gonna look at anything. I know what I am: the drug lord on the Mexican border in Texas. I'll just show up on the set, stay fresh and loose." Well, I get down there, OK, and I pick up this scene, and it's a page-and-a-half monologue in Spanish.

LETO: Seriously?

MCCONAUGHEY: I felt this trickle of sweat. "Um, can you give me 12 minutes?" I haven't watched it yet, but, "Porque the yellow …" This is bad. And I said, "Never again, man."

WHITAKER: I was playing a schizophrenic [in My Own Love Song], and every night I kept working really hard, pushing my head to the point where I started to see the things that I was imagining. I realized there is a way to screw with your brain. It took me a really long time to get myself back to thinking the way I wanted to -- it almost took a year.

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Is there a point where you can do too much for a role? Matthew, you changed your body for Dallas Buyers Club.

BROLIN: You don't really know until afterward.

MCCONAUGHEY: With Dallas Buyers, it wasn't an affectation for eccentric­ity's sake. It was something I needed to do for the man I was playing, [or] I'd be embarrassed. You commit to something and say, "Let's go there."

When you watch your performances, what's your biggest critique?

LETO: I don't watch [my] performances. I've seen a couple of my films only. When I make music videos, I'm watching all the time, but there's something that stops me from watching the films.

MCCONAUGHEY: You haven't seen any films you've been in?

LETO: I've seen a couple. I saw Requiem for a Dream -- Darren [Aronofsky] dragged me into [that]. I never wanted to see a film that I was in.

Jake, what's the biggest mistake you've made? Do you look back on some films that didn't work, like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and say, "I wish I hadn't done that"?

GYLLENHAAL: The biggest mistake that I've made is not really admitting to myself that filmmaking is a director's medium. We all get into situations where we're working with people, and we try to control that. [But] I realized, once I'm gone, that's going to be this director's vision from here on out. I did that in the past a lot, and now, giving all of that up is such a beautiful and relieving thing.

LETO: Isn't that great about working with [David] Fincher? You know, no matter what, when you walk off that set, you are taken care of.

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But you have to do 60 takes of a close-up.

LETO: Oh, who cares? As long as you have someone fighting to make it great -- that's what the difference is. I mean, apathy and just neglect, or mediocrity …

BROLIN: … Or ego …

LETO: … Or anything. I've been on the set with greatness that's been shattered by drugs and abuse and someone off in the corner smoking a joint when they should have been focusing on the project. But that feeling is one of the best feelings in the world, as an artist, to have that support from your director.

GYLLENHAAL: Sometimes you get a cinematographer who shoots something, and you walk into their light, and they're doing 50 percent of my job. I walked into Roger Deakins' lighting in two different movies, and I didn't feel I had to give a performance.

Josh, what's your biggest mistake in your career?

BROLIN: Before [the past] seven or eight years, for 20 years I worked with a lot of people with not a massive amount of talent. And there was always ego; there were always fights. Working with the Coens -- just kicking back on a couch and watching them edit -- they have two desks that are perpendicular, and Ethan is picking the best takes, and then Joel is on the other desk, and then Ethan hits a bell -- bing! -- and Joel looks up, and he brings down the take and puts it in. I mean, it's such a simple, amazing process to watch.

On No Country for Old Men, you had a terrible motorcycle accident you didn't tell them about.

BROLIN: I did. I lied to them. I had the doctor lie to them that it was gonna heal in a week when it was really a three-month healing process.

LETO: You lie as much as you can …

JORDAN: … to get the job.

GYLLENHAAL: Think of your best lie.

JORDAN: They were getting ready to cast Tupac [for a planned biopic], and when I was auditioning, they were like, "Can you rap?" And I was just like, "Sure!"

GYLLENHAAL: I auditioned for that, too. But I can rap. [Laughter.]