Oscar Roundtable: The Actors

Six top actors talk about their work on some of this year's most acclaimed performances.

From riding the open range to traveling in the shoes of infamous political figures, this awards season's most buzzed-about performers have logged a lot of mileage this year. The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni gathered six actors -- Josh Brolin (Lionsgate's "W.," Focus Features' "Milk"), Benicio Del Toro (IFC Films' "Che"), Ed Harris (Warner Bros.' "Appaloosa"), Hugh Jackman (Fox's "Australia"), Richard Jenkins (Overture's "The Visitor") and Mickey Rourke (Fox Searchlight's "The Wrestler") -- to discuss portraying real people on film, bringing their work home with them and how to handle a fight with a director.

The Hollywood Reporter: What has surprised you most about being an actor?

Ed Harris: As much as you prepare, or as much as you do your research, the actual doing is what is really enlightening and where the surprises come. It's like an unzipping. You pull yourself apart and discover what is inside. I hate working with some actors, none of whom are here at the moment, where it is so plotted out that there are no surprises. It is so plotted out that it is always the same. It is very mannered. Technique is great, but you have to be able to let go and see what is in there hiding away.

Richard Jenkins: I'm not being cute about this -- I'm surprised that I can make a living out of this. But having said that, being able to not censor yourself and let yourself go is a technique in itself. It's a scary thing.

Hugh Jackman: I was just doing ADR (additional dialogue recording) the other day, which I find tough and draining, and I found myself engaged, loving it. Making believe in this dark room with a microphone, watching myself on the screen, I was thinking that it couldn't be more odd. Yet the challenge of making him real and present and to make that character live in the voice, I thought, what kind of job at age 40 still kind of turns you on?

Harris: You make a film and you go around and do interviews and shit. Pardon -- my publicist said watch your language. It's true for all of us. You're acting, and the process of doing it informs your life as much as your life is informing your process. All of your senses are fucking alive.

THR: What kind of personal toll does this process take?

Harris: It doesn't take a toll. It's illuminating and invigorating.

Josh Brolin: You start blending your life. It's like if you jump out of airplanes, you get addicted to it until something goes wrong -- hopefully not. I love heightened states, racing cars, doing these things, but at the same time, if I treated my kids the same way I treat racing, it doesn't work. You have to separate yourself.

Harris: These guys who do film after film after film. It's a choice. I'm not making a judgment. But it takes care of one part of your life because it is your life.

THR: Josh, what are the guiding forces in the choices you make?

Brolin: I seem to get bored very easily. I've done a lot of theater, but I don't like doing plays for more than a couple of months. I get bored. So when I decide on a part, ultimately it's something that will hold my interest. I've just done a junket today about "Milk" and "W.," and they ask, "How can you make these guys sympathetic?" To me, everybody is human, and it's more interesting and colorful to delve into this pool of a human and not play a result of that human -- like, this guy murdered this guy, or this guy was president.

THR: Mickey, give us a little insight into your process.

Mickey Rourke: I studied so hard at the Actors Studio for years. I walked in one day and there was Al Pacino. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. There was Robert De Niro, Chris Walken -- Harvey Keitel snapped his fingers at me to move out of the way. I remember seeing him in "Mean Streets" (1973). And when you are working, when you are dedicating yourself, you want to be the best you can be because there are people before you who have raised the bar. But I was too naive to realize the politics of the business. When I got out here, I couldn't deal with that. I thought I was above that. I wasn't prepared enough. I wasn't educated enough.

THR: How long did it take you to get that education?

Rourke: Thirteen years of therapy. (Laughs.)

THR: But you feel like you're now educated?

Rourke: Oh yeah. But I paid a price for it. I never wanted to be second best; I wanted to be the best. And you're only as good as the material or your director. When you take a job for the money and the material sucks, then you just walk through. We've all done that. I'll never do it again.

THR: What does it mean for you to be in a role that has been as well-received as this one has?

Rourke: When you've been out of work as long as I have -- and it's been my fault -- but you get a second chance, it's kind of surreal. I'm not angry about it. I'm more grateful, and I understand that it's all my fault, and that there were mistakes. It was a process I had to go through. Someone asked me, do you think you could have given the same performance (in "The Wrestler") 15 years ago? I said yes. Then I said no, because (director Darren Aronofsky) would have seemed then to be an authority figure, and I would have been butting heads with him. So probably not.

THR: To what extent can an actor become another person?

Brolin: Unless you are a psychotic, insane person, there is a difference between playing a character and not. I'm sorry. I don't care how deep you are into it.

Benicio Del Toro: I see what I do like being a shoemaker. I take pride in what I do. The difference is that I go to the supermarket and people come running at me. There are advantages and disadvantages. It gets confusing. The craft of acting is one thing. The other side -- how to stay real -- if you don't separate it, you can get really confused.

Brolin: There is a fear that you will fuck up or lose it. For me, it started with a play, "True West." I left for three days because they were deciding whether or not they wanted to continue the play or not. I left and took a little vacation and when I went back, I gave the worst fucking performance of my life because I completely separated myself. So I always have a healthy fear that if I just keep the character running at all times (it will work out), and I feel obligated to do that. I know people who go to the trailer and play PlayStation. But at the same time, you are there to do a job. You are there to be professional. Know your stuff. Once it's done, you are done.

THR: How does your approach to a role change when you are playing a real person?

Brolin: It's not the same. It's great because you have the information. But it's a little more disconcerting because there is some form of copy that goes into it. I want to get that voice or the body language. Then you have to always personalize it. You have to humanize the character. To not do that doesn't make any sense.

Jackman: Were you more stringent to mimic Bush?

Brolin: Less with Bush. More with Dan White (in "Milk"). The reason is that there are so many characters to play in "W." With Dan White, we covered 10 months. With Bush (we covered) 37 years. It starts with him at 21 years old and ends up at 58. It's very rare to do that. You have to start graphing out. Where were the milestones? When did this change? What is the difference between him at 21 and 25?

THR: Benicio, was that your process as well with Che?

Del Toro: Pretty much what (Brolin) said. But I think his is harder. His is 37 years. Mine is 10 or less. I don't have Che on CNN every night, but I have history. I got to meet people who knew him and told me things about him. In the end, (Brolin) is doing an interpretation. So am I. I'm not Che.

Rourke: I got an ashtray at home with Che's face on it. Yeah, he does look like you. (Laughs.)

THR: Mickey, how do you prepare for a part?

Rourke: I was fortunate enough to stumble into the Actors Studio. I had no money and no social life; I had nothing to do but study all the time. I wasn't screwing chicks or taking people out to dances. Studio 54 was going on but I didn't know about Studio 54. I was living in my little room, doing construction every day. I would grab bums off the street to read lines with. This whole Stanislavski thing boils down to: You are as good as your teacher, and you are as good as the hard work you put into it. If you haven't done it, or studied it to the fullest extent, then you can't f***ing teach it. There are a lot of teachers out there, but only a few can really tap into it. I made a choice in ("The Wrestler"). I said, I want to wear a hearing aid. And I made the choice not because I needed a prop but because I knew a wrestler who was once a bodybuilder, and he blew out both his eardrums 'cause he used to work building Harleys. And I had to fight like hell for this. Darren said to me, "I'm not going to give you one of your Method-actor studio props." And I said, "Whoa whoa whoa. Will you rethink this?" And then he did something that I think was smart: He underused it. I probably would have overused it. But I justified the choice.

THR: You brought up an interesting point. What is the best way to handle a major disagreement with a director?

Rourke: I had to learn the hard way. Early on, I worked with some real good guys: Coppola, Cimino, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne. As long as I have respect for the director, I will give him my lungs. But as soon as I needed to pay my mortgage on some stupid house in Beverly Hills that I couldn't afford, I'm working on a piece that I don't believe in and working for a director who's letting another actor tell him where to put the camera. I learned a lesson that I need to live within my means so that I don't have to whore myself and go to work on some piece of crap with somebody that I don't respect.

THR: Ed, what's the secret to directing yourself?

Harris: I can't explain it. I just feel comfortable doing it. Directing is a compulsion. It's instinctive: "I want to do this thing."

THR: Does anyone else have any desire to direct?

Harris: Mickey, you'd be great at it.

Rourke: I thought about that. But if I was the director then I would still be feuding as we're talking here, so I don't think I'm cut out for it.

Jackman: Not for me. I feel I'm too indecisive on the little things. I don't have the confidence. It took me years before I finally understood the camera and how to tell a story visually. I feel more informed by atmosphere and rhythm and audience, and that sort of thing. So as an actor, I can feel that.

Jenkins: I've directed a lot of theater, and what I've found is that I am really an actor. I did love rehearsal and exploring stuff, but I also feel as a director, you know this movie better than anybody. I can't see a movie in my head. I work with the Coen brothers a lot and it's there -- they have a movie in their head. They let you do your work, but man, my brain doesn't work that way.

THR: Can a good actor play almost any role?

Jenkins: No. Maybe I am giving myself away as not a good actor, but I think we have limitations, and the older I get, I realize I can't do everything. Even though you would like to think you can, that's just my opinion. There are things I read and I think, I don't know what I'd bring to this. There are people who can do this better than me.

Brolin: We have limitations, but what limitations? We don't know our limitations until we experience them. I can go play a jock and people will say, "Hey, he's got the hair, he's got the jaw." But then I play it and I'm awful because I don't understand it.

THR: Hugh, do you feel like there are parts you can't play because of your status as a movie star?

Jackman: No, that doesn't come into my mind. But there are some things I read, and I just go, "No." You generally get a gut feeling. You've got that compulsion to play (a part). People will say, "You're so wrong for that." But if you have that compulsion to play it, and it turns you on but you feel a little bit scared, then give it a go. And if they close the door, say, "You were right, but thanks for giving me a shot."

THR: How has the business changed the most in the last 15-20 years?

Rourke: Well, I wasn't in the business for the last 15 years. You're asking the wrong guy! (Laughs.) I don't look at this whole thing as a business, but you've got to meet these guys in an office. They aren't always the most pleasant people, those casting people. I remember some dude sitting there and eyeballing me and I thought, "What the fuck does he want?" You got to get over that and go, "Hi, how are you doing? I like that shirt." And that's a game. So it starts that way. A lot of us aren't prepared for that. There are so many actors out there now that are movie stars because they're good at that. They know how to be political and get by being mediocre -- and get paid a lot of money. You look at guys back in the day like Monty Clift and Brando -- they were all actors. Richard Harris. Those guys. I like to read biographies. I read the Errol Flynn biography -- Jesus Christ! I've been there and back! His career was over by 41. The guy was beautiful and he really wanted to be an actor, not a sword-doer, and they put him in a category. Here was a guy who had it all but then he self-destructed.

Harris: It's a business. That's the huge problem. It's a huge corporate business.

THR: But it's a business built on creativity.

Harris: No, it's not a business built on creativity at all. It's built on the almighty dollar. Let's be real.

Brolin: The business is creative. But a lot of times, when the business people try to make creative decisions, things get really muddy. I've been fortunate to work with these amazing filmmakers recently. Instead of taking the extra buck, they are willing to give it up in order to have final cut. For them, it's most important. The Coens are a perfect example. "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" made a lot of money, especially the music. The music made over $200 million, but I don't think they saw but 5 cents of that whole thing, and they are OK with that because they got final cut.

THR: Do you ever try to predict how well your movies will do?

Brolin: We were convinced "No Country for Old Men" wasn't going to make a cent. The Coens actually said that to me, "Nobody is going to see this movie." You never know.

Harris: We were lucky to get "Appaloosa" out there. If you were to talk to me three months ago, I thought it was going to go straight to video. I called up (Alan) Horn at Warner Bros. personally, and I said, "Look if you don't back this a little bit, you know it'll be gone in a week, and it's a good film. It deserves a shot at something." The guy heard me and respected me, and respected the film and got behind it, to a good degree.

THR: What would you do if you weren't an actor?

Jenkins: I drove a laundry truck and had seven accidents in two months. One -- I wasn't even in the truck. A laundry bag hit the gear. It rolled down and hit a guy's parked car. There is nothing I would do.

Rourke: I had a candy store. It was in an alleyway. We sold candy. Our clientele were the Hells Angels and Bob Dylan with his hood on. Nobody knew who Bob was. He was real quiet. Then the Hells Angels would come in. Then the beautiful models. Christy Turlington. It was one hell of a candy store. I had a private office in the back. It was '50s-style. We had a humidifier and blue smoke came out of the pipes. We would all get on the motorcycles at night. I wanted a place to hang out with people that I wanted to hang out with. It was a boys and girls club.

Del Toro: Bullfighter.

Jackman: I wanted to be a radio stringer. I wanted to go around the world with a recorder, and I got my journalism degree and was all ready to go. Somehow I detoured.

Brolin: The whole reason I became an actor is because you can play all the different professions that you wouldn't have to honestly feel pressure to accomplish.

Harris: I've grown fond of horses over the years. I would like to learn how to train horses. I would need somebody to help me out.

THR: Is there another era in which you would have liked to be an actor?

Del Toro: I'm OK. I think it's the same stuff that went on. At least from what I've read.

Rourke: It's like they say, "Who is the best fighter who has ever lived?" What era? You can't compare Joe Lewis to Muhammed Ali. You can't compare someone today with Joe DiMaggio. Different eras. Back in the day, guys worked jobs. Now they just work out all the time.