Roundtable: Actors

Six leading Oscar contenders discuss their craft, the state of the industry and the pitfalls of the fame culture

By all accounts, it has been a stellar year for male performances in film. The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway gathered six awards front-runners -- (pictured, top row from left) Tom Wilkinson (Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton"), George Clooney (Warner Bros.' "Michael Clayton"), Javier Bardem (Miramax's "No Country for Old Men"), Casey Affleck (Warner Bros.' "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"); (bottom row) John Travolta (New Line's "Hairspray") and Ryan Gosling (MGM's "Lars and the Real Girl")  -- for a freewheeling discussion of their work.

The Hollywood Reporter: Let's talk about the writers strike. How do you feel about it?
George Clooney: You're not really dealing with the studios any more. You are dealing with multinational corporations. And when some place like Warner Bros. has an epic year and they have to lay off 400 people because there might be a blip on their stock market radar -- I don't think that matters (to them).

THR: Is that trend restricted to Hollywood, or is it something we're seeing throughout the country?
Clooney: There's no question that it is symptomatic of everything going on. Rich people are much richer, and poor people are much poorer, and I don't think anything this industry is experiencing is severed from the rest of the country.

THR: You get pretty vocal addressing some of these issues publicly. Does that hurt you career?
Clooney: It does, and it doesn't. Either you have an opinion or you don't, and either you express it or you don't. I think there are people who have been really vocal over the years and have had really successful careers and people who haven't. It is about doing decent films.

THR: Javier, what do you look for when you take on a film?
Javier Bardem: Nothing in particular, other than finding something that I would like to watch onscreen, based on my intuition -- which is as wrong as anybody's, but that is all I have.

THR: Is it the script? Is it the director?
Bardem: It is the story. The movies that stay with us forever are those (where) the stories are very powerful and then the characters.

THR: Are there some stories that you would not do?
Ryan Gosling: I was against ("Lars and the Real Girl") when I heard the concept: This was a movie about a guy and a sex toy. That was going to be funny for five minutes. I didn't see how it could last for a whole film. Then I read it, and I thought it was such a special writer, Nancy Oliver. It sort of reminded me of (1950's) "Harvey," which is one of my favorite films. I was waiting for it to get cynical, to get edgy or dark, and it never did -- it just believed that there is goodness in people. And that, I thought, was a radical idea.

THR: Do you agree with that philosophy? And do you have to agree with the philosophy of the movie you're in?
Gosling: I have been exploring the self-destructive side of my nature, being young and sort of brooding, watching 20 James Dean movies, and I've got that out of my system a little bit. (This) was rooted in a hopeful and positive place, so it seemed to be a really fertile ground for creativity, as opposed to the other things, where I hit a ceiling.
John Travolta: I don't believe that an actor has to agree or disagree with anything they do on the screen. I think it is their job to reflect humanity correctly, create emotion, create truth. I don't think that I would hang out with three-quarters of my characters. The message of a project is important, but if you look at the overall scheme of things, that is (just one) variable.
Casey Affleck: Someone said that belief is like telling someone in the dark that you love them and not hearing anything back. And that runs true for me. Just because I don't believe it (doesn't mean) that there is not some value in the ideas of the movie.

THR: What if you work with a director with a different point of view? (Knowing laughter.) What happens when you don't see eye to eye?
Bardem: I've had that experience twice in almost 20 years of work, and it's hell. (One director) told me what to do, how to do it, when to do it, in what way, in what tone. And I said, "Why don't you do it yourself, man?" It kind of becomes an ego battle. I really don't need that.
Travolta: It is collaborative. It is the only art form that is truly collaborative. And you have to be in that spirit of mind, or it won't work.
Clooney: I have two opinions on that: As an actor, it is collaborative; and as a director, it is a dictatorship! But if you cast the right people and lead them in the right direction, they will do right. The only time things seem to be wrong is when someone is trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
Travolta: High-end directors always give their actors their heads, and you get very little direction -- unlike this fable we grew up with, that directors take you aside and do all the acting for you. That is just the biggest lie ever. The great ones let you alone to create your vision.
Tom Wilkinson: The good ones don't bother you. They know what you can do and the sort of thing they want you to do and you can offer up choices.
Travolta: I think it is also your job to be a Chinese menu for the director. I like to give him lots of options, within the scope of reality, and when they get into the editing room, they can choose one of many choices. I don't think there is any one absolute. If you are in the zone of the character, you cannot tell a lie in that framework.
Wilkinson: Ang Lee -- I worked with him a few years ago, and his command of English at that time was not (great). He'd sidle up to you and point to a little bit of the script and say, "First bit slow, second bit quick!" And it was exactly what it was supposed to be.
Travolta: I also find that great directors will give you one little tidbit that will carry a through line. I remember Robert Altman -- I did a little piece called "The Dumb Waiter" with him for television (1987's "Basements"). The character was a hit man that kept on reading things. Bob just whispered in my ear, "What if you were illiterate?" That is all he said, and it took me right through the whole piece.

THR: Has directing given you a different perspective?
Clooney: Yes. Actors in general have to think about their character in the scene: "What does my character need or want out of this scene?" A director has to think about what in this scene is required to make the entire film work. It's about understanding the difference between the two. Every actor-character wants to win in a scene, but as a director you understand that (other things are going on).

THR: Tom, do you approach a scene from a winning-losing stance?
Wilkinson: There is only one thing important to me in a scene: the point of view of my character. It's not to do with winning; it's not to do with losing. A well-written scene is when this guy enters and wants this to happen and everything you do is conducive to that.
Affleck: "What do they want? What are they going after?" That is the first read, and then you sort of quilt together some understanding of the person in general.

THR: Beyond that, how do you prepare for a part?
Gosling: I don't have a method. I wish I did. It keeps it interesting to try different roles, because then you have to approach (the process) differently every time.

THR: Did you have any formal training to help with that?
Gosling: No. I have been working since I was a kid.

THR: Do you regret not having training?
Gosling: Not a lot of American actors of my generation are trained, but sometimes you will work with people from other countries, and they come with this set of tools, and it is a craft. They don't (attach as much of) their identities to it.
Travolta: My daughter just did her first part in a movie with me this summer. She was brilliant, and she never had a wink of any (training), but if you have an opportunity as a child, sometimes that is your training ground.
Affleck: The more cynical answer is that, for our generation, (it is about wanting to be) famous, not about wanting to be an actor because of loving doing the thing. That is their goal, and they are not spending all this time on how to do it.
Gosling: I was watching "The Carol Burnett Show" yesterday. And every single one of those actors could sing, dance, act, be funny, write their own sketches. I mean, they were epic talents. The old studio system used to train people. You had to be like a weapon. Now it is just not the case. You watch shows like "American Idol" (Fox) and see people who can't sing at all, who are convinced that they can. I saw this guy who went in and juggled. It's a singing show, and he juggled! And he came out crying.
Travolta: When I was a kid, it would be embarrassing to be famous if you didn't have any talent. We were a theater family, and if you didn't have any goods, it was (over). That moral code changed through the years, where fame became important and not the ability behind it.

THR: Why did it change?
Travolta: Reality shows.
Clooney: The way you got an agent when we were young was, you did plays and readings and such. I don't see that being the case anymore. When we were young, it was, "Do you have a tape?" Which meant you had to have done 10 shows to make a tape.
Travolta: There's the trend also of athletes and models evolving into acting. That sent a signal that you could transfer from one profession to the other quite easily.

THR: Why has there been this drive to become famous?
Gosling: People got tired of feeling small. They would go to the theater and see these people on a huge screen -- and you feel like a tiny little midget. Now you can watch people on your iPod, and you are so much bigger than them. It's revolutionary.
Clooney: The difference of being famous from television and famous from film is, when you are famous from a television series, people (feel they) know you personally because you're in their homes. I remember getting off a plane with Mel Gibson. I was "doing (NBC's) "ER"; Mel Gibson was Mel Gibson! He was 20 feet high, and you paid $12 to go see him. And everyone is whispering, "Mel Gibson, Mel Gibson!" And they're like, "George!" (He imitates someone putting him in a headlock.) There is such a difference between the two.

THR: Stars are known for a certain persona. Do you feel you can't play some roles because of that?
Clooney: Yeah. I wrote (2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck") for me to play it, and then I looked at it, and I thought, "This is a guy who is inherently sad, and there's a weight to him that doesn't come with my persona." As an actor, I wanted to play it because it was by far the best part. But as a director, I needed an actor who has a different kind of gravity.

THR: That didn't stop you from doing (2005's) "Syriana," though?
Clooney: There are just some songs that make you dance.

THR: Did you have any formal training yourself?
Clooney: Yes. I studied with Milton Katselas for years, and I did tons of Equity-waiver plays and plays in Chicago.

THR: Tom, you had formal training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Has that helped?
Wilkinson: I don't think so. You start acting when you are young, and you've got an awful lot of extra baggage that you carry around, just to do with insecurity, vanity and being young. You do get better. If you still enjoy acting, as I do, you have learned something from everything you've ever done.
Travolta: Not every teacher is necessarily for you, so they could squelch a very wonderful talent. There is a famous school in the Midwest that will remain nameless, but when I looked at the statistics, only one or two people ever parlayed that into something that mattered. I remember a dear friend of mine who was not doing well at auditions. I said, "Let me see (what you do)." Then I said, "You are reading the script during the audition. Why don't you memorize it?" He said, "My acting teacher said, 'Let them know you are better than (the audition)." That is the biggest lie!
Clooney: Actors when they go to an audition all think that the people behind the desk are going to hate you. Every time you walk in, you're like, "Oh God! Just don't hate me!" And what they don't understand is that everyone sitting behind the desk is going, "Please be the answer to my problem! Please be the right guy."

THR: Does that dependence on other people bother you?
Bardem: Yes. I come from a long family (line) of actors. My parents and my grandparents were actors, back in the time when actors were not allowed to be buried on sacred land. They were among the prostitutes! I always prayed not to be an actor. "Please, God, don't make me an actor!" And then I got it (caught the acting bug), and you start to realize that 10% of the actors work and 90% are unemployed, and it is not an easy job. We all think that (success) may end one day, because we depend on other people saying, "I am bored with this one. Next!"

THR: You grew up in the theater, like John?
Bardem: I (have gone) to an acting school since I was 19. And from that moment on, every time I can, I go there and train with the same guy in Spain. It is the best thing. That is when I feel the pleasure of performing: When I go there and have to do a role. Some of the other times, I am obsessed with being good. But there, in that little room, I go, "Let's find the pleasure of performing."

THR: How did growing up with an acting family affect you?
Travolta: I found it helped tremendously. First of all, the arts were admired in our household, so we were unlike other households, where it was degraded and pooh-poohed. We were free to express ourselves -- probably too much.

THR: Casey, you didn't have that?
Affleck: No. I always wanted to be a baseball player. And then I went to high school, and all the kids were bigger than I was, and I thought, "Fuck this." And there was a summer musical. I had done a theater class, and they came and asked me to do that. There were 19 girls and me in the cast, and I thought, "That doesn't sound bad." It turned out I was tone-deaf, but I loved it. I think I could have chosen anything (as a profession), but I had one of those teachers that you hope your kids get who inspired me. And I love him for that. I wasn't interested in acting at all until I met this guy.

THR: Do you keep in touch with him?
Affleck: Yep.
Gosling: Sometimes I work with this woman and her daughter. They are friends. It is just nice to have someone to talk to. In the preparation process, you are so isolated. Every time you take a role, you have no idea how you are going to do it; you have to throw everything out and start again. But that is the most fun part to me.

THR: Have you thought of directing?
Gosling: I have tried to make this film about child soldiers in (Africa). It is a difficult film to make, and I don't want to direct just to direct. I went to Chad (Africa) and had an experience with these kids in the refugee camps. I know that if I could use what I learned about being a child actor and give them a form to express themselves, they could make a really good movie, a narrative based on their experiences.

THR: Why did you go to Chad?
Gosling: Angelina (Jolie). She is really amazing. She is doing this documentary that she financed herself, where she basically sent out 25 groups of people all over the world, and we were all to turn on the camera at the same time and film three minutes, and then she would cut that together. I was there for two weeks waiting for these three minutes.

THR: Is it hard to do that and then come back and act? (Numerous voices say no.)
Clooney: That is the beautiful thing about being actors: You learn about different societies and different worlds.

THR: Are you still free to observe people in those worlds?
Travolta: You just have to be more clever in how you do it. I still do it. Believe it or not, there are moments where you can -- not disappear, but get through that moment of being recognized. You meet people at various places -- like in the middle of the night, you are at Walgreens and you get into conversations. I remember talking to a cabbie in London all night. Everyone is interesting. I don't care who they are -- everybody is interesting. You just have to have the patience to find out what they're interesting about. I do this as kind of a test of my own tolerance. I take the person that looks the most boring, most uninteresting, and I will sit there until I find something interesting about them. (With one person), I was looking at him and thinking, "OK, there is absolutely nothing." It turns out he was a heroin addict, and he was the son of a famous model. At first glance, he was something else.
Affleck: That's how we first met. (Laughter.)
Clooney: It is trickier, though. There is a certain amount of not seeing people at their most honest. I have friends who will be treated like shit by someone, and I will go in with them, and they'll treat them like kings. With producers, I have the waiter's test: You sit down with the producers and see how they treat the waiter.

THR: Have you ever been fooled?
Travolta: All the time. That is why I get so fanatical about trying to figure people out, because I think I have been the dunce that keeps on getting banged on the head over the years.

THR: You can be fooled by people, but not by the scripts?
Clooney: You are only as good as the screenplay. Always.

THR: How much do you feel free to tamper with a script?
Travolta: If it is well written, I don't want to touch it. But if it is not, I feel a complete right to tamper with it because I'm the one that has to say it. At the end of the day, when the lights go down (in the movie theater), they are blaming it all on the actor.
Affleck: I don't have the confidence to do that. Once you sign on to something, you sort of sign on to this guy's movie (the director's). Sometimes, you see a movie you did, and you think (after having argued a point), "What the hell was I talking about? Every idea I talked to him about, I was wrong about, and what an idiot I am."
Travolta: But everybody has been involved in a script that is almost there, and it is part of your job as an actor to make sure it gets better.
Clooney: I don't think anybody here has had trouble when the script was great. The times that are trouble are when the script isn't quite where it should be.
Wilkinson: You develop this technique to make different writing sound good. I did my own cop series, and (the character) was the biggest idiot in the world. All the questions he asked were so lame. And I thought, "I am going to give the guy this fantastically rich inner life, so that there's so much going on inside that he can't really concentrate on what he is actually saying." But there is a big tradition in England not to change the script, because most actors are from a theatrical tradition, and they aren't happy doing it.
Clooney: In film, the director is the king, and in television, the executive producer or writer is the king. The director is just there to facilitate what the writer-producer wants. You become director-proof if you are a regular on a series. The director will come on and go, "This is really sad," and you go, "Got it" -- and you don't even hear him, because you know you are doing 22 episodes of it (and can judge those things better).

THR: Did you have trouble when you started working with film directors?
Clooney: Yeah. The first movie I did was (1996's) "From Dusk Till Dawn" with Robert Rodriguez, and the first or second day of the movie, he is going, "More like that!" And I did the same thing again, and he says, "No, more!" I was like, "Oh my God, you're right! I didn't hear you!" You had to stop and learn.

THR: What is the most misunderstood thing about acting?
Travolta: Everybody has their own way and method of getting there. I have a much more playful way (than some actors). I remember Billy Bob Thornton and I getting reprimanded severely by Mike Nichols for not giving Kathy Bates the time she needed because we were having fun (on 1998's "Primary Colors"). And she had a very heavy scene, and we were not being considerate of her. And he was right. You have to respect each other's methods -- which I have not always been good at. I've learned to understand that everyone has a different way.