It can be a fine line, and a point of much awards-season engineering, to draw the distinction between a supporting performance and a lead. For a role to be placed in the supporting category by no means diminishes its importance to a story or the challenge for the performer in the part.
The actors who make up this year’s Envelope Supporting Actor Roundtable — Josh Brolin for “Inherent Vice” (opening Dec. 12), based on the Thomas Pynchon novel; Edward Norton for “Birdman” (Oct. 17), a surrealist take on fame; Mark Ruffalo for “Foxcatcher” (Nov. 14), the biopic of an Olympic wrestler and his relationship to millionaire John du Pont; J.K. Simmons for “Whiplash” (Oct.10), the story of a ferocious jazz ensemble conductor; and Christoph Waltz for “Big Eyes” (Dec. 25), the true story of Walter Keane, the man who took credit for his wife’s popular paintings — launched into a lively conversation, covering a wide range of topics.
Do they research a character, particularly when they are playing a real-life person? Yes, but then again, no (depends on who you ask). Is there value in shooting dozens of takes on a scene? Yes, it helps you invest in the character — to a point. They also tackled such weighty issues as trust, fear — and rocket science.
Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:
Keegan: J.K., you had a real musical background before you got into your role in “Whiplash.” Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Simmons: My background was more classical. Well, it started out being like, you know, folk rock and cheesy guitar playing in coffeehouses, but then I got into classical music and got my college degree in that. Thought I wanted to be Leonard Bernstein when I grew up and then kind of ended up doing this foolishness. That background came in really handy with “Whiplash,” being able to actually read the score and conduct; I just had to translate what I knew into the jazz idiom.
Brolin: Were you actually conducting?
Simmons: Yeah, I mean all those guys that we see playing in the film are actually—virtually all of them were musicians and we were playing live. Miles is playing live. The guys are playing live.
Brolin: So that whole thing that he did, that whole solo, all that was all him?
Simmons: Yeah, I mean it’s sweetened in the mix, you know.
Waltz: And when they played live, did they play what you conducted?
Simmons: Yes, they did. And they actually followed me. I mean after the first couple of takes, the guy—the musicians, you know, would be like, “You did a lot of research for this, didn't you?” Yeah, starting in 1976.
Keegan: Mark, you also brought a wrestling background into your role. Was it helpful?
Ruffalo: To a degree. The character I played wrestled — I'm right-handed and he was left-handed, so I had to kind of relearn everything. I had to throw out what I knew. But the culture of wrestling I understood and I think the movie is as much wrestling as the culture of wrestling.
Olsen: And Ed, you have some background in acting. Was that helpful for you ...
Keegan: In playing a theater actor?
Norton: I'm glad you went there and not to the “difficult actor” part. But yeah for sure. I think New York theater actors have certain foibles and predilections and prejudices and superstitions — there's a culture. And there's a view of what that process is as opposed to the film one. So I think it being rooted in that was certainly helpful, yeah.
Simmons: I used to be one of those guys.
Keegan: Is there actually that disdain? Is that a real thing?
Simmons: Well, that can be part of it. Honestly it sometimes is exacerbated by, a film or television actor coming into a play and not really having that set of chops. I mean not every theater actor can be a wonderful screen actor too. There are lots of overlapping skills but there are some that are unique to the medium too.
Brolin: For having done a lot of theater, I remember a lot of people in talking about Hollywood negatively and saying, “I'm not going to sell out; this is the real art. And then like six months later, you’d see them in a chicken commercial or something. That was the only thing I didn't like about theater was the attitude, and there's that attitude here too.
Ruffalo: It’s fear.
Brolin: Fear, exactly.
Keegan: Is that was drives it you think?
Simmons: It drives a lot of negativity, you know, just in life in general.
Ruffalo: Yeah, almost everything. There's like fear and love and those are the two things driving everything.
Keegan: Cristoph, in “Big Eyes” you play a real man, a sort of frustrated artist. Did you do any research into who he was or did you just come up with your own construction?
Waltz: Well, you know, I think research is a good thing. But it’s a little bit become sort of a let's say a gimmick — anything that gets the imagination going, and if research does it, fine, great. I don't think acting is rocket science ...
Waltz: Of course you find your bearings and whatever works is good. So I read his autobiography and I found it wasn’t good. So that's where research actually got in the way. I always think, “Well what makes the real character more real than the character I play when it’s just written in a script?” So I stick with the script.
Keegan: If the research wasn’t helpful for you in the case of “Big Eyes,” what was? How did you find the character?
Waltz: I have to bridge a cultural gap, which is interesting. This man was American; I’m not. There finer cultural details that I need to find out and just try to understand what America in the ’60s and ’50s really entailed and what made it so different from what I know.
Simmons: I just got done playing a German-speaking character. We really should have played each other’s parts I think. It would have been way simpler.
Waltz: And I really envy you playing a conductor because that's been my ultimate goal for the past 30 years.
Simmons: There’ll be other movies about conductors, whether they're from Austria or wherever.
Olsen: Mark, you've actually likened the process of making “Foxcatcher” to a form of investigative journalism and I'm curious how you feel about the need for research.
Ruffalo: Well, we're playing people that were beloved by the wrestling community. And we had to wrestle, you can’t fake that. But, you know, to Christoph’s point, you use research as a way to free yourself from yourself, and to push out your comfort zone a little bit. There was a lot to learn about that world. I feel like each movie sort of takes you on a journey and we get to go on a lot of different kinds of journeys. [For “Foxcatcher”] I found myself wanting to know more and more about these people. “It’s a mystery what happened at “Foxcatcher.” It's like “Rashomon,” it has many different realities and many different viewpoints.
Olsen: You actually wore the glasses of the man you were playing?
Ruffalo: Yeah, they're a particular look and the family — I'm playing a real person and you can’t forget that there's a legacy there. And there's a lot of personal things tied up in it. These young kids lost their father from a murder. And so yeah we're making a movie, but you also have to be careful. It becomes a bit of an imperative that you're as honest as possible with your story telling. We were asked by the director to make these relationships and to find out as much as we could to fill in the blanks.
Norton: That struck me about the film. That sounds like it should be the norm but there are a lot of films about real people and their struggles and their lives that take a lot of liberties and a lot of license with what they decide to leave out or what they decide to add in. There's an incredible amount of discipline in “Foxcatcher” in terms of the determination to confront what is meaningful or strange or mysterious in that story but sticking to the exactitude of what occurred, you know? It really allows mystery to sit where mystery sits within that story and it allows you to meet the characters without a lot of exposition.
Keegan: Josh I want to talk a little bit about the look or your character in “Inherent Vice.” He’s got this great haircut and 1970 cop look. How did that help you find the character?
Brolin: That was like a last resort kind of thing because [director Paul Thomas Anderson] saw this kind of Jack Lord “Hawaii Five-O” thing and I had my head shaved for something else so I was just about maybe at a quarter inch where we couldn't really do it the way he wanted it. And we talked about hair extensions and all this stuff. I kept thinking of “The Right Stuff” and guys who were just in a completely different era and refused to evolve into the next era. And you know, seeing this kind of like gray, ’50s idea of the way things ought to be — you're the husband and you're the man and you have your wife and she cooks the food and all this kind of idea. Then I saw this picture of a cop back then with a weird-looking flat top, but it was a flat top. Twenty minutes before we started shooting, I said what about a flat top? “Ah, I don't think so.” And then we just paced around and paced around and finally he just said OK and we did it. So it could have been horrible. It was horrible. I mean if you look at it, it’s horrible.
Norton: It’s perfect. I can’t even imagine anything else. It’s perfectly horrible.
Brolin: And I was like doing a speech thing, which I have a tendency to do as if every movie is my first movie and thinking I have to limp and speak in a German accent or something like that.
Ruffalo: A hunchback.
Brolin: Yeah a hunchback prosthetic. Then right before you start something clicks, you know. Sometimes you feel like you have it before. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you're into shooting and still feel like you don't have it and you think you messed up the whole movie. And then you watch it and you're like, oh, it actually worked. The one thing that hasn’t happened is this: “I nailed that.”
Olsen: Ed, with the long takes style of “Birdman,” there isn’t a lot of a safety net there. It seems like whatever decisions you're making in the moment, you're going to be living with that throughout the entirety of that take. And you've talked about how Alejandro Inarritu, the director, wasn't giving himself a lot of safety as far as things to cut to, or other things to do. How did you feel about making decisions in the moment and the fact that you were going to have to live with that for the rest of the shoot?
Norton: On the one hand, there's the part of every actor that sort of says wait, you're going to say action and then for the next 12 minutes no one can interrupt me!? Joking aside, it’s kind of wonderful to be liberated to play through moments and have that connect even to other moments and other scenes without all this artifice of the fragmentation and the repetition. It activates an authentic emotional feeling and in terms of the stakes, it brings a heightened focus that I think infuses the scenes with energy. It really was Alejandro who was taking the risk by throwing away the optionality of choices later. The way films are generally constructed is really a glorified insurance package. It’s a way of a director going home with lots of raw material to manipulate later and make choices about later. And he threw away all of that optionality for himself. He forced himself into a determination on the day that that stretch of nine minutes is going into the film without alteration.
Keegan: That's interesting because when we had Emma Stone here, she told us she was terrified of messing up one of those beautiful long takes and being the one who brought everybody’s stuff down.
Simmons: Sounds like a chick thing to me.
Norton: I was terrified she would mess up too. No, I can’t explain it, I thought the experience of making something in that way was very joyful, very vital, you know, exciting. The consequences of messing up were really just that you would do it again. It’s not really fatal. If it’s been going and going and other actors have done wonderful work, inspired work and many magical unrepeatable things have happened and you happen to have a very small sort of functional piece at the tail end of that, you don’t really want to drop the ball when everyone has done wonderful stuff.
Simmons: It’s great to work with a director who has that sort of complete vision going in and doesn't feel the need for the, you know, A, B, C box cutter coverage. “We have to be safe here,” you know. Which in almost the opposite way and with a very young director, Damien Chazelle who did “Whiplash,” he knew because he was a musician and a storyteller and a visual artist. He knew going in that he had 19 days to make the movie so, he didn't have time to do all that kind of coverage. But he also knew, you know, for these two measures here, I know I'm going to be on the trumpet players so I don't have to cover JK here. I don't have to cover Miles there. And there were scenes where we would shoot a dialogue scene between Miles and me where the camera would never turn around because he knew going in “What I'm interested in is how this is affecting Miles’ character.”
Norton: Do you find value in repetition? What's the tipping point for inspiration in some sense, I mean, do you find as you work longer that you want more or less takes at it?
Waltz: In general, I like repetition. In general I find continuous investment pays off. Also, I just meant to jump to the defense of conventional filmmaking because it’s not always lack of imagination that directors cover their scenes. Sometimes they need it for their vision, talking about the vision.
Simmons: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Waltz: It’s a deliberate choice. And if it’s a studio movie, they have people breathing down their necks. So it’s not really insurance. It’s kind of a requirement. In terms of conventional filmmaking, I like repetition because there is discovery involved in doing it 100%. And since one does it 100% every actual take, there is sort of an incremental increase. I don't know how I would have handled Stanley Kubrick with 85 takes in a day and then continue the next day with another 85 of the same set up. There's boredom too that one needs to attend.
Norton: Yeah and trust. A lot depends on how you feel about the people you're working with. If a filmmaker’s asking for that and you have a deep trust you go to a different place in your head where you say, “well then it’s up to me to make this investment.” [To Ruffalo] I mean, we both worked with David [Fincher] who’s pound for pound one of the most talented filmmakers around, but I worked with him when he was blessedly still working in film. So he would do like 30 or 40 takes and you did the first one where he was on digital. [To everyone] I was working with a mutual friend of ours in China and we were getting emails from Mark saying, like, we just passed number 80 and I just heard [Fincher] say, like, erase the first 35 or something like that. Mark was in despair.
Norton: Did you reach a point where you thought whatever he’s still chasing he’s pushed me past the point where I'm doing my best stuff?
Ruffalo: No, because he had special moments that he wanted to pop in on. So you're jumping in; you haven't had a lot of rehearsal. Actors have different rhythms where they hit their peak. But there was one take, we were like at take 85 and it was a big single [on Ruffalo] and a walk and talk. It was like seven pages. It was one of my first days of work and he started walking over to me and I thought to myself, “They got the wrong guy. And he’s finally figured it out. It’s fine, Mark. You did your best. And you know what? They're going to have to pay me anyway.”
And then he walked right by me to the background guy behind me; he moved him like two inches and then he turned around and walked away and patted me on the back as he went. And I went, “You know what? This dude is like—I'm only 10% of the frame. And this guy’s going for 100%. And this actor’s hitting his high spot at this moment. This actor’s still lagging. And he is going to wait until we're all the best we could possibly be at that special moment when everything comes together.” And then once you realize that's the trip you're on, then that's the trip you go on. That's the part I was saying is each movie, each director, each thing, it has it’s own journey and it’s own style. And I find the more I've given over to that the less I suffer, the more fun I have.
Simmons: Oh, it’s part of the joy, yeah, collaborating with a different guy.
Waltz: Then I would always say it depends on the kind of material wouldn't you say?
Ruffalo: Yes, I had great material.
Waltz: You know, to say something 85 times and continue to think about it, it needs to be worthwhile thinking about it.
Ruffalo: Totally. That comes way before the first day of shooting.
Brolin: And you don't know what's going to happen. You know, you don't know that you're shooting “The Shining” when you're shooting “The Shining.” You know, it’s just not part of the deal. I know movies that I've done — “No Country [for Old Men]” — where they said, you must have felt that there was something [special there]. I remember [director] Ethan Coen walking up to me in the middle of the desert and he just shuffled by and he goes, “Nobody’s going to see this movie.” I was just like what are you saying that in the middle of the film for?
But I wanted to say one thing — I did this movie called “American Gangster” and I showed up and I was supposed to lose a lot of weight because I had a vision of losing a lot of weight and this is the actor pretense. I didn't, you know, out of laziness. So I showed up and they had these measurements of me skinnier. So I put on what I had to put on, the 1970s polyester suit and all that. And it was very tight, really, really tight and I went into rehearse with Russell [Crowe] and you know, Russell was Russell and I was nervous and I hadn’t met Ridley [Scott]. I'd been given the part because I taped myself and sent it to him and I was given the part. And he says, “Well, look we're going to do it like this and we’d like to do it like this.” And I said great OK, um, do you mind if I just try one like one time to just kind of — I just wanted to get my nerves out. I was shaking.
And then finally I started the scene and I grabbed a chair and pull it up to Russell, and as I sat down the ass of my pants ripped wide open. Usually I would be a guy who would, you know, that would be a great moment to break the ice and I missed that moment. So I continued with the scene with Russell looking at me, you know, deeply in my eyes and the sweat started to come down and I started to shake. And then we finished—it was the worst acting I've ever done for sure, bar none. And we finished and with Ridley there was a long silence. And then Ridley looked at me and he says, uh, “So are you good?” And I said “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah I think so.” And I backed out of the room and I went in my trailer and waited to be fired. And then finally after five minutes there was a knock at the door and it was Ridley and I was ready to apologize and he says, “Listen, what you're doing is amazing. You brought a vulnerability that I didn't see in the character.” And I was like, what? So, you never know is the point. You never know, man.
Olsen: And Mark, in talking about “Foxcatcher,” a lot has been said between Channing Tatum and Steve Carell about how they felt they never actually met each other until the premiere of the movie at Cannes. Did you feel that as well? It seems like the atmosphere of that set was very specific.
Ruffalo: It was a very serious and quiet set. And that's sort of set by the director [Bennet Miller]. We were shooting in Pittsburgh in dead of winter, so there was a certain misery around the proceedings that just kept it very serious and Bennett’s, very serious. And he doesn't like too much goofing around, so I'd have to take that off set. Once Steve was there, because of his face and the transformation that he goes through that way, he was odd-looking, off-putting. So you find yourself sort of not wanting to be around the guy. But he was also removed from us. Channing and I were together all the time but Steve was never around us. It wasn't until we started doing these kinds of things that we really got to know each other.
Olsen: Josh, in making “Inherent Vice,” it seems like as the actors have been talking about the process of making the movie the words “chaos” and “chaotic” keep coming up. What’s your perception of how the film came together?
Brolin: Chaos in the best sense of the word. Everything is directed toward the vision of the filmmaker. And in my experience of Paul there was an incredible amount of trust and collaboration. So when we got together and went through the book and see what he did and what then saturated and desaturated and us going back in there and resaturating it. And then over-saturating it, playing what we used to call Tom and Jerry and going over the top, but still trying to find a reality. It was a very experimental process. But when something felt wrong, he’d go, “You know, it kind of feels like a turd. What do you think?” And I'd go “I think you're right.” And there's no ego of like, “Wait a second, now I'm insecure and now I can’t perform the way I want to.” It really feels so collaborative and so familial that it’s a joy — not necessarily while you're doing it but the process in hindsight.
Norton: We all got to have these experiences in these films that were really positive. A lot of it is rooted in the relationship you have with the director. If you feel dialed into the frequency of someone’s vision, something very, very important happens. It's like an intrinsic puzzle in the psychology of actors and acting, which is that you expose yourself in the attempt to communicate something and there's a certain emotional risk in that. And your ego comes into it and you're working in the construct of someone else’s piece but you have ideas and you have thoughts and you have instincts about truthful or artful expression of whatever that is. And sometimes you want to stick to those, but it’s also really important to service a director’s own exploratory process. So you're trying to do both — follow your own instincts and yet serve.
Brolin: That's why I've always called it a profession of humiliation.
Brolin: No, humiliation.