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From franchises to gentle lyricism, these leading men share insights into filmmaking

From franchises to gentle lyricism, these leading men share insights into filmmaking
From left: Andrew Garfield, Robert De Niro, Joel Edgerton, Casey Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and Adam Driver. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

The performers on this year's lead actor roundtable all shared a deep commitment to their roles, their directors and a sense of adventure in pursuing their work. Whether in stories based in fact or created whole cloth, these six performers bring a feeling of emotional honesty and truth.

The Envelope gathered six men with varying experience levels and backgrounds and a wide body of work — including superhero films, classic mobster movies and romantic comedies. And this year they bring us fact-based stories and tales of loss and redemption: Robert De Niro stars in "The Comedian" as a stand-up comic who realizes it is time for personal and professional change. Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea" plays a man struggling to get his life back on track after a personal tragedy. Joel Edgerton in "Loving" tells the real-life story of the couple who helped to smash laws against interracial marriage.

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Matthew McConaughey in "Gold" plays a struggling businessman who finds himself part of a major gold strike in Indonesia. Andrew Garfield appears in "Hacksaw Ridge" as Desmond Doss, a real-life pacifist and "conscientious collaborator" who saved an estimated 75 men as a medic during WWII. In "Paterson," Adam Driver plays a bus driver and poet in a story laced by a gentle romantic lyricism. Garfield and Driver also appear in Martin Scorsese's late release, "Silence," as Portuguese priests in 17th century Japan.

The actors came together recently in Los Angeles to talk about transformations, the anxieties of franchise filmmaking and the things that mean the most to them in a role.

Robert De Niro talks about "taking stock" in "The Comedian."

Robert, do you find that what you value in a performance now is different from what it was earlier in your career?

De Niro: No, because the final result, if you will, has still gotta be believable, real, you know, creative, original, da-da-da. That's always there. However you get there is something else, but that's the final step. So that doesn't change.

Matthew, over the last few years, you've had a big transition in your career, what people call the McConaissance. Do you feel that you will ever go back to the lighter pictures you made earlier in your career?

McConaughey: I hope so. I'm about due for something that feels like a Saturday afternoon — barefoot and flip-flops. Comedy, a romantic comedy, I wouldn't be against doing another one of those. They were fun to do.

I'd just had a son come into my life. And I just looked around in my life about eight years ago, and was, like, man, my real life feels so vital right now. And I was looking at my work, and I was, like, I'd like my work to challenge my life a little bit. I'd like to find a little more vitality in my work. And I took off for what ended up being about a year and a half. And I guess it ended up being a good idea.

Matthew McConaughey talks about location shooting in Thailand for "Gold." All work, no sightseeing.

Andrew, did you feel more free in your choices after you'd wrapped up the "Spider-Man" franchise? You started working with a lot of different directors after that.

Garfield: Yes, and it's an interesting shift, and I feel incredibly grateful. You know, Adam and I did a film last year with Marty, the perfect anecdote to five years of that, that kind of room where you're at odds with people. Where you're fighting for your vision of a character. So then to be in a room with Mr. Scorsese or with Mel [Gibson], it was like a balm. It was like medicine because they want the most wild and outrageous choices. They want to see you at your most free and expressive and daring, and they don't care who they upset. And they don't care who likes it and who doesn't. So it's a humbling experience and kind of unreal. Like I can't quite believe that it happened. But a very thankful transition. I'm still kind of shaking the cobwebs and dust off from those five years.

Andrew Garfield talks about Desmond Doss, the conscientious objector he portrays in "Hacksaw Ridge."

McConaughey: Let me ask you a question on that. And Robert, you'll have more of an opinion because you've been doing it longer. But you're talking about, like, you had five years and you're part of a franchise. Do you think it's a different game that actors are expected to click into — I'm a part of this machine, this is different. Because I've felt that pressure before as well.

Garfield: My approach wasn't different between those two rooms, those two worlds. But I think that the room you're in is incredibly different.

De Niro: It's different. Doing that and then doing a small drama, if you will, or whatever it is — it's just different. One doesn't cancel out the other.

Edgerton: My concern about those types of movies, and this is maybe a misconception, but where a lot of the room is green screen, and you really don't know that you were gonna fight a monster or whatever. My concern is not so much that I don't want to be a part of those kinds of movies. It's more about the fear of having egg on my face, trying to perform stuff that I find really hard to understand. How you go about doing that stuff when someone's in a room with, like, a pool cue with a tennis ball on the end, and that's supposed to be the thing that you're frightened of. And I've done that before and it feels terrifying.

Adam Driver talks about visiting Paterson, N.J. - and driving a bus - to make "Paterson."

Adam, how do you deal with moving between films like "Paterson" and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"?

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Driver: Obviously, a smaller production, the pace of it is different. You know, there's not as many moving pieces in between takes. So it kind of feels more like a conversation. But I think there's also a value in doing something where there's so many moving parts that it forces you to not rely on any tricks or any kind of comfort, things that you think you need. I guess that's what I learned through that, is the things that I thought I needed to be in my character I really didn't need. But in making it all make sense, your approach, I think, is the same. You know, you still have to break it into pieces and then solve those pieces and then not really worry about what the end result is.

Casey, has it been sort of a conscious decision on your part to avoid those action spectacle movies?

Affleck: Not really. I mean, I haven't done that much of it, that's true. And that's probably because I haven't been drawn to it or because the little bit that I've done hasn't been as much fun. I guess the fun part for me is being on set and talking to a director and sitting at home and thinking about why people behave this way. That's sort of the most fun for me. And you bring your ideas to set, and then you talk to the other people, and then you watch how they behave. And the whole thing becomes really interesting. There's a physical precision and sort of puppeteering that happens sometimes in the green-screen stuff that Joel was talking about that isn't my favorite thing to do, but I haven't done enough to really find out if there's other fun parts about it or not. I guess it's just that no one has seen me as the Spider-Man or the Jedi or the this or the that.

Joel Edgerton talks about staying truthful to the real-life story of "Loving."

Matthew, in "Gold" you gained a lot of weight and you're kind of balding. And then Joel, in "Loving," you have very different teeth, your hair is different. Is it ever hard to look at yourself in those roles?

Edgerton: I like it. Not to say that you're always trying to have a funny walk and wear a wig and all that stuff, but there's something fun in getting rid of the vanity of those sort of characters. It's something to hide behind, and there's something incredibly exposing when you get the feeling like you're really there to be a hero, or that they want you to look as handsome as possible. Because then it becomes a lot about vanity, and that's a different game.

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Robert, you've undergone some of the most famous physical transformations in movie history, in "Raging Bull" or the "Untouchables." Is it something that's harder to do as you get older?

De Niro: When I did "Raging Bull," I was approaching my mid-30s. I said, 'You know, after this, I can't do this, so let me do it now.' It was that simple. So I wouldn't try to do that these days. Maybe there's other things I can do. I mean, I did [Bernie] Madoff, and I did — I don't know if you wore a paint or if you shaved your head —

McConaughey: Shaved it, and then put the wig on it.

De Niro: I shaved my head because it's the only way it's gonna really look right. The other is OK, but my hair is very similar to Madoff's. So that was kind of easy, but those kinds of things, that's different, that's a commitment, 'cause you can't do certain things until the hair grows back. And then you gotta walk around looking — with the hair — your head's all shaved and weird, and so you wear a hat. And people think you're more eccentric than you really are.

Edgerton: At least you can walk around and brag, and go, 'Oh, it's just I'm working on a movie.'

McConaughey: Look, I'm all face now. I ain't got no hair.

Andrew, when you were deciding to sign onto "Hacksaw Ridge," obviously a lot of people in Hollywood had strong feelings about —

Garfield: About Mel.

About Mel, yes. So how much did you have to weigh that?

Garfield: You just check in with yourself. I'm Jewish. My dad's Jewish. And I love Mel as a filmmaker, and I didn't know him as a man. And I obviously heard all the noise about that period of time. And I sat with him for an hour, and I was like, 'OK, I'm good.' I just saw who he was, and he saw who I was, and we had kind of a deep conversation about potentially tricky things. He's a wonderful man. I just checked in with myself, ultimately. It was easy. And he tells a great story. He tells a hell of a story and viscerally shakes an audience like no other filmmaker that I know. Grabs your spine and shakes all your organs around and makes you feel like you're there. So I'm glad that he's making films again.

Casey, there's a moment in "Manchester by the Sea" with Michelle Williams, and there are not really full lines of dialogue, you're kind of stepping over each other a lot. And how does that look on the page, how do you create an emotional moment out of what feels like not a whole conversation?

Affleck: On the page, it was written as two people talking simultaneously. These two small monologues sort of side-by-side. And Kenny is — Kenneth Lonergan — he has a great rhythm in his language. And there's a sort of way of doing it. Once you find the rhythm, things tend to work better. And sometimes if you can't find it, he's very good at guiding you towards it. And he's also very, very specific about how he wants the dialogue to overlap at times. So there was a technical component to it.

And then Kenny doesn't write things where people sort of have these grand eloquent speeches and these huge cathartic moments, where someone very eloquently says the thing that has been on their mind. He tends to write dialogue the way that people speak. And yet, underneath it all, the magic of his writing is an enormous amount of emotion, and you understand the context of it all, and what it's all really about. Despite the fact that people were just arguing about if they're gonna get pizza or Chinese food.

WATCH: Casey Affleck talks about the way Kenneth Lonergan uses everyday language to convey deep emotion in "Manchester by the Sea."

Andrew, you brought up Scorsese earlier, and Adam, you guys worked together on "Silence." Obviously other guys in this room have worked with Scorsese. He's so revered, can you weigh in on what sets him apart?

Garfield: I want to hear what Mr. De Niro has to say.

De Niro: Marty, he's very receptive to ideas, and he's a person that'll take a chance and do something. And so the more he does that, the more he lets you in, you have confidence and trust in him, and he in you. And if something is not working, he'll either shoot it but he'll cut it out or he'll use it, and it will be maybe a more interesting choice. But he said, "OK, we'll do it." That's happened with me a lot with him over the years. And I think with other actors too. I'm sure it's not just me.

Matthew, you had a small but memorable role in "The Wolf of Wall Street." What was that experience like for you working with Scorsese?

McConaughey: He loves funny. He loves funny and music. I mean, two days we were shooting, I don't know how many words in the English language we even used back and forth to each other. Everything was, he was conducting music. So we were kind of playing music together in my experience. And him directing, the enthusiasm, the joy he has. You're seeing this big masterful kid just all over it, but it was music.

Driver: Music is a good way of putting it, actually. There is something very musical in his movies that you feel, and when we're on set, it does feel very musical.

De Niro: Like a conductor.

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