Impostor syndrome: Everybody feels it, even Hollywood’s most seasoned stars. In a conversation recorded last month, actors Delroy Lindo, Riz Ahmed, Steven Yeun, Gary Oldman and George Clooney copped to the pangs of self-doubt they’ve experienced in their careers and the “jet fuel” that’s helped them power through.
“This idea of the impostor syndrome, it’s real with every actor,” said Clooney, who directed himself as a lone astronomer left on a dying Earth in the sci-fi adaptation “The Midnight Sky.” “Because to be successful at any level in this industry means that you’re beating such huge odds.”
When six directors — David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Regina King, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin and Chloé Zhao — recently got together to talk about their latest projects, they shared candid feelings about control on-set and the movie business in a post-COVID world.
Seeing that a performance can make a lasting impact and even meaningful change is a persuasive counterweight, said Ahmed, who plays Ruben, a drummer losing his hearing in “Sound of Metal.” “It’s a tremendous jet fuel to know that your work might help stretch culture in some way.”
“I think it’s very healthy, this impostor syndrome,” added “Mank” star Oldman, who portrays “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the period biopic. “If someone said to me, ‘What do you think is your best work?’ I’d like to say, ‘Next year. The best work is the next one.’”
“If someone said to me, ‘What do you think is your best work?’ I’d like to say, ‘Next year. The best work is the next one.’”
— Gary Oldman
Beaming in remotely for the annual Envelope Oscar Roundtable, held virtually this year due to the pandemic, the quintet vowed to raise a glass when it’s safe to do so. They shared stories and laughs, as well as the sentiment that’s been on their minds now more than ever — gratitude.
Yeun, who stars as a family man chasing his American dream in “Minari,” described the sensation of panic — then faith — that overcame him while in the shower two days before filming. “I was in my hotel room freaking out. I was like, ‘I’m going to do a terrible job. Every Korean American kid is going to hate me because I represented this poorly.’ I was in the shower and I just started sobbing. And the feelings that overwhelmed me were fear, awe, gratitude and submission. It all came together into this feeling of just faith,” he said.
Meanwhile, the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone around the globe, including our panelists. Lindo revealed that he’d battled the virus back in March — only months before drawing acclaim from audiences and critics alike for his turn as the tormented Vietnam War veteran Paul in “Da 5 Bloods.”
“I was very sick ... But the fact that I recovered from [COVID-19] is a consistent wake-up call and a consistent reminder to be grateful.”
— Delroy Lindo
“I was very sick,” he said. “But the fact that I recovered from that is a consistent wake-up call and a consistent reminder to be grateful. Because the alternative could have been very different for me.”
The five actors also took time to remember the late Chadwick Boseman, who died in August after starring with Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” and filming his final performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”
“It’s a crappy year, and we don’t get to be in the same room together,” Clooney said. “And if we were sitting in a room right now, all of us together, there’d be an empty chair for Chadwick Boseman.”
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been a tough and challenging year in so many ways. How are you all feeling, and what helped you get through 2020?
Delroy Lindo: It sounds really cliché, but it’s been good to be spending time with my family. I try to remind myself that despite whatever my personal circumstances are, I’m a lot better off than a lot of other people. I got the first round of COVID in March, and I was very sick. I did not have breathing problems, but I had the exhaustion, I had the lack of appetite. I lost 18 pounds.
Riz Ahmed: I struggled a little bit with stopping working. I think like a lot of us, I can get caught up on the treadmill and don’t know how to stop, then I had to sit still. [But] there’s a lot of reflection and potentially growth that can come out of it. We lost a couple of family members, and it really brought us all closer together. So my hope is that all the suffering and all the people that have lost loved ones isn’t in vain — that we can come out of this with a greater sense of clarity about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
George Clooney: It’s been nine months mostly inside the house. I have 3-year-old twins, so that’s been an adventure in a lot of washing dishes and changing diapers. My own, mostly. My father’s 87 years old and lives in Kentucky. So I miss being with my family. We have a great deal of gratitude for the fact that we were able to be in our homes and have some security, because there are an awful lot of people around the world that don’t.
Michelle Pfeiffer, Rashida Jones, Kate Winslet, Vanessa Kirby and film newcomer Andra Day gather (virtually) to talk nerves, women’s stories and the trick to lengthy careers.
Delroy, initially, you had some hesitation about playing Paul in “Da 5 Bloods.” What helped you work through that?
Lindo: It was a question of beginning to understand who this person is in terms of the loss that he has suffered in his life — the depth of the disaffection, and the disconnection from not only those around him, but disconnection from self. Once I was able to understand why and how Paul cast that vote [for Trump] in 2016, I was fine. And there were so many other extraordinary components of this character that were just gold for an actor. This is, in my opinion, a Shakespearean, tragic character.
Steven, in “Minari” you play Jacob, a Korean immigrant father in a story that in some ways parallels your own family’s. Why did you feel anxious about taking on and embracing that role?
Steven Yeun: I think ultimately the fear, subconsciously, was being forced to see your father’s generation a little bit clearer. But on the surface what was really terrifying was a portrayal of this type of person that really hadn’t been seen in American cinema. It means a lot for Asian Americans, and it means a lot to understand that divide of generations that happens. When you come over here — at least, when I came over here — you’re really separate from your parents; they’re trying to hold onto a little bit of where they came from, and you’re just living your own American existence. So it was scary, but it was also really beautiful, because what you gain, at least for me, was truly the understanding that I am my father. And I see him very clearly now, and that was nice.
Riz, playing Ruben in “Sound of Metal” required you to learn two new languages: American Sign Language and the language of drumming. What made those challenges enticing?
Ahmed: I feel like those moments when your feet aren’t touching the bottom of the pool, those moments where you’re not fully in control, is where the most interesting stuff can happen. What I found is actually similar to what the character finds in the film, which is that the challenges end up being gifts. The same things that I at the start of the process found so daunting were actually the things that really opened me up as an actor. In a way, I feel the deaf community in New York taught me the true meaning of listening. It’s not something you just do with your ears, it’s something you do with your whole body by being present. They taught me the true meaning of communication, when you’re not hiding behind words.
Gary, “Mank” is an ode to the unsung screenwriter. How did his relationship with words inform who he was to you?
Gary Oldman: As I worked on the character and read as much as I could around the script, you realized what a great talent, a great brain, was at work. He was working on “The Wizard of Oz,” and he was ultimately kicked off — he pretty much made enemies with everyone he worked with. He was in a town that he loved, [but] what he did for a job, he felt wasn’t in any way connected to literature and was beneath him, in an industry he despised. Maybe some of us know what that feels like. I’d already done some of the research.
George, your portrayal of Augustine in “The Midnight Sky” is an interior one; it’s in the silences that we largely come to know him. How did you approach it?
Clooney: I was directing, so I wanted to make sure I had as few lines as possible! The character that I was playing in this, his job is to seek redemption. In some ways, those are characters that are always interesting. I played a pediatrician on “ER,” and [he] was an alcoholic and a womanizer and did everything terrible — but at the end of the day, [he] would always save the kid. So people go, “Well, he really likes kids.” In some ways I was set free [in “Midnight Sky”] by the fact that I had this little girl who doesn’t speak [costar Caoilinn Springall], who I had to take care of, which frees you up to not have to do any of the things that oftentimes characters in the lead have to do, which is guide the audience through a film. So I was helped out by the other elements of the film.
Chadwick Boseman’s passing was a tremendous loss. How did it impact you as fellow actors?
Lindo: The thing that I really value enormously [is] the fact that Chadwick was open and welcoming to my son [on set], which is indicative for me of the depth of his empathy. On top of that was the enormity and the magnitude of his talent. The very first scene that he worked on in the film with me was the scene that takes place at the end, when his character and my character come together at the stream. That was his first day at work. He and I had met very, very briefly, for five or 10 minutes, prior to our working on this scene, and he just brought it. He was prepared. He was committed. He was in it.
Ahmed: You can look at the example of someone like Chadwick Boseman and understand the impact that storytelling can have. It’s a timely reminder of the power of this media. There is a responsibility [as] performers and storytellers. Understanding that your work can have a wider significance than just entertainment, understanding that it can have this wider social repercussion and actually contribute incrementally to stretching culture, that is incredibly animating.
Something I’ve found with the more successful people I’ve got to work with is we all have a sense of impostor syndrome. We’re sometimes thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” You have moments when you lose faith in yourself. It can be very powerful to believe in something bigger than and other than yourself, and that your work has that wider significance.
Lindo: That helped me in some way, having an awareness that maybe I was a conduit of some kind. There was this larger dynamic having to do with what I felt I wanted to do in service to the vets, specifically African American vets, whose story has not been told generally. And I wanted to do that, and I wanted to make them proud.
Oldman: This impostor syndrome, it’s a good thing to have. I’m a little older than you, and I’ve been doing it longer, and I still have it. It’s the old story that performers have, or anyone in the arts, where you’re always waiting for that tap on the shoulder — where someone’s going to find you out and say, “We know who you really are.” You’re always striving just to get better. I think it would be a sad day for any of us to maybe look up at the screen and think, “My God, I’m wonderful in this. My work is done.”
Clooney: I did that on “Batman & Robin,” though. Honestly, when you’re good, you’re good. You know what I’m saying?
Clooney: The goods we’re selling [in this business] is ourself. I remember doing a love scene with somebody, and [the director says], “Don’t kiss her like that.” And I go, “Well, that’s my move, man. That’s that’s my go-to kiss move.” It’s humiliating.
Six directors tackle the idea (or is it a myth?) of controlling a film set
What happens when five actresses get together and let loose?
Five actors share their views (virtually), their insecurities and tributes to Chadwick Boseman
Rashida Jones talks about Bill Murray and pandemic life
Michelle Pfeiffer talks working with cats and playing fun roles
Andra Day talks the power of Billie Holiday
Kate Winslet, on sex scenes, and fighting “heterosexual stereotypes” in movies.
Regina King on directing her first film and her love of acting
Chloé Zhao, first woman of color to win the Oscar for best director, talks 'Nomadland'
Aaron Sorkin says directing amounted to “learning how much I don’t know.”
“Da 5 Bloods” director Spike Lee talks about the surprising inspiration for his new movie
Aaron Sorkin talks directing and writing and quarantining
Oscar nominated director David Fincher on resurrecting his late father’s screenplay for “Mank.”
Paul Greengrass on the “optimism” of his latest film, “News of the World”
First-time director Regina King on the “One Night in Miami”
Director Chloe Zhao on the story of despair and economic displacement in of her film “Nomadland”
'Minari' star Steven Yeun on a role rarely seen in American movies
Oscar winner George Clooney, director and star of 'Midnight Sky,' turns back to 'ER'
Riz Ahmed's big life lessons from 'Sound of Metal'
Steven Yeun on the personal connection to 'Minari'
'Sound of Metal' star Riz Ahmed: 'I was looking for something that would overwhelm me'
'Da 5 Bloods' actor Delroy Lindo on tapping into his character’s love of Donald Trump
George Clooney is ready to get to work
'Mank' star Gary Oldman says his best work is 'the next one'
Andra Day talks the power of Billie Holiday
Aaron Sorkin talks directing and writing and quarantining
Oldman: I was in a play many, many years ago, and we were doing a technical rehearsal. And the director said, “Gary, there’s something about the face. The face, it just isn’t right.” And I said, “What? You mean the one I’m pulling? Or the one I was born with?” Yeah, “The face isn’t working.”
Clooney: Well, let me change that.
Lindo: I had that, that somebody would tap me on the shoulder and say, “We found you out. Get out.” If somebody said that to me, I would say, “Get the f— out of here.” Because I feel like I’ve earned it, man. I’ve put in the time. They tried to kind of shunt me quietly to the side, and I’m still here. I feel like I’ve earned the right to continue to attempt to work. So you can try to remove me from the room if you want to, but I’ve got something for you if you try that.
Yeun: It’s so nice when you’re forced into a situation where you realize that the work is itself, and you are part of that work, and there’s not really much more beyond that — that you can just submit to what it is, and then it feels like you’re just moving with it and just surfing it.
Clooney: To be successful at any level in this industry means that you’re beating such huge odds. I grew up cutting tobacco in Kentucky for $3 an hour, and I knew I didn’t want to do that for a living. I sold insurance door to door. Knew I didn’t want to do that. Most people don’t get to do what they love for a living.... If we ever get to the position where we think it’s owed to us, then we should get out of the business.
Lindo: I couldn’t even get to the point of selling encyclopedias. I’m a terrible liar. I have never gone door to door.
Oldman: Many years ago, I worked with Francis Ford Coppola, and he wanted me in a scene, to weep. And I said, “Well, crying is one thing, weeping, it’s sort of something else.” And I was doing the scene with [Anthony] Hopkins. And I said to Tony, “I have admiration for you, above and beyond. But would you mind if my assistant stepped in where you are?” And then she asked me questions about my son, who I was missing at the time, and the emotion got to a certain point where I signaled to Francis, roll. That little trick, device, call it what you will, produced the right emot a three-minute thing. Credits start.
Oldman: Fabulous moment.
Clooney: It’s a good moment in the film, right? People relive the movie through that moment. Here’s the funniest thing. We didn’t know what we were going to do for the end of the movie. So we’re in New York. We’re stealing the location — no cops blocking traffic or anything. And everybody’s pulling up next to me going, “Hey, George Clooney! Look at that. George Clooney!” Through that entire take, all I’m trying to do is not laugh. It’s the whole thing I’m doing. And people see it, and they go, “God, you ...” That moment really sort of solidified the story. Whatever way you get there, sometimes.