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Andrew Garfield, Oscar Isaac and more reveal their most daunting experiences on set

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Javier Bardem and his “Dune” co-star Oscar Isaac are chatting over a Zoom call on a late October afternoon recalling the details of their work on Denis Villeneuve’s retelling of the Frank Herbert novel. Bardem talks of being overwhelmed by his castmates, a generous claim that feels a little self-deprecating coming from such an established actor.

“I was there only for a very brief period of time, and mostly in the desert,” he says. “I only have one set, which was when I had my encounter with Oscar, which was the most scary scene that I’ve ever played in my life. I had to come to a room full of really, really important, nice, very amazing actors looking at me saying, ‘OK, now what?’ I was like, ‘F—.’”

It was an amazing moment,” Isaac adds. “It’s a big entrance. These doors open and he has to walk right down the center with such swagger.”

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The big-budget “Dune” was just one of the films the two actors were in this year. Bardem worked with Aaron Sorkin to play Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos,” and Isaac was in Paul Schrader’s indie “The Card Counter” as a calculating gambler with a painful past.

Actor Javier Bardem
Actor Javier Bardem.
(Ryan Pfluger/For The Times)

For Isaac, the two shoots were night and day. “It was actually about the same amount of time filming [the two] because ‘The Card Counter’ was 20 days. It’s a tiny little movie where I’m in every scene, and yet it was about the same amount of time that I shot on ‘Dune.’ But with something like ‘Card Counter,’ you have a couple of takes. You have that location for half a day. You have to get it. Whereas with ‘Dune,’ it’s ‘Let’s get that helicopter back tomorrow and do that thing again!’”

COVID-19 complicated matters for Isaac in bouncing between the two films.

Watch their full conversation on television beginning Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.

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“It was a real headache,” the actor says, “because when the pandemic happened, we had to shut down four days before finishing on the Schrader film. This is a heartbreaker, obviously. We didn’t know when we were going to get back. I knew that I had to do the ‘Dune’ reshoots at some point, and I’m clean-shaven in ‘Card Counter.’ I was begging Paul if we can just wait, because I had on my COVID beard anyway [for ‘Dune’]. In the reshoots, you can see it in some of the scenes, they had to attach some of Josh Brolin‘s pubic hair onto my face.”

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch at the Four Seasons Hotel
“The Power of the Dog” actor Benedict Cumberbatch is photographed at the Four Seasons Hotel.
(Ryan Pfluger / For The Times)

“We’ve all been there,” interjects Andrew Garfield — to much laughter — from his own Zoom screen in this pandemic-era Oscars Roundtable that also included Peter Dinklage, who has the title role in “Cyrano”; Jared Leto, who plays the pitiful member of the family in “House of Gucci”; and Benedict Cumberbatch who plays a toxic cowboy in “Power of the Dog.” Along with Isaac and Bardem, Garfield also has two movies out this season. He plays televangelist Jim Bakker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick, Tick ... Boom!”

Leto, unrecognizable as Paolo Gucci in Ridley Scott’s film, sits very still in a dark room throughout the conversation, but fully animates at every opportunity to praise the work of the others on the call. He and Isaac lay laurels at the feet of their directors and the engaging Bardem.

Dinklage, meanwhile, speaks insightfully of the differences between previous versions of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and his new musical adaptation, and of overcoming the strangeness of bursting into song mid-film. Garfield, too, shows off his pipes in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” calling Larson a devotee of “the Church of Theater” and likely “the closest thing I’ve ever played to a man of God.” And Cumberbatch may have had to learn all the tricks of the cowboy trade for the psychological thriller of a western “The Power of the Dog,” but it wasn’t a bucking horse that made him think he was going to die. It was a one-time cameo at a Pink Floyd show that he thought would be his end.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Javier, what was one of the key insights Aaron Sorkin gave you for your take on Desi Arnaz alongside Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball?

Javier Bardem: He told Nicole and I a very important thing, which is, “This is a painting, not a photograph. We’re creating an artistic approach, if you want to call it, to two people that really were very important in the industry, or icons, but I don’t want you to mimic ...” That gives us a little bit of a release. Nicole and I, J.K. [Simmons] and Nina [Arianda], we worked hard on trying to get as close as we could to the characters, but he, from the very beginning, said, “I don’t want you to imitate at all Desi Arnaz. That’s not what I’m looking for.”

This is a painting, not a photograph. We’re creating an artistic approach.

— Javier Bardem, quoting Aaron Sorkin on the set of ‘Being the Ricardos’

Paul Schrader describes a genre he works in of a man alone in his room with his occupation, who gets dragged alongside a larger issue — in the case of “The Card Counter,” that’s the Abu Ghraib scandal.

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Oscar Isaac: It’s part of his series, this exploration of a man alone in his room, or wearing a mask, waiting for something to happen — the mask being the occupation. His movies are in my DNA, I’m sure like all of us. There’s rarely ever plot information [in the dialogue]. Often, it’s really mundane details about the work, and then within that, he’ll slip in something really profound or revealing.

Peter, you were in the stage version of the “Cyrano” musical before it came to the screen. Your wife, Erica Schmidt, who adapted it, said something insightful about doing “Cyrano de Bergerac” without the physical large nose of the original tale: “We all have ‘the nose’ that we imagine the other person hates, the thing we blame for our not being seen or not being understood.”

Peter Dinklage: She adapted the original Rostand and directed the stage version [Joe Wright directed the film from her script]. She had the wherewithal to strip that down and she made the long lyrical monologues about love into actual songs. We knew these guys, the band the National, and all those guys do is sing about love and heartbreak, as most of our favorite musicians do. We are lucky and blessed enough to get them to collaborate with us and write songs for us. For Erica, when you speak about love, it’s quite different than when you sing about love. You can get away with a lot more.

"Cyrano" actor Peter Dinklage
“Cyrano” actor Peter Dinklage is seen at the Park Lane Hotel near Central Park in New York.
(Jesse Dittmar/For The Times)

Whenever I saw a version of “Cyrano,” it was a handsome actor with a fake nose, and I thought ... what’s the big deal? It’s just a large nose. There’s nothing that brought it to an extreme level, but that also spoke to the character’s insecurities about love and feeling unloved, and that’s universal. I don’t think we intended to make “the nose” being my size, being a shorter man, but it just came about that way because I fell in love with the piece and wanted to do it.

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Benedict and Jared, you worked with very well-known directors, Jane Campion for Benedict and Ridley Scott for Jared. Did you have expectations of what it would be like to work with them?

Benedict Cumberbatch: It’s quite daunting when you first get the idea that someone like that wants to work with you. And I did that stupid thing of revisiting her work just before I met her. I don’t advise anyone to do that, because it just ramps up the fear factor of what they’re expecting of you. She gave me a long runway, which has been rare in my career. It’s often the case that you work back to back, and [sometimes] when you’re doing the job that you’re actually supposed to be focusing on, you’re thinking about the next one. This was different. I had months to really kind of let things saturate.

I was facing a life experience in this character that was so far removed from anything of my own that I really did need a lot of time with him and his world. Whether it was ranching, or banjo playing, or whistling, whittling, or any of the skills, but most importantly, just sitting in his psyche.

One of the things we did together, which was very unexpected, and which she hadn’t done before — testing how brave and open she is to doing things differently every time — we both did this thing with this wonderful acting coach and dream analyst called Kim Gillingham: dream analysis. I had pretty mundane dreams about leaving the keys inside a house, sort of threshold anxieties, really dull stuff. She was dreaming about orchids exploding with blood, typical Jane Campionesque brilliance to it. We both found profound things, which gave us a great deal of confidence.

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I had pretty mundane dreams about leaving the keys inside a house, sort of threshold anxieties, really dull stuff. She was dreaming about orchids exploding with blood, typical Jane Campionesque brilliance to it.

— Benedict Cumberbatch on doing dream analysis with Jane Campion

Jared?

Jared Leto: Well, first off, I just want to say, sitting here listening to you guys talk is incredible. I have so much respect for all the guys in the room here. But with Ridley, there are certain directors that can affect us, inspire us, and he’s one of those. I must have seen ‘Blade Runner’ 174 times. His work just spoke to me. But Ridley’s a beast. He’s an emperor and I mean that in the best sense of the term. He’s 80 years old and he’s a killer.

Andrew, in “Tick, Tick ...Boom!,” the scene in the diner, when all of the patrons are these Broadway legends — Bernadette Peters and Joel Grey ...

Andrew Garfield: That was surreal ... I replay “Finishing the Hat” over and over and over again. I replay all of Sondheim‘s songs, especially while shooting with Lin on “Tick, Tick.” So I had Bernadette’s voice in my imagination, and in my body for a year and a half before that. And then suddenly I’m attempting to honor her while cameras roll. It’s those moments where you go, “How is this my life?” With Lin-Manuel Miranda ... it’s his first movie that he’s ever directed. There’s this self-belief that he has, which is so stunningly infectious and beautiful. I’d never sung before. And I remember the first time I sang in front of him, he threw a shoe at me ... in a nice way.

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The first time I sang in front of him, he threw a shoe at me ... in a nice way.

— Andrew Garfield, on working with Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!”

I had to just belt out these numbers, because that was my duty to Jon. Even if I sounded like pure s—, I had to act as if I sounded like a f— rock god angel. And Lin whispers to me after he threw his shoe, which barely missed my head: “Whoever gave you the idea that you couldn’t do certain things, I want to find them. And I want to have some stern words with them.” Like your best friend at 7 who just wants you to realize yourself fully.

Do you still get excited when you think about your next project?

Isaac: Too excited sometimes. In fact, it’s been a process of learning how to get less excited. I’ve self-medicated a little bit with work throughout my life. As I’ve gotten older, and have a family, you try to balance your life out to learn how to put some of those internal boundaries up [and keep] that kind of childlike excitement as well.

Actor Oscar Isaac
Actor Oscar Isaac is seen in the NoHo area of Manhattan, New York City, and is featured in “Dune” and “The Card Counter.”
(Jesse Dittmar/For The Times)

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I was just thinking about what you said, Benedict, about being able to take that amount of time to sit in a psyche, and what that does to the work. And there’s a calm to that. There’s something with finding more of a balance, when I do have that amount of time, it pays dividends as far as what the process feels like. Because you’re not building the airplane on the runway, you know?

Cumberbatch: Family as well. It’s getting a life balance. I agree with Jared, and with what Andrew was saying about having to ground yourself sometimes in the fact that this is how you earn a living. It’s important to just sometimes not take on too much. And yeah, it’s exciting what we do.

There are days, I don’t know, whether it’s been swinging around on wires in “Doctor Strange,” or losing my mind as a cat illustrator called Louis Wain, or working on a ranch in 1925 Montana, I get to tell these stories in these worlds of these extraordinary directors and writers. It’s pretty remarkable — but being responsible for the fact that the older you get, there are more people that are on that ride with you. So, you’ve got to calm it down and be there for them as well as your own career.

Peter, can you remember the last time one of your projects gave you unadulterated joy?

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Dinklage: I mean, they give you joy every time in very different ways. But as the other gents were saying, the older you get, especially those of us with children, it’s sort of harder to get us out the door. I finish a job and I say, “I don’t want to work forever again.” And then about a month later, I start to lose my brain and I go insane because it’s a need. It’s a real need that I’ve got to go back out there with talented people, like the ones here. I don’t know what that is in us that pulls us back out there, but it does every time. Probably I should take up more hobbies or something in my off season.

Jared, in “Gucci,” it’s fair to call you unrecognizable. Is that one of the big draws for you, to change yourself as much as you can?

Leto: No. I’d be quite happy just to show up and have zero hair and makeup, to be honest. I think it just depends on what you feel is needed for the role.

Javier, someone in the movie says he’ll never be around a more handsome or charming guy than Desi Arnaz.

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Bardem: I was transformed as well. [Laughs] They had to put lots of makeup on me for that. And lots of very wise words from Mr. Sorkin to make me sound [smart].

Were you daunted by playing this real person whom we all have ideas about, plus all the singing and the performing?

Bardem: I was attracted to the character, to his energy. Especially to his way of facing the conflicts, the personal, the professional, his own internal conflicts, the way he was generating enthusiasm around him. And the artistic skills of a singer and a player, on a guitar, on the congas, and all of that being a foreigner in the ‘50s, when to be a foreigner, it was kind of almost a crime. And he was really a visionary.

Benedict, Phil Burbank is this rough-and-tumble cowboy ... frankly, he’s quite mean. There are some interesting layered things in there. He doesn’t drop the G’s on his gerunds. He doesn’t say, “I’m ridin’ into town.” He says, “I’m riding into town.” Why is that?

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Cumberbatch: Thank you for noticing not dropping G’s. That was some serious thought about somebody who, while talking and dressing like folk to an extent ... was the son of East Coast Brahmins, so definitely someone who had a fine classical education at an Ivy League university, despite being covered in s— and blood for most of the film.

There’s a moment when I discovered that he was a child, in utter arrested development, and it smacked me full in the face. He loses his mind and his temper in a way that reminded me a lot of some scenes at home, and my three boys. And I realized with all this accomplishment, all this ability, all this power — as you say, he’s not a very nice man, but he’s certainly not a baddie — he’s a child who’s damaged, who from a very early age wasn’t allowed to be who he truly is, and it’s torn him apart.

Andrew, in some ways, Jonathan Larson and Jim Bakker are both trying to make it in show business. And that’s where the comparison ends, at least for me.

Garfield: Well, it’s so funny that one is a “man of God,” but maybe is as far from the Holy Spirit as one can be. And then the other is a man of irreverent revolution, art, the Church of Theater, sacred and the profane. And he maybe is the closest thing I’ve ever played to a man of God.

Actor Andrew Garfield is photographed at Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles
“Spider-Man: No Way Home” actor Andrew Garfield is photographed in promotion of his film, “tick, tick…BOOM!,” at Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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[Jonathan Larson] maybe is the closest thing I’ve ever played to a man of God.

— Andrew Garfield

Jon Larson was close to the inevitable thing that’s chasing all of us, which is death, which is the ticking that he hears. This is how I interpreted it, a kind of unconscious rumbling, that he somewhere knows he’s not got a lot of time here to sing his song. And his song will ultimately remain unfinished, like everyone’s. I think for him, it’s that Martha Graham thing, that divine dissatisfaction thing. It’s that forever reaching towards that perfected image of the thing that we know, that the image inside of us that we know that we are meant to create, the gifts we are supposed to give, in the short amount of time we are here to give it.

Whereas, Jim Bakker — I hope to never play someone like Jim Bakker again, because it was deeply painful having to tap into that: Something that you said earlier, Peter, about a universal sense of fear of being unlovable or fear of being seen so deeply that we will be exposed as ... an empty, fraudulent, useless husk of a human being. From my understanding in the research and my own impression — again, a painting rather than a photograph — he was living in that place of fear constantly, which made it necessary for him to fill up his life with all this excessive material wealth and accoutrement and call it Christianity.

Oscar, when we meet the William in “Card Counter,” his whole life is codified. I wonder if that’s a way of coping with his very deep trauma from the war by trying to put his world in order.

Isaac: He does his time for a horrible crime, but when he gets out, he feels like he hasn’t done enough penance, but he’s too much of a coward to kill himself. So he chooses a purgatory, which is low-stakes gambling from casino to casino and waiting for something to happen or just running out the clock in this meaningless existence. He’s trying to suppress all of these memories and at the same time, live with it very close so he can’t forgive himself. So, that was an interesting tension with the character there.

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He’s trying to suppress all of these memories and at the same time, live with it very close so he can’t forgive himself.

— Oscar Isaac, on his character in “The Card Counter”

I thought it was a really unusual thing to explore: The trauma of committing violence on others. You usually think about it being a victim of trauma, but this is someone that inflicted that on other people and caused incredible damage to himself psychically. And even still, it was a joyful experience to work on.

I wonder what you’ve all seen that keeps you inspired, maybe somebody whose work is really turning you on.

Leto: Pretty much everybody here has inspired me in a lot of different ways. And if there’s a script floating around out there for six actors, I’m ready to jump in, guys.

Isaac: Six characters in search of an author.

Oscar winning actor Jared Leto is photographed at home
Oscar winning actor Jared Leto is photographed at home, in promotion of his role in the film, “The House of Gucci,” in Los Angeles.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

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Leto: Benedict and Peter, I haven’t seen your movies yet, but, Oscar and Andrew and Javier, I did see your movies. And although I saw the wrong Javier movie, I watched “The Good Boss,” [Spain’s Oscar entry] which was amazing.

Isaac: Is there a wrong Javier movie though?

Leto: No, there really isn’t. I mean, you’re a legend. But, Andrew, holy s—. I mean, what the f—? What a performance [in “Tick, Tick”]. My God, you really just laid bare your soul. I mean, I saw you for the first time, I feel like, and in a way that I’d never really imagined. Hats off to you for the bravery there.

Dinklage: Andrew, ever since “Boy A,” man, dude, that film just killed me. ... How did you guys approach the singing? Because being the two guys on here that did musicals, it’s a strange and very unique process when you start to suddenly sing a song in a movie. Did you sing it live? Did you prerecord it? I’d never done that before. Suddenly reality gets suspended and you sing a song.

Garfield: Some of it was live. Some of it was prerecorded and there were a couple of songs that we really wanted to make sure we got live because they were improvised or they were supposed to be found. And that was f— terrifying and daunting, but ultimately the most satisfying.

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Bardem: I never feel so exposed and so naked than when I have to sing a song in a movie. I can’t imagine what [it] must be to do a musical on Broadway or any theater. [Singing “Babaloo”] was by far one of the most exposed, naked, insecure, unsafe moments I’ve been in in my life.

Cumberbatch: It wouldn’t be called singing, but it was the most near I’ve ever come to having a heart attack: I stepped [onstage] at the very end of a Pink Floyd gig. David Gilmour persuaded me to come on and do the Roger Waters part in “Comfortably Numb,” which is, as you know, it’s hardly singing, but I was wondering where the crash team was, because I just thought I was going to die.

Actors Jared Leto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Dinklage, Oscar Isaac and Andrew Garfield.
(Photos by Ryan Pfluger / For the Times, Jesse Dittmar / For the Times and Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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