Family ties take center stage in several movies this season, whether in the actor’s interior process or in the actual story on the screen. For Adam Sandler, drawing heavily on his own father helped him play a longtime NBA scout in “Hustle.” Paul Dano drew on what he’d learned about his director’s father — Arnold Spielberg — to play him in “The Fabelmans.”
“I played sports growing up. My father coached all my teams,” says Sandler. “In the movie, my name is Stanley; my dad’s name was Stanley, we kind of did that for my pop. What I think I used the most in the movie [from my dad], day-to-day, was my love for Juancho [Hernangomez],” he says of the Spanish baller who plays Bo Cruz, the phenom Stanley discovers playing basketball on a public court. “And, basically, [I] was playing his dad, like the way my dad would just raise me, coach, lessons ... never talked about himself, never talked about, ‘Hey, it’s 4 in the morning. I’m tired, too.’ ”
Dano leaned in to someone else’s family — Steven Spielberg’s, whose film recalls his own early years as a budding filmmaker along with his parents’ divorce.
“The crew kept saying this is different than any other film he’s made,” Dano says. “To see somebody at that point in their life, in their career, take this, what I would call, risk, to make a film this personal. He certainly doesn’t have to do that. I don’t know that Steven has anything to prove, right? This is just the story he had to tell. I think COVID had some impact on that. ‘What am I gonna leave to the world if my time is almost, you know ...’ And I think he was like, ‘I wanna tell my story.’”
This effect of family on their work became an unexpected theme for Sandler and Dano — along with Austin Butler, who plays the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in “Elvis”; Brendan Fraser, who stars as a man trying to make amends in “The Whale”; Jonathan Majors, who plays real-life groundbreaking Naval airman Jesse L. Brown in “Devotion”; and Bill Nighy, who plays a dying man looking back on a life not so well lived in “Living” — when they got together one early November morning for The Envelope’s Actor Roundtable.
The group discussed how their directors helped them through — or sometimes created — difficult moments, finding the line between fact and truth when playing real people (“You can get it right or you can get it truthful... Right is easy.. People will like you. You get it truthful, there’s a different conversation to be had,” says Majors) and thinking — a lot — about death.
These excerpts from their conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
Brendan and Bill, your movies are about people who realize they have very limited time. Did you come out of those projects thinking differently about your own mortality?
Bill Nighy: I’m not sure. Somebody asked me about how many times a day did I think about death. I said, “Well, I don’t know — 35 times a day?” [laughter] You know, you buy a new pair of shoes, you think, “Maybe ... how many more pairs of shoes are you gonna ...” I don’t think doing the part made me think any — you can’t think more about death than I already do. [laughter] Apart from mortality, it’s also about procrastination, and what a corrosive element that is in everybody’s lives. I procrastinate at a kind of Olympic level.
Austin Butler: Nice.
Nighy: What interested me was ... how that individual impulse to put the stuff off until tomorrow is manifested in society. This guy that I play works in an institution. They build a massive building to procrastinate. In order to make sure that stuff doesn’t get done. Governments are formed in order to make sure stuff doesn’t happen. It’s kind of like that. But in terms of mortality, I don’t think it made me think, “Well, I don’t really think I’m gonna die.” I kind of know I am, but I don’t really believe it, somehow. I think that’s how you get through. There must be some check or balance in my brain. I mean, I know it’s gonna happen, and sometimes in the middle of the night you know for sure. But right now I don’t really, really know. Maybe I’ll be the exception. [laughter]
They’ll look over your filmography and go, “Let’s let this one live.”
Nighy: Yeah, exactly.
Brendan, did it make you think differently?
Brendan Fraser: I think it made me appreciate the good things that I have going on in my life. It made me feel a lot more grateful, maybe because I’m 53 now, and I have kids who I’m watching grow up really quickly, and I need only be put in mind of, “What if I wasn’t here for them?” And that starts your acting muscle going. I guess that’s just a long-winded answer for “I gotta take care of myself.”
Paul Dano: “The Fabelmans” was really a new type of fuel for me, because it was the first time where I’m really working as a parent, as you were just talking about —
Fraser: It changes things, doesn’t it?
Dano: — and what it means to be a husband and what it means to be a father, and that was a totally new space for me to sort of open up and enter into, and I do think that gave back to me ... I don’t know that every film has done that for me, but when you make contact with something that is able to give back to you, that’s really nice.
Jonathan Majors: The arc between the father and the son [in “Fabelmans”] is just so ... I’ve got a kid, a little girl. So, you smack it, that relationship. I was just watching the way you raise your children [in the film] — all these performances, that’s the beautiful thing about it, they ignite us to dream. Like I could get to that place with my daughter and have the patience to go, “OK, what do you want to do?” Where you [stop resisting your son’s desire to work in movies and] go, “All right, son.” You know? “All right, son.” That was just beautiful.
Austin, Jonathan and Paul are all playing real people, but with very different acting challenges. We don’t know much about [Ensign Jesse L. Brown in “Devotion”], but your ultimate judge is the family who’s involved in the film — how do you meet that responsibility?
Majors: Well, I may say something slightly controversial. Having the family’s approval, that’s the blessing, right? That’s the icing on the cake. However, no one knows anybody inside and out, not even family. So what you’re trying to execute, what you’re trying to gift them is their image and their hopes for what that individual was.
And then you’ve got your director on your ass too, so it’s like all these boxes have to be checked. It’s a great responsibility but ultimately, for me at least, it was, “I need Jesse’s approval.” You’ve been spending so much time with this individual. You understand how he — at least, you think you understand how he moves. When you go inwards, hit that core in yourself, hope that ricochets off of him, and the family goes, “Yeah, that’s it.”
I think about that with “The Fabelmans” because it’s [Spielberg’s] version of his father and if you have disagreements with him about it, you’re not likely to win that argument.
Dano: First of all, I love playing people who have either been alive or who are alive. There is some different kind of contact to make than what’s just your imagination. Steven’s father was an engineer and a computer genius. I looked at it like, let me just build this life. He built stuff. He talked about [how] electronics were the way of life for him since he was, like, 5. So I started where he started with a child’s crystal radio set and learned how to build a radio. And then started reading the engineer manuals from back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, which are totally different. He’s actually a computer genius. Meaning the computer he built, they ended up making BASIC, the first language for [programming], which then Bill Gates made his first thing off of.
I think you, Jonathan, you spoke about the scene of releasing your kid [to do what he wants], right? That was filmed on the one-year anniversary of Steven’s father’s death. Arnold Spielberg passed not that long before making this film. So, that’s probably the scariest scene I had to do, but I felt good about it. Steven was there and Arnold had to be there in some way.
What was some of the most valuable help you ever got from a director?
Fraser: The climax of “The Whale” is when he finally comes forward and he tells his daughter, “I’m sorry.” It was near the end of it, I was feeling, like, all pedal and no gas at that point. I was tapped out. We shot [co-star Sadie Sink’s] side. And then we came around to do my side ... it wasn’t the same as it was in rehearsal, it wasn’t right. And [director Darren Aronofsky] said, “No, we’re gonna retreat from this, it’s the right thing to do.”
I was spiraling, like, “It’s over, I don’t know what I’m doing.” He was like, “No, no, no, look, you peaked, you peaked, it happens to actors.” He started naming people that he worked with. I’m saying, “Thank you.” He’s like, “No, no, don’t thank me, I’m not being kind, I’m protecting the movie, I’m protecting the performance.”
Adam Sandler: Yeah.
Fraser: And I respect that. You know?
Sandler: That’s great. Yeah.
Fraser: I really do. For someone to, to say, you know, “Hold it, this is not what we need, it can be better.” We are only here once, in a way.
Austin Butler: Did you go back and shoot that the next day, or did you have to —
Fraser: Yeah. We came back the next day and we got what we needed.
Austin, Baz Luhrmann [who directed “Elvis”] is someone who really uses all the cinematic tools. We know it’s a Baz Luhrmann movie without seeing the credits.
Butler: Oh yeah.
I wonder about him as an actor’s director. How did he help you get to that performance?
Butler: So like you [Jonathan] were saying about Jesse, I felt the same thing with connecting to [Elvis Presley’s] soul every day, and that being the thing. Because I had this unrealistic expectation I put on myself in the beginning, that somehow, if I could figure out how to work the muscles of my face, I could make my face Elvis’ face. You know, that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And I thought that that’s what it needed for some reason.
And then I realized, I can only be a lesser version. I need to connect my soul to his. Get all the specifics that you can, but it’s gotta be about the spirit, you know? So then I thankfully released myself from that.
But like you were saying about Baz — I look at working with Tarantino [Butler was in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood”], when you get on set, he knows the film, he’s seen it in his mind. Every word is so specific. With Baz, I often say he’s the closest thing to a jazz musician [of any] director that I’ve worked with. In order to play jazz, you gotta know your scales inside and out, you have to know that instrument inside and out — and that’s how he is with preparation. He lived at Graceland for years beforehand.
Adam Sandler: Oh, wow.
Butler: He becomes completely immersed in the world. And then I prepared for a year and a half. And suddenly I’m in the makeup chair and he goes, “I rewrote the whole scene last night.”
Sandler: Oh, man.
Butler: You know, I’ve been preparing this scene for a year and a half.
Butler: It’s terrifying in the beginning. Or moments like what you were saying earlier, where something shifts in me. I was never a singer before and I wasn’t a dancer or anything. I’m very shy.
Majors: That’s unbelievable.
Butler: I’m a complete wallflower.
Majors: Wow, well done, bro.
Butler: For me, it was a couple things that started to become these keys. I’ve told this story before, but in case you guys haven’t heard this [laughs], when I heard that [Luhrmann] was making the film, I started obsessing and I was watching all the documentaries and I learned that Elvis’ mom died when he was 23. And that’s exactly how old I was when my mom died. And that was the moment where he ceased to be this icon and suddenly I knew what it felt like to be a 23-year-old guy whose best friend passed away.
Do you draw on that when you’re working on “Hustle”? “What would he think of this?”
Sandler: I always felt my dad would do anything for me. I’m sure you guys know what I’m talking about. Dad, Mom, they put you first. And I felt that feeling. And I felt that for Juancho in real life. I loved him. I loved him. And I’d watch him play. He’s in the NBA [now with the Toronto Raptors]. I pull so hard for him, call him, try to encourage him ... I just love the guy. And my dad was like that.
I’ll tell you, my father, when I was on “Saturday Night Live” ... when I would come offstage and I had a good skit — any skit, even if it didn’t go right — there was this desk and the pages would answer the phone. I would walk by and a page would go, “Adam, Adam. Uh, your father’s on the phone.”
Sandler: He would just go like, “Attababy, that was terrific.” “All right, love you, Dad. Thank you. I gotta go do something.” But that whole thing would make me just ... “All right.”
Nighy: Not to embarrass you, “Punch-Drunk Love,” I saw that and —
Nighy: — You’re gonna have to survive this. The next job I had, I had to play another man who was sort of disabled by self-consciousness. That seems to be my area of expertise. [laughter] And I wrote Adam’s name in the front page of the script because that was my kind of touchstone. Because I was so blown away by his performance in “Punch-Drunk Love.” As I was in “Hustle.” And I have to say this: It’s incredible. It’s one of my favorite performances of all time. So there’s your compliment.