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The Actors Roundtable: With these 6 characters, the stories never get old

The Actors Roundtable: With these 6 characters, the stories never get old
Joining The Envelope conversation were, clockwise from top left, Viggo Mortensen, Michael B. Jordan, John C. Reilly, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Steven Yeun. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

A hero and/or a villain, a boxer, a painter, a driver and a striver, an outlaw and a priest. You don't need them to walk into a bar to know that the characters played by the actors on this year's Envelope Actors Roundtable cover a lot of ground.

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The Envelope recently brought together Ethan Hawke, who played a country priest in a crisis of conscience in "First Reformed"; Michael B. Jordan, who was the vivid villain Erik Killmonger in "Black Panther" and also the hero Adonis Johnson in "Creed 2"; Willem Dafoe, who played troubled painter Vincent van Gogh in "At Eternity's Gate"; Viggo Mortensen, for his role as a man who learns to look past his own prejudice in "Green Book"; Steven Yeun for his charmingly enigmatic, possibly sinister playboy in the Korean film "Burning"; and John C. Reilly for his performances as a western outlaw in "The Sisters Brothers" and as screen star Oliver Hardy in "Stan & Ollie."

Though their roles may seem to have little in common, this group had a lively, engaged and startlingly sincere conversation about working with friends, how to avoid being pigeonholed and what it's like playing real people.

Michael B. Jordan discusses the important conversation of identity at the center of "Black Panther" and how that influenced the film's global reach. "It started a conversation I never knew I needed," he says.

Michael, “Black Panther” has become so much more than just a movie, it really has become a cultural phenomenon. When did you know the movie was going to have that kind of impact?

Jordan: When Ryan first gave me the call about playing Killmonger and I read the script and I knew what he wanted to make the movie about, I got really excited. And the cast that I was gonna be working with, I knew they were gonna be bringing so much to the table. And honestly the rehearsal process of fleshing out those characters, like me, coming from an African American perspective, you know a lot of actors from Nigeria, from Ghana, from Senegal, from Lagos. The conversation of what it meant to be African came up in that discussion and when you're working through these scenes and figuring out what character needs what and what am I bringing to the table? How can I feed your character, what do you need from this scene? It started a conversation that I never knew I needed to have and it started a bigger discussion and that's when I really started to realize the impact.

You made that movie with Ryan Coogler, whom you’ve worked with numerous times. Do you guys feel like when you find a director that you like you just wanna collaborate with them as much as possible or do you like to mix it up and try out as many people, collaborations as you can?

Reilly: Well, I've worked with the same directors a few times and I've found the first person I repeated with was Paul Thomas Anderson and I remember going from his first movie, "Hard Eight," into "Boogie Nights" thinking like, "Oh cool, it's the same group of people." But what I quickly realized after the first couple days of rehearsals was every film is a custom job. And it doesn't matter if you've worked with this director before, it's a new day, it's a new script, it's a new character and it's a custom tailoring job. And so you have to reinvent. And then we did it again for "Magnolia" and the same thing for other directors that I've worked with more than once. You have to honor the moment and really look at what does this world need? Not what did we do last time, but what are we gonna do now?

John C. Reilly, Willem Dafoe, Viggo Mortensen and Ethan Hawke weigh the benefits and the drawbacks of working repeatedly with the same director.

Dafoe: But then there's also the benefit of having known the director and if they inspire you and you've got a shorthand, you have a trust. You know it takes a long time, particularly if you're required to do something that's risky or out of your comfort zone. It's much easier if you trust the guy. Him or her. If you've been around the block with them it's easier to slide into. You have a shorthand.

Mortensen: I think they can help you avoid making mistakes too. They can see you. They know you and you trust them so if they say, "No, no, no I know where you're going, but don't." You're like, "OK."

Hawke: There's also a funny thing that can happen, which is when you don't know a director, they're often casting the idea of you. Something they saw in you in a different movie. And when they're your friend, they're casting you. And they see a side of you, you know like "Fruitvale" is so different than "Black Panther." Somebody else who's directing "Black Panther" might not have known that you could play the bad guy. But somebody who's your friend gets it. And the most challenging parts I've ever gotten have come from people who are casting me, their friend.

Mortensen: The friendship thing can go any number of ways. Every part's different, every actor, actor relationship is different. With Mahershala [Ali, costar of "Green Book"], I happened to get to know him nine months before we did this movie and we connected. We were in one of these things where they have these lunches, like the Independent Spirit Awards, where the people who are nominated can come. And usually it's like a big room that you're like, 'OK, how do I get through it and out quick?' 30-second conversations, a minute at most. And I found myself in a corner with my son, who came with me as my personal bodyguard, holding my hand, basically. I'm by the bathroom door in this corner and I look and there's Mahershala. And I go, "Hey," you know, how much I liked his work and before we know it we're talking for half an hour about anything but, and I think we were both relieved to get out of the hobnobbing. We ended the conversation as we do sometimes, if you get along with someone, "Well maybe someday we'll end up doing something." Next job for both of us is ["Green Book"]. So we did have a jump and that was helpful actually.

In The Envelope's Actors Roundtable, Viggo Mortensen describes working with Peter Farrelly, known primarily as a comedic director, on the drama "Green Book."

John, Willem, the two of you are in movies based on real life people that a lot of people are familiar with, Oliver Hardy and Vincent van Gogh. How did you prepare to take that on?

Reilly: Well, it was an enormous responsibility for me. Those guys, to me, were like the fountainhead of everything that I did, you know from the time I was a little kid I was obsessed with Laurel and Hardy. I thought, "Well, I'm never gonna be as good as Oliver Hardy, but maybe I'm the one who's supposed to carry this torch right now." And so, step by step, I allowed myself the audacity to say that I could maybe try to channel this guy.

Dafoe: Vincent van Gogh, everybody thinks they know about him. And I knew this was going to be a very good film director, Julian Schnabel, who is also a great painter doing a film about a painter. Did I really know how to look at his work? No. I knew the stuff that most people know. When someone asks me to inhabit a character like that, not to explain who he is or to even know who he is, but I knew there was going to be something to go towards, that's what I love more than anything else.

Steven Yeun describes why working on "Burning" was so personally meaningful to him as a Korean American and his transition coming off of "The Walking Dead."

Steven, as you’ve been talking about “Burning” you’ve spoken in such a personal way about what the movie has meant to you. Did you expect that? When you went into the project did you think it would become as personally meaningful for you and your sense of Korean-American identity as it’s become?

Yeun: No, I was just stoked to get to work with, in my opinion, a master director. Lee Chang-dong is one of my favorite directors and so I didn't process what I was getting into. But that experience was very transformative for me. I think it was colliding with a lot of things, having a kid, getting off a show that was so long-running and then getting to work with someone that wears the wisdom on his self. Not pretentiously but you just see it. And you can't help but just, through osmosis, just take that in. So yeah, I want to live like he does, after working with him. It was pretty cool.

Willem, you can be in a movie like “At Eternity’s Gate,” this very emotional portrait of Vincent Van Gogh and you're also in the blockbuster “Aquaman.” Do you approach those roles differently? Are there things about them that are the same or are you attracted to what's different?

Dafoe: I'm attracted to what's different. John said it before, every time out you gotta look at the people, the situation, the material and say, "What are we trying to do here?" And you have some ideas, you prepare as much as you can to just get you in movement and get you going forward. And then once you start doing it, then you've gotta have the wisdom to know when to adjust your strategy or ditch stuff that you were attached to and find a new way. But each time I've got an amnesia. When I'm working on something, that's all I can think about. I don't think about anything else, that's the world to me, and it's about entering that world. Variety keeps you knowing that there's not one way to do things. Keeps your heart open, keeps your mind open. I think that's what's important.

Reilly: I think sometimes actors get a lot of flack for doing the same thing, being stereotyped or whatever. But a lot of times it's the audience that's doing that to you, because the audience wants you to be that same thing again and if you don't have the luxury of a few different options, sometimes you have to pick the thing that the audience wants. Next thing you know you've done five things in a row that the audience wanted you to do and you're locked in this place. I've had a lot of variety in my career and I think it's because of the audience. And my own ability to go, "Hold on, I think I did that before, I'm gonna say no to that." That can be a difficult economic decision to make.

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Yeun: That's like kind of where I'm at right now, people really wanted to put me in a specific place. After seven years of ["The Walking Dead"] they're like, "Oh, you're the nice guy that does the right thing and is tough." And it was interesting to get those really vague parameters and still somehow give me the same exact roles. I was like, "How did you distill three vague things into a stereotype?" It's crazy. My friend, Andy Lincoln, said to me one thing, "It takes about a year for people to get your choices or for you to change people's minds." When you say no, it doesn't change people's minds then but you kind of have to let that percolate for people.

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Hawke: If somebody wants to pay you to do what they've already seen you do, they're not interested —

Jordan: It's the closest to a guarantee they have.

Ethan Hawke ("First Reformed") and Willem Dafoe ("At Eternity's Gate") share notes about their working experiences with director Paul Schrader.

Hawke: Right. They're not interested in the development of your creative life. That's not what they're there to do. I remember when I was a kid, I was in "Dead Poet's Society." Over the next four, five years I got offered every movie that had to do with prep schools. If there was a prep school movie, that was what I got. You do "Training Day," all of a sudden you get offered a ton of cop movies. That's what it is you do. "Boyhood" comes out, all of a sudden if there's a dad, they want me to be the dad. The life of an actor is sifting through that. You can stay in your little box but just more to the left. And then, all of a sudden, the box starts expanding, you know?

Ethan, this year alone has been so prolific for you, between “First Reformed” and “Juliet Naked” and directing “Blaze,” you're working at a rapid-fire pace. Clearly, you're still really motivated and get a lot out of working. Is this a new period for you or have you always been like this?

Hawke: You say pace but it's felt very normal to me. You know when I was a kid I ran a theater company. I like being around artistic people and I feel like making, telling stories and being part of substantive art is what I wanna do with my time on this planet. So nothing's changed except sometimes people notice and sometimes they don't. I feel for me, the opposite is true, which is I'm starting to feel the benefits of consistency in age. I'm not making the same mistakes — or I've made the same mistake five times now so I'm making it a little bit better. Being a part of independent cinema is something that I find really exciting. We live in a time period where there's such a great pull towards money and equating money with defining success. And if you study the history of mankind, you don't need to look very long, to decide it's a terrible barometer for success — accumulation of wealth. Everybody's like you're either for us or against us, you're either left, you're either right, you're either up, you're either down, and life is so different than that. Life is so much more nuanced than one thing. I love movies because they can show us that. So my life's been just being about doing that, as much as possible.

The Envelope gathers lead actors for a frank discussion on the industry and their movies. Pictured invitees are Steven Yeun, left, Viggo Mortensen and Michael B. Jordan.
The Envelope gathers lead actors for a frank discussion on the industry and their movies. Pictured invitees are Steven Yeun, left, Viggo Mortensen and Michael B. Jordan. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Reilly: One more thing. Because I'd like to call out the elephant in the room. So this thing we're doing here, all of us coming here, is about the award season, to sort of put ourselves out there in this awards race. And it really killed me the last time I did it, 15 years ago. It really messed me up because I was putting myself on the line, and felt like I was competing with other actors and that didn't feel right. So I just wanna say, our performances are out there competing against each other, but I don't feel like I'm competing with you guys. I want you to know that I'm with you guys and that our performances are being voted on but we are not being voted on.

Jordan: Because I'm always the youngest guy usually on set or around you know, other actors and stuff like that, just to hear you guys' perspective and just what you guys have been through in the process, for me, I'm sitting here just soaking it up, man. So to your point, I never felt like I was in competition at all but this is just like, it's been a learning experience that I'll never forget. So I appreciate you guys just being honest and vulnerable. So that's solid.

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