If laws of time and space were of no matter, the characters played by the performers in this year’s Envelope Actors Roundtable would make for a most unusual dinner party — a contemporary big-city lawyer struggling to reconcile with his small-town family, a WWII codebreaker forced to work and live in veiled secrecy, a world-renowned modern physicist racing against a debilitating physical condition, an actor looking for meaning in life against his fast-fleeting fame, and a man driven mad by the isolation of his family’s wealth and privilege.
Yet when Robert Downey Jr. (“The Judge”), Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”), Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Steve Carell (“Foxcatcher”) recently met for a conversation those were the roles on the table -- and it turns out there was much common ground in such topics as how to connect to a role, the importance of watching playback, the difficulty of physical transformation and the ever-present distractions and connections provided by social media.
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Olsen: Michael, you had said in an interview that your “Birdman” director, Alejandro Iñárritu, was “your kind of crazy.” I’m curious what you meant by that.
Keaton: I was probably just talking about how much I love this guy, I love his work, what we does. And you know, I also added that he’s crazy. [laughter] And he’s tremendously talented and everything [with him] is about something and his passion is extraordinary and it’s really exciting to be around.
Downey: How many times did he call you cabron?
Keaton: All the time! He does now, he texts me: “Cabron.” That’s his thing.
Olsen: It made it into the movie; Ed said it.
Keaton: Yeah. Slid it in there. Yeah, maybe the only improvised thing in the movie.
Olsen: Well, there’s a moment where Zach Galifianakis says that your fly is down…
Keaton: Yeah, that was too. Zach was so deep into it, he gets very emotional in the scene and you feel that. I feel it and I start to really feel for the guy—I didn’t know whether to laugh, because it was so tremendously funny, but also, really soulful. You know, he’s so hurt and then he threw this line at me where he’s walking away and he’s [ticked] off and he’s almost crying and he says, “Your fly is down.” That wasn’t in the script and I thought, “Now, do I just leave that alone, because that was really funny, and just roll with that?” And then as I turned, I just kind of blew him off -- and then checked real quick. So that wasn’t in the script, that little thing. But honestly, everything else had to be word perfect, you know.
Cumberbatch: It felt like breath, it felt so … like everything was being thought of in the moment. That was the natural charm of it.
Keegan: Benedict, do you think you would like to work in a form like that where the takes are are really long? Does that interest you at all?
Cumberbatch: Very, very much. I’m shooting “Richard III” at the moment and we’re doing a lot of the full scenes, they are continual large scenes and sometimes tracking shots, and as sophisticated as they can be on a BBC budget, but still, you know, I do like that. I like having a feel of this sort of totality or the movement of larger sections of drama. Um, I also like having tea breaks.
Keegan: Steve, Bennett Miller, your director in “Foxcatcher,” said that he liked that you weren’t an obvious choice for this dramatic role.
Carell: I have no idea what you’re talking about. [laughter]
Keegan: What did you think about taking such different role for yourself?
Carell: I thought if he had confidence that I could do it, then I figured that was enough. It wasn’t anything I was lobbying for. It just sort of happened.
Olsen: Were you spooked by it at all? Was there anything about the role that put you off?
Carell: No, I wasn’t spooked by it. It was challenging; it wasn’t anything that I had necessarily done before. But I looked at the guy essentially as a really lonely person, and that’s where I started. [John du Pont’s] a guy that, when he’s 2 years old, his parents got divorced, he grew up in this massive house with his mother who, by all accounts, was extremely cold. And all of his siblings were much, much older than he was and were gone, so was by himself, and starting with that idea — he’s also insulated and isolated by his own wealth — he was a tragic figure from the get-go.
Olsen: Eddie, you said that with taking on the role of Stephen Hawking that at first you were intimidated. You didn’t know if you could do it, and I’m curious about that.
Redmayne: I was totally spooked by it. It was one of those things where you chase the job — actually I thought it was going to be a biopic of Stephen’s life and it was actually this kind of complicated love story. I wanted to get a meeting because I love James Marsh, who directed “Man on Wire,” so I did that thing of chasing down the job. Then you actually get the job and you have that phone call of [happy face] and then a sucker punch of fear, basically. [laughter] The fear side of it is knowing that Stephen would see the film — and Ben’s played Stephen as well, we’ve never spoken about it — and that’s what galvanizes you, because you feel a great responsibility to him and to his family. I always find fear helpful. It doesn’t feel like it at the time but after the event, it can be helpful.
Keegan: Have you seen each other’s Stephen Hawkings?
Cumberbatch: I haven’t seen his yet, no. But I had exactly the same reaction when I got the job — I thought it had gone away, actually, I thought it had gone to another actor so I’d forgotten about it. I think it was the day after my birthday or before it, and I was abroad and I got this crackly call going, “They would like you to play Stephen Hawking.” And just a nanosecond of elation before going, “Oh, my God, what am I going to do?” It’s an amazing thing to know that that person’s going to be sitting there and…
Carell: When I’m offered it, I’m sure I’m going to have the same reaction [laughter]
Keegan: Robert, you were sort of nodding knowingly when Eddie was talking about faking the confidence to get the job. Is that something you’ve ever done?
Downey: Yeah, all the important ones, you kind of have a sense that this is a milestone, you know? This window’s opening and maybe another seven, 10, 15 years later, you might have that same feeling again, so you can tell when you’re at a turning point, for sure, you know.
Olsen: And now you’ve become so attached to the role of Iron Man and Tony Stark. Are you concerned now when you take on other parts or moving into a sort of a serious drama like “The Judge” that you’re bringing something some of Tony Stark with you?
Downey: No more than I am about any other role, honestly. It became kind of this phenomenal thing. I know the missus doesn’t like it when I’m playing Tony Stark, but then I’m kind of a [jerk] when I’m playing Sherlock.
Keegan: Why doesn’t she like it when you’re playing Tony Stark?
Downey: Because I just assume that anything I ask for should just materialize. [laughter] The first thing I learned from Mr. Jellison at theater arts at Santa Monica High School is to have an aesthetic distance. So I’ve maintained one for some time. There’s always the work of the job that’s in front of you and you’re always reaching and, you know, you shake it off.
Keaton: Taken to the extreme, there’s some actors who’ve taken on something where they don’t have a choice, man. You’ve got to lock in deep and coming out is really, …I mean, I understand it, I don’t think it’s an insane thing.
Olsen: And how aware were you or how conscious were you going into the part in “Birdman” that people were going to bring all this Batman stuff to it?
Keaton: I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about. [laughter] No, I assumed that would happen. You go, “Well, there’ll be that.” But the script was really good and it was kind of a nonissue early on. It kind of had to be for me, because I thought, “Well, if we have to get into that and it’s so obvious that it’s really not that at all”—in fact, and I’ve said this with him sitting here and everyone that said it, including himself, it’s really Alejandro. And obviously it was going to come up in discussion and I’m totally OK with it. I mean because once you see it, there’s so much more to discuss — a lot more to discuss.
Olsen: And now, Benedict, for you with playing Alan Turing, I mean, he’s a man about which there was a lot that is known and there’s also a lot that’s not known about him, what sort of research are you doing to create that character?
Cumberbatch: I was little bit aware of him from the play “Breaking the Code” that Derek Jacobi was in. Beyond that, Graham [Moore’s] script was just this extraordinary introduction to him — really humorous and intriguing and a thriller and a love story, and then ultimately this tragedy. I read the biography that the movie was based on and I met a couple of people, well, a couple of relatives, and a couple of people who’d worked with him in Manchester, but it was hard—there was no footage, there’s no audio recording of him. He had a very particular stammer, a very particular way of moving, and a lot of that is talked of anecdotally, so I, I just sort of drew on that and went with a dialect coach and tried to build this character with her and [director Morten Tyldum] and costume as well.
I learned anything I could get, really. But a fascinating, fascinating man to discover and try and portray. One of the real joys about this being made into a film is that his story will get to a broader audience, because it’s shocking, the kind of comparative obscurity in line with his achievements, a man who is the father of the modern computing age. A war hero who broke a Nazi Germany code to basically bring the war to a two-year early conclusion, thereby saving an estimated 14 million lives. A gay icon, a man who didn’t deny his sexuality in a time of abhorrent non-permissiveness. He should be on the cover of history books and science books as well, but also bank notes. He’s up there with Darwin and Newton. He’s an extraordinary scientist and human being.
Keegan: Robert, you worked with Robert Duvall in “The Judge,” and I wonder, did you have any moments working with him that affirmed what you were interested in as an actor?
Downey: I would find myself, like, I would do a take and they’d be like, “You want to do another one?” I was “Well, let me see, I think the second one was good” or whatever. And I would go watch Bobby’s takes, because I was sure he definitely did not do anything, so I want to go see and I would watch and it’s such a big difference with cinematic acting and how it’s like you lock on to something so simple that you can fan out into a million different avenues and ancillary tributaries for it. I would just see that he is just about the most capable screen actor I’ve ever seen.
The biggest thing about “The Judge” is [as a producer] I gave a greyhound a big enough track for him to run laps on and make good time. And so there’s just an immense sense of accomplishment just in that. And yeah, I’m in every scene with him, but it was probably the first time in a decade that I wasn’t really thinking about myself — which reminded me that for the decade before that I primarily was thinking about myself. [laughter] And usually if someone asks me, “Robert, what are you doing?” I go, “Oh, just sitting here thinking about myself.” But Bobby makes you pay attention because there’s just too much data in there, you know, and it’s all been compiled down into this kind of … it’s just a masterclass.
Redmayne: Oh, can I ask you about watching playback because I always had such an interesting sort of debate about that. Some directors won’t let you anywhere near it, and in the first film I ever did, I’d only done theater, and I was doing a scene with Toni Collette and after about an hour she was like, “Ed, should we go and watch playback?” and I was like, “No, the director said I couldn’t.” And she was like, “No, you should go and watch playback,” and I was like, “Really?” And thank God, because I was all this gigantic … I was, like, playing to the back of the stalls.
Carell: She said it to you? “Yeah, you really should.”
Redmayne: She was very generous, actually, she was, she’s very lovely.
Cumberbatch: She’s watching your back.
Redmayne: But on this film, James Marsh allowed me every daily of the film…
Cumberbatch: For what you were doing, I think it’s absolutely paramount to build a deteriorating physicality when you’re shooting out of sequence is one of the miracles of what Eddie’s achieved.
Carell: Are there moments, though, you go and you watch a playback and you think, I can’t do much, it has to be very still. And it felt good when you did it, and then you watch the take and there’s absolutely nothing going on. It’s the most dull, the film just burned up inside because there’s nothing to watch. That is sort of a good barometer to use too because just in terms of energy, to see where you are.
Keaton: I haven’t looked for a long time. In fact, the only time I really used a monitor was “Clean and Sober.” No, that’s not true, I used it a couple of times, and when I say “used it,” I went and watched to check to see if I was in the range. And then I adjusted accordingly, but I don’t really want to know.
Keegan: You know, Steve, one thing that people ask actresses about all the time is work-life balance, and they don’t ask actors about that a lot.
Carell: I’d go home [from the Philadelphia set] almost every weekend—I’d fly back to Los Angeles to be with my family. Being tethered to that, being able to come out of it even for 24 hours, was really a good thing. To be able to be with my kids and my wife was very settling.
Downey: You want to have some boundaries, you want to have limits on stuff. You know, to me, if you can fly home for a weekend, better if and when you can bring them, unless, you know, unless Mom says that she doesn’t want to change their program. But I mean, I’ve grown up on a set—to me what’s normal is a call sheet.
Keaton: I’ve turned a lot of movies down. It was more fun to hang out with my kid honestly, it’s just fun. I just loved it, I loved being a dad and I thought, “I don’t really want to do that,” you know, so a couple good, couple decent roles, nothing great—but I just said, “No, I don’t want to do it,” and when I was doing “Batman,” I would get on the … boy, the Concorde was great. I was so exhausted the whole time, I’d just take off and go and spend, like, not even 48 hours and go home.
Downey: What nobody understands either is that you were the guinea pig for the Mark I of all of those suits. Which, by the way, 20 years later, I’m told, only got infinitesimally more manageable.
Keaton: Yeah, it wasn’t great. The first suit wasn’t even ready till hours before we were ready to start shooting, and the pressure was really on, everyone—especially Tim [Burton]— who, I keep saying this, he changed everything. In that world, he changed everything. The suit was crazy, you couldn’t get out of it. And I’m very claustrophobic. So the first time I was locked in, I thought, “This is never going to happen, I’m never going to do it.” And what happens is, it ends up …I think it’s just fear. It ends up working perfectly for the character. Because you become very interiorially isolated, you know, and you kind of get locked into that thing.
So the first day, you go, “Oh, we’re shooting,” and you go squeeze in and Tim’s looking at it hours and hours and hours, and then we’re going to shoot maybe a second scene. Like all this stuff, this thing [stands up rigidly]. Here’s the origin of this. All right, [imitates Burton directing] “Michael, you come down the steps and as you come, [makes a swift body movement] and you turn and you’re going to,” I don’t know, shoot somebody or whatever I was going to do. So I go like this and I turn, and the face mask [mimics it staying in place as his head turns without it]. Then it was a discussion. “Well, we’ve gotta do the suit,” and I said, “Tim, here’s what you do, when he moves, he moves in power moves like that” [moves head and body rigidly together]. [laughter]
Cumberbatch: That’s amazing.
Keegan: Steve, we’re talking to you today about this remarkable dramatic role. moviegoers may not remember your first credit on IMDB, a film credit which is “Curly Sue.”
Carell: Oh, yeah. Roll it. And we’re back.
Keegan: Was there ever a moment when you were starting out where you thought, “I don’t know if I’m going to get to play the kind of things that I want to play.”
Carell: “It’s never going to happen for me,” is that what you’re saying?
Keegan: Or some variation.
Carell: You know what, I sort of had an incremental climb up the rungs of the ladder, so no, I just enjoyed it. I didn’t really care— I wasn’t so worried about the types of things I was going to get, I just wanted to work. I just wanted to do this, and I had no aspiration to be, you know, at this level with you people. I mean, this is absurd.
Cumberbatch: I think we all feel the same — Not that it’s absurd that you’re here .... [laughter]
Carell: The victory for me was, if I can be employed as an actor and support myself and support a family, I’m done. That’s it. I’m happy and I’ve succeeded.
Cumberbatch: Both my parents are actors and that’s the only thing I’ve wanted was to make a living out of doing something that I love, and I couldn’t frankly believe it when I got paid to do it for the first time.
Keegan: One of the kind of fun themes in “Birdman” is the whole idea of social media. Emma Stone explains it to your character. And I wonder if some of you are on and some of you aren’t — Robert, I think you’re active on Twitter? How do you think of that in terms of your careers? Is it useful?
Downey: Well, it’s the Information Age, you know? I am fairly illiterate and then I got into it, and then it becomes this thing that you kind of have to feed it. I mean, I wish you could stop and start whenever you wanted.
Keegan: Benedict, I’ve heard you say that you couldn’t do Twitter, it wouldn’t work for you.
Cumberbatch: I don’t get any use of it, yeah.
Keegan: Why’s that?
Cumberbatch: Well, you’ve heard me talk. I can’t do 140 characters. [laughter] You know? I can write an op-ed or something. It’d be a waste of everyone’s time and my energy — a half-sentence, that would be it. I mean, it’s a great thing to be able to have a relationship with your audience, I suppose, but I’m kind of old-fashioned.
Keaton: You write with a quill pen. [laughter]
Cumberbatch: I do, I write with a quill pen. I don’t have a nib at the end of it, it’s just the, you know, a sharpened feather at the end, that’s all it is, not even the metal bit.