Newsweek January 29, 2007
Oscar Roundtable: Brad, Leo, Helen & Co.
By Sean Smith and David Ansen
Jan. 29, 2007 issue - Security was tight. For the first time, NEWSWEEK'S annual roundtable was held in public, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. We made sure to keep a few of the celebrities' names secret, and arranged for all of them to arrive via an inconspicuous side entrance to the theater. So imagine our surprise when Brad Pitt—the most paparazzi-hounded star on the planet—was dropped off on Hollywood Boulevard and strode blithely through the theater's front doors, disguised only by a pair of sunglasses. Onstage, Pitt was joined by five other remarkable actors of 2006: Cate Blanchett, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Penelope Cruz and Leonardo DiCaprio. Needless to say, the audience was buzzing. But so were the stars, who listened with obvious delight as their fellow actors discussed their lives, their craft, their passions and their fears. Pitt teased DiCaprio, who said he didn't appreciate being seen as "a piece of cute meat" after "Titanic." "That you are," Pitt told him. Blanchett, who played Brad's wife in "Babel," took some friendly potshots at Pitt's work ethic. They all schmoozed and laughed and asked each other questions for more than two hours—yes, bathroom breaks were permitted—and when time ran out, they didn't seem to want to stop. Neither did we. Excerpts:
What did your parents think when you told them you
wanted to be an actor?
FOREST WHITAKER: My parents really wanted me to go to West Point—something practical like that. Ten years into my acting career they were still trying to get me to go back to school. I wasn't making much money, and sometimes really struggling, but I was, like, "No, Ma. This is what I want to do." Those were difficult conversations because I had my own doubts. It took me a long time to feel comfortable thinking, "I'm an actor. I can do this."
Cate, is it true that your first acting job was as an
extra in an Arabic boxing movie?
MIRREN: We're all in it for the free food, actually. We are all, in our hearts, out-of-work actors.
You all had some surprising early jobs before you
became actors. Forest was a classical tenor. Helen was a sort of
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Really?
BLANCHETT: Just last month.
PITT: I love her. Yeah, my job was to drive them to bachelor parties and things. I'd pick them up, and at the gig I'd collect the money, play the bad Prince tapes and catch the girls' clothes. It was not a wholesome atmosphere, and it got very depressing. After two months I went in to quit, and the guy said, "Listen, I've got this one last gig tonight." So I did it, and this girl—I'd never met her before—was in an acting class taught by a man named Roy London [a famous acting coach]. I went and checked it out, and it really set me on the path to where I am now.
A stripper changed the course of your career.
We'll see that in the National Enquirer next week.
Leo, you made your first film, "This Boy's Life," at
16. What was that like?
MIRREN: I was like a rabbit in headlights for years on film sets, not understanding who was doing what, and how you're supposed to behave. It is a terrifying environment, really.
Penelope, in "Jamón, Jamón" you played the daughter
of a prostitute, and you became a sensation, and a sex symbol,
at 17. What was that like?
Leo, you became a teen idol at an early age also.
PITT: That you are. [Laughter]
DICAPRIO: It was pretty disheartening to be objectified like that. I wanted to stop acting for a little bit. It changed my life in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I can't say that it didn't give me opportunities. It made me, for the first time, in control of my career. But yeah, it was weird.
Brad, Hollywood wanted you to be a conventional
leading man. You didn't.
BLANCHETT: So did you guys look to a relationship with a director to help champion the way out?
DICAPRIO: I definitely sought out the relationship with Martin Scorsese. It was important to me to find somebody I could trust. It's a weird thing to put your performance in another person's hands. We so often sit in rooms with directors and you hear their vision about a specific project, but there's a huge difference between what they say and what actually shows up on screen.
PITT: Do directors want you to [play a version] of them?
DICAPRIO: Sometimes you get that feeling, yeah.
MIRREN: It doesn't happen to women. You get to play their fantasy instead. But you know, [the industry] is always trying to put you in a box, and you're always having to fight your way out of it. They don't want you to grow up or grow older or change, so it's great when a role comes up that allows you to take that next step. It happened with me on "Prime Suspect." Suddenly I was allowed to look like a woman of the age that I was. I didn't have to have glamorous lighting. I didn't have to wear makeup. It was fabulously liberating, and it's really why I'm still working, because I was allowed to step forward.
DICAPRIO: Was it really? That character was stellar. I remember seeing you in "The Color of Money" at a very young age, going, "Who is this guy?"
WHITAKER: I was a replacement. They fired somebody, and I flew in and auditioned. That's how it happened.
MIRREN: My husband [Taylor Hackford] directed ... what was it called? Oh, God, I forgot the name of it. Famous movie with Debra Winger?
"An Officer and a Gentleman."
Which movie made you want to become an actor?
BLANCHETT: The only role I wanted to play was Lucy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." I also wanted to be Gregory Peck.
PITT: I remember sneaking into "Saturday Night Fever," and it had a profound effect on me. [Laughter]
MIRREN: The first movie that caught my imagination was "L'Avventura," by Antonioni. Until then I had seen only Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, and I wasn't into them very much.
WHITAKER: When I was a kid there weren't a lot of black actors working in films, so acting didn't seem like a possibility. The first actor I remember being struck by was Sidney Poitier.
DICAPRIO: I tried to get an agent when I was around 7. I was a break-dancer and had a mohawk, and I was rejected. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but it wasn't until "This Boy's Life," when I was 16, that I started to research quality films. I remember watching James Dean in "East of Eden." I said to myself, "Wow, I didn't know it was possible to give a performance this good."
PITT: Although you were extraordinaryon "Growing Pains."
DICAPRIO: Thank you, buddy. As were you.
Dustin Hoffman famously asked Laurence Olivier once
what acting was all about, and Olivier replied, "Look at me,
look at me, look at me."
BLANCHETT: I think it's probably "Look into me." What we perceive to be naturalism or realism has been utterly eroded by so-called reality television, where people are performing themselves. But what we do, actually, is unmask and reveal what it means to be human, and allow someone in. It's taken me a long time to allow myself to be exposed in front of a camera.
PITT: Acting is really a team sport. A lot of times one actor will become the MVP, but just like in tennis, your game is elevated if you're playing with someone better. I mean, just look at the way Cate compensated for George Clooney in "The Good German." [Laughter]
Are there roles that you look at and think, "I wish I
could have played that"?
CRUZ: Either of the two women in "Terms of Endearment." Carmen Maura in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment."
BLANCHETT: Anything Elizabeth Taylor has ever done.
MIRREN: It's not that you want to play the role; you're inspired by it. It's not as if you're sitting there going, "Oh, I would have been better." [Pause] Well, sometimes you are. [Laughter]
BLANCHETT: There's a moment in "A Streetcar Named Desire," where Vivien Leigh has just gone into the bathroom, and Marlon Brando's banging on the door, and she opens the door and his hand flinches. It's the most astonishing shot. This guy that Brando could have played with complete brutality, and [instead he shows] his vulnerability, in that hand.
DICAPRIO: I wanted to ask everyone something: we all talk about being "in the zone"—becoming our character—but there are so many technical things that happen when you're making a movie, it's impossible not to realize that there's a camera there, and your character has to emote this specific emotion. Those moments where it all disappears, and you're really speaking as this other person? I'm lucky if that happens more than once on a movie.
PITT: I find alcohol helps. [Laughter]
BLANCHETT: Well, I didn't get lost in "Battlefield Earth."
Was there a role you'd wished you'd played that you
PITT: [To DiCaprio] Our sexuality has been dubious as well. [Laughter]
Would you care to discuss that?
BLANCHETT: We have photographs.
Was there a role that caused you more anxiety than
Helen, do you know what Queen Elizabeth thinks of
your portrayal of her?
Has she seen it?
PITT: How did you start shaping her? She's got this great fireplug walk, and your glasses were always halfway down the bridge of your nose.
MIRREN: Obviously there's a lot of film on her, but it's of her in her formal role—hardly anything behind closed doors. Playing a real character, you have to behave likea detective and see things that maybe no one else has. She's unbelievably composed, but on the films I noticed that her thumb is always turning her wedding ring round and round and round. There's this inner beat, this tension.
You wore a padded butt for your role.
CRUZ: Oh, I'm so happy! Now every time someone asks me this, I'm going to say, "Helen had one, too."
Did the butt help?
You've all done some impressive accent work in your
careers. Cate has done three different ones this year. Is it a
hurdle to get over when you're building a character?
MIRREN: Until you nail the accent it is paralyzing. You can't act—you can't do anything—because all you can hear is your voice making the wrong sound. What's even more difficult is what Penelope has done. I think to act in a foreign language is the most unbelievably difficult thing. I can't imagine it.
Penelope, your first English-language film was "The
Hi-Lo Country." Was that scary?
Brad, your Irish Gypsy accent in Guy Ritchie's
"Snatch" is so great that we can't understand a word you're
BLANCHETT: I never think of accents as something that's slapped on. It's syntax and rhythm and breath. It's about when people choose to pause, what words they emphasize. You can say it's accent, but it's actually thought process. It's got to be organic. And I think the earlier you can start the better. Brad. [He mimics being stabbed in the heart.]
MIRREN: You're absolutely right. It's not something that you glom on the top, as if language and accent are separate. Americans are always saying, "Oh, I love your accent." I don't have the bloody accent. You've got the accent. [Laughter] No, I never say that. I say, "Thank you so much. How sweet of you."
Do you feel differently about your work than you did
when you started acting?
WHITAKER: I had to learn to not divorce my life from my work. My work is a continual process of growth for me; it's an expansion of myself. In the last couple of years, I've been taking things I learn about myself in my work and using it to be more completely there for my kids, my family, my friends. It's flowing in a complete way. It has been a bit of an awakening.
DICAPRIO: Man, I've got to get some kids, huh? I only really started enjoying acting when there was a certain level of detachment from the end result. I remember being 15 and going on 160 auditions, and not getting a single role for a year and a half. I realized I was turning into one of those Hollywood kids: "Hi, I'm Leo! And I'm going to be reading today! Oh yeah, I had a great day at school! I love school!" [Laughter] I had become a product of this system where everyone is aiming to please the director, the casting director, whomever. So I started to think about the character—the work—instead of the result. You know, kids are always asking me what they should do to become actors. You give them the pat answers: "Study your lines. Work hard. Don't give up." But what I want to tell them is, "You have to not care what these people think about you."
MIRREN: You were lucky to learn that at 15. Marlon Brando's great acting advice was, "Don't care too much." I never understood that, because I cared so much, and still do. But what he meant was, let go of that total investment in "Are they going to love me?" "Am I going to be good?" F--- that. Maybe that's what Brad is saying as well.
PITT: Yeah, but it took me 800 words to say what he did in four.
WHITAKER: It's magic. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?
CRUZ: It gives me so much happiness to know that I will never know everything about acting. That fear of not knowing will always be with me, no matter what happens.
PITT: It's the love for the story, and a respect for the business. I want to be better in it, and better for it. I'm still striving for that. And I believe in the power of films.
BLANCHETT: Krzysztof Kieslowski said that filmmaking is a conversation with an audience. When you're connecting with other people, it's utterly thrilling. I feel alive when I'm acting. It's tragic, but true. I would die in a rehearsal room if I could.
Helen, what keeps you acting?