|Interview-The 'Good Luck' of David Strathairn
|by Peter Sobczynski
David Strathairn, star of the acclaimed “Good Night, and Good Luck” talks about his award-winning performance as Edward R.Murrow, the responsibilities of playing such a well-known personality and his own favorite performances.
If you are a fan of American independent films, you most likely recognize David Strathairn from his long-running (seven films so far) with writer-director John Sayles. If you prefer big-studio enterprises, you probably recognize him from his work in such films as “Sneakers,” “The River Wild” and his scene-stealing bit in “L.A.Confidential.” Now, in his highest-profile performance to date, he is tackling the role of Edward R. Murrow in the brilliant new docudrama “Good Night, and Good Luck.” The film, directed by George Clooney, tells the story of the legendary battle played out over the airwaves between highly respected CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow and Red-baiting Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54.
To play such a well-known public figure has to be a daunting task–it can’t simply be an imitation or the film just becomes an extended stunt–and it is one that Strathairn is clearly up to. While he may not physically look exactly like Murrow, he has his sound and manner down pat and he finds a way of letting us know how the man feels about what is going on around him without ever having to express it verbally. (Watch him in the scene where he has to inform a beleaguered fellow newscaster, who is being crucified as a Communist in the Hearst newspapers, that he cannot help him on the sensible grounds that he can’t battle McCarthy and Hearst at the same time.) This is a great performance from the generally underrated Strathairn and if enough people see the film, it is a virtual lock for an Oscar nomination. The jury at the Venice Film Festival, where the film had its premiere in early September, seemed to agree–they presented him with their Best Actor award for his performance.
How did you become interested in acting?
I don’t know. I found out, or discovered, that the world of theater, which I where I started, was a place where you could learn more than just your lines–the history of the people, the art of the people and the issues of those people at a particular time in their history in one fell swoop if you wanted to. As an actor, I found that it was more exciting and I better understood my character if I knew from whence they came. If you are doing a Chekov play, you learn about that particular time in Russian history and how all of that impacts the character. I found that was a way in to getting an amazing education about things, especially when doing the Greeks or Shaw or Shakespeare.
Even with a David Mamet play, you have to be aware of certain regional dictates. Sam Shepard plays and even a Neil Simon comedy, they all have a particular world that they takes place in and you immerse yourself in that world in order to be responsible to the piece and honor the playwright and what they are saying. Theater became this vast place of exploration and learning and I find that most projects that I am fortunate to be involved in do that. John Sayles’s films are very respectful and respective of a particular community at a particular time–you learn the history of the town and then extrapolate out to learn the history of your country and even mankind. Theater and film are becoming man’s library about himself.
How does that work in the case of something like “Good Night, and Good Luck” where nearly all of the story is literally in the public record–so much has be written about and several people involved with the actual proceedings are still alive? Does that make it easier for you or more difficult in a way?
That’s a good question. You have a wall full of images and a shelf full of books and people telling you that Murrow was like this and like that. You can hear his voice and see how he dressed and all of that can be created artificially. You can read about the history and get a sense from films made at the time of how people behaved. There is so much stuff at your fingertips that it makes it easier but what is difficult is trying to get into the psychology. Barring huge cultural predicates, I think the psychology of people are basically the same when you put them in situations and that is the difficult thing–trying to find that.
How much did you personally know about Murrow and the events chronicled in the film before signing on to the project and what did you learn about the subject while in preparation?
I knew who he was and what he had gone through and why he was so lauded for what he did–his work during the London Blitz and “See It Now” and “Person to Person”–so I had a vague understanding. In researching and learning about it, I came to realize that there was so much more about this man that could be plumbed. Even though this film is not a biopic about him, I came to learn about a pioneer and an explorer–one of those people who were first to go off the edge and chart the wilderness, the wilderness being television and the uses of it. I became aware, in respect to today, of a simpler world that was smaller and not nearly as confusing as the one we live in today. It did become a very enlightening project from that point-of-view.
As you said, the film is not a standard-issue biopic and one of the things that is most intriguing about it, from a narrative point-of-view, that it doesn’t contain a lot of the elements that one might expect in such a film. For example, there is no scene in which Murrow gives a speech in which he explains in excruciating detail about why he has chosen to take a stand against McCarthy and his tactics. None of that is there but you don’t miss it because all of that comes through in the performance. How tricky is it to play a role like this where you don’t have such scenes to fall back upon to help build your character?
That is a very good observation about the film. I think that one of the really compelling things about the film is the editing. He isn’t indulged moments at home or moments with his son or where he is alone in a bar and has an epiphany which allows him to postulate on everything. You don’t have that. You have the sense of a man at the edge of an event and the energy of the film has the kind of pace that makes you feel as if you are in it. It is almost like an action picture. In terms of what we had to do, we all had to be in the moment as much as we could and keep in our heads not only a sense of who these people might have been but also a sense of what was going on at that particular moment. George said, “Off you go and we’ll catch it.” and Robert Elswit, the cinematographer caught it.
I think that approach gives so much information off the beat, so to speak. What you get is an accumulation of these very tense moments with the beautiful Greek chorus moments with the singing of Diana Reeves that allows the audience to have a moment to sit and turn the events over before they are off again. Our performances were tuned up to that kind of aesthetic knowing that we weren’t going to have to stand and deliver the big moments. That was, I think, the brilliant and clever choice that George made in choosing to shoot it that way. He knows the inside of a news studio, having been brought up in that world, and he was very respectful in honoring it. It allowed us to go without having the onus of the big revelation moment and I think that it is a testament to how special this film really is.
In fact, the style of the film–long, dialogue-driven scenes and relatively few locations–reminded me a lot of a live television drama from the period chronicled in the film and I discovered later while reading the notes that George Clooney had originally planned the film as a live television production along the lines of his staging of “Fail-Safe.”
Do you know why they stopped that plan? I think that one of the reasons was the Janet Jackson Super Bowl gaffe–they were afraid that one of the actors would do something. There were two cameras going most of the time and the shots were set up in such a way that the camera was with you all the time. They had these great old CBS cameras and they put video cameras in each of those so that they could record that and send it to the monitors and see that scene. When you see Murrow doing his “See It Now” broadcast and the technicians are looking up at the monitors, that was all being fed through those cameras. You were surrounded by cameras and it made you feel like part of that world.
The other interesting thing about the film is that it doesn’t portray a completely black-and-white world of idealistic journalists and nasty money-grubbing executives–people like William Paley are depicted in fair and complex terms as well. It also doesn’t go for the simple and idealistic ending in which Murrow triumphs over McCarthy–instead, it goes on for a few more minutes and shows the price that Murrow wound up paying in the end for his efforts.
These were men at the edge of the wilderness and they were real people–they didn’t know if what they were doing was going to blow up in their faces or not. Everybody had their flaws and I thought that was another wonderful layer to the film–how everyone was respected for being a person instead of being a stereotype.
What was it like working with George Clooney, both as an actor and as a director?
He says he isn’t a very good actor–that he was the worst actor there–but he knows his way around a camera as well as anybody. He knew that the task of directing himself was kind of ridiculous because what do you do? “Hey George, that sucked–do it again!” It is an absurd situation but his understanding of the story and Fred Friendly’s role in all of it was uncanny. He took himself out of a lot of the film in order to keep it as lean as possible. I never felt that he was either one or the other and, curiously enough, Fred Friendly was exactly that kind of guy. He was out there micro-managing and letting Murrow know what to do–he was a man who had his fingers in so many things while in the studio and George was doing the exact same thing. He did that with such ease while at the same time being just like one of us. Also, after seeing the first few days of dailies, I realized that his eye and preparation and vision for the film was very intact and it was our job to go out and serve that.
Of course, you are probably best known to a lot of moviegoers for your longtime association with John Sayles. Can you talk a little about that actor-director relationship and how that has evolved over the years?
John, as George and other great directors do, casts really well. I can say that objectively because the parts that he has put me in are those that he thinks that I understand something inherently about those characters. Playing Murrow was a risk on George’s part because had no idea whether or not I could do this. He was like Wile E Coyote out on the edge and about to crash to the bottom of the canyon. With John, over the course of the six or seven films that we’ve done, you do develop a kind of shorthand–I know how he likes to move through the day and through a scene and that the script is sacred. He gives a lot of trust to the actors because he cast them and is confident that they can do what he needs them to do. You grow and sometimes you grow out of roles that you could have done but I was lucky with John to have those films with John where the roles that he gave me were in synch with who I was. If they are using you over and over, there is confidence and trust and the releases you from your anxieties and allows you to deliver on something that you are asked to do.
Leaving “Good Night, and Good Luck” out of the equation, which of the performances that you have done to date stand out the most for you, regardless of their financial or artistic success, as the ones where you came closest to saying and doing what you wanted with the character you were playing?
“City of Hope” was one where I came close to what I was hoping to achieve. “Sneakers”was one where, for the most part, I covered the bases that I had set out for myself. “Blue Car”–I feel pretty good about the outcome of that. The creation of the character was in sync with the film and that is always a main concern–that the character can stand on its own but still disappear into the fabric of the film and serve as a indication of what the film is about. Those three . . . “Eight Man Out” was close. There is always Monday-morning quarterbacking going on with this stuff. It is an imperfect situation because you can only refine up until they say cut–they think they’ve got it but your wheels are still turning.
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originally posted: 10/20/05 18:12:28
last updated: 10/28/05 14:25:36