WE’RE waiting for the stars to arrive when the first distress message comes through. Charlize Theron might be late because her house is surrounded by paparazzi and she can’t get out. Then a puzzling email warns that Michael Fassbender isn’t coming after all.
So, of course, Theron is the first to arrive at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood, where we’re holding this year’s Oscar Roundtable. She’s fighting off a cold and keeps saying she “sounds like a man”. If so, not any man I’ve ever met. By the time Fassbender blows in — the email was apparently a prank — George Clooney and Viola Davis and Tilda Swinton have already shown up, and the lovefest has begun. At many previous roundtables the talent was often meeting each other for the first time, but this year our lineup has a lot of shared history. George and Viola (sorry, but it was a first-name kind of day) are old pals; they worked together on Solaris a decade ago, and he lent her his Lake Como villa for her honeymoon. George and Tilda are good buddies, too, having bonded making Michael Clayton and Burn After Reading. Charlize and Michael just spent months together shooting Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic Prometheus at Pinewood Studios outside London.
We knew the chemistry was going to be special this year. Although this is work for them — just part of a string of Oscar-season promotional duties — it feels more like a cozy A-list dinner party. Fassbender, who once worked as a bartender, runs out with his publicist before the photo shoot and returns bearing vodka and Bloody Mary mix, then sets up shop behind the bar in the greenroom and begins to pour. (It’s still well before noon.) With his short-cropped hair and Irish bonhomie, he bears no resemblance to the slick sex addict in Shame or the moody, sideburned Rochester in Jane Eyre, and even less to the straitlaced Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method — especially when he and Theron start sharing stories of their drunken sky-diving experiences.
Last to arrive is Christopher Plummer, dapper and elegant. At 82, Plummer is no longer the drinking man he was in his wilder days — his recent memoir is full of memorable boozing tales — so he doesn’t partake.
There’s a stir in the room when the surprise seventh star arrives — Uggie, the scene-stealing nine-year-old Jack Russell from The Artist. Should one address him in English or French?
Swinton, not one to be starstruck, falls to her knees before the canine. “Hi, Uggie, you are such an amazing dog!” she says, insisting on a photo of the two of them together. Not everyone is so happy to see the pooch. Plummer expresses frustration that Cosmo, Beginners’ remarkable Jack Russell, isn’t getting the same awards-season attention. “We had the better dog,” he declares, with his best silken patrician diction. He doesn’t seem to want to pose in the group photo with Uggie — the competition! — and no one is quite sure whether his reluctance is serious or sly.
It’s time for the roundtable conversation to begin, but Clooney and Fassbender can’t be torn away from the Ping-Pong table in the lounge. What’s the score? “We’re like those schoolchildren,” Clooney says. “We don’t want to know who’s winning.”
The element of play is a dominant theme. These actors are very serious about their craft, but they insist on keeping it fun. “If we were all doing what we should be doing as grownups, we’d be working in an office,” Clooney says. “We’re all still kids playing make-believe.”
The other motif that keeps popping up is, well, Michael Fassbender’s penis, which plays a memorable supporting role in Shame. No one at the table misses an opportunity to rib him. It is suggested that his member be the centrepiece at the roundtable. But Theron, known for her raunchy tongue, isn’t one to be upstaged. Just before the video cameras roll, she brushes her pants with a lint remover and asks us, “How’s the vagina looking?”
I should have known that the talk would quickly turn to sex. Although my fellow moderator, Ramin Setoodeh, and I had decided we’d open the discussion with a generic question — “Was there a movie or performance you’d seen as a child that inspired you to be an actor?” — Swinton is quick to remind me that she and I had just been discussing our first erotic memories in the cinema. She’d recently shown her 14-year-old twins Vertigo, the most sexually obsessive of Hitchcock movies. So our opening question is revised, by popular demand, to everyone’s first cinematic sexual revelation.
Theron: I remember being maybe nine years old and catching a glimpse of Body Heat, of them in bed and Kathleen [Turner’s] hand, but over the covers, on his crotch area. And I started crying. And I’ve been damaged ever since.
So has William Hurt, by the way.
And why did you start crying?
No, no, I’m joking!
How old were you?
I think I was 8 or 9.
That pisses me off. [Theron is puzzled, then realises he’s moaning about how old she makes him feel.]
Got it. I am only 14 right now ... Yeah, that was my first little tingling sensation.
I grew up in Kentucky. We had drive-in theatres and I remember watching Last Tango in Paris — and it’s still amazing to me that they did Last Tango in Paris at a drive-in. In Kentucky. You can imagine.
What an erotic state that is!
Look at that sheep!
But isn’t a drive-in all about tingling sensations? I always imagined you could see Bambi in a drive-in and get a tingling sensation.
There were no movies when I grew up. [Laughter.] There was barely a stage. Radio hadn’t really started yet. But I still had an erotic experience nonetheless. I didn’t need any of the media. But if you really are interested in knowing, I think my first was Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy. That was really daring. I don’t know if they were her tits. I think it was someone else’s body and Hedy’s gorgeous face.
My first erotic image was Nashville. That scene when — isn’t there a singer who is completely naked onstage?
Singing, you know. I remember being completely shocked by that. And so kind of titillated. She was so vulnerable, and it was like, “Oh, my God, she’s in front of all those people naked!”
I think it was Wonder Woman for me, actually.
The TV show?
Was it the tiara?
The TV show, yeah. I was always trying to capture her between the change. [Laughter.] I felt unusual things were happening to me and I didn’t understand.
We decide to get a little more serious and talk about how each actor prepares for a role. To ready herself for Doubt, Davis wrote a 50-page biography of the woman she played. “Oh, God,” she says, reminded of it. “Why did I say that? It makes me sound like such the thespian. I did that for one film because I was terrified to work with Meryl Streep, and I didn’t understand the character. But I don’t do that with every character. I don’t have a method. With The Help, I was in Mississippi for a month. And if you’ve ever been to Mississippi, you know you have to be in Mississippi to shoot that movie. It’s a character in and of itself. There’s the rest of America and then there’s Mississippi, where everybody has a gold tooth, everything is fried, 108-degree weather, 100% humidity, and a place that has not let go of the past. So it was less work for Aibileen [her character in The Help] in terms of writing things down, and much more just feeling the environment.
You do all your work and then you show up and kind of let it happen. My greatest fear is that I show up and start “doing things”. There is that amazing thing that can happen sometimes when you’re not doing anything. It is just happening. It’s when you feel it’s under your skin.
Don’t you think that if actors are cast correctly, if they’re in the right role, it suddenly becomes an infinitely easier process?
That is where you find the best director. That is half the battle. At least then they’re comfortable. Their job is almost over. [Plummer, who has happily worked with such giants as John Huston and Elia Kazan, doesn’t have kind words for the revered Terrence Malick. He wrote him an angry letter after seeing 2005’s The New World and found that much of Plummer’s performance had landed on the cutting-room floor.] He edits the film in such a way that he cuts everybody out of the story. The problem with Terry is he desperately needs a writer.
The best experiences I’ve had are the ones where it’s just really easygoing. Where nobody is pretending to cure cancer and you go and do your job. That doesn’t mean you have less passion or anything.
In other words, have fun.
The thing about acting that people don’t understand: the discomfort is the comfort. It’s when you allow yourself to be in the moment and be surprised, because there’s no way you can predict who your character is. You don’t know how you are going to react to any given circumstance.
I’m sitting here listening to real actors talk about real methods, and I’m thinking once again that I’m an interloper. [Swinton, who has garnered awards buzz this season for her role in We Need to Talk About Kevin, has often said she’s embarrassed to be called an actor, because what she does is something different. A true bohemian, she’s always been more interested in the collective experience of making movies than in forging an acting career, and she refers to Hollywood films as “industrial movies”.] I am more and more in awe of professional actors. I come to all this from the art world. I started with filmmakers who constantly trained me as a performer to have an awareness of the frame, above all ... and if I know that all that is in the shot is my elbow, that’s all I’m going to give. I am super lazy in that sense of it.
Whatever your method is, it shouldn’t affect other people’s way of working, because I’ve been on those sets where you just go, “Dude, I don’t work the way you work.”
Whatever it takes, you know. If that means eating a banana before you go into a scene, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. But you don’t want to be making other people go through your process. It should be fun.
And the fact of making films is that it is so smoke and mirrors. It is so practical. It is so technical. You all make it together and actors are outnumbered, 50 to 1, by technicians. You are a technician at the end of the day. You have to work out where the mike is, and if you’re too delicate to deal with the changing of a mike head, that is going to be a problem for your colleagues. So, yeah, it is all about just playing.
Clooney talks about the danger when an actor, cast in a small part, tries to make more of the role than it is. “Your job is sometimes to just ring a doorbell and say, ‘Pizza’. And you start saying to the director, ‘I think I’m delivering pizza because my parents were alcoholics.’ And the director is like, ‘I just need you to deliver the pizza. Just say, ‘Pizza’.”
Theron gets worked up thinking about the pretentious actors she’s worked with. “When you come to work you just do it. You just ring the goddam doorbell. Here’s the thing.
“It’s time-consuming to make a film. It’s not just about actors. There are so many people involved. It’s a job for them. They don’t want to hear all your bullshit. The focus puller isn’t going, ‘God, I have massive diarrhoea today, this is going to be tough for me.’ He’s just doing it.”
“There are two very dangerous [kinds of actors],” Davis says. “The ones that just haven’t put in the time yet, and they experience success at a very young age. And they take it too seriously. Or people who have been in the business for 40, 50 years and never experienced the success they thought they should have had. And so they want to punish you. I’ve had the old bitter ones.
“But you know, The Help was my first so-called leading role. I’ve done the two days of work and been the one saying ‘Pizza’ or ‘He went thataway.’ It becomes really challenging not to want to bring in the whole history — you know, ‘My mom beat the crap out of me and I’m saying “Pizza” because I’m really angry.’ It becomes a real challenge because you want to work. You want to infuse the character with something. Because after all, the ego is in there, too.”
Clooney knows something about the actor’s ego. “What happens is, you get a modicum of success and then it becomes about the weirdest shit. I am from Kentucky, OK. We try not to live in trailers. We don’t brag about being in a double-wide. And all of a sudden — I’ve seen this happen — someone will come onto a set and they’re upset because their trailer isn’t the right size. And you go, take my trailer, because honestly that’s not something to brag about.”
Fassbender says the first time he got a big trailer, “I thought, ‘They gave me money to get a flat!’ And when I saw the trailer I was like, ‘Damn, I should have just saved the money and slept in the trailer. This is amazing.’ I was like, ‘Wow, it’s got everything I need in here. TV. Shower. Bed.’”
Swinton, as always, has a different take. “But it feels to me like the trailers are not really for the actors. The trailers are for the production to know that the commodity of the actor is being protected. The second we sign the contract and we’re in the trailer, we belong to the production. And we are a thing that gets moved onto the set. I mean, I’m speaking as someone who very, very often doesn’t have a trailer ... It is not about the actor, it’s not ‘Oooh, I’ve got a big trailer, then I must have a big cock.’”
“Leave him out of this,” Theron says, turning to Fassbender.
“There are exceptions,” quips Fassbender, turning red.
Seated next to each other, Theron and Fassbender are partners in crime at the roundtable, the mischief makers, the kids. She wears her great beauty casually, and plays off it with her drunken-sailor’s tongue. He alternates between his role as merrymaker and earnest student, all ears as he listens to Davis eloquently explain the hard facts of being a black actress in a business aimed at an audience of young white males.
“There just aren’t a lot of roles for — I mean, I’m a 46-year-old black actress who doesn’t look like Halle Berry — and Halle Berry is having a hard time. You know there’s not a lot of leading roles.”
Theron jumps in. “I’m going to have to stop you there for a second.”
“Why, you think I look like Halle Berry?”
“No. You have to stop saying that because you are hot as shit. You look amazing.”
“I appreciate that, but I have an absolute understanding and awareness of the image I project, and there’s just not a lot of roles for women who look like me. And so the pizza ...”
It speaks volumes that Davis is the only actor at the table who hasn’t had a chance to experience romantic chemistry onscreen. But at the roundtable, it’s Swinton — not Davis — who is playing the role of outsider. Swinton, who looks like David Bowie’s twin sister, positions herself outside the industry box. While some of the other actors came with their publicists, she’s accompanied by her “sweetheart,” artist Sandro Kopp, 18 years her junior. Swinton seems slightly bemused to be included in today’s gathering. This, after all, is a woman who gave her Oscar away to her agent.
Why did I give it away? I owed him some money. [Laughter.] I don’t know. I felt like it was the right thing to do. [Davis looks horrified.]
It wasn’t because it fought the decor of your house?
I took it home for a minute to show my children and it sat on the kitchen table for a couple of weeks, and then I sent it back to California, where it lives.
I sleep with mine. Is that wrong?
I put mine on the hood of my car. Is that bad?