By Sean Axmaker
October 14, 2005 - 1:50 AM PDT
With a 25-year career in some 70 films and TV shows, the prolific David Strathairn is one of the finest contemporary actors who remains largely unknown to most viewers. He's an actor, not a star, most comfortable as an ensemble player in low key dramas and indie productions (including many by longtime friend John Sayles), but equally adept in big budget productions (The River Wild and L.A. Confidential, both by Curtis Hanson), comedies (Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers) and even TV sitcoms (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd).
His performance as the legendary journalist and TV news pioneer Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck. could change that. So often cast as nervous, tremulous figures who either overcome their physical trepidation by force of moral will - as in so many Sayles films - or slink away in the absence of such strength, or conversely as slimy, hypocritical powerbrokers and small time crooks, Goodnight gifts him with a role of moral integrity and unflinching courage, and he inhabits it with a performance of quiet strength. Strathairn carves out a figure of decency whose dedication to truth and sense of responsibility to the public - and to his own morality - drives him to put his career on the line for a greater good, and he does so in a performance that matches Murrow's sure, succinct screen persona and Clooney's austere, precise direction.
It was only 10 am when David Strathairn strode in for the interview (in a TV studio appropriately enough, where I was squeezed in just minutes before he went on air), and he was hoarse from his barnstorming press tour. He flew in to Seattle the night before to introduce a screening of Goodnight, And Good Luck. and host an audience Q&A, and he had come directly from a morning radio interview when I met him. "I was in San Francisco yesterday, in Los Angeles the day before. I need an atlas to figure out everywhere I've been in the last week," he joked.
He insisted that he wasn't tired, just his voice, which rumbled and caught like he'd just chain-smoked an entire pack before breakfast. It's something Edward R. Murrow might have done, but not Strathairn. "It sounds like I just stopped yesterday," he smiled after clearing his throat, and we began.
David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck.
Let's start with a question I'm sure you've been asked many times before. In your own words, what is the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, and what was the challenge in bringing that to the screen?
His legacy is the highest standards of journalism. Well, that's putting it too simply. Actually I haven't been asked this question, not in so many words. He set the standards of integrity and objectivity and inclusiveness and truth in journalism. That is probably being taught in all the journalism schools right now. But I think this film shows the gauntlet he laid down as to the bravery it requires, the willfulness and the awareness of how difficult it is to keep the ideals and the practices that he was so exemplary in displaying, how to keep those present and always in play in what a journalist does. If anything, it was his courage that he leaves out there for people to tap into. His standards of excellence and his professionalism are unassailable and they always will be, but what he had - evidenced by this film at this particular moment in history, a very dangerous, very risky, very crucial time - was a courage to stand up despite the potential crushing blow of McCarthyism. He could have been like every other one of those journalists, who were as ethical and as professional as he was, but no one had the courage to do it. They were all waiting for him to do it. That might be on of the more important things that he passes down. The inspiration. Be brave, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid.
Good Night, And Good Luck. stays very specifically in the period and focused on the historical events, but it also puts a mirror up to news media of today just by the presentation of the courage of Murrow and his team and his philosophy of the responsibility of the news media. And while the film shows Murrow's clashes with CBS President William S. Paley, it also shows how Paley supported Murrow's ideals, something you simply don't see in the television news media of today. So I think that the film is very political in the way that it, by example, serves as a critique to the news media of today.
It was not George's intention to make a political film, because if it polarizes, if it makes things even more divisive than they already are, then it doesn't honor Murrow. There are those out there who will say that this is a bully pulpit for a liberal, feel good, leftist populist movie. It gives insight to political phenomenon, yeah, that was going on at that time. But it's just a picture, it's a story about a political issue, it's not a film that is politicizing anything. It was a different time. There were three networks and Paley and Murrow were the two people at the peak of the industry. That could never exist today. No one man could be able to make the decisions that Paley did. Now the world is infinitely more diverse and diffused. There are so many pressures and it's so fractured. What's great about the film is that it sees these two men - highly principled, ethical, brilliant and willful men - right at a pivot point where television news and entertainment collided and, after that collision happened, what became of it. But I don't think it's a political film. It's a picture of a political situation. It's a platform for a discussion about our politics today for sure. If it achieves that and gets a discussion going, pro or con, it's what Murrow ultimately wanted to teach people.
George Clooney and David Strathairn in Good Night, and Good Luck.
It's an astoundingly austere film for an American production. Clooney directs with a stripped down precision, cutting to the heart of every scene and cutting away everything extraneous to the story. Your performance is in the same mode. You have to convey a lot outside of your lines. Can you talk about that acting challenge?
It's a huge challenge to represent this man, and it's only six months out of his life. It's by no means a bio-pic. And so the challenge was to find the moments in the film and in that particular six months - that was George's and [co-screenwriter] Grant [Heslov]'s creation - to find which particular moments we need to put together to tell the story and to show who this man was, by dint of his actions, when he's on the front lines, fighting the fight. You're right, it's a very lean story. It's like a piece of music; you never lose sight of the theme. Each scene pushes off to the next like music builds and you can almost hear the next chord progression, so it has a strict structure, which is very compelling.
So it was our task, as musicians, so to speak, to play that theme constantly and to always be in key with the intentions of the film and not indulge in moments of extraneous thought or behavior or anything like that, because it's really an event-driven picture. It's beautiful in that way. I find it stunning to look at. Black and white just pulls you in a different way than color does and the script is so well-structured and there is so much interesting stuff to hear and listen to, the way they talk and what they said and, at the same time, it's very soothing. It pulls you along like a piece of music. You release yourself to it and then you have this cumulative effect at the end of having been awash in this thing. You don't have to do much work except to sit and just listen. Look and listen. It does it all for you.
In the movie, Murrow is very of the people on his team, he's very responsible toward them and responsible toward the news. But there's a camaraderie in the newsroom and Murrow is removed from that. Is that something you discovered in your research about Murrow or is that a dramatic device, and is it more difficult to portray a character when you're really...
Just sort of backing off? No, he was like that. They say he was very slow to jump in. He's was always assessing and editing. He knew that the water was running downhill to his desk and that he was going to be the one to write the story and pick and choose what to do. He knew he was the filter through which it all drained and they said he was very quiet, very poised like that. And the camera does a lot of that, the choreography of the camera and the blocking. I think it's beautiful. [Cinematographer] Robert Elswit's work allows Murrow to be seen as a presence, the presence he was, and follow the energy of the room to him. I didn't really have to do very much, I just had to sit there and smoke cigarettes and do my line. [laughs]
You're not a smoker, are you? Smoking all those cigarettes must have been hard to do.
Yeah, it was hard to do, but you had to do it. You never saw him without a cigarette. It was crazy, we were all smoking. People say, "Come on, did they really smoke that much in the 50s?," but they did. We had Joe and Shirley Wershba [the real life Murrow co-workers played by Robert Downey Jr. and Patricia Clarkson] right there and they said, "Yeah, that's how much smoking was going on."
How did the role find you? Did George Clooney seek you out or did you find the script and seek him out?
They just called. He and Grant just called up and said, "Do you want to do this?" "Yeah. Of course." "Well, we're gonna do it. We'll see you." It was almost as direct as that. It was really amazing; it came out of the blue.
How do you prepare for a role?
If it's a role like this one, an actual live person, a legend, there's lots of material laid out. There are biographies, I looked at a lot of photographs of him, I heard his voice over and over and over again. You get in there and get to know the man by all of those pieces of information. Since there were times when we were sitting with him alone, and we were trying to figure out what his psyche was doing, I felt responsible to the right posture and the cigarette thing and the cadence in his voice, so it's reminiscent and also a little respectful of him. When you're creating a character out of nothing, you have to make all the guesses as to how they walk, how they talk, how they think. It was all there on the table for us to pick and choose for Murrow. And the cinematographer was right there. He could put me in the right position, replicate what we saw in the kinescopes, study those and try to get how he would relate to the camera, and obviously how he looked, the hair and everything. The task was to stay in key, stay in tune with the story.
Over the course of your career, your roles tend to be either supporting parts or one of an ensemble in films without a central lead character. Good Night is also an ensemble picture with a strong ensemble cast, but essentially you are the lead, the central axis of the film. Is it different making a film as the lead?
You're there pretty much every day, which is great. But if you're truly the lead person, it's going to be a one man show. I think this one is truly an ensemble, this group of men and people. It just so happens that Murrow is the anchorman, so to speak, the big news guy. That's putting it kind of tritely, but he was the man. But I find it's usually a collaboration. Very rarely does a lead exist without someone else holding on to the leash, so to speak.
I'd like to ask about John Sayles. Your very first screen appearance was in his first film, The Return of the Secaucas 7, and you've continued to work with him throughout his career. Can you tell me about your working relationship?
That's how I cut my teeth. In The Return of the Secaucas 7, none of us knew what even hitting your mark meant, so John was really my guide and teacher. He's a brilliant writer when it comes to stories about little pockets of our culture and telescoping out to pressures applied on those people, from Lianna to the coal mines to single mothers with children dealing with problems on the road. He's a cartographer of our culture in film. You work enough with someone and you develop a shorthand. You know how he likes to work through the day and he knows where you're vulnerable and where your weaknesses and strengths are, so it makes for a good team, a team that knows who's over there behind your back. It's rare in this business to work with a director as many times as I've worked with John and it's a real privilege to be included over and over and over again. I must be doing something right.
David Strathairn in films by John Sayles
What's your favorite film role?
Right now, Murrow ranks pretty high up there, although I loved playing baseball in Eight Men Out. Being in West Virginia in coal mine country in Matewan, that was a lot of fun. And being on the set with Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix and Ben Kingsley was pretty great in Sneakers. River Wild was maybe not the funnest role but close to everyday being out in the wilderness, rafting and hiking around in Montana and Idaho and Oregon, that was a lot of fun. But Murrow was the most challenging and, at the moment, I don't know if I'd call it my favorite, but it's one that continues to obsess me.
When you consider a role, what is it you look for? A challenging character, compelling subject matter, the director, the cast...?
Mostly the subject matter, the story, what it's about. That's where I start. I read it and if it's a story that appeals to me, then, yeah.
What appeals to you in a story?
I like stories like John [Sayles] tells, things that are sincere and real and have something to them that people can take away from that applies to their life. Insights and examinations of things that are important to us. A film like this has such a resonance to today. If you can believe in the story, if there's no arbitrary violence or gratuitous stuff that's put in there for the sake of "entertainment" or whatever... I don't want to spend my time doing something that I'm going to walk away from and feel like: "Why did I do that movie? What was the point of doing that?" So much money and energy is expended making a film that I think it should be used for positive ends. Film is our literature, so we should tell stories that are apropos of our culture, in that we can learn something about ourselves.
One last question: Is it true that you spent time working as a circus clown in a traveling circus and what did that experience bring to you as a screen actor?
[Chuckles] Yeah, I was with a circus for a while. More like cannon fodder than a clown, changing costumes 16 times a show. In order to crash the party and be a clown with your own skit, you had to be there for quite a while. It was quite a hierarchy. How did it help me in film? I don't know. Always be aware of the physicality of a character, because you are in a picture, you are in a painting, you are in a choreographic sort of frame, so physicality can say as much and sometimes more than that words can. I don't consciously think about what I took away from that time. That's probably it, the sense of the physicality characterization. And maybe always try to fall down to show that there's a banana peel out there for all of us.
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"I must be doing something right."
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A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and StaticMultimedia.com. His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.
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