Proud to be from Brooklyn, the legendary Martin Landau began his acting career in such Hollywood extravaganzas as “Cleopatra,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and even worked with Alfred Hitchcock in “North by Northwest.” 82 years young, Landau has never stopped working in either film or television and that’s really something considering the instability of those industries, and how expendable most actors unfortunately, are. The recipient of numerous awards including an Oscar, and nominated for countless others, Landau is as down to earth and soft spoken as anyone could be. And hilarious, did I mention that? I haven’t laughed that hard in a very long time! In our recent telephone interview, we talked about everything, from his experiences in those classic days to his fascinating portrayal of Robert Malone in Nik Fackler’s highly provocative, “Lovely, Still” (now available on DVD from Monterey Media). Landau is also a strong proponent of independent films and spoke about the necessity of Indies as a way of balancing the corporate machines of Hollywood…
I noticed that you have great hands.
Wow! I’ve been complimented in so many ways over the years in terms of my work, but no one has ever said that to me before.
Well, I’m looking through the eyes of a photographer, and I find them very expressive.
Yes, hands and eyes are the most expressive. Most people don’t know this, but I also have an art background.
Yes. When I was seventeen, I went to the Pratt Institute and worked for the New York Daily News as a cartoonist. In fact, they were grooming me to be their theatrical caricaturist at the time. An older guy named Horace Knight was retiring and I was to continue in his place. It was a great job! I’d go to dress rehearsals and opening nights and then do a Sunday piece on the caricatures of the show. This was not unlike Al Hirshfield, but my style was more art deco. Anyway, I knew if I got that job I’d never quit, so I quit. My parents and sister thought I was insane and said, “You did what???!!!”
Did you know you wanted to act at that time?
Yes, that’s exactly why I quit, and went from a paying job with a great future to a non-paying job with no future. Somehow I was driven to do this even though it made no sense to a lot of people at the time.
Do you still make cartoons?
Yes. In fact I’m doodling right now. I have hundreds of these doodles in all sizes. Several publishers want to publish them but I haven’t done anything about this yet.
When you doodled in “Lovely, Still” were those your sketches?
Yes, those were mine!
Did you make the paintings in the film?
No. I had no time! The paintings were created by an artist from Omaha— where the movie was shot. He completely captured the feeling of my character, and the film.
How did Nik Fackler, a complete outsider, find you?
Well, Mark Rydell and I run Actors Studio West and Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel run The Actors Studio (East). Nik wrote his lead character expressly for me and sent it to William Morris, who’s not my agent. The William Morris Agency has an independent film department. From there, the script was sent to my agent and then to me. When I read the script I liked it because it was a love story about an older couple. I’m often offered old guy parts where the character sits at a table and grunts, with no arc at all. Anyway, the script moved me but it was bumpy in spots. For example: There were scenes in the first portion that didn’t procreate the film. The script needed scenes that weren’t there, and some scenes that were there, needed to be removed. Then the second act—the happy act, also needed work. It gave away too many secrets that needed double entendres. The third act took care of itself.
What happened next?
I told my agent I wanted to meet the writer and was told that he lived in Omaha, the direct center of the United States. I asked him how old Nik was, figuring about fifty. I was told he was twenty-two! After I came to, I told him again that I wanted to meet the writer. So Nik flew here and we had a five-hour lunch where I told him I liked the script and if he made certain changes, I’d take the role of Robert Malone. Then we went through all the scenes that needed work.
Did he do the rewrite immediately?
Yes. When I read the rewrite I liked most of it and particularly appreciated that he paid attention to everything I said. For the next two months we’d move at a clip of five or six pages and refine the script. We wrote a short list of prospective actresses and Ellen Burstyn was at the top. I told Nik that he couldn’t send her the script until we finished refining it or she would turn down the part.
Did you guys get along in spite of his age?
We got along wonderfully! He was always open to suggestions and even when we didn’t agree, we could always talk about things. Then when the script was ninety per cent there, I told him to send it to Ellen. About four days later she called me and said, “Marty, what the hell are we gonna do in Omaha, Nebraska for seven weeks?” And that was that.
What drew you to Nik?
He reminded me of Tim Burton. He had the same darkness and wonderful craziness. I should modify the word “crazy” here and add that everyone I like is wonderfully crazy.
Yeah, you have to be that way to be creative.
And marginally insane in a positive way!
When I spoke to Nik, I asked him where this story came from, considering his very young age. He said it came from an old man he knew.
His parents owned a luncheonette that attracted all sorts of people. One of these was an old timer who interested him. Nik had been going with a girl and they’d just broken up, so the combination of this older guy who was a mentor of some kind, and his tragic heartbreak, produced the script.
There’s something so sweet and simple about the writing.
That’s the most interesting part! Without changing the dialogue for the first two thirds of the movie you could easily cast fifteen year olds for the roles. It’s basically a teen love story—a first date, coming of age movie, on a strange and interesting level.
There’s a minimalism accompanied by long intervals where dialogue is almost incidental. It reminds me of silent film.
You know, I’ve taught acting since I was twenty (because Lee Strasberg asked me to), and what you’re talking about is exactly right. In a well-written script, dialogue is what a character is willing to share. But the ninety per cent that is not revealed is what I do for a living, and that’s what acting is all about. Acting concerns what is really going on and what is revealed. The behavior is often contradictory to the dialogue. In most modern films that are not character driven, the characters say things that real people would never say. These characters have nothing to do with real life. Aside from the obvious reason of technology, this is why we see less and less silent-type films.
The early American talkies came out in 1927.
Yeah, and were those old movie moguls amazing! They were a handful of old Jewish guys who settled in California and hired some of the greatest writers and directors who ever lived—people like Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. They even brought F. Scott Fitzgerald to Hollywood, though as it turned out, he wasn’t the best screenwriter. It’s kind of mind-boggling when you think about it. Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer probably couldn’t even read a contract thoroughly because they weren’t the most educated men, but the products they delivered were incredible!
What’s it like having worked then and now?
What I’m most aware of today is the difference in attitude. When I did Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” I worked from the absolutely superb script of Ernest Lehman. But it would be very hard to get that movie made today. Even though there’s a lot of action in the film, there’s not enough by today’s standards.
It’s a sad state of affairs for cinema and writing. I think what most impressed me about “Lovely Still” was Nik’s simple and believable writing.
He makes you laugh and cry.
And there are moments that are just plain hilarious!
Yes. Some of the scenes between Adam Scott and me were exactly like that.
Some of your physical expressions reminded me of my favorite comedians of all time—Sid Caesar and Jack Benny. All they did was stand there and I crack up.
Thanks. That’s quite a compliment!
Your ability to switch emotions in “Lovely, Still” is terrifying and fascinating.
I’ve always been able to go from a very placid state to a very manic, raging, ferocious state in a matter of seconds. I think an actor must do this.
Well not many can do this quite as believably. You’re also an artist of accents. I’m thinking of some of your older films like “Ed Wood.”
(laughs) Well that comes from growing up in Brooklyn. When you think that the masses who came to New York settled in Brooklyn and I grew up with these first and second generation kids. Did you know Brooklyn’s the city of churches? Brooklyn’s got more churches per capita than any place else in the world. If you look at my High School graduation pictures, they look like the United Nations. Listening to all these accents every day of my life, rubbed off on me. I was also very observant and grew up in awe of the great difference and sameness among all these people. Some times when hearing the fights that erupted between different religious groups, I’d ask myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if people could choose their religion?” That would make a lot more sense, considering it’s those differences that cause all the problems in the world.
I totally agree!
Growing up in this environment is what led me to become a caricaturist—which is now expressed in my acting. It’s funny. All the things people want are pretty much the same, but a bunch of other stuff gets in the way and corrupts that.
Very little kids don’t have these problems of racism.
You’re right. Little kids have clean slates. It’s what’s written on these slates later on in life that screws things up.
Nik explores the clean slate in “Lovely, Still.”
In “Crimes and Misdemeanors” your character engineers a murder. How did you find that character?
Well, each person’s tastes, physiology and where they come from differ, and all of these affect them. How people walk is determined by what they’re happiest with in their bodies. In hiding certain facets, people give away things about themselves. How a character hides feelings tells us who that character is. Naturally, I’ve never murdered anyone, but I’ve been angry enough to want to—and it’s these passions that the actor allows to flourish. To be able to take emotional inventory and inject all of it into your soul so that at any given moment you can access these, is what actors do.
Like trying to cry in front of the camera?
Nobody tries to cry, or laugh or play drunk, except bad actors. The most studied action is a drunk picking up a full glass at a bar. A real drunk won’t allow a drop to spill. It’s amazing!
In Crimes and Misdemeanors, my character is not a true philanderer— he just makes a mistake. His main crime is his lack of action when he doesn’t break off the affair early on. Instead, he is flattered by it and makes promises he can’t keep. The problem is he’s not a guy who’s good at this. There are guys who cheat on their wives all the time, but he’s not one of them. Soon he’s in so deep that when she becomes desperate and invades his territory, he sees no other option but to have her killed.
I see indecisive people like him all the time. They’re dangerous.
I agree. If I spend a lot of time with someone and still don’t know who that person is, that troubles me. In certain ways, I’m a meat and potatoes guy and what you see is what you get. It’s how I’ve handled my career in a place where people don’t always tell the truth.
Can we talk about distribution for Lovely, Still?
It took us a while to get distribution. The people at Monterey Media were the only ones who understood what the movie was about. One of the problems with major studios is the number of available screens. I’ve been abroad with friends who had their pictures picked up by major film production companies and distributors. The distributors liked the movies and picked up five at a time for reasonable prices. Then the pictures were screened and if the films received lousy reviews, those filmmakers couldn’t get the distributors on the phone the next day. The distributors will only get behind pictures that get good reviews. Also, the major studios are no longer interested in character driven movies of any kind. If a nice little movie costs $5-million to make, they find it difficult to understand why they should invest $15-million for prints and advertising. Still, lets say they do go with the deal and the film opens to $20-million and two months later, it grows to $50-million. Well, that’s still not enough for the New York stockholders. For them it’s too much bother for only a minimal profit. They’d much prefer a “Spiderman 20” because they know it will open to $125-million, be projected on 4000 screens, and they’ll make $400-million. So the little picture becomes more and more extinct.
If that’s true, why do you continue to work with independent filmmakers?
Because I’m an actor and the more films like “Avatar” that are out there, the larger the movement to make actors extinct too. Of course, I came up making extravaganzas like “Cleopatra” projected from a 70mm print on a massive screen. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was a Cinerama presentation! I’m not interested in using my blackberry to watch “Gone with the Wind” where I can barely make out Clark Gable on that tiny screen.
I find it very telling that the cinema magazines and independent filmmakers are going through the same hardships. I like to think both will come out victorious in the end.
I think that a definite balance must be struck if either are to survive.
The good news is that more and more Indies are winning Academy Awards.
True. That’s a wonderful thing, but do these films make the impression they should on the major corporations looking for those blockbuster-openings that will top Avatar, Titanic, etc.? So many of these have wonderful special effects, but little else.
Show me Francis the Mule any day. The only special effect used to make Francis move his lips to speak, was done with peanut butter on the roof of his mouth. I don’t think donkeys appreciate peanut butter that much— but the result was perfect.
(Originally posted on November 24th, 2010.)