PROCESS: Tom Gilroy and Campbell Scott on Acting, Directing and Details, Part I
by Tom Gilroy
(indieWIRE/ 12.19.01) — Writer-actor-director Tom Gilroy (“Spring Forward“) recently contacted indieWIRE about publishing a conversation in which he and a fellow thespian would hash out the nuts and bolts of the acting craft. In his first interview, Gilroy spoke with Justin Theroux, one of the stars of David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Drive.” In this second installment of the interview series, Gilroy spoke with Campbell Scott, the actor (“The Spanish Prisoner,” “Long Time Companion“) and director (“Big Night,” “Hamlet,” and “Final,” his latest effort, a sci-fi two-hander starring Denis Leary and Hope Davis, which is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles.) Gilroy directed Scott in “Spring Forward,” and their conversation below about the process of film acting and directing reflects the familiarity, wit and shorthand of two people cut from the same cloth: exacting, ironic and independent.
Tom Gilroy: As an actor, at what point do you start to consider, or how do you consider, character? Because your characters, like the Nazi in “Imposters” or the guy in “Long Time Companion” or the guy in “Lush” are all really different. It’s not ‘just you’ on screen. So at what point —
Campbell Scott: Do I start working on that?
Gilroy: Yeah, because I want to get later how it relates to Mamet and his attitude about —
Scott: Uh-oh. Are you sure you want to do that? (Laughs) I think it starts with if I think I’m going to fit in, you know what I mean? I don’t start thinking schtick right away, although frankly that’s what I ultimately get to.
Scott: Because I am a character actor. I’m not a presence actor. And those exist all over the place. But I consider myself, and maybe it’s from the theater or whatever, but I truly do not like to be myself.
Scott: Because frankly my feeling is you’re going to be yourself anyway. All of the best of yourself hopefully is going to be there anyway, so what’s the question? That’s not a mystery. The mystery is what else can you be? What else will that become, which is what is so exciting based on your collaboration with someone else, for example. And with a good director, which is hard to find, as you know, who is actually building steps with you. You build one; he builds another. How amazing it is when that really happens. There are all kinds of people inside and hopefully you have some kind of access to them. You know, the nightmare of a film career or at least the challenge of one is that you’re rarely going to get the opportunity to explore character because once people see you in one thing, you know, they want to see that again. I do it as a director sometimes. I have to force myself not to do it and think, “I know Jared Harris is a great actor, so why am I thinking of him as this guy? When I just saw him beautifully do this same guy somewhere else.” No, I’m gonna challenge him to be a family man in the next movie or whatever. Am I yelling?
Gilroy: [He is.] No, I’m glad you’re being heard.
Scott: And also, I have to say before we continue. I do not think about this shit a lot. You’re right when you say there’s a dearth of this kind of substantive dialogue about what we do, but also I’m not a big believer in a huge dialogue about it. You know what I mean?
Gilroy: Right, right, right. I know what you mean. But is there a recurring point where you start to bring in behavior to the rehearsal process? We so often don’t get rehearsal process at all.
Scott: In that way film and theater are totally different. The difference between theater and film is that in film you do the same thing, but it is over a condensed period of time. And you have to learn to trust that or you’re fucked. Since I was from the theater, that’s how I learned how to go through the process of being a character. That’s how I learned and that’s what I was comfortable doing. And then the first feature films I’m sure I was no fun because I did not want to be spontaneous in that filmic way that really can work for you. I didn’t want to go near that, “Let’s rehearse, let’s do what we rehearsed and than the camera rolls and we do that.”
Scott: Well, there’s not a lot of time to rehearse. But “Longtime Companion” was done like that because it was theater people, so it really was very, very rehearsed and there’s not a moment in that movie that is really spontaneous. But at least we took the time to go through lots of stuff. Most films you don’t get that at all. It took me a while to not only figure out not to be afraid of that, but to encourage it. To do your homework or whatever, but then also to know if you are doing a one page scene, somewhere things are gonna get fucked up and maybe if the other actor is game and the writer-director is game, you’re doing some shit, too. You’re improvising, but it’s not to say you don’t think all the time about, as you say, the little things.
To me, it’s details. Details are the only thing that separates one movie from another. I mean, you hope that it’s good writing to begin with. But even in Shakespeare, the best writing in the world, it’s still the details. As we see often people can come out and do Shakespeare and go, “yah, yah, yah” for three hours and you’re in the audience like losing your mind. There’s nothing worse, really. But when someone takes the largeness of that and than makes it all so detailed, that’s life. That’s better than life. And that’s the point.
So for me it starts right away. I immediately start thinking about how I would fit into this piece. What’s already in my arsenal and also hope someone like Stanley [Tucci] or you or somebody is there to also go, you should keep doing that. And even if I fear that, I would be like, “Alright.” And you have to rely on yourself. That’s another thing you have to learn in film. To recognize if you’re not in a constructive environment.
Gilroy: “The Imposters” now. Did you talk to him in the writing process about that character?
Scott: Not too much.
Gilroy: How did he know that you were that character?
Scott: He wanted me to play somebody else.
Gilroy: Ah, what made you go there?
Scott: He wanted me to play Billy Connolly, this sort of gay tennis player guy. And I was like, I’ve done that. I’ve been the gay tennis player. Just like I said before, you read a script, especially a great one like that where there’s so many characters. That’s a joy. Nobody takes those chances anymore. In that movie, you know Stanley had a lot on his plate, but ultimately I think his saving grace, whether people appreciate that or not, is just saying to everyone, all these actors he loved, you gotta keep going. You gotta go even farther. To a lot of actors it would be like, are you sure? Because we’re not only not used to doing this on film, maybe on stage a little more, playing such broad characters. You talk about Tony Shalhoub. He’s not known for his broadness. He’s a subtle, beautiful actor. But he also has that in him. Stan was also all over Ian Holm in “Big Night.” Not all over him, but that’s how he encouraged him. He was like, “Ian, just go farther.”
Gilroy: He went pretty far in that one, but he was great.
Scott: But beautifully, because there was something there. In the film world, and I know this from just talking to other people, that I’m known as a kind of dramatic, serious almost humorless actor and the fact is I’m a funny guy and I spend most of my life trying to find a lighter side of things and on stage was given plenty of opportunity to do that.
Gilroy: So how do you feel this all informs your ability as a director?
Scott: Well, I could ask you the same question. It’s fascinating to me. There’s no doubt in the world that directing makes you a better actor. Me, anyway. There’s no doubt in the world that it makes me a more collaborative actor.
Gilroy: Right, totally.
Scott: And you and I both know directing is: you’re overwhelmed the whole time. Your mind never stops. If you care about it. You wake up in the morning and you begin thinking about it and then you go to sleep at night and you’re still thinking about it. That’s overwhelming, so it’s good to go back and act. Frankly I’m not sure I listen any better to directors, but I will at least now listen a little more carefully and then I’ll say, “Alright, I’ll do that.” I’ll at least do that for one take. Even if I don’t connect with it, I’ll still try it.
Gilroy: My old way was “He thinks I suck; I have to make a case for the way I want to do it.” Now I just go, “Oh he’s just really saying this.”
This article continues in part II