This entire film rests on your performance. You’re in almost every frame of the film. As a producer on the project you’ve no doubt seen it a few times. What’s it like to watch yourself as this character?
It’s a character in a story to me, so I’m not looking at me.
How did “Time Out of Mind” come to be?
Oren and I knew each other from his work as a writer. We worked together on “I’m Not There,” the Bob Dylan movie. This script came to me about 10 years ago, and it was something that I didn’t want to do then. I ultimately decided I wasn’t going to do it. But I kept thinking about it, and I ended up buying the script and putting a lot of thought into taking it into a certain direction. The basic relationships were there in the first script, but beyond that it bares no other resemblance to that first script. There was a man named Cadillac Man, a homeless guy in New York, who wrote a book that got a lot of attention about five or six years ago. It was his life-story on the streets and the rhythms and feelings of his storytelling had this peasant, unschooled poetry to it — there was no self-pity.
So then I ran into Oren at an event and we were talking and I told him that I had this script that I couldn’t figure out how to solve. I had a feeling, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it on the page, and he was like, “Well give it me.” So I did and we talked about it and he saw the possibilities as well. He wrote a terrific script and said, “If I write this I might want to direct this,” and I said that would be great. There was a moment when I wanted to direct it myself, but it would’ve been impossible for me to direct and play this character, so it became a great, close partnership between the two of us.
How did the final screenplay even read? There’s hardly any dialogue in the movie.
Well, that’s kind of the thing. We knew we had to find a way to shoot this that wasn’t going to give you big dramatic scenes that tell you what’s going on, but how to get into the breathing of this guy, where his mind is going, what his thoughts are as they flip by, the context of his world, the long lenses with all that energy stacked up, the color scheme, always shooting through windows and through things so that it would take some work to find me. To Oren and me, that felt like reality and how our minds work, so it was a natural flow to go in that direction. It’s pure storytelling. This could have been a silent movie, absolutely.
Was your prep work rather extensive for this performance?
I went to shelters. Cadillac Man became a friend of mine. I felt comfortable with this. I have people like this in my neighborhood in New York who try to stake out their territory, and you get a feel of where they’re coming from just because they’re fixtures of the neighborhood.
How did you go about approaching them to learn from them?
With Cadillac Man it was very direct. He wrote the story and it’s an incredible book, and we spent time together and I pumped him because I wanted to know more and he was very into that, into giving the best of himself. With other people there was no way of doing that. You would just hang and whatever happens would happen. Probably the best of it comes from that sense there’s no expectations with what’s going to happen and it’s just the rhythms of how people think and feel.
Did you sleep in any shelters to get a feel for George’s life?
Well, you can’t stay at shelters, you legally can’t. The only way I got in is because a group I’ve been with for a while now, The Coalition for the Homeless, I had to become a professional monitor for them in order to get into the shelters. But you can’t spend the night there; these shelters are highly protective areas.
What did you learn about yourself making this project?
There’s a lot that can’t be articulated. The first day I was out on the streets we called it a test day and it was really about if this whole thing was going to work out or not, and it was the first time feeling other people and how radioactive I felt in this situation. I thought it would be about feeling “me” but it wasn’t. Even from blocks away people knew not to make eye contact with me. There was a fundamental feeling that I was a failure, and no one wanted to get near that failure, especially in New York where you can get sucked into that black hole of failure and misery. And I could see it from two blocks away, people making that decision mentally and physically, and there are profound levels to it that I don’t even want to think of or describe.
Was it tough to get out of that mindset after filming was over?
No, but the positive thing is about understanding how much we do compartmentalize and make snap judgments about people. I’m the same guy I am on the street as I am on the red carpet. In fact, the guy on the street is probably closer to who I really am than the guy on the red carpet. One guy is beloved and one guy is despised. [Laughs]
The last time I saw you was “Arbitrage,” where you played a very wealthy guy. What was it like going from that to making this?
There’s a direct line between all these characters. Everyone is trying to make a life and figure out what his or her relationships are and mean. It’s the interior movement of people that is the common denominator, because there really is not much difference between a guy on the street and the head of corporation in terms of their interior realities, how their minds work, how their emotions work, what their fundamental ignorance is. It’s not much different. These are universal things and it’s all applicable. Just look at the relationship between the guy in “Arbitrage” and his daughter. Those are the real things; this yearning that we try to find love, security and safety is universal in all of us. A movie like this to me, by the end of it, is not about homelessness but about human connection and the real fundamental stuff that makes us happy or unhappy.