An Actor Who Allows His Roles to Lead
Directors trust David Strathairn to find his way through complex characters, as in `Hapgood’
By Tony Vellela Special to The Christian Science Monitor
David Strathairn honors the process of creating a character by starting with the contemplative approach and then allowing his instincts to take over.
“I try to choose good stories, but also to find characters that lead me, as an actor, to a dangerous place,” he says in an interview. Two projects of his, the action film “The River Wild,” and playwright Tom Stoppard’s cerebral spy thriller “Hapgood” are both good stories. But they each lead to very different places.
Currently appearing at New York’s Lincoln Center in “Hapgood,” Mr. Strathairn plays a top-level Russian scientist working for the West. He’s enmeshed in Star Wars espionage, intricate double-agent mind games, nuclear physics, and estrangement from his former lover and their son. The situation is heightened by the fact that she is now his boss.
“I had no problem with the science,” says the lanky, dark-haired actor. “Tom [Stoppard] creates this arena where something else is really happening. The pawn in the game is the child, and there is a relationship that has been denied, or ignored, or lain dormant for 10 years. It’s a really potent emotional piece.”
In “The River Wild,” Strathairn’s “dangerous place” was not emotional or psychological, but physical. Battling river currents, scaling cliffs, and escaping through rugged canyon underbrush, Strathairn conquers every force of nature to help his wife, played by Meryl Streep, outwit two murderous river rafters.
Strathairn’s process of selecting roles that offer a range of challenges has paid off. Audiences have seen him in films as diverse as the baseball comedy “A League of Their Own,” the union-organizing saga “Matewan,” the urban political epic “City of Hope,” and the science-fiction satire “Brother From Another Planet.”
His stage work, from New York’s Public Theater to the Seattle Repertory, covers everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov to Harold Pinter and Sam Shepard. And television viewers recall his enigmatic Moss, one of Blair Brown’s quixotic suitors on “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.”
The two most recent projects involved people Strathairn was eager to work with. “To be able to do a Tom Stoppard play, directed by Jack O’Brien, that was very attractive,” he says.
He confesses to initial misgivings about his character in “River Wild,” but once those were addressed by director Curtis Hansen, “and all the pieces were in place, I would have been stupid not to have done it.”
Reading an early draft of the script, Strathairn “was gun-shy about the character, because he seemed to go from urban to Rambo really easily – it didn’t make sense.” His concerns were shared by the director, and adjustments were made.
Preparing for roles as diverse as these requires different approaches. To acquaint himself with the scientific world in “Hapgood,” he says, “I started reading, and then I quickly got confused. I realized that it was not about that. All I really needed to know was what Tom had written. The poetry of the science is so clear that I didn’t feel like I needed this well of physics knowledge.”
Strathairn says that he was “in OK shape to begin with” at the start of filming the physically rigorous “River Wild,” and that “we all got in pretty good shape as we went along. And,” he jokes, “I was required to run and fall down a lot, which is something I’m very good at.”
Although he can list 17 films to his credit, with two more, “Dolores Claiborne” and “Losing Isaiah” due out later this year, Strathairn says he’s still working on the craft of film acting. “I’m still learning how to set something up so that it pays off later.” He relates one experience with the celebrated cinematographer Haskell Wexler, while making “Matewan.”
“Haskell told me that, just after the gun battle, when I take the gun away from the character Jo, I had to indicate my attitude toward the gun battle, because that’s the only time we’re going to get it. And it’s in the background. Now, all I `do’ is go over and take the gun. But, because he told me that, I did something with the gun. It was really good advice in terms of working in film, because it’s not something that’s pointed out in the script. It’s nonverbal.”
As a student at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in the late 1960s, Strathairn admits that he was attracted to drama projects “because the theater was a sort of wonderful place to be. It was open all night, and there were power tools to fool around with, and a big lightboard to operate. And a refrigerator. And girls. All those prurient little basics.”
An actor who is known for his serious-minded approach to his work, he quickly adds that “it was seemingly the only place where I could find some meaning, with a community of people who felt the same way. Theater should be the forum for that kind of discovery. And at that time, in college, it was like a history lesson as well as a psychological encounter, and a real workout – the whole nine yards.”
He is still exploring the hidden layers of his character in “Hapgood.”
“His passion for science is a personal expression of who he is,” Strathairn says. “He can apply a scientific conceit to the world, yet inside, there’s this little [thing] gnawing at him for many years, about his son. He doesn’t give a hoot whether he’s a single or a double or a triple agent. It’s a game. It’s fun, a kind of mental exercise with a little bit of excitement and titillation.”
Strathairn encourages friends to comment on his performance when they visit backstage. “I can understand why some actors need to work in their own monkish way, but I find feedback always helpful.
“I tell my friends `Take notes!’ And while you may listen to everything but not `hear’ it all, there’s always something that’s valid, that you can use. You can sift through what people say. I find that it’s never enough.”