INDEPENDENT MEANS: Actor's Director - There's always something else going on with writer/director John Sayles' films-and with his actors.
When John Sayles casts a film, he’s not necessarily looking for movie stars to populate its world. Instead, there is a certain quality that consistently marks Sayles’ performers-an ability to bring an astute depth to their roles. In a recent interview, the veteran writer/director pointed to one of his favorite actors, David Strathairn-who plays the lead of Joe Gastineau, a luckless Alaskan ex-fisherman, in Sayles’ latest film, Limbo-as a prime example of the kind of actor he loves.
“Like a lot of actors I work with again and again, David is able to play a text and a subtext at the same time,” said Sayles, who met Strathairn while both were students at Williams College. “For Joe Gastineau, I needed David to be somebody who you felt had a past, who had a lot that he was carrying around, and who had some depth to him. And that ability to play something underneath, I’ve also used Chris Cooper (Matewan, Lone Star) for. I’ve also used Joe Morton (Brother From Another Planet, City of Hope) for that ability. You can give them one thing, but you can just tell there’s something else going on.”
Sayles, who is known for working with certain actors repeatedly, has collaborated with Strathairn more than any other actor-seven out of his 12 features, to be exact-in Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Brother From Another Planet, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, and now Limbo.
When I asked Sayles why he’s continued to cast Strathairn over the years, Sayles answered, “He’s a really good actor and he’s very versatile. Somebody was asking me the other day if David’s my alter ego, and I said, “I’d have to be schizophrenic, because he’s played such different parts in my movies.’ ”
Sayles also values Strathairn’s physical approach to his roles and has often cast the actor with that in mind.
“David’s a very good physical actor, and I’ve often used him for parts where the character does something physically that’s a lot of how he expresses himself,” said the filmmaker. “So whether it was the mudboat guy that he played in Passion Fish or Eddie Cicotte, who had to throw a real curve ball in Eight Men Out, or the crazy street guy in City of Hope, David’s physicality is an important part of his acting.”
Strathairn also has one of those faces which, while familiar as a supporting actor in such films as L.A. Confidential, The Firm, A League of His Own, and Sneakers, is able to transform from one character to the next, and from villain to average Joe-another reason Sayles likes to cast actors who are not so easily identifiable with one particular type of role.
“You have to be very aware as a director that when you cast actors who have done a lot of work-especially if they’ve played iconic roles and have played the same kind of character again and again-that you’re going to spend the first half-hour of your movie telling the audience, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the Don Knotts you know and love. This guy is a terror.’ Even if the actor can pull it off, the audience may not want to see him doing that.
“So very often that’s just going to get in the way. In a less three-dimensional movie, that’s not a problem-where the actors are meant to be laconic and heroic or whatever. That’s very satisfying sometimes to have actors who have that kind of personae or that kind of stature. Usually, in my case, it gets in the way.”
Sayles does, however, make exceptions to that rule, as was the case with Eight Men Out, about the 1919 baseball World Series scandal, in which Sayles cast Charlie Sheen and John Cusack among the Black Sox players.
“Some of the actors playing the famous people in the film were actors who were well known, because I wanted [the audience] to feel like, “Well, of course, people would want their autograph. They just walk in a room and everybody looks at them. They’re movie stars.'”
One reason Sayles is so attuned to appropriate casting for his films is that his roots lie in acting. Sayles appeared in school plays and summer stock while at Williams College, and while he veered toward a career as a fiction writer after graduation, he always retained his sense for acting.
In fact, Sayles has acted in a number of films, including many of his own, and that firsthand experience has helped him better communicate with performers about who their characters are and why they may behave a certain way.
Explained Sayles, “As an actor, I always started by trying to figure out from the text, How does this character see the world? What do they care about when they walk into a room? What does their eye land on first? So as a director and writer, the first thing I give the actor is not only the script, but a bio-a kind of backstory that’s not just biographical information, like, “You were born here. You were married once before and it didn’t work out for these reasons. This is how you know this other character.’ It is also how that character sees the world.
“In the case of David Strathairn’s character [in Limbo], it’s basically as a dangerous place. He’s a guy who every time he risks something-through no fault of his own, the odds are just not in his favor and he gets hammered. He starts to not trust the ground he’s walking on. So that bio forms the basis of our subsequent conversations about the text and why the person is doing what they’re doing.”
Sayles’ acting background also comes into play in his writing process.
“I try to think about, What if I was an actor in this?,” said Sayles. “After I write a screenplay, I play every part-big, small, man, woman, or child. I go through and say, Is there enough here? If I was an actor, would I know who I was?”
Sayles takes special care to develop not only the lead characters, but the supporting characters as well-one reason why the worlds depicted in Sayles’ films feel so true to life. In his more recent projects, he has been able to cast some of these smaller parts with very good actors who otherwise play often larger roles on screen. Kris Kristofferson (Lone Star, Limbo), Frances McDormand (Lone Star), and Mandy Patinkin (Men With Guns) are a few examples.
“The secondary characters in our movies start to creep toward the primary characters,” said Sayles. “I always say to actors, “You know, the camera may be veering off with that guy, but you should know where you’re going and the audience should feel like, Geez, I’d love to follow him.’ That’s what I really try for with the so-called secondary characters in my films-there could be a movie about those people.” BSW