Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... David Strathairn
Elegantly serious, actor David Strathairn wasn’t always so composed. To watch his cool command of roles such as CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen in “The Bourne Ultimatum” or Edward R. Murrow in his Oscar-nominated performance in “Good Night and Good Luck” or even in a guest spot on HBO’s “The Sopranos” it’s hard to imagine he began as a clown. After graduating from Williams College, he joined the circus. Strathairn, 58, started a children’s theater company and finally got a break when John Sayles cast him in “Return of the Secaucus 7.” “The Bourne Ultimatum” is available in stores on DVD tomorrow.
Q: Your parents were professionals. Was there some dismay when you ran off to join the circus?
A: I don’t know. You know, I never really had a one on one, except for, after the fact. Yeah, I suspect there was a bit of dismay. I remember both of them kind of instilling us with whatever you feel passionate about, go for it. Although the times, from let’s say 1960 to ’75, were tumultuous. There probably were a lot of parents who were dismayed. (Laughing)
Q: Clown College wasn’t the worst thing you could be doing.
A: Well, no. It may have been one of the more bizarre things to be doing.
Q: Speaking of bizarre, is it true your first gig was to play half a Siamese twin?
A: I think that is why I was hired, basically. One half of the twin gag had left the circus and moved on to something else. So they needed someone to fill that void, and, indeed, I was the right size to fit the costume.
Q: Today you are described as a very elegant actor. You have a certain seriousness about you, yet you started out in such a playful way.
A: I think you sort of go through the doors that are open to you, and it’s a double-edged sword. Doors get open to you based on the one you came through before. If you are not careful you end up being pigeonholed in this business. That’s not to say, if a door opened on to a, you know, a clownish room. I wouldn’t go through it. It comes with the territory.
Q: Have you developed a routine for memorizing lines?
A: No. No I wouldn’t say I have one particular methodology. It depends on the kind of line, on the kind of project. If it is a play, you have weeks of rehearsal to have them become a part of you. But, for instance, in “The Bourne Ultimatum,” very often, we were getting new lines on the day. So you have to be prepared to learn them or at least get a reasonable facsimile of them going quickly.
Q: How have your aspirations as a young actor changed, if they have?
A: They haven’t, I don’t think. It’s always to be able to stand and deliver and do well enough that someone will consider you yet again.
Q: Have any of the roles you’ve played taken longer for you to find your rhythm?
A: Um, that’s an interesting question. Let’s see, well, I’ll put it this way: I’ve taken as long as I’ve been allowed [laughing] to find the rhythm. Sometimes you land a part, and you have a week to get ready. Sometimes you have as much as, well, at least for me the most I’ve had is about two months. It’s like the weather. You have to be prepared.
Q: Do you have a preference for playing fictional or nonfictional characters?
A: No, but they definitely have different requirements. One is wide-open exploration with infinite choices, and the other is a framework you have to work within.
Q: Once you’ve finished a film project, do you enjoy seeing it or is it on to the next job?
A: I enjoy seeing it. Not right away sometimes, because I find, as far as film goes, it’s a learning tool. You get your feedback on how well I accomplished what I thought I was doing. You pop in, you pop out and then you see your work later. Film is so much more of a technical thing than stage is.
Q: Can you take the movie experience and apply it to stage work?
A: I don’t think I can quantify that very well. I see it as the responsibility of the actor as essentially the same thing, to be present in the moment and fresh and creating the illusion of the first time each time you do a take or a performance.
Q: When you go home, do you bring these characters with you or can you leave them at the door?
A: Well, when you are in a play the character is always sort of with you. Ultimately, that’s what it is. I do take them home with me as long as the projects are ongoing. It’s one of the things you live with when you are living the character.