Strong in Weakness
Like some of the best and busiest character actors, David Strathairn is someone many audience members don’t recognize by name but whose face is immediately familiar and whose work is consistently excellent, never showy, and wholly supports the story and the filmmaker’s or playwright’s vision. In other words, a lot of us take this terrific actor for granted, enjoying his contributions but rarely acknowledging them.
I first took notice of Strathairn in 1992, when he gave three distinct, impressive screen performances: as a blind sound expert in the crime caper Sneakers, as a sympathetic promotions man in the Penny Marshall-directed A League of Our Own, and, my favorite, as a gentle Cajun swamp guide in John Sayles’ Passion Fish. Since then, I’ve always looked forward to his upcoming projects and have realized that he never disappoints and often surprises me with his versatility and range.
He again struck a chord with me with his latest performance in Karen Moncrieff’s directorial debut, Blue Car (see related story below), in which he plays a high school teacher who inspires a troubled teenager to express her pain through writing poetry and, along the way, crosses the line of good judgment, revealing his weaknesses. Strathairn has always gravitated toward strong stories, such as Blue Car, no matter the morality of his character.
As he told me, it’s not his job to judge his characters, simply to bring them to life within the context of the story. “I’d done Dolores Claiborne and Dominick and Eugene—some rather unpleasant people and dangerous parts where you have to explore behavior that doesn’t sit well with you after the fact,” he said. “For the sake of the story, you take on those kinds of challenges. If that means doing, yet again, a questionable person who is sort of the underbelly and the seamy side, if it’s important enough to do—if I like the story or connect with it enough and I’m given the chance to do it—then the part just is what it is.”
Moncrieff praised Strathairn for being willing to portray himself in such a risky light for her first film. Said the filmmaker, “He makes it all about the work and not about him. He’s such a generous and courageous actor. I can’t think of another actor of his caliber who would take on a part like this, because most of them would say the character was too unsympathetic and wouldn’t let themselves be seen in some of the lights David is seen in. There are scenes were he’s very dashing and scenes where he’s almost pathetic, and David allows himself to reveal parts of himself most actors would never reveal.”
No Typing Necessary
As good as Strathairn is at playing such questionable men (including the high-class gangster in L.A. Confidential and the father of an abandoned baby in the little-seen but excellent A Good Baby), the veteran actor has avoided being pigeonholed by such roles, which partly explains why he remains so anonymous to the public. As the actor explained, he’s made a conscious effort to not become known for playing any one type.
He said, “You can either cash in on what you do really well—if it’s one or two things that you feel most confident about—and thereby build a career around that, or consciously choose to make sure you’re re-educating the casting people, producing people, and directors that there’s more to your choices than just those things. I have turned down a lot of things because, first of all, I don’t know that I’d enjoy being part of that story, and sometimes because there are slots which are easy to be put into and you try to avoid those so that you can continue to grow and explore other realms of acting.”
Strathairn, who is based on the East Coast, also decided long ago not to rely on film acting to solely satisfy his creative needs. It’s rare, after all, that he gets the opportunity to play a lead role in a movie. Like many great actors, the stage is where he finds the most satisfaction. He began acting in theatre after college and has continued to work consistently in theatre since entering the moviemaking arena 23 years ago in Sayles’ directorial debut, The Return of the Secaucus 7. Strathairn’s many notable stage credits include productions of Caryl Churchill’s Fen, Louise Page’s Salonika, and Vaclav Havel’s Temptation at the Public Theater, Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes and Chekhov’s The Three Sisters at the Roundabout Theatre, Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood at Lincoln Center, and with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in Strindberg’s The Dance of Death at the Broadhurst Theatre. Currently, Strathairn is co-starring with Al Pacino, Dianne Wiest, and Marisa Tomei in Salome by Oscar Wilde: A Reading on Broadway.
Explained Strathairn of his preference for stage acting, “If you’re lucky enough to get a lead role in a film, then you’re close to doing this experience in the same way that you’re doing a play: You’re [acting] every day. But nothing really compares to the rehearsal process and every night exploring the same thing over and over and seeing how the material itself has a life of its own. You become like a stone in the water of this stream of this production, in that you will be shaped by it as much as you are shaping it. It’s kind of an ethereal thing, but actors who are in the theatre and love it will always return there, because the molecules sort of bounce around in the room much differently than in a film. Theatre, I find, is a really wonderful place to continue to grow.”
Strathairn grew up in San Francisco and had no formal training as an actor. The closest he’s come to studying performance for any length of time is when he took a seven-week course with the Ringling Bros. Circus College after graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Rather than joining the circus, he decided to pursue a life as a stage actor.
“I ended up doing children’s theatre for three years and then summer stock for another six or seven years until I got my Equity card in 1980. Then the snowball started to roll down the hill a little bit faster,” he said.
Strathairn met Sayles while doing summer stock in New Hampshire. Since then they’ve collaborated on seven features; their last film was 1999’s Limbo, in which Strathairn played the romantic lead—a rarity for the actor, who otherwise plays supporting roles in Sayles’ projects.
Said Sayles of Strathairn, “He’s very versatile. He’s very inventive. I can just say, ‘Do something interesting, David,’ and when I go to see the dailies or edit it later, he does something interesting, but appropriate for the scene. He’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. So whether it was the mud boat guy he played in Passion Fish or Eddie Cecock, who had to throw a real curve ball [in Eight Men Out], or the crazy street guy in City of Hope, physicality is an important part of his acting.”
Strathairn first learned the importance of using his physicality at the Ringling Bros. school, followed by years of stage work.
“Clown college was all about learning to be very broad, expansive, and expressive in gesture,” he shared. “I’ve always found, through watching a lot of silent pictures, that those great clowns were also great actors. They had to indicate so much just with their physicality. And when you’re onstage your entire being is involved, and that includes how you’re sitting or standing or walking or gesturing. All that is part of the picture to paint.”
Sayles said he recasts the actor so often in his projects because Strathairn is able to go beneath the surface of his scripts and always dig deeper. “Like a lot of the actors I work with again and again,” said Sayles, “David’s able to play a text and a subtext at the same time. That ability to play something underneath—I’ve used Chris Cooper for that ability, I’ve used Joe Morton for that ability. You can give them one thing, but you can just tell there’s something else going on.”
Strathairn’s skills in uncovering the many layers of his characters and the depth of a text stem, not surprisingly, from his years spent in theatre. Although there often is less time for prep work on a film shoot, he does whatever he can to fill in his character before arriving on the set.
“I tend to get as much information, in as many different ways, as I can,” the actor said. “If it’s a play, it’s often about the historical contact and the social things going on at the time—what kind of art, what kind of clothes, the whole gestalt of where, when, and why with a play. I find any and all information about a person, place, and thing can’t help but give you a fuller awareness and references to your avail and use.”
Sayles has made a habit of providing Strathairn with character notes in which Sayles gives additional information not noted in his screenplays. When it came time to do Blue Car Strathairn asked Moncrieff to do the same. As Strathairn explained, “When you have the opportunity to work with the writer who is the director, you’ve got the source right there, and that’s most important when it comes down to the nuts and bolts—trying to access their imagination.”
Experience Not Necessary
In addition to his recurring work with Sayles, Strathairn particularly enjoys collaborating with first-time writer/directors. Most recently he was cast in a lead role in newcomer Brendan Murphy’s Speakeasy.
Of being a part of someone’s first movie, he said, “They’ve been brave enough to pick up the gauntlet and do it all by themselves—not really all by themselves, but in Karen’s case and Katherine Dieckmann’s case [A Good Baby] and especially John’s, these are writer/directors. The writer lives in a world of hope and wish. Given the opportunity to direct, the air probably feels very thin. You’re out on a limb, and you have all these people looking to you to lead them and guide them through your imagination—your own particular idea about your story. It’s sort of special to be chosen to be part of that first-time experience with someone.
“In the case of Blue Car, it was really the story that brought me to it, and meeting Karen and [seeing] her passion and her grace under fire. She was truly the helmsperson that held this thing together. She could have derailed with all the banana peels that are out there that you can’t help but step on. But on the set, off the set, in preparation, and in post, she just had a wonderful humanity about her, as well as a real strong commitment to her vision. Being around that is really energizing. You feel that it really means something.”
Likewise, he found working on Blue Car with his less experienced young co-star, Agnes Bruckner, to be invigorating. Strathairn doesn’t believe that age or time in the business has any bearing on how good a performance can be.
He said, “I have always found that no matter how many miles someone else has got—whether it’s more or less than you—the nature of the game comes down to just being there and being focused and responsible for the work. An inexperienced person can sometimes have so much more passion and focus. The only thing that experience helps you with is that you know the ropes a little bit better. You realize that today may not have gone well, but tomorrow’s going to be OK, and you try to do your best at this moment. You’re just as inexperienced as anybody else when you come to a new scene and a new character and a new play. You’re both discovering it at the same time. If you’re both willing to explore, then experience can fall by the wayside.”
Strathairn is also not the kind of actor who necessarily prefers the luxuries of big-budget filmmaking. The actor has a certain fondness for low-budget productions, where the energy and passion for the project is palpable.
“I’ve done several small-budget films, and they all feel very familial, communal, and rough-edged. There’s a wide range of expertise and naïveté, and yet everyone is really excited and knows that they’ve got to dig down, get what they can, and make the best of each moment,” said the actor, who was not above moving sandbags to help break down a location to get to the next one on the money-strapped Blue Car, according to Moncrieff.
That sense of community, which he so often finds in the theatre, is what helps keep him going as an actor.
Said Strathairn, “Being in a community of artists who have come together to commit time and energy to the creation of something potentially illuminating, heartening, beautiful, and dangerous for the good of either simple entertainment or, let’s hope, for perpetuation of a greater good is my motivation.” BSW