Interview: Martin Landau
When I sat down with Martin Landau in April to discuss his storied career as part of a series of legacy interviews for Film Comment, I had no reason to suspect I was capturing some of his final reflections. The spirited 89-year-old was in town for the Tribeca premiere of The Last Poker Game, having tackled the leading role and invested it with the qualities he valued most: spontaneity, fallibility, and the discoveries you make when, as he put it, “you don’t know what the hell’s gonna be around the corner.” Other actors march purposefully past the checkpoints of character delineation, but Landau, who headed the Hollywood branch of the Actors Studio and whose students include Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, preferred the freedom to surprise the audience and himself along the way.
Surprise was the theme of our conversation, which, consistent with his philosophy of acting, was unstructured, digressive, and in no way predictable. Over the course of an hour he slipped seamlessly between personas as varied as Alfred Hitchcock and Jan Murray, Bela Lugosi and Buddy Hackett, illustrating dynamically (and in hindsight poignantly) that we are the sum of our experiences, the totality of our encounters. His eventful life led him from New York’s fabled Actors Studio (where out of thousands of applicants, only he and Steve McQueen were accepted), to Hollywood in the autumn of the studio era (his first two films were Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest), to a starring role on Mission: Impossible at a time when rising film stars seldom dabbled in television, to a remarkable comeback at age 60, culminating in his Oscar-winning resurrection of Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. He recalled these names and places con brio, with generosity and passion, sentimentality and piercing insight.
Obviously no single scene can sum up a career, especially one as prolific as Landau’s, but my mind keeps returning to one near the end of Francis Coppola’s Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The once-indefatigable man (Jeff Bridges) is faced with the broken pieces of his shiny automotive dream, and his once-disparaging partner (Landau), by way of a farewell, recalls his mother warning him not to get too close to people, for fear of catching their dreams. Years later he realized he’d misheard—it was their germs you might catch—but the damage was done: he’d stood too close to a dreamer, and despite himself had caught the bug. Anyone who stood close to Martin Landau invariably ran the same risk, and for my part, I will always cherish the brief time I spent catching his dreams. The following is an excerpt from an unpublished interview.
North by Northwest
Martin Landau: The human being, half the time he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. What I see today, on episodic television and so on, with actors who have studied the Method, which I am an advocate of—I run the West Coast Actors Studio—but they’re all experts! Everyone knows what the hell they’re doing all the time, and it gets me crazy, because there’s no such thing!
Shakespeare, in the 1600s, wrote amazing plays. There’s no silences in Shakespeare—everything is spoken. That’s rare! I mean, we have an inner life, a lot of thought, a lot of stuff goes on that is not spoken in contemporary life. In Shakespeare, the soliloquies are all thought, whether it be Richard III or Hamlet. “To be or not to be”—why is he even saying that? Well, he comes back, and his father’s dead—killed by his father’s brother, who has married his mother! And he says, “Holy god! I don’t know what to do! I think I’m… maybe I should kill myself!” Literally: “To be, or not to be! That is the question…” So you can’t have a more overwritten play than Hamlet, and yet every actor in the world wants to do his Hamlet! Because it allows for you. Shakespeare isn’t alive any longer—it’s not his play anymore, it’s your play. And everyone who is British wants to do Hamlet on the West End, and when you look at Olivier’s Hamlet, or Burton’s Hamlet, or Ralph Richardson’s Hamlet, they’re all different.
One thing that you express so eloquently in your work is indecision, and self-doubt, and that’s Hamlet. As opposed to other actors who portray unwavering self-assurance—which is boring.
It is boring! Because it’s not knowing what is gonna happen!
You know, you know, people ask me, why did I do this movie [The Last Poker Game]? I said, “I read it. And it resonated.” Written by a doctor—it’s his point of view about an old folks’ home, as opposed to a glamorous, Hollywood idea of one. About five, six years ago, whenever it was, I did a movie with Ellen Burstyn called Lovely Still—
—that director was a first-time director, he was 22 years old.
So you’re talking about a 72-year-old guy now [Last Poker Game director Howard Weiner] and a 22-year-old guy then, and you say, “Why did you do those pictures?” I said, “Well, I mean ’cause, they excited me! They interested me!” They could’ve been awful, sure! But I haven’t been directed by anyone in 30 years. I come in with stuff, I figure if they don’t like it, they’ll tell me and I’ll do what they ask me to do. They don’t ask me to do anything, so I do it, hit the mark, say the words, and get the fuck outta there. And that’s it.
Acting is so fun. People say, why haven’t I directed? ’Cause I’ve got ideas about things, and, I wrote a few scripts and I needed certain actors to make it work, otherwise there was no point in doing it. I remember, one of the pictures I wrote, Harvey Weinstein wanted to do it. There were two unknown actors I wanted for the two parts, one was called John Depp and one was called John Cusack. The big guy was [to be played by] Cusack and the poetic guy [was based on] a friend of mine, who had become an Italian movie star. He’d studied acting with me when he was a younger actor, and committed suicide. And I had his college roommate [in my script] based on a director called Monte Hellman. I made him into a physicist. Anyway, I needed actors to go from 17 years old to 35 years old in this picture. So I went to Johnny, who no one knew who he was yet, and Cusack, who no one knew… Harvey Weinstein said, “I’ll make the movie if you hire this one and this one. Accept it.” And I said, “They can’t do it. There’s no point—I’d rather not make the movie than make it badly!” I said. “I can’t compromise this early!”
I said, “You know, what if we shoot the movie and put it on the shelf for two years—both of these guys are gonna be stars.” I really said that. If I’d been a manager, I’d be rich! He wouldn’t hear of it. I said, “Please. Let me shoot the movie, I’m telling you! I’ll pay for it, in two years, if these guys aren’t bankable.” I just knew that they had to be noticed, particularly in that world, at that time. It’s a different world today. It’s still a great script, it’s about idealization and trying to become the other person and then realizing you’re like that person to start with. I’d shoot part of it in California, and part of it in Italy. But I don’t think I’d have the stamina to do it anymore. I have no trouble talking as you’ve probably noticed.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
On the point of spontaneity, how do you conjure that effect? Using scripted dialogue, how do you make it seem like it’s just happening off the cuff?
That’s what I teach! At the Actors Studio on Fridays. The best acting I see anywhere is at the Studio in Los Angeles. The New York Studio’s run by Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn. They are the presidents of the New York Actors Studio. The West Coast branch is run by me with Mark Rydell.
How do you keep something that’s on paper new and fresh? First of all, it has to matter to you, I feel. I mean, a lot of actors do crap. And you have to! You have to put a roof over your head, a bed, at least two meals a day, you know—if you should have a family, whoa! You’ve got a lot of other pressure on you. I started working for the New York Daily News!
When I started in television, it was live television too. The agencies hadn’t taken hold yet, or the networks. I mean, it was live! Virtually, making a couple of extra dollars was all it was about for me. Movies were three thousand miles away, and my dream was to get a Broadway show that would run so I could pay the rent for awhile. But you had to be a good actor, because your whole body was there in person, so to speak. So it’s a different world today.
When you applied to the Actors Studio, it had something like two thousand applicants…
First I studied with Curt Conway, who was a blacklisted Group Theatre actor who was married to a young actress who was not known, at that time, called Kim Stanley. He was working for CBS when he was blacklisted because he signed a Willie McGee petition. That was a petition, sadly, put up by a bunch of left-wing groups about a young black kid who was accused of raping a young white girl—which he didn’t do! And the groups that furnished the petitions were a little left of center, so to speak. So anyone who signed those petitions was questionable, and questioned. And Curt was blacklisted. They almost blacklisted Kim by association; she escaped. She, suddenly, became a big star on Broadway, and a wonderful actress!
Curt was unemployed so he started to teach, which was a blessing for me, because, he taught like Sandy Meisner, a little bit like Lee Strasberg, and introduced me to a guy he went to the army with, Paddy Chayefsky, and Paddy came one night. I got up and did something, and next thing I knew, I’m in Middle of the Night on Broadway. Paddy says, “You know more about the character than I do, and I wrote it.” And I said, “Why is that?” He said, “He was a musician. I never understood him—you understand him!” I said, “Well, I’ve gotta understand him, ’cause I’m playing him. He’s a guy with a huge, fat ego because he’s insecure.”
He’s loud because he’s not sure of himself half the time. And I told him stuff. Then he said, “Wow. That’s interesting.” And next thing I know, he calls me: “Lee Philips is leaving Middle of the Night on Broadway to go to Hollywood to do Peyton Place—the movie—with Lana Turner and there’s gonna be an opening. And Josh Logan is seeing actors.” He says, “I want you to come last. Because everyone looks like the boy next door except you—you don’t.” And I said, “Well, I am who I am, but I can’t look like the boy next door ’cause I never did.” And I was last, and after I read, Josh Logan came down to the footlights and said, “How did you come up with that?” I said, “Come up with what?” He said, “It’s very different than the character in the play.” I said, “No, it is the character in the play!” I wasn’t trying to be funny, or nasty, or smart either. But I said, “I mean, that’s how I see it. I think Paddy sees it that way too.” Paddy said, “I do.” And so they hired me.
I did it on Broadway and then I did it on the road, and that’s when Hitchcock saw me in it and cast me in North by Northwest. So people said, you know, “What was your break?” And I said, “I never had a big break.” I’m glad I didn’t in a certain sense. I’m glad I’m not a movie star! Because, if you look at my career, in retrospect, it’s because I could play anything. And did!