Jul 18, 2017

Martin Landau on Acting

I had the pleasure of interviewing the late, great Martin Landau back in 2005 for the shortlived magazine Moving Pictures. Here's my story in its entirety.

Martin Landau has been places, both in actuality and in his imagination. And at this point in his five-decade career, he's the kind of actor for whom the distinction between the worlds he's experienced and those he can conjure, like a kind of sorcerer, is marvelously fluid.

Yes, he steeped himself in the famous actor's Method—was a protégé, in fact, of its main guru, Lee Strasberg, at the Actors Studio, where his best friend for a time was James Dean—which had as its mission a recreation of real life down to its tiniest detail. The Brooklyn neighborhood in which he grew up was filled with the kind of outsized characters he can still flip through like a sort of actor's Rolodex, and into whose personae and accents he'll go at the drop of an anecdote: Italian goombahs, Irish upstarts, Jewish kvetchers. And New York City's hustle and bustle provided a virtual laboratory of walks, voices, types, and quirks to observe and imitate.

For evidence of how well he learned the lessons of Method-style realism, his Oscar-nominated performance as a quietly anguished philanderer in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors stands as a model of acting economy—of maximum emotional impact with minimum histrionic fuss.

But the role he won the Oscar for—aging Hungarian horror star Bela Lugosi, in Tim Burton's elegiac comedy Ed Wood—is an appropriately theatrical, even fanciful creation. While that performance is finely detailed enough to honor the rigorous tenets of the Method, it is nevertheless a brilliant act of sustained imaginative creativity on Landau's part.

This skill—for "going places" he's never been—is one he developed over decades, traveling everywhere from dusty Western streets to Space: 1999, inhabiting everyone from Simon Wiesenthal (in the TV movie Max and Helen) to toy-maker Geppetto (in a series of live-action Pinocchio movies), from sleek superspy Rollin Hand (in the series Mission: Impossible)  to Hebrew patriarch Abraham (in the biblical film In the Beginning).

The gift of a wide-ranging imagination began not on the mean streets of Landau's childhood but in the Sunday color comics.

"New York had a lot of newspapers in those days, and all had color comic sections," Landau recalls with relish. "On Sunday morning, there was this short pile of comic sections—Mickey MouseBringing Up FatherDick TracyKrazy Kat. I couldn't read yet, but those strange worlds—the Krazy Kat world, the Willie Winkie world—were all in color and all strange, and the people were all unique and different. I could sit and look at these pictures for hours."

At 17, Landau took some drawings of his own to the New York Daily News and—in what may be may have been his first successful acting performance—lied about his age and got a job as staff artist, working a four-to-midnight shift after his high school classes. For a time, he thrived on the breakneck pace of the newsroom.

"In those days it was still about scooping the town, and re-plates, and extra editions, and getting the newspaper out, and beating the other papers," Landau recounts. "There was a sense of drama, because if a story broke, they would stop the presses."

But one day he realized that grind wasn't for him.

"I was doing at 17 what these guys who were 45 or 50 were doing," Landau recalls. "And I looked around at these guys, and said, 'You know, I don't wanna be doing this when I'm their age.' "

He'd been introduced to the theatre by his mother, and, like the comics, it had always seemed like a "fanciful place." He'd never seriously thought that he could be an actor himself—"I always thought you were an actor because you were born to it or something"—until a newsroom colleague who moonlighted as an actor invited him to a performance.

"He did an Off-Broadway show, T.S. Eliot's Family Reunion, and I went to see it," Landau says. Was his friend's performance so inspiring that he caught the bug, too? Not exactly. "I thought he was awful. He was a nice-looking guy, had a wonderful kind of joie de vivre, but he was terrible. And I said to myself, 'I could do it a lot better than that right now, without any training!' "

Still, Landau did end up getting training, doing seasons of summer stock and getting into Strasberg's exclusive Actors Studio. By the time he made his Broadway debut in 1957 in Paddy Chayefsky's The Middle of the Night, he was well on his way. The relatively new medium of television, still based largely in New York, had appeal mainly as an occasional odd job to pay his rent.

"For me, it wasn't about film or television, it was about theatre—only about theatre. It was about getting onstage, having rehearsals, doing interesting plays. I think it's different today—why people become actors is different. It's about being a television star, a movie star; it's a different thing that motivates people."

This lack of purpose shows in a lot of today's acting work, he says.

"There's an inordinate amount of bad acting that has become 'good' acting in people's eyes, and in the critics' minds," he says. "I start thinking: 'Am I one of those old farts who thinks because I've been around, the younger generation doesn't know anything?' It's not that! Stuff I see that's awful, that's up for an Oscar, I think, 'That's really not very good work.'

"I don't get Sideways at all. I wouldn't spend 20 minutes with these guys, why am I going to spend two hours? I mean, in life, maybe I get stuck with them—but the next time, I would say no, I promise you. It's a nice little slice of life, it's well acted, but who gives a shit? Million Dollar Baby: It's a nice boxing movie—a nice boxing movie. But so is Body and Soul; so is The Champion. OK, Scorsese, The Aviator: a wonderfully mounted movie—about a very rich nut, and there's no one to connect to."

He gives some tell-tale signs of deficient acting craft.

"No one in the world tries to cry except bad actors," he points out. "Good actors try not to cry. No one tries to laugh except bad actors; people try not to laugh. No one tries to be drunk; drunks try to be sober. You ever see a drunk who wants another drink pick up a drink?"

He illustrates with a coffee cup, slowly and meticulously trying to raise it to his lips without spilling. This illuminates his key point: "How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows their feelings. I mean, anger—the clenching of the teeth, the gripping of the hand is holding back anger, that's not anger. Bad actors run to all that crap.

"Jimmy Woods once asked me, 'How would you succinctly define acting?' And I said, 'In a well-written script, the dialogue, what characters say to each other, is what a character is willing to reveal and share with someone else. The 90 percent he isn't saying is what I do for a living.' "

He has offered such acting wisdom, first as a much-sought-after coach in the 1970s (his students included Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston), and now as a moderator of the Actors Studio's West Coast incarnation. And he continues to follow it in his work: In his most recent project, John Daly's The Aryan Couple, Landau plays a Jewish industrialist during WWII who makes a deal with the Nazis to exchange his wealth and property for his family's survival. Landau was able to draw on both realism and imagination for the part: One location in Poland was a 15th century castle actually used by the Nazis to intern Jews en route to a nearby concentration camp. But, chillingly, Landau learned that in contemporary Poland there is still one thing he'd rather imagine than experience firsthand.

"Stacy Keach is married to a Polish gal, and he spends months in Warsaw with her every year. So Stacy said to me, 'You're going to Poland! That's wonderful, I can give you some names of people.' And then he said, 'Maybe I shouldn't.' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because they're all anti-Semitic. It's crazy. I'm not Jewish and my wife isn't Jewish, and so I hear these things that are mind-boggling to me! These are wonderful people—we're talking about the intelligentsia, writers, editorialists, artists, playwrights, actors. And the degree of anti-Semitism is shocking. It's profound. It's centuries old.' So I figured: The script will give me enough of that, I don't need to feel it for real."

A good actor, Landau concludes, brings all his experience, and all his imagination, to a role. That's why, for him, actors are creators as much as interpreters.

"A role is a bunch of words on a piece of paper. When a performance fulfills what the author allows, and illuminates it, and affects you to the point where you are connecting viscerally—that is magical. It's hard to get 10 people in a room, your best friends, to agree on anything. But if that's going on, whether it be on a screen or on a stage, you have 1,000 people all experiencing the same thing, literally fighting tears, laughing vociferously, erupting with laughter. And if ideas are also along with the feelings, if you can get people to think about things in ways maybe they hadn't before—that's art."