Most cinephiles only experience actors from a seat in the multiplex. But movie journalists interact with these mythic beings at something called the press junket. At a presser "the talent" sits at a big table or on a podium with a mike and fields questions, some pointed, others so dumb you blush to be a member of this guild.
Recently, I participated in a press junket for "A Single Man," Tom Ford's directorial bow, starring Colin Firth in a transcendent performance (see my coverage from Toronto). Embraced by most critics, this beautiful film is an adaptation of a novel by Christopher Isherwood about a gay professor in 1962 L.A. who is struggling to find reasons to live after the death of his longtime partner.
Herewith a few behind-the-scene notes from the junket.
The luxe hotels that house these affairs -- in this case, the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South -- have lately become gated communities to keep out the riffraff, underclass, whoever the society fears. You need to get "carded" into the elevator. The high-level security struck me as symptomatic of a tiny number of Haves - whose worth likely doubled while I waited for the elevator -- and the rest of us Have-nots from whom they need protection. If something isn't done quickly, America may soon become one gated community from sea to shining sea.
The talent for "A Single Man" all turned out to be dispiritingly thin, from director Tom Ford, to supporting actors Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult, to Colin Firth. Ford, mighty dapper himself, reportedly asked Firth to slim down for the role. When asked how he responded, Firth replied, "I guess I just ate less" -- adding that Ford tended to handle everything in honeyed tones. "'You look great, really great,'" he told me. "'But if you want to get a trainer to come to your house every day, I"ll pay for it.' What Tom meant was, you're fat. I guess he did me a favor - one final push in the war against gravity. I'm in my late 40's."
Speaking of weight control, the junket, at least for the writers, militates against it. Most journos these days are underpaid, unpaid - will write for money! -- underemployed, overextended, about-to-be-axed, etc. Hence we tend to scarf up goodies furnished by the distributor, if only out of sheer anxiety. The Ritz Carlton obligingly laid out a spread that included Pigs in the Blanket made with crusty mini croissants, lemon panna cotta with a sliver of white chocolate with sleigh bells inscribed on it, Tiramizu, cutlets, pasta, salads, etc. So you waddle into the interview, crumbs on chin, waistband bursting, calculating the number of hours at Pilates needed to work it off.
As a rule, the junket offers the talent on hand yet another actorly turn, since they're pretty much repeating the same stuff they've said or will say to numerous journos in different venues, all asking the same questions. Yet these gifted artists make their answers, God bless 'em, sound spontaneous, as if they've just fished up the insight specially for you.
Generally speaking, actors are usually less interesting to interview than scripters/directors. They tend to talk in actor-ese, about "going to a place" that's not geographical, employing a show biz variant of psychobabble.
But they are fascinating to gawk at, idealized versions of the species. You look at Julianne Moore - radiant smile, Balenciaga blouse with mutton sleeves, in her late 40's, two kids -- and you wonder, How does she do it? (In fact, one journalist actually asked her for makeup tips, but I can't remember what she answered.) Moore projects genuine joie de vivre and adopts a jus' folks manner with the press, as if hanging with her peeps. Talking about a dress Tom Ford had once designed for her, Moore noted how embarrassed she was about her "big boobs" after childbirth.
Colin Firth, on the other hand, brushes off any hint of familiarity with superb Brit aplomb. This even after he was repeatedly addressed as "Colin." When confronted with a prying personal question, he answered, "I'm not going to tell you." Even when rebuffing the nosey, his voice is pure joy to listen to, kind of a bel canto aria -- which adds immensely to his portrayal of George Falconer. Tom Ford made an appearance, too, and in his own right he's a fascinating, slightly diabolic presence. But it was Firth who upstaged the other talent that afternoon. Here are excerpts from his insights on "A Single Man" and the actor's trade.
It's been said that the elegant suits worn by George Falconer are a piece of Tom Ford decoration on a movie. Do you agree?
"That's a complete misreading. The clothes are a very important clue to [George], a sign of how he faces the world, putting up every barrier he can, like a firewall -- two way. He desperately needs to master the chaos that's going on. He's a total mess. Everything's completely out of control. Hence the need to create this appearance of perfect control. You take this guy's cuff links off and he'll fall apart."
"The entire film is about what penetrates that barrier, both outgoing and incoming. The world starts to encroach. The world he's given up on and is prepared to leave behind, suddenly becomes more vibrant and powerful. And these are things he sees every day. The mere fact that he's chosen this to be his one day on earth endows all these things with an extraordinary power."
What attracted you to Tom Ford's script?
"I've never read a script presented in quite this way. What came through was the world as seen by George, rather than what George looks like to the world. The script was very minimal. Not writing as a pitch; often you get that, florid language. This was basically a blueprint for what we were going to shoot. There was a lot of space to be filled and I was intrigued. It dawned on me that I was going to be taking everybody through the entire narrative, and just about every human experience that can be imagined. He wakes up in a state of utter despair. But through the course of those fifteen hours he experiences, rage, lust, serenity, frivolity, regret. I did know it was quite an adventure to embark on with someone who has the burning imagination and extraordinary capacity to communicate that Tom Ford has."
"The fact that Ford had chosen this material was also intriguing to me. I don't know much about the fashion industry. I knew he had a reputation for brilliance in a lot of areas -- a wonderful photographer, managerial and design skills. That doesn't mean you're going to be able to direct a film narrative about a lonely suicidal professor in 1962. But a film about a man who's making a journey towards a death he's sure of - and then he dies at the very moment that he falls in love with life -- that didn't feel like a chance to show off his [Ford's] spring collection."
Did you do much rehearsing for this film?
No, we arrived on a Saturday and got spray-tanned and started on a Monday. It was about a week into it that I found how much there was to explore.
"I strongly believe you either have a lot of rehearsal or none. A true comprehensive theater rehearsal process enables you to make a journey that allows you time to make a lot of mistakes and road test various ideas, and reject them, or compound the good things you found. And then have them in place by the time you go on stage."
"When you have the first reading of a play, sometimes it sounds as good as it's ever going to sound. What sometimes happens is that good stuff kind of gets killed off as you go through the first week. There's a kind of dead zone in week 2 when there's no spontaneity left, you've lost the initial impulses, and haven't found anything yet. Then by digging and digging and taking risks, by week 4 you rediscover where you were when you had that original spontaneity."
"In a film rehearsal, after a week and a half, if you're not careful you can get stuck in the dead zone. You've killed off the spontaneity and you have no nerve endings going. You've just sucked the air out of the scene. So in many ways it's better to just show up and see what happens."
What's Tom Ford like as a director?
Tom's not an interfering director -- for someone who has so much control in so many ways. He doesn't bombard you with verbal instructions, doesn't theorize. He sets it up in a very controlled environment and then he lets you get on with it. On the whole he just lets you offer it to him. I was so thankful. When showing George in a personal private moment, he's not tracking in, making it so the moment gets more and more important or covering it within an inch of its life. He kept it very simple."
Could you talk about how your prepared for that early scene when George receives the phone call that his partner has suddenly died? Along with the news that he's not invited to the funeral?
"I was a little afraid of that scene: most troublesome for an actor is not just finding an emotion - but starting a scene in one mental state and ending it in another while the camera's rolling."
"We love to get onto the set emotionally ready: I've got the tears now, I'm in the zone, roll the camera. When I was a drama student we had an exercise: come into the room in one condition and get in another by the end of it. Something has to happen that will change your mood. It's difficult because you can't prepare the end."
"So I had to start the phone call happy, get a series of shocks, allow that to percolate, and end in a state of complete devastation - with the camera rolling. Tom let the magazine roll out, about 11 minutes. What was wonderful was that he didn't push in, didn't change lenses and try to maximize it, didn't do a wide shot, didn't mess around. He just left it where it was."
Does acting become harder or easier for you over the years?
"A lot of the things just stay hard -- like just acting. Everything conspires against doing the job well. Basically you're trying to convey spontaneity. Convey the illusion that something is happening at a particular moment in someone's life and they're saying and doing something because of some inevitable impulse that they have. It's all nonsense. You have to repeat that through the day of shooting - and there's nothing spontaneous about repetition. Or waiting -- and that's what filming is. You wait an hour and then be spontaneous twenty times. And then wait another hour and then be spontaneous another twenty times. Until all the life's gone out of it. And of course you're looking at a bunch of electricians and machines and lights."
"You might go into work, have your breakfast, kill your wife around 10 o clock, wait in your trailer for a couple of hours, then marry her around 11, and then have lunch."
"When you first get onto a film set it can freak you out. I couldn't believe that that technical stuff was what all film actors did. I had to have a piece of tape marked on the ground when I walked across the room. And if I missed it we'd have a focus problem. And I wasn't allowed to look at the ground. Just before I went for a take someone put a tape measure from the camera to my nose, then a brush to my nose -- Action! And I suppose that's all still difficult. What I feel much less now than when I was young is fear. Now nothing really scares me on the set."