Academy Award Winner Martin Landau on Acting

The great Martin Landau gave an interview in Movieline magazine.  As usual, the 82-year old Academy Award winning actor (Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood) who has taught the likes of Jack Nicholson is always full of great advice about acting.  He still moderates at the Actors Studio every Friday that he is in town.  He also shines in Alfred Hitchocks’s North by Northwest and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.  If you haven’t seen these movies I highly suggest them. I have excerpted the juicy details for your edification.


“In film, there are always things that could conceivably create artificiality, in any performance. Dialogue is what a character’s willing to share and reveal to another character, and the 90% they aren’t willing to share is what I do for a living. You know, people don’t walk into a cocktail party and say, “Hello everybody. I’m terribly embarrassed, and I don’t know anyone in the room.” They do everything they can to conquer the embarrassment that is going on.”

“People do not necessarily reveal what is going on — only bad actors do. Bad actors try to cry, and good actors try not to. Bad actors try to laugh, and good actors try not to. Only bad actors play drunk — good actors play drunks playing sober! They don’t want everyone in the room to know they’re drunk, and if you’ve ever seen a drunk pick up a glass to his mouth at a bar, it’s the most studied, controlled thing you’d ever see, as opposed to the sloppy kinds of drunks you see played everywhere.”

You’ve had a career that spanned many changes in acting style. Do you think there’s a sort of acting that’s preferred by Hollywood now that’s untruthful?

"I’m not talking about style, because style is style. Truth affects an audience, and when there’s a lie, that’s what I’m talking about — something is not organically correct in the context of what you’re seeing. I’m very, very aware of the changes that have occurred over my career in theater, television, and film. If you take Ed Wood, for instance, that’s Bela Lugosi, but it’s also a Tim Burton movie made fifteen years ago. I couldn’t play Bela Lugosi as a kitchen-sink character — it needed a certain theatricality. It was Lugosi in the sense that I told Tim Burton, “If five minutes in, the audience says, ‘Landau’s doing a good job,’ we don’t have a movie. They’ve got to forget it’s me and think that it’s Bela Lugosi.” By the same token, it’s Bela Lugosi theatricalized, extended, larger than he was. So it’s not about style, it’s about performance succeeding so that the audience is affected in the way you want them to be affected."

"Crimes and Misdemeanors, I told Woody before we started, “If you see anything theatrical, stop me.” Because we had that conversation, he never had to. I wanted that character to be every man, I wanted the audience to feel that there was not an actor playing the role. Woody invited me to dailies, but I didn’t go, because I didn’t want to see it from the outside."

I just read an interview in the LA Times where you said you haven’t really received direction in twenty years. Is that because you do so much preparation ahead of time?

"Yes. I think, “Why does this author want this character in this?” and then I choose things and I do them. I figure, if the director doesn’t like it, he’ll stop me and tell me what to do — and they don’t stop me! [Laughs] I mean literally, Hitchcock never said “boo” to me. In fact, I felt left out, because he’d whisper something to Cary Grant, he’d say something to Eva Marie Saint or James Mason, and then he’d pass me by. So I went up to him and said, “Is there anything you want to tell me?” And he said, “Martin, I only tell you if I don’tlike what you’re doing.”

"I chose to play that character as a gay character, and it wasn’t written that way — it was written as a henchman. Because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, I thought it would be much more interesting [to play him as gay]. It was the fifties, and I’m not gay, and to make a choice like that, people said, “Are you crazy? People will think you’re gay!” And I said, “If they think I’m gay, that’s fine with me, because I’m not gay and this is not the last thing I’m going to do.” It was the right choice for the character, and it brought some mystery and intelligence to a character that was really just sort of a grunter, as written. I’ve always thought, “How can this be more interesting and how can I embrace what the writer wants to the best of my ability without calling attention to myself in a way that is destructive to the piece itself?”

Like Hitchcock, I’ve always heard that Woody Allen isn’t much for giving direction to actors, either.

"Not at all. He wants to talk about the Rangers or the New York Jets — he doesn’t want to talk about acting at all. No! Jon Lovitz came back from working with him and said, “How the heck did you do it? I didn’t have nearly as big a part as you did, and he never said a word to me about the role!” I said, “Well, he never said a word to me about the role.” I know that if he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he fires you"

Did you know that he was capable of that before you started working with him?

"Oh, I did, because [redacted] was fired by him, and I did a movie with her! So I said, “I’m gonna come in with all my guns loaded and do what I do.” He liked it, fortunately — otherwise, I would have gotten the pink slip. His whole attitude is basically that he’s hiring you to do what you do, and that’s that. He doesn’t really know how to talk to an actor. He’d only confuse one! He kept saying that my half of the movie was working and his wasn’t, because he kept reshooting everything on his half of the movie and hardly anything on my half. Actually, again, Jerry Orbach was not initially cast as my brother. I worked for three days with another actor — Jeff Bridges was his first choice, but he was unavailable at the time — so this other actor, who’s a great actor, played my brother for three days. We did all the stuff in the car about the murder, and Woody fired him and brought in Jerry Orbach and I reshot all of it."

"I used to beg him for another take! The scene on the telephone where my brother tells me the deed is done, I rehearsed it once, shot it once and went into the bathroom spontaneously to wash my face because I felt dirty after the phone call, and then he lit the bathroom and we did it once more. I said, “Let’s go again, I’m just warming up,” and he said, “No, no, no.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘No, no, no’? Give me another one, Woody!” He said, “No. Both of those are beyond my expectations. If you do a third one, I’ll have a nervous breakdown!”

Original interview here.

When Landau says: "Dialogue is what a character’s willing to share and reveal to another character, and the 90% they aren’t willing to share is what I do for a living."  That 90% is called SUBTEXT.  Just the other day I responded to a mundane question from my wife with the simple answer, "Yep."  She got livid.  Why?  My answer was not just a simple yes. I was saying so much more with my "yep."  It dripped with sarcasm and attitude.  I was speaking volumes with just one word that spoke to our long history together.  Our subtext.

Communication studies claim that over 50% of the message come from the body language, over 30% -- paralingual (loudness, tone, intonation,  etc.) -- and under 10% from the words only.

We say one thing, think another, do -- the third. That's normal, it's life. All three must be connected and DIFFERENT; with the conflict between SAYING, THINKING and DOING is the DRAMA.