I used to be friendly with a movie star (though her career was in a slump at the time I knew her), and once, when we were talking about road rage, she said, “I always feel funny about flipping people off. I think it might be someone who can give me a job.”
For similar reasons, actors tend to be unnaturally upbeat in interviews. What did you think of the director? Oh, he’s great; he’s a genius. And the cast? They were wonderful, all of them; I was in heaven every day on the set.
But actors in private are a different story. I think such-and-such is awful, they’ll tell you; it’s bullshit that he got such great reviews. Of course, it also works the opposite way: actors love as much as they hate, though they might not want their enthusiasms broadcast, knowing how easily they can be misconstrued.
I don’t do much acting these days, but I remain interested in those who do, since acting was a huge part of my life for so long, and I have, and always did have, strong opinions about my brethren. Here are a few of them. I was going to include women as well as men, but I might come off like a brute if I mentioned, for instance, that a particular actress reminds me of a dog, as I said of one of the guys below. Maybe later I’ll write a companion piece about actresses—if, that is, I’m not shot and strapped to the hood of a car as the result of this piece, or, perhaps worse, I never eat lunch in this town again.
Romain Duris: The Beat That My Heart Skipped is one of my favorite movies of the last ten years, and Romain Duris was fucking great in the lead role. When I said as much to my friend Shawn, he disagreed, saying that he didn’t buy Romain Duris as a tough guy; but when I repeated his remark to my friend Carole (who’s French, like Romain Duris), she said, “He’s not supposed to be a tough guy; that’s the whole point.” Yeah, Shawn, what she said. I’ve never seen Romain Duris in a movie other than The Beat That My Heart Skipped, but instinct tells me he’s always that good, and if there were any justice in the world—that is, if Americans paid more attention to foreign-language films—Romain Duris would now be as well known in the States as Alain Delon and Marcello Mastroianni used to be in the sixties, when Americans weren’t as put off by subtitles as they are now, since subtitles mean you have to, you know, read.
Johnny Depp: Ask people to name the best actor around, or in any case their favorite, and they’re likely to cite Johnny Depp. For one thing, they think he’s versatile, as I suppose he is, and versatility is the key to being a great actor, or so consensus has it. I don’t agree. I’ll take unvarnished emotion, insightfully expressed, over grandstanding versatility any day. I want to see people think; I want a window into their souls; and elaborate characterizations, and the costumes and heavy makeup that go with them, tend to obfuscate. Meanwhile, Johnny Depp is simply, in my view, not very good at elaborate characterization, though I give him points for effort. He lacks, for instance, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s gift for mimicry, and where he could use everyday people as models, he opts instead for celebrities: Roddy McDowall in Sleepy Hollow, Anna Wintour in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and of course, Keith Richards in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Depp is also a shameless scene-stealer, constantly rolling his eyes and huffing and puffing in the background of Sleepy, and rattling his braids and jewelry during the dialogue of others in Pirates. (“Stop it!” I yelled at my television while watching Pirates. “I get it. You’re there, okay? I already know you’re there. Now stop rattling those fucking braids!”) Excellent directors, such as Roman Polanski and Jim Jarmusch, have controlled Depp’s excesses and gotten good performances from him, but even then, I’m driven mad by his affected voice. (I didn’t used to notice that his voice was affected. It sounds to me as if he’s still trying to speak like Hunter S. Thompson, who, of course, was played by Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Depp as an actor is cartoonish, so it makes sense that he’s closely associated with Tim Burton, who started as an animator (Terry Gilliam, who directed Fear and Loathing, started as an animator also), just as it makes sense that a cartoonish actor would have enormous appeal in a culture as thoroughly marinated in fantasy as ours. Then, too, Depp is very photogenic, and many, I’m sure, take the sizzle for the steak. I don’t, obviously.
Daniel Day-Lewis: The worst performance I’ve ever seen by an actor as ballyhooed as Daniel Day-Lewis was the one by—you guessed it—Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence. Dude! The self-consciousness was off the charts! At the time I saw The Age of Innocence, a friend proposed a theory about Day-Lewis: that he was good in character parts (he’d certainly been good in My Left Foot), but he was bad as a leading man (beginning with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which had him speaking English with a Czech accent to indicate that he was a Czech living in Czechoslovakia). Later, however, I decided that he was just plain bad, period. I feel physically uncomfortable watching Day-Lewis onscreen, since he himself seems so uncomfortable as he goes about manufacturing Intensity™, with every vein in his face on the verge of bursting open. It’s like being at a party where some blowhard pulls a Uri Geller: “I am now going to bend this spoon with the power of my mind. Aaaarrrrrrrrggghhhh. No, wait, I can really do it. Aaarrrauuugghhhh. It didn’t bend? Okay, I’m really going to do it this time. AAAAARRRRRRUUUUGGGH!” Jesus Christ, man, cut it out! You seem like a decent guy, what with your shoe-making and your oft-stated regard for Heath Ledger back when you were winning all those awards for There Will Be Blood From Veins Burst While Overacting (“I drink your milkshake! AAAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGH!”), but you’re going to give yourself a heart attack.
Eric Bana: My favorite performance of the last decade—aside from Romain Duris in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (probably the best of them all)—is Eric Bana’s titular turn as Chopper. I told everybody I knew about it. “This guy is going to be the best actor of his generation,” I raved. To my shock, I learned that he’d gained fame in his native Australia as a TV sketch comedian. Not that this altered my view in the slightest. “He’s still going to be best actor of his generation,” I insisted. Still, it turned out that a lot of powerful people in Hollywood had likewise seen Chopper, as I didn’t anticipate, and that was the end of Eric Bana as the greatest actor of his generation. He did one corporate movie after another, raking in the dough, which I’m sure is good for his family, but The Incredible Hulk isn’t exactly On the Waterfront, know what I mean? Or maybe you don’t. But Eric Bana seems pretty satisfied with his car-racing sideline, so I guess it all worked out, except that he derailed my career as a soothsayer.
Tom Cruise: Everybody has decided that Tom Cruise is now crazy, but you know what? He was always crazy, only nobody noticed. I remember seeing him being interviewed on TV around the time of Born on the Fourth of July, and his eyes had a weird gleam to them, and when he laughed—and he laughed a lot, and always, it seemed, inappropriately—he reminded me of a mad scientist in an old B-movie. The interviewer—who, I’m pretty sure, was Barbara Walters— would say, for instance, “Tom, yoah caweeah is going gweat!” and he’d respond with: “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Yeah, it is going great. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!” He scared me a little. He looked like a light bulb with dentures. But everybody had this idea that he was the perfect, all-American boy, and I guess when it finally dawned on people that he was crazy—that is, he spelled out “I’m crazy!” in neon letters on Oprah’s couch—they felt betrayed, and since they couldn’t blame themselves for having overlooked the glaringly obvious, they naturally had to blame poor, crazy Tom Cruise. He’s not a bad actor—he’s been good on occasion, in fact—but he was never an interesting actor. He had one thing going for him—his intensity (which I think, in his case, is authentic, and not the result of anguished contortion as it is with Daniel Day-Lewis)—and that’s the very thing that ultimately bit him on the ass. Then, too, his popularity began to wane just before the Great Recession, which is fitting, seeing that he personified fin-de-siècle yuppiedom.
Will Smith: Any day now, I half expect a law to be passed in which you either officially declare your devotion to Will Smith or, if you’re a U.S. resident, you’ll be stripped of your citizenship, and if you’re a visitor, you’ll instantly be deported, with no hope of ever being granted another visa. People just love this guy, to the point where I once thought a woman was going to spit in my face when I said I couldn’t stand The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. (What’s the origin of the apparent widespread belief that wealthy Americans living in Southern California have quasi-English accents? Newsflash: they don’t. A lot of them talk like they’re natives of Brooklyn, which makes sense in that they are natives of Brooklyn.) I’d be curious to learn if African-Americans like Will Smith as much as white Americans like him. I bet even white racists like Will Smith, who seems to strike everyone as a regular guy who just happens to be famous. (Another newsflash: he’s not a regular guy. I know someone who worked on a movie with him in San Francisco, and when he couldn’t find a local burrito to his liking, he chartered a jet to have a burrito flown to him from his favorite burrito place in L.A. That sort of decadence used to cause uproars, but a lot of Americans—even dirt-poor Americans—would likely support it now, since Will Smith is simply enjoying the fruits of his labor, and if you don’t agree you’re a communist who wants to see this great nation destroyed.) Still, I’m afraid I’m not down with the Will Smith juggernaut, because “niceness” isn’t a quality I value much in actors, and also, I don’t think Smith is very talented, except at radiating niceness. He’s at least progressed from the stick of wood he was in Six Degrees of Separation, but his acting is, to me, like J.K. Rowling’s writing: clunky. But, hey, who cares what I think? Everybody else adores Will Smith, and because I don’t, I’m soon going to be living in Mongolia, anyway—if, that is, those who love Will Smith in Mongolia will have me.
Joel Edgerton: My friend Daniel, who lives in Melbourne, says you can’t escape Joel Edgerton in Australia. He shows up in everything, Daniel says, but I’ve only seen Edgerton once, in the Aussie crime flick Animal Kingdom, and here’s a spoiler, so skip the rest of this sentence if by any chance you intend to watch Animal Kingdom on DVD: Edgerton is killed maybe fifteen minutes into the movie, and there’s a lingering void afterward, which proves the strong impression he makes. (You can start reading again, if you stopped.) Edgerton has done some stuff in America, and I have a feeling he’s going to do more, because domestic actors aren’t allowed to be in any way threatening. There’s a castrated quality about most American leading men, but foreign guys don’t have to be castrated because they’re foreign, so they can’t help themselves, and actors with their (metaphorical) balls intact tend these days to be imported from the U.K. or Down Under. Russell Crowe is an example of the latter, and Joel Edgerton reminds me a little of Russell Crowe, except he doesn’t seem like an asshole. He also reminds me of a Samoyed. Anyway, we in the States are going to be hearing more about him, unless, as per his fellow Aussie Eric Bana, he derails my second attempt at a career as a soothsayer.
Brad Pitt: He’s a much better actor than he’s generally credited for being, though there’s something persistently languid about him. This languid quality, which possibly has roots in Pitt’s admitted pot habit (at least until he began to assemble a multicultural tribe of children), was present from the beginning of his career, and it can wear thin, as he speaks almost always in the same torpid rhythm. Also, he has physical quirks associated with hunkiness, like that bobble-head thing he does, as well as his habit of licking his lips, as if he finds himself so attractive that he wants to taste himself. (Watch him in interviews, and see if I’m not right. He does it in performance, too.) Still, again, he can be very good, as he was in Twelve Monkeys and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, even though I was prepared to hate him in the latter, since, by the time I’d seen it, he’d come to remind me of a vain friend who likewise bobbles his head while licking his lips as if he wants to taste himself.
Mickey Rourke: I always liked him. He’s a brave actor, and he’s brave in interviews, though some no doubt regard his courage as stupidity or insanity or both. For instance, he shot his mouth off before he was denied his well-deserved Oscar for The Wrestler, predicting his loss to Sean Penn, who won for playing a Real Person (the Academy, being literal-minded, tends to favor portrayals of Real People) who’s also a latter-day martyr-saint. At the height of his fame in the eighties, Rourke was known for making bad movies (the same way that Nicolas Cage is now known for making bad movies), but I understood why Rourke took every movie he did. His choices were much better appreciated abroad than they were in the States. (British chicks used to love Mickey Rourke. He seems to have been considered something of a sex god in the U.K., as was Robert DeNiro, curiously. Didn’t Bananarama have a song called “Robert DeNiro Is Waiting”?) I used to see Rourke around New York quite a bit—he knew my friend Sully—and he was genuinely friendly, without a hint of arrogance or pretension, so I like him for that reason, too.
Tom Hardy: He may well be the most charismatic actor since Marlon Brando. I’m not fucking kidding. I didn’t think they made people as charismatic as Tom Hardy anymore, what with so many emotionally stunted due to their overreliance on technology. It’s inspiring to see this guy on the brink of making it big—and on that note, I recently had a dream in which Tom Hardy and I were hanging out on a movie set, and somebody handed me his infant son (he apparently does have an infant son), and this infant, who looked exactly like Tom Hardy (except he was an infant), was talking away like an adult and I was talking right back. I forget what we talked about, but it was almost like I’d adopted him. Tom Hardy didn’t care. He was suddenly too busy being famous, which meant he didn’t have time for me or his son, either. My interpretation of the dream? The infant was Tom Hardy’s future career—his legacy, so to speak—and it was left to me to guard his legacy because, again, Tom Hardy was distracted by celebrity, whereas I would like to see him fulfill his potential as a great actor. Hey, Tom, don’t go the Eric Bana route! Don’t do corporate movies with tons of CGI! I know you’re going to, and you’ll tell yourself it’s to pave the way to do the independent stuff you really care about, but you’ll end up cynical and interested in a paycheck alone, and next thing you know your shot at being a great actor will have slipped past. Oh, and thanks for hanging out with me in my dream. You were really cool, for an English guy.