Ned Beatty has about as many faces as the characters he's played—from a bumbling small-time politico in Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville to the despotic head of a struggling broadcast company in Sidney Lumet's Network (earning Beatty his only Oscar nomination) to Lex Luthor's right-hand man and comedic relief in Superman and Superman II to actor Richard Belzer's crusty, loquacious partner, Det. Stan Bolander, on the first three years of the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street. The list goes on and on (118 screen credits, to be exact).
Of course, Beatty is probably best known for his very first feature, the shocking 1972 film Deliverance, in which he starred opposite Burt Reynolds, Jon Voight, and Ronny Cox as part of a group of city slickers who set out on a weekend canoeing trip in hillbilly country and wind up trapped in a nightmare.
Beatty has been a performer since the age of 10, when he earned spending change by singing in gospel and barbershop quartets in his small town of St. Matthews, Kentucky. He built a respectable career for himself as a regional stage actor. The first decade of his career was spent at the Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia. He also worked for the Erie Playhouse in Pennsylvania, the Playhouse Theatre in Houston, Texas, and the prestigious Arena Stage Company in Washington, D.C. His other stage credits include The Great White Hope on Broadway, the Mark Taper Forum's production of The Accidental Death of a Tourist, and most recently Livent. Inc.'s production of Jerome Kern's Showboat, in which he starred as Captain Andy, a role that earned him the 1996 Ovation Award for best actor in a musical.
His many other screen credits include the films All the President's Men, Silver Streak, Hopscotch, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, The Big Easy, Physical Evidence, Hear My Song (for which he was nominated for a 1992 Golden Globe), Spike Lee's He Got Game, Altman's Cookie's Fortune, and Jonathan Demme's Life. His television credits include the movies Dying Room Only with Cloris Leachman, Friendly Fire with Carol Burnett, A Woman Called Golda, opposite Ingrid Bergman, and the miniseries The Last Days of Pompeii and Gulliver's Travels.
Currently, Beatty can be seen starring in Tom Gilroy's film Spring Forward, which chronicles the burgeoning friendship between a young ex-con, played by Liev Schreiber, and his new work partner, Murph (Beatty), a veteran municipal employee getting ready to retire. If you want to see exquisite, quietly powerful performances, this little gem of a film won't disappoint, especially when it comes to Beatty's fine work.
Back Stage West: Is Murph one of the best roles you've played in a while?
Ned Beatty: I guess so. You know, it's funny the way actors sort of judge the parts they play. I have to remind myself of certain things like that sometimes, because they are things that I don't think in terms of.
I very seldom play a character who appears in every scene of a film. I'm sure I've done that before, but I couldn't tell you when. I've played characters that are in it for the whole length of the film, but I've played an awful lot of characters who aren't—who you just see for a brief period of time and then they're gone.
There's something that's kind of hard to describe to laymen—maybe not so much to actors—but what really feels good or what gives me a certain kind of pleasure is to pull something off that is not inherent in me. Like there's things about Murph that are not inherent in me at all—things that I really like about Murph and I think are very important about him.
I think his patience is very important. I think his forbearance is very important. I think his ability to not be moved by every little thing that comes along is important. There's a wonderful section where Liev [Schreiber] and I talk about religion, and Murph actually admits that he doesn't care anything about the Pope or certain things about Catholicism, but he somehow still feels like he's a very loyal Catholic. And all those things are not who I am. I'm not like that at all. Like many actors, I'm very quixotic. I'm all over the place.
I think the answer to your question is, Yes, it's a very big part for me, and I feel like I got to do some things with this character that are not really that easy for me, because my reactions would have been a lot different from the character's reactions, which was neat. I liked doing that.
BSW: How did this project come to you? Did you know the writer/director?
Beatty: No, I didn't know Tom. It actually came to me, originally, through another actor who was being considered or was trying to get the same part that Liev played. I'm not sure that he was ever a choice, but I think Tom wanted me to get this script, and I think this other actor helped him do it. So that's how the project came to me.
Then it was quite a long time before we shot the film, because I had gone off and was doing this Canadian production of Showboat. I got in it to bring it to Los Angeles. That was the idea, but the truth of the matter was, I was in it for much longer than the Los Angeles run. I kind of got stuck doing Showboat for a long time. I didn't mind that, but that's all I did for 14 months.
BSW: Had it been a long while since you'd done a theatrical production?
Beatty: Yes. It had been quite a while. Unlike a lot of actors, I've been very lucky about working. Most actors hate to hear me say this, but the truth of the matter is that I always seem to be able to get a job acting. I mean, there were times that weren't so great, but compare my experience to other people's, and I have been extremely lucky.
It was the same way when I worked in the theatre. For 15 years, I was in play after play after play after play—mostly in resident companies.
BSW: How did you cross over from doing years of theatre to working mainly in film and television? Wasn't Deliverance your first film?
Beatty: It was the first theatrical film I had ever done. I had done a film prior to that, while I was still in Washington, D.C., working at the Arena Stage, which is one of the two big companies I spent a big amount time with. The Arena Stage was an excellent job for an actor in those days. It was one of the few winter stock companies, and they were doing good work.
Anyway, I had done one film before Deliverance. Up on our bulletin board at the Arena Stage somebody had put a flier saying that they were looking for actors to do a film for the FBI, and if anybody was interested we should reach this person at the Department of Agriculture. In those days, the Department of Agriculture had the only film unit in the federal government. So if somebody wanted to make a film, they needed to go through the Department of Agriculture.
So I went down there. I dressed up like what I thought would look like an FBI man; I put on a tie and a coat. I walked in the door, and this guy says, "This guy's perfect for the bank robber!" So I played the bank robber in an FBI film. The only reason I'm telling you this story is that it has a really funny twist to it.
I thought we were making a training film for the FBI. [In the film] I robbed this bank, and I had a partner. Then we pulled up at this motel, and then all the cops in the world, it looked like to me—state troopers, regular policemen, and FBI guys—came and arrested us. My part got a little scary, because when they were doing things like putting the cuffs on us, they did it the way they really did it. I remember saying, "Hey, guys. We're acting here."
Well, it turns out what we were doing is that J. Edgar Hoover worried a lot about the small police departments all over America, because they didn't have training academies, so he was making these little films to show them how to do a good job. What really happened to the little film that I appeared in was that it got sent to small-town police forces all around America.
About a year later, I started getting arrested. If I went into a small town somewhere, I'd get arrested. I'm serious. That's the way cops work. They're used to seeing pictures of bad guys. If they see you and they know that you're a bad guy, they arrest you. So that went on for a little while, until I started getting known as a film actor.
BSW: That may be the best story I've ever heard about someone's first film. So then how did John Boorman [the director of Deliverance] find you?
Beatty: I was in Washington, D.C., at the time. John Boorman had said that he was going to do this film. It was a big project. It was a big deal. He was going to do it in an almost documentary fashion. He was going to use all unknown actors. He basically wanted extremely well-trained repertory actors—that's the phrase I think he used. He wanted repertory actors, basically from the South. So as it turned out—given his search criteria—there were like five or six of us in the entire country. They widened it after a while, but that's how I got in on it. I was one of the few people who really came close to being what it was he was actually looking for.
By the time I finally saw him, they were already moving him away from the idea of having only unknown actors. He's a very interesting man, and he's very confrontational. He doesn't mind going up against people who are probably more powerful than he is. So when he saw me, he decided he was going to hire me, and I think maybe I was the first one to be hired for that film.
[Before I got the job], he called me backstage at the theatre. And about two days later I went to see him in New York. I got to his office and was told that the auditions were over and he wasn't seeing anybody else. I was really mad, and I said, "It cost me $60 to come here and back, and you know how much money I've got right now? $60. It's costing me everything I have to come up here." I did get a meeting with him, and, afterwards, I got the part.
BSW: Before you were cast in that now-classic film, did you ever think that you would wind up becoming a film actor, let alone such a well-known one?
Beatty: I think I always knew. But I do recall being very concerned when I first got the inkling that maybe acting was something I wanted to try. I was concerned about it. I thought, I can't go around telling people I'm an actor. I didn't want to call myself an actor. I didn't want to make that step.
So I had this friend who didn't mind being an actor. He heard me say this one time, and he said, "I'll tell you what. Why don't you just call yourself an actor when you're acting?" And maybe that's the best advice I ever got, and maybe that's the best advice I could give.
Acting is a job. What we really want is a job. I think a lot of actors make the mistake of not taking the jobs that come, because it's something you have to do. I mean, most of us can't learn it without doing it anyway. I don't care how many classes you take; sooner or later you have to do it. It's a doing thing.
I would really encourage actors to think about it as a job as much as they can, because it's real easy for us to get off the point where it's a—I hate to use this word, and it's going to sound like a put-down—but a lot of actors treat it like it's a calling. Like they were called to be a nun or a priest or a minister. I guess I don't believe in that. I really do think it's a job. And it would help a lot of the time.
I have one other good piece of advice for actors, and I can't remember who taught me this, but I think it's a wonderful thing to learn. Somebody told me one time when I had to go to an audition, "Try to remember that the person you're auditioning for has a much more difficult job than you do. All you have to do is present yourself and say, 'Here I am. I believe I can do this job.' They've got to actually choose somebody, and that's really difficult."
That changed my whole perspective. Just carrying that into an audition changed things for me. To walk in thinking, Can I help you? Can I suggest somebody else who could play this better than me?—which I used to do a lot, and I got a lot of jobs that way, quite frankly.
BSW: So many actors fear the idea of being typecast, but the truth of the matter is, all actors end up being typed for certain kinds of roles. Have you felt typecast in any way over the course of your career?
Beatty: You're kind of right that everyone gets typecast. I believe it happened to me, and I believe that maybe it's one of the nicest things that happened in my career. I think I finally got typed as an actor.
I got asked to do a part one time on The Rockford Files, and I was reading through the script, and I thought, This is kind of a nice part. This guy's a real bad guy. He's real scummy. He's one of these people that duped a lot of people out of millions and millions of dollars. The script kept describing him as this guy who was huge and who would physically overcome Jim Garner. Well, I knew Jim Garner, and I knew I wasn't going to physically overcome Jim Garner, for God's sake. He's about 6 feet 3. But I took the part.
So I drive to where they're shooting in Downtown L.A. I walked over to the set, and Jim's sitting near his trailer, and he gets up, and he walks up to me, and he says, "Hey! Are you working with us?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "What are you playing?" I said, "I'm playing the bad guy." And he looks at me, and he says, "They went for the actor—not the type." And he shook my hand.
There came a period in my career when I was definitely being called to do the acting. I take a lot of pride in that. But I do think you can get typecast. I think that if you do take the parts that don't quite fit into what you think the career is going to be, that helps. I mean, I would be in real trouble if I had taken the parts only for what I thought I was going to be. I was going to be Stubby Kaye. Stubby Kaye was a wonderful musical comedian who was in things like Guys and Dolls and all that kind of stuff on Broadway when I was first becoming old enough to be an actor. I didn't get to be Stubby Kaye at all! [He laughs]. Does that make sense to you?
BSW: Sure. Is it a conscious choice to say, I'm going to go for the acting parts?
Beatty: For some people that would be a very stupid choice. I do believe there are people out there who should be leading actors, and I think that's a different technique. I think being a character actor and being a leading actor are two different techniques. I honestly do, especially in the world of film and television, where people can see everything.
I think film is absolutely fascinating, because people can see everything. Sooner or later somebody will come up and tell you what you were thinking during the moment of a performance, and it gets scary sometimes. I mean, they'll tell you secret things that you haven't told people you're acting with—that you never told the director. And they'll walk up to you and they'll say, "Boy, you know that moment when you were coming down the steps…" And they'll literally tell you what you were thinking.
BSW: So what's the difference between a character actor and leading actor, in your opinion?
Beatty: The leading actor has to help the audience identify with him. He wants to take the audience along with him. Most of the character parts are there to make the action happen to the leading actors. That's why John Wayne said, "I don't act. I react." And he was right. That's what [leading actors] do.
BSW: Some actors take offense at being called a character actor. Do you consider that description of you a compliment?
Beatty: I know there are actors like that, and I think they make huge mistakes. I think there are guys who get in one movie, and they're very well received, and suddenly they think they have to play the lead. What the hell is that about? Take Joe Pesci. Joe Pesci is a wonderful actor, but what's up with him trying to play leading roles and romantic roles?
BSW: One last question. Could you ask for more from your career?
Beatty: No. I haven't missed anything. As a matter of fact, I've never played Hamlet, but I've been in the play, I think four or five times. And being in Hamlet four or five times sort of wears the edge off of Hamlet. I've played Rosencrantz. I've played Guildenstern. I got to do everything I could ever imagine doing. BSW