When the stars align and a great movie is made, it can be a remarkable event for the audience, but what may go unnoticed is how equally rewarding such an experience can be for the actors involved. This was instantly apparent when the cast of Mystic River sat down months after the film had wrapped shooting and there was still a palpable excitement in the air. Sean Penn greeted his co-star and Dead Man Walking director Tim Robbins by literally leaping into Robbins' lap. Marcia Gay Harden was thrilled to be surrounded by "the boys." And Kevin Bacon, who first heard about Mystic River three years before filming began, joked that "this was the longest wait I've ever had to get a job."
All these actors were enthusiastic, not only about the movie, which is earning them some of the best reviews of their already prestigious careers, but also about the experience they had working together and with director Clint Eastwood. Even Penn, who at times has seemed to turn his back on the craft of acting, confessed to being utterly revitalized by the film.
In Mystic River, a young boy's fateful car ride sets in motion a chain of events over the next two decades, that shapes the lives of those who love him. On an idyllic afternoon in a sleepy Boston neighborhood, Dave, Jimmy, and Sean are playing hockey when two sexual predators posing as cops take Dave away and into a nightmare from which he never fully recovers. When a second tragedy reunites the three friends years later, it becomes apparent how the sins of the past are destined to haunt the future.
To bring Dennis Lehane's bestselling novel to life, Eastwood assembled a virtual who's who of acting greats to make up his ensemble. As the adult David, the 6-foot-5 Robbins somehow manages to shrink himself into a man who wears the weight of the world on his shoulders. As his loving spouse torn between doubt and loyalty, Oscar-winner Harden puts a unique spin on what could have been the traditional "wife" role. As Jimmy, Penn—who has made a career of delivering uncompromising performances in great films such as At Close Range, Sweet and Lowdown, and, of course, Dead Man Walking—offers perhaps his best work to date. Rounding out the cast as the police detective investigating the death of Penn's daughter is Hollywood survivor Bacon, who has juggled a 25-year movie career in an impressive array of roles: a teen idol (Footloose), a leading man (Apollo 13), and risky character parts (Sleepers).
Mystic River is part crime thriller, part searing family drama, and has earned the actors, including Laura Linney, some of the best notices of their already distinguished careers. A tense and powerful movie, it is at times gut-wrenching to watch. There is already Oscar buzz building for the cast and for Eastwood, who with his 24th feature, has returned to form by examining the themes of good and evil, forgiveness and retribution.
Although the subject matter of the film is heavy, there was an air of levity to the actors off-screen when Back Stage West spoke with them recently in New York. The actors candidly shared their views on choosing parts, staying sane in Hollywood, and the legend that is Clint.
Back Stage West: Was there some hesitation about doing a film based on such an acclaimed and beloved novel?
Tim Robbins: Not when you read the script first. I read the script and then read the book. And it was such a great adaptation.
Kevin Bacon: Lots of times you read the book, and when you see the movie you say, "I wish this was in there," or "They forgot this." I really didn't feel that way. It was more that there was a great script and a book that was an even better research tool for an actor, because all the questions I had about character and backstory that I would have normally filled in myself were all right there. It was so valuable as a piece of research.
Marcia Gay Harden: And I think Brian [Helgeland, who adapted the screenplay] did a really good job. There's this one moment when the adult Dave gets into a car, and it's very foreboding. In the book it says: "For the second time in his life, Dave Boyle was in the wrong car." You just feel the tension in the book. And I thought, How are they going to make you feel that in a script, how do you translate that into visual filmmaking? But when I saw the movie, I felt exactly that sentence.
BSW: Every role in the movie is vital, but they're all very different characters. Did you end up playing the part you initially wanted?
Sean Penn: I played the part I was offered.
Robbins: Same here.
Bacon: When I read the script, there were names that were sort of being talked about but nobody was really set. And I wasn't told to read one part more than the other. So I knew they were all great parts, and I didn't want to get my heart too attached to any one. Honestly, I think that I probably would have been more drawn to [Sean and Tim's] parts because I think as an actor you tend to want to do more stuff, and I'm not immediately drawn to a character who holds everything inside. It's a good exercise but kind of harder because you want to show off a little bit more. [To Penn and Robbins] Not that you guys were showing off. Now, the idea of not playing my character is kind of preposterous to me. When you get a script for a guy who is your age, and there's one good part, you just want to fall off the chair. But if there are three good parts, it's just completely unheard of.
BSW: How was it working with a legend like Clint Eastwood? Were you at all intimidated or even star-struck?
Robbins: We didn't want it to end. It was supposed to be an eight-week shoot and it ended up only taking seven and we were really pissed off.
Penn: He kind of waves his hand and makes a movie.
Bacon: You never get star-struck with him because he doesn't allow you to.
Harden: I was star-struck with these guys. I was just a little bit pant-y on the first day.
Penn: I think the fact that we all look up to each other is part of the joy of this movie. It's a bunch of people who either know each other or have worked together before or come up at the same time in the same places and watched each other work through the years. And I think that fed the whole experience. We had a lot of the same disappointments. And also doing what we do in the same period of time in our culture and being roughly the same age and having story like this that we all get to do together was a highlight.
BSW: Sean and Tim, you're both accomplished directors in your own right. Is it hard getting in front of the camera and letting someone direct you now?
Penn: It was great because at 4 in the morning both Tim and I would get that call, that whiny Clint Eastwood voice saying, "Oh, what do I do tomorrow? How do I do this?" And we'd have to talk him down.
BSW: I've heard Eastwood likes to do only a minimal number of takes, yet there are some pretty emotional scenes in this film. Was that difficult?
Robbins: It mostly was one or two takes, which is really liberating because sometimes you do these movies where you have to go to a certain emotional place, and you know you're going to have to do it 20 times, so you keep this reserve so you don't peak too early. So you can peak around 15 and save the best one for 20. Here you know it was one or two takes, and you bring the goods immediately.
Bacon: It's not that he's denying an actor takes; he just comes so ready to play that you don't need a lot of takes.
BSW: There's sort of a pervasive notion in Hollywood that leading characters in movies have to be likeable for an audience to watch the film. Mystic River features a lot of seemingly good people who do a lot of questionable things. Was that a refreshing change?
Robbins: Well, those are the best dramas. They have complex characters who aren't black-and-white. Each villain has a light and each hero has a terrible flaw, and there are no wrongs and there are no heroes.
Bacon: This is probably the most decent person I've ever played. I was like, Thank God I'm playing a nice guy for once.
Penn: I would say, Beware pervasive notions.
BSW: We all know what a tough business acting can be. Was there ever a point at which any of you thought about quitting?
Harden: There was a point where I thought I needed to go back to school because I didn't like what I was doing. I thought I was too facile and that I could get a really quick reaction from an audience, that it was too easy. And I didn't like it. But I knew this is what I chose to do, and I love it.
Robbins: I've never really considered leaving. I have periods where I wanted to just direct, but I've been really lucky to get the parts I got.
Bacon: I've always had this very strong feeling that I have to provide for myself and my family. So it's like I really can't give it up.
Harden: [Laughing] I might have to give it up so I can do just that.
Penn: I still think about it all the time. But then you have these great experiences—I had a couple of great experiences this year, starting with Mystic River, that got me very encouraged. I didn't work for almost five years once, and that was really valuable to me. I wrote and directed a movie, spent time with my family, and just generally enjoyed not working. I think more important than giving it up or not giving it up is making a point of not doing it for periods of time. You just sort of refuel. You can learn a lot from wasting time.
BSW: What's the hardest thing about being a working actor?
Robbins: The hardest thing is when you find yourself in a situation that you thought was going to be something different, and you're stuck and you have to see it through. Even though the elements are not what you thought they were going to be. And that can happen as soon as the first day. You just realize, I'm fucked for the next eight weeks. So you find a way to get through it. That's probably what leads to those moments when you ask, Why do I want to do this? But then there are lights, like this project, when the time passes too quickly.
Bacon: For me, the tiny little percentage of time that the actor actually spends acting is almost always enjoyable. But it's such a tiny part of the rest of it, which is reading, looking for work, waiting for the phone to ring, doing press, all that kind of stuff. There's nothing really fun about it. I love the time between "action" and "cut," but the rest of it can get kind of tiresome.
Harden: I think for me the hardest part is that in almost every script I read, the female role is just an escort to the male lead. She's there, she's actually a wife, but she hardly services the action. It's just so frustrating to me to be so consistently used in that way. And I wonder what is wrong with the writers. Do they not know any women at all? Do they not know anything that women care, feel, or want? And I know it's about money and butts in the seats and all that stuff, but you just hope for a script that's really fulfilling.
Robbins: You have to find other passions, other interests. What Kevin says is very true; actual acting time is very small. I've been saved by my theatre company [The Actors' Gang in Los Angeles], being able to work with them and write things for them and direct and produce and train actors. It's been a salvation for me and keeps my head interested in the creative process without having to be legitimized by someone offering me a job.
BSW: What do the rest of you do to keep sane?
Bacon: I play music. It keeps me happy.
Harden: I have a family. They're the best. My daughter and my husband keep me sane, and I have a garden and I do pottery. I'm not very good, but I'm getting better.
Penn: I'm going to have to recuse myself from saying