James Caan has never shied away from taking chances as an actor, sometimes to excellent effect as in The Rain People, Brian's Song, the cult classic Rollerball, Cinderella Liberty, The Gambler, Thief, Misery, The Way of the Gun, and most notably his Oscar-nominated role as the explosive Sonny Corleone in The Godfather. His career and his personal life—which suffered from both the loss of his sister Barbara to leukemia in 1981 and Caan's years of substance abuse—have had their highs and lows, but what's clear is that Caan is a fighter and, most important, a survivor.
Back Stage West recently caught up with Caan as he was about to embark on his first series regular job, on the new NBC dramatic series Las Vegas. Caan plays Big Ed Deline, the head of security and surveillance at a Las Vegas casino. He can also be seen later this year in the comedy Elf, opposite Will Ferrell and directed by Jon Favreau, and Lars von Trier's Dogville, co-starring Nicole Kidman.
Back Stage West: I have a question that has nothing to do with acting. I was fascinated to learn that for nine years you competed in the professional rodeo circuit. What category did you compete in, and how did you get involved with this sport?
James Caan: I was a roper. I came out of New York and started riding here. Then I did this picture for [Francis Ford] Coppola called The Rain People. I wound up in Nebraska and got friendly with a lot of ranchers. It just got into my blood. And a buddy of mine was a rodeo cowboy, and I watched all these champions practicing, and I was a pretty good mimic. I had no idea what I was doing, but I just kind of imitated them, and it took me a couple of years to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. [Laughs.] I always wanted to be a professional athlete. So that was pretty much it.
And I loved the guys because there was no bullshit. Those rodeo cowboys I traveled around with were the best, because if they didn't like you, you knew it, and if they liked you, you knew it. I always used to say, "There's something about the dirt that made me feel clean."
BSW: I love that. I'd like to find out about your beginnings as an actor. I know you were born in Queens and that you grew up in the Bronx and that your father was a butcher and you played football. I want to know how you decided to become an actor. It must have been a brave choice for you.
Caan: I always say that my neighborhood was not conducive to the arts. We didn't have a lot of singers, dancers, actors in my neighborhood. It was all cops and bartenders. I went to college at a very young age, at 16, not because I was smart but because my high school wanted to get rid of me really badly. I tried to play some football at Michigan State, which wasn't very successful—pathetic, actually. I was homesick and I left Michigan and I went to Hofstra for a year, and I kept switching my major every two weeks. Nothing held my interest and I couldn't play ball, because I was a transfer student, and so I had to wait out a year. I got my classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays I started going to work with my dad. My family was in the meat market. My uncle put me to work—great job, no nepotism there—unloading hindquarters off these trailers by the East River from 4:30 in the morning. Something told me I didn't want to do this for the rest of my life.
Basically, I wound up taking some class at Hofstra—the history of the theatre. It was just terribly boring. I guess out of desperation—I don't know where it came from—I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse. I just literally walked in. As was their ritual, you applied the year before and you had to have three separate interviews—one in the summer, one in December, and then one at the end of their school year, and they accepted 30 guys and girls from around the country to start the following year. I went in 10 days before school started. I interviewed with David Pressman [Meisner's protégé]. I guess David thought I was nuts or something, but they accepted me. [Laughs.] And my dad, even though he was this big tough butcher, was thankfully very supportive if I had interest in something, which was great. So I went to school there, and it was something that fortunately held my interest for a long time.
Then I got a scholarship to Wynn Handman. I studied with Wynn for about three or four years. I was a waiter, and I had all these other jobs, but there was something that told me that when the break came, which is inevitable—some people get it early, some people unfortunately don't get it for 10 years—that I should be prepared. So I kept studying and working, and fortunately I got the first four jobs I auditioned for. One was an Off-Broadway play, and I did that for months. Then I did whatever television there was in New York. And then I came out here, and this was a cow town to me. I thought, What am I doing here? So I'd finish a job here and fly back to New York as fast as I could. I just got lucky. I kept working.
BSW: How important was that time spent training as an actor?
Caan: Look, there's some people who can train from now until the cows come home and [you wish] you had the heart to tell them, "Forget it." There are other people who are inherently really talented, and they tune their instrument or learn how to use that talent or funnel it. But I definitely think that training is important if you're really sincere about being an actor.
The truth of the matter is, today you see these actors making a lot of money to do a certain thing, and then when it comes time to do something else they go, "Geez, I don't want to take that chance. They're paying me all this money to be this character." They become mannered and do the same thing over and over, because that's security. But the fun of acting is to be able to fall on your face by really trying something that's far removed. I've certainly fought to be able to do that my whole life. After Godfather I'd get scripts where if there weren't 12 people dead by page 20 I wouldn't get it. Then all of a sudden they'd go, "Wow, Jimmy, you can sing and dance [in Funny Lady]. We didn't know that." Well, nobody ever asked me. Or to play a character like the one I played in Cinderella Liberty—a guy who is real tender. That's the fun. People have a way of putting you in that little slot and trying to keep you there because that's what they remember.
BSW: And you're still taking risks. I understand that you're in Lars von Trier's upcoming film Dogville, which sounds like an innovative project with an amazing cast [including Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Ben Gazzara, Philip Baker Hall, and Paul Bettany], and you're about to star in your first TV series, Las Vegas, something you've never done before. What made you want to do this series?
Caan: Well, this one is certainly a big risk. It's something I never thought I'd do. My biggest fear about doing something like this is the fear of becoming lazy. I play the same thing [week to week], but there's so much diversity in this particular series, hopefully. The options are all there.
When I go to the movies or watch any TV show, the thing that keeps me there is unpredictability. That's what made certain stars really good, because every story's been told. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. The guy gets the girl. You know what I mean? Shakespeare did all these stories, and he stole them from the Greeks. So what is it that keeps you there? You don't know what the end is. That's the fun about watching sports; you don't know what the end is. It isn't written yet. I like that unpredictability—how the character gets from A to Z, and you don't get ahead of him.
With this show we can be unpredictable every week. It can be about anything—kings, queens, senators, scam artists, killers. I mean, there's just no end to the variety, and my character is hopefully elastic enough. And, again, hopefully I'll resist the temptation of becoming lazy.
BSW: You've been doing quite a bit of work on independent films in recent years—Bottle Rocket, The Yards, The Way of the Gun, and City of Ghosts, to name a few. What do you enjoy about working on these types of low-budget projects?
Caan: It's not that I enjoy working in low-budget movies, but the truth of the matter is that the moviemakers, the story-driven movies, the character-driven movies are there. Hopefully, you get to do something for the studio, and then you get to do one for yourself. You've got to give in a little bit, but I find it hard to do a lot that green-screen stuff. I can't quite get with it. I can't do The Matrix. I don't want to knock anything, but it's just not what I do.
I think a lot of directors now have made themselves too goddamn important. It's about them, and it started years ago with some of the big-name directors who consciously made an effort to hire actors who would not distract from their directorial powers—[actors] who were absolutely mediocre, and some of them are big stars now. But it was a conscious effort. I know it because I've had conversations with these directors. You can't remember a great scene that this [actor] did, but the picture was much bigger than the actors—and all the special effects. I'm not going to mention any names, but these directors are the stars of the movie.
BSW: How important is your relationship with the director?
Caan: Very important. The truth is, it's an unbelievable luxury to work with people like Francis. I don't want to start naming all the names, because I'm going to miss somebody. The biggest luxury as an actor is to really get lost in what you're doing, but when the director says, "That was good. That's a take. Let's move on," 90 percent of the time you don't 100 percent trust the guy's opinion. You're keeping an eye outside for yourself. You can't really get lost because you have to pay a little attention, which is not a good feeling.
BSW: So trust is the key to a good actor/director relationship?
Caan: It's great when you can just let go. That's an unbelievable luxury. Unfortunately there are a lot of guys directing today, and I don't know how they're directing. They can't direct traffic as far as I'm concerned.
BSW: Do you have any advice for first-time directors, having been one yourself [Hide in Plain Sight]?
Caan: You see so many good first-time directors, and then you look at their second and third pictures, and they're just horrible, and you say, "How can that be the same person?" When you're a first-time director you have a little fear going in. You have a little insecurity. Your ego is bent out of shape. And the truth of the matter is, I don't care who the director is, I don't care how many pictures he's done. He can't possibly know as much as the experts he's hired in each field—the cinematographer, the stunt coordinator, the wardrobe person, and so on, all the way down the line. You have to be a good psychologist, and you hopefully hire the best people in each movie's field, and if you don't let them do their jobs, you're a moron.
So you have to listen, and you also have to have an idea—a concept—and stick with it. You listen and take in what others are saying and say, "Thanks for that. That's a great idea, but it doesn't work here in my scheme of things, but keep them coming." And that's what first-time directors do because they're a little frightened. They listen. I did. But what happens to these guys is, they listen the first time because they're frightened, nervous, insecure—and, by the way, that's the way they should behave all the time—and then the picture's a big success. And the next time, they think it's beneath them to listen to anybody. So they tell everybody what to do, and that's why they stink. You're hiring experts, and a good director has to know who those good people are and how to take their suggestions.
BSW: So the moral here is, Don't let success go to your head. That's equally sound advice for actors.
Caan: Yeah. It ain't about you.
BSW: Is there anything you see in young actors today that bothers you?
Caan: It's not just today. It's the same with the schmucks who were around years ago. A lot of actors have this thing of self-importance, which is embarrassing to me. It always has been. The bodyguards and the bullshit. I've never had a bodyguard. Nobody wants to hurt me. And a lot of them need to live these contradictions. When we start we pray for the day that somebody recognizes us, and then all of a sudden they're famous and they want to be alone. They say, "Don't bother me." It's bullshit. You know? If I choose to be a doctor, I know I'm going to have calls at 2 or 3 in the morning. It's not always the most pleasant thing, but you knew that going in.
BSW: I liked what you said in a previous interview that I read, in which you explained that acting is not about words; it's about behavior. Can you elaborate on that?
Caan: Especially on film, because everything is magnified. What might make me more interesting than somebody else are the choices that I make in the scene. The audience doesn't know what I'm thinking inside. The point is, if I'm very late for an appointment and we have a scene here about this interview, and I don't want to be rude but I have to be somewhere and you have to get your interview—because there has to be a conflict in a scene—well, something is going to happen. So all I'm thinking about is, Well, let me answer the questions. All of a sudden I'm going to have a different behavior. I'm going to start cutting you off. I'm going to start talking quickly. So that gives me an inner life in the movie, and that's what makes it interesting.
BSW: Is there is a place where you start to build the inner life of your characters?
Caan: I hate actors talking about acting. It's the most boring subject in the world. It's pretentious shit. But listen, here's the truth that I found: When they send you a script, the first time you read that script—and I don't care who the actors is—every time it says the name you're supposed to play, you're subconsciously acting that role the first time you read it, right? That's what makes me different from you—my instincts take over. Now what happens to too many actors is that they read for the role and the [director] goes, "That's great." Well, now they get the role and they think they have to go work. By the time they finish working, they come back and they're so far removed from the guy they hired—instead of thinking, There was something that they liked about that, and that was my instinct.
That's part of your training—to have faith in your instinct and to just go with it. So the trick is to behave, to learn to listen. There has to be conflict in every scene, right? Because otherwise it's not a scene. And I know what my character wants from the beginning to the end. I know how he feels. Because it's all written. He doesn't like this person, he wants to kill this person, and so on. From that point on, you absorb all that. The worst habit is practicing, at night, answers to questions you haven't heard yet. Actors go home and they look in the mirror. So if I kiss them or slap them I'm going to get the same reactions because they rehearsed it. But to have the faith and to really listen and react and behave, with preparation, and then just trust yourself—that's really hard to do.
BSW: How important is the other actor in a scene?
Caan: The most important. You can't be good in a bad scene. I'll try anything to get something [from the other actor]—to frighten him or to make him laugh, because the better you are, the better I am and the better the scene is. If the scene stinks, everybody in it stinks. If I can make you have a couple of great moments, the scene is good and therefore I'm good. Unfortunately there's a lot of selfishness in this business and people get competitive, which is just ridiculous. I mean, everything you do is an ensemble piece unless it's a one-man show.
BSW: I can't talk to you for Back Stage West and not touch upon your work in The Godfather, which is the most-cited film actors mention when I ask what their favorite movie is. Did you know it was going to be a great film when you began?
Caan: No. If you knew, you'd be a genius. You could make the studios a lot of money. What I did know is that I was working with great actors, a brilliant director, and [cinematographer] Gordy Willis. That's all Francis' credit. We were having a good time, which is a major ingredient to success. I can tell when people are enjoying what they're doing, no matter what the subject matter is, and they work well together. On Godfather everybody really worked together. It was just great. It was an acting class, you know? And of course it was all headed by the conductor, who was the best at the time at what he did. Francis knew where every actor was supposed to be. He played little tricks and worked with Brando, which was like, Wow. And then there was Bobby [Duvall] and Al [Pacino]. He put together a pretty solid cast. Everybody he hired went on to be the best in their field: Walter Murch, the sound guy, [production designer] Dean Tavoularis, Gordon Willis. He put that together. So I knew I was with a lot of good people. We certainly didn't know it was going to be what it turned out to be.
BSW: Do you have a favorite performance you've given?
Caan: I like Thief a lot. It was a good character study. It was Michael Mann's first movie. I made some fun choices on that, like it was about a guy who was in a hurry, yet I spoke very clearly and distinctly and slowly. Michael said, "But Jimmy, if you're in a hurry, why would you choose to speak that way?" I said, "Because I never have to repeat myself. Haste makes waste." [Laughs.] That character was insane and I like that.
BSW: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
Caan: This is my job; it's not my life. And people, particularly in a lot of the interviews I'd done, have sometimes mistook that for meaning, "I didn't care." That's absurd. I cared a lot. I wanted to be the best in the world, in anything I do, but my life is my family and my friends first. My work, of course, is very important, but what I know is inevitable is that no matter what heights you achieve in this business, there is a slide back, a degree of which varies from actor to actor. For those people who put their whole life in that little basket—they live, breathe, and eat acting, which actors have a tendency to do—when that slide comes they can't handle it. They're the ones who wind up hurting themselves or having a big problem. I had to learn it the hard way. I went through a pretty self-destructive period when I was on top, which was stupid nonsense.
So, if you're a young actor, do the best you can and understand that there's a difference between having to work and wanting to work. Just be as good as you can and do as much as you're supposed to do. It's a horrible thing when you're a young actor and you've studied for four years, and all of a sudden you get a part that's five lines, and you want to put all your four years of study into those five lines. Don't do that. You can only be true to what is written.
But there's a lot of luck involved, you know? It's true. There's so many talented people out there—young kids and older people—who I know are monstrously talented, and they just haven't had that luck yet, but it will come. It will come. And when it comes you've got to be ready. BSW