David Strathairn fights off a guilty grin when asked the question: Do you frustrate your agents? With proud defiance he answers, "I suspect I've frustrated them," then after a brief pause, adds, "a lot." When asked for details, he shares a few conversations his agents have had about or with him: "'Oh, my God, he's going to do another John Sayles movie? No commission there.' 'Why can't he go do pilot season? Just once.' 'Come on, it's only five years out of your life, and then you can do what you want.'" Then there's his insistence on consistently returning to the stage (his credits include "The Three Sisters" with Billy Crudup and Marcia Gay Harden, "Dance of Death" with Sir Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren, and "Salome" with Al Pacino), which like the low-budget films he periodically signs on to do, don't exactly excite his representation.
"So it's an ongoing dialogue," the actor diplomatically describes of his occasionally trying relationship with his reps. "You try to educate them as to who you are, and they try to do the same for you or to you."
Just as his agents sometimes scratch their heads in bewilderment, many members of the public do the same, at least when Strathairn's name is mentioned. His face, however, gets much more recognition, and Hollywood is well aware of his talents. From the well-mannered pimp in "L.A. Confidential" to the gentle Cajun swamp guide in Sayles' "Passion Fish" to Meryl Streep's husband in "The River Wild" to the blind sound expert in the caper "Sneakers," Strathairn has built a steady list of strong credits which, fortunately for him and perhaps unfortunately for his agents, don't add up to the industry typing him as doing any particular kind of role best. One thing adds up: He is one of America's best actors working today.
Strathairn says he's tried to make deliberate career choices along the way so he would remain able to be considered for any role. "You have to weigh the fact that you want to work against the fact that you don't want to be pigeonholed," he explains. He also believes that actors, at any career level, have the power to make important choices that will affect their work and their lives. "It's probably going to be a never-ending conundrum, that you have to maximize your opportunities, but I think we do have control over our lives," he says. "We have to have control over our lives, and everything is a choice, really. But in this business it may be risky to take yourself out of the mix because you want to wait for something else that people don't think of you as. That takes a certain amount of bravery and confidence that it will happen."
Just mention the word "career" out loud to Strathairn, however, and you can see his face react as if it were about to cringe. "I love the word 'career' because it's the base of 'careening,'" he then says with a laugh.
Strathairn's careful approach to his work recently paid off with his most high-profile role to date, as television newsman Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," directed and co-written by George Clooney. It marks a rare leading role for Strathairn, who, outside of his stage work and exceptions such as Sayles' film "Limbo" and Karen Moncrieff's strong debut feature "Blue Car," has been mostly cast in supporting or ensemble parts.
"Good Night, and Good Luck" depicts the 1950s showdown between Murrow, then anchor of CBS' news documentary program "See It Now," and Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch-hunt against American citizens. One could say that making this film took a certain amount of bravery on the part of Clooney, who chose one of the most pivotal -- and largely forgotten -- incidents in American history to portray onscreen: when a lone TV news journalist publicly went up against -- and defeated -- one of the most feared men in Washington. Clooney's father, a TV news anchor, idolized Murrow and passed that reverence on to his son, who has been trying to make a film or TV project about Murrow for years. Clooney also bravely insisted on shooting the film in black-and-white to incorporate real-life news footage of McCarthy and hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Clooney, likewise, took a chance on Strathairn, who, while perfect for this part, is not a big box-office draw. At one point Clooney had considered playing Murrow himself but changed his mind once he and producer-co-writer Grant Heslov (who also plays newsman Don Hewitt in the film) met with Strathairn. Even after casting him, Clooney and Heslov weren't positive their lead actor would pull it off until the camera started rolling. Heslov has said "We knew he was a great actor, but you still can't tell, particularly when it's playing somebody as iconic as Murrow. However, the second he was in front of the camera and started doing some of those huge speeches, he was transformed. I've been with a lot of great actors, and I'd never seen anybody as transformed to the point where I'd look up and forget that it wasn't Murrow. It was uncanny, but he's brilliant."
Clooney, who eventually settled on playing the supporting role of Murrow's right-hand man, producer Fred Friendly, in the film, also believes Strathairn nailed the part. "The one thing you knew about Murrow is that he always felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders," Clooney has said. "David is the kind of actor that always feels like he has the weight of world on his shoulders, so the minute we realized how much he can look like him, just by looking at old pictures and the gravitas and sadness he can carry, it was perfect to cast this guy. We got on the set and started rehearsing, and it seemed fine. He had long hair and a beard, but then he shaved and slicked his hair back and started talking. We all just sat there with our mouths open."
Clooney, however, was not asking Strathairn to imitate Murrow. "George had said, 'This isn't an impersonation. We're not doing a replication,'" says Strathairn. "What was more important was to not slip in respecting the image of the man that still lingers in many people's eyes and minds who are still alive, who knew him. But also to give people who don't know him and have never heard of him a just image to deal with and one that's not irresponsible to who he was."
As with any role Strathairn prepares for, he researched the era in which Murrow's story took place, and, as this was a true story, the actor learned background about the man he was to play. What fascinated Strathairn most about his subject? "That he came from Polecat, N.C., from a Quaker family in tobacco country.... Then he goes to the lumber fields in the Northwest where his dad moved the family.... He ends up in London, where bombs are being dropped around him -- it was the Blitz -- and he becomes an accepted peer of upper-class London society. In the next step he takes on Joseph R. McCarthy in one of the most important moments in political history. And then he fades away. In the minds of many people he fades away, except for journalists and historians and people who remember the importance of that. There were so many moments in his life that I learned about -- just an amazing trajectory."
That immersion into unfamiliar and often fascinating territory, whether real or fictional, keeps Strathairn passionate about acting. He says, "I've been introduced, educated, and made aware of so many things by working on, say, a Chekhov play. Boom. That opens up Russia in 1906. This opened up American history in 1954."
Strathairn is also a master of bringing subtle layers to a character, as many would agree is the case with his portrayal of Murrow. Sayles told Back Stage West last year of his recurring leading men, "Joe Morton, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, they're guys who you feel like there's something else going on. They may be asking one question on the surface, but you know that they've got a whole other agenda going on beneath that. And that very often makes for a much more interesting performance."
Subtext is also a quality that Strathairn would use to describe Murrow. "Subtext is a perfect word for him because he was very quiet," he says. "He was a very still person, and he walked around the studios of CBS, as I've read, and people said sometimes he was curt and dismissive, dark. So there was something subtextual going on in him all the time. I truly believe that. He was editing the environment of the news and the world around, putting it through all his filtration, and I hope there's evidence of that in the film -- all the stuff [underneath] that's going on. At the same time [I wanted] to show his courage -- not conscious courage, just innate courage and willfulness -- and his sense of the moment. I hope that comes across."
Strathairn has no formal training as an actor. His acting education has been on the job, beginning with summer stock in New Hampshire, which is how he met Sayles, who cast the actor in his directorial debut, "Return of the Secaucus 7," and subsequently tapped him for six other features. Sayles is known for providing his actors with detailed biographies on their characters. Although Strathairn found those bios to be very helpful tools, he says he did not learn to create a backstory because of Sayles, instead learning from his work in theatre. "You build a backstory so that you can access information about your character in any given moment," he notes. "You want to have that in your head, and then you can learn about where they are at a particular time in history and what that time in history meant and what the community was and what was happening in the world, and it sort of mushrooms out into learning a lot based on your character. I think it's important to do that, and I've always done that. It would be scary to go out there with just knowing your lines and not why you're saying them."
Still, Strathairn says he has no tried-and-true technique that he applies to his work. "It depends on the character," he says of his approach. "It depends on the story. It depends on what is being asked of the character and what piece of the puzzle that character is.... For me, it's dependent on what the story requires, so you don't waste your energy. Like, if all I did was study about Murrow's time at Washington State University or how he learned to smoke and drink in the lumber fields, that would have been irresponsible; it would have been wrong. I needed to know what he was like in 1954. So there are certain predicates in the script, in the author's pen, that indicate what you need to work on."
Strathairn's roots as a performer began in clown school, a seven-week program at Ringling Bros. Circus College that he enrolled in after graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He recalls of the clown lessons, "It was like taking the world you know and compressing it into a sausage, maybe the size you could get your arm around, and then slicing it in half and being able to see a microcosm of the world through a very bizarre lens, which the circus is. But it was a lot of fun. It was eye-opening every day. It was the most complex world that I'd ever seen."
His time in clown school also taught him to be aware of "the physical nature of performance" and that there are "so many ways to indicate what's going on in the frame." Sayles has said of the actor, "He's very versatile. He's very inventive. I can just say, 'Do something interesting, David,' and when I go to see the dailies or edit it later, he does something interesting but appropriate for the scene. He's a very good physical actor, and I've often used him for parts where the character does something physically; that's a lot of how he expresses himself. So whether it was the mud boat guy he played in 'Passion Fish' or Eddie Cicotte, who had to throw a real curve ball [in 'Eight Men Out'], or the crazy street guy in 'City of Hope,' physicality is an important part of his acting."
The best lesson Strathairn took from his clown days on to every stage and film set was that there's always something that can potentially trip you up. "You're always aware that there's a banana peel out there for everybody, and if you're trying to be as comprehensive in your characterizations, you've got to bring a banana peel along with you, because there's always a place where you're going to fall, literally and figuratively. And to be able to laugh about it, I think, is quite a forgiving thing," he explains.
There were many potential "banana peels" lurking on the set of "Good Night, and Good Luck," according to the actor. "Where I could have slipped up -- and it remains to be seen whether I have or not, because at this point it hasn't been seen -- but a big serious slip-up would be a presentation of this man that would detract from the story. That would be a huge gaffe on my part. To not have been able to weave this person in this event, that would have made me quit doing this."
"Good Night, and Good Luck" opens in limited release Oct. 7 and nationwide on Oct. 14..