Patricia Clarkson & Steve Guttenberg Join Actor's Dialogue at 2007 Woodstock Film Festival
October 14, 2007
The Actor’s Dialogue panel discussion at the Woodstock Film Festival was my favorite I attended there. Martha Frankel was an excellent moderator. She was very prepared with her questions and kept the discussion moving along smoothly. She was able to bring out revealing and candid answers from both Patricia Clarkson’s and Steve Guttenberg’s lives and careers. They both had an extremely great sense of humor about things, and Steve was also very metaphorical. It would be great to see more panel discussions in the future run like this one.
Join some of today's most prolific actors as they chat about their lives and work.
(MF) Martha Frankel has been writing about film for over two decades. She has contributed to DETAILS, The New Yorker, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times. She is the author of Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling, published by Penguin/Tarcher.
(PC) Patricia Clarkson studied drama at Yale. She stayed on the East Coast working in theater production before her feature film debut in The Untouchables (1987) as the wife of Elliot Ness. Continuing to work in film, she gained attention for her role as the drug-addicted Greta in the independent film High Art. Her career in film continued to shine, giving memorable performances in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, Larry Fessenden's locally-shot Wendigo, Lars von Trier's Dogville, All the Real Girls, The Station Agent, Pieces of April, The Dying Gaul, Good Night and Good Luck, Married Life and Lars and the Real Girl, to name a few.
(SG) Steve Guttenberg…star of the Police Academy movies, Cocoon (1 & 2), Three Men & A Baby (& A Little Lady), and more.
Martha began by mentioning some of the films Patricia and Steve starred in over the years. Patricia came to her attention in the independent film High Art. She’s made a series of great films ever since. Martha saw Steve on Broadway before seeing him in the movies. She joked that his movies have grossed more than the GNP of America. She also interviewed Steve in Los Angeles several years ago.
(MF) What’s the coolest thing you ever had to learn for the movies?
(PC) Playing a drug addict in High Art, I had to learn to snort. (Patricia explained that it was some form of powder, not actually cocaine). I went home at night with headaches. It was very foreign to me. I have never done any drugs before. I’ve done so many indie films. I’ve had to pee in the woods many times because there were no bathrooms.
(SG) I learned to play the saxophone in the Neil Jordan film High Spirits. Neil hooked me up with his friend who was a heroin addict that taught me how to play.
(MF) What was the most fun you ever had on a film set?
(SG) (Jokingly) Movies aren’t that fun to make.
(PC) On every movie, you party and form friendships, although they never last. On The Station Agent, we stayed at a Howard Johnsons in New Jersey and had the greatest time. We had a poolside view and stayed up all night drinking beer. It was joyous.
(SG) Making movies is so great. If it wasn’t this, I’d be a salesman at a mall. I always thought I’d be a stage actor. People feed you on movie sets.
(PC) (Regarding getting fed on movie sets) Studios! It’s a great job. If we complain, we should be shot. We’re very lucky. Even when you’re doing emotional, dark journeys, it’s still a joy.
(MF) Two of Patricia’s movies opened the Woodstock Film Festival in the past – Pieces of April and Far From Heaven. To me, Pieces of April is the ultimate holiday movie. Patricia plays a woman with cancer who’s so mean. Usually these characters are angelic.
(PC) Pieces of April was such guerilla filmmaking. Made for around $200,000. Shot on a camcorder, in essence. Oliver Platt would sit in the car with me and the director would yell cut, and we had no where to go.
(MF) Wendigo won Best Picture at Woodstock a few years ago. It was a very scary horror movie that takes place on my road.
(PC) I don’t even know if there was any money involved with this film. It was very low budget, but beautifully shot by the director of photography.
(MF) Talk about your roles on television. Patricia played Aunt Sarah on Six Feet Under. Steve had a role on Veronica Mars. There seems to be money on TV, but not like movie money.
(SG) I never did TV before this. They said they had an interesting part for me as a child molester. I thought, what experiences can I draw on for this? I went into the experience and loved it. They shot it fast. I was always in character. There was no time to go down and become me again. As a kid, I had one experience where someone sort of tried to molest me. It changed the tenor of the part or the way I played the character.
(PC) They used to call us the Three Tenors (Me, Frances Conroy and Kathy Bates in Six Feet Under). I only did six or seven episodes in about four years. They always shot around me. They were so accommodating. It was so incredibly well-written. The character was complicated and funny. We are at the mercy of the writing as actors. The tone and timber of Aunt Sarah’s voice was always right. My dearest friends in the world are writers. It is the most difficult job of all.
(SG) I believe in writers as the king of the set. It’s magical when you can connect to the vibration coming out of each writer. It’s an artistic touch that’s intangible. You’re writing together in an interesting way.
(MF) Aren’t you writing something for yourself right now?
(SG) Yes, a romantic comedy about the TV dating world.
(MF) Everyone said Patricia was going to be huge after The Untouchables. What’s it like to be in a big movie? What does success do to an actor?
(PC) The Untouchables was the very first movie I ever did right out of drama school. I went to casting wearing no make up. The director Brian DePalma liked that I was a little irreverent about this part. Brian read with me in the audition. It was a very small part. I probably only made about $3,000. Brian wanted to make my part a little bigger, and included me in the courtroom scene, so I made a little extra money. Things were good then. Then things went not so good for me for a while, then went good again. That’s how the business is. In my early 30s, I did a lot of theater. I was always shifting. It something you have to get used to.
(MF) I did an interview with Steve many years ago in L.A. Everywhere Steve and I went, people were plotching over Steve on the street.
(SG) Success and failure are both illusions. You’re in a machine. Actors paint a picture. Then all of a sudden, no one wants those pictures. Success is the people who love you and liking who you are. Whether it’s The New York Times saying you’re great or an executive at Paramount, the danger is believing the bull. Very early on, I went to L.A. to make some money. I was starting to get cast, and saw how people were treating me because I was the lead in a movie. It felt like people loved me. They were not the same as you’re really family. Whether they buy your paintings or not, as long as they love your painting, it doesn’t matter.
(MF) I talked to River Phoenix three days before he died. He said “they loved me.” I said, “no, they love what you do.” Nowadays, teen actors are offered drugs and entry into clubs. Success at a young age can be a recipe for disaster.
(SG) I was saved. I had great parents. I learned how to do deal with Machiavellian people. You have to have a really strong core to deal with it. I’ve always liked to educate young actors.
(MF) Just because I write for magazines, I have a great following in jail. One guy told me I seemed to have found the job that fits me. What’s the greatest fan mail you ever got? (Martha reminds Steve of one of his female fans who sent him a naked picture of herself and Steve flew this woman out to L.A. and at one moment in their rendezvous, he had to hide her in the closet.)
(SG) On coach! (Steve jokes about how he flew her there.)
(MF) Since then, what’s happened?
(SG) I think she’s a skeleton.
(MF) What’s the greatest fan mail you ever got?
(PC) I got a frightening letter once regarding Pieces of April. It was so upsetting. I didn’t respond, because they were cowardly. In the film, Katie Holmes dates an African-American man. It was a scathing letter asking me how I could be in a film where you’re white daughter is dating a black man. I was doing “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the time at the Kennedy Center. I got the letter there. Maybe they came to see me in the play. By far, it was the most disturbing letter I’ve ever gotten. On the brighter side, people have sent me pictures of their kids and their animals. Sometimes, I get letters from 25-year-old guys saying, “Hey, Miss Clarkson, Can I be your assistant?”
(MF) Do you still surf? Have you seen the documentary Surfwise that’s playing at Woodstock about the Paskowitz family? Do you know them?
(SG) Yes, they are a great family.
(MF) What projects are you working on now and in the future?
(PC) Lars and the Real Girl (out now). Married Life (coming out in March or April 2008). Elegy with Sir Ben Kingsley. It’s a very sexy part. My father could never see me in this film. Blind Date directed by Stanley Tucci. Phoebe in Wonderland with Elle Fanning. A Woody Allen movie that doesn’t have a title yet. I was already doing three movies and couldn’t say no. I loved working with Woody. Now, I’m doing nothing. I’m taking a break.
(SG) I just gone done doing a movie with Jessica Simpson (the audience rips out in laugher). It’s a comedy. Sort of a Private Benjamin. She plays a movie star who can’t get out of the army. I play her agent. She was very low-key and well-mannered. Terrific to work with. It really surprised me. Also working on a film called The Well, a serious drama about a family who loses their child. I don’t get offered a lot of psychological, serious stuff. The few dramas I do get, I really enjoy it. I just don’t get a lot of these roles, because I’m mostly in comedies. I don’t learn as much from comedies as I do from dramas.
Q: In an interview with Lauren Becall, she talked about acting with Marilyn Monroe. Becall says that Monroe had an annoying habit of looking at Becall’s forehead instead of into her eyes. Are there any things like that which make it harder for you to act?
(PC) (Jokingly) Nowadays, it’s all about the Botox. You’re really looking at their forehead. It’ rare, but disconcerting when working with an ungenerous actor. Those experiences have been few and far between. I’m capable of sharing space and emotional thought.
(SG) It’s sort of like a tennis game. When someone hits the ball way over your head, you’ve got to deal with it. Jump up really high to hit the ball back.
(PC) I’m not the most method of actors. I approach most of my roles emotionally, but you can only act so much as an actor. The energy that exists off stage, play on as well. I have to know the other actors and feel them emotionally. Have a comfort with them.
Q: HBO’s new series Tell Me You Love Me and Ang Lee’s new film Lust, Caution have a lot of sexuality in them. What’s your experience like with sexuality and nude on film?
(PC) I wasn’t required when I was younger to do wild, intense scenes. But now at the age of 47, I’m being asked to. Why now? I am lucky. It’s difficult when shooting these scenes. They’re not graphic, but there is nudity. I felt at ease and comfortable working with Ben Kingsley. It was a closed set. Just the director, me, Ben, the DP, the sound, etc. (laughingly). It is difficult for young actors to be thrust into these highly sexual situations. It’s all about how you value yourself as an actor. Be a good actor and have confidence.
Q: What did you learn from working with the older actors in Cocoon?
(SG) I asked Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy for advice. They told me to save my money. (The crowd laughs). A lot of time, older people have so much value. Our culture /L.A./Showbiz is so youth-oriented. Once you’re past 30, you don’t have any value. I fell in love with the Cocoon actors. I would not let go of them. I was lucky. They unloaded on me every night.
Q: In High Art, what did you draw on for your character?
(PC) I was in a trench with my career before that. It was a great script, but I thought no one would ever cast me as this character, a German lesbian drug addict, but there was something about the character. It was a glorious shoot. When I met the director, I felt like I knew her my whole life. It was a great environment to work in. The greatest thing was wearing these pleather pants. They were so hot. It was like being in an oven.
Q: How do you tap into your process when you have an ungenerous director or you can’t tap into the writing?
(PC) It’s difficult, but few and far between. I’ve worked with hostile directors at times.
(SG) The director’s biggest job is creating the environment in which to work. It comes back to your self-confidence and integrity as an artist. The more experience you have and good teacher you have, it’s all going to come back to you.