Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Though not quite the stars of "Trumbo," actors Josh Lucas and David Strathairn, join with Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Danny Glover, Nathan Lane, Liam Neeson to lend a theatrical voice to this cinematic testament about the late screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Based on a theatrical version created by Trumbo's son, Christopher, that had been staged in New York and Los Angeles several years ago, this film, built around letters Trumbo wrote to friends and foes alike, mixes documentary footage, historical archives and theatrical recreation to make an award-worthy release.
In the first flush of anti-communist Congressional investigations (witch-hunts really) led by Senator Joe McCarthy, Trumbo was arguably the most famous of the "Unfriendly Ten" screenwriters who were blacklisted in 1947. Until the early '60s, when Trumbo's name finally reappeared on the films "Spartacus" and "Exodus," he wrote under a pseudonym for a very few producers who were willing to help him.
Now through director Peter Askin's documentary, the dramatized readings from Chris Trumbo's epistolary drama have historical gaps filled in with newsreels, interviews, and the few film clips of Trumbo that exist. Not only does this documentary show how defiant Trumbo was, but how his insistent visibility eventually helped break the Blacklist More importantly, it illustrates how easily that slippery slope rolls forward once the process to erode civil rights gets started.
Since Trumbo was such a prominent figure in Hollywood over a half-century ago, it was important to discuss him and his legacy with Hollywood actors Lucas and Strathairn—not just because they portrayed him through his letters—but because both in their own unique way have been affected by his legacy. Both actors discussed their experience and his impact recently in New York City.
Q: Each of you brings something new to the Dalton Trumbo letters you read. How did you get into Trumbo’s head?
DAVID STRATHAIRN: Well, it’s a steep slope to get into his head actually, but I’ve done a bunch of readings of short stories and play readings, and that’s kind of the format. I tried to find some music to it so it’s listenable, and then what you’re saying starts to couple-up with that. When poets or writers read their stuff, it’s not performative and therefore, maybe not as engaging. So the challenge was how you give his aesthetic, plus present it in as clear a form.
JOSH LUCAS: I had a great experience last year, when I did [the play] “Spalding Gray: Stories Left Untold,” which was, in a sense, the same format as this, where you have actors performing as a character in a way. The way they structured that play was five actors played five different essences of Spalding, and that created the whole Spalding, cause Spalding himself was so complex, and I think there’s something quite similar here in that you have a character whose got awesome literary intelligence and intellect, but also anger, rage, and incredible humor.
To me, the reason why the film works in this format is because watching Nathan Lane do that piece on masturbation is amazing. And for me, it was about saying how do you relate this particular story in your life—who you are, and where you are—to what this man might have been going through, and this was the process that was fun for me. Particularly because my piece was somewhat romantic, and has quite a bit of pathos underneath it because he’s in prison as he’s reading it.
Q: Did you choose the particular letters of Trumbo’s that you read or were they assigned to you?
DS: They were assigned. Peter [Askin, the director] or whoever ], decided that these were the ones that were assigned. I don’t remember him saying why…
Q: The actors reading the letters seem to embody, to take a word from Josh, the “essence” of Trumbo, brilliantly conveying different aspects of his persona. What sort of research did you do to get yourselves into character?
JL: I think one of the things the film had to deal with in its construction was that there wasn’t a lot of footage on Trumbo, and much of it is used in the film, and I think that’s why actors were necessary to tell the story—to hear the letters, hear the writing and the incredibly razor-sharp nuances of how the letters are constructed like poetry.
So what we had to work with, for me at least, was not dissimilar to what you see in the film. But mostly what Peter [the director] wanted to do for us was to get our take on it, and not necessarily by any means try to be like Trumbo or sound like Trumbo, or move like Trumbo. Which is why its effective, moving from these personalities like Donald Sutherland moving into another actor like Michael Douglas, and the way that each person’s essence is so different.
DS: It was a great design. If you had done “Trumbo” the way that they had done a traditional biopic—to have one personality try to inhabit him—that’s an impediment to the material, because then everybody’s going to be focused in on how this particular person is inhabiting or presenting him.
In this way, you get a lot of different voices, and the variations—or the collage of people—is entertaining, and refreshing moment-to-moment, but it also in a way displays the universality of what he says. It’s a lot of people dancing on the same floor, and you can see how substantial that floor is.
Q: Many of the actors, including yourselves, convey much emotion when reading the letters. Did [Peter] and screenwriter [Christopher Trumbo] direct you towards this emotion?
DS: I don’t know how it happened for you Josh, but he just said “read it and hear it.” It certainly wasn’t “turn right, here” it was more “I can see where that’s going, do it again,” and it felt very creative and organic, with no sign posts along the way. Because the material speaks for itself—you release to it—and it is affecting. It’s always tricky when you’re presenting something like this to not be overbearing, or not be affected by your own particular stuff so you don’t trample, because maybe what he meant to be funny sometimes was also so full of pathos. It’s safe to be careful.
JL: Yeah, the guideposts were in the writing. No one was telling Joan Allen, “This is when you should tear up.” The writing is so good. It’s just infused with incredibly humor but incredible pathos.
I think there’s a moment in the film where Trumbo actually says, “All the greatest jokes have the greatest tragedy underneath them,” and so throughout reading it, there were still moments where you couldn’t help but be led a certain direction. And the way Peter was directing it—this sort of black box element of a group of actors in a theatre—was, “Let’s see what happens.”
Q: How familiar were you with the works of Dalton Trumbo before embarking on this project? Do you have a favorite?
DS: My introduction to him was “Johnny Got His Gun,” and then I had been in the development of a project years ago called “The Hollywood Ten,” so there was his presence in that. And some of his films—“The Brave One” and “Papillon” obviously—but not in as much depth as I’ve come to find out.
JL: Same for me. My parents were hardcore anti-war activists, so “Johnny Got His Gun” was essential, and obviously “Spartacus.” The letters were probably the most revealing, and I think that’s what the film in a sense is most concentrated on. And I think those letters are extraordinary.
Q: David, in your film “Good Night and Good Luck,” you’ve already broached this subject of the blacklist, Joe McCarthy's HUAC anti-communist investigations and the "Red Scare," albeit from an entirely different point of view.
DS: This [production] felt like you were in the street reading Dalton’s stuff. There was a little more grit and affect. [CBS newscaster and analyst Edward R.] Murrow was obviously insulated, but he got into the whole neurology of that time—pretty incisively—but he, because of who he was, responded in a different way.
So it was interesting to see that he had this forum where he could at any given time speak to three million people, whereas Trumbo—his megaphone was shredded, compared to the elegance of Murrow’s. But they were both coming at the same issues with I think as much passion, although their aesthetic definitely was different. When you read some of Murrow’s stuff, he was as razor-sharp about the issues… The two of them probably would’ve had a good talk.
Q: Josh, you said your parents had been anti-war activists. What insights did you gain from this, and is there a particular resonance in light of today, with the Bush administration’s (and the media’s) handling of the Iraq War?
JL: The integrity of what [Trumbo] did was pretty incredible. I grew up with that [as well], but in a time where it wasn’t as difficult to do, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as it was for Trumbo.
So my parents weren’t exactly rare in a way that I think Trumbo was rare, and unfortunately I think we’ve gone backwards to a time where it’s become rare again, where its become incredibly difficult for actors or politicians or personalities or citizens period to stand up and say what they believe without having very difficult repercussions placed on them.
I just did a film with Susan Sarandon [“Peacock”] who talked about how there was a period of time where she felt like she was bashing her head against a wall in a very painful way, and there were repercussions. No one was blacklisted per se, but that was a big shift in the country, to go from a time with my parents where it was readily acceptable—I watched my father get arrested for trespassing consistently, and it was “cool”—as opposed to after 2001, where anyone who was protesting in that way, literally, [could] lose their jobs.
Actors who are doing it on a certain level like Sean Penn were genuinely being demolished for it in a public sense and yet in hindsight, it turned out well for them I think in a way, because it’s quite clear that, as in Trumbo’s case, they were in the right. But it takes insane courage, especially back then, to be one of the only ones to say “I’m not going to allow this,” and not only become broke for it, but go to prison for it when you have young children. That’s integrity.
Q: This film also celebrates a bygone era. It’s an epistolary film based on these beautiful, long-winded letters, whereas now we live in the era of text-messaging and abridged conversations.
DS: That’s a great observation because in a way it was a bygone era, but letter writing was amazing. People think of it as some archaic art form, but that was really how people communicated. I just did a play about Brutus and Cicero, “Conversations in Tusculum,” and they were like the original pen pals. They wrote volumes to each other.
JL: I don’t know about you, but I’m at a time in my life where when I text, I’m forcing myself to use full words [laughs]. And I’m forcing myself simply because it’s for me to do, not for the other person because everybody now is getting to know these abbreviated words, and the idea of sitting down and writing an elaborately, well-constructed, beautifully-worded letter to the phone company, it’s extraordinary.
DS: Yeah. So if the film just does just that on a historical level, great. To make people aware, of all the political resonances and personalities that are in it, [even better]. But that’s something that people sort of look back and say, “Oh yeah, people used to write letters and used to [mimics typing].”
Q: Did this project make you want to do more theater?
DS: Yeah, I just did one in March. But hey, I’m always looking to do theater.
JL: I haven’t done one in about a year myself, but it’s what you search for constantly. It’s a question of how you make a living doing it, and when do you find a piece that you want to put out into the jaws of the New York critics, because it’s a really difficult environment. It’s a very mean environment in a way, so it has to become something you have to do if you really love the piece.