Friday, April 17, 2009

Oscar Winning Actor Michael Caine Asks "Is Anybody There?"

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

Whatever compelled Oscar-winner Sir Michael Caine to play 80-something retired magician Clarence in Is Anybody There?, it's fortunate that he did. The septuagenarian Brit takes even a simple, sentimental tale like this and, through his rich performance and nuanced turns, give us a real peek into a man whose life has been slipping away from him as he enters the twilight of his life. From his first raggedy appearance on screen, Clarence is transformed into someone much younger as he mentors a lonely 11-year-old boy Edward (Bill Milner) trapped in the makeshift nursing home that his house became when his parents started a business caring for a group of old people in the 1980s.

Clarence shows glimmers of his old self as he teaches Eddie some magic tricks and convinces to have a birthday party with kids he generally shies away from---he'd rather search for the ghost of the dead old folks rather than play with his peers. But inevitably it's too late and the ravages of Alzheimer's take control, bringing an end to Clarence and the film.

So Caine continues to turn out sterling work (as he should after working in more than 100 films) however one might feel about this quiet film. In delivering such a performance, he has also mentored in real life, giving a boost to the talented 14 year old Milner (who also did a remarkable job in his other film, Son of Rambow) and support to young directors like Crowley.

Certainly what career moves Caine makes now are for fun--and maybe a little money. He's done a slew of benchmarks, from early films like The Ipcress File, and Alfie, to Oscar winners like Hannah and Her Sisters and Cider House Rules. But it didn't hurt him in joining the latest incarnation of the Batman franchise as Bruce Wayne's butler and confidante, Alfred, in the recent two films, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Q: Do you believe that there's an afterlife?

MC: I'm hoping there's an afterlife. As you get older, you hope even more fervently. But I am still far enough away to have a few doubts [though] I'm sure they will tighten up as you get closer [laughs]. I've noticed it with older people.

Q: Your wife claims to have the ability to see ghosts--is there a story that you have that she experienced that you can talk about?

MC: No, not really, because I don't discuss it. It's one of those things where she believes in ghosts and I don't and we never talk about it. We never talk about it. I'm sorry. We just don't talk about it. I hope she's right.

Q: Why?

MC: Well, it'd be fun, wouldn't it? Something is better than nothing.

Q: You seem like someone who doesn't have the word "retire" in your vocabulary. How do you do it?

MC: I just enjoy what I do. You have to remember, when I started out I was an amateur actor, amateur meaning "to love." I like what I do and enjoy the process of filmmaking; provided this is the situation that I'm in--that I have complete and utter choice of where, what, why, when, how and with whom.

That's what happens to me now. I don't work for a living. I just work in order to improve myself as an actor which is what I've always done. I've never been competitive with other actors. I've been competitive with myself and I'm my own worst critic, a terrible critic I am, and unless I get something right, I feel very unhappy.

But with this picture I couldn't have done any better than I did. There are probably a dozen other actors who could've done it better than I did, but I couldn't have done it better. So I'm very happy about what I've done.

Q: What excited you about playing this angry senior citizen?

MC: The depth and range of it. You go through every emotion and so does the audience. If we do it right, we should make you roll with laughter at one point and cry your eyes out at the next. That to me is the epitome of an actor's job, to get the most extreme emotions out of you with the most reality. I love the relationship with the boy. It's sort of like a hill. I lead him up a hill into his childhood and he leads me down a hill to my death.

Q: Did you visit any nursing homes or want to spend any time in one for the role?

MC: No, I didn't. I knew all about them. My mother was in a nursing home, but not like that. My mother was in a very luxurious nursing home. But I did see a lot of people like that. People, when they get older, get infirm and do strange things.

The great thing about it was that I'd known all those actors for 50 years [who played the nursing home inhabitants] like Barbara Harris who was in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with me. I've known [actors] Leslie Phillips all my life, and Sylvia Syms [they play Reg and Lillian, two of the nursing home residents]. I was looking at them and didn't know what they had turned into when they had become old. Then, I saw it. They had become old just like everyone else and it was fascinating.

Q: Here you've got the challenge of working with a younger actor in Bill Milner. Did he give you a run for your money?

MC: Oh, boy, did he! Bill is a very wonderful, natural actor. He's never had theatrical training and so he didn't have to get rid of all those tricks for when you act in front of a camera like a stage actor. I was a stage actor for years. He's very professional and, of course, he has an incredible advantage over a lot of other child actors.

Bill doesn't have a theater or a stage mother. She's not acting out her failed fantasies through her son or daughter. She's a very, very nice, very, very educated woman who's quite surprised by his choice. I think that he was found in the school amateur dramatic society and not in a drama school.

Q: He reminds me of the talented Freddy Highmore, the young British actor who was in Neverland with Johnny Depp.

MC: Oh, yeah, I remember him. He's very self-possessed and so is Bill. Journalists ask if I gave him any advice and I said, "No. He didn't need any. He could do it."

Q: Did Bill give you any advice?

MC: Oh, yeah, he'd give me advice all the time [laughs]... He didn't [really] give me advice but we were very lucky because without a great little boy. of course, the picture was in the toilet.

Q: You've never had to worry about losing your career over the years, but your character is someone who did. How did you draw on those observations, not having experienced them?

MC: Well, I've known so many people like him in my life. I worked in repertory, and if you're an old character actor working in repertory, you were working for 10 pounds a week--and you're him. I've learned from dozens of those [people]. I like old actors, though. They're funny.

Q: To see you go from the sophisticate in Sleuth to this character... There are those little details that you pick up on, little mannerisms and looks. How do you make those choices?

MC: Well, they're just a guy. It's just observing people of that age. I mean, I'm nearly that age. I reckoned that he was about 84 or 85. I'm 76.

I've just done another part where I've played an older man called Harry Brown. The picture is about an old man who lives in the projects and becomes a vigilante when they kill his friend. What happens to me is that I keep getting made down instead of made up when I go into makeup in the morning. Instead of trying to make me look the best that I can, they tried to make me look the worst that I can.

So now I'm looking for a movie where I get made up and it's not Batman, because Batman is a bit of a ways away, but something else where I get made up.

Q: Do you ever get sentimental, looking back on your younger self in either film or photos?

MC: No. I never look back at all. All of my sentiment and emotion goes into my family. I'm an extremely family oriented person and I have a very, very happy family life. That doesn't just include blood relations. I have friends who are close to me.

But one of the things for [me with] this movie was that one of my closest friends had Alzheimer's while we were doing this film. So I knew exactly what it was because I had lived with Alzheimer's for five years. Though not like his closest friends or family, I knew the stages and what happened. In one case, it was a bit scary doing it, but I did know what I was doing on a daily basis.

Q: What are some of the films that have been most memorable for you in your long and distinguished career?

MC: Well, films are memorable for different reasons. Zulu, because it was my first speaking part where I had more than 10 lines. The Ipcress File was the first time I had my name above the title. Alfie opened a market for me in America. It goes right through to films like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, where I made a very funny film, a very happy film, and for that location they gave me a villa in the south of France for three months. I'm still waiting for another movie like that. I've never gotten it.

But the films that I loved making--the original Sleuth.... Well, I loved making the second Sleuth but we got slaughtered for that, but I still loved making it. And, [there's] The Quiet American, Little Voice, and Hannah and Her Sisters.

I loved working with Woody [Allen] and love New York, so I was very happy with that. I thought that Hannah and Her Sisters was Woody's warmest film with sort of Thanksgiving and everything. It was funny then because I would have a line of dialogue in the picture, I'd say, "Well, you know me, I'm not fond of kids and I don't like the country." Mia [Farrow] would always say, "He's right and he's saying that to me. It's personal to me." All these things, I kept saying lines to Mia and she'd say, "That's another one. You see?" It was very funny.

Q: In further reviewing your career, what are some of the things that you realize you accomplished in terms of craft, accents, or whatever?

MC: I managed to get to a stage where I imagine--and I've never taken drugs--if you take a drug of your choice, you get some ecstatic feeling. I have a situation now [that in [various] takes where I know I've absolutely nailed it. I know.

I think that's why I'm still doing it because that's the drug I need. The director says "Cut" and nobody even says, "Lets try it again." They say, "We're over here" and they just walk away because you can't do it again. That for me is what I've learned to do.

Q: How did you avoid drugs all your life and these years in this business?

MC: Well, they weren't there when I was young. It was alcohol. We were all drunks. All the British actors of my time were all bombed out of their minds. I remember seeing a Shakespeare play--I forget what it was--with Trevor Howard and a very old British actor who's a very famous drunk called Wilford Lawson. He was always pissed. I saw a matinee, and they came on--both were very drunk in this Shakespeare play. A member of the audience shouted out, "You're drunk." And Trevor Howard said, "If you think we're drunk, wait until you see The Duke of Buckingham."

Q: You've never been drunk and done a role?

MC: Oh, no, I never drink at work at all. Nothing. I'm very professional. I mean, I can drink. Well, I used to drink vodka like the lads and [go to] discos and piss [off] and all of that stuff, but I mean I'm very, very family oriented. I'm a big cook and a good connoisseur and I only drink very good red wines now.

Q: You've been married for so many years; how are you and your wife Shakira alike and different?

MC: My wife and I are alike in that we're both Pisces and we're both slightly off-the-wall and very gentle people. But we're at different ends of Pisces so she's very, very gentle and I'm the other end, into some serious [stuff]. I forget what it is, but I can be quite tough for a Pisces.

Q: You've said that you met her on a TV commercial.

MC: Well, I didn't meet her, but I saw her on the television, yeah.

Q: And you're still together after all those years.

MC: Yeah, 38 years together, which shows you that I was right, doesn't it? I've seen thousands of beautiful girls on television commercials. Why I went nuts over this one I don't know.

We never watched television in those days. But my best male friend and I, we just stayed in one night from the discos and getting bombed and all of that, and we just had a quiet night in. I cooked some dinner and then we watched the television--we were just going to have a quiet night, get some sleep.

Q: Of all the many actors you've worked with, who have you bonded with the most and stayed in touch with the most?

MC: Sean Connery. That's a bit of a cheat really, because Sean and I were friends anyway before we made the picture. Actors--movie actors--don't see each other again. I've worked with Roger Moore, too, and he's another one that I'm close to.

But even for those... I live in England. One lives in Switzerland and the other lives in the Bahamas. So I never see them. You never see each other. My circle of friends are not actors at all. None of them are actors, really, because they're are not available. They're always off somewhere.

One of my friends was my tailor, one of my best friends, who died of Alzheimer's. Dougie Hayward. Another close friend is Leslie Bricusse who's a composer. He's always where he wants to be and he lives near me in England. There's the photographer Terry O'Neil and a guy called Johnny Gold who had the big London discotheque, Tramp, in the '60s where I used to go and drink vodka.

So you bond with actors and get on with them very well, and then, you don't see them. If you're a leading actor you don't work with another actor. You work with a lady, if you see what I'm saying.

Q: How did you bond with James Bond, so to speak? Did you two meet outside of work?

MC: Oh, yeah.

Q: What was the connection that made you such good friends?

MC: Well, we always were. When I met him, Sean Connery was a chorus boy in South Pacific. What had happened was that [its producers] came to London to do South Pacific and had to have all these American sailors, big tough sailors, singing "There's Nothing Like a Dame." They did auditions with London chorus boys who were not really very butch. They had all these little, skinny guys, and it looked ridiculous when they sang "There's Nothing Like A Dame." So the producer went around to all the gymnasiums and Sean was like Arnold Schwarzenegger. He was Mr. Edinburgh. He was going for Mr. Great Britain and Mr. World. He was a big weightlifter, a great big guy. The opening night of South Pacific was a Thursday and I went to a party on the Saturday night and met him there. He was 24 and I was 22. That's where we met.

Q: What still excites you about the parts you do?

MC: The degree of difficulty and the people that I'm working with. For instance, I like to work with young directors, and I had seen the two films that John [Crowley] made [Intermission and Boy A].

I made another picture [recently], Harry Brown, and saw the one picture that the director Daniel Barber made. I think it was called The Tonto Woman. He got nominated for the [Best Live Action Short] Oscar in 2008 for it and now, this is his first feature. So I like to do that. I mean, even Christopher Nolan was a young director with only two small movies when we did Batman Begins.

Q: Is there a certain kind of fun when you do big tentpole movies like The Prestige or Batman?

MC: Oh, yeah, it's wonderful. I love doing those [kinds of films]. I love working with Christopher Nolan. I think he's a new David Lean, Christopher is. He's extraordinary.

I've seen everything he's ever done. I've worked with him on three pictures and I just think he's the most extraordinary director and has an incredible imagination. Remember, he writes these scripts.

Q: Having worked with him, what do you think about that business that went around about Christian Bale's temper?

MC: Well, I was surprised that Christian did it, because he doesn't have a temper. He's a very quiet man. I can't remember, and I will swear in conversation not in anger, but say things like "Bugger this" and so on. I don't even remember Christian swearing in conversation. So it was a big surprise to me. The fact that he did it is not a surprise to me. If I had been him, I would've done it and I would've done it longer and better than he did.

Q: You have a line in this movie that goes, "There are so many things that I'd like to say and do before the curtain comes down." What's your bucket list?

MC: Unlike [Clarence], I've been very successful. So I was allowed to say and do everything. I don't have any regrets because I'm very optimistic, and live each day as though it's the last. So I don't have any feelings that he would've had about life.

Q: And that's keeps you young and looking great?

MC: Well, I do a lot of exercise.

Q: Do you go to the gym?

MC: No, I'm a walker. I walk about five miles a day and I'm a gardener. If you're a gardener you don't need a gym, I'll tell you. You're always carrying large sacks of manure all over.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Another Tribeca Film Festival Spreads Downtown Throughout the City

Advance Story by Brad Balfour with Eric Lurio

It all started with 9/11 when the planes that hit the twin towers devastated lower Manhattan and one of the wealthier neighborhoods--TRIBECA (the TRIangle BElow CAnal Street). Originally an industrial area, artistic types moved into inexpensive lofts and turned them into luxury housing during the 1970s.

One local resident--megastar actor Robert DeNiro--decided to start a film festival in the area to revive the neighborhood and city. So, in the fall of 2001, mere weeks after the attack, he and producers Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff announced that the first Tribeca Film Festival would happen the following May.

In 2002, the initial Tribeca Film Festival was a major success. Unlike most film festivals in New York City, the emphasis was as much on "festival" as on film, and the event included a rock concert in Battery Park and a children’s street fair.

Now, with the exception of the street fair, the festival has all but abandoned Tribeca itself eight years later. With this year's Tribeca Film Festival--running from April 22nd to May 3rd--most of the screenings take place either in Chelsea or the East Village; and there are a bunch of screenings at the DGA theater on West 57th street (the opening night is at the Ziegfeld Theater on W. 54th St.), miles away from the neighborhood it was originally promoted.

De Niro and company have been trying to create a New York film festival like those in Toronto and Berlin that has an impact on both the entertainment industry and the public at large, something a bit populist, a worthy cause.

With the price at $15 per individual ticket (general screenings prior to 6 pm or after 11 pm are $8, but of course that's doesn't include service charges which depend on how you get tix) there may be problems for attending, especially in this recession. And keep in mind, there are some expensive panels--"Behind the Screens" and "Tribeca Talks"--are $25.

[left: image from Love The Beast] This year, there are only about half the films that were there last year, which may be better idea if these are more hits than misses--plus you usually get the directors and cast doing Q & As after the screenings. And the free outdoor films--The Drive-In--are going to be at the World Financial Center Plaza, so no one has to cross the West Side Highway as in the past.

There are free things as well: a couple of panels--and some at the Apple Store in Soho--plus the aforementioned Drive-In. And there's the one event that actually takes place in Tribeca--the Family street fair on Greenwich between Hubert and Chambers Street.

But most people come here for the movies, so there are 45 World Premieres,15 North American Premieres, 12 New York Premieres, Five International Premieres and Three U.S. Premieres. If you go, The fest has lots of new films to see.

[left: image--Kobe Doin' Work] The festival is divided up into the following categories: The Galas (which includes the opening night film, Woody Allen's "Whatever Works"--to be seen at midtown's Ziegfeld; Spike Lee’s “Kobe Doin' Work” and the Nia Vardalos starrer “My Life In Ruins”) World Narrative Competition; World Documentary Competition; Encounters; Showcase; Midnight; Restored/Rediscovered; Shorts; and the ESPN Sports Film Festival track.

Then there are other things like panel discussions for those who are into the mechanics of filmmaking and the issues surrounding it; they have famous people talking about the craft which is always more fun to see live than on screen. Plus, there just all those people that come to town to remind us that NYC is Hollywood East!

For more infomation--check out the website or call (646) 502-5296

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Q & A: Actors Sienna Miller And Peter Sarsgaard Explore "The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh"

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

Somewhat like her character in Mysteries In Pittsburg--the alluring classical violinist Jane Bellwether--Sienna Miller is a compelling, straightforward person who makes no bones about what she's about and how she handles her life in the spotlight. Her fellow cast member Peter Sarsgaard, who, like his character, the seductive Cleveland Arning, can be this wry, almost snarky, individual who, in a rapid-fire manner, replies as playfully to questions as much as he answers them.

In a sense, they replicate the experience of meeting their cinematic alter-egos in this celluloid approximation of Michael Chabon's debut novel Mysteries of Pittsburg. While novice director Rawson Marshall Thurber makes a valiant, though flawed, attempt to render this story of just-graduated college student Art Bechstein--played by Jon Foster [who wasn't available for this interview]--son of gangland boss Joe The Egg Bechstein (Nick Nolte), who struggles to break away from his father's suffocating demands before he's forced into a job he doesn't want. during that summer in 1983, he works in a bookstore, repeatedly screws his attractive but clingy boss Phlox (Mena Suvari) and then meets provocative Jane and Cleveland in this coming-of-age story set in Pittsburgh--all against his dad's wishes.

Thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chabon's support, Thurber (who wrote Dodgeball) fulfilled a 10-year obsession to get this novel adapted as a film. For Sarsgaard, he got to play the meaty role of a doomed, off-beat provocateur; he understands such parts. After all, the 38-year-old Illinois-born actor has tackled such difficult, or even nasty, characters in Jarhead, Rendition and Boys Don't Cry.

For Miller, this film's release adds to a cycle of films she made one after another (from Alfie, to Layer Cake, to Factory Girl and more), that she hopes, will deflect attention away from her celeb status and place it squarely on her career efforts.

And in a world fraught with such dire events as the Taliban executing a couple for trying to elope, a film that offers a touch of enlightenment is worth talking about (with a small crew of journos) and writing about as well.

Q: Peter, you have your beard--but this was shot more than two years ago.

PS: This is [because] I just went canoeing in the Everglades and just got back and I didn't shave down there.

Q: Does canoeing in the Everglades save the Everglades?

PS: Do you think it saves the Everglades if I canoe in them and talk about it?

Q: Did you see tons of alligators...

PS: And crocodiles and sharks and dolphins and bald eagles and spoonbills and flamingos. I saw two bald eagles.

Q: Have you been to the Everglades as well?

SM: I have not been to the Everglades, no. It sounds amazing, but I've been to Pittsburgh. We both have.

Q: What was it like shooting in Pittsburgh?

SM: It was great.

PS: Totally great. Pittsburgh is obviously a city that's undergoing huge changes in the last couple of years since the mills closed. It's really become this extraordinary city. It's so clean. I was never there when the air was not clean, but it's just this gorgeous city if you love green and rivers...

SM: The bridge when you go in is stunning.

PS: It's fantastic. It kind of opens up this whole thing.

Q: Can you explain about your characters' relationship in this film; is it doomed even before one of you is doomed?

PS: Well, it's only doomed if you have expectations for what it might be, I guess. They're doomed to get married...

SM: It's a destructive relationship.

PS: Oh, it's not that destructive.

SM: No, but the character of Cleveland is one of those people that's very magnetic and very drawn to you, but ultimately can't be tamed in a way.

Q: Was your character conscious of that and just couldn't let go?

SM: Well, she talks about it.

Q: But was she honest with herself about it?

SM: I think she was very in love and very blinded by that.

Q: What about his bisexuality. do you think it really matters in their relationship--is she bisexual, too?

SM: I don't think she is. I think from the scene where she discovers it, it's obvious that she was hurt. I don't think that I alluded to being bisexual in the film as a character or in life, but hopefully that scene says it all. Her reaction to seeing that is one of hurt.

PS: Cleveland's bisexuality, it even seems like a funny word to call it that, but it is.

Q: Peter, you can call it something else?

PS: It's like he's an omnivore. If someone else went and filled up my plate and put whatever they wanted on it, I would eat the entire thing. It's about appetite. And the beautiful thing about him is that he doesn't have any shame about any of it. It's just the way he is and it's just the way he wants to live.

In his head, he might even think that all of his behavior, including his bisexuality, is pretty mythic, pretty awesome, pretty rock-and-roll because he's living in his own fantasy of a thing. It's like, did his heroes have bisexual relationships? Sure. Did they have heterosexual ones? Sure. They did all those things.

Q: Sienna, was your character aware that he was bisexual prior to seeing him with another man?

SM: I don't think she was or if she was I don't think she chose to acknowledge it.

Q: She's trying to warn the other friend, Art, though, that he has an explosive persona.

SM: Yeah, I think she warns him that you can't change him, that this is who he is and he's very much staying with his own personality. But again, when the image she's confronted with, that image of them in bed is, I think, [is of] massive hurt. Not necessarily because he's with a guy, but [it's] hurt because the two people she loves the most in the world have betrayed her. Also, he sleeps with other women. I think she's not naïve [about that].

PS: If it had been another woman would Jane have been upset the same amount or more upset?

SM: Well, there was also the scene where you [Cleveland] is sleeping with another women. I don't think it was necessarily about--I'm sure she was probably shocked that you two were in bed together--but it was more the betrayal of the two people she loved and trusted most [who] had done this to her.

Q: Do you think we're living in a time when it's impossible to be shocked at anything we see onscreen anymore?

PS: Oh, if your goal is to shock people with your movie then, you know…like [see] I Stand Alone. Did you ever see that movie? I found it pretty harrowing and shocking.

SM: Or Irreversible.

PS: Irreversible. That's by the same director [Gaspar Noe], I think.

SM: Yes, exactly. Oh, my God. I couldn't watch it. I was traumatized. I think that people like to feign shock because it's what you're supposed to do, but actually deep down it's not that shocking. Irreversible and I Stand Alone is shocking, brutal and brilliant. But two men in a scene is actually not shocking.

Q: Did you find that you guys used the [Michael] Chabon book or that you wanted to stay away with it?

PS: My character had been so combined between two characters that the book was confusing to me. I read the book out of curiosity, but I read it after I'd read the script and decided to do the movie. So it was like, "Oh, I wonder if there is anything in there."

But sometimes I would think, "Oh well, I guess anything is okay to use." But if you read the book, it's unclear who Cleveland is exactly in [it].

SM: After I'd agreed to do the film, I read the book again, and I loved it and I actually did get some more insight into who [Jane] was from Chabon's point of view. But then he was very much involved in the film process and the script. So any evolutions that it made he'd approved and was content with.

Q: What did you get out of playing this character? What was the appeal? Aren't you doing a big summer movie like Gi Joe: The Rise of Cobra too?

SM: I've historically always been drawn towards and gravitated to the smaller movies, independent films. That's kind of where I've always been and that's my comfort zone. Doing something like GI Joe was just a new experience and after that I'm going on Broadway in the fall.

I think for me it's the ability to hop between all different types of genres to figure out what I love. I think honestly I'm more comfortable doing these roles and that they tend to be the films that I prefer watching personally, but the experience of making a film like GI Joe is so different and fun in it's own way.

Q: Do you play a soldier in that?

SM: No. I play a villain.

Q: So you're a bad girl?

SM: Well, I'm a villain with guns, rifles, black leather, black wigs and gadgets.

PS: I'm first [one] in line!

Q: Did you work out your characters together before each scene or did that happen more spontaneously?

PS: There was no working out of anything.

SM: We tend to approach [it] the same way. Show up and jump.

Q: There's a fourth character in the book. Did you find that the movie changed a lot by not having that character?

PS: To be honest with you the book is kind of a distant memory for me. Rawson [Marshall Thurber, the director] took liberties with the book. Michael Chabon, it's huge of him; [he] was very agreeable to that. It really was about the script and not the book.

SM: But in essence you come away from the film and the book with the same feeling.

Q: Which is... sadness or astonishment?

SM: Which is a nostalgia and sadness, yeah. I cried at the end of the book. I haven't [yet] seen the film.

PS: I was about to go into a reverie that no one would find very interesting [laughs].

Q: Peter, your character is described at the very onset as a lunatic and you've just referred to him as a omnivore. Did you take the hint that he's kind of crazy and self-destructive?

PS: I didn't take any of it that literally at all. To be honest with you, when I thought about playing this character the things that came to mind were like the image of Julian Schnabel holding onto like a big piece of chicken and sitting in front of a huge fireplace.

SM: In like his dressing gown.

PS: In his dressing gown. The jazz musician Ornette Coleman wears these blazers that always have primary colors on them. He just has this style that I've always been fascinated with. I don't wear things like that in the movie though I did wear one blazer in honor of that.

But I was searching for this guy that had transcended even what it meant to live in Pittsburgh, that there was no relationship between him and that time. The way that I look in the movie came from something that he had really dreamed up, that he was trying to become something that was in his mind.

There have been a lot of great artists like that. It's too bad he didn't play an instrument or something because a lot of great artists are like that. Like Andy Warhol came from Pittsburgh, but where did he get the whole thing? It came from him mind.

SM: Do you know actually, about Warhol, that his mother used to feed him on Heinz baked beans and in every cupboard there were rows and rows of beans. This is true. I've studied a lot [about] Andy Warhol. He got inspiration from the mundane.

PS: His hair. Where did he come up with the style and the whole thing? That's from his mind.

Q: You've both played bohemian characters before. What's your attraction to that type of character?

SM: I don't know if Jane was that bohemian in this film. I think she's in love with someone who's very bohemian and she's experimenting as people do when they're growing up and discovering things about themselves. But in essence she plays the violin. She wants to go to college. She's trying to setup her own life and isn't a bohemian. I have played bohemians.

PS: I wouldn't call her bohemian at all.

SM: No, I wouldn't either, but maybe we just bring an element of being bohemian into our characters because we are.

Q: Your bohemian-ism seems to inform the characters.

PS: With internet isn't everyone bohemian now? Everyone knows everything. I mean, my dad grew up in West Point, Mississippi, a town of just a few thousand people on the border of Alabama and my dad has been doing this photo project of people in the East Village that he calls bohemians. So my dad says, "I'm photographing bohemians." To him it's like going to the zoo. It's like amazing. It's like, "A bohemian. A poet. Look at this person."

You would have to be that sheltered to not have ever been exposed to that stuff and think that it was other. I think it's been so incorporated into the way that we live that every kid knows of Allen Ginsberg if they want to. But it's not even Allen Ginsberg. Look at their heroes, they're all bohemians.

Q: What was your attraction to this role?

SM: I went through this year of working back to back to back and I didn't want to stop.

Q: What did you start that year with?

SM: I started that year with… Oh, God, I can't even remember. I just know that I think I'd done, or no Factory Girl was done.

PS: You'd just done Factory Girl or it was just being cut as we were filming.

SM: Was it? Oh, yes. I'd done Factory Girl, Interview, something else I don't remember, this and it was just this crazy year of work and I just wanted to keep on working. I'd always really admired Peter. I had actually read an interview with Peter in The New York Times Magazine and thought that he was extraordinary as an actor and as a person. So I really wanted the opportunity to work with him.

PS: And I respond extremely well to that kind of flattery.

Q: What about the erotically-charged film you did with Keira Knightley?

SM: That was after, yeah. I think that I did something after this. The Edge of Love was a year and a half ago. This was two and a half years ago.

Q: Was Casanova before Gi Joe your lastest...

SM: It goes... Layer Cake, Alfie, Casanova and then Factory Girl into something else, this [I think]. I'm just trying to work it out. I can't remember. It's awful.

PS: It's not awful. Nobody remembers anything.

Q: Do you feel like you've gotten the focus back on you, Sienna Miller, The Actress, rather than the tabloid stuff?

SM: It's very hard for people. I think the media comes up with what they want you to be and there's very little you can do to change that. I can do several other things in my life that won't be documented because it doesn't sell newspapers. So they will document or create [what they want].

PS: They won't take pictures of me being an ass. They just won't print them. It doesn't matter. I can walk down the street, pushing the baby carriage, smoking a cigarette, propositioning a hooker and no one takes a picture of it.

SM: Your irony or sarcasm will actually translate to print. Mine somehow gets very lost in translation.

Q: To change the subject, both of you have done theater. Do you have a ritual before going onstage that you're superstitiously do?

PS: No. I have a practical one. I use the toilet, but every actor does that.

SM: I generally just sort of quiver and shake going into a complete, "Why have I done this? I can't do this" moment.

Q: Do you cry every performance or just on opening night?

SM: I get incredibly nervous, but that's something, a quality in some actors that you like putting yourself through hell like that.

Q: Peter, you're going to do a benefit for an organization that works with children who stutter?

PS: I am because I just worked with Austin Pendelton who's a stutterer and has used it to fabulous effect in his career. He talks about getting jammed on a word and how freeing that can be. Do you know his work? He's an incredible, incredible, incredible actor and director. Just a ferocious director.

Honest, [Sienna] you would love acting with this guy. I'm going to it, honestly, because he asked me to. He directed Uncle Vanya. And he teaches acting.

Q: And what about Broadway?

SM: I'm doing a Patrick Marber play in the fall with The Roundabout Theater. After Miss Julie. The adaptation is from [August] Strindberg's Miss Julie that's been done at The Donmar in London. Me and Johnny Lee Miller at the moment. It's [just] three people in the cast. I'm playing Miss Julie in that.

Q: The dominatrix?

SM: The dominatrix? No. I think it's far more complicated than that. She's absolutely not a dominatrix.

PS: She's a dominatrix. He's bisexual.

Q: When do you start the run?

SM: We start rehearsals the 20th of August. We open the 22nd of October and I'm doing it until the 14th of December, but I think just extended.

Q: What characters have you not played that you would like to play?

SM: There's nothing specific. I don't have a list of things. There are eras that I'm fascinated with. I know when I'm doing a film I really research the time. I'd love to do something in the '20s around Scott and Zelda [Fitzgerald]. All of that I'm fascinated by. I'd love to do a real period [film], but way back, a medieval type thing. I'm a big fan of history.

PS: When I'm a little older, I really want to play Col. Vershinin from Three Sisters by [Anton] Chekhov. Maggie [Gyllenhaal, Peter's wife] and I did Uncle Vanya this year and we're talking about it. It was so nice performing together in a theater that only has two hundred people max, one hundred ninety nine that there's no effort to sell.

It will never be something that transfers. It will never be a commercial product and we've always wanted to act together, but it's hard to do a movie together as a couple and then watch it bomb. How many couples have you seen do that and how horrible that must feel for them.

For us, we didn't know whether people loved it or hated it. We just knew that it was filled every night and they clapped and we didn't read the reviews. We just went home and we felt fantastic and we just want to do that as much as possible.

Q: Do you prefer the stage more than film?

PS: I do like acting onstage more, but there's a craft to acting on film and it's very cool. I really like acting. So when you're doing a stage play you do tons of acting. Every night you act straight for two hours straight, plus and then you do it again. It feels good.

SM: I think there's nothing like the feeling of live theater, but people then, if you do a play, say, "Oh, that's real acting." And I've done work in film where it felt very much like real acting. It's just a different technique. But the buzz of being onstage with a live audience is kind of unbeatable. Anything can go wrong.

I've gotten terrible giggles onstage and incorporated it somehow into a Shakespeare heavy scene and it worked. You just have to absolutely jump and go with your instincts. Anything can happen and I get a kick out of that.

Q: What happened to you playing Maid Marian in Robin Hood?

SM: The script has been evolving and changing and it often happens in films. They've been trying to make this for a couple of years. They've rewritten the script and needed someone who was older. I think now the husband, the person who plays the husband has been away for 10 years at war and comes back and it's feasible.

So Cate Blanchett is doing it. But this happens everyday. It's just the media doesn't make quite as much of a meal of it as they do when it happens to me, but this happens all the time. I'm sure it'll be a wonderful project and this is not an absolutely shocking thing to happen in the movie industry when scripts evolve. Casts change. Other people have also been changed in that cast, but they just were not documented.

Q: Were you disappointed?

SM: No. It happens everyday. I would obviously love to work with Ridley [Scott], but I hope to in the future.

Q: Peter, In the Electric Mist only came out in English as a DVD?

PS: In The Electric Mist has two versions. It does. It has the European version and the American version. The European version is the one that Betrand Tavernier, the director, wants everyone to know is his version. It is one that would not appeal to most American audiences, or might not. Who knows. But there are two versions of the film. I've seen neither.

Q: You're good as the alcoholic movie star, Peter. You're poking fun...

SM: See, with him it's good. With me it wouldn't be poking fun.

Q: Of all those movies what's your favorite role that you've done in this period?

SM: I loved doing Edie [Sedgwick].

Q: Is there a place in the world that you want to visit?

SM: So, so many. Easter Island--I'd like to go see it before I die.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Q & A: Versatile Actor Craig Bierko Bets On A Revived Guys And Dolls

Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour

What uncanny timing for a revival of Guys And Dolls. Based on gritty writer Damon Runyon's Depression-era short stories (and one in particular, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown"), this version appears set in the Great Depression, peopled by characters of questionable morality struggling to survive, maybe thrive, and--while generally avoiding it on the surface--to find love and commitment in the midst of it all.

So it must be tough to be in a show that's gotten mixed reviews after you've worked so hard to realize your character, hammering away at learning the songs, hitting the right note (musically and theatrically), all the while getting the wry tone in place. And this isn't for just any musical. It's for one of the greatest Broadway shows of all time, one shadowed by the spectre of the late Marlon Brando--one of the greatest actors of all time. Brando played, if not the definitive version of Sky Masterson in the 1955 Samuel Goldwyn Company film version, then, essentially, a unique one.

With all that in mind, Guys And Dolls could come off as dated, a bit cranky and crusty, or even over-scrubbed if rendered in a too-sanitized fashion. That's not so much the case here, because veteran director Des McAnuff (his hit Jersey Boys got its period right) strives, though not entirely succeeds, in serving up both "a simultaneously razzmatazz and tawdry affair," as Theatermania's reviewer put it.

Armed with Frank Loesser's grand lyrics and score, and the dead-on book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, this show guns for grit and sentiment in "a mythic New York where a kind of perpetual sense of hopefulness exists, even when things are at their worst."

And that's where a solid New York theater veteran like Craig Bierko comes in. Since this version was cast with two neophytes to Broadway musicals--Oliver Platt (Nathan Detroit) and Lauren Graham (Adelaide)--it needed the strong broad experienced shoulders of the 6'4" Bierko to lend support to this production. Along with Kate Jennings Grant (playing Sarah Brown of the "Save a Soul" Mission), Bierko (as gambler Sky Masterson) delivers some of the most seductive, time-tested love tunes of the show.

With his 25 years of experience, from delivering a Tony and Drama Desk Award nominated performance as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man to his stint on Boston Legal (as Jeff Coho), the square-jawed Bierko was a sensible choice to be in this show (currently playing at the Nederlander Theater). And certainly a smart choice of actor to be interviewed about the state of Broadway and the world in this exclusive Q & A.

Q: This show has a dramatic element to it that enhances it as a musical.

CB: It's deceptive. It's a spoonful of sugar. Aside from what I think is a brilliantly talented handful of co-stars that I'm blessed with, I think the reason you appreciated it was because [of director] Des McAnuff, whose directing was very sure handed, and realizes we've been handed the keys to a Ferrari.

This musical works, and is as close to perfect as an American musical can be. The mistake that a lot of people make with musicals when they come over here is, they'll take a Ferrari and paint flames on it and think it's going to go faster. There's an argument that you're actually slowing it down.

To extend the metaphor, [McAnuff] doesn't paint flames on a Ferrari, he repaves the track--the things he's done with the LED screen, the things he's done with casting choices, and also making sure that with each character he's lifted out a specific attribute, which is usually, what does this person want? How has it been working for them so far? Where's the point where they realize they're completely wrong, and if they don't change their way of thinking, they're going to be alone the rest of their lives?

That's the subliminal message being sent through this musical, and it's a message that every human being over 30 can relate to. Everybody's been all four of the main characters. Everybody's been running from somebody, been running after somebody, or had a childish preoccupation that they have had to give up. There are even people who've hidden behind morality and discovered, like Sarah, that they're truly just hiding from the world, and that God isn't impressed.

In my opinion, Adelaide and Nathan are two of a kind. It's easy for me to say--I'm not playing them. They're idiots, they're morons. But they're two of a kind, so it's sweet. They're made out of lead. They're very sweet, they love each other very much, they're operators and schemers, and they're lower rung.

Sky and Sarah are also two of a kind. The interesting thing to me, and the reason why this thing is ahead of its time--it was written [in the] late '40s or '50s [the first Broadway opening was November 1950]--she's hiding behind the Bible, he's hiding behind this code of being a sharpie, and they're both prevented from making contact with other human beings. It's almost like God is saying: "I created the world, but I don't need you to sing to me on Sundays; I'd rather you use that day to connect with other human beings."

Q: Did it makes sense to revive it now because of the times?

CB: Maybe that's true but a good play is a good play. It's a great story, so rich and compelling. It's a masterpiece and stands up any time you do it. I don't think there's a time not to do a great play, though certainly there are times not to do horrible plays. And to go back to the Ferrari metaphor, it's always nice to see a beautiful car take a couple spins around the track.

Q: This play has a relevant theme, besides just the ever-relevant theme of romance--especially if you put it into the context of the '30s. People turned to crime because, what other options were there? To put that on a Broadway stage during the '50s was a radical thing. Now, it's not so radical. We've had lots of plays about the dark side of life: Gypsy, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, even Sweeney Todd.

CB: Every single play you've mentioned, they've come back and somebody brilliant has reinvented that play, and, largely, it's fallen flat. That's because these are American musicals--that is, a light presentation; it is fluff pastry with a meat center. The minute you put the meat on the outside, it falls apart, it doesn't work. The whole recipe falls apart.

You don't need to talk about gangsters and Depression and all that stuff. You can imply that stuff. But what people are responding to is: "I'm so afraid of being alone, even with this person I'm with, I'm afraid of being alone."

Q: But it was the idea that even gangsters have those feelings--that's what was fresh--The Sopranos of its day.

CB: People love to be told stories, but it's the sugar that draws you into the theater. This is a spiritual play. This is a play, let's face it, that was put mostly together by Jews. I wouldn't necessarily say this is a Christian play, although it uses the mission church, but it is about God. These were men of God. I don't think they were atheists. This is a deeply spiritual play.

Sky Masterson--Obadiah [Sky's birth name], by the way, is the guy in the Bible who leads everybody to God--goes down into the sewer, into Hell, to find the sinners. He bares himself, throws out all of his material stuff on one bet; he may have lost the bet, but he's willing to do that. He's willing to walk away from everything because he just wants to connect with God. Maybe I was going too far because I got excited about connecting the dots here that I went: Sky Masterson, Sky Masterson... Sky Master's son. That was the point where Des went, "Don't go nuts on me!"

And that's the novelist Damon Runyon, [whose stories] the play is based on. If you break the elements down, it's a witnessing event. The moment at the end of "Luck Be a Lady," the first day, Des said, "I've never seen this before and I've always wanted to see it: I don't want you to sing it to the guys, I want you to sing it right to--it could be God or whatever you believe in--and I want you on your knees."'

So I said, "Des, they're going to laugh." And he said, "Maybe some will, but I'm not interested in them." He was absolutely certain that this man needed to be brought to his knees.

I really fought him on it right into previews. You don't hear anything, so you don't know what people are responding to. There hadn't been a laugh. I can't know what people are responding to, but I know, in my own work, connecting my own dots to the story, not only was he right, it was necessary, and I can't imagine it any other way.

This is a spiritual story. This is a story about men and women being broken down to their bare essence, to the part of them that is God. This is a man who's in Hell, who's not only saying, "help me," but "help these guys get out of here; I'm going to give you everything." And that's what's happening. That's from the Bible.

Q: Runyon's stories were about down and dirty, grounded-in-reality characters. This play gives these characters an ambiguous humanity, which traditionally hadn't been seen with such characters. You don't always get that when you take the songs out of context, but when you put them back in context, you really appreciate the songs in a very different way.

CB: We're saying the same thing. I'm even digging a little deeper in saying once you get to these guys... What makes gangsters and Huffington Post writers the same? We're all in the fucking sewer. And maybe we do have a guy who's guiding us, leading us and inspiring us to give up an enormous amount to get out of the sewer.

There's a very basic human story churning on: people sink down, and then they get inspired again. It's human nature. This story reminds us that it's okay. That's what you're down here to do: you're going to sink down, and then... What's your reaction time? How long before you get out of the sewer? Once you're older than 40, are you doing something to help the other guys who are having trouble? That's what the play is about for me: save yourself, and grab two guys. Try. If they slip out of your hands, at least you tried.

Q: That's why the gospel scene--"Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat"--works so well.

CB: By the time that scene comes, it's an orgasm. There's a reason why Sky leaves the room. Tituss Burgess is amazingly talented; that's a great vessel to send that song through. Now we're a church--we actually brought church to the Broadway stage.

The reason people are reacting is because something has been released inside of them, and they're flying. The people who are open to something better, it's a great play for people to be experiencing at any point. But it's also like you said, especially now, because we're at that point in America where we're going to go through something tough, and once we do it we're going to be very happy we did it. And maybe we won't go back to the sewer again.

Q: All Broadway show characters, especially musicals, are "ratcheted up" They're not a real people, they're mythological persons. To make that real on stage is tough.

CB: The joy of it for me is, it's an opportunity to say, "Hey, I'm having this experience. Do you recognize this? Isn't this weird sometimes? Isn't this scary? Does this make you sad? Are you scared of this?"

That's the joy I get. You can feel that coming off an audience. Usually in the first few rows you can see the people's faces. You can see them reacting or not reacting to certain moments. I don't use that to drive what it is I'm doing but when you have that moment of connection, it's not in the words. It's in the behavior of somebody realizing--you can feel them kind of with you. It feels like what we're doing right now: human beings talking, souls rubbing up against each other. It's positive.

Q: What is it that makes us who we are or where are we in the world? Sometimes when you get a chance to talk and think about it, you're really getting in touch with it. That's what that experience of theater is: you have an encapsulated human process at work in this sort of abbreviated but hyper reality.

CB: My fear is, you buy a ticket and you go on a ride for something like that, and you have the Guys and Dolls experience, and from the very first note you're like, "Oh," and then you literally feel like you're on a ride.

Hopefully, you're fortunate to have someone like Des McAnuff as your ringmaster, so you're in good hands. He's certainly known as an impresario, a man who's in control of traffic. He's in the middle of what's going to be a long career. I suspect as it goes it along people are going to recognize him as a genius.

There are a lot of people who can pull levers and visualize and blurry the lines between film and stage and have you feel like you're moving through New York--that's all very exciting. What he did do is, he looked at this play, and Des's vision of the play is complete.

He has very strong personalities to work with in myself, Oliver Platt, or Lauren Graham. And they didn't agree on some things sometimes.

I look at Oliver as Muhammad Ali. It's his first musical. He's fearless and he's staying in there. There's a lot of actors who, because it wasn't in their wheelhouse naturally, would've backed off, shrunk away, and ended up in the corner. Whereas Muhammad Ali is one of those rare people who just stands up and gets right back in and ends up winning the fight, knowing that they're probably going to die going into the center of the ring. You just get up and you go anyway.

It's kinesthetic--the stuff I learn from Oliver. We're both fairly intelligent guys, and we can sit over coffee and we have a lot in common, we have friends in common. I've known Oliver off and on for close to 15 years--never worked with him, always been an admirer.

My conversation with Oliver is purely physical. I've watched his adjustments and it's made me braver as an actor. Not because of what he's saying or doing specifically, because the characters are different and our wheelhouses are different. But just the fact that he was starting at point A and he's getting to point Z is rare. I know what he had to do to get there, I've watched it every day, and I know that the bravery he had to summon, and really do it, and is in the midst of doing it.

And when I say that 98% of the actors I've seen don't have the balls to do what he's doing, forget the talent. If your natural inclination is to talk softly, which is what he does, and to have to play [in a loud voice] one of these guys, and be on stage for three hours and be one of these guys in an ice skating rink where you're not accustomed to ice skating--and there are blades under you so if you trip you're going to get cut--Oliver needed to go through this process in order to come around to the performance. In a very real way, Oliver has had to stretch himself as an actor. It's an extraordinarily inspiring thing to see, and it's rare.

A lot of actors like to talk about it because it's interesting interview meat, but I've been doing this for 25 years and I can count on two fingers the time I've actually seen people do and pull off what Oliver is doing. Everything he's doing complements every aspect of the production. He's the engine.

Q: Did you and Oliver talk about Ron Howard? Both of you have that ground in common since he was directed by Howard in Frost/Nixon and you were directed by him in Cinderella Man.

CB: Only in the sense that we were both pleasantly surprised when we met Ron Howard and were like, "Oh, he's just what Ron Howard would be like!" He's just a very nice, hard working, industrious guy.

Q: So did you guys talk about Frost/Nixon at all? Did you get to see it?

CB: I did see it. I thought it was very good. Oliver is always great. I'm always happy when Oliver's face pops up on screen. He has such a unique face. I had just watched the actual interviews before I saw the movie. I'm a YouTube junkie--they're fascinating. But no, Oliver and I hadn't talked much but Guys and Dolls the past month and a half.

Q: It's an interesting mix: Graham is known for television; Platt, for film. But you and Kate Jennings Grant are the Broadway vets. You see what they're going through, because they have to rise to that challenge that you can understand. Lauren Graham was a surprise, finding out that she can sing and dance. That was a pretty impressive display. Were you surprised yourself?

CB: No. First of all, I don't dance. When I did The Music Man, I called Susan Strohman a couple hours after she hired me and told her that I don't dance. "You didn't audition me as a dancer." She said, "I know." And I told her, "Well, I'm just telling you I don't stand up very fast, so I'm not kidding with you." And she just knew. She said, "Don't worry, just come ready to work." And she worked me and I've never worked that hard.

That's the thing: these people work hard, they work harder than most people. I don't know how much of a dancer Lauren was, but she started working out in Los Angeles before rehearsals even started. She's extremely dedicated. I never saw Gilmore Girls, so I don't think of her as a TV star, I just think of her as this girl Lauren. But when she walks out onstage and you hear all the Barbie dolls screaming, you realize, apparently she did a television show. My nieces are going to be so nervous around her. But I just see her as my friend Lauren who's doing this part. And she's incredible.

Q: Do you want to do something where you're much more of a comic?

CB: One of the reasons [Guys and Dolls] is a success is because Oliver and Lauren are funny, but those are funny parts. Kate Jennings Grant is hilarious, and that part has always been the one you forget while you're watching it. It's always been Bud Abbott in a dress. And she's hilarious; she's light, a knockout, she's extremely generous on stage, which is not always the case with actors. You can leave a stage with invisible bite marks that nobody in the audience is ever aware of; somebody is just tearing you apart on stage. She's not that person. I only met her for the first time at the audition. I get text messages from her every night just saying, "I feel so lucky."

Q: It's interesting, that you never thought of yourself as a dancer yet you did The Music Man and was nominated for a Tony Award.

CB: That was a beautiful production. Yeah, before that, I didn't dance. Before Cinderella Man, I didn't box. But I boxed. It's possible. You go and you work hard at things.

Q: So you had to train for that?

CB: Six months.

Q: So you really had to be able to be in that ring then?

CB: Yeah.

Q: So do you have to be really almost boxing each other?

CB: Well, there were some loose hits, they were genuine mistakes. [Russell Crowe] is a fantastic actor, very responsible. It's dancing. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could've knocked each other out. We weren't doing anything different than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were doing, just faster and with our arms. But it was dancing, and it was highly choreographed.

Q: So did you always know you were going to be an actor?

CB: Yeah, but I don't feel like one. Just at the point I got this play, I happened to be going through a period when I thought: this is silly, getting up and leaping around in Ferngully like this at the age of 44. And I thought, what am I doing? What is this world?

A lot of actors I had worked with seemed mentally unbalanced. It's only a matter of time before I go nuts myself. Around that time, and for a few years now, I never felt quite like what I figured an actor should feel like. I don't know that any actor does. I think feeling displaced or slightly removed is what an artist feels like.

Naturally I've always felt more like a writer myself, and I've always written. I have people who are writers who've been promoting that side of me. I also draw, too. Those things I feel most comfortable in. I don't know why, but as soon as I started doing this, I came around to thinking that the art that you actually do practice, maybe you don't feel entirely uncomfortable.

There's a wonderful book by David Mamet called True or False. I'll boil it down for you: most of the mythos that surrounds acting--this implied importance, usually generated by actors themselves--is bullshit. Not only are you not curing cancer, but there's an argument that in certain circumstances you're probably causing it!

I don't know exactly what acting is. I don't think it's not a noble profession. there are people who are good at it, even geniuses at it. I look at what some people do and I don't know how they can do that, how they can access that fury of emotion. But I'm not entirely sure what it is.

I also don't think it's that important, quite frankly. It's as important as being served a delicious meal and then putting too much emphasis on the silverware. Guys and Dolls is the meal and we're the silverware, essentially.

Q: Being able to do something like this and also being able to have an experience that people can have and share with their friends--that may be the cream that makes the coffee worthwhile.

CB: I suppose so. It does feel like cream though. In this experience, for example--reading this article, which I hope people do--it's not my experience with this that seems interesting to me, or any of the other people on stage romping around and having a great time.

The real fascinating thing to me is the guy I want to talk to, Abe Burrows--these guys pounded this piece of genius into shape 50 or 60 years ago. I read the book, and realized that this play didn't fall out of the sky. These people actually didn't know whether they had a bomb or not.

If you look at the construction of this play it's almost different from any other musical. It's scene, scene, scene, clump of song, clump of song, scene, scene, clump of songs. If you look at it on paper, it doesn't work.

Q: With the economy, will they be able to get the audiences into theaters?

CB: I know it's been doing really well. I know the word of mouth has been very positive. But I don't know the future better than anybody else does. I'm having a hell of a time.

I don't read reviews. Not that I don't have respect for reviewers, because I read reviews for other pieces that I want to learn about, and there's some very good reviewers. Some are mean, but that doesn't mean that they don't know their way around the review and you can't learn something from them.

But in terms of being the artist, I feel it's irresponsible to go by the opinion of someone who's observed your one responsibility. It gets difficult around preview time, and not everybody can do it. You listen to your director all the way through, he is your guide. There will be times when you don't trust him, and you may or may not come around, but he is your guide and you don't listen to any other voices.

Q: I haven't been to a musical in a long time where the people stand up and give you an ovation at the end. That's pretty impressive.

CB: Very gratifying.

Q: Do you have a list of which directors or actors you'd like to work with?

CB: When I had my meeting with Ron Howard, I was thinking, yeah, I'd love to work with Ron Howard. But I don't sit there thinking, "Boy, I'd love to work with Ron Howard one day."

You know who I'd love to work with? The Marx Brothers. It's probably not going to happen!

I love Fred Willard. I love Fred for the same reason I love W.C. Fields, and Groucho [Marx]. Fred Willard discovered something that nobody has ever done--it is a completely unique comic voice. And you can say, 'Well, no, he's the dumb guy who thinks his IQ is 17 points higher than it actually is, and there are people who have done that.' But they haven't done that with his rhythm, and not with what he does.

You can tell someone is great when they keep popping up in stuff that's beneath them. Most of the material can't rise to his talent, which is why you realize that people like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields, or Buster Keaton--these guys from yesterday created material to suit this thing they invented.

If Don Knotts' career had happened 30 years previously, I think he would have been as big as any of them. He was doing something that was completely unique. But because he wasn't a writer, he was kind of a slave, like Stan Laurel. That's another one I want to work with, Stan Laurel! I want to have him explain to me how to solve the problem that I always have of picking something off the desk.

I imagine it all the time. When you have a comic problem, you think, what would W.C. Fields do? Well, whatever it is he would do, he wouldn't be doing this. He'd probably get thirteen laughs out of this thing I'm trying to make happen.

Q: Are you going to continue Bathing with Bierko, your strangely comical series of web interviews?

CB: There are a few outlets that want me to. That was shot back in Los Angeles, and I would want to use that bathtub because it was perfect. That's the set, that's the Tonight Show set. That's Carrie Fisher's bathtub, which used to be Bette Davis' bathtub. And it's a little too small for me, so it's actually perfect. People want to do it, but it wouldn't happen for another year or so.

Q: Who is on your list to interview in the bathtub? I won't steal any bathtub contenders.

CB: It doesn't matter, I won't tell you anyway. It's usually somebody who won't do something like that who's on the list. That's why it takes time to put the list together. The people who wouldn't normally do something like that won't do that. Every once in awhile, you go up to somebody and they surprise you--like John Malkovich, who goes, "of course, why wouldn't I?"

Q: Did you interview Carrie Fisher in her bathtub?

CB: No. We're trying to figure out how to do women, it's a little trickier. No bubbles, though. That's like underwear with hearts on it, it can't be funny. It's the awkwardness that people respond to. And it's less awkward with a woman. It's mostly awkward with two straight men. That's one of the elements, that's what we discovered makes it key. And to me it's not even funny, it's just awkward, which is funny. But you've got to get to awkward before funny.

Q: What was your experience like with Boston Legal?

CB: My experience was that they create the illusion of the greatest, most fun place to work, but it was hard work. It was very interesting for me, because it's not a world I usually go to. I don't watch those shows about doctors and lawyers. It was such a compliment that [creator David Kelley] asked me to do this, that I did it. It was great, but it wasn't quite my sensibility. But I enjoyed doing it.

Q: They took the lawyer show and turned it on its head.

CB: Television shows, especially hour-longs, are hard, tiring work. Those people are very tired and very rich. But they're working really hard, and to create the illusion of having the time of your life like that, you really got to give it up to the people who do it.

Q: A lot of stage actors seem more exciting than film actors because of their range. How did you decide on your choices?

CB: I really don't have a strategy. At the beginning of my career I was sort of frustrated because I wasn't sure how to pinpoint myself yet. But in terms of having a plan, I'm not constructed that way.

I'm blessed with a faulty memory, which is not a good thing to have if you're going to start constructing a plan, because you need to have "this" experience in order to inform "[that]" experience. I really don't think like that.

Any decision that's made about my career is ultimately my decision, and it's helped me not to plan too much. I've never been the guy thinking, "I want to do a play this year, I want to do this kind of movie or this kind of character." I don't have that sort of control.

It's been just seeing what comes along and taking advantage of what excites me. It's led to what some people might consider bad decisions, and other times, it's been great decisions. Whatever it has, it's led me here.

Without getting too Buddhist, I just naturally have been in the moment in the entire time. I'm very happy with my life and with my career.

There's some alchemy between being present on stage and fulfilling the requirements of a scene, and also remembering that there's a funnel effect--you have to send it out through a megaphone so that people can experience it. I don't know how that happens.

I know that part of it is purely kinesthetic, it's not something you can articulate. That's why I get suspicious of acting school, to a point. Personally, I don't know what I did or didn't get from acting school. A lot of whatever it is that I have is experiential, getting up on stage and getting a sense.

I used to have a singing teacher who said, "You want to find the place with your voice where the room starts ringing." That's an impossible thing to relate to unless you've actually been in a room and you realize, "Oh, if I keep my tone here, it feels like the room is vibrating in a weird way." It's the same way, perhaps on an emotional level, that is purely experiential. It's like explaining to somebody how to run fast.

CSI Actor Gary Sinise Joins These "Brothers At War" As They Grapple With Iraq and Its Effect on Their Family

Feature Story By Brad Balfour

Presently known for playing Detective Mac Taylor on the hit TV series, CSI: NY, the talented Gary Sinise has done it all--acting, directing, making music and producing everything from plays to films. Now, Sinise plays the role of executive producer for the recently released documentary feature, Brothers At War. Since Sinise has been nominated for an Oscar (Forrest Gump), a couple of Emmys and a Tony (for directing Sam Shepard's Buried Child), he's a good man to have on board.

Though he only got involved pretty much after the principal shooting and editing was done, Sinise signed on to give the film's creator, director and producer Jake Rademacher, a boost in getting the public to come see his family film. Rademacher not only makes his directorial debut, creating this intimate portrait of an American family during a time of war, he's also one its subjects-- as one of the three brothers involved.

Sinise is already known for offering support to the troops through his past tours to Iraq with his Lt. Dan Band, a musical side project named for his most famous role, Lt. Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump. Sinise has been doing USO tours in Iraq and fundraising events ever since 2003, playing bass at 30-odd dates a year. In 2004, he co-founded the Operation Iraqi Children's Foundation which provides kids with school supplies and other resources.

Through this film, Rademacher sets out to understand his two brothers' military experience, their motivation to be in Iraq, and the sacrifices of those who are serving there. For the gravel-voiced Sinise--who has his rap on the film down to a set of well-worn, thought-out bits of banter--this film clearly provides a positive counterweight to the plethora of features critical of the war. After Sinise made a disparaging remark in an early interview about director Brian DePalma's Redacted, a cinema verite-like polemic feature about several soldiers in the Iraq War, he offers answers that now avoid controversy.

Jake got embedded with four combat units in Iraq and this deep access to US and Iraqi combat units alloweds him to get behind the camouflage curtain. With humor as well, we see what happens with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, the sniper "hide sites" in the Sunni Triangle, and what it's like running with the Iraqi Army as well.

As Rademacher follows his siblings, we see them at home where this life-threatening work and the separations it creates ripple through everyone involved--parents, wives, and children. Jake sees how alike and different his life is from his brothers, and this doc offers a rare look at the bonds between soldiers on the front and the people left behind.

Implicit in the experience of seeing the film is a strong sympathy with the military and in turn, with the missions in Iraq and, by association, Afghanistan. So it's no wonder that Sinise, who is not known for liberal sympathies, chose to lend his clear support to this film during a recent roundtable.

Q; How did you get involved in this production?

GS; A mutual friend of the filmmaker, Jake Rademacher, and mine, Michael Broderick, who's an actor and former Marine, had seen the film. [He] introduced Jake to me thinking that we would get along and that I would appreciate the movie. So Jake and I set up a screening [at] a time where we could see the movie together. I saw the film and very much enjoyed it and just fell in love with that family. So I wanted to do what I could to help support it.

Q; Did the film enlighten you to some aspect of a military family or with people involved in the military that you weren't familiar with, or in a way you hadn't thought about or was aware of before?

GS; Well, I don't know. Having gone on so many bases and visited so many troops and military families, performing for them, this film showed me what I already knew. It reaffirmed that.

It's a look at military families and military life, the Iraq war and the integrity of the people that I know that are serving that; I responded to [this] positively and wanted to support it. Because Jake is a brother, not a journalist, he's not someone looking for a story from the outside. He's inside looking for a story, someone who wants to know a little bit more about his brothers and what they do.

So he's got a very personal interest and agenda, to just find out about his brothers and what makes them tick and to get to know them a little bit better and see why they're serving and what they're doing over there. That's the aspect of it that I liked a lot.

He's just a guy who knows a little bit about the military, and wanted to be in the service. Years ago, Jake envisioned himself going to West Point and that kind of thing. Well, he didn't have the eyesight and other things like that, but his two younger brothers joined. You can tell that there's an awkwardness in the beginning of the film with him and his older brother, when he first gets to Iraq.

I don't know if you remember that part, but when he first gets to Iraq, he hugs his brother and then his brother immediately sees one of the soldiers who's with him and jumps on that guy as if they're closer to each other than he is to his own brother. That tells you a little bit about what his mission is, to sort of understand his brothers a little bit more, get closer to them and find out what makes them tick.

So it's this particular movie about brothers at war set in Iraq and on military bases back here, at home with the families, that has a personal heart to me. It had a lot of heart and it shows you a lot of very interesting things that people aren't that aware of or might have slightly been aware of.

Unless you have a personal connection to someone in the military you probably don't know that much about what military families go through or why someone serves or what motivates them to do that. This [film] helps explain that a little bit.

Q; Did you have any creative input into the film at all?

GS; When I first saw it, it was cut. It's changed a bit since I saw it. Things have been trimmed and slightly adjusted. John Ondrasik's song at the end was added after he attended a screening that I setup.

John's a friend of mine. After I saw the movie I hosted a screening in Hollywood for a group of people. I brought a bunch of different people together, trying to get some distributors in there and some people that might be able to help the film, One of those people was John. He called me the next day and said, 'I was very moved by that movie. I went home and...I'm sending you an MP3 of something that I whipped up on piano last night when I got home.'

He wrote the song that's on the end of the movie and sent it to me. He didn't know what he was going to do with it or anything. But, as we moved along and when they finally got distribution at Samuel Goldwyn, we went back to John and Jake talked to him about adding the song in the end titles.

I made little suggestions about this and that. But Jake was on his way with the film and basically I just said, 'How can I support?' So I started trying to introduce him to people that might be able to help him find a way to a distributor which eventually we did with Samuel Goldwyn.

Q; Some people have felt that the film was pro-war. How do you feel when you hear comments like that?

GS; Had they seen the movie?

Q; They were never asked.

GS; Well, it'd be interesting afterwards if they'd have that feeling about it. Like I said, this is a personal movie. There's a personal agenda by this filmmaker to understand his brothers a little bit more. That's the heart that I like about the film.

We've seen lots of footage from Iraq, news clips of bombs going off and all kinds of things going off. There's very little action in this movie until the end of the film when we see what we haven't seen--an Iraqi team out on patrol and they get ambushed by Syrians who came across the border and used a cell phone to blow up some Iraqis. The guys that blew up those Iraqis in the movie were Syrians.

We don't really see our Marines working hand-in-hand with the Iraqis in this way. That's what I see when I go over there. I talk to these guys all the time about what they're doing. Generally, they want to complete the mission. They want to succeed. They want to have the Iraqis stand up and secure their country and come home, having succeeded. [They want to] know that what they did over there meant something and left something [behind] that might have a chance to last over there and be better. So it's not your usual [story with] bombs going off and chaos type stuff going on. It just shows military families and what they are going through.

When Isaac comes home to meet his little baby who was born right after he deployed, or just before he deployed, he knows that she's not going to have a clue as to who he is. That's not an untypical thing that happens to someone who gets sent off to war.

These young families have kids and then they go off and their kids don't know who they are. So it's interesting to watch him get to know her. Now I've seen him with her and she can't get enough of him. He's a great dad, a wonderful leader and his men that are serving with him look up to him. I see a lot of that in the military when I go out there. There's a lot of integrity that we don't get to see often enough, a lot of very dedicated and committed people who serve.

People serve for various reasons--some of them for very patriotic reasons. They just want to serve their country. Some want to get out of their town and see the world or get an education or get some benefits, whatever it is that they're serving for. But folks like Isaac, that's a military guy. That's a guy who went to West Point. He wants a career in the military and he's going to serve his country for a long time, until he's done. Those folks have a high degree of integrity and they're good folks. That's what I'd say.

Q; This movie seems to be made for this time as opposed to if it had been made at the beginning of the Iraq war. It's less about immediate dangers and more about how they function in that on-going environment. Would you agree, that this couldn't have been the same movie if it was made at the beginning of the war?

GS; Well, [Jake] happened to be over there at a very dangerous time. He was there in 2005 and 2006 into 2007. And he went back twice; it was a very dangerous and explosive time over there.

Q; Do you think it would've been a different film at the beginning than what we see now, edited and put together at this point?

GS; It might've been. I don't know. Yeah, maybe it would've been. That's hard to say. Again, as he says at the beginning of the film, "I want to know why my brothers are serving. I want to see what they're doing there."

So that's what he goes in search of. It's kind of humorous a little bit at the beginning of the movie. He's kind of bumbling, doesn't know what he's doing over there and he's throwing up on the side of the road, asking for sunscreen. But at the end, I think he learns something--not only about his brothers through those that are serving with his brothers, but he learns some good things about himself.

His brothers are closer because of it. You can see his relationship with his younger brother Joe. Joe doesn't trust him. Joe basically says, "You don't know. You went over there on one trip. You don't know what we do over there. You're pretending you're a know-it-all about what's going on."

He goes back without his brothers being there to find out more about who his brothers are. That's when he ends up in a crossfire with these terrorists firing at the Iraqis. He sees the integrity of our Marines over there and what they're doing, to try and help those Iraqi troops get better, stand up and take care of themselves.

He comes back and his brother has a more accepting feeling towards him, because he knows that [Jake] cared enough about finding out a bit more about what's going on over there to go and put himself in harm's way. His younger brother gains a lot of respect for him through that.

Q; It seems like Jake really wanted to experience what his brothers were going through. He finally did get the ambush with the Syrians attacking the Iraqi patrol. Do you think the film would not have been the same without that scene?

GS; You mean had he not seen combat like that? Well, I think that was an important part of it. The fact that he placed himself in harm's way and went out mission after mission after mission with these guys just to try to understand them and what they were doing--think that was a part of his younger brother's...

Q; Disappointment in him?

GS; Well, no. His gaining respect for him. You see that. He was close with his brothers, but remember, when [Jake] comes home the first time and jumps on the bed with his brother and tries to hug him, his younger brother just gets up and runs down the stairs. He doesn't want to have anything to do with [Jake] and he won't talk to him.

It was Jake's feeling that was hurting him. That was another motivating factor for him to go back a second time, to try to understand a little bit more about what his younger brother had seen. His younger brother had seen some pretty bad, difficult stuff. Jake just said, "I'm going to go try to find that part of it"--the uglier side of it. Seeing Iraqis get blown up is not pretty and that was difficult for him.

Q; The recent smatterings of Iraq war films haven't been successful at the box office. It's hard to release films like this at times of war. What have you thought about the recent slate of Iraq war films--especially those that raise questions about the war?

GS; It'd be hard for me to speak about those other movies because I haven't seen them.

Q; Can you talk about releasing a film like this while we're still engaged in the war.

GS; I can speak to some of the reaction that this movie is getting from the people who serve, because we have opened it in some of these military towns like Columbus, Georgia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. where Fort Bragg is. It's in Jacksonville, North Carolina, at Camp Lejeune, and we've screened it at Fort Hood and some other places.

Jake even took it to Iraq one time to screen it for folks there. They're responding positively to it. The military wives that have to deal with these deployments respond to those two young wives in the movie, what they're going through and how difficult it is for them. They seem to have a very positive reaction to it.

Q; You founded the Iraqi Children's Foundation--what does it means when someone of your stature supports these causes?

GS; I started The Operation Iraqi Children Program in 2004--after my second trip to Iraq. On my second trip to Iraq, I was able to go out and visit schools all around the area that I was in. These schools had been rebuilt by our troops.

I visited one school that was originally nothing but a dirt floor and some walls; the troops came in and poured this concrete floor in there. They knocked holes in the walls for windows. They put up ceiling fans. They painted the place. There was no toilet at this school. There was a hole in the back for the kids to go in. They put toilets in. The troops rebuilt this school for the kids. This was early on in November 2003, very early on.

There were desks, maybe about this big, wth three or four kids sitting at each desk. Nothing by our standards. Even some of our schools that have less money to put into them, there's at least things on the wall that the kids paint. Here the walls were just white. Nothing was there but a concrete floor, desks, a blackboard, and that's it.

I remember seeing these kids--they had one pencil between three or four kids and very little in the way of school supplies--but they had this great love for the troops that had given them this new school. The Iraqi headmaster took me into his office which was about as big as this corner over here, very small, like a custodial closet or something., but on the wall he had made this plaque and wanted me to see it.

I got my picture taken with the headmaster of the school. It was a plaque that was a thank you to the Coalition Forces who had come in and rebuilt their school.

So I wanted to help support that good feeling in some way, between the troops and the Iraqis. That's how were going to move forward, by keeping these relationships strong and good and positive with the new generation of these kids that are coming up. These kids clearly saw our troops as guys that were helping them. I wanted to reinforce that.

I went to my kid's school and we started collecting school supplies, pens, pencils, paper, Beanie Babies, soccer balls and things like that. We boxed them all up and shipped them to the base that I was on. They took them out and gave them to the kids that they had helped.

Out of that I teamed up with Laura Hillenbrand. Laura wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Laura had a program and she was trying to get her book Seabiscuit translated into Arabic because one of the colonels over there was reading it and the kids started asking him about the book. So he contacted her and asked if we could get Arabic translations of the book [to him]. We did a program where we made 15,000 copies of Seabiscuit in Arabic and sent them over there.

Then Laura and I teamed up to fund Operation Iraqi Children so that other people could do what I did which was collect school supplies and send them over to the troops. Out of that we partnered with People to People International run by Mary Eisenhower. Her grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, started an organization called People to People International. They go all over the world and help kids. They contacted us and so we teamed up with them.

In 2004, we started the website up,, and so for the past five years we've shipped supplies over there. We've sent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of supplies over to the troops. They've taken this stuff out and given it to kids all around the country.

[In April] we have American Airlines doing an airlift of our supplies. They're taking 25 tons of Operation Iraqi Children supplies over to Iraq and distributing them. Now we're sending our stuff to Afghanistan to the troops there so that they can take the supplies out and give them to the kids. It's a way to extend the hand of friendship between our troops who are over there. It helps them and it helps the kids. It's a win/win.

Q; How do you find the time with the TV schedule?

GS; Well, because the TV schedule stable and steady, I can maneuver things around. They're very supportive of the stuff that I've been doing. I have tomorrow off, for example. I'm playing a concert for the troops here at the Lexington Amory on 25th Street.

There's a unit down there called The Fighting 69th and they've actually lost 25 guys in the war. I'm going to do a concert for them and support them. CSI is very, very [good about it]. They work well with me on some of these things and allow me to have some days off here.

Q; Did Jake, Isaac or Joe participate in any way in the troops giving to the children?

GS; Not Jake. I don't know if Isaac or Joe have been a part of units that have actually taken our supplies out. I never asked them that, if they ran into our supplies at all.

Q; What about the efforts to rebuild schools and things like that?

GS; Oh, yeah. Isaac could tell you all kinds of stuff about that, stories.

Q; We didn't see any of that.

GS; Yeah, but there's a lot of that that goes on. Maybe we'll make another documentary and show you some more.