Hollywood Royalty

Security was tight. For the first time, NEWSWEEK'S annual roundtable was held in public, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. We made sure to keep a few of the celebrities' names secret, and arranged for all of them to arrive via an inconspicuous side entrance to the theater. So imagine our surprise when Brad Pitt--the most paparazzi-hounded star on the planet--was dropped off on Hollywood Boulevard and strode blithely through the theater's front doors, disguised only by a pair of sunglasses. Onstage, Pitt was joined by five other remarkable actors of 2006: Cate Blanchett, Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, Penelope Cruz and Leonardo DiCaprio. Needless to say, the audience was buzzing. But so were the stars, who listened with obvious delight as their fellow actors discussed their lives, their craft, their passions and their fears. Pitt teased DiCaprio, who said he didn't appreciate being seen as "a piece of cute meat" after "Titanic." "That you are ," Pitt told him. Blanchett, who played Brad's wife in "Babel," took some friendly potshots at Pitt's work ethic. They all schmoozed and laughed and asked each other questions for more than two hours--yes, bathroom breaks were permitted--and when time ran out, they didn't seem to want to stop. Neither did we. Excerpts:

HELEN MIRREN: My parents were very against the idea, so I trained as a teacher for three years. I was a horrible, really bad teacher. I didn't become a professional actress until I was about 22.

FOREST WHITAKER: My parents really wanted me to go to West Point--something practical like that. Ten years into my acting career they were still trying to get me to go back to school. I wasn't making much money, and sometimes really struggling, but I was, like, "No, Ma. This is what I want to do." Those were difficult conversations because I had my own doubts. It took me a long time to feel comfortable thinking, "I'm an actor. I can do this."

CATE BLANCHETT: I was at university studying fine arts, and I took a year off and went traveling. I had 2,500 Australian dollars, which is nothing, and I traveled for a year on that, so I ended up in places like a bunker in Istanbul with water dripping from the ceiling. Later, I was staying in this place in Cairo. I literally had no money, and some Scottish guy who was printing money and passports in the foyer said, "Do you want to earn five Egyptian dollars?" It wasn't to sleep with anyone. It was to be an extra in this boxing movie, so I said, "Sure." They had free falafel.

MIRREN: We're all in it for the free food, actually. We are all, in our hearts, out-of-work actors.

BRAD PITT: Not really, no. [ Laughter ]

PITT: I had a job driving strippers around.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: Really?

BLANCHETT: Just last month.

PITT: I love her. Yeah, my job was to drive them to bachelor parties and things. I'd pick them up, and at the gig I'd collect the money, play the bad Prince tapes and catch the girls' clothes. It was not a wholesome atmosphere, and it got very depressing. After two months I went in to quit, and the guy said, "Listen, I've got this one last gig tonight." So I did it, and this girl--I'd never met her before--was in an acting class taught by a man named Roy London [a famous acting coach]. I went and checked it out, and it really set me on the path to where I am now.

PITT: [ Nods ] Strippers changed my life.

PITT: [ Looks toward the ceiling ] I just want one week off. Just one.

DICAPRIO: I didn't know how to conduct myself on a film set. The director, Michael Caton-Jones, really took me under his wing. He said things like, "When you're rehearsing with Robert De Niro, you don't talk about what baseball cards you're collecting."

MIRREN: I was like a rabbit in headlights for years on film sets, not understanding who was doing what, and how you're supposed to behave. It is a terrifying environment, really.

PENELOPE CRUZ: One day I came out on the street for a walk with my dad, and somebody screamed from a car, "I love you!" And a minute later, somebody else screamed, "Whore!" [ Laughter ] Then I knew I was famous. It was unbelievable. I was 16 when I made the movie. I didn't tell my parents, and I was hiding the script from them. Then they took my grandmother to the premiere, and I always felt bad about that. But the movie was good, and it did a lot of good things for my career. Every role I accepted after that I was covered up to here. [ Raises her hand to her neck ]

DICAPRIO: I had a brief run at that on television, being thrown on the cover of teen magazines, and I was trying to work away from that. I wanted to establish myself as an actor who put a lot of thought into his characters and did good work. And then I did a movie called "Titanic," and there I was, right back into that position of being looked at as another piece of cute meat.

PITT: That you are . [ Laughter ]

DICAPRIO: It was pretty disheartening to be objectified like that. I wanted to stop acting for a little bit. It changed my life in a lot of ways, but at the same time, I can't say that it didn't give me opportunities. It made me, for the first time, in control of my career. But yeah, it was weird.

PITT: Acting is about discovery, for me, and these "leading man" scripts--Leo can testify to this--they're all the same guy. You can plug any one of us into it and you get a variation on a theme, but anyone can do it. Where is the discovery in that?

BLANCHETT: So did you guys look to a relationship with a director to help champion the way out?

DICAPRIO: I definitely sought out the relationship with Martin Scorsese. It was important to me to find somebody I could trust. It's a weird thing to put your performance in another person's hands. We so often sit in rooms with directors and you hear their vision about a specific project, but there's a huge difference between what they say and what actually shows up on screen.

PITT: Do directors want you to [play a version] of them?

DICAPRIO: Sometimes you get that feeling, yeah.

MIRREN: It doesn't happen to women. You get to play their fantasy instead. But you know, [the industry] is always trying to put you in a box, and you're always having to fight your way out of it. They don't want you to grow up or grow older or change, so it's great when a role comes up that allows you to take that next step. It happened with me on "Prime Suspect." Suddenly I was allowed to look like a woman of the age that I was. I didn't have to have glamorous lighting. I didn't have to wear makeup. It was fabulously liberating, and it's really why I'm still working, because I was allowed to step forward.

WHITAKER: I had moments where the directors were open enough to let me do that, yeah. In "Good Morning, Vietnam," my character was written as a nerdy Jewish guy. In "The Color of Money," the character was originally a Yuppie.

DICAPRIO: Was it really? That character was stellar. I remember seeing you in "The Color of Money" at a very young age, going, "Who is this guy?"

WHITAKER: I was a replacement. They fired somebody, and I flew in and auditioned. That's how it happened.

MIRREN: My husband [Taylor Hackford] directed ... what was it called? Oh, God, I forgot the name of it. Famous movie with Debra Winger?

MIRREN: Thank you. The Lou Gossett Jr. role was written for a white man, and Taylor forced the studio to cast Lou. Lou won an Oscar for it, in fact.

CRUZ: Pedro Almodóvar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" I was 13 when I saw that movie. I came out of the theater completely fascinated. I started to become obsessed with Pedro, and I decided then to become an actress.

BLANCHETT: The only role I wanted to play was Lucy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." I also wanted to be Gregory Peck.

PITT: I remember sneaking into "Saturday Night Fever," and it had a profound effect on me. [ Laughter ]

MIRREN: The first movie that caught my imagination was "L'Avventura," by Antonioni. Until then I had seen only Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, and I wasn't into them very much.

WHITAKER: When I was a kid there weren't a lot of black actors working in films, so acting didn't seem like a possibility. The first actor I remember being struck by was Sidney Poitier.

DICAPRIO: I tried to get an agent when I was around 7. I was a break-dancer and had a mohawk, and I was rejected. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but it wasn't until "This Boy's Life," when I was 16, that I started to research quality films. I remember watching James Dean in "East of Eden." I said to myself, "Wow, I didn't know it was possible to give a performance this good."

PITT: Although you were extraordinary on "Growing Pains."

DICAPRIO: Thank you, buddy. As were you.

DICAPRIO: Yeah, when I was 3 years old. I ran up to the camera and started shaking it, saying, "Look at me!"

MIRREN: I hate being looked at.

BLANCHETT: I think it's probably "Look into me." What we perceive to be naturalism or realism has been utterly eroded by so-called reality television, where people are performing themselves. But what we do, actually, is unmask and reveal what it means to be human, and allow someone in. It's taken me a long time to allow myself to be exposed in front of a camera.

PITT: Acting is really a team sport. A lot of times one actor will become the MVP, but just like in tennis, your game is elevated if you're playing with someone better. I mean, just look at the way Cate compensated for George Clooney in "The Good German." [ Laughter ]

DICAPRIO: Tons. Burt Lancaster in "Sweet Smell of Success." De Niro in "Taxi Driver."

CRUZ: Either of the two women in "Terms of Endearment." Carmen Maura in "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown." Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment."

BLANCHETT: Anything Elizabeth Taylor has ever done.

MIRREN: It's not that you want to play the role; you're inspired by it. It's not as if you're sitting there going, "Oh, I would have been better." [ Pause ] Well, sometimes you are. [ Laughter ]

BLANCHETT: There's a moment in "A Streetcar Named Desire," where Vivien Leigh has just gone into the bathroom, and Marlon Brando's banging on the door, and she opens the door and his hand flinches . It's the most astonishing shot. This guy that Brando could have played with complete brutality, and [instead he shows] his vulnerability, in that hand.

DICAPRIO: I wanted to ask everyone something: we all talk about being "in the zone"--becoming our character--but there are so many technical things that happen when you're making a movie, it's impossible not to realize that there's a camera there, and your character has to emote this specific emotion. Those moments where it all disappears, and you're really speaking as this other person? I'm lucky if that happens more than once on a movie.

PITT: I find alcohol helps. [ Laughter ]

MIRREN: Completely lost.

BLANCHETT: Well, I didn't get lost in "Battlefield Earth."

BLANCHETT: I've been lucky in a way. In school I was tall and my sexuality was dubious. I was always playing men. And then my nationality has been dubious, having played Elizabeth I quite early in my film career. So I feel like I got some weird and wonderful choices.

PITT: [ To DiCaprio ] Our sexuality has been dubious as well. [ Laughter ]

PITT: No, there's been enough discussion.

BLANCHETT: We have photographs.

BLANCHETT: They all scare me. But I tell myself that anxiety is just misplaced excitement. You're constantly risking failure, so I never watch the films I'm in. That way, I always feel like, "OK, that worked." I had an experience on "Babel" which I've never had shooting a film. I thought, "God, that was a really great take." And then I saw the film, and the whole scene was played on Brad. [ Laughter ]

MIRREN: Of course I don't.

MIRREN: I'm sure. Who could resist? Someone who is very close to the queen, a great historian named Robert Lacey, said he thinks she would have said, as the credits rolled, "That wasn't too bad, was it? I think I'll have a gin and tonic."

PITT: How did you start shaping her? She's got this great fireplug walk, and your glasses were always halfway down the bridge of your nose.

MIRREN: Obviously there's a lot of film on her, but it's of her in her formal role--hardly anything behind closed doors. Playing a real character, you have to behave like a detective and see things that maybe no one else has. She's unbelievably composed, but on the films I noticed that her thumb is always turning her wedding ring round and round and round. There's this inner beat, this tension.

CRUZ: I know what you're going to ask.

MIRREN: I had a padded butt in "The Queen," as well. It wasn't just Penelope.

CRUZ: Oh, I'm so happy! Now every time someone asks me this, I'm going to say, "Helen had one, too."

CRUZ: Completely. Pedro and I didn't talk about it. Maybe a one-minute conversation. It just made me work in a different way, move in a different way. It was like finding the right shoes for the character.

WHITAKER: Accents help me figure out how to move, how to gesture. I think sometimes when an actor's accent doesn't work, it's because it isn't connected to the body.

MIRREN: Until you nail the accent it is paralyzing. You can't act--you can't do anything--because all you can hear is your voice making the wrong sound. What's even more difficult is what Penelope has done. I think to act in a foreign language is the most unbelievably difficult thing. I can't imagine it.

CRUZ: Oh, so scary. I didn't understand a word [director] Stephen Frears was saying. He's very sweet, but he has a very strong accent, and I only knew my dialogue for the character. I was always going to the bathroom to cry and coming back and trying to hide it.

PITT: That was last-minute, night-before, full-panic mode. I kept trying to get the dialect--I probably started a little late--and it was just too stiff. I went to Guy the day before and said, "You've got to do this part. I can't do it." And he's, like, "Yeah. Right." But it occurred to me that the genius of what Benicio Del Toro had done in "The Usual Suspects" was that you couldn't understand what he was saying a lot of times. So about midnight, I started walking around the North End of London, working on it and working on it, and it just kept getting more and more indecipherable. Thank God it worked.

BLANCHETT: I never think of accents as something that's slapped on. It's syntax and rhythm and breath. It's about when people choose to pause, what words they emphasize. You can say it's accent, but it's actually thought process. It's got to be organic. And I think the earlier you can start the better.

Brad . [ He mimics being stabbed in the heart. ]

MIRREN: You're absolutely right. It's not something that you glom on the top, as if language and accent are separate. Americans are always saying, "Oh, I love your accent." I don't have the bloody accent. You've got the accent. [ Laughter ] No, I never say that. I say, "Thank you so much. How sweet of you."

PITT: When I started I had this idea that the films I did defined me, and that my life would be interesting based on the characters I'd chosen. I don't feel that way anymore. I'm a father now. There are other things that are important to me. I was chasing something that wasn't fulfilling. I caught myself on the phone the other day--Leo has been playing some real strong men these last few years--and I found myself saying, "I want to play more of a man." I got off the phone and I thought, "No. Live like a man, and the movies will follow."

WHITAKER: I had to learn to not divorce my life from my work. My work is a continual process of growth for me; it's an expansion of myself. In the last couple of years, I've been taking things I learn about myself in my work and using it to be more completely there for my kids, my family, my friends. It's flowing in a complete way. It has been a bit of an awakening.

DICAPRIO: Man, I've got to get some kids, huh? I only really started enjoying acting when there was a certain level of detachment from the end result. I remember being 15 and going on 160 auditions, and not getting a single role for a year and a half. I realized I was turning into one of those Hollywood kids: "Hi, I'm Leo ! And I'm going to be reading today! Oh yeah, I had a great day at school! I love school!" [ Laughter ] I had become a product of this system where everyone is aiming to please the director, the casting director, whomever. So I started to think about the character--the work--instead of the result. You know, kids are always asking me what they should do to become actors. You give them the pat answers: "Study your lines. Work hard. Don't give up." But what I want to tell them is, "You have to not care what these people think about you."

MIRREN: You were lucky to learn that at 15. Marlon Brando's great acting advice was, "Don't care too much." I never understood that, because I cared so much, and still do. But what he meant was, let go of that total investment in "Are they going to love me?" "Am I going to be good?" F--- that. Maybe that's what Brad is saying as well.

PITT: Yeah, but it took me 800 words to say what he did in four.

DICAPRIO: I love it. There's no other art form in the world that affects me more. There's nothing that I walk away from feeling transformed by the way I do with cinema. There's something so gratifying about being burned into celluloid and knowing that I can look back later in life and have stories about those experiences. It's an amazing gift.

WHITAKER: It's magic. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?

CRUZ: It gives me so much happiness to know that I will never know everything about acting. That fear of not knowing will always be with me, no matter what happens.

PITT: It's the love for the story, and a respect for the business. I want to be better in it, and better for it. I'm still striving for that. And I believe in the power of films.

BLANCHETT: Krzysztof Kieslowski said that filmmaking is a conversation with an audience. When you're connecting with other people, it's utterly thrilling. I feel alive when I'm acting. It's tragic, but true. I would die in a rehearsal room if I could.

MIRREN: Money. [ Laughter ] And it's incredibly good fun. Of course, there are some intense artistic reasons, but I'm not going to go into them. So, yeah, fun and money.

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