One of the fringe benefits of hosting our Oscar Roundtable—other than, you know, hanging out with movie stars—is you get to watch them bond. Like how when Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") happened to mention that he and Angelina were selling their house in Malibu, Robert Downey Jr. ("Tropic Thunder") said he'd buy it—at any price. "I've had a pretty good year," Downey joked. Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married") told Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon") she wanted to take notes on everything he said. And when Hollywood newbie Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky") talked about maybe moving to L.A., Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler") suddenly became her big brother, warning, "Get out as quick as you can." Fortunately, she stayed to finish our chat. Excerpts below:
NEWSWEEK: If you had to think of the greatest performance you've ever seen—onstage, in a movie, on TV—what comes to mind?
LANGELLA: Kim Stanley in a play called "Natural Affection." The play started and she was sleeping in bed with an actor. She woke up, threw her legs over the side of the bed, took a cigarette, lit it, took a puff and I knew who she was in 30 seconds. [Looks at Pitt] You can say it was me, Brad. I don't mind.
PITT: I go to David Thewlis in "Naked." Gene Wilder pops in my head in "Willy Wonka"—I've watched a lot of kids' movies. There's that opening moment where he comes out of the factory and he's limping, you don't know what his affliction is, and then he trips and rolls out of it. From that moment on, you never know what he's up to.
HAWKINS: He added that in, didn't he? I think he improvised that.
Anything pop in your head, Mickey?
ROURKE: About what? What was the question? I think something Monty Clift did, the movie where Shelley Winters was screeching at him, "A Place in the Sun." I also think of Rita Hayworth, "Gilda," she was f–––ing great in that. Watching it, I thought, God, I wish she was still around. I'd try to get her phone number.
PITT: Robert in "Weird Science."
DOWNEY: Don't get me started, dude. You want to start coloring outside the lines?
PITT: Game on!
DOWNEY: I thought that was kind of a bulls––– first question to ask, because I don't have anything coming out in the next couple months that you can review poorly.
HATHAWAY: When I saw Mary-Louise Parker in "Proof," she had the best line reading of the phrase "f––– you" ever. She's sitting there and thinking about it, and goes "f–––" and she pauses, and the other actor was so thrown they started in with the next line, and in the middle of the line she goes "you." I've never been able to get it out of my head.
LANGELLA: Would you like to hear my most favorite line I have said onstage, after 75 plays?
LANGELLA: "Suck my d––k." I said it to Christine Baranski every night for four months, and I couldn't wait to say it. It was such a great line to say.
HATHAWAY: I just had a blank, and it's a really embarrassing one.
You mean, you forgot an actor's name?
DOWNEY: What do you got?
HATHAWAY: You're going to tell everyone. You're dangerous.
DOWNEY: Trust issues! I've been trustworthy for almost 1,500 days now. [Hathaway whispers in his ear]
OK, Anne, what are you whispering?
HATHAWAY: I was thinking of a moment that involved a d––k. It was Julie Christie in "Shampoo," when she's having that conversation with a guy, and she's like, I'll give you anything you want. And she's so deliciously drunk, and she goes, "And I want to suck his c––k." It's the greatest line reading. And Warren Beatty does this fantastic spit take. Frank, I have a really lame question. Is there anything that you remember thinking, I wish I knew this when I started acting?
LANGELLA: I wish I'd known sooner in my career how getting out of one's own way is the best advice you can give an actor. I could do anything on the stage; I had no fear. But I was like an old Italian lady in my first couple of movies. I thought my soul was being taken by the camera. So I had to find my way to be utterly open and free in front of the camera. Did everybody know since 5 or 6 or 7 that they wanted to be an actor?
PITT: No, not a clue. Where I grew up, it wasn't an option.
LANGELLA: Where did you grow up?
PITT: Oklahoma and then Missouri. Two weeks before college graduation, I saw everyone signing up to go away and do their jobs. I was not even close to being ready. I realized I had a love for film. It hit me one night. I'm 22, I had no money, so I did two weeks of work, made a couple hundred bucks, loaded up the car and moved to Beverly—actually, Burbank. I was doing extra work in about a week. I was thrilled just to be on a movie set. In fact, I was an extra on your movie "Less Than Zero."
DOWNEY: Dude, somebody told me that and I said it can't be true. That party scene was 22 years ago. If I knew you were there, I'd make you be part of the movie. He's over there! Look at him!
PITT: I was an extra for a year and a half. I even got a job on "Dallas," and went back and did extra work on that because I hadn't been on a movie.
HAWKINS: I was an extra in "The Phantom Menace." I'm repeated in a crowd scene about 10 times with Jar Jar Binks.
LANGELLA: My first movie, I was very lucky. It was called "The 12 Chairs." And watching Mel Brooks direct 300 Yugoslavians who didn't speak any English, it was hilarious.
PITT: You knew early on you wanted to act?
LANGELLA: I knew at 7. Because a teacher came in and said, "We need elves for the school pageant." It had something to do with sibling rivalry, because my sister was the lead. So I put my hand up, and I was an elf.
DOWNEY: Rourke, do you mind if I dial it back? When we were talking about things that inspired us, I remember you and Kim Basinger in "9½ Weeks."
ROURKE: You probably remember it much better than I do.
DOWNEY: When you saw that—and I'm way too self-important to blow smoke up your ass right now—that to me was the sexiest, most mysterious, complex, smart, layered man's role I've seen. It kind of screwed me up, because I was like, that's what the people who really know what they are doing do. That's how it comes across.
ROURKE: You see, I didn't really want to do that. I wanted to go beyond "Last Tango in Paris" and so did Adrian [Lyne, the director], but Kim didn't want to. I wanted all hell to break loose.
PITT: You got there in "Angel Heart."
ROURKE: Who told you?
PITT: It's one of the myths. When I started out, trying to figure out acting, I had three gods. It was Penn, it was Oldman, it was Rourke.
ROURKE: "Angel Heart" was a learning experience for me, because I sat across from Robert De Niro. One of my shortcomings as an actor and as a human being was always my attention span and my concentration. Even in sports, that was something I lacked, where I couldn't go any further. Watching De Niro, he would get so goddamned focused. Alan Parker, who did "Angel Heart," would laugh at me. He goes, "Look at that man there, he knows all his lines, and you're out here trying to pick up a girl eating a f–––ing ice-cream cone."
Brad, when you play a complete moron like Chad Feldheimer in "Burn After Reading," is it hard to not judge him?
PITT: I swear, I'm going to die and this is the one I'm going to be known for. This thing spoke to me. It represented the hubris of an America we've experienced in the last few years.
Is it true that Angelina hasn't seen the movie yet?
PITT: She has seen that one. She walked on set, and I was in gym gear and the hair, and she said, "This is the first time I can honestly say I'm not sexually attracted to you."
More often now when we interview actors, they talk about how it's becoming harder to draw the line between public and private, especially with the Internet. Do any of you guys ever Google yourself?
PITT: Dear God, no.
PITT: Never. First of all, I don't really know how to operate a computer.
Do you have a BlackBerry?
PITT: Oh, yeah, I have a BlackBerry.
Anne, what about you? Do you Google yourself?
LANGELLA: It's not a good idea. It can be painful and it can be self-aggrandizing.
HAWKINS: What do they say about don't believe any of it?
DOWNEY: Oh, I love all that s–––, personally. Sorry. I just love it. Because it's a hoot. Some people overstate their support, like they know you. Other people are busy doing something else and just want to go on this chat site and say some despicable character assassination, which I honestly think they kind of nailed it. I do have that shortcoming. It's really fun.
PITT: This publicity machine is out of control. It's everything we didn't sign up for. There's this whole other entity that you get sucked into. You have to go and sell your wares. It's something I never made my peace with. Somehow you're not supporting your film if you don't get on a show and talk about your personal life. It has nothing to do with why I do this.
LANGELLA: I'm a dinosaur. I never had a publicist—until this film, because I had to protect myself. The studio wanted me to do every interview and talk show. I think the greatest thing an actor has is mystery and danger. And you poor guys are being asked to give pieces of yourself. You must fight it every chance you get. The more they know about you personally, the less they believe in you on camera. You want to disappear.
PITT: But I think it's impossible to operate fully from that standpoint. [David Fincher, the director of "Benjamin Button"] has spent five years chiseling away at this thing. I want him to get his day. So there is a strange push and pull.
HATHAWAY: OK, I have a confession. I lied before when you asked if I Googled myself. I do. I'm embarrassed by it because I know how terrible it is.
DOWNEY: Wait a minute, should I feel s–––ty that I Google myself?
HATHAWAY: You should feel s–––ty about other things, Robert. For a while, it cracked me up. I found a ton of humor in it. But recently it's changed. There's a big difference now where information is being reported as news. And I'm very uncomfortable with that. And what you were saying, Brad, and God knows you deal with it worse than anyone, the idea that you blink your eyes and it's all over the Internet. It's a strange thing to be part of.
PITT: I feel for the people who are just getting into the business. It sets the wrong focus.
DOWNEY: I got a story for you. I go to Japan. "Iron Man" is opening there. I'm like, dude, this is my walk of fame. I go there and they go [he mimics a Japanese accent], "Small problem with your passport, it links up to some incredible criminal activity." I'm like, yeah, yeah, yeah. "You did not make claim of said activity." I was like, "I got tired." "We would like to interrogate you." I was like, "Interrogate? Fine, great." Six hours later, I'm sitting there in the Japanese interrogation suite. A lady comes out. "So were you in jail or prison?" I go, "Both." "How long?" "Sixteen months." "Do you know the name of the first infraction you had in 1995?" I was like, "It's hard for me to remember because I've been arrested so many times." "We cannot let you enter our country." They decided later that I can come in to do the press, "but I must please never come to Japan again." So—I'll wrap this up quickly. We go to the Iron Chef restaurant. They give me the finest Kobe beef, and I am doubled over for Yoo-hoo status for the next two days.
LANGELLA: I don't know what that means.
DOWNEY: I ate a piece of beef that was superexpensive, I got a parasite and I was Yoo-hoo. I was Brown Betty for two days.
LANGELLA: See, he has his own language.
DOWNEY: Then what happens, a Japanese robot shows up on the red carpet. He carries in a 500-pound barrel of sake. I'm going, like, I kind of have plans for Christmas, you should keep that away from me. They wanted me to smash the sake cask open with the robotic "Iron Man."
LANGELLA: Can I ask this side of the table [Hathaway, Pitt, Downey] something? How much influence do the handlers and the notion that your films are making money or not making money have on your choice, because you three are extraordinarily hot. If your film tanks, do you have people around you saying the next thing you do has got to be a moneymaker? Or do you just ignore it completely and say, "The next thing I do is from my heart"?
PITT: I have nothing to prove anymore. The only thing that's worth anything is when I explore something that's interesting to me. I did a film a couple years ago, "The Assassination of Jesse James," and it's on the books as a failure. I loved that movie, I had such a great experience.
DOWNEY: But it's on the books as a failure.
HAWKINS: I can't believe that. "Jesse James" is phenomenal.
PITT: Thanks. You're the other one. My point is, I am absolutely free to follow the things that interest me. I believe if it interests me, there will be a few other people interested as well. If I'm satisfied with it, to me it comes down to discovery.
HATHAWAY: I always had an exit strategy, which was if this doesn't work out I'll be blessed to do theater. After the experience of "Brokeback" and the experience of "The Devil Wears Prada," I thought, I'm about as famous as I think I'm comfortable with. So if all this disappears, I'm really fine. I set that as my endpoint. And then "Rachel" came, and then infamy came, so it's very odd now that I'm much more famous than I thought was possible. At the same time, it feels so temporary and unimportant. I freed myself before any of that happened to make the projects that I care about. I wish I were a better strategist and see things through and how they were to play. But I'm much more interested in the process of making the film.
DOWNEY: I'm not very popular for saying this, and the missus tells me to keep it on the QT, but lately for me, the biggest, most commercial projects that I've done are the most creatively satisfying, the most collaborative and the ones that the audiences respond to. And I jump off and do an indie, and they can't hit their ass with both hands, it's 50 monkeys f–––ing a football and then you have to go and pump your kidneys dry in Sundance. What's next, f–––ing Shakespeare in the park for the pagans for three months?
HAWKINS: I've done that!
HATHAWAY: I like to think of this as an adventure. My mom is an actress, and she's a good actress and she's a great singer. The best credit she ever got was a pre-Broadway run of an original show that wound up not going to Broadway. She raised three kids and she's had a great life. But this is absurd. I'm just happy to know what this feels like.
You know, Anne, your mom is on YouTube.
HATHAWAY: Why is my mother on YouTube?
She's performing this great song.
HATHAWAY: Oh, my God. I didn't know! Well, check her out, everybody in NEWSWEEK. She's really talented.
Anne, you've talked about Jonathan Demme as the first director to see you "flying your freak flag." How do you get to the point where you trust how the director sees you?
HATHAWAY: Jonathan just happens to be a wonderful human being, and the kindest-hearted person I've ever met. I felt there's no point in hiding anything, because he was going to see it anyway, and he was open to it and he cared. He did become a bit like a therapist.
PITT: I look for a sexual bond.
HATHAWAY: Well, we have that as well.
LANGELLA: I've been at it longer than anybody. Since we're all actors, we know what it's like to go from the dark to the light. We're the only ones to know what it's really like at "action!" to suddenly be naked in front of a lens. You have to have a director who knows how vulnerable you are. A director can crush the soul of an actor with a phrase or a word. If I finally feel like I trust the director, I'll give him anything. But if I don't, a portion of me that self-preserves says, "Just get out of my way, leave me alone, don't hurt me. If you're not going to help me, don't hurt me."
HAWKINS: You have to be open and yet also try to protect. I imagine the more you do, you're only as good as the last thing you did. You're always out there, and you're starting all over again.
HAWKINS: I knew that hopefully I'd end up with a nice part, but I didn't know how much.
DOWNEY: I heard that in "Happy-Go-Lucky," because your character was optimistic and bubbly, having to keep that up for all those weeks took a toll. Is that true?
HAWKINS: Yeah. Although she's got this constant state of bubble and positivity, there's a lot going on underneath. It didn't feel like a monotone. I kept trying to bring up the darkness: "Yeah, she could do this!" Mike kept pushing me to a slightly sprite-like character, coupled with compassion.
Speaking of character, some of you actually stayed in character during your movies. Frank, you asked everyone on set to refer to you as Mr. President.
LANGELLA: I'd never done it before. I like to sit around and eat doughnuts, and Kevin Bacon and I like to tell dirty stories. But the minute I opened the door, I told Ron Howard I should stay in character. Because the tension around me will be greater, and if I break character at all and start shooting the s–––, I won't feel that intimidation people feel around a president. So I did for 32 days. It was very lonely and very right for the character. I just stayed the president.
Do you still make people do that?
LANGELLA: Just in bed. What about you, Brad? Were you in character when you were 6 months old in "Benjamin Button"?
PITT: That was not me.
Brad, when you play Button as a young old man, internally, do you think of him as old, or as a young man in an old body?
PITT: Old body, young person. But I think Frank gets the degree-of-difficulty award. Because he's taken on someone that's such a caricature. How do you avoid slipping into caricature, and at the same time you gave the man humanity? I thought it was quite an achievement, and it's still a bit of a mystery to me.
LANGELLA: There's a great deal of talk about what's the difference between American actors and British actors. British actors come at it from the outside. We all come at it from the inside.
PITT: I would've said circumcision.
You all seemed to have things to help you become your characters. Sally, Poppy wears the colorful clothes. Frank, you're wearing a wig. Robert, were you worried about the blackface in "Tropic Thunder"?
DOWNEY: It was weird enough to have Ben Stiller call you: "I have this comedy. It's like 'White Chicks' but in reverse." And I thought, this son of a bitch. And then I got tickled. I remember my dad did this movie in 1968 called "Putney Swope," about a black guy who takes over an ad agency. It was a revolutionary movie about advertising and life and what happens when you get power. He looped the entire movie, so it was actually his voice with this black actor. It's kind of weird—sometimes the roles you get have a circular thing on the path of your life. I decided to do it; two weeks later I'm in Hawaii. We're doing these makeup tests, and it's the thing: if you see fear, head for it. I thought I might as well dominate and be off-putting and weird and say strange things in character. Because it was perceived as a racist thing to do, I was coming down on Ben real hard with the Jew thing.
The joke with the character is that he's always in character. Did you actually stay in character?
DOWNEY: It's funny, because the whole point of the movie is that that's ridiculous. And yet it's so real, like you said about Nixon, staying in there. I usually can't be bothered to. I usually recoil as though from a hot flame at the actor-prep moment. You either know what you're doing or you don't. Ben really shot the heck out of it. It was one of the things where the human comedy is so ridiculous, I was loopy and just entertaining myself. There was one scene—the "full retard" scene is something that I studied. And the rest of the stuff, I'd vaguely look at the lines and try to come up with better ones. I just kept thinking, what can I do to get the boom operator to laugh his ass off? He hasn't cracked a smile yet.
HAWKINS: You could see that.
DOWNEY: But the crying and all that stuff, Ben was a pain in the ass that day. But imagine this. He's directing a movie with his arms tied behind his back, which for him—his mildly controlling nature—was the metaphor of the century.
Mickey, your performance in "The Wrestler" doesn't feel like you're acting.
ROURKE: It was painful. I was actually replaced early on when they couldn't raise the money, and I was relieved. Talking about directors earlier and trust, for me I've got to have respect as well as trust. A lot of guys can talk a good game, and then get on the floor and fold to s–––. Darren [Aronofsky] did his homework. He was smart; he knew how to get the most of me by challenging me.
PITT: You shot straight through, right? You had a horrendous schedule.
ROURKE: We had a bad schedule. It was seven months of putting the weight on, it was four months of wrestling practice—and I can't pay you. You're going to do everything I tell you, and you're never going to disrespect me in front of the crew. I'm thinking, he's real smart and he's got balls. We had a very low budget. When we did the wrestling scenes, they were actually having real wrestling events and we'd run in real quick with the cameras. I had to know my s–––, my partner had to know my choreography. We had maybe three takes before the next live bout was going to come on. And then there was all the pressure of having to pull it off in front of 3,000 crazy wrestling fanatics.
Did you get lots of bruises?
ROURKE: Yeah. That's part of the reason why I was happy when I got replaced. It's been way over 10 years since I gave everything to anybody. It was a good feeling at the end of the day. I'd forgotten what it felt like. All these guys, the old-school wrestlers from the '80s, Ric Flair, Brutus Beefcake, they all came to the premiere. We were nervous because we wanted their approval. And Roddy Piper started crying and we were like, OK, we did our job.
HATHAWAY: I had his action figure when I was a kid.
ROURKE: He's a cool guy.
DOWNEY: The best directors are the ones you can have the heated, f–––ed-up, gear-grinding moments with. Because that way it's not passive-aggressive, you're not nurturing a resentment. Guy Ritchie [who is directing Downey in "Sherlock Holmes"] was like, "Mate, I gotta tell you it's so toxic, you're such a c––t, everyone feels it." I was like, "Really? And you're like Rain Man, you dumb motherf–––er." And we had it out. Then my wife was there, and she's like, things are getting really edgy. But then you let it blow off, and the next day you go, that was yesterday, and here we are. My whole thing is kind of twisted. I want to get so close with my director. I want us to have this impermeable thing. That's the sick part. I want this holy communion, but it's not on them. If they don't want to go there, I've got to take care of myself. But when they want to go there, it's quantum. And sometimes it's a status thing. You work with Oliver Stone, I sit at the bottom of his chair and I'd reach up and grab his hand. And I'd talk, and he'd say, "You looked like a Gila monster when I saw you at the bar last night, mate."
HAWKINS: With Mike, you think you'll be doing this great scene. This is a long improvisation! And he'll be asleep in the back of the car. Or not there.
DOWNEY: He's directing from a car?
HAWKINS: Sorry. In the improvisation, we did real-time driving lessons, going out in the streets of London. You do days, and Mike is lying in the back seat.
Are those improvisations recorded?
HAWKINS: No. He invites a script supervisor who has an amazing ability at shorthand. And you go back to rehearsal and distill it and tone it and hone it.
Do you plan on working in the United States now?
HAWKINS: I'd love to. This is the second time I've been to L.A.
LANGELLA: Our condolences.
ROURKE: Get out as quick as you can.
HATHAWAY: I have a question. Three of us made handheld movies, including "Rachel Getting Married." Mickey, did you find that it helped you?
ROURKE: It helped me a great deal. I didn't even know Evan Rachel Wood. We didn't even introduce ourselves to one another. The big scene we did together was really heavy. Because of the freedom of the handheld, we didn't have to do too much. The mistake I made is I let it all out on the first and second takes. We still had a long night. The director said to me, "Mickey, she's blowing you away. You suck." I said, "Yeah, she's blowing me away and I suck. You got two in the f–––ing can. What are you complaining about?"
PITT: It was a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, to steal the title of the book. Sitting here, I realize I'm sitting with three actors who have made it and survived this business for three decades. That's an achievement in itself.
LANGELLA: I'm a lot older than you think.
PITT: Four decades? Is it almost five decades?
ROURKE: Wait a minute, I was out of work for a decade.
DOWNEY: You might have had a slow 10 years, but I basically wasn't in my body for 25, and I have like 65 credits during that period of time. I think the work kept me grounded, and having a call sheet was the only stability in my life. I have a much more relevant question. Mickey, will you please consider being in "Iron Man 2"?
ROURKE: With you? Absolutely, brother.
So is this really a done deal?
DOWNEY: No, I just asked him to consider it. That's all I got.
HATHAWAY: Robert, will you at least consider being in "Princess Diaries 3" with me? That's my question. [Laughter]
Well, our time is up. We can now let you all go.
LANGELLA: I'd like to say, for the record, I'm the oldest male at the table, and the only one who didn't get up to go to the bathroom.