Nicole Kidman, we learned, stuttered as a child. James Franco doesn’t care if you know he sleeps in class. “If there weren’t cameras here,” says Natalie Portman, “this could be really therapeutic.” It kind of was. Our Oscar Roundtable is always a little like Inception—it really gets into an actor’s head. But this year’s was so full of pain, relief, humiliation, love, and other drugs of the profession, you wonder: who would want a trophy life?
All your performances are high-risk, for different reasons. Annette, you are in a relationship with Julianne Moore’s character.
Annette Bening: Oh, that was easy. It was completely intuitive, and she’s just a joy. Colin knows. It is funny, being in love with people, or in our case pretending to be in love with people. Sometimes it’s quite challenging and that’s your job.
Colin Firth: The worst obstacle to acting in love is really being in love with the other person. Because it’s not controllable. There is no way to harness that and turn it into something that’s useful to you.
Bening: I remember being in acting class, and someone was talking about that, and he was very practical about it—especially if you have an aversion to that person, which can happen. He said, you’ve got to get over it. One of the words was “substitution.” You take the head of the person that’s actually there, and …
Firth: You Photoshop it.
Does anybody else do that?
James Franco: I guess I use the trick in a way. I don’t know if I would call it Photoshop.
Bening: I didn’t use that word. Colin does the Photoshopping!
Franco: You understand what it’s like to be intimate with someone, so you just kind of let yourself go over to that situation. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a great love scene that people would think, oh yeah, you really nailed that, so I don’t know if I’m the one to ask, but that’s what I do.
Firth: Well, some people just do it.
Bening: Do what?
Care to give any examples?
Nicole Kidman: Last Tango.
Firth: Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs.
Natalie Portman: Brown Bunny. You can find many of them online.
Michelle, what about you?
Michelle Williams: I thought it was maybe coming to that.
You and Ryan Gosling lived in the same house for Blue Valentine?
Williams: Yeah, we lived together in this house. It was supposed to be a week and then it turned into a month because we were having a hard time fighting with each other. We really, really liked each other, and we didn’t want to. So it took a while to break it down, and the idea was that we build these shared memories together. Like as a family, as a couple, and to trust each other.
Were you in character?
Williams: We pretty much stayed in character. The director wasn’t there. He would leave us alone.
Where would you sleep?
Williams: It was all daytime activities. To be clear … [Everybody laughs.]
Nicole, do you have any thoughts?
Kidman: What’s the question?
Kidman: For me, it’s different every time. If the film is worthy, I’m willing to explore. I don’t have any set rules. I try to stay open and that’s it. As long as I have a director that I don’t feel is exploiting me or is going to abuse me.
Is there a secret to landing a good kiss?
Kidman: So much of that is how you capture it. Baz Luhrmann has a particular way of setting up a kiss. On Moulin Rouge, he was extremely precise, because he revered old movies and those big screen kisses. I remember when Ewan McGregor and I were first rehearsing. I was like, “That felt really good.” And Baz was like, “No, no.”
Franco: I think if anybody who has made a home sex tape knows, what feels best doesn’t always look best [laughter]. I remember when I was 19 doing that, and then watching it back and thinking, oh, that looks horrible. So what Nicole is talking about, yeah, you have a lot of respect for those actors in pornography, because they are really not just doing it, they’re really selling it. It’s the same thing with a kiss. It’s not just the kiss that feels best, it’s an image. Something different is happening if it’s a good kiss.
On the other hand, acting can be painful, too. Natalie, during Black Swan you actually broke your rib.
Portman: I didn’t break it, I dislocated it, during a lift. It wasn’t the end of the world. They just changed the lift from then on to under my armpits. It was painful if someone touched it. But if it wasn’t touched, then it was OK.
Nicole, didn’t you injure your rib on Moulin Rouge?
Kidman: I did. I broke a rib on a lift, actually on a fall. We were in rehearsal, and I got to heal. They laced me up in a corsets, and I rebroke it.
Bening: Oh, God—crack!
Any other injuries or war stories?
Firth: I broke a fingernail on Mamma Mia! It stung for days.
Bening: But you braved through it.
Firth: Actually, you know, it is quite extraordinary because life on a film set is inherently infantile. Everything else is taken away to the point where we are helpless. You are picked up at a certain time of day. You are driven to a place not of your choice. You are then given clothes to put on.
Bening: And someone puts them on you.
Firth: And then someone does your hair and your face, and again according to someone else’s schedule. You are brought your breakfast. Then you are taken to a place where you do your job and you are told where to stand, where to look, and here are the words you are going to say, and they’re not yours. And so there is very little that you have in your control, except what happens when you close the bathroom door. It is preposterous. It makes no sense whatsoever, unless it’s wonderful. You are always treading that line.
Yet you do have power—you are movie stars, after all. How do you balance doing what you want with what the world wants from you?
Kidman: There’s a point where you go, this is the way I’m going to live my life, so bring it on. It’s my life and I want to take a big bite out of it. I approach my career that way now. I try to stay very sensitive in my creative place but as dangerous as I can be in my choices. Because why not?
You all play it dangerous. Do you subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” school of acting?
Williams: Phil Hoffman said acting is like moving furniture upstairs backwards. I agree with that.
Michelle, you recently played Marilyn Monroe. How did you do her?
Williams: I just finished it, so I’m still trying to figure out what happened. I started with her tapes in my car in the carpool. I would have it on in the background and gently break the ice. YouTube is a real blessing. And then I started at home experimenting. I would ask a friend to come over. Or just use little flavors of it when the delivery man comes to the door and you get a FedEx.
Were you trying the voice?
Williams: The voice, the wiggle, the walk. Her posture, the way she holds her face. The voice was tricky because there’s her being interviewed, but she was always in character.
Colin, you’ve done a stammer before, in A Month in the Country. Did you stammer the same way?
Firth: I’ve done it twice, actually. I did a play called Three Days of Rain and I had a stammer. Even if there are techniques you can apply, the different dialogue will throw you. The person speaks differently, this person’s mind works differently. You just start again, really.
Bening: I thought about Derek Jacobi being in that movie, because he had that great performance in I, Claudius.
Firth: Growing up in England, it’s probably the most memorable stammer committed on the screen. I actually found his presence extremely unhelpful [laughs]. He was very kind. He gave me one piece of advice, which is, it might linger for a month or two, it’ll go away, don’t worry.
Kidman: Did it linger?
Firth: Yeah. What lingered with me wasn’t the stammer. It was me getting tongue-tied. It wasn’t just me. The director started to stammer as well, and half the crew. It was like wildfire.
Kidman: What’s the difference between a stammer and a stutter?
Kidman: I had one for a while as a kid.
Firth: Did you?
Did you have to treat it?
Kidman: I just remember everyone always saying to me, “Calm down, think about what you’re going to say.” I remember when I was little, just being so excited to get it out and I couldn’t. I grew out of it.
Colin, have you heard from the royal family?
Bening: No phone calls?
Firth: The flow of information out of the palace is pretty well zero. They are not in the business of reaching out. We don’t even know if the queen has seen The Queen.
Bening: Tony Blair has not seen The Queen.
Would he admit it if he had?
Bening: I heard him say it. I think it’s probably a choice. It’s a lot easier than having to respond to it.
Franco: I heard Bush watched W.
Bening: What did he say?
Franco: He liked it. He and Clinton are movie buddies. That’s the rumor I heard.
Are they watching your movies?
Bening: Way to go!
One of the frontrunners for the Oscar is The Social Network. Is anybody here on Facebook?
Franco: You were mentioned in the film. They say, “Something something and a Hollywood actress goes there.” That was you, right?
Portman: It was. I had a little dinner party with a bunch of friends for [Aaron] Sorkin while he was writing to give him some of the stories about what happened. I never met Zuckerberg.
Franco: How about when they go to that club and all the college students are stripping? That was bulls--t.
Portman: As far as I know. Someone was like, “You weren’t invited to those parties.”
Bening: My kids want to believe that’s true.
Portman: There were a lot of good stories about the punching process where they had to carry chicken around and they didn’t know what to do with the chickens afterward and they killed, like, 400 chickens in the basement of one of these clubs. That happened when I was a freshman. That was one of the stories we told Sorkin. I keep wanting to get credit for it, because he’s getting so much credit.
So nobody here is on Facebook?
Franco: I was for two seconds.
Franco: I have, like, different—a lot of different aspects, or different kinds of people in my life, and I just hated the idea that they were all going to mix on my page. I didn’t want professors hearing from my stupid friends.
Natalie and James, how did college change the direction of your career?
Portman: I think the best thing it gave me was my friends. They are normal, good people who are like a little bubble around me. A lot of actors who start young—I started at 12—miss out in that group.
Did you want to act at 12?
Portman: Oh, yeah. I was dying to. My parents were, like, completely not in this world, and not into me acting either. And I definitely wanted to. But when you’re a kid, you don’t know what it means. And so you miss that time when you would normally just be meeting people who love you for you and don’t care about all that other junk. It was the greatest thing to have those four years. I think this must be so hard now, being in the age of camera phones and online gossip and Twitter and all that stuff. I really was just like a regular student, and everyone there treated me like that. It must be hard having people taking pictures of you in class.
Franco: Only if you’re sleeping.
Portman: You should be allowed to sleep in class! Everyone does it.
Franco: All my classmates do it, but nobody wants to post their pictures. I don’t really mind. It’s not like a performance. I’m there because I want to be. They can depict it however they want.
James, you’re not only in 127 Hours, but you’re also co-hosting the Academy Awards. What do you have planned?
Franco: Oh, I can’t tell you. I mean, I really can’t. But there will be some singing and dancing.
Have you been taking lessons?
Williams: You’re not going to lip-sync, are you?
Franco: No lip-syncing.
You can’t tell us what you’re going to sing?
Franco: I can’t. I can’t.
Annette, you were very pregnant when you went to the Oscars for American Beauty.
Kidman: You were eight months, right?
Bening: I gave birth two weeks later. I do remember that well.
Was it hard finding a dress?
Bening: Oh, God, yeah. [Everybody laughs.] They kind of made something for me. And it was more like, how am I going to get out of a car and walk in? In retrospect, it was all very special.
Do you have any advice for Natalie?
Bening: I just remember it was a lot of attention on being so pregnant. It wasn’t my favorite thing. Being slightly pregnant is easier. I was so big. I remember sitting there at the ceremony, it was American Beauty, there was a lot going on. My husband was getting the Thalberg award. I was up for the Oscar. I had so much adrenaline moving through my body, and the baby was moving a lot. I can still remember the feeling vividly. She was over nine pounds when I had her.
Bening: I remember I went to the Governor’s Ball, and of course Warren is talking to, like, five people. I’m sitting there and I’m thinking—I’m going to faint! I was kind of spacy, and there were tons of cameras everywhere and it was very loud, and I truly was getting very lightheaded. I knew if I stood up and tried to make him hear me say “I’m about to pass out” that I couldn’t do it. I just pushed away from the table and sort of sailed out of the room like a yacht. He was like, “Where did she go?” That was it. I was done. We got in the car, and I had two weeks to not do anything but get ready to have my baby.
Natalie, are you taking notes?
Portman: Oh, yes. We had a long talk.
Have you decided how much time you’re going to take off?
Portman: I imagine I’m going to want to be home for years, just me and my baby. Everybody says after two months you go out of your mind.
Kidman: No, not after two. Did you find that?
Williams: I can’t remember. It’s such a blur.
Portman: See, we found one thing that James can’t do. [Laughter]
Franco: I’d like a child.
Portman: You can obviously have children, you just can’t carry them.