Ask the actors at this year's NEWSWEEK Oscar roundtable—Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, James McAvoy and Ellen Page—to give a virtuoso performance, and they deliver. Ask them to scrunch down on a couch together for a photo shoot, and the result is a little more complicated. First, Angelina Jolie can't stop cracking up. You wouldn't be able to resist either if you were sitting next to Clooney. "In five minutes," he says, by way of an attempted exit line, "I have to leave to audition for 'Dancing with the Stars.'" McAvoy's got his own issues: he's forgotten to remove the tag on the bottom of his shoe, and an assistant runs over to pull it off. Day-Lewis looks positively bored. "Did you ever mark the exact moment your career began to fail?" asks Clooney, lamenting his photographic situation. The photographer tells him that he and the others are doing fine. To which Clooney responds: "I wasn't talking about us."
If there's one thing these six actors don't have to worry about, it's failure. Surprisingly, they're not so sure about that. "I was very scared," said Jolie, who played Mariane Pearl, the wife of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, in "A Mighty Heart." "I talked face-to-face with the person I'd been playing. I continued to see her and her kids play. It's very odd. She's the most wonderful woman, and there was some kind of kinship that I felt with her and really truly loved her. It made me terribly nervous." McAvoy recounted how, in only his third movie, he was told by the director "You'll never work in Scotland again!"--then refused to give the audience at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles more details. And Clooney, who already owns an Oscar trophy (for "Syriana") regaled the crowd with stories about several of his failed TV pilots, including the one where the executive producer hired an acting coach for him and another where the mullet he had to wear still haunts him: "I have a list of really sh--ty shows that I was really sh--ty in."
Some of the actors still marvel at their careers. Day-Lewis, who is considered the front runner for the best-actor Oscar for his performance in "There Will Be Blood," discussed his first acting job. "I was 12 at the time," he said. "There was a local grocer in southeast London who was the unofficial mayor of the parish. The casting agent asked her to round up all the local hooligans, of which I was one. She asked us originally to play soccer in the park. We were going to get two pounds for that. We thought that was insane. That's what we did all the time anyway."
This being the Oscar roundtable, talk naturally turned to whether or not there will be an Oscar telecast, given the Hollywood writers' strike and the cancellation of the Golden Globes broadcast. The actors said they wouldn't cross the picket line to attend the Oscar telecast next month if the Writers Guild of America is still on strike. What will happen if there are no Oscars? "The world will end," joked McAvoy, who stars in "Atonement." "It's official. We were told so." Added Jolie: "We'll all go to George's house."
But "George's House," turns out to come equipped with its own dangers. Clooney, who stars in "Michael Clayton," told a story about how he thought he was being burglarized one night when helicopters started hovering above his home, in a scene out of "Die Hard." Clooney grabbed a baseball bat, threw on a bathrobe and ran outside to do battle with the would-be criminal. It turns out that the real problem is that he lives a few houses away from Britney Spears, who was apparently home for the evening and being pursued by her usual complement of paparazzi. "So now," says Clooney, "I have to move."
Some of the actors are still adjusting to their own fame. Page, who plays a pregnant teenager in "Juno," still lives in her native Halifax, Nova Scotia (in a converted whorehouse), and at 20, she's suddenly found herself as a new role model for young women. "It's obviously new and intense and surreal right now. Obviously. Just sitting at this table. I've been so absorbed in it that I don't have an outside perspective." Cotillard, who plays the French singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose," can't ride the subway anymore in Paris. "You can't live normally with people because they know, they think they know something of you," she says. "Where I live in France, I can't look at people as I was able to before." But you can bet that, come Feb. 24, much of France will be looking at her.
NEWSWEEK's Oscar roundtable, now in it's 11th year, will be published in next week's edition of NEWSWEEK, on newsstands Jan. 21.