Good As Gold

Every year, as Oscar season comes to a boil, NEWSWEEK invites leading contenders in some category or other to sit around a table and see if they hate each other. They never do. (OK, to be honest, one year we invited producers, and some of them actually did seem to hate each other.) For our sixth round table, we invited supporting actors and actresses whose performances floored us in 2002: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Christopher Walken, John C. Reilly, Kathy Bates, Dennis Quaid and Chris Cooper. What followed was a warm, funny--and occasionally off-color--conversation about the acting life. Our guess is that two of these folks will pick up Oscars come March. At the expense of sounding, you know, actor-y, all of them earned one. Excerpts from the discussion:

The Broadcast Critics' ChoiceAwards were last night. The Golden Globes are tomorrow night. The Oscars are coming. Does this time of year just feel like a blur?

Dennis Quaid: It feels like a ride. I've never been nominated before, but as all this stuff gets closer and closer, the ride seems to go faster and faster. I'm enjoying it. What the heck?

Catherine Zeta-Jones: It's a lot of fun. It's nerve-racking, though, isn't it?

Quaid: Very.

Chris, you won last night. What was it like standing up there?

Chris Cooper: I think a lot of people assume that actors are wacky people, but there's a world of difference for me between acting and public speaking, which is what I consider an acceptance speech. Public speaking horrifies me. Last night I tried to make a little bit of a joke at the very opening of the speech. I'm a guy that always needs a script. I can't talk off the cuff and be witty.

John C. Reilly: I feel like you. I never wanted to be famous. I never wanted anyone to know what I was like. I go to a family wedding now, and it's like, "John, you're an actor. Make a toast!" And I'm terrible at that. [Laughter] You don't want me to make a toast. I don't know who I am unless you tell me who I am--or who you want me to be. I'm still figuring out who I am, you know? I made one of the worst toasts in the history of toasts at my sister's wedding. They were like, "John, stand up!" So I stand up. First of all, I didn't even get half of the room's attention--there were still people talking. I just smiled and said, "It's great that these two found each other, and God bless us all." I sounded like Tiny Tim! Then I sat down. My sister was like, "Thanks--thanks for cursing my wedding."

Quaid: The business has changed. Actors have in a sense turned into ad people. It used to be that you would never see somebody like De Niro or Pacino do press junkets. Now they have to sell their movies. It used to be sort of not cool to even show up at the Golden Globes to accept an award.

Zeta-Jones: People know so much about you, as well.

Quaid: Or think they do.

Zeta-Jones: The days of actors having a mystique are over. They know who you sleep with, when you get up, what you do, what groceries you buy. It's such an overkill of personality.

Reilly: It's really encouraging to hear you guys say all this stuff that I've been thinking, because I never really signed up to be a salesman, you know? It didn't even occur to me that that was part of the job until the last few years. When you say you don't want to do press, they're like, "Well, do you want to work again?"

But you've been in so many good movies. You must want to support them.

Reilly: It becomes a lot easier to do when it's a movie you really believe in. The really tough ones are when the movie didn't turn out the way you thought it might. Those are the days when I'd say to myself, "Find something nice to say. Try not to tell a deliberate lie."

Kathy Bates: But we lie for a living--why should we tell the truth then? [Laughter]

Just about everybody around this table can sing and dance. And many of you began acting quite young. Christopher, your mom was in something called the Stage Mothers' Society.

Christopher Walken: Well, listen, it was the '50s and television was live. It came from New York, and there were like 90 live shows every week. And they used a lot of kids, particularly on the holidays and stuff. They were really more like furniture. When I grew up, everybody went to dancing school. They don't do that anymore, do they?

Bates: I don't know. I remember going to ballet and ballroom dancing and all that.

Walken: Yeah, tap class.

Zeta-Jones: I went when I was 4.

Reilly: Where I grew up in Chicago, all anybody wanted to see was musicals. We had a drama program. We called it dramma. "I'm going to dramma, Ma!" I really hope they still have that because if it wasn't for that, I definitely would not have been an actor.

Chris, you studied dance at college.

Cooper: It's one of the best things that ever happened to me. I made a fool out of myself in front of 30 women every day. It was great to do that, to just fail miserably.

You mean because it helped you overcome your shyness?

Cooper: It was a huge breakthrough for me. I was very irritated with myself in college. I was saying to myself, "The world scares the hell out of me--and here I am interested in theater." So I just forced myself to do it.

If you started out in theater, and got to play all kinds of characters, it must be strange to find yourself in an industry where people aren't often allowed to stretch.

Walken: I worked with Roger Moore one time, and I said to him, "You'd make a great villain. Why haven't you played a villain?" And he said, "Nobody's asked me."

You did that Bond movie "A View to a Kill" with him, right? You had pretty hilarious yellow hair in that movie. It was dyed about the same color that Chris's is right now.

Walken: That was my secret in every scene. It was like subtext. No matter what I was talking about, I was thinking, "Do you like my hair?" [Laughter] It gave me a little bit of an edge.

John, have you found over the years that people within the industry recognize you and your work, or has it been a struggle?

Reilly: I feel like it's only very recently that people in the industry have appreciated my work, you know?

Bates: I did. I appreciated you.

Reilly: Well, directors and people like that have known. "Oh, yeah, that guy." But it gets hard. You get tired of fighting for the job every time, and fighting for, like, basic pay. After a while, you're like, "F--, I just want this to be a little bit easier." I've got two kids now.

Quaid: It's really difficult if you're not the star of the film. Basically, you don't get paid like you used to. They put all their money into the star, and then there's a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with the supporting characters.

Bates: It's sort of like dogs around a bowl of food.

Catherine, would you talk a little bit about when you moved to Hollywood from England? You'd been a TV star, and a favorite target of the tabloids. The one good thing about the British press is that they make the American press look kind and gentle.

Zeta-Jones: Oh, it's horrific. More frustrating to me than anything else was that it was really dictating my career. I couldn't get a foot in the door with movie directors. I had a TV series that was one of the most successful TV series in Britain, and people just saw big tits, small waist, and presumed that was me. It was a big part of the reason whyI bought a ticket and came out here. I was starting fresh, you know? I came out with six months left on a visa, and I was just going to stick it out until the visa ran out and I had to go back. And it was great--just being anonymous. Meeting casting directors. Spending the whole day trying to find where Warner Bros. was. And driving on the other side of the road and going, "S--t, I'm going to get myself killed before I get in the door!" I got a TV gig, which wasn't a great leap for me, but Steven Spielberg saw it and then asked me to audition for "Zorro." Coming here was a scary thing, really. I did think to myself, "What the hell am I doing joining the lines of women who are coming from all over the world to be in a movie?" But it was really good for me, and I never went back.

Dennis, by the time you made "Great Balls of Fire!" you were so famous that fans were rocking your trailer up and down.

Quaid: When I started out, I just wanted to be a working actor. I loved acting. I wasn't really prepared for the sort of attention I got. When it started happening, it was just too much--and I was also fueling it by getting loaded a lot. There was so much coming at me at one point that I remember just asking God to take it away from me--and he actually did for a while, you know?

Chris, can you imagine dealing with the kind of fame that Dennis is talking about?

Cooper: I think I know myself well enough to know that I couldn't handle it. I mean, I'm getting quite enough recognition right now. Plenty.

Bates: I remember going to Chicago right after winning an Academy Award [for "Misery"]. I had promised to do a little part in a film there. This was back in '90, '91. It was a tiny part, but already they were saying, "We're not going to send a town car for you--we're going to send a limo." Everything got kicked up a notch. I got to Chicago and we were doing night shoots with Alec Baldwin. It was 6 in the evening. Everybody had just gotten home from the factories and the schools, and the kids were there. I expected them to ask Alec for his autograph, but to my great astonishment they asked me for mine, you know? And I was thinking, "F-- me, this is getting right on up there!" I had my little Yorkshire terrier with me, and at 2 in the morning I stepped outside my trailer to go take him for a walk, and they said, "Oh no, no, you can't go by yourself. You have to have a bodyguard go with you." And I thought, "F--in' A, man, I'm going to be like Madonna!" So I'm walking the dog in the middle of nowhere in this little neighborhood and my dog takes a dump, and I thought, "F--, I don't have anything to clean it up with. I can't just leave it there in front of the bodyguard--it will be in the tabloids, I'm sure." So I found a piece of paper on the ground and I picked it up--and it had my autograph on it. [Laughter]

Quaid: Did you use it?

Bates: Yeah, baby! I figured it had to be used for something. But it was just sort of like God was saying, "OK, settle down."

Cooper: That's great. That's wonderful.

Bates: That's a true story.

Reilly: That stuff is not good for actors, I don't think--that stuff like getting in the limo instead of the town car. All that stuff is a distraction. It's almost like they want to infantilize you, you know?

Quaid: It's not good for anybody, really.

But, look, movie stars do need protection sometimes, no?

Reilly: I had a real eye-opening experience when I was doing "Hoffa" with Jack Nicholson. We're standing at the urinal, and he invites me to go see U2. He's like, "I know 'em. They're pals of mine--come with me!" So we go to the concert and we're standing backstage and I'm thinking, "How is this going to work? Are we going to have a phalanx of guards?" Anyway, the show is about to start and the lights go down. The crowd starts this huge cheer, and Jack just walks straight into the crowd alone. He's like, "Come on, kid!" It was like following MacArthur onto Iwo Jima. I was going with Jack Nicholson into thousands and thousands of people. I thought, "They're going to tear him to pieces!" But he has this way of getting through it. He was like, "Just come on. Just keep moving." And it taught me that it's all in how you handle it. He's genuine, and he acknowledged people, but he wasn't living in fear.

Zeta-Jones: We were in the Galapagos Islands--for anyone who hasn't been, it's pretty amazing down there--and we go to one of the islands that's inhabited, and people are chasing Michael down the street. In the Galapagos Islands! I mean, it's like the turtles are going to go, "Hi, Mr. Douglas." It was insane. Michael's an interesting one to watch because he's best friends with Jack. He hates limos.

Bates: I get sick to my stomach.

Zeta-Jones: I can't stand it. Especially now that I'm pregnant--I can't get out of them. I have to, like, roll over to the side because they're so low.

Catherine, do you find that people have mistaken impressions about the way you live?

Zeta-Jones: Everyone thinks I live in the apartment that Michael did "A Perfect Murder" in. People are just convinced.

That apartment had a great kitchen.

Zeta-Jones: Exactly. People that have never been there come into the kitchen and they go, "I remember it different." It's amazing.

Is it possible to be an actor and not like to travel?

Bates: Yes.

Reilly: That's why I wish they would do something about all these movies getting made in Canada. It's a big horror to go up there.

Quaid: Yeah, I'm doing that right now. I'm just waiting for teleportation. Once they get that down, it'll be great.

Walken: You get to go to interesting places, though. I mean, just a month ago I shot in a place in Hawaii where they made "Jurassic Park." I mean, I didn't know there was a place like that: it was so pristine. I never would have seen that if I hadn't been in the movie.

Reilly: I wasn't on an airplane until I was 22 years old. I hadn't left the Midwest before that, either. And I flew to Thailand [to do "Casualties of War"]. I was like Jimmy Stewart, you know? I wanted to shake the dust of that town and see the world! It's --one of the great, great gifts of being an actor, getting to do that.

Walken: But I'll tell you, I would have to really need money to do another jungle movie.

Bates: Yeah, me too, baby.

Walken: I'm never going back to the jungle. It's a nightmare. Getting up at night and turning on the light in the bathroom?

What do you see? Bugs?

Walken: You see lots of, you know, scary things. I'm never going back.

Movie sets are famous for being boring because of all the waiting around.

Zeta-Jones: That's why I started playing golf.

Quaid: Yeah, me too. It's fantastic.

Zeta-Jones: I said, "I'm going to go out of my mind. I am going to empty that minibar and become a drunk."

Quaid: Five minutes from the set there's always a golf course.

Reilly: God forbid you have a conjugal visit when you're doing a movie. All the teamsters will stand outside while the trailer is rocking.

Zeta-Jones: And when you go to the bathroom, you've got, like, six people talking about it on walkie-talkies! [Laughter] "Yeah, she's going... No, she hasn't come out yet." The whole world knows when you're going to the bathroom.

Bates: I did one film with Marcello Mastroianni, and he said the same thing. Everybody was saying, "He's coming out of the bathroom!" And he wanted to be by himself. He said, "In the morning, I have a little gas." [Laughter]

Obviously, people on the set eventually become a sort of surrogate family.

Quaid: Absolutely. You're in one place with 100 people--very intensely--for months.

Reilly: No matter what job they're doing, you're all away from home and supporting each other emotionally.

Quaid: The outside world sort of falls away.

Bates: I got home one time, and I dialed 9 to get out of my house. I swear to God.

Walken: I'm always dialing 9.

Surely there are bad apples on sets.

Bates: People with bad attitudes don't ever last very long.

Zeta-Jones: No. Who wants to be around them?

How does that jibe with your line in "Chicago" where you tell Roxie...

Zeta-Jones: It's the best business in the world because if you hate each other it doesn't matter?

Yes. Is that true or no?

Zeta-Jones: I don't think so. Like Kathy said, people don't put up with the bulls--t anymore. I got a few jobs where the director would call around and just check out my day-to-day kind of personality. "Is she high maintenance?" People don't put up with that anymore.

Christopher, does your reputation precede you on the set? Are people ever intimidated by the thought of working with you?

Walken: You mean because of the kinds of parts I play?

Or because they admire you.

Walken: Nobody feels that way about me.

Nobody?

Walken: No.

Reilly: I felt that way about coming here today, and sitting next to you--honest.

Walken: That could be because I play a lot of terrible people... I would think that somebody would give me a Fred MacMurray part.

That's one reason your performance in "Catch Me If You Can" is so moving: it's completely unexpected.

Walken: In a way, yeah. It's a human being as opposed to, like, you know, somebody who wants to dominate the world.

Someone once asked you if you work so much because you find it hard to turn down a good role, and you said, "I find it hard to turn down any role." Walken: I hardly turn down anything, that's true. I don't have hobbies. I don't have kids. I really like to go to work. And when you're working, you want to stay a little bit fit and thin--so you look nice and your diet's better.

When you're a supporting actor, you must get scripts at the last second sometimes.

Walken: What happens with big movies, I find, is that somebody in an office forgets to send you the scene that you have to shoot the day after tomorrow.

Reilly: Or the new version.

Walken: The wardrobe lady will say, "And this is for your scene with..." And I'll say, "I didn't know I had a scene with... Do you mind if I look at your script?"

Do directors tend to be blunt when your performance isn't up to speed? Catherine, what was Rob Marshall like on the set of "Chicago"?

Zeta-Jones: He'd be very honest, and I completely trusted his judgment. There's one scene where I was on the table dancing. I kicked my leg as much as I could, and he said to me, "It doesn't look like you can kick." You know? And my legs are just about to collapse. At that point it was 3 in the morning, and...

And you were pregnant, right?

Zeta-Jones: [Laughs] No! What do you mean?! Did I look goddamn pregnant in the movie?! Didn't you see my skimpy outfit? The weeks of waxing? [Laughter]

Oops.

Bates: [To the reporter] You're finished in this town, babe.

Kathy, Marshall directed you in a TV version of "Annie," right?

Bates: Oh, that was a nice segue! Yes, he did. He really knows how to create a fun set where you can play. And he just brings out the best in you.

Reilly: I'm a big fan of kicking your own a--. Yeah, you want it to be fun and collegial or whatever--but it's not a f--ing golf outing. You're trying to make art. It's going to illuminate life, and sometimes, you know, there's got to be some blood on the walls to pull it off.

Do all directors have their own way of saying "action"? Do some shout it and some whisper it?

Reilly: Oh, God. Then there's the people that do that thing before you start, like, "Your life is over! The answer is not in that bottle... and action!" [Laughter] What the f-- is that supposed to be? You're confusing me now. Shut up!

Bates: [Someone] used to do that to me. You have to promise you won't use his name. But he would give you the Reader's Digest version of where you were at the beginning of the scene.

Reilly: As if you haven't been thinking about it all morning!

Bates: Maybe we sound like sour grapes, but what you really want is that feeling of being in the groove. You don't want to feel like you're on the outside of the house--like you're knocking on the window trying to get into the character.

There must be times when the director wants to move on to another scene but you lobby for one more take to really nail something.

Walken: Yeah, and then a helicopter goes overhead. [Laughter]

Bates: Right. "Sorry--we can't use it."

Reilly: Scorsese puts a mirror on top of the monitor so that he can see who's standing behind him and watching. He's very protective about who's watching the performance.

Zeta-Jones: Right. Or you get somebody's girlfriend commenting on it.

Reilly: Yeah. He doesn't want the makeup assistant going, "That was great!" He wants compliments and criticism to come from him. As a joke, Harvey Weinstein put this giant mirror from a truck on the monitor. It said, caution: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Then he put his own picture right in the center of the mirror. [Laughter]

Christopher, you won an Oscar for "The Deer Hunter." What did that do for your career?

Walken: It was great. It totally changed my life for the better. I got better parts. Got paid better.

Bates: Yeah. I remember being interviewed a few years after "Misery" [in which Bates's demented character smashed James Caan's ankles with a sledgehammer]. Somebody had come in from England. He told me that when he went through Customs the guy asked him what he was doing, and he said, "I'm a writer. I'm going to meet with Kathy Bates." And the guy said, "Well, watch your ankles." I thought, "They're standing at the borders telling men to watch their ankles when they come talk to me! That's why I can't get a f--ing date!" [Laughter] That's what the Oscar did for me in some ways, I guess.

Before we let you guys go, is there anything we should have asked you? Bates: We really kind of let our hair down, which is great. The one thing I don't like about the business is that you don't see people at the commissary. You don't get to really talk like this.

Zeta-Jones: I hardly know any actresses of my own generation. Some of them I have never met, even in a social situation. I miss that camaraderie. I miss it.

Bates: I do, too. You just feel so isolated. [Reilly's cell phone goes off.] Oh, look--he's got his next job. [Laughter] I hope that what is coming out here is--I can only speak for myself--is the love that I have for what I do. I went through periods when I didn't like it. But I'm really feeling good about it--and it's not because of the success, because I was out of work for nine months last year.

Zeta-Jones: Acting is the greatest gig in the world.

Wait. You were out of work for nine months?

Bates: [To Quaid, laughing] Oh, f--, man. Why did I say that? I could have gotten away clean! [To the reporter] Sorry, I've got to go to the bathroom.

You don't have to talk about it.

Bates: No, I mean, that's the other side of all this. I love all the success that "About Schmidt" is getting, but I couldn't get arrested last year. You feel like you're getting licked up one side and s--t down the other sometimes, you know? [Laughter]

Quaid: That's good. I'm using that.

Reilly: When actors talk to the press, all you ever hear is, "Oh, it was great!" Sometimes you're covering up for an unpleasant experience, but most of the time it is great.

Cooper: I don't care if I sound naive. I mean, from my first film to right now, I have only run into one real jackass in this business.

Bates: Will you tell us what his name is?

Cooper: Well... no.

John, Daniel Day-Lewis was recently talking to NEWSWEEK about how much he'd been looking forward to working with you on "Gangs of New York." He said that the first thing he told you was, "There's a big problem that comes with you, and it's that you make everybody else look like they're just walking around in costumes."

Bates: I agree.

Reilly: I'm so humbled by it. It sounds like bulls--t: "I'm so humble. Blah, blah, blah." But I really am. I mean, the fact that Daniel said something like that is just crazy. Because he's the ultimate immersive actor. Our kids would have playdates on the weekend, and he's the most gentle... Like the Irish would say, "He's a dear, dear man." And then you see him on the set and he's walking around like Bill the Butcher and making comments. "F-- you, Mulraney!" He was just inhabiting the personality of that guy so thoroughly. I don't know what to say. I'm floored. I'm floored by it. I'm always amazed when people know who the f-- I am.