Q&A: David Strathairn

If you’ve seen a John Sayles movie, you know who David Strathairn is. Sadly, if you’ve not seen a John Sayles movie, you’re much less likely to have ever even heard of David Strathairn. He’s one of those I-know-I’ve-seen-him-somewhere actors that every once in a blue moon will pop up in a studio film like, say, Losing Isaiah (1995), but is more likely to be seen in an independent film you stumble across on the Sundance or IFC channels, or at a festival, which most likely will end up being the only place the film is ever screened. No matter where you end up catching a performance by Strathairn, when you do, it’s hard not to be struck almost immediately by his dark good looks, his fierce intensity, and the fact that he is a wildly good actor.

During a press junket in September for the George Clooney-directed independent Good Night, and Good Luck, about the confrontation between CBS newscasters Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s, I sat down with Strathairn to talk about what it was like to be Edward R. Murrow, how America thinks about television and film, and the virtues of pipe smoke.

Rebecca Carroll: The first thing I noticed when I was watching Good Night, and Good Luck—and it’s probably because I just had a baby and had to quit smoking—is that there’s a lot of smoking going on there. Real smoking?

David Strathairn: Yeah, you had to. You know what fake smoking looks like.

RC: Yeah, but there was a lot of smoking.

DS: Forget about it. It’s just heinous.

RC: Are you a smoker?

DS: Nope.

RC: How did that work out?

DS: I couldn’t not do it, especially for this guy [Edward R. Murrow]—you never saw him without one.

RC: Did it mess with your throat at all?

DS: I thought it was going to, but I didn’t use regular cigarettes. I researched. I tried every possible kind knowing that I was going to have to smoke 20 or 30 a day.

RC: Wow.

DS: Yeah, one day I smoked 51 cigarettes. There were days when I smoked more. But one day I said, I’m going to count today. But I tried them all—herbal, Carltons, Kents, Pall Malls, Gauloises, Shermans—until someone said, “Why don’t you try pipe tobacco?” It burns slower, it doesn’t have 242 kinds of chemicals, and it smells better. And I found that to be true. It doesn’t dig into you like cigarettes and cigars.

RC: Even when I was a smoker, I couldn’t have been in such a closed space with everybody smoking at once—so for a nonsmoker, you pulled it off pretty well. But what a cool movie this is—although, I was thinking when I was watching it: How do we watch this movie without being cynical? The moral message is such a nice idea, and of course it comes at such an important time.

DS: Because it comes at an important time, we shouldn’t be cynical about it. Murrow is still referred to today, and I think what kept him going was an innate hope that he would make a difference based on what he believed journalism should be. It’s a nostalgic idea. Some people say the film is kind of sad—like something is lost. But it’s not. I don’t think it’s cynical. You can say, “Yeah. Look at how you dropped the ball.”

RC: I don’t mean that the film itself is cynical. I mean that it’s a very hopeful film and maybe sad, yes, but the fact that we think it’s sad is cynical. Do you know what I’m saying?

DS: There you go—that it is lost. Yeah. Right on. That’s true.

RC: Because Murrow did make a difference, but where do we look for evidence of that today?

DS: Well, there are people trying, I think. There’s Bill Moyers’ approach to journalism, which is very similar to Murrow’s in that he uses it to educate—tell a great story, but also educate.

RC: I think that what can happen, too, is that the educating becomes entertainment to a certain extent.

DS: Yes, that’s absolutely true.

RC: When did that happen?

DS: Well, it started happening right there [in the film], when William Paley [the president of CBS from 1928 until 1946] made the decision that more people wanted to watch I Love Lucy more than they wanted to watch the senate sub-committee hearings—they don’t want a civics lesson, they want to watch Jack Benny. Fine. And that’s what’s great about this film. It shows the collision of those two things. Murrow felt that television could be both entertaining and enlightening—that it should be both.

RC: There was a real palpable camaraderie in the film—like you all were having a very good time.

DS: We were having a great time. It was like making news, but it was also like, you wanted to go to work.

RC: I get the sense that your career has kind of been like that. Like, you’ve wanted to go to work.

DS: For the most part, yeah.

RC: You’ve been in a number of John Sayles’ films—when did your relationship with him start?

DS: We went to college together—I didn’t really know him then, but came to know him about seven, eight years later at a summer theater. It’s been great working with him, and it’s so much fun. You get to go to the very place where the film takes place. Not in any studio. You’re not in any other location that may look like the film. You go the coal mines of West Virginia [Matewan, 1987]. You go to the Bayou [Passion Fish, 1992]. You go to Alaska [Limbo, 1999].

RC: And he’s such a great writer.

DS: Yeah, he’s a great storyteller because he respects every character he creates.

RC: Kind of an obvious question, but I’m always interested in actors who work in both independent and studio films. How are the two experiences different for you?

DS: With bigger films, you definitely feel like you’re sitting on a bench until they say, “Okay, now we need you, come in. Do your couple laps around the track.” You don’t feel as integrated into the community of the film as you do with independent films. Independent films become, familial might not be exactly right word, but you just feel that you’re more in the mix than with larger films. But independent films have all the trappings of big budget films, they just don’t have the big budget.

RC: So, as an actor, would you say that you approach both the same?

DS: Yeah. You approach your work the same.

RC: Goodnight imparts a lesson. As an actor, do you want to impart lessons for people to go away with?

DS: Well, film and television and theater are becoming our literature. You know, people don’t read books. It’s easier to turn on the television set or go see a film and have it told to you. And so it’s the responsibility of people who are making film and television to understand that you are the literature. You are the thing that people learn about their culture from.

RC: Because there’s no stopping that from happening? It’s going to keep becoming more and more so the case, right?

DS: Well, great question. Because people get what they want. Or they get what they deserve. Or they get what they sometimes unconsciously ask for. You can watch a reality show or a talk show, where people are dumping their dirty laundry out in public, or you can watch car chases. You watch what you want. But I think if you choose to be a voice for your particular culture, it’s your responsibility to realize the power and the potential of it. Much as Murrow says [of television]: It can illuminate; it can educate. And it can inspire, but only to the ends to which people are determined to use it towards those ends. And you know, there’s the rub right there.

RC: Do you think it’s possible to create parity between the mediums of film and television, and literature?

DS: That’s always a tough blend. I think it’s a different psychological thing that we do when we read a book as opposed to when we see a movie. But I think yes, we can try to [create parity]. If you look at reality television, it is such a crass invention and irresponsible manipulation of what we are really searching for. Nevertheless, it’s a glimpse into our psyche as a culture. Art does that, too. And art films, which is a horrendous term, or independent films, do it in a different way. Many filmmakers are discovering how to visually enthrall people so that they will be entertained, and then entertain the ideas that the film is entertaining them with.

RC: What I don’t really understand is how, if we’re looking for a glimpse into our psyche, why reality television prevails over an art exhibit or a book or a film that really will tell you some things? I just don’t believe that it is because people are smarter or dumber necessarily. I’m not really clear on how that works.

DS: I’m not either. I have a crackpot idea about it, though. Film and television, and what literature used to be—novels and stories and then just those people sitting around the campfire telling the stories—were always a conduit, or the articulation of our egos. Our narcissism. We are such a narcissistic species. The most. People flock to films to try to see themselves. And since we are in our adolescence as a species—look at all the hormones going wild in the world—we are going after things as adolescents would. We’re looking in someone’s laundry bag and pulling out their dirty underwear, and we are looking to see how we love each other and how we kill each other. There’s a thirst for everything, and it’s like adolescent behavior.

RC: You know who would agree with you is Toni Morrison. She gave this really extraordinary commencement speech somewhere in which she was talking about just that—how we are always looking for the next ultimate cosmetic, the truly perfect diet. She said, and I quote, ‘While children are being eroticized into adults, adults are being exoticized into eternal juvenilia…’—and that achieving adulthood is a difficult beauty.

DS: That’s really beautiful. The thing about this movie—to apply this film to this kind of cock-a-mamie theory—there’s such divisiveness today with everyone needing to be supported in his or her own particular belief. They go to the news that tells them what they want to hear. Murrow wanted to tell everybody what everybody needed to know so that they could develop an informed opinion. In December of every year, he would bring all the foreign correspondents to the CBS studios in New York, and they would sit down and do a broadcast under this gigantic map of the world. And he would say, “Okay, let’s talk about what happened this year.” That doesn’t happen today. Everybody goes into his or her own corner, and the truth is so relative. So that’s why I think art, and a film like this, does a real service.

RC: When I have conversations with friends about highbrow and lowbrow culture, I often here the response: “People in middle America, you know, they live this way and they don’t want to see independent films with real ideas.” But how did that happen?

DS: I don’t know. Someone told me the other day that they had read a statistic citing that in a survey across the country, 40 percent of biology teachers will not teach evolution.

RC: I think that that might be true, actually.

DS: So that’s how it happens. When you are a little kid, what do they teach you? Or how do they teach you? How are they teaching what they want you to know? Who wants you to know this? Why are you not being cut loose to go out and learn by yourself?

RC: Kind of scary. So what would you say is your favorite thing about what you do?

DS: Learning. You do a Chekhov play, and suddenly you learn about a part of Russian society in 1906. Or with [Goodnight], you learn about this period of history and the people—you put the microscope down into the details of what is going on there. That’s also what I find really great about John Sayles’ pictures—whatever the subject of the film is, you learn what it would mean politically and socially. And that’s what art can do. It really can open up so many more windows objectively.

About :

Rebecca Carroll former Editor-in-Chief of The Independent