Martin Landau Interview
Martin Landau Interview
Martin Landau, legendary veteran actor of stage, screen and film, talks to View’s Matthew Turner about his acting career, the hard work actors need to put in to find true excellence in their craft, the joys of working with great actors and directors from Hitchcock to Burton, and the role he plays as the inspirational teacher Mr. Rzykruski in Tim Burton’s fantastic new animation Frankenweenie.
How was it working with Tim again, in a different capacity this time?

Martin Landau

I love it. I mean, he's fun to work with. Good directors create a playground for the actor, I mean, literally, you create a playground, you open the door and you play. And, truthfully, I have not been directed by anyone in thirty years because I do homework, I read. I've never met two people who are the same – we're all different. Similar, sometimes, but different. We all come from different places, we speak differently, we have different religious input, we have dialects that come through our parents and friends and our individual predilections and needs are all singular. And I always say, 'This is a spot in the story and how do I best fill it with what the author intended?' The more layers and levels I can bring to that person, the more real that person is, the more funny that person is, sad, interesting behaviourally. That is what keeps you involved and interested. Each time it's a new journey.

I've done a lot of things; I literally don't think I've ever repeated a character. Similarly, there were certain things that overlap but, you know, this is not character A or character B or character C. How best to be this guy? Now, you know, again, all an audience wants to believe is what's going on up there, whether it's on stage or film or for the first time ever. That's what good acting is about, that's what good direction is about. I don't want to see rehearsals, I don't want to see slickness, I want to see two people affecting each other, or more than two people. And a sense of unpredictability of how it gets there but inevitability when it gets there. That's what life is about.

If you take Route 66 across the country you're going to deprive yourself more than if you go on the old roads. And I like to look at those roads in terms of a character. It's much more involving and interesting, whether it be Shakespeare, whether it be Ibsen, whether it be GBS, whether it be Tennessee Williams, whether it be Arthur Miller. They're all flesh and blood and bone. I'm one of the two artistic directors of Actor's Studio West. Mark Rydell and I run it on the West coast, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn run it on the East coast.

We're about theatre, about acting - there are a handful of actors I enjoy watching because they surprise me and interest me. No one tries to cry in life, we try not to. How a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. No one shows their feelings; bad actors, and a lot of them who are considered good actors, no-one tries to laugh, we try not to laugh. If I tell you a racial joke, you're going to let me know something about yourself if you laugh, so you don't. No one tries to be drunk. Bad actors do. A drunk buys another drink. [adopts exaggerated drunken accent] He wants to convinsh the bartender that he's shober... ‘This is not going to be... I wanted a nightcap out of thish one.’ And if it's filled to the top, this journey from here to here is a very long one, but I don't want to spill it because he's not going to give me the next one. Oh boy. Anyway, what was I saying?
Could you talk about the work you did on the character with Tim to create Mr. Rzykruski?

Martin Landau

Well, Tim sent me a script and a picture of Mr. Rzykruski, which looked a little like Vincent Price, a little like me a few years ago. The description said Mr. Rzykruski was European but Tim listed a whole bunch of countries that he wasn't from. He wasn't from Germany, he wasn't from the Czech Republic, he wasn't from Russia, he wasn't from Hungary, he wasn't from Bulgaria, but he was European. So I had to create a generic European accent that was not quite from anywhere, maybe a little Slavic. So I decided he came from Slobovia, where the Slobs come from. [Adopts Mr. Rzykruski's accent] I lower the voice. I felt he was very good teacher, and very passionate about what he believed in. And I saw him in a particular way.

Now when you do an animated film, behaviour is so important to an actor; how that character behaves. And here you are relinquishing your behaviour, your person. You've got the voice, but I had pictures of him in my head, but it's up to the animators to create the behaviour. So it feels in an odd way like you are giving off a piece of yourself. When I saw the film I was aghast because if I'd been on camera I would have played it virtually the same way. I saw it that way, and I'm amazed. It's exactly as I pictured him. I can't explain it, but it was like, 'Wow!' It was fascinating to me and I like this guy because he's a great teacher. I mean I had good teachers, when I became an actor: Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Harold Klerman. Those guys raised the bar. My desire is to be the best I could be, and they were demanding in a certain way because they were tough and talented.

These things [indicates smart phones] are wonderful, but when I was a kid and I wanted to learn something or find out something I had to walk a mile to the library and when I got there the book was gone for a week. And then the librarian said, 'Come back next Thursday.' Oh, okay. 'Try the other library, it's only a mile and a half away.' You had to go out and seek things. It made you want to do things. These phones create laziness. Absolutely. Everything is at your fingertips. What I'm talking about doesn't quite exist in young people today. And I see young people because they audition for the Actors' Studio. Some want to be actors and some want to be television stars and there's a difference. When I started, television was in its infancy, you didn't have tapes yet, you had kinéscopes, and you couldn't even get past Chicago on a live show. Cable didn't exist yet. 100 sets in the world, the ad agencies hadn't taken over TV, it was different. It was just an extra way to make a couple of dollars and film was 3000 miles away. So it was about theatre, and it was tough.

Today, a lot of the young people come to Hollywood, don't think about reading anything or training in any way, shape or form. One of the things about training is if you've got talent, you do it once a night, usually in regression, in film you have to do the same scene twenty times, just by the nature of the medium. You do an establishing shot with a 25mm lens, it gives you the geography and where the character is, then you do a 50/50 with a 50mm lens, then you come in over the shoulder, maybe three or four takes on that, the other shoulder, behind your back, three or four takes on that, a close up with a 50mm lens, and a 100mm lens, and maybe a 200mm lens where if you do this you're out of focus. You do this twenty times. If I tell you a joke, and it's funny, it's funny once. How do I laugh nineteen more times as if I've never heard the joke before? How do I cry? That's what training is about. How to deal with this instrument that we have, which is kind of fabulous, really.
Are you saying that young actors are lazy compared to your generation?

Martin Landau

Well, these things [indicating smart phones again] are amazing. You can look up anything in detail if you want to use it well. I mean, it's only as good as the people who program it. I mean you've got at your fingertips everything, whether it be an iPhone or an iPad or an iPod. But, yeah, it makes it easy for people. It shouldn't be easy for kids. They should have to struggle a little, fight a little, and put them into a phase or sense of adulthood where things don't fall into your lap and you don't hear 'Isn't he cute?' any longer, or 'Isn't she sweet?' People get out of college, and there's a rarefied world there, too, and then you are in the real world and are you equipped to deal with it? Well, maybe not. The different predilections and needs are different than those years ago.

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Content updated: 22/04/2019 05:54

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