Sitting down the legendary actor Martin Landau during the Frankenweenie press day in Austin, one thing was clear: this is a man with stories to tell and lessons to teach, and I was able to sit back and soak it all in. Over the course of our lengthy chat Landau discussed his character’s accent, the onus for his anger at the parents, why he was amazed that the animators captured what was in his own head, the current state of acting, the lessons he teaches at the Actors Studio in the Westcoast, why acting is an instrument to be played, and much more.
Because of the style of the interview, instead of a standard Q&A format, I’ve broken it down into snippets of dialogue and given the basis for what Mr. Landau is talking about before each. For reference, Mr. Landau plays a small character with a big result: Mr. Rykurski. This European science teacher inspires a young Victor Frankenstein to reanimate his beloved dog, and during his brief time on screen manages to leave both a lasting impression and a valuable lesson or two as well. Check it out below and enjoy.
On actors doing voiceover work:
I run the Westcoast Actors Studio. Mark Rydell and I run the Westcoast. [Al] Pacino, [Harvey] Keitel, and Ellen Burstyn run the New York Actors Studio. So I’m still instructing, critiquing, young actors as well as old actors. There were a lot of actors who are major movie stars that are not very good actors. They put me to sleep. All an audience wants to believe is what’s going on is happening for the first time ever. Not a lot of actors can bring that reality to stuff. Animated films can be more problematic to them. Some of them are big movie stars and considered good actors, but they’re not good actors. That’s why I understood this character.
On his character’s love of science and the accent:
Well, Tim [Burton] knows that about me. If I’m going to raise my hand and say, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ He knows that I’m going to commit myself to it. And the character: I saw the arc. I saw this guy, and it said he was ‘European,’ in the script. But went out of its way to say he was not German; he was not Hungarian; he was not Russian; he was ‘European.’ Which meant that I could create a generic kind of accent as opposed to in Ed Wood where I had to be Hungarian. That was Bella Lugosi. But I understood that. He didn’t want it to be specific in that sense. Tim did. The character is idiosyncratic as hell! But he loves science. And he loves this kid because he sees himself in that kid. And to commit career suicide in terms of job longevity. He’s pissed off that people don’t respect science.
On what the film is about:
This picture’s about, deeply, in an odd way, is immortality. The Frankenstein movies, the Dracula movies, and religion are all about afterlife and living longer. I mean, that’s the fascination with that. People are busy wondering what’s going to happen after this. If this guy was anything else he would still believe in what he believes. If he didn’t understand it, he would not have much respect for it. His kids are important and he’s trying to tell them. He’s the catalyst that kicks this kid off to do this. The frog. It’s like, ‘Wow!’ He’s an interesting guy and I understand how Tim sees him. I’m not sure [Mr. Rykurski] believes in the afterlife. I’m not sure [Mr. Rykurski] believes in Adam and Eve. He’s a scientist.
How he sees the film industry and why it makes him feel the same way Mr. Rykurski feels about science:
In my mind, if you’re the head of General Motors, you know something about cars… I’d guess. A lot of people in the film industry know nothing about making a film. And they run it. Or about actors. If I was talking to a group of people who thought they did know it, and I said, ‘All an audience wants to believe is what’s going on there is happening for the first time ever. That’s what good acting is about, and that’s what good writing is about.’ I don’t see that all the time. When I do see it, I’m excited by it. That’s what good theater’s about. You don’t want to see the rehearsals. You don’t want to see the glibness or the slickness. You want to see two people having a conversation–or more than two people–for the first time! And affecting each other. That’s what it’s about. Even in Shakespeare. You don’t see that very often. There are a lot of big movie stars who are not good actors but are considered good actors and they put me to sleep. Those elements allow me to act a character like this because it’s the same stuff. It’s like, ‘I’ve spent my life doing this and you people are stupid!’ Now, I would never say that. But I can play that.
On how he separates each role from another:
When I break down any character, I’ve never met two people who are alike. There’s no such thing. Similar? Yea. So, each character that I’ve ever played comes from a particular environment, has a certain kind of physiology, and as a result is emotionally okay in certain areas and not in other areas. Has prejudices. Has flaws and that’s what makes it interesting for me. The individual aspect of that character. They’re not like anyone else. As opposed to actors who are like, ‘Oh, I’ve played this one before. I’m just going to phone it in.’ I take it on as a challenge.
On how accents play a role:
They even speak with different accents. It’s music. People speak the way they learn to speak. Black people have Southern accents because they came out of the South–most of them. There are people who are students of the English language who say that Elizabethan English is more like our Southern and our New England than it is the British sound today. Because they were here, it was preserved the way they learned it. It evolved differently in Britain. So that, no ‘r’s in New England or in the South. That’s why Vivien Leigh could do the part in A Streetcar Named Desire. They can do a Southern accent as well as an American but they can’t do a Midwestern accent. Chicago sounding, which is kind of nasally that will break glass. But all of those things are important for an actor to be able to do that. It’s musical. That changes a character. Behavior changes a character.
Why he was impressed with the animators capturing the character of Mr. Rykurski that was in Landau’s mind:
When I said that this character was exactly what I would have done if I was on camera. In other words, it’s different to give your performance to an animator as opposed to doing it right then and there. But this() is how I saw it and [that] boggled my mind because they picked up the character that I would have played if it was a live-action movie. Exactly. That is mind-boggling to me in a certain way because the voice came first and the behavior came next. When you’re doing it, it’s all one thing.
How he insists in practice and teaching the separation of voice, body, and emotion:
One of the things I teach at the Actors Studio is the separations between the voice, the body, and the emotions. A lot of actors have splits. They lead with their voice and their body follows. They lead with their body and their voice follows. They depend on their speech to govern their behavior. There are exercises we do to get the three of them together. So that, BOOM, the instrument is happening and it’s all one thing. An impulse occurs and everything goes with it. Jack Nicholson was my student for three years and I put him through exercises that he couldn’t do for three years until he finally could. In a New York Times interview he gave, he said the reason he’s a good actor is because I wouldn’t let him off the hook. He gave me credit for it. But it wasn’t me. It was him persevering that did it. It’s a series of interesting exercises that point out those separations where there is a lag and predetermination about behavior as opposed to it happening. The objective part of yourself, you need to leave that behind. The director in you should not be on the set. It’s not the Directors Studio, it’s the Actors Studio. We leave the director outside. A lot of people are very clear about what they’re going to do. That’s not what good acting is about. You make choices and you allow. Because no emotion stays with you. You have to go on. If you try to hold on to something, it short circuits.
How acting is an instrument that the actor has to play, and not be played by:
We’re an interesting instrument. When a violin is playing a violinist, it’s not very good. The violinist has to play the violin. The acting instrument is something that needs–mainly because talented people are subject to things that shut them down. There’s periphery. Tension is not the actor’s best friend. All our sphincters close up. The senses need to be open. It’s tricky because the very things that shut you down are your own talent. Because you’re vulnerable to stuff. When it’s not the stuff you need to be vulnerable to, it thwarts you. Untalented actors or representational actors don’t have this problem. ‘No matter what, they’re OK.’ Some are stock actors. He’s going to do that performance. If there’s a hurricane or earthquake or cyclone, nothing’s going to deter that guy. Where as a talented actor’s going to be affected by anything going on around him. Unfortunately if it’s not pertinent to what he’s doing, it will screw him up. To keep yourself open and alive and connected, if you’re talented, is the hard part. So when you say a certain kind of tunnel vision it allows you the freedom to play and treat each character as a new experience. That’s why I still do it. Because it’s fun.
On his character’s inability to have a filter:
Well, it’s got a lot of sides to him. And I like him. I feel sorry for him because he’s going to get fired and be out of a job. But he’s awfully good at what he does! I mean he’s a good teacher who doesn’t know how to shut himself down. He loves that kid and anyone that’s holding that kid back is a jerk. But you can’t tell people that. He doesn’t know not to.
Frankenweenie is now in wide release.
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