Don’t misunderstand: Hal Holbrook is very happy and deeply grateful to receive the prestigious Excellence in Acting award next week at the Starz Denver Film Festival. But if you push the Emmy- and Tony-winning living legend on the subject, he’ll suggest that maybe, just maybe, the prize is a tad premature, because he considers himself, at 84, still a student of his art.
“Even now,” Holbrook says, “I’m learning more about film work.”
It’s an extraordinarily modest admission for a man who for decades has offered so many diverse performances in so many disparate movies: A loving father worried about revealing his homosexuality to his teen-age son (That Certain Summer, 1972). An enigmatic informant who’s at once cynical and saddened about his role in toppling a Presidency (All the President’s Men, 1976). A small-town sheriff who has seen too much of the evil men do to still believe in a benevolent Deity (Eye of God, 1997). A rabidly racist Navy officer who’s determined to stifle the ambitions of an African-American sailor (Men of Honor, 2000). A lonely widower who offers to serve as surrogate grandfather for a tragically discontented wanderer (Into the Wild, 2007).
And, most recently, an octogenarian farmer who will not give up his land or his pride without a fight in Scott Teems’ exceptionally fine That Evening Sun, which opens Friday in New York and Nov. 20 in Los Angeles -- and will screen Nov. 14 at the Starz Denver Film Festival. The latter is where I’ll be honored to host an on-stage Q&A with Holbrook, and even more honored to present him with the well-deserved Excellence in Acting prize.
And yet, to hear Holbrook tell it, for all his work in movies and television – to say nothing of his extraordinary stage performances, most notably as the sagely witty Samuel Clemens in Mark Twain Tonight! -- he still has a lot to learn.
Fortunately, he says, he’s always managed to find the right teachers when he needed them. From director Sidney Lumet – who guided him through his first film appearance, in The Group (1966) – Holbrook learned early on that less is more. He credits another “wonderful director,” Sean Penn, with giving him the confidence to risk plumbing emotional depths for his Oscar-nominated turn in Into the Wild.
While playing the irascible Abner Meecham in That Evening Sun, Holbrook says, his initial instinct was “to make sure the audience understood the emotional trip he was on.” But writer-director Scott Teems convinced him to avoid any obvious requests for sympathy, and rather play the character as unsentimentally harsh. The result: A powerful performance that even the chronically self-critical Holbrook ranks among his best work.
“Yes,” Holbrook says, “after all these years, I think I’m finally starting to learn something about film acting.”
Holbrook and I recently chatted for an interview that soon will appear in the January issue of Cowboys & Indians, The Premier Magazine of the West. He’s such a grand raconteur that, even after we covered enough material for the C&I piece, I wanted to keep the conversation going. Holbrook, gracious gent that he is, continued to answer my questions, and generously share his experiences.
Q: You’ve talked about learning from directors. What did Sean Penn have to teach you?
A. I don’t know how to describe it. He was just simply wonderful to work with. He gave you the feeling that anything that came out of you was OK. That he would take care of you, or catch you if you fell. Or tell you if you were doing too much. And that’s why working with (Into the Wild co-star) Emile Hirsch was so easy, like simply having a conversation with someone.
Q. You came to film from the stage. What was the hardest part of making that transition?
A. Recognizing that film work is so subtle. You have to remember that. I keep going back to the first film I ever did – The Group, with Sidney Lumet. It was my first movie – I was a stage actor – and after a couple of days, I asked: “Sidney, could I watch the rushes, to see what I’m doing?” And he told me, “I don’t like actors to watch rushes, Hal. Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “Well, that I scene I did with Jessica Walter – it just didn’t feel good.” So he said, “OK, I’ll let you watch once, that’s all. OK?” So, during lunch, I went to watch the rushes on this scene. And afterwards, Sidney asked me: “What did you think?” And I said, “Aw, Christ, I was acting.” And he said, “Yes, you were. But we can cut around that, Hal. What you have to understand about film work is, the camera can read your mind.” Now, it’s easy to say something like that. But to believe it – and to trust it – is a whole other story.
Q. So you’ve finally come to realize that less is more?
A. [Laughs] It’s a wonderful release, because it makes it much easier. I mean, don’t get me wrong: That Evening Sun was not easy. That was a tough job, I worked very hard on it. To begin with, I wanted to be very authentic with my accent. Because, of course, my wife [actress Dixie Carter] comes from Tennessee, and we have a home there, and I know these people very well. And I have a great deal of love and respect for my relatives by marriage down there.
Q. And you think you would have caught grief from your in-laws if you’d gotten the accent wrong?
A. No, actually they would have been very kind and easy on me. But they would have been disappointed. That’s the kind of people they are. They’re not like people up North, where they smash you over the head with the truth. They try to respect your feelings, because you’re a member of the family. If you’re a member of the family, you can do anything. No matter what you do, you are OK. [Laughs] And anybody who says you’re not will get shot dead or knocked down.
Q. Back to That Evening Sun – you say nailing the accent was difficult?
A. Well, I was working with Dixie on every single line. Because we were working for a certain kind of accent in Tennessee. More like what my father-in-law had – in West Tennessee. It was important, because one of the things that Scott Teems wrote about here was a class differential. About people here in Tennessee you would sometimes refer to as white trash -- and people you would refer to as the more educated class, which my character belonged to. People up North think everyone from Tennessee – even from big towns – they’re all, you know, hicks. And dumb. And all the traditional idiocy. And, sure, they think different, because they live in a different place, in a different way. But I have to tell you: My father-in-law’s home in Tennessee has more books in it – worn-out books, book that have been read – than any home I’ve ever been in.
Q. When you introduced That Evening Sun at the Nashville Film Festival last April, you made a special point of saying how you hoped the film might give people outside of the region a chance “to sort of broaden their brains a little bit about the big country we’re living in, with all the different kinds of people living in it.” Why is that something important for you, personally?
A. One of the things that lies at the heart of a lot of the work that we do is – well, I hate to use the word “educate,” but you do try to make people see that there are far more things about us that are familiar, that are similar, than are different. This is always something that’s in the back of my mind when I’m playing a character. It may be a subtle thing about the character. But an actor should make an effort to give people an understanding of the humanity in the character he’s playing. Whatever the hell it is. That’s one of the reasons we’re out there.
Q. Sounds like That Evening Sun was a rewarding experience for you.
A. I really enjoyed doing That Evening Sun. We worked in one of the most beautiful valleys I’ve ever been in, near the foothills of the Smokeys to the east. Farm country. That shack [Abner Meecham] lived in was torn down somewhere else and put back together on this particular farm where we shot. And I swear, you’d look around and wonder why in hell anybody would ever want to leave this valley. You wonder why people came over the hills and settled in this valley – and then left and went West. We worked in tremendous heat – 90- to 100-degree heat – for all four weeks. But it really was a wonderful experience.
Q. Ray McKinnon plays Lonzo, the younger fellow who has moved with his wife and daughter onto Abner’s property while Abner’s in the old folks home. When Abner goes AWOL and returns to his farm, he finds these folks there – and he’s pissed. Especially since he considers Lonzo to be “white trash,” or worse. So that’s the central conflict. But Lonzo is neither written nor played as a complete villain.
A: And that also helped balance the picture more. So that this was a struggle between two very tough, very angry men who came from different parts of the tribe, you might say, in Tennessee. And they were not going to give way to each other. Ray McKinnon did a terrific job, don’t you think? Jesus, he’s a wonderful actor. He didn’t look for the obvious things in that character. He looked for the things that are not obvious. We had a wonderful cast across the board. Like that little girl from Australia, Mia Wasikowska. Before she auditioned for the part, she rented Coal Miner’s Daughter and listened to… to… Oh, what was her name?
Q. Loretta Lynn?
A. No, the actress who played her. Sissy Spacek. Mia listened to Sissy Spacek to prepare herself. She’s got a hell of an ear, I’ll tell you.
Q. You know, I must confess: I am more than 25 years younger than you, but I’m awed by your stamina. I saw you and Dixie Carter on stage four years in a comedy – Ken Ludwig’s Be My Baby -- at the Alley Theatre in Houston. And I couldn’t help marveling: There you were, still at it, for six or seven performances a week…
Q. Jeez, you make me feel like a slacker. How do you do it?
A. Well, I’m not without pain. Pains and aches are just part of getting old. You have to accept it. But I try to keep myself in good shape. I swim every day that I can. Or I find a swimming pool in a hotel without kids in it. And I exercise every morning. I had a tough thing happen a couple years ago, where I had to get out of a play I was doing in Hartford and go to the Mayo Clinic. I didn’t even know I was sick. But since then, I exercise every morning, religiously, to make sure my back is in good shape. It took me a while to come back from that thing, and it taught me a lot. And so far, knock on wood, I seem to have pretty good genes. But we’re all vulnerable. My dear father-in-law, Mr. Carter, passed away a couple years ago. He used to say, “Hal, don’t get old.” And was he right.
Q. Well, Hal, it’s not like you have many alternatives…
A. [Laughs] There ain’t a hell of lot of them. Except a very big one you don’t want to think about.
Q. You’ve said that doing Mark Twain Tonight! actually helps keep you healthy and thriving. How’s that work?
A. I think an actor if he is lucky enough – like I have been, knock on wood – to have a show that he can always turn to, that requires a lot intellectual activity up in your head, plus remembering two hours of lines every night to play the show without a script – I think an actor is very fortunate. Even if I couldn’t remember Sissy Spacek’s name, because names are the first thing that fly out of the window. That’s why playing a guy with Alzheimer’s [in the forthcoming film Flying Lessons] wasn’t all that difficult. I thought it would be. But it’s only a few steps beyond what is normal for somebody in his 80s, in some respects. But what’s really good for an actor is to keep the brain active. I’ve been running over lines now for two or three weeks while I’m swimming, while I’m trying to go to sleep in bed – so I can go out on stage two nights from now and take it easy and feel OK.
Q. You mean you’re still adding new things to the show after all this time?
A. Oh, God, yes. All he time, all the time. I just found a piece of material I’m going to put back in the show, something that I developed about four or five years ago, when I really thought to myself, “You know, I think this country’s going to tank. I think what’s going on in our country is going to put us in the economic toilet. This is crazy, this is impossible.” And, of course, it happened. So I developed a thing out of Twain’s material, which I call “Money is God.”
It’s like, “In the early days of our republic, we chose to believe in the motto, ‘In God We Trust.’ If this nation ever trusted in God, that time has gone by. For nearly half a century. Our entire trust has been in the almighty dollar. The nation’s motto should be changed to fit the times. It should now read: ‘Money is God. Get Rich. Dishonestly If We Can, Honestly If We Must.’” See, in the early part of the show, I refer to the corruption from coast to coast, and all of Wall Street. And I found this quote which I put into the material: “On Wall Street, where theft is practiced as a profession, by our most influential commercial men, who have helped the common folks to arise from affluence into poverty…"
That’s from more than a hundred years ago. And that’s the kind of thing that can keep my brain going. Because it keeps me angry. The psychiatrists give you all kinds of panaceas to reduce the anger quotient that we sometimes feel. But my solution is to let it out. And then I calm down. It keeps your blood going, too. Thank God it’s safe. If I didn’t have an outlet that’s safe, Lord knows where I’d be.
Q. Do you feel as passionate about acting now as you did when you first started out?
A. That’s an interesting question. I don’t know. Maybe my passion is more educated than it was then, I would say. It’s a more mature passion, that’s for sure. I feel more confident about it. You know, I’ve just written a book which brings me up to about halfway through my life – we’re doing the final edit this fall – and one of the things I think about is, it’s so disappointing to look back and realize that when you were young, you had no idea how good you were. Because nobody told you. They wait until you’re old, when you don’t need it so bad, and then they tell you. I look back at the opportunities I had, and made for myself unconsciously, and I realize what, if I’d believed in myself more, I might have done. It’s disappointing to me.
Q. You mean if you’d known then what you know now…
A. Yeah, I made some mistakes. I remember David Merrick offered me a role in a musical he was going to do with Bob Preston in around 1962. The role was an 80-year-old Mexican bandit. And I told him I didn’t want to do it, because I didn’t want to play another old man, I was trying to escape from the Mark Twain stage I was in. And he said, "Are you nuts? I’m offering you a co-starring lead in a musical I’m producing. And you say you don’t want to do it?” Now, the thing closed in Philadelphia, and I figured it would anyway. But that was a mistake. I should have done it.
Q. Let me get back to something else you said. What do you mean by not knowing how good you were? Were you lacking self-confidence, or what?
A. Well, I just ran across a review – I’m one of these packrat guys, I have more research material than I can handle. That’s why the damn book got so long -- I got so many letters, so many things. But like I say, I ran across a review in my research stuff the other day. It was the Abraham Lincoln I did in 1962, in a revival of the Robert Sherwood play Abe Lincoln in Illinois. And I did some quite extraordinary makeup, with a little help from a friend of mine who made some ears, and a nose. It was kind of amazing. And I worked in Paul Muni’s dressing room, which meant a great deal to me.
Well, like I say, I ran across this review. And it was during the newspaper strike – all the papers were down – but they put something out called The Standard, or something like that, where they printed reviews of some of the shows in New York. And I read this review of me doing Lincoln and – Jesus God, Joe, it was amazing. And they said Raymond Massey should step aside – stuff like that. It was really something. And I read this review now, and I think, “What the hell was the matter with me? When I read this back then, didn’t I see what I had done?” My reaction then, Joe, was disbelief. I mean, I didn’t think I was that good. That’s what I mean. And it really bothered me. Because I think the biggest problem in an actor’s life – well, I think this is true for a lot of actors, maybe it isn’t for some – but I think it’s confidence. You need terrific confidence in who you are.
Q. I take it that you feel a bit more sure of yourself these days.
A. Yes I do. Partly because my dear wife Dixie Carter has told me over and over and over again that I’m the greatest man who ever lived, and the greatest actor who ever lived. So after I while, you think, “Well, I must be pretty good.”
Q. Look, Hal, this may be cold comfort – but you’re not alone. I’ve talked to several actors over the years, and even some of the very successful ones – the honest ones – will admit that, deep down, they feel like frauds. Like they’re pulling something over on everybody. And sooner or later – they’re going to be found out.
A. That’s it, Joe. That awful thought was born in me when I went on stage that night off-Broadway in 1959, in this little tiny theater, a totally unknown actor, from a soap opera. I walked out to be 70-year-old Mark Twain – waiting to be murdered by the critics. And [publicist] Harvey Sabinson brought the reviews to somebody’s apartment we were in that night after the show. And we started reading The New York Times, Walter Kerr in the Tribune – and it was frightening to me. Because I couldn’t believe them. I thought they made a mistake.
[Lead New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson] didn’t come – he’d sent Arthur Gelb, and I think he said, “Some kid is doing Twain at 70? You go ahead and see it.” But then the next day, while I’m on the soap opera, we’re getting to shoot the thing, and suddenly the director’s voice came out of the booth way up high, saying, “Hal, you have a telephone call.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It’s Brooks Atkinson.” And all of my fellow actors froze. I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Tell him to call back.” And my fellow actors looked at me like I just got Streptococcus or something. And the director, Del Hughes, says: “Take the call, Hal.” So I talked to Mr. Atkinson, and he told me he was coming to see my show that night, and was going to do his Sunday column on me. And I thought, “Oh, my God. He’ll see it. He’ll discover this is a mistake. He’ll find me out.” But he didn’t. It was a home run.
But, you know, I’ve never lost that feeling of disbelief. It’s very hard to lose it.