Trumbo Q&A with Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman & Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
We were honoured earlier today (08.10.15) to attend the press screening and conference for upcoming Jay Roach feature Trumbo, as part of the BFI London Film Festival.
The stars were truly out to play, as actors Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje spoke to us about the modern relevance of this new self-reflexive film about Hollywood and the American government, along with the obligatory comments on Breaking Bad and Mirren’s hats.
Here’s the Q&A as it happened.
Why make this film about the Hollywood ‘blacklist’ now?
Bryan Cranston: I think the message resonates internationally; any time a government overreaches its powers to oppress the civil rights of its citizenry, that’s cause for alarm. It happened in the United States, this was a breach of our First Amendment to the Constitution, which states the right to free speech, and a man went to prison for a year for committing no crime. I think that’s certainly worth a story, and as a cautionary tale, hopefully it will resonate internationally.
John Goodman: A small section of the government exploiting the population and propagating fear and paranoia that feeds upon itself… It is a cautionary tale, and its happening now.
Helen Mirren: I would say in the context of the character that I play, Hedda Hopper, who’s like you guys, a journalist – especially in the light of what’s happened within the press and journalism in this country within the past three or four years – it is also a story about the fearful power of the press, and the way it can be misused. Or at least, when the press engages so immediately in the zeitgeist of the time, rather than challenging the zeitgeist… My character, with the power of her journalism, plays to the fears and the paranoia of her public, and it shows us how very dangerous that power can be.
Bryan and John, these events happened long before you started out as actors, but could you still feel the shockwaves of these events through the American industry?
JG: Through older actors, yeah. When I started out in the mid-70s, there were a lot of older actors who had friends or who were themselves targeted by the scare which ended fifty years before I started; there was still a great deal of resentment. I grew up studying the tenets of the group theatre, and they were especially devastated by the HUAC, and a lot of people I contacted were affected.
BC: I can honestly say no, when I started, it wasn’t a topic of conversation. John, who is several years my senior, was obviously around during those days, and remembers them first hand!
HM: And can I just say that we of course in Britain when I first started out in the industry in fact benefited, because some of the directors – in particular I’m thinking of Joseph Losey, who as I understand was one of the people who had to leave America – we benefited in Europe from the brilliance of those directors. I was dying to work with Joe Losey, who was the preeminent art film director working in Britain, so that was another thing that came of that time.
Bryan, will you make a cameo in Better Call Saul Season 2?
BC: I don’t know if a cameo is in the works for Better Call Saul for my character. It could be! And I certainly would do it if Vince Gilligan wanted me to, I would absolutely do that.
Dalton Trumbo was renowned for his witticisms; what’s your favourite Trumbo quote?
BC: I think that the phrase that keeps ringing in my ears really is emblematic of the message in Trumbo. And that is the moment when Trumbo addresses John Wayne, and says “We just have a different opinion, and that’s the point. We both have a right to be wrong”.
What attracted you to the project?
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje: There are so many things that attract you to a project like this. First of all, I’m a huge fan of Dalton Trumbo himself, not simply because of the impact he’s had on our industry, but also as a man. We alluded earlier to the themes of the film, that resonate throughout the ages up to now. Here’s a man who stood for what he believed, sacrificed everything, and put it all on the line. Just reading how incredible he was as in individual really inspired me. And then of course the esteemed cast who I was privileged to work with, and a great director, Jay Roach. These are all people who invest themselves in the art of telling the truth in stories, and I certainly wanted to be a part of that.
BC: The nature of the occupation itself; these were very prolific writers and wordsmiths, and Dalton certainly was one of the top. I enjoyed the flamboyancy and the flair and that dramatic nature that he had. He always enjoyed the idea of using a word where his audience didn’t know what it meant, just to stump ’em a little bit! So there was that inherent to the story, but it always has to first and foremost be about the story, and how that story is supported by the text. And if that is there, then you have a great chance to make an important film.
JG: It came off the page as a lot of fun, around a serious story.
Bryan and John, you were both here a few years ago for Argo, which went on to do very well at the Academy Awards. This film is quite critical of the Academy in the 1950s and ’60s – how do you think this will position Trumbo as a contender in the awards season?
BC: That’s not something that I focus on. I know John and Helen probably don’t think about it either. Our job really is to focus on trying to make the best film possible, and now it’s to promote it, so that people have the chance to see it. And hopefully it resonates not only with critics, but also with audiences, to see an important story told in an entertaining way. If people beyond that want to celebrate it with some nomination of some sort in some area, great! But that’s certainly not a focus of mine.
When you get a script that is pushing a political agenda, maybe one that you don’t agree with, would you work with that script?
HM: I wouldn’t do a script that perpetuated ideas or philosophies that I absolutely didn’t agree with. I would play a character – as I do in this movie – who perpetuates different ideas within the context of this sort of film, but no, I wouldn’t commit to a film I didn’t agree with. I have quite a broad understanding of life in general, but no, if a film was politically pushing an agenda that I very strongly disagreed with, I would not partake in that at all.
JG: And it would be doing a disservice to the filmmakers if I signed up to it.
BC: I would for the money! In some ways – well, a political agenda, that’s more personal and important – but in some ways when you do that you’re taking on the role of a heavy, the antagonist, and that point of view, and it’s actually fun to get behind a character like that. But if it strikes something very personal, then no, you don’t want to promulgate that.
AA: It’s always tricky. I think as an artist, you’re always treading that line. You’re expressing a character, and also showing an audience that person’s view, so that technically is your job. It’s tricky, because as a human being, I would like to think I would be able to do that, and it’s always challenging, because I’ve played characters who are criminals, and do things that I wouldn’t do, but I think as John says, when it’s political, that’s more of a personal note, but as an artist, I would like to think that I could play those characters that I didn’t necessarily agree with.
HM: There’s a difference between playing the character, which is one thing, and being in a film that is perpetuating an idea that you don’t agree with. I think they’re two differnet things. Absoultely, you can play characters whose attitudes, lifestyles, and actions you completely disagree with, and the difficulty is always to find your personal sympathy with those characters, to make them real and human, but that’s another thing.
Helen, on a lighter note, we love your hats. Do you have a personal favourite?
HM: Oh, I can’t remember now. I loved all of them! I mean I love hats, and it’s been a great sadness in my life that hats became something that people didn’t wear anymore, but I loved every single one. My costumes in general were such a laugh. They were so brilliant. A lot of them were original vintage pieces. But what fun to be able to wear hats in a movie. That was really great.
And did you have fun going back and reading Hedda Hopper’s column?
HM: Well I don’t know quite how much fun it was… I’ve never been a big fan of celebrity journalism!
BC: Present company excluded.
HM: Hah! Even when I was dreaming of becoming an actress, I didn’t dream about it through reading fan, fanique sorts of things. So I find it kind of boring, I’m afraid to say. But I was more interested in reading about her. I did read a very interesting book about letters that were sent to her, which really gave a view into the mindset of very ordinary people in America at that time. So that was very interesting.
Following on from that, Helen, you’re well known for being very gracious towards the press. What would you have thought of Hedda if you’d ever met her?
HM: Oh, she would’ve scared the shit out of me! And there are a lot of journalists who scare the shit out of me nowadays! In our business we have to be open to the press, and we all feel it’s very much a part of our job, but at the same time, you’re always about to fall off the wire, into the pit below of snarling snakes.
BC: Present company excluded.
HM: Well I suppose I’m talking more about the comments part of the internet, that sort of world. We all tumble into it regularly. So it’s all a bit nerve-wracking, but it’s an essential part of our job, and we’re very grateful to you guys for being here, in this room, when you could be somewhere else. Turning up and doing what you do.
BC: Present company included.
To the American actors, next year you have an election coming up with some very interesting characters…
BC: Oh, like you guys don’t have ‘interesting candidates’ yourselves!
Ha! But would you say that Hollywood is becoming more political than ever? Because this festival has many political films.
BC: I think Hollywood has always been very political – I think Hollywood is fascinated with politics and vice versa. But I think it’s circumstantial that in any given year there’s something that makes films more political. I don’t think there’s an agenda, which speaks to the whole story of Trumbo. The House Un-American Activities Committee thought there was this collusion to promulgate Communism through film, which was a ridiculous notion. It’s all based on story, and who’s in power at any given time.
Bryan, how did you find working with the birds that Trumbo owned?
BC: I basically… placed the bird on my shoulder. But I loved that little bird, his name was ‘Sloppy Joe’, and he loved to preen, and I had the fake moustache, so he would constantly peck at my moustache, so we just incorporated that as if they were kisses. He would also dig into my ear, I don’t know what he found in there… And would pick at my hair. He was very affectionate! He would rub against me, and I just fell in love with that little bird.
Do you think that there’s still ‘blacklisting’ within Hollywood?
BC: I think there is some self-imposed blacklisting in Hollywood. You could say Mel Gibson has done something. And any misbehaviour is certainly that. If you have skeletons coming out of your closet that expose you to abnormal behaviour, or any kind of criminal behaviour, you could put yourself on that blacklist, because people don’t want to work with you.
There was a time many many years ago when I was told that I was up for a film, and I was very excited about it, because it was a job, and they said ‘I think they’re gonna get OJ Simpson to be in the movie too!’ And I went… ‘Oh no. No, no, no!’ And as actors started hearing about that, they started dropping out… This was ‘after’. And as they started dropping out, the movie just fell apart. It was impossible to sustain that kind of thing.
So I hope that there aren’t any political blacklists, and I hope that there isn’t any sexual orientation blacklist. I think we’re moving out of that as a society, and I think that’s a great thing. There’s probably some lists of people who don’t want to hire certain people, but for me, there’s probably four people who I don’t want to work with again after 35 years. And they’re RIGHT HERE!
Did you ever ask yourselves what you would’ve done in Trumbo’s situation?
JG: Sure. I don’t know what I’d do. I’m sure I would’ve caved like… like something that caves.
HM: Of course it’s something that you ask yourself when you make a film like this. And it would be just like this [at the press conference], because this is how they sat, with the microphone like this. I don’t know what I’d do. It’s a terrifying thought, just awful. I just did The Woman In Gold, about the Nazi occupation in Vienna, and I thought what would I do then, if I was walking past and saw a woman being forced to clean the pavement with a toothbrush? Would I just walk past, go home and make a cup of tea? It’s a tough question that we should all ask ourselves, all the time.
Stay tuned for our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival and review of the excellent Trumbo, which is already attracting Oscars buzz.