While Hollywood will never cease its endless flirtation with promoting youth, some of its best offerings this awards season showcase the work of veteran actors.
The list is impressive, among them: Julie Christie, 66, earning some of the best reviews of her career in Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her”; 82-year-old Hal Holbrook setting aside his Mark Twain duds to play a lonely widower in “Into the Wild”; Andy Griffith, 81, as a wise diner owner in the indie hit “Waitress”; Armin Mueller-Stahl. 77, bringing grandfatherly sweetness and beastly bite to the crime drama “Eastern Promises”; Philip Bosco, also 77, unsentimentally depicting a mentally deteriorating father in Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages”; Frank Langella as a wise writer in “Starting Out in the Evening”; and 67-year-old Peter Fonda giving us a grizzled killer in the Western “3:10 to Yuma.”
According to Holbrook, hanging it up is anathema.
“My accountant the other day said, ‘Hal, you’ve been pushing yourself so hard for so long, you should think of retiring.’ I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? What am I gonna do?'”
Especially when you’ve been around long enough to have sown the seeds for a juicy part later in life, as Holbrook discovered when he and wife Dixie Carter complimented a young and unknown Sean Penn on a TV movie set back in 1981.
“He wrote a letter thanking us for being encouraging,” says Holbrook, “and 27 years later I get a call from my agent that he sent a script.”
Getting to play someone other than the usual senators and lawyers he usually gets offered was one blessing. Another for the longtime outdoorsman was getting to walk up a jagged hill on screen.
“They wanted to put a stuntman in there and I said, ‘No!,'” recalls Holbrook. “I went up three times, down once and didn’t hurt myself. But they all got nervous.”
Mueller-Stahl, a 120-film-plus performer who viewed the role of a Russian Mafia kingpin in David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises” in terms of how he could both honor and diverge from the mob bosses of cinema past, says every actor should see aging as a chance to embrace new character elements.
“You have to protect your age and not hide it,” says the German-born actor, a 1996 Oscar nominee for “Shine.” “If you have wrinkles in your face, show it. If you don’t have hair, show it. If you walk slowly, you have to walk slowly. Some actors are always trying to (recreate) the thing that worked most successfully for them, but you have to take your hands away from the fence and try the new thing.”
For Oscar winner Christie, learning is everything when she acts, and it never gets easier.
“Being an actor is being in a constant state of vulnerability,” explains Christie, who says she now only takes a meaty role every 10 years. “You don’t know what you’re getting into, but you’re putting your flesh and blood and brain cells into it. It’s like being born again.”
Nearly all these actors agree that their profession has kept them young. “When you’re an actor,” Holbrook says, “you’re thinking all the time, about lines or what’s going on in the world, and you get mad or whatever. We always want to express something.”
It’s still a living, though, and although a fair paycheck is still important for these established actors, it’s never the only thing.
Bosco, who keeps himself plenty busy as a premier New York stage actor, says he wasn’t even inclined to read the script for the low-budget “The Savages.” When he asked his agent who had signed on already, he fully expected to hear “some cockamamie names.” Instead it was Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Knowing that those two were already in the bag that really sealed the deal for me,” says Bosco, who also just finished a run on the FX drama “Damages.” “And that’s exactly what comes into play when you’ve been around as long as I have. In the early days, I took any job that came my way.”
For two-time Oscar nominee and Hollywood son Fonda, the role is the thing, and each time out a welcome opportunity to show somebody what you’ve got. He knows his 45 years as an actor isn’t an excuse to think he’s invincible.
“When you’re working with a director who really doesn’t know you, you still have to prove yourself,” says Fonda, who was gung-ho to play killer Byron McElroy for James Mangold on “3:10 to Yuma” but had to convince the director he was more than his laconic image suggested. “Once Jim met me, he realized, ‘Oh, he’s got lots of energy.'”
What it comes down to, Fonda believes, is that acting keeps him young.
“I’m an 8-year-old, you see? And an 8-year-old can pretend to be anything, a cowboy, an Indian, a stationmaster, a fireman. The 8-year-old gets to play, and the 67-year-old knows how to work that and cash the checks.”