Stage vs. screen debate

Thesps ponder the pros and cons of plays, pics

NEW YORK — “There are times I’ve finished a play and thought, ‘I’d like to sit in a trailer for a while,” Helen Hunt said.

She and her fellow actors put the creative process under the microscope in “Actors on Acting: Theater and Film,” a Tribeca film fest panel Thursday moderated by Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart.

Tiring it is, but theater gives actors artistic control and lots more room to explore their characters, night after night, said several thesps whose careers have shuttled between Broadway and Hollywood.

“When you’re doing a movie, you’re paying homage to another guy; the director is your god,” Holly Hunter said. “But when you’re doing a play, it’s your medium. You’re developing a character every night, every week. In a movie, it’s a more dangerous and precarious path an actor walks.

“You build up a character piecemeal and hope you get it right,” Hunter continued. “You can’t do it over again. In a play you can keep exploring. If the play is good, the character is good, I can’t really fuck up. In movies I feel I can, because it’s not mine to shape.”

Crix swatted

Surprise. Actors like control. And they dislike bad reviews.

Hunt called them mean-spirited and counterproductive and said she has “a hard time seeing a place for critics who rip things apart.”

A bad theater review is especially potent. “You have to go on the next night and that’s what you hear. In a movie, it’s too late,” said Paul Rudd, who starred in both the London and New York runs of Neil LaBute’s play “The Shape of Things,” as well as the film version opening this weekend.

“My thought is that if they like what I do they’re good, and if they don’t then they’re not,” he added.

Other panelists included Edie Falco, who plays mobster wife Carmela in “The Sopranos” and starred on Broadway this season in “Frankie and Johnny,” and Roger Bart, star of Broadway hit “The Producers,” who segues into film work this summer with “The Stepford Wives,” alongside Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick.

“Now I’m preparing myself for Dr. Zachary Smith roles or maybe to be the new Paul Lynde,” said the thesp, presently facing the dilemma of advising his 16-year-old aspiring actress daughter on the tough road to success.

“I remember celebrating the first year I worked more as an actor than as a bartender,” he observed. “That was a big anniversary.”

Group discussed how they pick roles (Hunter: “It depends on what’s going on in my life, how much money I have at that time, and who the director is.”) and the well-known vagaries of the profession (Hunt: “I did a bunch of movies in a row and then said I wanted to take a year off. And then I wasn’t getting offers. The tide shifted.”). She’s currently on Broadway in “Life (x) 3” opposite John Turturro.

Hunter thinks an Academy Award “gives you a five-year swing of increased opportunity. Then it switches. Unless all the planets are aligned and you’re a particular kind of actor, like a Tom Hanks.” She won an Oscar for best actress in 1993 for “The Piano.”

“Who knows what ‘that thing’ really does for you,” added Hunt, who won her Oscar for “As Good as It Gets.”

Success can be impossible to predict. After a first rehearsal for smash hit “The Sopranos,” Falco recalled, “David Chase said, ‘That was very nice, but unfortunately no one will ever see it.’ I have no concept of the marketability of things. I’m beyond trying to figure out what’s going to work and what isn’t.”

But Falco says her career has taken a serendipitous course without much conscious thought on her part. “On some level, I don’t feel I’ve made any decisions in my life and on some level that’s fine,” she said. “I’m reluctant to plan anything.”

As for advice: “Move to Los Angeles,” Rudd told one aspiring actress in the audience. “Set a deadline,” urged Bart. “Stick with it,” said Hunt. “It’s worth staying and doing it however long it’s feeding you.”

Looking to prod the actresses on the panel into airing their gripes on the shortage of strong roles for women, Peter Bart observed that the dominance of superhero and comicbook sequel roles may prompt many to turn to theater.

He also underlined the paradox of so many major studios being headed by women, of networks with women in top programming positions and running the producers, directors and writers guilds without any proportionate increase in meaty distaff roles.

“What do you do?,” pondered Hunt. “You look for them or you try to write them like I’m doing, and God knows what that will come to. Maybe you do smaller movies if that’s where the roles are.

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