What directors would you like to work with and why? “So many, just by evidence of their work. I’d love to have been in a Kurosawa film; I can’t wait to see the newest Bergman. There are lots of directors out there, actually, and it would be disrespectful to mention some and not others. But I feel very lucky to have worked with the ones I have — Curtis Hanson, John Sayles, George, Sydney Pollack.”
How do actors balance commerce vs. art? “Actually, it’s never been a conscious decision for me. I always go for the story first. Knock wood, I’ve never had to go the other way.”
Up next: “The film I was just finishing in New Hampshire, an independent called ‘The Sensation of Sight,’ by a screenwriter and first-time director, Aaron Wiederspahn. He’s put together a terrific little ensemble piece about people trying to deal with the big and little banana peels we all find along the way.”
David Strathairn has played gentle heroes in a variety of John Sayles movies, a slimy pimp for Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential”), the commissioner of women’s baseball (“A League of Their Own”) and a Shakespearean duke (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”). He also played A-bomb scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was once interviewed on TV by Edward R. Murrow.
And it’s Murrow who has provided Strathairn with what may be the role of his career in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s drama about the showdown between the legendary CBS journalist and Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Considering the tenor of Strathairn’s filmography — a river of social consciousness runs through it — Murrow was an obvious choice.
“It was a movie about issues,” Strathairn says. “The idea that news shouldn’t have to entertain. With ‘Person to Person’ (the celebrity interview show Murrow did to appease his network), we got to indicate the conflict of interest. I know he enjoyed doing interviews with people like Oppenheimer and Nehru — less so Liberace.”
Playing figures from the distant past presents far fewer problems than one such as Murrow, whose image remains well-known, even as the nativity of television fades into memory. But Strathairn’s research, he reveals, “was pretty much scattershot — reading his writings, biographies and looking at as much footage as I could of ‘See It Now’ (Murrow’s hard news show) and ‘Person to Person.’ From what George said from the start, it obviously wasn’t going to be a biopic — no cradle-to-grave stuff. So that took some of the daunt, I guess you could say, out of it.”
Still, he says, the role carried its burdens. “I did feel a responsibility to honor the man and what he spoke for and how he lived. The bar was a little higher.”
One of the better things about making the film, he says, was working with Clooney.
“I got along with him wonderfully. His helmsmanship was really impressive, from his preparation, to the team he put together, to his generosity, to his awareness of what kind of atmosphere actors need to do their best work. It felt very much like a team effort. And it was fun. His confidence was quite pervasive.”
Making a movie is one thing; watching it is another.
“It came out much more emotionally resonant than I expected,” Strathairn says. “I expected it to be beautiful. Robert Elswit was shooting beautiful stuff; I saw the dailies. And I knew the performances were in the zone. But I was surprised at how moved I was.”