A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.
With the year winding down, the town has been uncommonly quiet as it seems the campaigns are taking a little break before the real madness begins in earnest next week with the Palm Springs Film Festival gala Monday launching into Golden Globes craziness, and the beginning of balloting for Oscar nominations. I thought, with that in mind, I would use this week’s column to highlight conversations I have had this season with three veteran actors — Kevin Costner, Aaron Eckhart and Tracy Letts — all of whom should be considered for their outstanding supporting work in movies this year but who, for whatever reason, haven’t drawn the buzz I expected initially and that their performances warrant.
Take note, Oscar voters. Maybe you will consider seeking out these films before casting that ballot you get late next week.
KEVIN COSTNER ON WHY HE ULTIMATELY COULDN’T RESIST ‘HIDDEN FIGURES’
Costner sparked to the idea of the movie Hidden Figures but not the role of Al Harrison, who headed the NASA operation that employed the brilliant and unheralded African American female math geniuses who became so integral to its success in the early 1960s. As originally written, Costner felt the character (a composite of people repping the real person) was almost schizophrenic in his actions, saying one thing and then something completely different. “It was uninteresting to me. It really was. It was uninteresting and so we had a real talk about it,” he told me, referring to his honing the character with the film’s director and co-writer Ted Melfi.
Ultimately, it got to the point where Costner was interested, and now you can tell he is happy he is a part of this film, which hasn’t yet won him the kind of individual supporting nomination he deserves — though he is included in the Outstanding Cast nod the film received from SAG, a very big deal for the movie which is playing in select theaters before going wide January 6. It’s on my 2016 Top 10 list.
“I wanted (Al) to be very very human in this thing, but I also wanted a guy like that to be able to recognize the smartest person in the room, and like everybody else understand that when that happens everybody has to nurture that,” Costner says about the way the character evolves as he realizes the value of these women and what they were doing against all odds amid the segregation that existed still in some places back then. “I honestly didn’t know. I was really charmed when the people were called computers long before the machines started to come into our lives. Then when you overlay it with the trouble that women have in the workplace, let alone the trouble black women have in the workplace, against the civil rights movement, against an international space race of the highest order, it was fun, but the story stayed small. It stayed small with big ideas and big backdrops,” he said.
As for working with Melfi, they developed a bond. “We had a giant trust with each other that actually grew every day. I love acting for directors that are totally behind you. I love it. They’re almost like coaches to me, and there’s nothing I won’t do for them.”
Of course, Costner is a sometimes-director himself, having won an Oscar (actually two) for 1990’s Best Picture Dances With Wolves. He’s also a producer and self-financed another movie a couple of years ago dealing with issues of race, Black Or White, in which he co-starred with one of the Hidden Figures stars Octavia Spencer. Unfortunately, it was released by Relativity just as that company was experiencing its financial meltdown. “I’m really happy I made it, but I’m still dealing with the bankruptcy and what that’s about. I’m an individual paying for an entire film,” he says of the fact he hasn’t seen any of his investment returned yet. “It’s sad on that end of it because I’m willing to make these kinds of movies, even willing to pay for them, but going broke doing them is not any fun.”
Regardless of the shaky business end of that enterprise, I thought Costner had never been better than he was in that film. And he continues to keep doing exceptional work at this point in his career including Hidden Figures but also in recent movies Draft Day and McFarland USA. And on television he had a really big success winning an Emmy for Leading Actor in a Movie or Miniseries for History’s Hatfields & McCoys. He was thrilled with that, even if he does have a couple of Oscars at home already.
“I’ll tell you one of the biggest highlights was what happened with Hatfields & McCoys. I never saw that coming with that part. To win the Emmy — that moment I’d have to tell you was a real high mark for me in my career. I was really proud,” he said.
Right now he’s working in another supporting role in Molly’s Game, the movie Aaron Sorkin is making his feature directorial debut from his own screenplay. “It’s a really blistering script I will tell you. I’ve been part of really great scripts and this is as good as any that I’ve ever read. It’s really very powerful and he’s doing a great job on it,” Costner says of the film based on a true story about a woman (Jessica Chastain) who becomes the target of an FBI investigation when she establishes a high-stakes poker game.
AARON ECKHART PILOTING WAY INTO AWARDS RACE
Eckhart really knows what the word supporting is all about after this season. He has been justifiably praised for his work in two films in which he plays the quieter guy behind two remarkable men, in both Sully and Bleed For This.
In the former, he plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles who helped Sully Sullenberger steer to a safe landing on the Hudson River in that celebrated story of the hero pilot played by Tom Hanks. And in the latter he plays Kevin Rooney, the man behind the incredible, against-all-odds boxing comeback of Vinnie Pazienza played by Miles Teller. In both he also plays real-life living people, but didn’t get the opportunity that the stars of those films did to spend much, if any, with the men he plays. Skiles was always on a transatlantic flight, so he only talked to him on the phone. Rooney has dementia, but Eckhart did talk with his son, as well as Pazienza himself, to get an idea of what he was like.
Whatever the levels of research, Eckhart is solid in both roles, the true definition if you ask me of what a supporting performance should be even if, as Eckhart notes, it can be “weird” doing movies about people who are actually living. It’s been an interesting experience for Eckhart to promote these two films simultaneously during the fall awards season, but a gratifying one. He launched both at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, where we first ran into each other and where he would jump from one film’s screening and Q&A to another one, running up and down Main Street.
“Since I last saw you I’ve been around the world twice physically and it has been a huge ride which I haven’t had for many years,” he told me last month. “And to be with (Sully director) Clint Eastwood and Tom, and Miles and (Bleed For This director Ben Younger), it’s just been amazing.” As for the experience of seeing a movie with someone you are actually playing, he said it was a little odd for Skiles. “I think what it was, was he was frightened to death because the movie had been geared towards Sully, and obviously the name is Sully. So we saw the movie together in New York at the premiere. I had heard that he said he didn’t believe he was that big a deal, a part of the movie. Afterwards I told him, ‘Well you’re the co-pilot. That’s a huge deal,’ ” he laughed.
And what about working with Eastwood? Hanks and he were both first-timers with the legendary actor-director
“Working on small films and first-time directors and that sort of stuff, everything is a bit more chaotic, everybody’s learning something for the first time — not with him,” Eckhart said. “That’s why I was so excited to work on that movie. It’s just pro, pro all the way through, and it just moves,” he said. “I really enjoyed watching him direct Tom. Clint is such an icon and they are both 800-pound gorillas. You have got two heavyweights and that was interesting for me to watch because I was there the whole time.”
So after this experience, does Eckhart want to direct himself? “I was supposed to be directing around this time, a script based on foster care and Child Protective Services, but I had so much press to do for these two movies I had to let it go,” he said, adding that he is hoping to do another dealing with the topic of Miranda rights if all works out. “I want to do a movie that’s socially conscious, but I also want to feel like I want to get my point of view out there. I don’t have any plans to be a big director or anything like that. I just want to work with actors. I want to see if I can tell a story.”
TRACY LETTS CONQUERING STAGE, MOVIES AND TV All IN SAME YEAR
It has surprised me no end that there hasn’t been more buzz surrounding one of the truly remarkable supporting performances I have seen in movies all year long. It came in the summer when Letts did a dialogue-rich 14-minute scene smack in the middle of James Schamus’ potent Philip Roth screen adaptation Indignation. If you saw it , you haven’t forgotten it. Unfortunately, not that many did see it. As the college dean verbally dueling with student Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), Letts was mesmerizing and got phenomenal reviews.
He followed that up in the fall as a local Florida TV news director in the harrowing Christine and nailed it again. Now he can also be seen on HBO’s new series Divorce with Sarah Jessica Parker. Add to that this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning playwright of works including August, Osage County has a new play opening at Steppenwolf this spring called Linda Vista.
Letts is modest about his career, as I discovered when we spoke on the phone from Chicago. “I just kind of go from one thing to the next thing, and there’s never any plan” he said. “I’ve been fortunate this year that a lot of good scripts have come my way, and the passionate filmmakers behind them, and that’s the kind of stuff I want to work on. So, I felt lucky this year. I’ve had an embarrassment of riches.”
It would be nice to see a dark horse like this sneak into the Oscar race, but then Letts isn’t hurting for awards. He has Tonys and a Pulitzer as a writer, and he won the Best Actor in a Play Tony a few years back for his searing George in the revival of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? “I always view awards as great encouragement, he said. “I mean, you don’t make something hoping that it is going to win an award. You go in and do the work. But I’m not cynical about the encouragement I have had to this point. I’m grateful for all that.”
The theatre is Letts’ first love, but he seems to be able to bring that kind of vibe to his work everywhere, one of the reasons he chose Christine, the true story of news reporter Christine Chubbuck who killed herself live on air in 1974. “It was such a great experience, such a great ensemble. You know, with me being a creature of the theatre, I long for those ensemble moments, and sometimes they are hard to come by, but that film absolutely had an ensemble spirit behind it, and boy I am glad to be a part of it,” he said. He was also happy to able to do something different character-wise. “I get asked to do a lot of assholes in suits. Ever since I did Homeland (Season 3 and Season 4 as Sen. Lockhart) I get a lot of these and I’m not interested in just doing the same thing over and over again, but I really felt this guy was a variation on a theme there, that he was a product of his times.”
Letts was so happy with the idea of doing Indignation that he said he was in without even reading a script. It didn’t disappoint him when he did finally read it. “You really feel like you’re in the world of Philip Roth in that film, and I was really honored to be able to do it. Such a beautiful literate piece. I think Schamus was very smart to get theatre people for the most part, like Linda Emond and Danny Burstein, and I thought that was absolutely the right call,” he said.
As for that scene, all that theatre training paid off, something voters in the actors branch would surely recognize if they somehow manage to see the film. “I was really impressed with Logan. You know that scene was hard work. We shot it all in a day. I think James said he turned four and a half hours of footage over to his editor. I mean that’s an extraordinary amount of footage to shoot in a day. I think it was 18 pages. He never called cut. We always went from the beginning of the the scene through the end of the scene every time we did it — it was exhausting,” Letts said.
When he saw the film at Sundance, where it was picked up by Roadside Attractions, it was the first time he had seen it put together. “I saw it with a packed house and it played beautifully. It was a reminder that people will sit for a long long time if something is well done,” he said, adding that the critical response was very gratifying. “You just don’t know when you make these things if it’s ever going to be seen, and how many people are going to see it, and how people are going to respond. When you’re in the theatre, the response to your work is very immediate. You get that feedback right there in the room.”
Letts is getting feedback in lots of rooms these days, and it’s all positive.