A Group player
Santa Fe Film Festival salutes director Mark Rydell
“I didn’t know anything but jazz and smoking grass,” said director Mark Rydell of his early days studying acting with Sanford Meisner at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse. The New York-born Rydell learned fast once he got into the acting world. Many of the performers he directed were nominated or won Oscar and Golden Globe awards, including Marsha Mason ( Cinderella Liberty), Sissy Spacek ( The River), Bette Midler ( The Rose), and Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn ( On Golden Pond). Rydell— who has garnered quite a few nominations himself along the way— clearly chooses projects that appeal to him, which may explain the frequency of gaps between his pictures, from his cinematic debut, The Fox (1967), to 2006’s Even Money. These films, like Rydell’s charming period piece The Reivers and the rawWestern The Cowboys (featuring one of JohnWayne’s best performances), are character-driven stories that show those moments of silence in which people who care about one another don’t know what to say or do.
Rydell keeps busy, working as co-executive director of the Actors StudioWest in Los Angeles and shaping new plays. He lends his thoughts to the enchanting documentary Char.ac.ter, which screens as part of this year’s Santa Fe Film Festival. The film focuses on six actors and directors— Dabney Coleman, Charles Grodin, Peter Falk, Sydney Pollack, Harry Dean Stanton, and Rydell— as they reflect on the craft of acting.
Rydell, the recipient of this year’s Luminaria award, is one of four artists being honored in a ceremony at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at the National Dance Institute of New Mexico’s Dance Barns, 1140 Alto Street. (The other tributees are actors Wes Studi and Tommy Lee Jones and cinematographer Ellen Kuras.) Rydell also takes part in a panel discussion on acting the same day, at 1 p.m. at the Hotel Santa Fe, 1501 Paseo de Peralta (Coleman and Studi are among those slated to participate). Pasatiempo spoke by phone with Rydell at hisWest Coast home. The topic? Acting and directing, of course. Pasatiempo: How did you get involved in Char.ac.ter? Mark Rydell: Dabney [Coleman] is the guy who is the instigator of all this stuff. We’ve been friends since we went to the Neighborhood Playhouse; that’s maybe 50 years now, and I’ve worked with him since On Golden Pond, 1981. I have so much respect for him as an actor and a friend that when he asks me to do something, I’m there in a minute. Pasa: You worked as an actor and director in the golden era of television in the 1950s and 1960s. Do you think that level of acting, in which the emphasis was on the performers connecting to one another, still exists today? Rydell: I don’t think so. I think that period has slipped away from us. I run the Actors Studio in Los Angeles along with Martin Landau, and on Fridays I moderate the acting unit. The actors haven’t changed— their need to express themselves fully and deeply is still present. But the nature of the business is different, because the mechanics of film have advanced so much in the past five, 10 years, that the discovery of the fact that you can almost do anything on film has taken the emphasis
off human behavior and onto effect. And I find that somewhat disappointing, because when that kind of emphasis is placed on technology, the human experience often suffers. Pasa: You’re not the only one in Char.act.er to talk about the great directors and acting teachers who came out of The Group Theatre: Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler— Rydell: The Group Theatre revolutionized acting in this country. My inspiration is Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg and Elia Kazan and Sanford Meisner, those members of The Group where the emphasis was always on the truth of the human experience. And it’s our responsibility to redirect the attention of people to that truth— the truth of what happens between human beings. Pasa: Charles Grodin, who seems to have a common-sense approach to acting, tells an amusing story in Char.act.er of connecting to a very supportive Lee Strasberg, who was known for being impatient and explosive with actors. Is there a cliché about these teachers— that they were so serious about the work that there was no room for play? Rydell: Lee Strasberg had a mean streak, and while he was always after that genuineness of the human experience, he was sometimes impatient— and not the most diplomatic of teachers. But people like Meisner and Kazan were far more sensitive to the nurturing of actors and leading them toward the revelation of human frailty, which was perhaps the most exciting thing to witness, because you identify. You look at it and say “I know how that feels; I feel that way too.” Pasa: One of the most forceful screen actors is James Cagney, whose attitude to acting was “simply do it.” Is it that simple? Rydell: On the simplest level, acting is doing real things under imaginary circumstances. Not pretending to do them, but really doing them. If the scene calls for pleading in order to achieve something, that’s what you have to do. The cornerstone of all good acting has to do with the willingness of the actor to genuinely experience behavior and emotional clarity. Pasa: And what happens when you work with actors who don’t have that kind of theatrical background or training? JohnWayne in The Cowboys [shot in New Mexico] comes to mind. Rydell: When I worked with JohnWayne I was very leery of what that experience would be like. But he was challenged by my experience and the people I knew in theater and by my surrounding him with actors who worked a different way, like Roscoe Lee Browne and Bruce Dern, and by the environment that I placed him in. I didn’t let him get away with any of his old tricks; it was very exciting to work with him, because he picked up the challenge openly and was able to talk about it. He said to me, “I can do that work too; I can do that stuff. Watch.” He was delighted to be working with those actors— and me, who led him away from his conventional playing where he would phone in that old character that he did all the time. He was capable of doing anything you pushed him toward; it’s just that nobody pushed him. He later told me that his favorite picture was The Cowboys. Pasa: You have become somewhat known for that film, perhaps more than for the others, because it starred JohnWayne and was one of the only films he got killed in. Rydell: I’m proud of that film. It was a great experience to go down to Santa Fe and do the first scene, a cattle drive in which 1,500 head of cattle were racing along and Duke was right in the middle of them. Those kind of experiences are rare in movies— where you have the opportunity to do something extravagant. That was real stuff, no special effects. Duke herding hundreds of horses, 1,500 head of cattle, all really being done by JohnWayne and 10 kids— and although there were outriders outside of the shot to protect anybody in case there was danger, you never saw those outriders, and the kids did all that work. We took those kids— half were rodeo kids and half were actors— and spent months with them, training them for the picture. These kids became expert riders. Young kids learn very quickly, you know, and they were so excited by the challenge of putting on cowboy clothes and wearing pistols. You know, it’s a boy’s dream to become the cowboys that they were in that movie. Pasa: What are you working on now? Rydell: There’s a play by David Scott Milton, Duet, that I’m working on at the Actors Studio. There’s one character in it, a hotel clerk who goes though so many remarkable acting changes, that I was thinking of working on it as an actor, to remind myself of how difficult it is to be an actor. Every once in a while, every director should be forced to act, so he’s reminded how difficult it is to experience re-creating human behavior. Much as a conductor should be aware of the difficulties of playing an instrument when he demands certain behavior from musicians; the more he knows about music and how difficult it is to play, the better conductor he is. And that’s also true of directors. Complacency is an enemy of drama. Pasa: You’re intimating that directors who have been actors make for better directors than directors who haven’t. Rydell: Without question. Directors who have no experience in acting make bloodless pictures, though sometimes they may be technically proficient and sometimes dazzling in terms of externals. But when the director has been an actor, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, his focus is going to be on the human experience. That is the ultimate drama, and those are the directors who most interest me.
Director Mark Rydell, photo Jean-Marie Faucillon; courtesy Festival International du Film d’Amiens
Scenes from 1972’s The Cowboys, directed by Rydell