A Group player

Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val salutes di­rec­tor Mark Ry­dell

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

“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

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