We Do Not Have to Say Farewell to the Character Actor: An Interview with David Strathairn

Nomadland (2020) | Searchlight Pictures

For a certain generation, David Strathairn feels like America’s uncle. Less dominatingly macho than your stereotypically alpha American paterfamilias, Strathairn exudes a cool charisma and laid-back sense of authority that feels both fun and comforting. Whether playing one of Lincoln’s right-hand men (Lincoln), the news anchor that took on McCarthyism (Good Night, and Good Luck), a reluctant father (The River Wild), or even a sleazy Hollywood pimp (L.A. Confidential) or downright villain (Dolores Claiborne), Strathairn imbues every role with a subtle gravitas that feels all the more powerful for its lack of ostentation. The character actor’s character actor, Strathaim’s easy naturalism is often the glue holding a story together, whatever the genre might be (and he has done them all). 

And so, post-Trump but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with people increasingly living on completely separate planes of reality, I felt compelled to ask Strathairn about how he views truth and what makes a performance or story feel authentic. We dove into his process, especially his many historical roles, and examined how he uses “necromancy” to revive the emotional heart of long-dead figures. We also touched on the expansion of representation in casting and what it means for character actors everywhere.

Let’s start off with something simple and easy like the nature of “truth”—I’m joking. But also “truth” and how we perceive it is something that has been on my mind a lot these past few years, and I’m always interested in the different ways that actors bring emotional truth to live performances and films. 

The other layer that’s been on my mind a lot recently is how we use plays or films to present larger truths or historical events. For example, your one-man show about Jan Karski, or even Nomadland (being part fiction/part documentary). How do you approach blending historical figures and dramatic fiction? 

Apologies for the long-winded question! I can get a bit carried away! 

“The nature of truth”…hmmm, that’s an easy stroll in the woods. I thought maybe you’d want to tackle something mountainous like, how important are the clothes a character wears? Or do ethnic/regional accents add or subtract from the way an audience pre-judges someone?

Kidding of course, although those questions are worth a stroll. But the “nature of truth!?” Do we dare? What the heck, why not? It’s only ever been one of the most elusive phenomenons for humankind. And is, I believe, a vital valve of the heart of story-telling. What do we want, or not want to know? What do we need to know? Are there absolute truths or is truth only ever a feather in the wind of personal bias and experience?

Nothing more pompous than a journeyman actor spouting off about the nature of something which has been the subject of great minds for centuries. I guess the “truth of the matter” is that we all sort of do that anyways.

Thanks for indulging my softball of a question! I think costuming and accents also fall under the truth umbrella! In the ways that clothing and dialect can speak to the emotional truth of a character as well as potential regional/historical accuracy, and how they help the audience to perceive or judge the character.

How do you approach historical characters that are/were real people? What sort of research into the real-life person do you do to prepare for the role? 

When it comes to historical characters, either living or passed, I think the lion’s share of the responsibility for accuracy, or “truth” if you will, is in the hands of the playwright or screenwriter. Everything else spider-webs out from them: Why are you telling this story? What is your intention therein? For whom are you telling it? I’d think these questions should be securely answered way before pen hits paper, simply because there always exists the cudgel of “revisionist history” looming above anyone’s head who deigns to know the real truth of someone’s character. 

Do you go in with the goal of exact historical accuracy—in regards to accents, physical mannerisms, tics, etc—or is your focus more on emotional authenticity?

The life of any famous person is always viewed through two lenses: the time of their actual living, and the time when their life is being re-told. What is the “angle” of focus? What is it about this particular person that compels us to re-examine their life? It’s a big responsibility, because nowadays film is the “Great Pervader.” It has pretty much bullied the novel from the playground. 

Just think about where we get our “information” today, and how many people are vulnerable and addicted to those sources. I wouldn’t lump film into the “social media mush,” but it’s close. And given how many movies have been catalogued since the beginning of film, the term “film library” is a hefty reality.

Anyway, that’s not answering your question really (it’s just me blathering as if I know what I’m talking about). But I do think about these things whenever I have the responsibility of trying to reveal a “historical character.” Like, say, William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state; or Edward R. Murrow; or J. Robert Oppenheimer; or even the temporary president of Marshall University. So, I try to collect as much pertinent information as I can. I say “pertinent” because often the character is only being caught in a moment of time in their life, contributing a piece to a larger puzzle, and not being the subject of an in-depth all-encompassing canvas of just themself. So yes, I do go in with the goal of exacting as much historical accuracy as is available. 

From whatever I can gather, and sometimes it is scant, I look for things like a trait of personality, or eccentricity of behavior, for which the person is/was widely known; where they were born, what experiences they might have had prior to becoming famous, any pivotal moments in their lives that may have shaped or re-shaped them, if possible find out how they spoke, what they sounded like…all those little things which we all collect unconsciously when we meet someone new. And then, in collaboration with the writer and/or director, pick and choose which, if any, of all these things could be useful. 

Do you let the potential limits of an accent or mannerism inform or guide the emotional heart of a character? Or is it more of a blended process?

Actions speak louder than words, so I tend to look more for “what this person did and why” as a way into their emotional engine. But how a person speaks can reveal quite a lot as well.

Accents tend to pigeonhole a character I think. Audiences can be misled or seduced by them too. It can work both ways. Again, this is the writer’s domain for the most part, and you hope their ear is as keen as an owl’s. 

Yes! Depending on how detailed of a backstory a writer provides for a character, I love to think of accents and setting as the beginning of a bread crumb trail of clues for a character and their actions and motivations. Which can then lead to exciting subversions if a character behaves differently than expected! 

Like, for example (to take it way back to 1994), your portrayal of Tom in The River Wild. He and his family are mild-mannered and upper-middle class. The audience assumes a sort of meekness and naivete about them. So when he escapes, it’s easy for the audience to assume he’s abandoned his family to save his own skin (or perhaps been killed by Wade) which is what makes the reveal that he has been trying to get ahead of the raft to stop them so exciting and satisfying. 

Yep, a successful enticement and sustained engagement pretty much depends on what, when, and how, you reveal the character. That’s where “necromancy” comes in.

How does your process and preparation change when approaching these characters for film vs. live theater?

My prep is pretty much the same for film as it is for live theater. Rehearsal time being the major difference of course. Along with the ownership that comes with crafting a stage performance over a more consistent, and longer period of playing-time with the other players.

Having worked in essentially every single genre, how does your process change from historical drama, to thriller, to sci-fi, etc.? Especially some of the more stylized (or less focused on naturalism) films—is there an acting style that you gravitate towards or that you find helps ground you?

Acting styles? Ya got me there. Having never actually studied, no acting classes, no formal actor-education, I’ve sort of been playing catch-up when it comes to styles. And techniques too for that matter. On-the-job-training, I’d call it.

Haha! My pretentiousness has been exposed! But now I am curious what your perspective is on how the trends in acting, or how actors approach roles, have evolved over the years? Especially as someone on the outside of the various schools, have there been any bits of them that you have incorporated into your actor’s tool kit? Or have there been some that to you were clearly…well not for you.

Don’t quote me on this (haha, it’s an interview David, don’t be silly)—I am so far from being a historian of the evolution of acting styles I couldn’t tell you what acting trends are now, if there are any quantifiable ones or not. But I will venture a crack-pot theory that film acting has mutated vastly more than stage acting, simply because the camera has become such an MRI/Cat Scan/voyeuristic/peeping Tom or Tina microscopic device. The only way to control what it sees is to turn your back, or play a game of hide and seek. 

I was really lucky to have been given a generous lesson early on by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He told me to act as if the camera were on you every second it was filming; that you were an integral part of every scene you were in regardless of whether you were sitting in the bleachers at a baseball game and all the action was taking place at home plate, and also, know what size lens was on the camera. The first part of the lesson was to the benefit of the director, editor, and the cinematographer; the other part was so you could know just how much of you was being seen, i.e. “ECU” (extreme close-up), “cowboy” (slang for waist up because they mostly shot them sitting in the saddle), “two-tits” (chest to hat; crass and sexist)…you get the drift. You can reveal just as much and what you want, as you think is needed or necessary.

I’m really interested in the process behind Nomadland because it’s a blend of fiction and documentary. How did you approach the character of Dave? Were there things you drew from the non-actors that you were working with?

Nomadland was so much fun. Just hang out, flip some burgers, play with Marilyn the Albino Python, walk around the Badlands, and have an amazing Thanksgiving feast. It was actually more just “being there” than acting. Initially, I thought not having a formal script might present a particular challenge. Improvising as another person can be pretty unnerving—talk about guesswork. But as it turned out, Chloé Zhao encouraged everyone not to think too much, speak from your gut and heart, and don’t worry if you say something that sounds ridiculous or unrelated, they can always film another take. 

Feeling so welcomed by the real “Nomad community” had a palpable effect. Seeing how they interacted with each other, being on the receiving side of frank, generous, tellings of their stories, essentially being a guest in their “houseless not homeless”-ness, (a simple yet sustaining credo), was the best “research” one could possibly find, other than actually hopping in your own vehicle and “rubber-tramping it” long enough to truly know what it’s like.

Sneakers has had quite a resurgence in popularity recently because its political messaging feels so prescient today. Did you guys have any inkling at the time that you were predicting the coming internet?

Sneakers…Ah yes, the prescience of films. Well, they are the imagination on full display after all. 2001; Star Trek; I, Robot; Black Mirror; The Road; The First; The Expanse…the list is certainly lengthier than I know. I read somewhere, I think it was Michio Kaku, who said that when confronted with possible impending cataclysmic events, scientists have entertained the notion of turning to Hollywood to see what screenwriters of futuristic films are predicting or at least musing about.

And though Sneakers can surely take its place on the shelf with that notion, I don’t recall anyone talking about it predicting the coming internet. I’m only a little less naïve now than I was then, but I can’t help but think keener minds were on to it already.

I was also curious, since the film was made, attitudes about representation have shifted and the idea of a sighted actor playing blind is no longer popular (even thoughtful, or well-researched portrayals). I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that change in cultural understanding, and where the line exists for you as an actor between having space to play roles and assuring proper representation on screen? We exist in this thorny space right now where things that were previously fine/expected/accepted are being reconsidered and so I find myself thinking a lot about how we reconcile our past and current selves in a productive rather than destructive way!

I think the space you are talking about when it comes to “proper representation” is a lot less thornier today, thankfully. If there were any slings and arrows flung at me, or the film, for not having a truly blind actor play the part of Whistler, I wasn’t aware of them, but I can surely see folks getting frothy about that today, and rightfully so. That said, I was doggone lucky to have had that opportunity, let alone being part of such an amazing cast.

To a large extent, we have to consider the role of the casting director. And, is the “correct type” of person for a specific role available? These days, a casting director can pretty much find an actor or actress who will be the perfect match for any particular role. If there was a role that required a 6’4” red-headed Albino Ugandan who speaks only Mandarin and plays the harp, I’d bet there’d be an actor out there somewhere who matches that description. And how great is that! 

So is it goodbye to the character actor? No. You can’t, of course, change your ethnicity, but there is an infinite amount of facets of personality to be mined in any one type of person. 

Understanding the shift in cultural representation vis-à-vis artistic creation is definitely something we need to think about honestly and respectfully. I admire your wrestling with it.

To take it back to the macro, but as a follow up to my question about genres—and my larger and extremely lofty overall theme of truth—I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity and what makes a film or performance historically accurate and/or emotionally authentic, and where those two things separate and converge. When are they most successful?

So I guess the question buried in there would be about where you might find benefit in sacrificing potential “naturalism” in a performance for the sake of creating a cohesive whole, or in service to communicating a larger idea?

I think the choice to “sacrifice naturalism” as you say, depends wholly on the director’s, the writer’s, and the chosen team of designers’ collated visions of how they want to tell the story. The task then falls to the actor to be able to embody, depict, create, adapt to, whatever is the most naturalistic and efficient way to honor those visions. We’re tools of their trade, basically. This is a crude, reductive example, but I once met a stand-in, a short fellow, who showed up for work with a duffel bag full of shoes equipped with soles he could attach that would enable him to stand-in for actors a foot or more taller than himself! The epitome of being a tool for the trade. And there are actors who are similarly prepared, or gifted, or adept with a myriad of accents, able to tango, tap, swing, waltz, or clog, play a couple of instruments, perform sleight of hand, who are proficient purveyors trained in all sorts of acting styles. So I wouldn’t exactly say that sacrificing naturalism per se necessarily creates a more cohesive way of communicating a larger idea. I’d say the “larger idea” more often than not dictates the most beneficial, and perhaps most natural, way to achieve the desired result. And if the “tools” are sharp and shiny enough, in the end, it all looks “natural.”

Historicity and emotional authenticity…whew! You saved the best for last.

Is it safe to say that the creative arts, or even the fine arts (whatever distinction that means), are first and foremost emotive disciplines?  

People have flocked to the theater forever to feel something, to experience what it’s like to see a reflection of oneself, distilled in stark revelation. To share in communalized trauma or joy, to escape one’s daily humdrum and strife, and for a brief moment to possibly be cleansed by laughter or tears. To be brought closer into a fellow traveler’s shoes, or to learn about comparable travails and customs of foreign and alien cultures. To be punched in the gut with a vicarious experience. To share in what it means to be human.  

If that is so, and I’d roll out a lotta nickels and dimes to say it is, then does the “Historical Accuracy” matter? If your gut tells you that you have just felt something real, and you feel pierced and moved aside of yourself, that what you have just experienced has ignited, or uncovered, or even helped bring about a healing reckoning within you—

If the feelings are true for you, then what does it matter if what you saw had been purported to be a “Historical Drama,” [but] falls on its face when examined for factual accuracy?

I’d rather not ever have to say to someone (who might be responding to a play or film I was a part of with a less than positive response to its factual accuracy) that their emotional reaction is more important, or was more sought out by the creators, than to have them walk away with a bunch of false facts in their heads, strutted out upon the stage signifying nothing. 

But what if the play or film was to be their first and last insight into “life and times of…” and though they were transported emotionally to a place they never expected, they were soon to discover that it was actually a bunch of hogwash “that never really happened.”

Being a “storyteller,” a conduit, a spokesperson, an informer, a necromancer, and at the same time be judged as an “entertainer” is going to forever be a collision waiting to happen. On the one hand you are playing with the imagination, and on the other, you could be playing with the safety and welfare of your audience. I’ve often referred to storytellers as the “canaries in our minds.” (Canary in the mines? Get it?)

It’s all fun to think about, don’t you think?


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.