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Sean P. Means: For actors, preparation is everything

Published November 19, 2012 2:56 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Edmund Blackadder, butler to the Prince Regent and antihero of the cult classic BBC TV series "Blackadder the Third," thought that actors "got drunk, stuck on silly hats and trusted to luck."

Of course, for serious actors — and anybody who enjoys watching serious actors, which should be everybody — there's a lot more to it. There's finding the right voice, the proper mannerisms and the perfect way to fill out the character as the screenwriter has written it and the director envisions it.

When that character is (or was) a real-life person, it gets even tricker — as David Strathairn and John Hawkes, two of the best actors now working, discovered in their latest movies (both of which open today in Salt Lake City theaters).

In Steven Spielberg's drama "Lincoln," Strathairn portrays William Seward, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State and a trusted adviser in the president's political battle to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery.

In Ben Lewin's "The Sessions," Hawkes (who also has a small role in "Lincoln") plays Mark O'Brien, the California journalist and poet who built a substantial writing career while also dealing with being a quadriplegic — the result of contracting polio as a child.

Strathairn, in a phone interview last week, acknowledged that he didn't know much about Seward before researching his role. He knew that Seward was one of Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" (to borrow a phrase used by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in the title of her book, from which screenwriter Tony Kushner derived part of his script). He knew Seward had been governor of New York, and he knew of Seward's most common claim to fame: "Seward's Folly," which is what political wags dubbed his 1867 decision to purchase Alaska from the Russians.

Hawkes, in a recent phone interview, said he had "a very vague sense" of who O'Brien was — based on what he had read after filmmaker Jessica Yu won a documentary-short Oscar for her 1996 profile of O'Brien, "Breathing Lessons."

Strathairn read up on Seward and visited the Seward House — now a museum in Auburn, N.Y., that features many of Seward's belongings.

"He came from, as I learned by reading, a very well-to-do family," Strathairn said. "But he was also a man who was very committed to the slavery question, and also to education."

Seward's wife, Frances, was, in Strathairn's words, "the bowsprit" of the family's commitment to abolition. She arranged lodging near the Seward house for Harriet Tubman and made the family kitchen available as a stopover station for the Underground Railroad that brought escaped slaves to the North.

Hawkes said he "put in hundreds of hours" researching O'Brien. "I watched 'Breathing Lessons' 40 or 50 times. There was Mark in the flesh, onscreen. His polio-ravaged body, his literal speaking voice. That was a huge and beneficial tool to me."

Hawkes read O'Brien's poetry, essays and news articles to get a sense of his writing voice and his humor. Hawkes even practiced with a mouth stick, which is how O'Brien dialed a phone or turned pages.

Strathairn didn't have film footage of Seward to draw upon, as he did in his portrayal of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck." He did have the words, written by playwright Tony Kushner, who researched 19th-century language patterns to capture the way statesmen like Seward and Lincoln would talk.

"A lot of it is guesstimation, and what you can deduce from the fact that people were speaking in the same vernacular," Seward said of finding Seward's voice. "That vernacular is so different than it is today. … It's what we call 'mid-Atlantic' nowadays, a combination of British sound and phrasing, a little bit tempered by American dialect."

For Hawkes, the pressure of playing a real 20th-century figure (O'Brien died in 1999; the movie is set largely in the late '80s) came from the people who knew O'Brien. "That's the first audience I would want to please, and the extra weight of playing a nonfictional person is that his friends would see it," the actor said.

Hawkes met Susan Fernbach, who was O'Brien's girlfriend in the last years of his life, as well as Cheryl Cohen Greene, the sex surrogate who took on the sexually inexperienced O'Brien as a client.

For Strathairn, there was a different kind of pressure: playing many of his scenes opposite the man Time magazine declared "the world's greatest actor," Daniel Day-Lewis, as Lincoln.

"That was extraordinary. It was one of the more special experiences of my career," Strathairn said of working with Day-Lewis.

Strathairn had some familiarity with Lincoln's speech patterns, having read books on the 16th president to prepare for work on an audiobook of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So Day-Lewis' approach to Lincoln's voice, in a higher register than other actors have employed for the role, made perfect sense.

"When I heard Daniel speak [as Lincoln] for the first time, it wasn't shocking and surprising," Strathairn said. "It was one of those things where the tuning fork is hit just where you expect it to be."

Strathairn knows he learned far more about Seward than Spielberg would ever use in the movie. But "it behooves one to learn as much as possible," he said. "You never know what the director is going to want to add on the day."

"If I put a couple hundred hours of research and get an extra four or five seconds out of it," Hawkes said, it's worth it. "I love to overprepare and then forget it when the director yells 'Action!' "

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.






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