Film Review: char*ac*ter

Well-known actors talk about the nature of acting, interviewed by one of their own.

The three actors and four actor-directors interviewed for this talking-heads documentary each see the craft of acting as a different thing, from the woo-woo to the everyday, but they have one thing in common: their friend and interviewer, actor Dabney Coleman (Nine to Five, TV's "Boardwalk Empire" and much more). His familiarity with Peter Falk, Charles Grodin, Harry Dean Stanton, Sydney Pollack (who directed him in Tootsie) and Mark Rydell (who directed him in On Golden Pond) allows him to comfortably ask more pointed and direct questions than would, perhaps, other interviewers. And while a lot of the responses in char*ac*ter probably aren't much different from what any trained journalist would get—Falk would be spinning his stories just as charmingly, Grodin would be just as baldly blunt—you can see the subjects dropping their guard and going with it.

Why do they do what they do? For Pollack, who died in 2008, it was because "I have this one life…except when I act or direct. Then I can have a million other lives." While conceding that, "sure, there's an aspect of narcissism to it," he also notes that one can slip empathetically into the lives other people not just by acting but "by reading literature… It can happen with reading, too. You don't have to be an actor to do it."

Falk talks about falling into the character you're playing so deeply that you don't even realize that it's yourself raising your arm. In those rare moments, he marvels, "You no longer hear the line that you just said… You've become one with the character." Rydell says some people simply like to dramatize things and some people don't, and actors are interested in people's behavior. He also likes that you can "lock people" into a dark room and have a captive audience for what you have to say.

For Grodin, acting is a job, but one based on maddening subjectivity. "You gotta walk through all this rejection," he says of starting out and sticking to it. "There's so many gifted people that were in acting class with me—I never saw them get a job. Just because you’re gifted…you [still] need somebody sitting looking at you who knows what they're doing. And sometimes it's right in front of them and they don't know it." Grodin figures those talented people he knew simply "turned around and went home. They didn't know there was going to be this much rejection."

He's also down on acting teachers. "I think a lot of it is a lot of bull. I think the teachers present themselves way too importantly…as all-knowing and all-powerful." He respects one of his own teachers, the late Lee Strasberg, but overall, "I spent years carrying imaginary suitcases across a room, opening imaginary windows, and raised a question about it too, and was threatened to be thrown out quite regularly because I simply asked why are we doing this."

Still, there's an "Oh, c'mon" moment when Coleman tells Pollack that famed teacher Sanford Meisner said it takes 20 years to be an actor. Pollack remarks that it takes at least that long. And that's exactly the kind of self-dramatizing hyperbole that makes a pragmatist like Grodin roll his eyes and say of acting, "It's not that mystical."

Along with all this, we get the usual fun stories about starting out and, in the case of the surprisingly hard-on-himself Stanton, who on film is the epitome of uncaring cool, regrets over a TV detective series he says director John Carpenter offered him and which would have changed his life had he not said, "I'll think about it" and never followed up.

He may have no great need for regret—it's not evident what this ostensible Carpenter series might have been, and most TV series don't last anyway, so his life might very well not have changed. In any event, neither he nor the documentary's producers do any digging or fact-checking about this or other claims, so like any such collections of personal musings, take any anecdotes involving other people advisedly.

I'm not sure what the preciousness of the title spelling is supposed to represent, and the title itself seems misleading, since the topic is acting, not being a character actor, and Falk, at least, has been primarily a leading man. Despite that minor oddness and despite incongruous inserts of Coleman giving a tour of the famed acting school The Neighborhood Playhouse, which seems from a different documentary altogether, this is a valuable record of significant individuals articulating the workings of the creative process—and all the more so since this film, completed in 2009, represents what may be the last interviews with Pollack and with Falk, who died in 2011.