In a career spanning close to four decades, Gene Hackman is more than just an actor, he’s a celebrated Hollywood institution. Often cast as tough characters, the Oscar winning star of The French Connection, has appeared in some of American cinema’s great classics, and some not-so-great ones.
From his quietly understated performance in Coppola’s The Conversation, through Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Hackman’s characters continue to leave an impression on the consciousness of audiences the world over. Who can forget such films as Downhill Racer, I Never sang for my Father, The Poseidon Adventure, Scarecrow, Night Moves, or even his fiendishly funny Lex Luthor in three Superman movies. More recently, Hackman continuers to deliver powerful performances from the likes of Hoosiers, Mississippi Burning, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and Unforgiven.
Over 80 films since making his initial debut in 1961, Hackman says that the passion for his craft has never waned. Currently on screen in David Mamet’s Heist, Hackman continues to display his virtuosity as a tough naval commander in the contemporary war actioner Behind Enemy Lines, and as the father of a highly dysfunctional family in Wes Anderson’s richly textured dark comedy The Royal Tenembaums. Ferociously private, Hackman rarely does press, but changed his mind in order to talk about his two latest films. In a wide ranging discussion, Paul Fischer heard from Hackman his thoughts on acting, war and a life in the movies.
Question: With the film Behind Enemy Lines, do you use your previous experience in the Marines to help get into such a movie?
Answer: Yes, I do, actually. I like to get a sense of what it should be like, and you know. Even though I wasn’t an officer in the marines, I still had a sense of the kind of decorum one needs in the service – so yes.
Question: Is there still this feeling in the military that ‘we won’t leave one man behind’, a theme explored in the movie?
Answer: I think there is, yes. I’m sure it depends on the situation. But it makes for a fascinating kind of premise for a film.
Question: How do you feel about the film being moved up and coming out at the time that it is, in relation to what’s going on?
Answer: Well, I’m not involved in those kinds of situations and decisions. I suppose the studio felt it was probably a good time to do it, and I know, from what I understand, that the film’s been tracking very well and the people like it and they like it at this time.
Question: What presented you with the greatest challenge: To be playing the character in Enemy Lines or Royal Tenenbaum?
Answer: Well, they’re so totally different. The hard part about Behind Enemy Lines was, being in the aircraft carrier; we actually were on the Carl Vincent for a short while, and they were doing night take offs and landings, so, that was tough. And it was like a totally different kind of environment to be in.
Question: Can you talk about getting Owen [Wilson] involved in Behind Enemy Lines and were you already attached to Royal Tenenbaums at that point?
Answer: I had met Wes Anderson prior to having seen Shanghai Noon, but I didn’t know that Wes was involved in writing the script of Tenenbaums. It was just one of those strange coincidences.
Question: Ben Stiller, when talking about Royal Tenembaums, mentioned that the first thing he did when working with you was ask about The Poseidon Adventure. Is that an occupational hazard and is that one of the reasons you tend to stay shy with the public all these years?
Answer: Well, I suppose Ben saw that film when he was a mere child, you know, so I have that occasion to meet younger actors now who may have seen me in things when they were quite young. So, that’s a funny experience, actually, to want to be treated as a fellow actor, and yet people look on you as this person who has been around for a thousand years; it’s kind of uncomfortable at times.
Question: When you look back on your past work, do you look back on it at all, or do you try to get focussed on what you’re doing now?
Answer: Yeah, I always just do the work. I can never ask myself, you know, how I did this in such and such a film – that never works.
Question: Do you have a favourite film?
Answer: Well, some of my favourite films have to do with things that may be people didn’t particularly like them, or didn’t go to see them. Things like Scarecrow which was not a big successful film, but it was a film that I really loved doing.
Question: Are you writing a new book?
Answer: Yes, I am.
Question: Which kind of book?
Answer: This book takes place in 1929, just before the stock market crash. And it takes place in the mid-West.
Question: Is it more important to play winners or losers, albeit intelligent losers, but in the case of both of these films, losers just the same?
Answer: You know, doing character work as an actor is much more fun than doing a leading man. You have many more things that you can play, you can pretend to be good and really be bad, and the opposite also. There are just a lot of things that you can do. So, I like playing things that have some emotional sting to them, some conflict. I probably love conflict more than anything.
Question: Going back to the Royal Tenembaums, could you relate to the family aspect of that film, fiding a connection with one’s family?
Answer: Well, there again, I like the idea that there was constant conflict between Royal and his family. Nothing ever went smooth for him, and as an actor, that is something that I can recognize and I can play that. I think it’s the basis of drama, that kind of conflict.
Question: Wes Anderson has talked about how hard a time he had getting you to do the role in Tenembaums. What actually changed your mind in the end? I think that he also tailored it, which is kind of a dangerous thing.
Answer: I wish I had a really clever answer to that, but I’ll tell you the honest truth was, I was doing a film in Montreal, The Heist, which is out now, and it got down to the last week of The Heist, and I was having so much fun as an actor, and I realized I only had a week to go, and I knew that Tenembaums was going to be done within about 6 or 8 weeks, if I committed to it. So I just called my agent and said, Let’s do it. So I mean, I wish I could say that it was because it was a great script, which it was. But I was tired and yet I was still kind of committed to the work.
Question: Why don’t you do more comedy?
Answer: I do whatever’s offered to me. You know, there are not a lot of comedies offered to me.
Question: Can you talk about the lack of amount of rehearsals on that picture – is it difficult to do a movie with all this comic timing and lack of rehearsal?
Answer: Well, you know, for film, I like not to rehearse too much, because you can keep it fresh that way, and you can then rehearse on the company’s time, while you’re on the set. And then there’s that kind of sense of immediacy about trying to get it right before you go in front of the camera. I like that tension, that kind of – the need, hey, we’ve gotta get this thing done, and there’s always something good comes out of that.
Question: You were married for a long time before your marriage finished. Do you think it is very difficult to live a new life after a long marriage has gone bad?.
Answer: Sure, it’s difficult. And I think if I didn’t have a real good mate, somebody that I can rely on and somebody to help me, and if I didn’t have my work, that it would have been devastating for me. But, I had real good people around me, so I came out of that.
Question: The older you get, is it harder to find the really good material, because. you work an awful lot.
Answer: The work is harder now, and I suppose because I care more than I did earlier – to small degrees, and that I like the work. I find it challenging and so consequently it becomes harder.
Question: As an actor, do you think the vents of September 11 will change the way you work, in terms of travel?
Answer: No, I don’t think it will change. I’m just speaking for myself and I don’t have any real reason to say that, except that my gut feeling is that it probably won’t change.
Question: Did those events affect you personally?
Answer: Well, like everybody, I’m a little leery of getting on a commercial airplane. You know, I think we all have that. There are kind of inconveniences that we experience in the airports that we’re not used to, but I think we have to get used to. I feel real bad about innocent people that were killed in New York, and also in Afghanistan. I think all of us feel that way; that nobody wants children and innocents killed, but I mean, these are very trying times to us.
Question: Do you see a film like Behind Enemy Lines as a new kind of war film?
Answer: I would think that probably my idea about taking this film had more to do with the event. I like the idea of that event, that an American pilot was shot down and his adventure of trying to escape, and the people behind him, how they reacted. So I didn’t think of it in terms of Second World War or present day happenings, but more of just that event.
Question: Back to the Tenembaums for a minute. I noticed that every frame was very precisely balanced, whatever. Can you talk a little bit about working that aspect of it with Wes. You know, the visual thing being as important as the character work?
Answer: Well, a lot of times as an actor, we’re not always aware of the visual of what the director’s work is headed in terms of how he’s setting a shot up. In this film, a lot of the shots were very static, as you just mentioned. And so as an actor who likes to get up and be physical and instill a lot of behavior in my characters, that was somewhat off-putting at first, until I recognized what he was trying to do. It’s an interesting process because it takes a lot more focus, and you can’t dissipate your energy through behavior and one thing that you have to focus on. It’s a way of making films that for a certain kind of film, it works quite well.
Question: The New York Times called Wes Anderson a master director at 31. Having now worked with him, do you agree?
Answer: Well, I understand that he’s a young man who has a concept, and a lot of people don’t – a lot of people do – a lot of young people do films that they’ve seen before – they just remake something. They might call it something else, but it really looks like a lot of films that we’ve seen. And to his credit, this film does not look like a lot of other films. At least, that’s my idea.
Question: After all the movies you’ve made, what works for you – what keeps you fresh. What is it you still get out of making them?
Answer: Well, I like the interplay between the other players. I like the exchange, the conflict, the kind of tension that happens, and how one is able to deal with that, and trying to elicit from the other person some kind of response. And you get going in this kind of ping-pong match, let’s say, and that’s exciting to me. To make those kind of – or to be part of making that kind of thing work.
Question: Do you find you still get offered the same stuff as maybe 10 years ago?
Answer: Yes, there are very few good scripts around.
Question: Even for someone like you.
Question: Earlier, you said that near the end of The Heist, you were happy acting. and it sounded like you’re not always happy when acting. Is that true?
Answer: Well, I act out of a kind of angst, that it’s never good enough and it’s never what I would like it to be, and I wish we had more time, and all that. And usually by the end of the film, or towards the end of the film, I start getting more relaxed and maybe better. I don’t know. But that’s what I was referring to – at the end of The Heist, I wanted it to go on. And the only way for it to go on was to take another film right away.
Question: You mentioned it briefly at the beginning, but can you talk a little bit more about your experience in the Marines aznd how that corps has changed over the years?
Answer: Well, I volunteered when I was in the Marines, I don’t think the military changes that much, you know. The technology changes, and the governments needs change. But in terms of the military, it’s pretty much the same probably since in the 30’s, that there are certain things that you are required to do, and that will probably always be true. It’s – I think it’s the governments that change.
Question: Other than talent, what else has kept you working at such a steady clip?
Answer: I suppose I like the idea of committing to something – once I decide to do something then I commit fully to it. And I’ve never felt that you can kind of skate through a part and make it work. I think that the idea of being kind of – to use a word that we used to kick around at the Actors Studio – to be natural is not really very interesting. And people spend a lot of their time in this business trying to be natural. There’s a difference between that and being real – being real is trying to find something -you set yourself a task, something to work on. So when you’re working on it, you make the difference between something real and something natural. That may sound kind of abstract and esoteric, but that’s – for me – that’s the essence.
Question: Are you still tenacious in chasing certain parts?
Answer: I never chase parts. I mean, usually the things are kind of around and my agent, Fred Specter, will find them.
Question: What do you like to work when you’re not working.
Answer: I paint a little, and I’m working on my book, and I’m getting ready to go to sea, maybe. We are talking about buying a boat and do a little cruising.
Question: What do you like about writing?
Answer: I found over the last 4 or 5 years since I’ve really been writing seriously, is that it’s like acting in some ways, in that I can express some kind of emotion and ideas about what I believe in, and not have 90 people in the same room while I’m doing it.
Question: Do you like the isolation of being a writer?
Answer: Yes, I like that.
Answer: I don’t know. It forces you to think about things that may be important to you.
Question: Is it true you were going to become a journalist after leaving the marines?
Answer: Well, not really. Both my grandfather and my uncle were both reporters, and I was always attracted to that. But I didn’t even have the schooling earlier on to do that.
Question: You had this tough army life, so what prompted the decision to go into the world of the arts ?
Answer: Well, I always wanted to do that from the time I was 10 years old. The Marine Corp just happened to be a kind of a weigh station on the way to doing that, and it was lucky for me, because I grew up kind of quickly in the Marine Corp. And, then when I went to New York, it came in handy.
Question: What did your marine buddies say?
Answer: I don’t think I ever told anybody in the Marines that I wanted to be an actor, except that one of my first jobs in New York was as a doorman at Howard Johnson’s in Times Square, and I was standing outside the door in a white uniform with green piping on it, and a Marine Corp sergeant came down the street, who happened to be the sergeant that recruited me. It was a strange coincidence, and he looked at me, and he never stopped, but just said to me “Hackman, you’re a sorry sonofabitch”.