Paul Newman for “Road to Perdition”

He’s an Oscar winning legend, one of truly great legends of his generation. Now, Paul Newman is back on screen as a gangster patriarch in Road to Perdition. Newman recently met the press for an all-encompassing chat. Paul Fischer reports.

Question: Is this your swan song?

Answer: No, it’s probably closer to a vulture than a swan song. I keep trying to retire from everything and discovered I’ve retired from absolutely nothing. I was going to get out of the racing business and I’m back in the racing business. I was going to let somebody else handle all the spaghetti sauce and I’m back in the spaghetti sauce. I just finished the first play that I’ve done in 35 years which is like sticking a rifle in your mouth. So, I don’t seem to be able to retire. Maybe if you get me a different [scar?]

Question: Are there things you still want to accomplish?

Answer: I’d love to do a film with Joann and we’re looking at something down the pipe. I can’t really discuss it right now. But there’s still a little vinegar left in the old dog yet.

Question: Talk about Tom Hanks the man.

Answer: Strangely enough, Tom and I, the majority of the work that we did was not with each other. He has the quality of not dodging things which is as true off screen as on screen. And there’s no fancy footwork. There’s no approaching things sideways. And what you’re looking at is what you get. And that’s refreshing.

Question: Can you escape the icon of Paul Newman in your roles?

Answer: You say I’m an icon. I don’t say it. My grandchild does not think I’m an icon. He’s three years old and he came to the door the other day and said, “I am obsessed on the Yellow Submarine.” What will he say when he’s six?

Question: How do you make sure we don’t think of the spaghetti sauce?

Answer: The spaghetti sauce is good to think about. Morning, noon and night, think about the spaghetti sauce. Think about hustling other people to buy the spaghetti sauce. We have a new motto. “The only thing we need to shred is lettuce.” Jesus, this is a tough crowd. Is that hard to follow or something? I don’t think about any of that stuff. What you’re able to achieve on the screen has nothing to do with you. The only thing sometimes I think is you pick up certain mannerisms from characters that you play and they become part of the way you present yourself. The only two things that ever stuck to me were unfortunately from Rocky Graciano. I never used to spit in the street and I was with Rocky for about nine weeks before the picture began filming and I spit in the street. It sickens my wife. I never used to swear. I never used any kind of foul language. Now, it’s not worth being in the same room with me. And it’s funny, of all the physical or attributes that could have stuck to me, that those were the two that stuck the strongest and the longest. But I don’t take much of it seriously. I really don’t and that’s all I have to say about that.

Question: Is it true you played piano because you couldn’t dance?

Answer: The piano was very fun and we worked very hard at it actually because it’s not really about playing the piano. It’s about doing something together, and that was fun.

Question: What do you hope the audience will get out of your performance?

Answer: I don’t know. I just hope that it will have the ring of truth about it somehow.

Question: Do rehearsals help you?

Answer: I insist on it. I insist on two weeks of rehearsal which I do for nothing and that has happened in almost every picture I’ve done since 1954.

Question: Why?

Answer: You discover a lot of things on your feet and if you don’t have any rehearsal then anything that happens on the screen is by accident.

Question: How did the loss of your son impact your performance?

Answer: Well, that’s a very long time ago. I don’t think at all, but it obviously has impacted me in other ways.

Question: How has acting changed and what about the actor’s studio?

Answer: Well, I certainly wasn’t on the cutting edge of Stanislovsky or the actor’s studio. I came in late. I had a fairly long and detailed formal education in theater at Yale. Almost everything that I learned about being an actor came from those early years in New York at the actor’s studio. There’s not a performance that I can look at comfortably until after, oh, the late ’70s I would say, with any sense of satisfaction. So, it’s been a learning process. The other interesting thing is that the actor’s studio has bled oversees to England and I suspect they do it now better than we do. And they also have the advantage of a very formal training in classics which our actors don’t have. So, puzzle that one out.

Question: Were you surprised your character didn’t become the main heavy?

Answer: The film, unlike other gangster films, is not really about explosions and Ð I mean, it was about family but not even in the sense of Mafia family. It’s really about family and vengeance, and I can understand that. And not only understand it but in some cases admire it. That it happened to occur within the confines of the Irish mafia is different and I just found everything that happened in that film compelling and promising and it gave me a chance to deviate from the kind of stuff that I usually do.

Question: What is the best or worst practical joke you’ve played?

Answer: That’s a part of my life, thank God, that no longer exists. Actually, what happened is Bob Altman and I had a series of confrontations which he lost. He was there first with something and after he pulled it, I said, “You’ve made a big mistake, Bob. One, because I’m richer than you are and two, I have more time than you have.” So, but I pulled one on George Roy Hill and it frightened him and we had a terrible confrontation. And he said, “Behind every practical joke, there is an element of malice.” And that pulled me up short and so I’m trying to regulate like one or two a year.

Question: What did you play on him?

Answer: I wouldn’t want to go into it. Actually, what it was was there was a house here, he was behind a camera here and I had complained a day earlier about the brakes on an automobile. So, I came around the corner with three people in the car and through my hands up in the air as I approached the house, and then the prop guys had a huge collection of tin cans, garbage cans, and cracking metals and sledge hammers and everything. For someone who couldn’t see what had happened after the car passed the house, it looked like a terrible accident. He came around the corner and thought that three or four people had been killed. So, he didn’t think it was very funny. Actually, we creamed the car.

Question: What’s the secret to your marriage?

Answer: I don’t know what she puts in my food.

Question: Favorite salad dressing flavor?

Answer: My favorite flavor is the Family Italian Recipe, although the Washington Post did a marvelous test of all the salad dressings and we were the only dressing in the top category. And other newspapers as well, I have to point out.

Question: If you don’t consider yourself an icon, who are icons and legends for you?

Answer: Brando, Lee J Cobb, Olivier. Really, there’s too many. I really should not have mentioned those three because you just forget and by forgetting somebody you’re leaving them out of a category in which they belong. I’d have to go through all my books and it would take me five days to figure that out. And I’m not being soppy about that. There are just too many people that I admire. Joann’s in there somewhere too I admire. I would’ve been killed if I didn’t say that.

Question: Is charity your responsibility as a celebrity?

Answer: This is not a celebrity issue. This is a political issue and the concept that a person who has a lot holds his hand out to someone who has less, or someone who isn’t hurting holds his hand out to someone who is, is simply a human trait that has nothing to do with celebrity. I am confounded at the stinginess of some institutions and some people. I’m bewildered by it. You can only put away so much stuff in your closet. In 1987, the average CEO against someone who was working in his factory was 70 times. It’s now 410 times. If you eliminate the middle class, which we are slowly doing incidentally, Aristotle said the greatest government is the government that has the least number of people on each end. It makes sense. So, I don’t think that there’s anything exceptional or noble in being philanthropic. It’s the other attitude that confuses me.

Question: What was your relationship with your father?

Answer: My father was a partner in a sporting goods store, probably the best sporting goods store west of the Appalachians. That was before ??? He was the oldest ??? seller of radio in the United States. During the depression, 85 percent of the sporting goods businesses went out of business. And in the middle of the depression, he came to Chicago incidentally and got 100,000 dollars worth of goods from Spalding and a 100,000 dollars worth of goods from Wilson and consigned them. The reason he got 200,000 dollars worth of good was both of those companies knew that if he sold a baseball glove for four dollars and 25 cents that there would be a check in the mail for Spalding or Wilson for two dollars and 18 cents which they were entitled to. I learned a lot from that. He survived because his reputation was impeccable.

Question: What do you love most about acting and what do you dislike about it?

Answer: About acting? Well, again, I’m in one of those positions where I have too many on both ends of the spectrum there. I suppose that the best actors are children, so to that extent that you can sustain and maintain that childlike part of your personality is probably the best part of acting. What’s the worst part of acting? Oh God, this.

Question: Working in Chicago?

Answer: We shot Color of Money here. God, what else have we shot here? Joann shot a wonderful little 16mm film here. I’ll never forget, we were shooting The Color of Money and staying at a hotel and the Chicago Bears had just won the Superbowl. I had to get up at 5:00 in the morning and cars were streaming down the streets with their horns blaring and I couldn’t sleep. I looked out the window and 15 floors beneath me, the streets were still slippery from the snowfall. And there, splayed out on the hood of a car, up against the windshield was this football enthusiast. And the car as going about 50 miles an hour and I’ve always wondered whether that guy survived. 10 years ago, 25 years ago, if you’d say what are the five great cities in the United States, I probably would have said New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cleveland and now you’d probably say Seattle, Chicago and Boston, or New York. So, Chicago – and I’m not honking everybody’s horn – is a wonderful city to be in and it’s a great town for the people who live here. It’s vibrant, it’s got art, culture and a couple of really feisty left-wing newspapers. But I’ll forgive them that.

Question: What lures you to take a role?

Answer: I haven’t the slightest idea. There’s actually no formula. I think it changes from year to year too.

Question: Why this movie?

Answer: I thought it was a pretty showy piece of work and I also knew that the movie was going to be wonderful. I haven’t seen it, but I would bet my bottom dollar that the movie itself is wonderful.

Question: Has entertainment become less important since 9/11?

Answer: That’s a complicated question I have no way of answering.