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Martin Landau, A 'Lovely' Leading Man

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Martin Landau, A 'Lovely' Leading Man

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Martin Landau, A 'Lovely' Leading Man

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NEAL CONAN, host:

If we listed all of Martin Landau's credits, there'd be no time for an interview. He's played a memorable bad guy in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller "North by Northwest." More recently, he was featured in "The Majestic" with Jim Carrey. He starred on TV in "Mission Impossible." One TV film you may not remember: "The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island."

In 1994, he won the Oscar for best supporting actor in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood." In his latest film, "Lovely, Still," he plays Robert Malone who begins a December-December romance with Ellen Burstyn.

(Soundbite of "Lovely, Still")

Mr. MARTIN LANDAU (Actor): (as Robert Malone) What are you doing tonight, Robert? What are you doing tonight, Robert? Oh, you know. You're going on a date. You're going on a date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of brushing teeth)

Mr. LANDAU: (as Robert Malone) A date.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from actors today - character actors, in particular. If you have questions for Martin Landau, the phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Martin Landau joins us from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Mr. LANDAU: Oh, it's my pleasure. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: So after all those character parts, at 82, you get the romantic lead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANDAU: Well, it's an interesting movie, actually. I'm very high on it. I love it. It's got everything in it. I mean, it's like a - it's a kind of movie you can see once and see it a second time because it's - it becomes a different movie the second time you see it.

CONAN: There are - there's a twist at the end that puts everything in a different context.

Mr. LANDAU: Exactly. The reality you think you're watching the first time through is not what's really going on. And then, very much like the "Sixth Sense," the movie that Bruce Willis did a number of years ago - even though the texture's very different - when you see that a second time, it's a whole other film. So Ellen and I are basically acting on two levels at the same time.

CONAN: And I don't mean to - for you to take this the wrong way. But you have the most wonderful smile.

Mr. LANDAU: Oh, that's so nice to hear. I mean, I always thought it looked like a piano.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you're giving your dentist a lot of credit there.

Mr. LANDAU: That's a lot of teeth, you know, a lot of ivory.

CONAN: But you get to smile a lot in this movie, and you light up the screen when you do it.

Mr. LANDAU: Well, you know, it's got a lot of sweetness in it. It's got a lot of sadness in it. And it's got a lot of - I mean, it's really a date movie, you know. I mean, if you'd cast 16-year-olds, you wouldn't have to change a lot of the dialogue in the early part of the film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's probably right. I haven't thought of it as a date movie, but you're probably right. You could...

Mr. LANDAU: Well, I mean, kids - you know, it's played at the Toronto Film Festival, and then - and at the Milan Film Festival. It's played at Chicago and festivals, you know, in Milwaukee. And the response has been amazing. I mean, older people love the movie, but younger people love the movie. And that really pleases me, because it's funny, and laugh-out-loud funny at times.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LANDAU: And then, you know, it takes turns and switches gears quite a bit, and I like a film that does that. And it's a character-driven movie which is -you know, there aren't a lot of them out there these days with fireballs and guys climbing up buildings and car chases and animation every time you turn your head. You get to see real, live actors and - having subtle, little moments is kind of a pleasure.

CONAN: There is a part in the film you play, a character who is involved. We see him sketching at first, later painting. And that's you. You did that, right?

Mr. LANDAU: Well, I did that professionally, actually. I mean, I started on The New York Daily News as a kid when I was 17 years old, as a cartoonist and illustrator, and I was being groomed to be the theatrical caricaturist. And I know if I got that job, I'd never quit. So I quit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So you were getting offered a - you believed you were about to be offered a nice, cushy job in newspapers, and then...

Mr. LANDAU: It was a great job, actually. I'd go to opening nights, and the PR people would give me 8x10s of the dress rehearsal. And I would go home, actually - I didn't have to go to the news building - and do a drawing of the cast, which would appear in a Sunday paper. If there were two openings that week, two drawings. The old fellow, Horace Knight(ph), was an old English fellow who had that job was retiring. And I was - I had the ability to do that. So I - but I knew I wanted to go into the theater. I mean, I wanted to act. And I knew if I got that job - which was, again, a cushy job and very well-paying job, and the only - you know, I mean, my style was sort of a nouveau - art nouveau style, an art deco style, as opposed Hirschfeld's, who had a very flowing line.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. LANDAU: And it was a different look, but it had a look. And - but I quit. And my - you know, my family - I had to put up with a lot of - you did what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANDAU: You know, I heard that for about a week.

CONAN: I wonder, though. You went into the theater. Did anybody ever do a theatrical caricature of you?

Mr. LANDAU: Well, I think several people have, actually. And, in fact, there was one that appeared in - there was a New Yorker piece written about me a number of years ago when I did "Ed Wood" and won the Oscar. And I've got the original of that. And that's a caricature that was - ran along aside of a story on me. And so I have that original, actually, which they sent to me. So that's one I can definitely know of, is what I'm saying.

CONAN: We want to hear from actors out there in our audience. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Our guest, of course, Martin Landau. Patrick is on the line, Patrick calling from Martin Landau's home, Brooklyn.

Mr. LANDAU: Hi. Hello, Patrick.

PATRICK (Caller): Hi. I'm a big fan, Mr. Landau. I'm actually calling from Detroit. I'm driving there right now, but...

Mr. LANDAU: Oh, you're from Brooklyn, but driving to Detroit.

PATRICK: Yeah, yes.

Mr. LANDAU: Okay.

PATRICK: I have a question, just basically about - I kind of - I'm getting into acting in my early 30s, as opposed to, like, somebody that's been around from their '20s. And I've always known you more in your mature roles. And then, the other day, I saw you in "Cleopatra"...

Mr. LANDAU: Ah-ha.

PATRICK: ...looking back on it. And, like, I immediately recognized your face and hadn't thought of you as this, you know, kind of younger theatrical actor. And I was wondering if there was a time when the roles you were going for shifted. Is that a choice you made, or is that something that - this role's being brought to you?

Mr. LANDAU: Well, it's one of the things about being an actor that has an advantage over some of the other performing arts. I mean, if you're a dancer, you can only dance up to a point, because the body kind of quits on you, in a certain sense. If you're a singer - you know, opera singers and good singers are, you know, often lose their voices as the years take their toll.

Acting, you know, you start - you play your age. I mean, you know, I get a lot of - you know, as the years have gone on, I've seen myself aging. And you need baby actors. You need child actors. You need teenage actors. You need young adults. And I've been through the young adult and the middle-aged roles, and now I'm playing the elderly.

And I turn down a lot of stuff where the character sits at a table and grunts a great deal because I like to have an arc, a character, you know, that goes from one place to another, and hopefully a positive kind of thing. And so the great thing about being actor is - you know, in most films - I mean, character-driven films, that is - and theater and television, you need older people, as well. So, I mean, as the years have gone on, I started as, you know, in my 20's, studying for the theater, going to the Actors Studio, working with serious people like Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman and people who really took acting to a different level in this country.

CONAN: You and Steve McQueen were in the same class?

Mr. LANDAU: Well, we were - the Actors Studio is not a school. But when Steve and I - that year, 2,000 people auditioned for the Actors Studio, and two were accepted as lifetime members, and it was Steve McQueen and myself, which was, you know, getting in on your first audition is not something that happened often. Dustin Hoffman will tell you that he auditioned nine times. I think he lies a little.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANDAU: But I think it was only six times. But he did audition, you know? And Geraldine Page, I knew auditioned six times and got in on Shelly Berman's audition, and not her own.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. LANDAU: And I know Hackman auditioned several times before he got in. And so, you know, it's a place for professional actors to work. It's a bit of an oasis away, you know, where you can experiment and try stuff that you can't do commercially when you're being paid.

CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much for the call. Good luck in Detroit.

PATRICK: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Martin Landau. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to Kim, Kim with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

Mr. LANDAU: Hello.

KIM (Caller): Hi.

Mr. LANDAU: He's going to Detroit, now we're in Grand Rapids.

CONAN: Now we're in Grand Rapids, yes.

Mr. LANDAU: Yeah. Hello.

KIM: Well, you know what they say, (unintelligible) is moving to Grand Rapids -well, Michigan. We are courting it, so we're (unintelligible).

Mr. LANDAU: Well, isn't Grand Rapids a big furniture center?

KIM: It was, yeah. It still is.

Mr. LANDAU: Uh-huh.

KIM: My question pertains to - when I was younger, boy, I could do that set all day long, and, you know, I could shoot the last scene and be fine and remember everything. But now, as an aging character actress, man, if you wait - if you keep my scenes to the end of the day, I'm tired, and sometimes my brain's a bit spotty. I find I need to sit down and lay down a lot more. Has the set changed that much for you? Is it that hard to find a producer who's willing to meet your needs as an older actor?

Mr. LANDAU: Well, I mean, I'm fortunate in that I don't really have a whole lot of line trouble. I mean, I don't think of - I don't think of dialogue, anyway -I never have - as speeches or lines. I think of them as thoughts and ideas. I mean, you know, and I never have thought about dialogue as sentences or paragraphs, you know? You keep talking until you run out of things to say or someone interrupts you. So...

CONAN: In this...

Mr. LANDAU: ...if what's pushing you with that line, and you understand why you need to say it, I don't run into that trouble. I think you've got to think of it a little differently - not as lines but, as thoughts and ideas...

KIM: What the character wants.

Mr. LANDAU: ...and something that needs to fulfill something that maybe there's a hole in the character for.

CONAN: In this new movie, "Lovely, Still," you're listed also as one of the executive producers. You have a first-time director, so if you suggested to him, you know, could we take 10 minutes now...

Mr. LANDAU: Yeah, but I also realize as being an executive producer and the director being 22 years old - and the writer/director being 22 years old - I knew that it wasn't good to take that kind of time.

CONAN: Because everybody's on the clock.

Mr. LANDAU: Well, I was wearing, you know, a couple of hats. So, I mean - but Allan and I have been around the block a few times, Ellen Burstyn and...

CONAN: She's wonderful in this picture.

Mr. LANDAU: She's terrific in it. And, you know, we trained with the same people and - over the years. And, you know, she runs the East Coast Actors Studio, along with Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel, and I run the West Coast Actors Studio with director Mark Rydell...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LANDAU: ...who directed "On Golden Pond" and "The Rose" and a couple of other wonderful films.

CONAN: Kim, good luck at your career.

KIM: Thank you.

Mr. LANDAU: I hope that helps you.

KIM: Oh, it does. I was just wondering how it was for really successful, big-name people.

Mr. LANDAU: Well, you know, I mean, when I look at some of the stuff I did years ago, I mean, you know, "Mission: Impossible," where, you know, I'm fighting and jumping over things and I'm very swift of foot, I mean, I say, my God. I mean, I know not to do that anymore without winding up on a gurney somewhere.

CONAN: Speaking of your TV career, Ray in Woburn emails with a question: How the heck did you ever reach escape velocity to get off Moonbase Alpha? Of course, talking about "Space: 1999."

Mr. LANDAU: Well, we got off Moonbase Alpha when they cancelled the show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LANDAU: I mean, it was kind of simple. It was overnight. We didn't expect to get off that easily. We were hurdling through space, you know, and looking for a habitable planet, and we found one called Earth.

CONAN: And, of course, you had to find, one because the show was running (unintelligible).

Mr. LANDAU: That is what I mean, yeah.

CONAN: Exactly. Final - we just have a few seconds left, but Jim wants - emails to ask: You sound amazing. What do you do to keep mentally fit?

Mr. LANDAU: I do crossword puzzles, and I keep working. And I also run the acting sessions at the Actors Studio, where it's important for me to, you know, communicate and be understood. And I try to be as, you know, as clear and as succinct as possible. And again, I try to care of myself as best as I can. And, you know, there are changes, obviously, and I'm playing characters that don't do a lot of the things that I can't do anymore in the same possible way. But it's, you know, it's keeping yourself fit and mentally alert and using your brain as best as you can and not shutting down.

CONAN: Theme music...

Mr. LANDAU: Not allowing yourself to shut down.

CONAN: Theme music from "Lovely, Still." Good luck with the movie, Martin Landau.

Mr. LANDAU: Thank you so much.

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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