Interviews

INTERVIEW: REBECCA PIDEON, PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, DAVID PAYMER, CLARK GREGG (STATE AND MAIN)

By • Jan 14th, 2001 •

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A film’s press junket is a study in hierarchies, both for the questioning journalists and the questioned actors and creative folk. The journalists are segregated into gangs labeled “print,” “broadcast” and “online,” and are herded off to different conference rooms. The interviewees shuttle among these groups, shepherded by the film’s PR people. They travel alone (if they’re big stars like Alec Baldwin) or in pairs (if they’re not-so-big stars or fine character actors, like Rebecca Pidgeon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Paymer and Clark Gregg).

If this junket’s atmosphere is any indication, the set of State and Main was a fun place to be-the actors seem to enjoy the project and each other’s company. We first met Pidgeon-in real life the wife of the film’s writer/director David Mamet-and Hoffman, who play a pair of unlikely lovers in the film, a farcical look at what happens when a high-powered Hollywood movie crew invades an archetypal American small town. Next up were Paymer, who, as Marty Rossen, the film’s combative, meaner-than-mean producer, faces off against Gregg’s ambitious small-town politician, Doug MacKenzie

Rebecca Pidgeon, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Q: As an actor, was it a fun thing to be doing a movie in which you get involved romantically, in the story, with the director’s wife?

PIDGEON: Oh he was so nervous about it, weren’t you.

HOFFMAN:
Yeah.

PIDGEON: He came up to me and asked ‘How is Dave when you kiss actors, how is Dave about that?’ You were scared.

HOFFMAN: I guess I’m scared about kissing women in general, and then on top of it David was there. But pretty much from the get-go, with both David and Rebecca-there was no fetish or S&M.

PIDGEON: That came afterward.

Q: How about playing a writer in a movie directed by the writer. Was that difficult?

HOFFMAN: People keep asking me that question. I didn’t think about that for a heartbeat. Maybe that’s because I’m an idiot, but I didn’t put it together. ‘David’s a writer, I’m playing a writer, he wrote it-I’m him.’ That never was even a thought in my mind, and also he didn’t make it a problem. He would share stories when we first started shooting, but this character isn’t David. I think it’s based on things that he knows about.

Q: When was the first time in your career where you got the feeling that ‘this is what I want to do forever’?

HOFFMAN: Forever? Nothing is going to be forever. I went to theater when I was a kid, although acting wasn’t really until I was in college. I remember going, when I was about 12, to All My Sons. I had one of those really corny experiences where I was sitting in the front row and I saw it and I couldn’t believe that there was something like this on the planet. It was amazing that people could be right in front of me, and they made me think something completely and I believed them-he went off and shot himself, and I was crying. I just thought it was a miracle.

PIDGEON: My moment came when I played Glinda in The Wizard of Oz when I was 12. Isn’t it funny we were both 12?

HOFFMAN: Is that the good witch or the bad one?

PIDGEON: The good witch! I’m serious actually-that’s when I decided I wanted to be a an actress, although as a child I always performed, and I just kept on doing it.

Q: What do you prefer, the live audience or working for the big piece of glass?

HOFFMAN: Big piece of glass-love that big piece of glass.

PIDGEON: Each is so different, and I really love it. But I think you need to have more stamina to do theater. It’s really your whole body and it’s sort of athletic-it’s really really physical, you have to project your voice, get toned and in shape and you have to do it eight times a week, and it’s hard hard work. And the audience is right there, and if something goes wrong or they don’t like you you know it immediately.

HOFFMAN: I prefer hanging out in the theater, it’s more in the family, it’s more of a magical feeling. You’re all there in a room together. In a film it’s so many people-you could be acting in a film and there are people just leaning up against a pole, saying ‘Are you finished, cut.’

PIDGEON: They’re not necessarily watching. You are performing for the camera.

Q: Is that why you’re moving into directing?

HOFFMAN: No, I love acting. I moved into directing theater because I wanted to, and I think I know something about telling a story in theater, and I really don’t know a lot about telling a story with a camera. I’m a co-artistic director of a theater here in New York, Labyrinth Theater Company, and I’ve been with them for six years. One of our things is that the artists develop other areas. Mine was that I wanted to develop directing. The guy who wrote the play I’m directing now is an actor, so everyone’s free to roam. The play is called Jesus Hopped the A Train.

Q: What’s happening with you and music?

PIDGEON: I’m just thinking about doing another CD. I do music, did you know that?

HOFFMAN: Renaissance woman.

PIDGEON: I’m very talented. But I don’t know who I’m going to do it with-I’m sort of going to do it on my own, just to see where it goes.

Q: Any plans to do any more acting in the theater?

HOFFMAN: Yes, I’m going to do The Seagull next summer. Mike Nichols is directing it, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline are in it-it’s going to be an event, that I can hope I can act well in.

Q: Is that important to you, balancing the theater and film?

HOFFMAN: It’s important that I get a chance to act, and that usually means you go back and forth. You can burn out in one or the other.

Q: Rebecca, what was your take on your character-she’s pretty savvy, living in that small town, and she has a great sense of humor.

PIDGEON: I was inspired, a bit, by a friend of ours who’s rather like that, she’s entrepreneurial and is an exciting person, so she just generates projects and generates real life. She makes life and makes commerce for the town. She’s a strong person that is inspiring, and a strong leader, but with no ambitions to lead.

Q: She decides very early that she likes him [Hoffman’s character, the writer of the film within the film].

PIDGEON: Yes, she does, doesn’t she. It wasn’t always like that, was it? We did all those scenes that were all cut, and all of a sudden we’re like in love.

HOFFMAN: We did a couple more scenes that were in-between.

PIDGEON: Quite a few, I think four or five.

Q: Do you have great exposure to small town life?

HOFFMAN: I was raised in a rural area, a suburb outside of a small town called Fairport, N.Y., which now has kind of blossomed and is a much bigger suburb. But yeah, I have a feeling for that-Fairport was called Fairport because the Erie Canal runs through it, and it’s a port and it’s fair.

Q: Does the movie reflect your experience of small-town life, or some aspects of it?

HOFFMAN: Yes-the simple nature of small-town life. The people have their jobs, and it’s a little slower.

PIDGEON: They also all know each other and they’re all related.

HOFFMAN: And what’s so great is that Hollywood is the exact opposite. Everyone’s moving fast, there’s too much in anyone’s head to put together, that’s why you have five assistants and they’re all are doing five different things. And you have a million different projects and you’re always on your cell phone, because someone always has to be called back, because you have a beeper and an answering machine and a cell phone, so there’s plenty of places for people to leave messages, and you have five assistants who can also get phone calls, so you’re talking about calling back 40 different people each day.

Q: Do you find that it’s harder every year to find good scripts, do you find that there’s more junk?

PIDGEON: Yes, there’s a lot of scary stuff out there. Stuff where you think ‘Why is this person at large’?

HOFFMAN: That’s what Rod Serling used to say. And then you read scripts that aren’t being made and you say, Why isn’t this at large? It’s a tricky thing-there are weaker or better people than me making those decisions, so I just control what I can.

David Paymer, Clark Gregg

Q: Clark, you’ve worked with David Mamet before.

GREGG: Yes, I ran the Atlantic Theater Company, and was a student of David and Bill Macy’s at NYU, so I worked with them in theater a number of different times. Actually David gave me the first job I ever had-when I was just out of college, I did a bit part in Things Change. But State and Main is the first time I ever had a substantial role.

Q: What’s the difference between working with David on stage and working with David as a film director?

GREGG: The words themselves were a bit less solid and in stone on the movie set. Mamet as a director of his own material was very irreverent with Mamet’s work as a writer. He would actually vanish into a back room and clack away and come back with a little bit different version that was usually funnier.

Q: Did he let you improvise on the set?

GREGG: He was certainly open to ideas between takes, but once the camera’s rolling, I think the ethos for the whole gang was, act what’s written there. It’s one of those rules that everyone has to be playing by.

Q: David, what was your first experience of working with Mr. Mamet?

PAYMER: I was a little scared at first because I was the new guy. David’s language is so tough and kind of bullying, I thought gee, is he going to be like that? It was quite the opposite-he’s really a sweetheart and incredibly supportive. And as Clark says, he’s collaborative-obviously you’re not going to change lines in the middle of a take, but he’s open to all sorts of suggestions.

David also talks about shooting State and Main like a gang comedy, like Preston Sturges, so he shot a lot of master shots and didn’t always go in for close-ups and coverage in that way. That’s also a challenge-if you look at the framing of a couple of scenes, there’s five or six of us in there at the same time. So you’re always really nervous about screwing up on a line, and they’re long takes. You can’t say if I screw it up, we’ll get it in close-up later. It’s almost theatrical in that way, that you’re on and the camera’s rolling for three or four minutes. If you have a big monologue at the end of that time you’re thinking about it at the beginning of the take. You have to be up to the challenge, and I think I got the hang of it.

Q: So you were feeling the pressure.

PAYMER: A little bit. I cannot tell a lie.

Q: Did you base your character on other producers you’ve worked with?

PAYMER: If I answer that totally honestly, then I no longer work for a certain person. But the truth is it’s more an amalgam of people I’ve run into over the years, and not just producers. And I never really have worked for someone who’s as brutal as Marty is to Sarah Jessica Parker.

But Marty is also-and I talked to David about this too-he’s about whatever it takes to get the scene shot or the movie done, it’s not being deliberately cruel. In that one scene with Sarah where I’m just so awful to her, where I say you’re going to be doing a Donkey Act in Akron, and two scenes later I’m really nice to her. I said to David, shouldn’t I still have some of the residual anger? He said, Oh no, that was yesterday, now it’s a new day.

GREGG: It’s in our scene too, you threaten to destroy my livelihood, and the livelihood of all my children and grandchildren, and at the end of my scene you put a cigar in my pocket and say ‘Let’s go make a movie.’

PAYMER: Which is very representative of Hollywood, you have people talking like ‘screw you’ and then saying ‘let’s go have a drink.’ It’s crazy.

Q: What do you think the movie is saying about small towns?

GREGG: The thing that felt a little different than other versions of this story was that very often the film people are set off as a different breed-show folks as this kind of amoral, venal group. And being from that group I can’t deny that that exists. But [in State and Main] the townspeople weren’t set off as being that different. My character in particular, and the people within the world of the townsfolk, were definitely aware of the percentage of the first dollar gross, what they should accrue in return for the use of their town, and they are willing to play just as venal hardball. I think it’s interesting that the most potent warrior from the film side is the producer, and the guy he ends up locking horns with is the local Congressional aspirant. They’ve certainly found a match.

PAYMER: I think the film is saying that greed can be everywhere, and saying that small-town America is maybe not so different from big-town Hollywood.

Q: It’s not about one corrupting the other.

PAYMER: Exactly-there’s a symbiotic thing going on.

Q: How did the small town you shot in react to the movie?

PAYMER: I think they had a good time. And David uses a lot of local people as extras or in speaking roles.

GREGG: He has a long tradition of putting his poker buddies, and the various guys from the small town in Vermont he lives in, in his movies. This guy who plays the main state trooper [Chris Kaldor] is one of his neighbors from Vermont.

PAYMER: And he does a great job, where he comes in from the rain and you think he’s going to arrest Alec Baldwin-I think he runs a hardware store.

Q: What drew you both to your roles?

GREGG: I was thrilled to get a chance to work with Dave. I think it’s different than other movies he’s written, it wasn’t as fiercely dramatic as some of his other stuff. I’ve known him for a long time, and there’s always been this misconception about Mamet being this dark, angry American writer, which certainly in some of his material he really is. Whereas to know him is to know a tremendously gentle and extremely funny guy. I thought this couldn’t go wrong, because we were finally going to see the sense of humor take over.

PAYMER: You don’t get a chance to say these kinds of words very often, especially today, with movies that are in the marketplace. To me this part was a gift. People come up to me and quote these lines. Usually you get one quotable line per decade-I think I got four or five of them in this movie alone. It’s a joy.

Q: Is it fun for you to play smug, brutal men? Quiz Show was another one where you really seemed to relish these terrible insults. Is it fun?

PAYMER: Absolutely. You’re right about Quiz Show but other than those two roles, I get cast as the nebbish a lot. It is kind of nice to be the guy in control, the guy in power. I said to Clark before, I think most actors are inherently insecure because of the nature of the profession and never knowing what’s coming next. So to step in the shoes of the guy who has the money and the power and makes the calls and bosses actors around is very different for me, and really a lot of fun.

Q: What was that moment of clarity where you knew you wanted to be an actor?

GREGG: It’s hard to point to that moment, it’s such a buildup of little moments, but I think for me it was in the theater at Lincoln Center, in a play that the Atlantic Theater Company had somehow conned our way into being a replacement production. The play was very much something that we’d found and worked on, by a young writer, and I was fortunate to play the lead. It was a play called Boy’s Life, years ago, that felt like our point of view, a young sensibility that you weren’t seeing other places. We found a way to get it in the hands of the right people who supported it, and all of a sudden it was there being seen by New York. That’s been hard to duplicate ever since, but I knew there was nothing I was ever going to find that felt that good.

PAYMER: I would say it was when I did Mr. Saturday Night, the Billy Crystal movie. I had certainly been working in anonymity for a number of years before then. That was sort of like getting my passport stamped-it was the first thing that people took note of me in. I suppose there was a sense of approval, a sense of OK I can do this for a living, even though I was well into my 30s.

Q: What projects do you have coming up?

PAYMER: I recently completed another movie with William H. Macy called Focus, based on a novel Arthur Miller wrote in 1945, about anti-Semitism. Bill and I play totally different roles than we do here, so that was great. And Arthur Miller was on the set, 85 years old, and very much involved.

GREGG: A movie that I wrote, What Lies Beneath, comes out on video soon, and I’m acting in a movie right now directed by Nicole Holofcener, who did Walking and Talking. This movie doesn’t have a title yet but it has Brenda Blethyn, Catherine Keener, Dermot Mulroney and James LeGros and myself.

Q: What do you think about the quality of scripts out there now?

PAYMER: There’s a big youth market out there, so it’s harder to find jobs for men, and more for women really, who are over 40 years old. And because you have all these companies merging and going right for the bottom line they’ll make a lot of pre-sold movies, like X-Men or Charlie’s Angels, where they know there’s an audience out there, because it’s already been marketed.

GREGG: As a writer when I go into the rooms to talk about something I want to write next, the difference in the faces when I say I want to write something about a guy who’s pushing 40, searching for his lost wife, is so radically different than if you say-as a joke-that it’s about a guy who just graduated from high school who’s looking for his lost wife. For that they will throw down the money instantly. Most of it is because the teen audience is considered to be a repeat audience, they’ll go back and back and back. A lot of times really interesting ideas that are really designed for north of 30, or at least 25-you see them find a way to set it in cheerleading camp.

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