Jamie Foxx, Robert De Niro, Adam Driver, Tom Hanks, Shia LaBeouf and Adam Sandler are on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter‘s actor roundtable issue.
The actors discuss everything from whether or not they’re hard on themselves in terms of nailing a movie, to comparing acting with some of their previous careers. You can read a conversation below.
The full Actor Roundtable is set to air Jan. 19 on SundanceTV.
Visit our gallery to see the outtakes from the cover shoot.
Via THR: There’s an old adage among actors: An elderly actor, Edmund Gwenn, was getting toward the end of his life, living in a retirement home, when he was visited by a friend who commiserated about how difficult things must be. No, shrugged Gwenn, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” That story was the starting point for a powerful, emotional and funny conversation involving some of the leading practitioners of both comedy and drama at this year’s Actor Roundtable. Robert De Niro, 76 (playing an aging — and de-aged — gangster in The Irishman) was joined by Adam Driver, 36 (as a man struggling with divorce in Marriage Story and a congressional operative trying to uncover the truth in The Report), Jamie Foxx, 51 (as a man wrongfully imprisoned in Just Mercy), Tom Hanks, 63 (as the real-life Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Shia LaBeouf, 33 (as his own father in the autobiographical Honey Boy), and Adam Sandler, 53 (as a jewelry dealer struggling to survive in Uncut Gems).
So, dying is easy, comedy is hard. True or false?
ROBERT DE NIRO Well, there’s all kinds of comedy. Certain comedies are easy for certain people, certain comedy for me is not. I can’t do what Billy Crystal does, Eddie Murphy, Adam [Sandler]. But I can do other things. I like to think that I work in situations: In Marty Scorsese’s movies, some situations are funny and ironic in and of themselves, which is like life. Working with him, whatever you want to do, you can try and do it and maybe it’ll work. With some directors, you don’t even go there.
ADAM SANDLER If you have something you’re confident in, something you believe in, it’s the same. If you believe in a joke, if you believe in a dramatic scene, you go in there with the same approach.
JAMIE FOXX Here’s the thing: Comedy is a natural thing. I was watching [Sandler] when I was 18 years old, sneaking into The Comedy Store, watching him go up when it was like titans — it was Chris Rock, it was Eddie [Murphy] working out shit. I remember Eddie had on this yellow, fuckin’ Century 21 jacket. (Laughter.) And somebody said, “Yo, what’s up with that jacket?” And then Eddie, he said, “Oh, whatever, I’ll crush you with my wallet?” And then everybody started laughing.
SANDLER Oh yeah, yeah.
FOXX It’s interesting, when I look at everybody here, there’s respect. But then I look at Adam and before he even said anything, I’m laughing. That’s the first ingredient, right?
SANDLER That’s correct.
FOXX And then the second ingredient is: As comedians, you get that liftoff, that launch, where everything you’re saying is funny, it’s hilarious, people are giving you that light. It only becomes difficult once you reach that top comedic level. Now people are expecting the world. I was at Eddie’s house, he’s talking about getting back into stand-up. And I don’t know if you understand this with comedians, but we can never look good. If I start looking too good, I’m not as funny.
SANDLER You need something, an imperfection is going to relax an audience.
FOXX I said, “Eddie, if you want to do stand-up, first thing you’ve got to do is: You’ve got to fix your house.” He’s like, “What you mean?” I said, “Your house is too perfect. (Laughter.) You’ve got the candles, scented, and all that shit.” I said, “Eddie, at my crib, I have shit at my house that doesn’t work on purpose, so I stay funny. I’ve got this little carpet in the kitchen that’s sort of ruffled up and I’ve got a bathroom where you turn on the faucet and it sprays out.” And my daughter’s like, “Why don’t you fix it?” I feel like if I fix all this shit, I won’t be funny.
TOM HANKS Can you be funny if you grew up with a built-in swimming pool in your backyard? I don’t think you can. If you grew up being able to swim any time you wanted to, you experienced none of the shortcomings of life that you turn into self-deprecation. You can’t do it.
Doesn’t it all come from some inner pain, comedy or drama?
HANKS You bet. Look, the whole thing is a struggle. [Especially when] it’s 3 in the morning [on set] and the movie is now upon your shoulders, “Don’t fuck this up.” And then they sit back and you wait and you’ve got to go there, man, you’ve just got to go, tragedy or comedy. It happens 10 times a week sometimes. “Oh wow, we shut down the whole street for this. We’re ready.” “Uh, please give me a gun so I can shoot myself in the hip and not have to do this movie anymore.”
You played a comedian in Punchline —
SANDLER (To Hanks) Hey, the Safdie brothers told me to tell you that they love Punchline.
HANKS Is that right? Well, the only way to do that was to go out and develop funny material. And I probably did six appearances. I had no sense of anything.
SANDLER I saw you training. I was a young comedian at the Comic Strip and you were good. You were calm onstage and cool and you were being yourself.
HANKS It took a while to get there. When I was in junior college, taking acting classes, the assignment one day was: You’re going to be funny and you’re going to make each other laugh. And no one could do anything funny because that was the task at hand. So yeah, comedy is hard, because you know instantaneously whether or not your soup is good food.
Adam, you were in the military. Comedy and drama, do they seem trivial?
ADAM DRIVER Well, with one the stakes are life-and-death and with the other you’re pretending they are. But the process in which you work on them is the exact same. It’s a group of people trying to accomplish a mission that’s bigger than any one person. You have a role and you have to know your role within a gun team. You’re only as good as the people that are there with you — and when they know what they’re doing, what you’re doing feels active and relevant and exciting. And when they don’t, it feels like a waste of resources and dangerous. That was the best acting training, actually, because you’re just so aware that you’re one part of a bigger picture.
How did you switch from being a Marine to being an actor?
DRIVER I was interested in it before being in the military, and I was lucky enough to get into an acting school. When you get out [Driver left following an injury], you have all this false confidence that civilian problems will be small in comparison, which is an illusion.
SHIA LABEOUF Never been in the military, but [acting] feels life-and-death to me. Every time, it feels like your neck is on the chopping block, every time. Just like boxing. Guys train really hard to go put their neck on the line.
DE NIRO Some [roles] are harder than others, [especially when they’re written by] someone who writes with a certain rhythm, like David Mamet. There is no way around doing that kind of dialogue without knowing it cold. A big preparation thing for me is just drilling the lines, believe it or not. And after you have that structure, you can improvise or ad-lib.
Which of your movies involved the toughest preparation?
DE NIRO I guess Raging Bull because of [putting on] the weight and all that.
SANDLER King of Comedy. That was a guy that was just so unreal. Did you know a guy like that?
DE NIRO No, I didn’t. And it’s interesting because there was a script written by Paul Zimmerman, who was a film critic, and when Marty [Scorsese] and I were in Cannes he handed us the script. I said, “This is great.” Somehow, Marty wasn’t doing it for a moment, so I found myself with Milos Forman, and Milos said, “Well, I like the idea but I want to work on the script with Buck Henry [The Graduate].” And so he had Buck Henry write a script, and then I met Milos in an Indian restaurant in the East Village, and I said: “I read this version. I really want to go back to the original. Do you mind if I go to Marty?” He was a little — he wasn’t that enthused by it, so I had to convince him to do it.
You also convinced him to do Raging Bull.
DE NIRO I didn’t convince him; we have our own ways of [finding common ground]. He’s religious, I’m not, but we converge on the things that are common interests. And so, Raging Bull, I read the book [Raging Bull: My Story by Jake LaMotta] while I was doing 1900 with Bernardo Bertolucci. And I called Marty from Italy and said, “The book’s not great literature, but it’s got a lot of heart.” I remember I used to see Jake LaMotta: He’d work in a kind of strip place right on Seventh Avenue in the 40s. He’d be standing right out there near the sidewalk, and he was overweight and this and that. I said, “Jesus, look what happened to him.” And I thought the graphic difference of being out of shape and then being a young fighter really was interesting. I thought I’d like to see if I could gain that weight. So that was my interest and Marty had his reasons and both of us just came together on the project.
Shia, what made you want to make Honey Boy?
LABEOUF My back was against the wall. I was nuclear at this point. It felt like survival, like there was no other way to go. I didn’t have a lot of people talking to me. I was in a mental institution. And I also had a doctor who was pushing me to explore these dirty parts and write them down.
Did you discover anything in that institution that helped your acting?
LABEOUF Yeah, empathy for my father, who was always the biggest villain in my life. And if you can empathize with the biggest villain in your life and scrape some of these shadows, it makes you lighter and freer. I don’t think I was leading with love, and my life has changed. And when you lead with lightness and love, you can get to the heavy easier, you know? It’s much easier, much more accessible. Anger and the rough shit is very easy — it’s the other stuff that feels quite difficult. Getting an honest laugh is very hard, very hard. I think some of the hardest stuff iS the lightness.
SANDLER I tell you, when I have to laugh in a movie, I can’t do that. I never pull that one off. I’m like, “Somebody else better laugh hard. I can’t do it.” If my character is supposed to have a genuine laughing moment, I’d rather get a genuine anything else.
Is it easier for you to cry?
SANDLER Maybe, maybe not. I’m not great at crying either. (Laughter.) When it’s written in a script, “And then he breaks down,” that really gets me tense for a while. Every time I see somebody breaking down, I’m like, “Oh man, that’s incredible.” (To Driver) You had a massive one in Marriage Story.
DRIVER It’s not something you push for. You don’t push for emotion. It either happens or it doesn’t. But there’s a lot of things, in that instance, that are supporting you. The script is so good and it’s well written. If it’s badly written, there’s only one way to do it. If it’s well written, the language is so rich that every time you say it, it opens up an idea. It feels very much like theater, where the text is the text. And I find that incredibly freeing.
SANDLER It’s like a release, after it’s done.
DE NIRO Yeah. It’s like, “You did that, take a break, come back.”
Do you take the role home with you?
DE NIRO There is something that carries over, a residual something that you have to be aware of — not in the crazy way of [if you] play psychopaths, you’re going to go home and kill [your family].
HANKS It’s a physiological process that incorporates your emotions in the sinews of your body. It’s funny: Laughing and weeping are two very physical acts. I mean, when I cry, man, my face turns to rubber. And you can only get there if the text takes you there. But you can’t push it. It has to come out.
FOXX Well, I’m just emotional. I’m always crying.
FOXX Oh yeah, I cry for everything. I’ll be crying about stuff like: My accountant just called and said, “You tried to buy a private plane?!” I’m like, “Fuck! Run the scene! Shit be goin’ through my life!” (Laughter.)
HANKS It gets us all, you know? We get that call.
FOXX Yeah, shit be goin’ in my life.
HANKS It just ruins the day for all of us.
Are you hard on yourselves?
SANDLER Oh my God! If there’s something great written, that I don’t think I got to where I’m supposed to, I’m really mad at myself.