An Interview with Martin Landau
It's not every day you get to speak to a screen legend, and it was a privilege I got a couple of weeks ago when I received a phone call from Martin Landau.
An Academy Award winner (and 3-time nominee), Landau has been a working actor for more than 50 years, from his star-making turn as the villainous Leonard in Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece "North By Northwest" to his infamously ill-fated role on TV's "Mission: Impossible" to Oscar-nominated roles as an automobile manufacturer in "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," a philandering optometrist in Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and a haunting portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton's "Ed Wood" (for which he won Best Supporting Actor in 1994).
Landau's latest film "City of Ember" is in theaters now.
JS: Your movie is "City of Ember." Can you tell me what brought you to this project? ML: The director! (laughs). I was familiar with the children's books, and…yeah, (director) Gil Kenan called me, and I read the script and I liked it. I thought it was an unusual piece, and it's a very popular series of children's books. He explained what he wanted me to do with it, and it was shot in Belfast, and I went over there, and Bill Murray and Tim Robbins and I, I guess are the only Americans in it. The rest of the cast is English and Irish. The thing that impressed me when I got there was the size of the set. They built it inside of a building where they build steam ships, and they filled it with this incredible set. It's futuristic, but it has this retro feel, because it's an underground city. It's there having survived a Holocaust, basically. Everything on the surface of the Earth has been destroyed. And now the power's running out. But the set, the city itself, and the skyscrapers and the city squares, and the pipeworks where my character works are labyrinthine. You could get lost in there. I did a few times when I was trying to get to the set, you know, kind of wandering around these long tunnels.
JS: Being a family film, is that something you were looking to do? You've done a lot of everything, really, but particularly more adult-oriented dramas. ML: Well, I try to do things that interest me. Right after this one, I went to this movie I shot in Omaha with Ellen Burstyn, "Lovely, Still," which was at the Toronto Film Festival, and is kind of a remarkable movie, also directed by a young guy. Gil I think is 29, and Nick Fackler just turned 24, and he wrote and directed this story about an older couple, a love story, with a surprise ending that'll make your hair stand up. I'm shooting another movie in Winnipeg in late October, a movie that smacks a little of "Glengarry Glen Ross." It's called "The Company Men." It's about business, and all the terrible things that go on. I'm doing that with Steve Zahn and Steve Buscemi. So, yeah, I've got about six movies coming out. But the movie with Ellen was just wonderful…standing ovations in Toronto. It's remarkable. I worked with the script with the kid for a couple of months, because it's the kind of movie you'll want to run back and see a second time. Like "The Sixth Sense," or "The Others," there are no bumps, and you'll say "oh yes, oh my God. How did I not see that?" The first time you see it you think you're seeing something and if you kind of reflect on it, or see it a second time you'll see what's really going on. It's different. It's got that element, but it's also a very tender, well-directed piece. The kid is now 24, when I met him he was 22, and I like working with young, talented people. That's why I'm still involved in the Actors Studio, MarkRydell and I run the West Coast studio. Ellen Burstyn and Pacino and Keitel run the New York studio, so we'll keep our hands in the soup, so to speak, with young talent as well as older talent. But I have a bunch of stuff coming out.
JS: Do you prefer to do straight drama? Of course, you've done a lot of everything, from genre stuff like "Mission: Impossible" to "The Twilight Zone"… ML: And recently I did "Entourage" and I was a funny guy. I just did another one of those, actually. I play golf with Jeremy Piven and Phil Mickelson. Three days on the golf course as that same character. Doug Ellin, who created the series, is the head writer and exec producer, called me and said "Are you in town? Because I want to write you in." I don't do a lot of television by choice. I've only guest-starred on a couple of shows over the years. On "Without a Trace" I played Anthony LaPaglia's father a couple of times in one year, and I got an Emmy nomination for that. This year I played a couple more for the same character and got an Emmy nomination, and I did three episodes of "Entourage" and got an Emmy nomination. So I think I should continue to do television.
JS: Yes! I love "Entourage," and I thought it was so great you were in there. But going back to the Emmy nominations, there are certain roles in Hollywood where actors going in know there's a chance that there is a potential award attached to the role. Were you surprised to get Emmy nominations from guest spots? ML: In this instance, with "Without a Trace," I loved working with LaPaglia, he's a Tony award-winning actor, and it gave him a chance to get away from, as he called it, a character that doesn't display a whole lot of emotion, because he's an FBI guy who is on the hunt. This gave him a chance to do stuff, and we had a lot of fun. If you were on the set, you'd swear we were just playing. Each take had different things in it, and it was exciting and fun. I love that, and the same with "Entourage." There were a couple of lines I didn't like, because I felt all of the sexual innuendo lines about males were complimentary, but there were some lines about women, like Shelley Winters, who was a dear friend of mine, and I thought they were…a little rough. So I rewrote a couple of lines. Even the first line I believe, as written, when my character meets Jeremy Piven in the agency office, was "It's easier to get a face-to-face with George W. Bush." I didn't think it was funny, so in the first rehearsal what I did was I said "It's easier to get a face-to-face with Osama bin Laden," and that's the line that stayed in. I just did it in rehearsal, and Doug Ellin came out and said "that's a keeper."
JS::I want to ask you about this, and I know there's no way to do it justice in the time we have left, but I have to ask you about "North By Northwest," working with Alfred Hitchcock. ML: Ah,…well, I just finished that one a couple of hours ago! We shot that in 1958, 50 years ago, and it was released in 1959. But can you imagine, 50 years ago? We had automobiles and everything.
JS: (laughs) There was an airplane in that movie, right? ML: Yeah…how old are you?
JS: I'm 31. ML: Oh, my God. You're a child, but a very literate one.
JS: Well thank you. That's not the first time I've been called that. ML: Ah…it's a compliment! Enjoy it. Believe me, it goes by very fast.
JS: Yes, I feel like I'm losing that status very quickly. But what was that like, your first kind of breakout role… ML: Yes, it was, and Hitchcock had seen me in a play, which I was touring in after a Broadway run, Paddy Chayefski's "Middle of the Night," with Edward G. Robinson and Gena Rowlands played my wife. But he (Hitchcock) came opening night to the Biltmore Theater in Los Angeles, and next thing I know I got a call to come to MGM studios. You know, it was the only film he made at MGM, and he showed me the storyboards, he took me around…we really got along very quickly. You know, I found him very warm and welcoming. The character was written as sort of a henchman, and I chose to play him, you know, slightly gay, because I felt he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance, that it made sense. James Mason, who was a friend of mine, to his dying day the most awful question asked of him was was his character, Vandamm, bisexual? And he said "No, for God's sake, he wasn't bisexual, but what Landau did MADE him bisexual!" It was so logical, though. Actually, all my friends at the time said "Are you crazy? People are going to think you're gay." I said "I'm an actor," This isn't the last thing I'm going to do. Don't be ridiculous!" Hitchcok liked it a lot, and Ernie Lehmnn actually added a line when he saw the dailies off of my performance. The line when I'm exposing the gun with the blanks, my character Leonard says "Call it my women's intuition, if you will." It was a very daring line for the 50s, if you think about it, for a man to say that. That was not in the original script. Anyway, Hitchcock and I got along very well. I used to ask him questions, and he used to whisper things to Cary Grant, and he'd say "Marty, I'll only tell you something if I don't like what you're doing."
JS: Well, he had that famous line about actors being cattle. ML: No, he said you have to treat actors like they're cattle. But that's not the case. He actually trusted actors, and hired good actors. He was a provocateur. He loved to shake things up, you know. He knew saying something like that would get people crazy, and would be quoted in every wire in the world. And it has. It's outlasted him by many years.