A versatile group of actors behind some of the year's most intriguing supporting performances gathered in November to talk with the Envelope about their films.
Participating in the conversation were Paul Dano, who plays young Beach Boy Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy"; Joel Edgerton, who plays an FBI agent with dubious ethics in "Black Mass"; Michael Keaton, the head of the Boston Globe's investigative reporting team in "Spotlight"; Mark Ruffalo an ambitious newspaper reporter, also in "Spotlight"; Seth Rogen, Apple computer pioneer Steve Wozniak in "Steve Jobs"; and Sylvester Stallone, who reprises his Rocky Balboa role in "Creed."
Here are edited excerpts from the free-flowing conversation moderated by Times film writers Rebecca Keegan and Mark Olsen in which the actors discuss how they've dealt with rejection, what they gain from physical transformations for a role and how they approach social media habits.
Mark Olsen: Sylvester, I'll start with a question for you.
Sylvester Stallone: Oh, call me Sly. Get rid of those three syllables. Just keep it down to one.
Olsen: Sly — in "Creed," you take one of your most iconic characters, Rocky Balboa, and you hand it over to a new writer and director. What was that experience like for you?
Stallone: It was an act of desperation.... A 27-year-old kid from Oakland ["Creed" director Ryan Coogler] goes, "I've got this great idea. Let's start over again, but this time let's do it with the character Creed." I thought, "This is the worst idea I ever heard." He goes away, he makes "Fruitvale Station," he comes back, it's a hit, and everyone's going, "Hey, why don't you? What are you, a coward?" I go, I'm yellow, yeah, I'm a complete punk coward. My wife started getting on my case, so I decided just to throw my hat in the ring there. And then I realized: "I'm Mickey. I've finally become Burgess Meredith." Once I accepted that, it was great. My story's over. It's done. Rocky is, like, "Thank you very much, it's been a great journey." So the big experiment is Michael B. Jordan speaks for this age.
Michael Keaton: It's actually a great idea. Yeah. When I read it, I thought, "Well, that's a good idea."
Stallone: Did you really?
Seth Rogen: Yeah.
Stallone: You wanna handle me? Because I have no taste.
Joel Edgerton: ["Rocky"] was one of the first films I remember stepping out of the cinema, and hoping — and I mean this, I know this wasn't the message you were trying to create, but I felt 10 feet tall, and part of me was hoping someone would pick a fight with me. It did strike me as a very good idea. We'll handle you. Ten percent's fine.
Rebecca Keegan: Hearing Sly talk about the collaboration on that film makes me think of "Spotlight," which is really an ensemble film, case in point, we have two of you here. Michael, can you talk about establishing a rapport as an ensemble? You guys were playing a team. How do you become a team?
Keaton: It was easy, actually. Mark [Ruffalo] was in first, and so I thought, "Oh, yeah. I wanna work with that guy." I loved Tom's [McCarthy's] stuff, and then I read the script, and I was raised Catholic, so I thought, "Yeah, this is something I probably wanna do. Half my work was really — and maybe three-quarters of my work — was done for me because the man exists, Walter Robinson exists. So it's not like I had to create a guy. I just now have to represent what the essence of that guy is and do my job. It was kind of a symbiotic deal too because we all happened to really like, personally, as people, the people we were playing, not only because of what they did but what kind of people they were.
Mark Ruffalo: It fell in pretty quickly. Even the way we were talking — actors will take a moment and we'll massage a couple words here and there — and Tom was like, "No, man, don't, don't do that. These people would get through information quickly, and it's all about getting information." And so we started working that way in rehearsals, early on, and that's pretty much when it all sort of started to gel.
Keegan: Joel, you faced the same issue in "Black Mass," in playing a man who really exists. At what point is that helpful and at what point do you have to sort of step away and create your own character?
Edgerton: At some point, you have to disconnect, if the obsession with playing a real person gets in the way of the movie at large. At the same time, we're all interested, as actors in trying to get as close to the real thing as we can, and whatever you can do in order to create that transformation feels fun and, for me, the furthest I can get away from myself is fun. It's all part of the costume, the accent, and all that stuff. It's about trying to get close without it being a detriment to the point of view of the story that you're trying to tell.
Olsen: Paul, you have an unusual situation in the film "Love & Mercy," in that you're playing famed Beach Boy Brian Wilson, but then there's this whole other half of the movie, in a different time period, where John Cusack is playing the part. Did the two of you communicate?
Paul Dano: We met when I was finishing and he was starting. Our director, Bill Pohlad, thought that we should not confer, and that hopefully there was something to come from the juxtaposition of a young guy full of creative joy in the story, and the onset of mental illness, and then you see somebody who's almost shell-shocked, the mystery of how does that person end up like that? I also think Brian is such a complicated guy. It was interesting, to have two people, and hopefully it was more like a harmony. We wanted to use the music and tell the story in a way that it can still go down smooth, like the songs, but is also complicated, structurally, like the songs. I feel like choosing two points of his life and going at them very intensely, you get a real experience with the character, and I think that's actually how you get to know a human being.
Olsen: Seth, "Steve Jobs" is structured much that same way, in that it chooses three very specific moments in the life of Steve Jobs, and your character, Steve Wozniak. How did you feel about the way that the film was structured in trying to tell that story of those characters?
Rogen: Because the structure of the movie was so separate from real life, and because [screenwriter Aaron Sorkin] was focusing on these three incidences, and was unapologetically cramming many more interactions and experiences into these 40-minute chunks than would ever actually happen in real life, in a way it was nice, because it removed the umbrella of reality from the whole thing. It was very much an abstract painting of someone, rather than a realistic painting of someone. Because Michael [Fassbender], honestly, doesn't look like Steve Jobs, and, I think that, honestly, relieved everyone, in a way, because it was like, "Oh, no matter what, it's not gonna look how it looked, so we should just focus on trying to make an interesting movie. I think, because of the structure, it lent itself to having more creative freedom in a lot of ways.
Keegan: On your own films, you improvise a lot but when you're working with an Aaron Sorkin script, I assume you —
Rogen: Not as much.
Keegan: What was that like for you?
Rogen: It was really nice. Honestly, it's really hard improvising and it's really stressful and humiliating at times. You're taking really big swings that potentially are eating up a lot of people's time and resources in your attempt to discover something funny. There was honestly a real relief going into work every day knowing, "This is what I'm saying, no one's gonna change it, Fassbender's not suddenly gonna make the scene about something else." Comedy's more of a discovery process. This felt much more like we were trying to hone in on something, which was nice, and not something that I'd done a lot of.
Dano: Did you rehearse a lot?
Rogen: A lot! The movie's in three acts. We rehearsed for two weeks before each act. So, we would rehearse for two weeks and shoot for two weeks, and then rehearse for two weeks and then shoot for two weeks — so it was like doing three little plays almost, which I'd never done. In comedy, you schedule a bunch of rehearsal, and then you start doing it, and then you cancel it because you're like, "It's good," and you wanna capture those immediate moments. The first time actors do something in comedy, sometimes, is the funniest time.
Keaton: Comedy's such a slippery thing. When I started doing comedy, a lot of it was written, but a lot of it was improvised. One of the people who really, without trying to do it, taught me more than he knows was Tony Randall, because he did this show, which was really, really a funny show and very smart, really well written, where he was the judge and I was a kid, young guy, going to night school, and he was was so meticulous, and so specific, and he would direct. He didn't direct, but he directed — and everybody would listen to him, man, because he had that Tony Randall thing. He'd say, "Stop at the door, that's the wrong time, you've taken a beat too long, boom, boom, boom, hit that word here." Man, I was so impressed I never forgot it.
Olsen: Sly, do you like rehearsing?
Stallone: Yeah, I do. It seems like the longer I stay in the business, the less time there is to rehearse. In "Rocky," or even in "Lords of Flatbush," we'd actually go to the location, you're gonna do a thing in front of Nathan's, you go down to the boardwalk, you go to Flatbush, you're actually doing it on the street... I think that that kind of preparation really helps an actor because it's hard enough to just go into an alien set and try to get your bearings. They go, "By the way, this is your mother, she has cancer. You've been looking after her — "I just met you. I don't, what's your name? Martha?" So this way at least you meet her before you've met the characters. Do you guys have enough time to rehearse? Do you insist on it, or anything?
Keaton: "Birdman," there was no choice. And everything had to be word perfect.
Edgerton: What I like is having a conversation that gets you on the right page. And, if that means having conversations in lieu of rehearsal — I don't wanna get up and cook the thing before we shoot it but I do wanna know that me and the director know exactly what we both want to achieve, and that we're moving in the same direction.
Olsen: Paul, how did you transform yourself physically, as Brian Wilson's body changes?
Dano: The first couple of months I was working on it, I didn't look at any photos, video or anything; I just did audio and just started to learn and play. And then, at a certain point, once I felt kind of connected — I just fell in love with having the photos in my house, and you start to feel like you've gotta kinda walk towards that. So I tried to eat some food, which, you know, was, ah —
Dano: People think it's gonna be fun. I just remember being bloated and sweaty, you know? I'm so scrawny, it was, like, really fun to be chubby for a bit. Then you start to just put it together, how the person carries themself. I would do it again in a heartbeat because it makes you feel like a different person. And so much of our work is just losing self-consciousness.
Keegan: Paul, when you were 12 you were on Broadway with George C. Scott in "Inherit the Wind." Did you appreciate it in the moment?
Dano: At that point, I actually don't know that I was super ambitious about, "I'm gonna be an actor." I started doing plays in school and that led to doing community plays, and then that led to doing a regional play, and it found me just as much as I went looking for it. I wish I could tell you guys George C. Scott's stories, and I wish I could work with him now or go back to that point. I have a lot of memories of his presence on stage — I'm sitting there in a witness stand and he's interrogating me, and he's, I mean, he's a powerful, powerful actor and man. But I'm pretty sure I was more interested in playing basketball than I was going to the theater at night. It was just a part of my life.
Olsen: Mark, you acted for a number of years before you really found success. You were famously a bartender for a number of years here in Los Angeles. Was there something that sort of kept you going through that time?
Ruffalo: You know that saying, "Burn your bridges as you go over them so you can't turn back?" Somehow they got burned without me burning them. They just started to disappear and as I got further and further into committing my life to acting, there was nowhere that would take me any more. I was, you know, 28 years old, working in a bar, and I came out here when I was 18, and it wasn't happening. My brother sat me down and said, "OK, buddy, it's time to get serious about your life" — my younger brother — after having to get my car out of impound for the fourth time. And that hurt.
Olsen: Was there a moment where you could feel that things were starting to happen for you?
Ruffalo: Last year. The whole time I was in LA, I thought, "Why don't I fit in here? You know, I'm the ugly duckling." And then I realized, I went to New York, because, I'm actually a New Yorker, I just never knew it. I did one play there and it was a big off-Broadway smash hit, and I came back to L.A. and the casting director's like, "Where are you from?" and I was like, "I've been here for 13 years."
Rogen: What play was it?
Ruffalo: "This Is Our Youth." I met Kenny Lonergan and then we did "You Can Count on Me." When that premiered at Sundance, I'd never had an experience like that. It was so well loved.
Keaton: Well, first of all it's a great movie — and then everybody goes, "Who's that guy?"
Rogen: Has that guy served me a martini before?
Edgerton: That guy's a great bartender!
Ruffalo: I thought my claim to fame was gonna be the margarita.
Rogen: Don't give up on that either.
Edgerton: That was a great inspiration to me at that time, being in Australia, having an interest in being an actor, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it comes, this guy with this amazing performance. It was like, you're sitting on a bench, you know you're good in the game, and then someone gives you a chance to play on the field and you make the most of it, it was extraordinary.
Ruffalo: Thanks, bud. That was a special moment. I was back bartending again six months later, but I saw what's on the other side of the fence, and so I know what's over there, and I'm gonna try to get back there.
Keaton: I never wanted to admit that this was what I really wanted to do. I thought, "Well, I'll do that, but I'm not really like those guys." I knew I needed to do something in that world. I needed to paint or I needed to write. So, that's really an admirable trait, I think, in Mark's case and other people's cases. That "I just gotta hang in there. I've just gotta hang in there," you know?
Stallone: But do you really have a choice, you know what I mean? The way our minds are set up, we know we're in a business that has about 97% guaranteed unemployment, right? Yet, every one of you, there's not a doubt in your mind — "I got it. It's just, am I ever gonna be able to apply it?" You know, that's the frustration. There's so many good actors in the world that we're never gonna see. I think Dustin Hoffman brought it up. Maybe the best actors or directors in the world have quit because they can't take the rejection process.But there's something in all of us here that just didn't accept that.
Keegan: Seth, you had something happen on your last film that I don't know how anyone could be prepared for. "The Interview" became at the center of an international cyber terrorism incident. What was your life like for those weeks leading up to the release of the film?
Rogen: I've been the subject of entertainment news before. I'd never been the subject of news-news before, where the president is talking about it and stuff. So that was bizarre. On the ground floor there was very little actually happening. No one definitively has told me who did it, you know? It's still kind of a mystery, which is what's strange about it. The weirder thing is, now, how everything's gone back to normal. I still have an office at Sony. Amy Pascal still is there — I was in a meeting with her a week ago — her and Scott Rudin are still working together. Everything that kind of seemed like this world-ending crisis, now, ultimately, is completely fine. I think work heals a lot of wounds in Hollywood, and as long as you keep working, and you don't completely tank the studio, then they'll let you stick around. It was interesting to see that a piece of art can really go to that extreme, and that you can get a reaction on that scale from something that normally is relegated to a much smaller demographic, but I'm not making any movies that are politically themed any time soon.