“I’ll be 50 in two years,” says Ben Affleck, whose performance as a grieving alcoholic in Gavin O’Connor’s The Way Back has brought him career-best reviews of his acting, as he addressed the five other standouts from this awards season during The Hollywood Reporter‘s Actor Roundtable. “I have three children I want to spend time with, I have a life that I really enjoy, and I want to really love my work and tell these kinds of stories, with characters that are as rich as the ones that you all portrayed.”
To veteran Gary Oldman, who plays the hard-boozing screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s Mank, Affleck — who worked with Fincher on 2014’s Gone Girl — continues, “Watching Mank made me think, ‘God, I have to direct again!’ ”
Admiration was mutual and plentiful during the hour-plus conversation in mid-January. The most senior participant, 68-year-old Delroy Lindo, is being feted for his portrayal of a haunted Vietnam vet in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. The most junior at 36, John David Washington had a breakthrough year playing a time-hopping intelligence agent in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and a filmmaker with domestic troubles in Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie. Both Lindo and Washington experienced early breaks — decades apart — via Spike Lee (the former alongside Denzel Washington, who is the father of the latter and to whom Lindo, Oldman and Affleck passed along their regards). “Delroy, the O.G., I feel like I’m forever connected to you because of that,” acknowledged Washington.
Sacha Baron Cohen had polar-opposite dual roles in 2020, playing ’60s activist Abbie Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and everyone’s favorite Kazakh TV host in Jason Woliner’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. And Steven Yeun, best known for TV’s The Walking Dead, portrayed the patriarch of a Korean American family in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.
The sextet discussed, among other topics, how the ongoing pandemic could reshape the entertainment industry, the ways in which they respond to radically different directors, and how they measure success.
How do you think the business will e different after everyone is vaccinated and things get back to “normal”?
BEN AFFLECK The business was changing a lot already. Dramas were largely going away theatrically, having to do with competition from extraordinary stuff on streaming services, being hard to price, and the expense of getting adults out of the house on weekends. Now people have been taught that they can just watch at home and that’s fine, so I think it’ll be very hard to get those kinds of movies back in theaters. If I had to guess, in 2006 there were 300 movies released theatrically, and — excluding qualifying theatrical runs and stuff like that — there’ll probably be 40 movies a year that come out [going forward], mostly action, effects, tentpole sequels and superhero, that kind of movie that you can really count on.
This year, with almost everything streaming, how do you gauge the degree to which your movie is resonating?
GARY OLDMAN You make a movie with, say, Netflix, you don’t have to have an opening weekend. You don’t have those particular pressures. They log how many people are watching — I think it’s if you’ve clicked on and watched for two minutes, then it counts as a view. So I enjoy the streaming services like everyone else. But I was recently in London and Mank was playing a three-minute walk from my hotel, and I thought, “I’ve never seen this on the big screen. I’ll go find out what the other customer thought of it.” I went and there were about 11 people in the audience, but there was something to be said for being in this big space in a dark room watching this thing 40 feet across. It played faster. I think the gags worked better. And certainly, the guy behind me was having a good time. So there’s advantages and disadvantages.
AFFLECK Gary, your movie is magnificent — it’s a masterpiece and my favorite of David’s movies. I mean, I also happen to identify with being an aging alcoholic screenwriter, so maybe I’m biased, but it’s incredible — and I don’t know that somebody right now in the studio-theatrical world would do it. You’d have a giant amount of pressure to have that movie do a bunch of money in the first weekend. So the fact that it got made is probably because a streaming service made it. I’m just glad it happened.
John David, COVID-19 certainly shaped your year. Tenet, like all Nolan movies, was intended for the big screen, and he insisted on that even when most theaters were closed. Malcolm & Marie, however, was entirely made during the pandemic, and is available only on Netflix.
JOHN DAVID WASHINGTON Christopher Nolan has a formula with his rollouts, and I appreciated Warner Bros. honoring those wishes — the worry for me had been, “Oh, here I am, getting this huge opportunity, and it’s not going to get the same treatment as his films have before.” Then there’s Malcolm & Marie, which was self-financed — I mean, I paid to play, you know? I didn’t get paid to do that. I believed in it that much. But then it becomes, “Wait, are we crazy?”
Every possible precaution was taken to make the Malcolm & Marie shoot safe. But a lot less was under your control with the Borat sequel, Sacha, right?
SACHA BARON COHEN I believe we were the first movie to shoot during the pandemic. It seemed crazy at the time. We went to Johns Hopkins and found experts on pandemics, and they helped us devise a system that would keep us relatively safe. We spent a million dollars of the budget for testing and PPE. What was tragic was, we had some nurses who’d been working in ICUs in New York, and they said it was the first time they’d been given proper PPE. But yeah, fortunately, nobody got sick. Then there were things like the gun rights rally that I went to, where we were told that if they felt people were not Republicans or pro-gun, they’d get COVID-positive people to spit at you. And that’s quite apart from the risks of getting shot, because we were obviously antagonizing them.
Delroy, you have a long history with Spike. Your screen career really launched with the films you made with him in the early ’90s: Malcolm X, Crooklyn and Clockers. But then it was 25 years before you guys reunited on Bloods.
DELROY LINDO It didn’t feel like 25 years. Obviously, we’d both gotten older. But in terms of the process and the work, it was relatively seamless, and that’s one of the things that I cherish about working with Spike.
Steven, you have a crazy connection with Minari writer-director Lee Isaac Chung …
STEVEN YEUN My agent was like, “Hey, I represent your cousin!” I was like, “What are you talking about?” She was like, “Isaac!” I was like, “Oh, shit! That’s insane!” He’s my wife’s cousin, and I’d only met him at our wedding and a previous wedding or two, three years before. I’d never really spoken to him before. His first film, Munyurangabo, was one of the first films I saw with my wife 10 years ago, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how to appreciate it then because I was just a starving improviser in Chicago. So to come full circle and be given his script was wild, especially because he wrote something that I’d wanted to say my whole professional life.
Ben, over the past decade you’ve directed The Town, Argo and Live by Night, and acted in them, too. Is it tough to go back to acting in somebody else’s movie?
AFFLECK It’s an easy adjustment for me to act in something that resonates with me, like this movie. Although some things were hard about it, it was also kind of cathartic and reminded me why I love and started acting in the first place. Even with things that were emotional or upsetting in some way, I was thrilled and exhilarated at the end of the day.
You came to it from a raw place.
AFFLECK I’m a recovering alcoholic and I played an alcoholic in the movie. It’s really about grief and losing a child, which, thank God, I have not experienced, and is probably the worst thing you can experience. But also, a lot of it is about alcoholism. Alcoholism, in and of itself, and compulsive behavior, are not inherently super interesting, but what is sometimes interesting is what you discover about yourself in the course of recovery and trying to figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, how you want your life to look and what kind of ethics you want to live by. So yes, I’m an alcoholic. Yes, I had a relapse. Yes, I went into recovery again. And then I went and did that movie. But for me, the movie was much more about the fact that — whether it’s having lived enough years, having seen enough ups and downs, having had children and divorce — I’m at a point now in my life where I have sufficient life experience to bring to a role to make it really interesting for me. I’m not good enough to just invent it from whole cloth, you know? I didn’t have to do research for the alcoholism aspect of the movie — that was covered. It was the Daniel Day-Lewis approach to that!
John David, you were a standout football player. You got injured. And you began acting, knowing that you have parents who are tremendous talents in this business and that you were going to hear all kinds of comparisons and comments. But, after a year like you’ve just had, I can’t imagine you’ll ever again be questioned on whether you belong. Does that feel like a load off your shoulders?
WASHINGTON In football, guys get cut every day, so I don’t care what number I am on the call sheet, this could be my last day. I’ve been cut before. I was recently watching the Michael Jordan documentary [The Last Dance]. He would find any excuse to get the psychological advantage. So maybe I’ve arrived, but I don’t feel that way. I always have something to prove. And that’s equally because of my father and my mother, because I respect them as artists so much. What has helped me is Spike Lee believing in me, Christopher Nolan believing in me, Sam Levinson believing in me. That’s encouraging.
Gary, 30 years after Fincher and you discussed collaborating on Aliens 3, he comes to you with another part. But unlike playing Churchill in Darkest Hour, a role for which you won an Oscar and in which you were virtually unrecognizable, he wanted you to play a real person with no makeup, no wig, no nothing.
OLDMAN I like a disguise because of my own insecurity. When I can hide, it makes me feel more comfortable. I don’t know, maybe it comes back to not feeling worthy. I’m coming up to 24 years of sobriety in March, but I remember all the things that made me want to drink, you know? So when David said, “I want you as naked as you’ve ever been, I do not want a veil between you and the audience,” it played into my insecurities. He said, “Trust me.” So you go, “OK.” And really, it was the best call. Oddly enough, after a couple of days, it was rather liberating.
Sacha, your association with Abbie Hoffman goes back decades …
BARON COHEN When I was 20, I was staying at the YMCA in downtown Atlanta researching a thesis on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Abbie Hoffman was one of a bunch of Jewish radicals who went down South to support voter registration for people of color. So I knew about him from the age of 20. Then, 13 years ago, I heard that Spielberg was making a movie about the Chicago Seven and, with characteristic chutzpah, I called him up and asked if I could audition. He was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to do the accent because all he’d seen me do was the first Borat, so he put me with a dialect coach and said, “OK, in two weeks’ time, I want this speech done as Abbie Hoffman.”
Every night for two weeks, I recorded the beginning and end of the speech. By the end, we had about 38 recordings on this CD. At the beginning, it was dreadful — I sounded like a Northwest London Jewish guy trying to do Abbie Hoffman, who’s this Boston radical with influences of Brandeis University and Berkeley, a very specific accent. But by the end of the two weeks, the dialect coach felt I’d nailed it. I said to my assistant, “Put take 38 on a separate CD and deliver it to Steven’s house by 9 a.m.” At lunch time, I met up with Steven in his mother’s kosher restaurant, and Steven sits me down and says, “Listen, I’ve got to be honest, the first 15 takes were not very good.” I was like, “What?!” He goes, “By take 20, you’re getting good. By take 37, it was absolutely perfect.” I realized my assistant had given him the wrong CD, and Steven Spielberg had listened for over an hour to the same speech!
For how many minutes after that discovery was your assistant still employed by you?
BARON COHEN (Laughs.) Unbelievably, she’s actually gone on to be a very successful producer. I kept her on for another year.
AFFLECK He listened to every take?!
BARON COHEN He listened for an hour. Then the writers strike happened and things fell apart. Thirteen years later, I asked whether there’s any way they’d reconsider me for the role of the, like, 35-year-old that Spielberg had cast me as, and somehow, Aaron agreed. [Baron Cohen is 49.]
Delroy, Spike asked you and the other actors cast as the vets to also play the younger version of yourselves. It was a decision driven by budget, but it feels perfect.
LINDO It was a budgetary decision mixed with Spike’s genius. He took lemons and made lemonade, which is what we have to do oftentimes. When I read it in the script, it felt completely natural, organic and the right thing to do. In the context of making the film, it felt even more right, because we’d been working for five or six weeks before Chadwick [Boseman] arrived. By the time we were filming the scenes with Chadwick, it felt right that we, as the age we are now, were going back in time to revisit this younger guy.
Can I ask a question? I’m on the verge of directing my first film, and I’m trying to figure out a way of filming my scenes separately so that I can then concentrate on the rest of the material. I’m curious to hear from the actor-directors what your experience was, if you don’t mind?
AFFLECK I just had this conversation — Michael B. Jordan’s a friend of mine and he’s directing his first movie soon. I also asked everybody before I did it. I didn’t act in my first one [Gone Baby Gone] because I was too intimidated. But ahead of The Town, I asked a bunch of other actor-directors, “What was it that made you feel confident enough that you could actually do it?” Because there’s a lot of mystification of the process and a lot of people who want to set you back from it. I think actors — and brilliant actors like you, Delroy — make good directors because the most important thing about directing, in my view, is taste, and you clearly have that. David [Fincher] is an example of a guy with extraordinary taste and also the soul of an artist and the mind of an engineer — he’s this rare kind of monster who is so brilliant that it’s almost overwhelming. But you don’t have to be as brilliant as David. You can just be an ordinary guy. I said to Warren Beatty, “How do you feel confident directing movies?” And he said, “Have you ever been sitting on a movie that you were acting in and looked over at the director and thought, ‘If this asshole can do it …’ ” (Laughs.)
In these roles, several of you have incredible monologues, but Steven, your character is a man of few words, and yet you manage to convey so much. When a character doesn’t have much dialogue on the page, is that daunting or exciting for you?
YEUN That’s a great question. Sometimes I actually prefer that. That actually makes me feel freer, because what I’ve found is that most of the work is internal anyhow. I don’t mind saying a lot of dialogue. I love to say a lot of dialogue. But there’s also something beautiful about the space between words and the space between moments. And that’s what was really fun about playing Jacob, just really deeply connecting to the internal dialogue of his reality. He’s a first-generation immigrant, so the language is a barrier for him. He’s also coming from a collectivist existence, from a Korean background, and that type of mentality is different than the way we live here, which is very “Here’s who I am!” From the East, it’s more like “You probably already know who I am” or, “I am fitting this box that you need me to fit in for the collective.” And I think that type of existence is in some ways like this movie, the ways that East and West miscommunicate and why they don’t understand each other. And that was the fun in playing that — it’s a glance, a look, the shoulders, the breathing, the way you sit. Approaching work from that point of view is scary because you don’t know if anybody’s going to see. But wonderful directors always see it.
OLDMAN It’s funny that you mention that. Churchill wrote more words than Dickens and Shakespeare put together, and he was a talker. But someone asked me, “What’s your favorite scene in Darkest Hour?” And my favorite scene was Churchill walking down a hallway: He hears Hitler broadcasting, and he turns back and shuts the door so he’s closing Hitler out. There’s no dialogue, just the physicality, the action, the intention, the thought. The way Joe Wright staged it, it’s a quiet moment, and one of my favorites.
Sacha, my understanding is that with Borat, you have an outline, but there’s quite a bit of improv, whereas with Sorkin, you really cannot change a word.
BARON COHEN With Borat, there’s a lot of line learning — I’m rewriting the script continually, often until 30 minutes before we start shooting. I’ll go into a scene and there can be 50 lines that have just been written that I have to memorize. And actually, one of the scenes [when he was staying with the QAnon adherents] was five days long, so there are pages and pages of dialogue that I’m trying to get in. You’ve got to navigate your way through that and make sure you’ve got the usable lines in there. And then Sorkin hires me, and he wants everything to be precise. My question to him on the first day was, “Why me?” Because I’m known for improvising. And obviously, I was trying to pitch that I should improvise. (Laughs.) But the beauty of Sorkin’s language is that it’s perfect. I can’t remember who said it, but, “You can make a bad movie with a great script, but you can’t make a great movie with a bad script.” With Sorkin, you’re coming to it with a great script, so you have that safety net.
Fincher famously does dozens of takes, while Sorkin is known for doing very few.
OLDMAN If they want to do 10 takes or 60, I’m on the clock, and I’m there to serve. David is watching everything else in the first four, five, six takes — he’s calibrating the lighting, or he’s saying, “The camera, when it lands, it’s got to be here.” He’s like a conductor of an orchestra. Maybe he’s not really focusing on you yet. Then he comes in and starts to work. By take 17, you’re thinking, “This is interesting.” (Laughs.) Then, maybe take 32, you come out the other side.
AFFLECK I had a similar experience. It was quite clear that [Fincher] was going to make something really good. But yeah, sure, there’s moments where you’ll do take 23 and he’s like, “First print!” (Laughs.)
BARON COHEN Sorkin is such a precise man that when he says he’s got it, you completely trust him. Even though sometimes I was getting two takes, I was fine with that, because on Borat, you got one. I can’t go to Mike Pence and say, “Oy! Can you do that again?”
How do you measure whether or not a project has been successful?
AFFLECK As John David said, with actors there’s no tenure, no gold watch, you’re only as good as your next job. The phone has stopped ringing for more talented people than me. You’re constantly aware of that. I used to be like, “I want the movie to make money so that I can be seen as hirable by the studio,” and “I want it to be good because I want people that I admire to validate me,” and “My father struggled to do this and I want to be able to do it and not struggle.” I’ve just stopped doing all that. There are three or four really good friends who I love and respect, and I’m going to show them the movie and really hope they like it. If they don’t, I try and change it. But honestly, you know if it’s good. You know if you did something interesting. You know if it was a valuable experience. It’s not about what other people say.
LINDO I’m going to piggyback on that. It’s a feeling. When I think about Bloods, I felt good inside of the work. Had the film come out and audiences not responded to it, that would not have impacted how I feel about the process.
YEUN I sat next to my dad at Sundance. There’s a lot of ways in which I could never really access him, because he also couldn’t access me for a lot of reasons. And for me to be able to show that I understand him and that I see him? On a film at Sundance? On a huge projection? In front of like, hundreds of people? That was bonkers. And yeah, that’s success in its own right.
BARON COHEN On Borat, I’m turning to the crew, the director and a young Bulgarian actress and saying, “Listen, you are risking getting arrested today or physically harmed or insulted.” I had to wear a bulletproof vest for two scenes. There’s got to be a reason why you’re going through that. And the reason was, I felt I had to get out that movie before the election to highlight [then-President Trump’s] misogyny, corruption and dangerous slide into authoritarianism, and also the danger in conspiracy theories and lies being spread by social media and the government, which I think we saw the effect of on Jan. 6. Then, in terms of Chicago 7, I felt I had to make that as well because it showed the importance of standing up to racism, immorality and police brutality. I wanted to remind people of the power of peaceful protest. The insurrection that we saw in Washington — that mob was crossing state lines to incite a riot, right? That’s what the Chicago Seven were tried for, wrongly, because they were actually just going across state lines to peacefully protest an unjust [Vietnam] war. So with these two movies, the success was that I could look at myself in the mirror on November the 4th and say I did everything I could do as an actor, writer and comedian.
OLDMAN I’m not so concerned with the end product. I like the journey. What’s better than waking up in the morning and going, “God, wow, the car is here early. Hell, I’ll get in it. I want to see these people that I’m working with.” I wake up feeling so blessed that I am in a career where I want to go in to work.
Conversation edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.