Bob Odenkirk, David Oyelowo and Drama Actor A-List on Oscar Snubs, Bad Scripts and Getting Ignored by Robert Redford
This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk has a burning question for his fellow Emmy drama actor contenders. "Did you guys see The Jinx? Oh, my God, wasn’t the burping part amazing?" says Odenkirk, laughing.
You know the Emmy race has shifted a bit when the writer who created Chris Farley’s "Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker" sketch on Saturday Night Live is the face of this year’s highest-rated new cable drama. And Odenkirk, 52, isn’t the only performer redefining "drama actor" this year. Joining the Saul star for a free-wheeling conversation is Oscar’s youngest male winner (American Crime’s Timothy Hutton, 54), an Oscar-nominated British film vet (The Knick’s Clive Owen, 50), the screenwriter of Ben Stiller’s Zoolander sequel (The Leftovers’ Justin Theroux, 43), a 1970s film icon and Oscar winner (Ray Donovan’s Jon Voight, 76), and the acclaimed British actor who brought Martin Luther King Jr. to life in Selma (David Oyelowo, 39, of HBO Films’ Nightingale, which premiered May 29). Emmy season’s most eclectic (and often funny) stars sound off on bad scripts and the "blessings" of winning — and not winning — an Oscar.
Bob, you took an enormous risk in taking the lead role in AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul. What scared you the most?
BOB ODENKIRK People could have hated me. What if I’m terrible? (Laughter.) The fear was exactly what you’d think: Everyone loved Breaking Bad. Will they even give us a chance? Will they be mad that we decided to try it? I remember when the billboards went up around L.A., I thought, "Oh, my God, people are going to see this." Only then did it really hit me that I could be in for a worldwide kick in the ass. But by then, we’d shot and everyone was feeling good about it. I’m a comedy writer and performer, so I sort of feel like I always can go back to that if this didn’t pan out. I felt like I’d be OK. Put the clown shoes back on and I’ll be all right. Trusting [creators] Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould wasn’t that hard. It was important to me that they chose to do this show for all the best reasons — and they did. But I still thought it could go any way.
What frightened the rest of you about your current roles?
DAVID OYELOWO Nightingale wasn’t even made with television in mind. I thought, "This simply can’t be done. One person in a house for 90 minutes, unraveling and talking to himself ?" [Oyelowo plays a murderous Army vet with PTSD.] You get these opportunities more often in theater. You make this pact with the audience that we’re going to go somewhere fantastical. So when I read this film, I thought, "OK, this feels like an experiment." This was a risk and typifies the era of television we’re talking about — we made this film for an artsy, independent- minded audience and it found a home at HBO.
CLIVE OWEN I didn’t have fears about doing The Knick [because] I had Steven Soderbergh. (Laughs.) But there’s always the fear of not being good. Also, I wasn’t looking at all to do television. Steven called after he’d read one Knick script and said, "I think I want to turn it into a 10-hour TV show. Let me know what you think." Fifty minutes later, there was no way I would not be doing it. Every now and again you come across a piece of material that awakens again why you do what you do. It galvanized me. I did a lot of TV when I was young, and the thing that I was always fearful about in doing TV is the amount of exposure; as an actor you show all your wares and people get very used to what you can do. There’s something about film — you can hold your cards a bit closer.
TIMOTHY HUTTON The American Crime pilot opens with my character getting a call in the middle of the night saying his son has been murdered and he has to go to Modesto, California, to identify the body. As a starting point for a character, I thought it was amazing. Then it hit me what I’d have to actually do.
JUSTIN THEROUX Thankfully, most of our shows here are 10 or 12 episodes, which is manageable. I did a network cop procedural once. The volume of work that we had to do for 24 episodes was crushing. You’re not loving the material, you’re showing up at 4 a.m. on a Monday, leaving at 4 a.m. on a Friday. You’re cycling through your bag of tricks so much that you fall into bad habits. The 10- to 12-episode season is [better]. The writers aren’t being forced to crank.
What is your biggest turnoff when reading a script for the first time?
JON VOIGHT That’s never happened to any of us. (Laughs.)
ODENKIRK The only time I throw a script across the room is when I’ve written it. That’s why my arm muscle is so big. No, I hate the feeling of, "This story is going to one place." I want it to make emotional sense, but not to have predicted it.
OYELOWO That’s what is so exciting about television as juxtaposed with movies. There’s so much fear in film of going in a direction that will be prohibitive to an audience paying money at the theater. With TV, the audience is telling all of us what they want!
VOIGHT Nothing ever bugs me about getting a script. (Laughs.) Actors are all quite alike in some ways; we all have our methods trying to find the life of a character. It’s always new terrain to me. When I was asked to do Ray Donovan, the script was very spare for my character, but very powerful. When I wasn’t onscreen doing something outrageous, I was being talked about. In the process of finding Mickey, I understood why they sent it to me because it was a character who had danger to him and charm as well. When I did a movie called Runaway Train in 1985, people were saying, "Jon Voight is going to do this?" It looked like a complete failure was about to be born. I had to change myself for the character. But it was a route for many other characters to come about — in Heat, Anaconda, Holes, all these characters came from that route. And Mickey, too. But television and film are not the same as when I started out. People did television or they did film. Now we mix.
OYELOWO (To Voight) Was reinventing yourself something you felt was a necessity?
VOIGHT I was always a character actor, even when I was young. Midnight Cowboy was a character role. Coming Home was a character role. I had the greatest respect for the leading men of the time — Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But I’ve always been a character actor. I’m always looking at each part that I get and saying, "Who is he?"
ODENKIRK Like, it’s not me with a different name. "Who is this guy? Who am I going to play?"
VOIGHT Yeah. I think leading men create a style from their personal life and make adjustments. They don’t think they’re playing the same character all the time, either! They’re very subtle. But for me, I was getting older and wasn’t being offered the same kinds of parts. Then I was offered this part. I knew I’d have to change myself in every way.
And become comfortable dancing in a towel.
VOIGHT Hey, I was trying to make this a dignified round- table! (Laughter.) Yes that towel scene in Ray Donovan [season one] exposed me as a dancer.
What have been the biggest turning points in your careers?
OYELOWO For me, it was a hidden turning point. In 2010, I was cast as Martin Luther King in Selma. Then the film didn’t happen for another four years. But just being cast had such a dramatic effect on my career. I went from someone whom no one knew about from the U.K., to suddenly having heat on the basis of a Hollywood Reporter story about the role.
THEROUX I love auditioning because you know you earned the part. When an offer comes in, you’re always like, "Oh, God."
OYELOWO Exactly. I started getting offers based purely on an announcement about some actor whose name no one could pronounce!
What roles were you offered?
OYELOWO Parts in studio movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes for Fox. The director of The Help [Tate Taylor] also called and said, "We’re doing a film. There is a preacher role and I need someone with a Martin Luther King energy. I read that you’re about to do Selma, so come and practice on us." Then another one that no one saw, called Who Do You Love, in which I played Muddy Waters. That film never came out because it clashed with Cadillac Records, where Jeffrey Wright played Muddy Waters. So our film never saw the light of day. Then I walk into the Jack Reacher audition with my accent and demeanor and I’m sure the director wondered, "Can he play someone from the South?" Then he saw the Muddy Waters clip and said, "Oh, he’ll be a fine." A film that no one really saw.
OWEN As a kid from a very working-class family, my biggest turning point was getting into drama school. We had a little youth theater and I fell in love with acting. At one point, I was unemployed in my hometown and suddenly realized, "God, this is my passion." And I got lucky: I made one application to Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and got in. I was thrown in with a group of people who were as crazy about acting as I was. I did some TV and then a very tiny film called Croupier, which was made for no money and wasn’t really given a release in the U.K. There was a marketing guy named Mike Kaplan who put out all of [Stanley] Kubrick’s films and also worked with [Robert] Altman. He fell in love with Croupier and championed it in America. It got the tiniest release any film could get, but also some really great reviews. It ended up being in theaters for months. Someone joked, "Croupier didn’t get released. It escaped." (Laughs.) It changed things for me quite a lot.
Tim, you were only 19 when you made Ordinary People with Robert Redford and 20 when you won the supporting actor Oscar. How did these experiences impact your career?
HUTTON Alvin Sargent’s script was amazing, and it was Redford’s first film as a director. There were at least 10 auditions. I even had a screen test with Ann-Margret, who auditioned for the part of the mom, which went to Mary Tyler Moore. I was incredibly excited, then I realized how challenging it was. The kid in the story, my character, was so torn apart. Redford was amazing during rehearsal process, but once we got to Chicago to shoot I felt very isolated. I found out later that Redford told everybody, "Stay away from Tim. Don’t say, 'Hey, great job today.' " He thought it would be very effective, and it certainly was. I’d go home every night and pace around the Waukegan Sheraton.
Did he ever give you feedback on your performance?
ODENKIRK To this day, he’s never spoken to you. (Laughter.)
HUTTON He’d occasionally say, "What happened to you today in that scene?" He just didn’t want to be social. Then the movie was received quite well and the awards came. I was actually in the middle of rehearsing Taps, and I remember flying back from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, for the Oscars. It was the year that Reagan was shot and they’d postponed the show for a couple of days. The morning after the show, I went back to Valley Forge to continue rehearsing. What really helped was that I recognized the Oscars as an event associated with one movie, one role. Another thing that grounded me was, after Taps, I went to New York to work with Sidney Lumet on a small, little-seen movie called Daniel.
Was there a flood of offers for bigger films after you won?
HUTTON In the middle of shooting Taps, I got offered a script called Risky Business. Nobody saw that one, either. (Laughter.) But it was going to shoot at the same time as Daniel. Sue Mengers, my agent at the time, thought I was out of my mind to not do Risky Business and do Daniel instead, but I’m actually glad I did it that way.
OYELOWO What you said about what Redford did while you were doing the film is really interesting. You watch the film now and you see the results of not having your back patted throughout the whole thing. It’s amazing that at the age of 20, you won the Oscar and managed to somehow put that away and keep doing the work. Awards campaigning has become this huge thing. I don’t know how you go on to win or be celebrated in that way and have that very small group of people whom you’ve campaigned with patting you on the back, [and not have that] creep into your head the next time you’re on a set trying to give a good performance. It’s one of the dangers of what we do: how much noise now surrounds us. I’ve seen people win or be very much in that conversation and it has affected their work.
THEROUX To Jon’s point, it’s valuable for any actor to always think of himself as a character actor. The minute you start trying to assume a "leading man" or "leading woman" role, your sandbox starts to shrink and you start to get into the confines of a really strange space. We’ve all seen it happen — it creates this terrible gravity where the material starts to play to the actor’s comfort zone and eventually you’re painting inside the lines to maintain whatever perception or awards [pedigree] you’ve built up.
HUTTON If you get into a mindset of thinking that a new role is going to be easy because it’s familiar, it’s very hard to kind of move away from that.
ODENKIRK A good thing for that is shooting in Albuquerque. (Laughs.) You’re [forced to] focus.
David, you mentioned the impact of awards on actors’ careers. Many felt you were snubbed by the Academy for Selma. How do you feel about it all now?
OYELOWO Two blessings came from all of that. If people perceived that something they wished for you didn’t happen for you, that’s a lot of goodwill you’re stirring up with a lot of people. People are rooting for you, and that’s priceless. But to have them constantly saying, "I think you should have gotten this," you go, "Hold on." I’ve been to Nigeria with that film and seen two electoral candidates sign a peace pledge after watching it. I’ve been to the White House and watched it with President Obama and Michelle Obama. That’s why you make a film like Selma. There was a danger that if I had been nominated, or even won, that those thousands of people would creep into my head the next time I gave a performance. I’ve had my work in Selma validated beyond all of that in a way I’ll never [forget]. We all love our backs being patted for what we do, but I think to keep your powder dry, you have to find your Albuquerque.
This speaks to the enormous impact of the media on actors’ careers. Jon, you’ve been open about sharing your conservative political beliefs in the news. Has this ever impacted your ability to work in Hollywood? Does your team ever tell you to keep quiet?
VOIGHT Not so far. I am very blessed to be a citizen of the United States. My grandfather came here from Czechoslovakia in the bottom of a boat and wound up in a coal mine in Pennsylvania, made his way to the Hudson River Valley and met a girl, Nellie, whom he married. His son is my father. I’m very fortunate to be an American, for all that it stands for. As I’ve gotten older, I feel a responsibility to pass down the things that I’ve cherished. I sound like I’m 106. I’m actually only 104. (Laughter.) When I was young, my dad told me, "You best not talk about politics or religion." But what’s more important than the way we govern ourselves and our beliefs? What are we going to talk about? So I feel it’s my responsibility as a citizen to say what I think. The critics? Well, they can still get to me. But when I speak out, I try to be clear. I do a lot of thinking. I read a lot. (To Odenkirk) In Albuquerque, you can probably do a lot of reading, too. (Laughter.)
THEROUX Our politics are probably different, but I hope we’re not in a place where people aren’t getting hired for expressing an opinion.
Whom do you most trust to give professional advice?
ODENKIRK I think you’d all agree: my wife [talent manager Naomi Odenkirk]. (Laughter.) She reads more scripts than I do. She’s good at telling me what’s up.
OYELOWO I pray about it. I really do. It turns out that God has very good taste! I want to put in the world things I can defend to my children. I’m not a subscriber to the idea that what we make doesn’t affect culture. What we do is so powerful. It does shape culture and people’s worldview. I’ve been to Africa and seen places with no running water, but they have a tiny little screen with a satellite dish on a rickety sort of tin shack. A lot of what they’re consuming is what we put out in the world. So prayer is a big one. Also: Does my dad want me doing that?
THEROUX It’s a gut thing for me. If it’s something comedic, I’ll check with my friends who also write. But I’ve definitely made mistakes when people say, "You should do this," or "This is a great director. I know the part’s not what you want but you should do that." I’ve rued many days on set where I’ve been like, "Why did I say yes to this?" I made a lot of mistakes as a younger actor, signing up for plays I’m stuck doing for six months. I’ve been in many sad situations. That cop procedural [made me want to] hang myself. My character said shit like, "Chief, you’re going to want to hear this!" You go, "Oh, I can’t." (Laughter.)
What do you wish agents better understood about working with actors?
THEROUX How great we are. (Laughter.)
OYELOWO One of the mistakes actors make is feeling like an employee instead of an employer. I pay you a wage, so get on board with what I want that company to represent and we’re going to have a great time! I think agents want you to tell them which way you want to go, otherwise they are in a corporate situation where it’s just this sausage factory. I’ve told the reps I’ve had what I want to do and that empowers them to do something that’s probably a little bit different. As a young actor, you think, "Oh, my goodness, I’ve got an agent!" Suddenly you feel you have to lean into everything they say, as opposed to, "No, this is where I want to go. Help me facilitate it."
ODENKIRK I feel sorry for agents. They work in these companies that have grown and expanded. They start with a genuine love of the work and it gets beaten out of them. They get so swamped with the extraneous needs of the company, it’s hard to not lose touch with what they cared about when they started. The agencies are so huge now, I think they also represent onions and flour now, too. (Laughter.) "Hey, we need to sell more onions. Can your character be eating onions?" I don’t know if they represent other vegetables yet, but they will!
If you stopped acting today, what would you do with the rest of your life?
THEROUX Probably keep writing. I’m not good at other things. I’m not a very bright man.
VOIGHT You think we’re going to let you get away with that answer? (Laughter.)
THEROUX Hey, I just hope I don’t have to stop acting!
HUTTON I’d want to build things: tree houses, furniture. I’d be very happy to have a wood shop.
ODENKIRK I would continue writing silly stuff. Or be at the dog park. (Laughter.)
OWEN Acting is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. When I was very young,people said, "You need a backup career." I’ve come across many actors like me who didn’t have a backup. That drive and will made it work. There weren’t other options. So I can’t think of what I’d do. I watch a lot of sports, but not sure I can make a career out of it!
VOIGHT I’d probably spend the rest of my life being a babysitter. I love children.
OYELOWO The point will come when people want to see less of us as actors. So I’d love to produce. It’s hard to get movies made, so when you do, there’s nothing quite like it. To produce would be as satisfying as acting.
VOIGHT You can do both.
HUTTON Look, I think we’ve all found our Albuquerque. (Laughter.)