Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Eva Marie Saint didn’t make her first movie until she was nearly 30, but she arrived with a bang, winning an Academy Award for her performance opposite Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Her long list of credits ranges from Cary Grant’s sexual sparring partner in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest to Martha Kent in Superman Returns, and most recently, the voice of Katara in the Last Airbender sequel The Legend Of Korra.
North By Northwest (1959)—“Eve Kendall”
Eva Marie Saint: Yeah, she has a mind of her own. She was ahead of her time, She wasn’t submissive. She’s a strong lady, and aggressive.
The A.V. Club: It’s fascinating to think of you going from the Actors Studio to working with Alfred Hitchcock, who was less interested in motivation and sense-memory than the mechanical matters of what worked and what didn’t.
EMS: Exactly, that’s the perfect fit, because to go from Waterfront and working with Kazan to working with Hitchcock is completely different, isn’t it? He didn’t give much direction, which is interesting to me, or was. He just didn’t give much direction to the actor as far as motivation or gestures. He would tell us in a particular scene where to sit, where to stand. I came from the Actors Studio, and you learn, among many wonderful things, that the director is the conductor and you’re the instrument. If he tells you to sit there, you sit there. Without even thinking, that’s what you do, and then you justify everything in your own mind for the character he gives you. I loved that, to go from the Actors Studio and working with Kazan to being able to work with someone like Hitchcock and not expecting him to whisper wonderful little things along the way. No. He didn’t want me to use my hands, which I still do—they flutter a bit now and then, while I’m talking—and to lower my voice, and to look into Cary [Grant]’s eyes at all times. Just look into his eyes—which wasn’t hard, of course. Those were the three things he gave me.
However, he was so concerned about how Eve Kendall looked, how she dressed, down to every earring, to hair, to makeup, to necklaces, to shoes, to purses, everything. I just loved that. Because he went along with me, we always did things together. He never imposed upon me, “You must wear this, Eve must wear this.” No, it wasn’t that at all. We would talk about it, and when I’d see that that’s the one he’d really like, I trusted him. If that’s what he sees on Eve Kendall, that’s what goes on Eve Kendall.
AVC: There’s a bit of overlap with the Actors Studio there, in terms of taking your character from a prop or a bit of clothing.
EMS: That’s interesting. He just had a different approach, because he had in mind Eve Kendall more than I did when I went on that set. I just listened to him and watched him. One of my favorite moments was, we had a break and I asked for a cup of coffee—I drank coffee in those days—and the young man brought it to me from the craft table in a Styrofoam cup. I was wearing the black dress with the red roses, and he was in the little rehearsal room, and he said [Hitchcock voice] “Eva Marie, what are you doing drinking from a Styrofoam cup? I won’t have my leading lady doing that.” So he asked them to bring me coffee in a china cup and saucer, and the minute he did that, I knew he was right, and that I was wrong. I was actually out of character, in a sense, and he wanted me in character. He had his own way of Method acting, and look at the method he had. My God, so talented.
On The Waterfront (1954)—“Edie Doyle”
AVC: You were almost 30 when you made your first movie, but you’d done a lot of theater before that. Was it a difficult transition, even from doing live TV?
EMS: Live television was really like doing theater: You rehearsed for two weeks, and then you had the one show. But I had done a television show, The Trip To Bountiful, and then we did it onstage with Lillian Gish, we did it on Broadway. That’s where Kazan saw me, in that play. I think it might’ve been a more difficult transition if I’d had a different kind of director, but the fact that it was Kazan and he was at the Actors Studio and I was studying at the Actors Studio—it was a nice fit. Karl Malden was from there, Rod Steiger, all the actors that were in it. I felt comfortable on that set. And Marlon [Brando], of course.
AVC: A lot has been written about how much the plot of On The Waterfront reflects Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s decision to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Was the blacklist a presence on the set?
EMS: When I made Waterfront, I was aware of blacklisting, but it wasn’t until after I made it, I started reading, “Oh, this means this and this means that…” There was never discussion on the set. When I worked on a set, I put my blinders on, like racehorses, and I don’t know what’s going on other than what’s happening to my character on the set with the actors, and starting with the director. If anything was going on, I didn’t read about it, and actually, I don’t think any of that came out until much later, reading things into it. So I can’t help you there. I look at it now, and I still don’t understand what all of that was about. Maybe because at the time, I just didn’t reflect about it, I didn’t know about it, didn’t put two and two together. What do you think? Do you think they imposed it upon the screen, and read all of this into it?
AVC: There’s no way to know. If you don’t know the backgrounds of the people who made it, it’s easy to see Waterfront as a pro-leftist film, championing the ideals of trade unionism against capitalist corruption.
EMS: I think it made an impression on me, because to this day, I’m so union-oriented. Of course, I belong to SAG, and [Actors] Equity, and AFTRA, and they’re all unions. So I believe in unions, and to this day, when I read about longshoremen—I always continue to read about longshoremen, because of that movie—and I saw recently, the last few years, when they have these electronics instead of people on the ports, and every time I read it, I thought, “So how many people did they have to fire because of all these machines? How many men aren’t making a living for their wives and families?” It made an impression.
All Fall Down (1962)—“Echo O’Brien”
EMS: I loved that movie. I loved working with Angela Lansbury, and Karl [Malden], and Warren Beatty, and Brandon De Wilde. It was a wonderful experience. I didn’t live in Ohio, I lived in Albany, but I went to college in Bowling Green, Ohio. So when I read the script and saw that her name was Echo, from Toledo, Ohio, it all sounded right to me. [Laughs.] Crazy, the things you latch on to. [Whispering] “Oh, Toledo… her name is Echo, from Toledo, Ohio…”
AVC: So you just liked the sound of it, when you were reading the script?
EMS: Oh yes, yeah. And John Frankenheimer. It was such an interesting movie to make. In real life, when Brandon De Wilde died in an automobile crash, in the rain—that beautiful young man, that actor—when I first heard that, oh my God, I just sat and wept, because that’s how Echo dies, in the rain. And the last scene, when he says goodbye to her at the end, and she wants to say goodbye but she’s crying, and goes off in the car… It was just shattering to me, to think that he literally died that same way. He was so talented, and a little naïve on making a movie, things that would come up and things he would ask me, and I just adored him.
Raintree County (1957)—“Nell Gaither”
AVC: Montgomery Clift was another great actor who died too young. When you look at him and the rest of the cast, including Elizabeth Taylor and Lee Marvin, it seems like an incredible moment for great new actors. Did you have a sense you were in the midst of something big?
EMS: No. Not really, except I was thinking about my leading men—most of them have died, actually, and that’s a very strange feeling—but Monty Clift was very, very shy. Oh, he was very, very shy. We hardly spoke, except onscreen when we had our dialogue. But I didn’t get to know him at all, really, because there was no kidding around. Elizabeth and him—the two of them were very close. She was wonderful with him. She could bring him out, but I couldn’t. We had lunch one day, and neither one of us said a word. We did not speak, and I thought, “Oh, what a bad decision this was.” I had invited him to my dressing room on the lot at MGM and ordered lunch, and lunch came… I used to be very shy. Maybe that’s why I became an actress. I can’t bring anybody out. I try—once in a while I can. So I thought, “We have this long scene after lunch, I hope things get better.” So we get on the set and we have this dialogue, no problem at all. It was very, very strange. He was a sweetheart.
Exodus (1960)—“Kitty Fremont”
AVC: What was your experience with Otto Preminger? A lot’s been said about him being a tyrant on the set.
EMS: I thought he did a remarkable job. That was a humongous undertaking. Thousands and thousands of people in one shot, and the locations! Some of the people on the big ship, the Exodus, some of the extras who were getting 50 cents a day—talk about unions—some of those people had been on the real Exodus, and they thought that was easier than being on this ship. It was difficult. He had a pattern of screaming at least once a day, and that was true, but that was how he got it all out. People would be a little nervous before he screamed, because they didn’t know when he was going to scream, and they would be nervous after he screamed, and that was just his pattern. He never screamed at the stars, but at the extras. It was kind of a neurotic pattern. I thought he was a fabulous director.
And to make that movie—no one had told that story, and no one has told it since. It is a long movie, but it’s a historical event, and it had Lee Cobb and all these wonderful actors. I loved being in Israel; I’d never been to Israel. I knew it was going to be a long shoot, and my husband [Jeffrey Hayden]—he’s a director—wasn’t filming during those months, so he went with me, and my two children, 5 and 2, went with me. When he was on the phone—Otto Preminger, asking me to do the film—I said, “Well, I’ve got to bring my family, I’ve got to bring my mother-in-law, I’ve got to bring my parents, when she gets tired, to help me with the children…” and I went on and on, and he said, “Well, Eva Marie, obviously you have your own Exodus.” And I said, “That’s right. I can’t do this film without it, so that’s it.” He said, “Okay. We’ll do the film.” And I said, “Fine, that’s great!” So that was the understanding. And it was an incredible experience. My son was 5, he went to the top of Masada with my husband and stayed in a hostel overnight, and they had to get up at 2 in the morning before the sun came up. Oh, he remembers. My daughter doesn’t, but my son remembers all of that. It was an important story to be told.
The Sandpiper (1965)—“Claire Hewitt”
AVC: I have a bit of a soft spot for that one.
EMS: You really have a soft spot for that? Have you seen it recently?
AVC: I haven’t, I have to admit.
EMS: Well, now that you’re a grown-up, I’d be interested… [Laughs.] There was a tax problem, or whatever it was, with the Burtons, so we had to go to France for a lot of that. I loved working with Liz [Taylor] and [Richard] Burton. We didn’t have much direction, actually, so that was a little disappointing. But it’s a good story. I loved wearing the hats.
AVC: You don’t get good hats in every movie.
EMS: I said to [Vincente] Minnelli, “You know, I’m the blonde, she’s the brunette. Why can’t she be married to him, and then I break up the marriage?” And you know what he said? To this day, I don’t understand it. He said, “Well, that wouldn’t work.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Blondes don’t break up marriages, dark-haired ladies do.” All right, now I’ve lived a long life, and I still don’t know what the hell he was talking about. [Laughs.] When he told me, I think I said, “…oh,” and walked away. [Laughs.] And then the bubble over my head is, “What in the world is he talking about?”
I adored Elizabeth. She was such a dear, giving, gracious, full-of-life, full-of-fun lady. I admired her so much for her life, and she had many physical pains, like the time she fell off that horse, but she had a stiff upper lip and she was such a gracious lady, and so giving to everyone around her. I learned a lot from watching her on the set, I really did, how she treated people.
Don’t Come Knocking (2005)—“Howard’s Mother”
EMS: I loved—did you see that?
AVC: I did, yes.
EMS: Did you like it?
AVC: I did.
EMS: Now wait a minute. Can we get a little more enthusiasm?
AVC: Sure. It’s a great movie!
EMS: Now you’re going too far. It’s not a great movie. You can’t win with me today. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s off its rocker in an enjoyable way. How’s that?
EMS: I know. But I loved working with Wim Wenders. His wife is a wonderful photographer. And I loved working with Sam Shepard. He is one interesting man. One day he said he was going to the dentist or something, and I said, “Well, I hope you don’t have that funny front tooth fixed.” and he said, “What funny tooth?” I said, “Oh, come on.” [Laughs.] I mean, he’s such a good actor. I loved playing his mom. When I first met him, I said, “You know what? I don’t feel like your mother.” [Laughs.] We made that in Elko, Nevada, and I didn’t have a name for my character, so I named her Lola. Lola from Elko. Where we shot was right across from a casino, and you could see the lights at night. I just loved filling in who that character was, how long she’d been married, what her life was like, when her husband died, why she would welcome her son back, and I just loved that idea. Some people said, “Oh God, how could you be so welcoming to a son you haven’t seen in 30 years?” And I’d say, “Because he’s my son, and because I can get lonely.” I made a life for myself and I just filled all that in.
And Wim was wonderful to work with. Just interesting people all around me, it was like a road show. I admired Jessica Lange so much—I think I’d met her once—but I didn’t have a scene with her. It wasn’t until I saw the movie—of course I read the whole script—that I saw it come together. Almost like a quilt, all those little pieces put together.
AVC: “Lola from Elko” sounds a little like “Echo from Ohio.”
EMS: Oh, that’s right. “Echo from Toledo, Ohio.” And Lola from Elko. I got some of my clothes right there in Elko with the costume lady, and we would go to these funny little places, I got to go to every little store to get my sweaters and dresses. It was just sheer fun, to be on that location.
The Legend Of Korra (2012)—“Katara”
AVC: How did you end up doing that?
EMS: Don’t say “end up.” “How did you end up…” That sounds like, “To go from North By Northwest to Airbender.” [Laughs.] Those were your words, “How did you end up…”
AVC: I can’t win, you’re right.
EMS: No, you can’t win. I’m feeling pretty naughty today. But I’d always wanted to do voiceover, and that’s a whole different thing out here. It was like when I started in New York, in order to make a living I was doing modeling and some commercials, but I wanted to do soap operas. That was the hardest nut to crack; there were about 10 people doing all the shows. Finally, finally, I got to do one where I said, “This is your long-distance operator, number please.” Those were my first words on radio, and this is my first year from college. From that time on, I’ve always had this feeling that it’s really hard to break into something. I took it upon myself to say to my agent, “I’d like to do voices in some of these Pixar movies, like Ed Asner did in Up.” I loved Ed in Up. So I did a few of these, and I walk in, and everyone is a pro for voiceover, only one non-voiceover-er. But I enjoyed doing it, and I want to do more. My first job when I was in college, the summer of my sophomore year—we were living in New York—I got a job as a guidette at NBC. So I would give the tours, and I would talk about the cathode-ray oscilloscope, and I would say, “Now, give me the name of your hometown,” and someone would shout, “Toledo,” and on the mic, I would have the cathode-ray oscilloscope next to me, and I’d go, “To-le-do, O-hi-o,” and the graph would go [makes buzzing noise] like spaghetti. So then, at the very end, I’d say, “All right, now I’m going to say a word that looks exactly the way it sounds: ‘Spaghetti!’” and everyone would laugh. You’re not laughing, but it was fun on the tour.
AVC: I’m just letting you tell your story.
EMS: Oh okay, okay. So then, I would go into this little booth for sound effects, and I would say, “Now, when you hear a radio show, and there’s a fire in the house, you know, we don’t have a fire in the studio”—I was so condescending, when I think of it—so then I said, “Close your eyes,” and I’d take a piece of red cellophane and I’d squish it around the mike and it would [crinkles paper into the phone] it would sound like flames. I did barks. I can bark, but I don’t want to wake you up. [Barks.] Did you hear that? You can use everything you learn in life. I learned that from the Actors Studio. Part of that was that I was doing all these things, and I thought, “Well, I have good range in my voice, I can do different things, so why not use all your talent, right?” So, I want to do a Pixar movie. They don’t know it yet, but I do.
AVC: We’ll put it down in print, and hopefully it will get to the right people.
EMS: [Laughs.] It’s fun to do different things, and why not, right?