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The gifted son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, Campbell Scott labored in the theater world for the better part of a decade before landing a key supporting role in 1990's Longtime Companion, one of the first American films to openly confront the AIDS epidemic. From there, he was discovered and discarded by the Hollywood system, first starring opposite Julia Roberts in the 1991 flop Dying Young, then joining an ensemble cast for Cameron Crowe's Gen-X paean Singles. But Scott's versatility soon earned him a permanent home as a top-flight character actor in independent films, with memorable turns in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle, Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers, and David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner. In recent years, Scott has spent more time behind the camera, making his debut with 1996's charming indie hit Big Night, and subsequently directing 2000's Hamlet, the 2001 digital-video project Final, and the upcoming Off The Map. After last year's galvanizing performance as a fast-talking, self-hating lothario in Roger Dodger, Scott has reunited with writer Craig Lucas (Longtime Companion) and director Alan Rudolph for The Secret Lives Of Dentists, a bracingly funny and devastating portrait of a suburban marriage in decline. Scott recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the challenges of acting and directing, the lessons he learned from his brief foray into the Hollywood system, and his book-on-tape version of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit.
The Onion: Watching The Secret Lives Of Dentists, I was struck by how rare it is to see those domestic situations on screen. Even independent films don't deal with them very often.
Campbell Scott: It all comes from the Jane Smiley novella, which is very accurate and insightful and melancholy, and Craig Lucas did an amazing job of beefing it up a little by expanding Denis Leary's character. I know it's painful, but there's something about the way these people don't communicate that's severely accurate, I think. And it was a challenge to play, because usually you're trying to "hit your notes," as they say, and this one doesn't have any. Everything is going on under the surface.
O: The children in the film are unusually good. Are you responsible in some way for helping their performances along?
CS: Well, first of all, you have to get the right ones, and we really lucked into these three. We actually found them all in one day, shockingly, and we watched how they got along with each other. But really, everyone is responsible for at least creating an environment in which they can still just kind of be kids. But also, they're pros. The hardest part was actually deciding what footage to use, because there was so much good stuff with them. All three girls were never intimidated by trying new things.
O: Have you found it difficult to work with children in the past?
CS: Well, you know the old W.C. Fields cliché, "No kids, no animals." I think it's difficult if they're no good, but I don't think it's proper to put them in a special group. I worked with Lukas Haas a long time ago, when he was younger, and he was wonderful. If you're playing their parents, you try to develop a rapport with them and with their stage parents, who are always around. Plus, it's a little bit of a relief when it's a low-budget film, which is all I work on these days, because these are fast movies. There's not a lot of sitting around, and that gives everyone something to focus on.
O: You once said that it's easier to do a showier role like Roger Dodger than something more passive like your character in The Spanish Prisoner.
CS: Oh, without a doubt.
O: Why is that?
CS: Actors are conditioned to develop a system for expressing as much as they can in the shortest amount of time, because you're going to get all cut up in a movie. That's what I meant by "hitting the notes," like "This is a very sad scene," or "This is where I have to show a lot of anger." That's what we're conditioned to do. To cover over those things, or to try to make them exist when they're not superficially expressed by the writer, is much more of a challenge. But, frankly, I think I'm trying to do that all the time. As Roger in Roger Dodger, I'm playing an outwardly dark, creepy character, but I'm also trying to find something else in him to show. The dark, expressive stuff is the easy stuff, because that's what you're sayingthat's all out on the surface. I always want to go a little deeper. If you're playing a good guy, you show some darkness. If you're playing a dark guy, you show something different, like humor, that will mix it up and hopefully surpass the audience's expectations. What I'm battling all the time is complacency in the audience. I try to bring a little mystery to what might happen, because that engages people more.
O: For you, what's the difference between a good director and a bad director?
CS: There are so many different kinds of bad and good directors. Certainly, the things that good directors have in common are that they have taste, they recognize good material and how to sometimes subvert it, and they're not destructive. You always try to avoid anybody who's destructive for whatever reason, whether they're insecure or tyrannical or have no vision or have too much vision. But I've been pretty lucky. You work with someone like Alan Rudolph, and that kind of shit is all taken care of. Alan invites you to a phenomenon when you make a movie with him. When I did Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle with him... I can't even remember making that movie. It was six weeks in Montreal, and it just seemed like I was hanging out with a bunch of amazing people. That's the environment he creates: You hardly know when the camera is rolling.
O: That's true of Rudolph's mentor Robert Altman, too.
CS: Absolutely, though they're very different in style. But the way they're attached to one another is how much they love actors. That's why actors will kill to work with both of them, because they respect them. They don't make a move until actors start to show them things.
O: What do you need as an actor? What do you need a director to tell you or not tell you?
CS: That's a good question, because now I'm starting to direct, so I always have to think about these things. I think you need directors to be clear about what they want. You'd like them to be encouraging and inclusive in some way into what they're trying to do. Other than that, personalities differ. Some are reserved, others are more expressive. You'll know pretty quickly if they're going to let you be their colleague. If they're not, you go about your job in a different way.
O: Did going from in front of the camera to behind it change your perspective on things?
CS: Oh, God, of course. For one thing, when I went back to acting, I was a lot nicer to directors. [Laughs.] As an actor, you condition yourself to be the most important thing in your world, because you're trying to create a character and you're up against a lot of distractions, whether they're technical, or directorial, or whatever. If you don't get along with a certain group of people for chemistry reasons, then you become like a missionary, trying to complete your job alone. But as a director, your job is to collaborate. You have to continue making connections every day, all day, with the cast and the crew. It's a wider job, and more challenging in that respect. There's no doubt that one informs the other. After I directed, when I went back to being an actor, I was like, "God, this is the life!" Because you only have to concentrate on one thing. Whereas before, I probably would have thought, "What a tough life it is, to act." It's like writing. If you're suddenly editing a newspaper, it's probably not at all what you thought it was going to be like when you were a writer. You might go in thinking, "I'm not going to edit all of these great guys' words." But once you're there, you think, "Boy, I gotta edit some of this shit."
O: How does David Mamet fit in among the directors you've worked with? Whether it's fair or not, he has a reputation as a controlling director who wants the actors to get all the cadences right.
CS: I spent six weeks with him on The Spanish Prisoner. I think David is an acquired taste as a director, because he's a brilliant, brilliant writer, and he approaches everything with the idea of getting the text to the forefront. As an actor, there's a part of that you love, because the writing is so good. But then, you also want someone who takes off from that, and sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't. With him, you just have to get on board, and I was happy to do that. His movies are very particular, but that's more than respectable. It's easy to follow everyone else's leads in making movies, but to be really originaland he is, over and over againis something special.
O: You made Final through InDigEnt [a micro-budget digital-filmmaking collective]. What was it like to shoot under those conditions?
CS: Good and bad. It was kind of great, because it was such a tiny crew, like 11 or 14 people at a time. There's no film in the camera, just numbers, so you can turn it on and do whatever you want for as long as you want. But also, it's 14 days and 100 grand, so there's a lot of pressure just to get through the day. It was the first time I'd ever solo directed, but it was the perfect way for me to start, because the stakes are a lot lower from a financial perspective.
O: How did you feel about shooting on digital video?
CS: I loved everything about it, except post-production. Every three months, the technology is different. When we shot Final, we were using this little consumer Sony 1000, or whatever it was, and everything was great during the shoot, and it looked okay. But in post, there were all these sound problems and frames-per-second issues, which drove me insane. Nowadays, I think they've ironed a lot of that stuff out. I mean, digital video ain't film. But so what? If you go in knowing that, then hopefully you'll make something interesting out of those limitations.
O: Can you act in a film that you direct by yourself, or do you always need a co-director? [Scott had co-directors and starring roles for both Big Night and Hamlet. ed.]
CS: You can, but I don't think it's advisable, really. You need a second eye. I don't seek out things to direct myself in, that's for sure, because I think that's a mistake. Still, I maintain that everybody good has a co-director of some kind, whether it's the DP, or the writer, or an actor they work with often, someone they're always bouncing things off of.
O: You've said that the first take is always the best. Does that mean you don't believe in rehearsals?
CS: Did I say that? [Laughs.] The first take is often good, but I'm all for rehearsals. It depends. We rehearsed Hamlet a lot. We rehearsed Longtime Companion a lot. I'm from the theater, so I was raised on rehearsal. When I first started doing films, I was sort of shocked and amazed that there was no rehearsal done. Over the years, I've developed the attitude that on film, sometimes interesting things will happen that you cannot control whatsoever. Film lies. There's no doubt about it. The take you thought was your best was not, and vice versa. That's horrifying at first, because you feel out of control, but then it becomes interesting and freeing, because you think, "I can try all kinds of stuff." It changed my attitude about the job, because instead of doing one thinglike in the theater, when you're trying to go from A to Z, rise and fall, making that one night workyou have a lot of choices. You feel inclined to try a lot of interesting, small changes in every take, so there's a lot of options in the editing room.
O: Is there a danger in something like Longtime Companion, where you know the material too well and the spontaneity is lost?
CS: It depends. Sometimes rehearsal is your best friend, and sometimes it makes the material stale when you do it over and over again. I think you're always trying to get a little of bothbe incredibly prepared, then throw it out the window. I always compare it to athletics. Great athletes condition themselves, prepare themselves, and practice the same things over and over again. But on the day of an event, the greatness comes when you stop thinking and something else happens. There's no way that you can force that. Having said that, most of the time, acting is a slog through shit. [Laughs.] Let's keep it real here.
O: Going back in time a bit, what was it like to make that initial transition from stage to screen?
CS: I just found it exotic. At that time, I was young and I had done nothing but theater, theater, theater. I thought, "Any forays into film are a nice adventure, but this is not going to be my life." Then my attitude slowly started to change, for numerous reasonssome of them financial, some of them geographical. In any case, they're not that different. Just the technicalities are a little different.
O: Do you ever imagine what your career might have been like if Dying Young had been a hit?
CS: Never. Not because I refuse to imagine it, but because I can't imagine it. This is a hard question for me to answer, because I don't know. And, well, I just don't care. [Laughs.] I don't have the energy or the talent to be a certain kind of film actor. I don't have that certain "presence," and I know that about myself. Movie stars are different creatures, and they're extraordinary. They obviously know what they do well, and they do it well. But it's something I don't understand, and I could never approach it that way. I can't imagine myself doing something other than what I'm doing now, which is changing my job, changing my characters all the time, trying to be as different as possible, and trying to investigate things that would never, ever enter my consciousness if it weren't a character I was told to play. I think that's exciting. And that whole machine, the Hollywood machine... I don't have a good or a bad feeling about it. I have a foreign feeling about it. And one doesn't want to stay in foreign countries very long. They're nice to visit, you know what I mean?
O: Singles was your last Hollywood movie, wasn't it?
CS: I only did two, Dying Young and Singles, and they were one right after another. Though the one I'm about to do in South Africa [a film about a boy and his cheetah, directed by The Black Stallion's Carroll Ballard] is half Warner Bros., so maybe that qualifies.
O: It could be your big break.
CS: Yeah, maybe I'll be discovered. [Laughs.] But it's all about the cheetahs, man. When you make a movie about cheetahs, that's what it's about. Don't let anybody have any other ideas about it. [Laughs.]
O: Say I'm interested in Seabiscuit, but I don't have the time to read Laura Hillenbrand's book. Do I see the movie, or do I listen to your book-on-tape?
CS: I don't know, that's up to you. I'll tell you what: There are a bunch of people who are just addicted to those things, those audiobooks. They're awfully fun to do. You don't have to shave, and they only take two days. And you get to play all the characters. Seabiscuit was a joy. That's the greatest story on Earth.
O: What is that process like?
CS: I've always been a big reader, and I love reading. Once I started doing themI've done like 50 nowI found the experience to be extremely pleasant, especially if you have a good, calm producer. You want the writing to be good. One thing I've learned is that there are a lot of bad books out there. When you get to a good one, just like the right script or the right play, you're really grateful to be there. And when they're well-written, they're just so much easier to do. But it's a lonely experience, and I mean that in a positive way. It's just you and the mic.
O: Does it matter to you if the book you read is abridged or unabridged?
CS: Yeah, it does a little. Again, though, if it's a good book, usually it's unabridged, because the author has fought for that, if they have any kind of name at all. I always make sure the author has signed off on it, one way or another.
O: Outside of the Carroll Ballard film, what's next for you?
CS: Off The Map, this movie I directed [starring] Joan Allen and Sam Elliott and this amazing young girl named Valentina De Angelis. It's a very different movie for me, a rural film set way out in northern New Mexico, the middle of nowhere. It takes place in the summer of 1974, and it's about what happens to a family when an IRS guy comes out to audit them. It's like the movies I loved to watch as an audience memberenvironmental movies like Walkabout, Tender Mercies, Desert Bloom, The Black Stallion. Movies with animals and deserts and things. I just love shit like that.
O: And you're finding yourself more interested in directing than acting these days?
CS: Absolutely. I gotta act to pay the bills. But right now, acting is just something I do between directing jobs.