This morning, we had the great pleasure of welcoming actor Hal Holbrook to talk about his film, Into the Wild. WATCH VIDEO
And while he was here, he found out that for the first time, at age 82, he had been nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor -- he's now the oldest man every nominated for an acting Oscar.
Holbrook is not in Into the Wild for very long, but his scenes are very powerful, marking some of the highlights of what I found to be an excellent film.
Movie fans also know him more for his shadowy performance as "Deep Throat," Bob Woodward's secret Watergate source, in All the President's Men. And he first achieved national renown more than 50 years ago for his stage portrayal of Mark Twain (a role that earned him a Tony Award in 1966).
I was honored to get to speak with Mr. Holbrook for a few minutes this morning, and was truly moved by some of his comments, particularly at the end of our conversation (and he got a little emotional himself).
Here's our Q&A:
DF: First of all, congratulations on your Academy Award nomination this morning. What was your immediate reaction when you heard your name called?
Hal Holbrook: Relief. Relief. Flying all the way to New York from Los Angeles yesterday on the supposition that I might get nominated...it's kind of like sitting here this morning at NBC, waiting to hear if the governor is going to issue a reprieve to you before they execute you.
DF: You survived.
HH: I survived, thank the Lord.
DF: When you get a script like Into the Wild...so much of the finished product is atmosphere, it's music, it's unspoken subtext...how do you determine whether it's really a great script?
HH: Well, this was a beautifully written script. It was a beautiful piece of writing by Sean Penn. It was a wonderful script. So I was just centered on the script. I never thought of the role as anything that might be up for an Academy Award or any other kind of award. I just thought it was a good role.
It was especially interesting for me, because it was a different kind of role than any director had ever cast me in in movies before. Sean Penn must have taken a chance on me based on his wonderful instincts as a director. I owe this whole thing to Sean Penn. He gave me this big chance to do something special, and he helped me do it. I'll be forever grateful.
DF: The two scenes that stand out for me are when you make that climb up the rocks...and the final scene between your character and Emile Hirsch's character in the jeep, that is so emotional. First, the rocks...did you do anything to physically prepare for that? It looked pretty treacherous.
HH: No, I just climbed up the rocks three times. They were a little nervous that I was going to fall. I did fall once or twice, I think. The rocks were pretty sharp and unstable, they were slipping all the time. I wanted to go up myself just to find out what it was like.
It's necessary, in my opinion as an actor, to do something like that, to know how you would really feel, physically and mentally, when you get up to the top and do the scene. The climbing of the cliff was part of the whole scene.
And the scene that happens right after is such a switch, when he says, "I'm gonna miss you when you're gone." It's an emotional switch that's unexpected. And it's a lovely scene up there and a very important one. But it's prepared for with that climb up the cliff and how hard it was.
DF: That emotional scene you talked about in the jeep...how did you mentally prepare for that? It's so moving for your character -- and for the audience -- and I know you saw some of your son in Emile's character. Were you thinking about him when you performed that scene?
HH: Probably was a little bit, yeah. But Emile and I just sat in the jeep and remained silent. We weren't doing any big Method thing, we just were quiet, that's all. We had gotten to know each other pretty well, and it was the last scene shot in the picture.
We just sat there, quietly, for about 20 minutes while they lit the thing. And we just did the scene. I think we did it in one take. Half of my performance is from Emile Hirsch. You take your performance from the other actor. You don't construct it just all alone. Without someone like Emile Hirsch, who can give so much to you, just by being real and natural and direct and open. You can't come up with a performance like that.
Really, all I did was just talk to Emile all throughout the picture. Emile brought this up in an interview we had together -- I hadn't thought of it. But our two characters in the film got to know each other in the same way that Emile and I got to know each other. We hadn't known each other before.
We had dinner with Sean up in Portland one night a month or two before, but that's all. So I didn't know him, and he didn't know me. Sean shot the whole sequence between us more or less in sequenence. So we just got to know each other.
Emile had, in his own personality, a similar kind of -- I don't know how to describe it -- he's his own man, just like [Hirsch's character] Chris McCandless was his own man.
It's the kind of thing...if you're an older man, talking to a younger man...when you know they're their own person, there's a little distance between you that's sacred, that you don't cross over. You don't say, "Now, son..." You don't do that kind of number. You respect the young man, that he's his own person.
There was that little distance between our characters, always. And it was there with Emile and me. We're both probably the same in that respect. I'm not so much for this, "Oh, gee. Let's be cuddly and get to be best friends in 10 minutes." So when the final scene came in the jeep, that kind of distance paid off.
DF: I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you a couple quick things about All the President's Men. Until the identity of "Deep Throat" was revealed as [former FBI Associate Director] Mark Felt, how often were people asking you who you thought he was?
HH: A lot of people asked that question. I didn't have any good answer for them, because on the film itself, nobody really seemed to know who it was. Mark Felt's name came up sometimes, but I had imagined somebody different myself.
When I played the role, I imagined someone more like [former secretary of defense] Clark Clifford. Someone with that kind of elegance, you might say. Dignity. Because I thought that was very important that the man felt embarrassed to do what to him was distasteful. To go into a dark garage somewhere and creep around and tell this kind of thing. Like it was beneath him. And that emotion was in the scenes that I played.
DF: How did you react when the identity was finally revealed? Did you have any thoughts about it?
HH: No, to tell you the honest truth. To me, the point was not "who" it was. The point was, "Why did he do it?" We make such a big deal, like in the media, "Oh, gee whiz, who is it?" It doesn't matter.
The important thing about what Deep Throat did is about why he chose to do it. It was a very difficult thing for someone serving in the government to break rank from the administration and have to choose between his loyalty to the president and his loyalty to his country. To be placed in that position was terribly difficult. And to make a decision like that, anyone who knows something about Washington, which I do...you just don't do that.
The decision itself was extremely difficult. The reason for it is very important, not who it was.
DF: One last thing...in 1956, you received a lot of attention for your portrayal of Mark Twain...you were on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and you reached a level of celebrity that you have said, "was so overwhelming, that it frightened me." Do you think the experience of dealing with that much public attention and scrutiny shaped some of the choices you've made in your career since then?
HH: Yes, I do. I've been at this a long, long time. It's a very difficult business. It's a very tough profession to be in. Not the work itself, but the kind of expectancy that you hope for. I've learned not to hope for too much, just to work hard. If something good happens, like what happened this morning, fine. You know? Wonderful.
In this case, to be nominated for an Academy Award, it's like a miracle to me, especially at my time of life. It's a miracle. Totally unexpected, and it's a miracle! I can't get over being grateful for it.
When you're an actor, you just think about the work. What's really important in the end is how your work affects the people in the audience. When people stop you on the street or wherever and tell you how they felt about something, like with Into the Wild, that's what's important.
You look in their eyes. That's really what's important, and you have to remember that. You can't let your head get all twisted around, wondering whether you're going to win an award. Because the award you already have. You know what I mean?