Monday, December 05, 2005

"I DON'T THINK I'VE SCRATCHED THE SURFACE" A Conversation with Actress SHAWNEE SMITH


Just about a year ago I wrote on this blog about seeing the very popular horror movie Saw. My reaction to the movie as a whole, which some people were responding to in a very visceral way, was to recognize the relative cleverness of the movie’s setup as well as my indifference to its derivative, overeager style and the unevenness of the film’s acting. But in the middle of the movie came a brief moment featuring Shawnee Smith as Amanda, a junkie prostitute who relates her night of horror escaping one of the killer’s elaborate traps—she’s been fitted with metal headgear that will tear her jaw loose from her skull if she doesn’t retrieve the key to the contraption. The key has been lodged in the stomach of a dead man lying next to her who she discovers, when she finally gets around to picking up a knife the movie’s Machiavellian madman has provided her, isn’t as dead as previously advertised. As she relates the story to the detective, played by Danny Glover, the actress cannily contrasts the hysteria of being trapped in the headgear (which also provided the movie with its unforgettable initial advertising imagery) with a repressed calm that really makes you sit up and take notice of her every word. Smith doesn’t have many of them in her brief appearance, but she made the most of every one, and she ended up turning in one of the best unsung performances of 2004 in Saw, a movie surely never designed to be an actor’s showcase.

But that’s how talent goes—it draws a viewer’s attention like a sweet treat hidden in a pitch-black cave, and it turns out that Saw did not showcase all that Shawnee Smith had up her sleeve as far as Amanda is concerned. Saw II, perhaps the most satisfying horror sequel—or maybe the most satisfying sequel, period—in quite a few tries lately, thankfully gives Smith a whole lot more to do, and she runs with the opportunity. The level of the acting in Saw II is far better than the original—I like to think Smith raised the bar that everyone else felt obligated to at least attempt to leap over. She, along with the terrific, insinuatingly unsettling Tobin Bell as the aforementioned Machiavellian madman (the movie, fairly radically, gives him an opportunity to try to convince us otherwise) and the unlikely character actor Donnie Wahlberg, immensely watchable as a crooked cop whose son has been deposited in a house of horrors of Bell’s devising, along with seven other victims (including Amanda), provides the stable nucleus around which a lot of hysteria and squirm-inducing bloodletting circulates. Amanda is more difficult to read this time around—she’s more reticent to help her fellow unfortunates than might be expected, but so are they too self-obsessed and panicked to take advantage of what wisdom she might have to offer from her previous encounter with the “Jigsaw” killer. The reason why Amanda finds herself in yet another life-threatening situation is itself shocking and psychologically believable, and the movie itself provides some of the answers, in its nimble plotting, to the nagging questions some of us had concerning the first movie’s rather generous leaps in logic. The Saw series itself may prove to be the horror genre’s most flexible in some time, as it has never embraced the more routine killer-on-the–loose formula that has numbed a generation to the fearful pleasures to be had by a more playfully intelligent, yet still straight-ahead shocker like this one.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman may still be a little too fond of his Avid’s editing capabilities at times, but in general the editing serves to build tension through a rapid (sometimes stroboscopic) style that I find, in most movies that use it, more often disassembles the buildup of dread. To read Bousman in print, he may come across as a little too in love with hyping his movie as a sick, demented freak show and himself as a happy purveyor of perversity (it’s a trait no doubt encouraged by original Saw-meisters James Wan and Leigh Whannell, though neither he, nor his movie, can hold a candle to Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects in that department, and I don’t mean that as a knock). The reality is, Saw II displays an unusual interest in exploring the logic and the ramifications of Jigsaw’s motivations and modus operandi. And this is what I mean by the series being more flexible in its form, here and with its inevitable run of sequels. A good part of this movie is given up to scenes of simple talk between Bell and Wahlberg, scenes in which Jigsaw weaves his manipulative genius and makes a twisted case for the situations he’s created for his victims, and Bell seduces us with his purring, unhurried delivery and silken intonations as much as he does Wahlberg. It’s not only interested in seeing what happens when a woman gets her wrists locked in a glass cage, bound by razor-sharp clamps that saw deeper into her flesh with each tiny movement she makes to extricate herself, or when someone is hurled into a pit of filthy hypodermic needles in search of the one needle that may contain an antidote to the gas seeping into Jigsaw’s fearsome funhouse which will eventually kill the all the captives if they don’t somehow escape.

Which brings us back to Shawnee Smith. She’s the one who tumbles into, and then hysterically rifles through, that massive pile of syringes, several of which end up sticking in her neck and torso. And once again, the actress is at the center of a very effective horror film’s centerpiece of fright and dread. This is easily the most agonizing scene I’ve witnessed in a horror movie in a long time, and Smith carries it off with her signature intensity and (incredible, given the scene) grace. Her character’s humor, never particularly light to begin with, darkens considerably after this episode, which is fitting—I think mine would too—as the movie leads to a denouement many have decried as too clever by half, but which makes perfect sense within the movie’s twisted logical trajectory. And once again Shawnee Smith is given, within the pleasingly amorphous boundaries of the horror genre, another much longer moment to shine on screen and show why she’s one of the movies’ most well-kept secrets. Personally, though, I’m hoping for this secret to get out and grab a little more attention. And I don’t think it’s saying too much to hope that maybe Saw III will provide the chance for Smith to burst through those boundaries and expand the narrow minds and Blackberrys of those studio execs who can only think of Julia, Angelina, Cameron, Reese, the Jennifers and, God help us, Jessica, when it comes to casting their big-budget roller-coaster rides.

And now, an admission. Shawnee Smith and I became acquainted when our daughters met in preschool, and their first play date took place about two weeks after I caught Saw in a movie theater last year. I wrote my observations of her performance never imagining we might actually become friends, but since writing about her again, in regarding Wan and Whannell’s Saw DVD commentary, that’s exactly what has happened. Her daughter and mine spend lots of happy hours playing dress-up, and Shawnee has become a good friend of our whole family. So when Saw II finally hit theaters this past October, I requested an interview for SLIFR and, true to her generous nature, she happily agreed. It took over a month after seeing the movie, thanks to tricky schedules and her bout with some rather insistent viral bronchitis, to finally get a chance to sit down with her, but we finally did just that on November 6, just about a month before she was due to welcome a second baby to her household, a little boy. In fact, even as you read this, Shawnee may now be in the hospital bringing him into this world—when I saw her last Friday she looked more than ready to end the pregnancy part of the adventure and move straight on to the nurturing and the nursing. For as talented and smart as she is on screen, she’s about the most unpretentious, down –to-earth, least image-conscious person I’ve ever met who would count herself a resident of that nebulous world called Hollywood—many is the time she’s greeted my daughter and I at her front door in her bathrobe, or with a toothbrush in her mouth. The interview that follows took place just off of her well-lit, very welcoming kitchen, the two of us sitting on barstools, and was punctuated every so often by the squeals and laughter of our two girls and the occasional demand for attention, which neither of us felt we were too busy to indulge. So, just how does one start an interview with someone who has seemed an almost constant presence in movies and TV for almost 20 years now? Well, I won’t say this is how it should be done, just how it was done this time around:


DC: How long have you been acting?

SS: (Laughs)

DC: Let’s say, how long have you been an actress? You’d probably been acting long before that.

SS: They are, frighteningly, the same number. (Continues Laughing) How long since I’ve been getting paid to do it? (She pauses, considering how long) A long time—27 years.

DC: Do you remember the first thing that you did?

SS: A McDonald’s commercial. That’s the first thing I got paid to do.

DC: How long did it take, with your various projects, before you decided this was what you wanted to do? Or did you know right away?

SS: Well, I was a kid, you know. I suppose I had a proclivity for it, but my mom also was very excited at the idea of me performing. She and my dad are closet performers, so I’m sure that was a lot of influential motivation.

DC: And support. You feel like you can do what you want if you’re getting support from the people close to you, like maybe you can take some chances. How long did you do it before you considered yourself an actress?

SS: I think, at 15. I’d performed in this cabaret group called—(Chuckles )

DC: Yes?

SS: “Focus on Fame.” That just sounds-- As a parent right now, that sounds hideous. I would run as far from that—anything having to do with that description—as possible. But we would sing and dance, and we worked with some of the top choreographers. So when I was 15, I got a job understudying the playwright’s daughter for a play called The Hands of Its Enemy with Richard Dreyfuss. The only reason I took the job was because I thought I’d get to rehearse with him, which I didn’t. The understudies had our own separate rehearsals. So at the end I walked up to him and I said, “Excuse me, Mr. Dreyfuss but the only reason I took this job was because I thought I’d get to rehearse with you, and it doesn’t look like I’ll have a chance to do that. So if you could just please just watch one of our rehearsals and give me any tips, I’d really appreciate it.” And he came, and the play got extended for three weeks at the Huntington Hartford, which eventually became the Doolittle Theater. And, mysteriously, the playwright’s daughter could not do the extension, so I got to go on. And every night, after each performance, we’d sit down and talk about the show and the performance, and he’d give me notes. He was a great mentor, and really inspiring.

Then I did another play and a TV movie called Crime of Innocence. And so I made this beautiful card and wrote this poem which I gave to my performing group, “Focus on Fame,” that basically said, I’m gonna focus on acting—I think that’s where I’m more talented anyway, but I miss you. I gave it to them—I don’t know if they ever read it. (Laughs)

DC: And this was in the mid ‘80s?

SS: Yeah, I guess mid-80’s-- I graduated high school in 1987. So it must have been 1985. Then I started working from there.

DC: The TV movie, I’m guessing, is what gave you the most exposure up to that point.

SS: I got a “Youth in Film” award for that performance as best actress in a drama. And then I did another TV movie that was really heavy called Easy Prey. I did all this really dramatic work. And then I was the youngest winner of the Dramalogue Critics Award for To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday-- Claire Danes did the movie.

DC: What was it like getting that kind of exposure and the praise to go along with it?

SS: Well, that was really encouraging praise because it was for—You know, the jobs were substantial, the roles. And I think it’s kind of a shame—as I got older it just started becoming more and more about sexuality. And there’s still the same illusion that sexuality is power, and you see, like on MTV, the girls—They base their marketing on—The teenage boy prototype is the Jackass character, and the female prototype they call the “Midriff,” and it’s all about sex and sexuality. And then they take it a step further by suggesting she’s even more powerful because she owns her sexuality, which is such a load of crap. I mean, it is a certain power, but it is a power that is absolutely false and leads to nothing substantial in life or love or in one’s heart.

Also, at 16, I did a half-hour comedy. I got my driver’s license at the same time—my parents were terrified.

DC: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that moment with my own daughters.

SS: Oh, God, I can’t even imagine. I’ll have to find a good husband by then, because he’ll have to take care of that. (Laughing) Or I’ll be living in such a remote place—we’ll have horses. I’ve got 10 years to figure it out.

DC: But your point is a good one—it’s maybe a little easier to take the praise and exposure when you’re doing the kind of roles that have some meat on them, that the praise is more genuine.

SS: Awards and that kind of stuff are all a bit tricky, because there’s always hundreds, thousands of people out there that can do better, or worse, or the same as you, who either don’t get the opportunity or don’t pursue it. It’s kind of like the gifted and remedial programs in school—another way we separate and categorize each other, like it means something. And it doesn’t. But if you’re going to get an award, it’s nice to get it for something that’s substantial. And at the same time, my dad, who was never really excited about me being in the entertainment world, found this book by Uta Hagen called Respect for Acting. It was the first time that he identified in any way with the art of acting. He brought that book to me when he came to see me in The Hands of Its Enemy. That was a really important night, and I really related to that book and what she had to say.

DC: It’s an important book for a lot of actors I know. She’s onto a lot of serious aspects of the acting craft involving the fusion of intellect and instinct that are based in her own experience, and she’s coming from a place that’s not based in a simple pursuit of fame.

SS: Yeah, that was never—And still, to this day, I’ve never been interested in fame. Even so, my later teenage years and early 20s just seem like a bit of a loss. I was still working, and I started doing these crazy, sexy roles and got some attention for them. People would go, “Oh, she’s so quirky and wild and weird!” after seeing The Stand or Leaving Las Vegas. But that kind of performance was easy for me. Saw II was a challenge. The one scene I did in the first Saw was a daunting day of work. I don’t do those things halfway, which is maybe why I get hired for scary movies—which is also odd, because I deplore being upset on the inside at all.

DC: Was it hard to get the place where that character, Amanda, in Saw was at, especially given that you had very little time to prepare for it?

SS: It wasn’t, because I have a pretty good imagination. All I had to do was put the head trap on and sit in that room, and I was there, and it was all real to me. And I was horrified.

DC: Well, that certainly was communicated on screen. I was really struck by your performance in that movie, how you contrasted the character’s hysteria with her emotional retreat when she’s being interviewed, and her intense quiet. Compared not only with acting I’ve seen in other horror films, but also next to what I observed in that movie, it just seemed to jump off the screen. It seemed real, whereas as the rest of the movie was… clever. That was a real moment.

SS: It was real for me. (Laughs) That’s why I said no when they first asked me to do it.

DC: Well, I always think, at some point when I’m watching a movie like this, “These actors seem really into it, really terrified, but they know there’s a crew around them and their support system, and I always wonder how quickly the intensity can break when the director yells “cut.”

SS: It trips me out how actors will do an intense scene, and the second someone yells “cut,” they’re— “Whoo-hoo! Aaaaah!” For me— (Hesitates) But everyone has their style. I remember working with Lou Gossett on Iron Eagle and he was doing this really intense scene. The minute they’d say “cut,” he’d tell jokes. I was, like, “How do you stay focused?” Because he’d get back in that space the minute they started back up. And he said, “My God, if I stayed there all day long, I’d be exhausted.”

DC: Which is maybe why it’s a good thing the Saw shoot was just one day for you.

SS: Right. Well, Saw II wasn’t. And I was pregnant. And I found that if I just rested in between, just turned off my mind—listened to music, sat in a chair—people thought I was Method acting. I was just conserving energy (Laughing).

DC: But that worked for you to keep yourself protected and also to keep yourself in the frame of mind of the character.

SS: Yeah, just to stay kind of relaxed and open and have the energy necessary to give something. And it’s so simple—listen, and respond truthfully, whether it’s a horror movie or something more “serious.”

DC: You can hear people say that and think, “Oh, they’re being reductive; they’re denigrating what they do,” by saying it’s very simple.

SS: Yet preparation might not be that simple. For different roles, preparation can be—I have yet to do a role where I’ve had to really prepare outside of myself for. Most of the roles I’ve had, I’ve gotten because it comes naturally to me. This movie I did-- Dogtown-- I hadn’t really found the character. I mean, I had kind of a general feel for her, and it was in the wardrobe fitting, when the costumer brought out this big, plastic box of hideous jewelry that she sprung to life for me. I knew exactly what pieces of jewelry went with what outfit, and there she was. That was the thing that turned her on. But, you know, I haven’t done Shakespeare, I haven’t done—There are roles where, I think, as an actor, you should be able to—I don’t think every actor is right for every part. But you can lend yourself. That’s what so fascinating about the study of human nature, about acting. So there’s different levels of work, right, but when you finally get to the moment, you want it to be simple. You want to be able to listen and to connect with the person who’s in the scene with you for it to be human.

DC: Well, how do you prepare for something like being thrown into a pit of hypodermic needles?

SS: You don’t. (Laughs) You just do it. For me, anyway. I prepared for it by just showing up that day, getting on the set, which was daunting, and then staying relaxed enough to be moved by it. The rest took care of itself. Between the head trap and the scenes with the needles, I didn’t have to act much. It was easy once I got in it.

DC: Well, it certainly moved me. I squirmed more during that scene than during any other scene this year. I remember thinking, when it first started, “Oh, God, here it comes.” And then there’s a shot from above, looking into the pit, just before he tosses you in, and as it started to happen it felt very strange for me. First of all, I thought, “I don’t wanna see this.” And then I felt really protective of you, not only as a character, but as a person, and I wasn’t too happy with the actor (Frankie G.) who did the tossing. It was a very unique feeling for me. It took me a while to sort that out, long after it was over. But just as a scene, it’s incredibly effective.

SS: My little sister was upset by the movie, and by me in it.

DC: Had she seen the other one?

SS: Mm-hmm.

DC: So she was prepared for the violence, but maybe not for the way things turned out.

SS: (Shakes Head) Mm-mmm.

DC: I have to admit, it was a bit strange when I saw you after the screening. Are you a fan of horror films?

SS: Like I said, I don’t like to be scared. I don’t necessarily value a heightened emotional experience in life. But there are things about the genre— One of the cool things about the horror genre is that you can have unknown actors, an unknown director, you can do it for a small budget, and you can break people’s careers.

DC: At the same time, and it may not be so true of other genres, but seeing the way people react to the Saw movies, and certainly other horror films, there’s a stigma about horror films that makes it hard for people to take the performances seriously, or even the movie itself seriously. One of the things that surprised me about the first one—that your work in it was so strong, and it didn’t get the attention it deserved, even though your image was the centerpiece of the advertising. So what struck me about Saw II is that your performance was exactly what I was hoping for and expecting, in that it expanded on that quality, but everybody else seemed to rise to the occasion too. It was great to see Tobin Bell get a showcase; Glenn Plummer was terrific-- he hasn’t been seen enough lately; and Donnie Wahlberg was outstanding. I’d seen him before and thought he could be an interesting character actor, but here he was a good, solid lead.

SS: Yeah, there’s no consideration for performance in those movies. I think you just accept that there’s gonna be no attention for it, unless it’s, like, MTV—Best Fight Scene or—(Laughs)

DC: Best Kill. Best Girl-on-Girl Action.

SS: (Laughs) God almighty…

DC: And I don’t know that that’s ever going to change, or whether it even matters.

SS: Our director, Darren Lynn Bousman, was funny. When we did the press for Saw II, he was always on his Blackberry looking at reviews. I mean, I can understand. It’s his first film directing, so I get it. But my acting teacher, Bob Carnegie, told us a long time ago—He was Sandy Meisner’s protégé. He said, never look at reviews. Whether they’re good or bad, they’re meaningless. Just do good work on the level you should be working at. And so I just don’t really pay attention either way. ‘Cause either you get puffed up, or you get— (Pause) There was a great quote—I forget where it came from—but it said, “Those afraid of momentary madness become critics, not creators.” I know it’s a useful part of the machine, but especially with this movie, people aren’t gonna go see it or not see it based on the reviews.

DC: That’s certainly true. And the level of what passes for film criticism has been so degraded. I mean, does it matter what George Pennacchio thinks about your movie?

SS: That kind of “journalism” is just so much personal agenda anyway. Plus, there’s not a lot of great material to review these days either.

DC: Yeah, the level of what you end up reviewing can often not be too inspiring. What about looking at the stuff you’ve done in the past? Do you ever look at it and use it as a jumping-off point for the work you’re currently doing?

SS: I don’t think I’ve scratched the surface. I’ve worked pretty consistently, and that’s what’s more important to me, really.

DC: It’s hard enough to be a working mom in the average working situation. What’s it like to be a good mom when you’re also out there trying to find good roles in a competitive situation, while at the same time trying to craft an image of yourself that you’d feel comfortable with your daughter seeing?

SS: I was lucky with Verve (Shawnee’s six-year-old daughter) because I was on Becker for the first five years of her life, which was a dream. Then, when I did Saw II last year in Canada, she came out towards the end and I realized she did really well on location. There was a studio teacher there, and she loved to go in the school room. My daughter has put a whole new perspective on life. Really fine work is being a good mother. The principles that I strive to live my life by would be the same principles that I would strive to live my professional life by and imbue in my performances. And at the same time, I have the perspective that “it’s just a movie.” There are way more serious, eternal things in life to be concerned with. It’s funny—it’s the simplest of things that are the most trying and difficult to deal with. You could read all the child-rearing books in the world, and parenting and family and ethics, and it comes down to being present in that moment, being able to respond and be present for your child or your family. The same goes for acting. You can be as fancy as you like, but it comes down to the exchange in the moment. Is it real?

And there’s not a lot of good material out there, so hopefully at some point you luck into a really great part. Most likely, for every Academy Award winner there’s someone who could have done as well with the part, or brought something different, something “better” to it. That’s why awards are little more than pats on the back. If you can function from a personally meaningful set of rules, then your life and your work will be fulfilling and substantial, and they don’t have to be different from each other—they can be integrated. I just hope for good material! (Laughs) And a good team. You know, great material, a bad director—great director, bad costar—a lot of elements have to fall into place to make it work.

DC: The reality is that film, and television, is such a collaborative medium, that the thing you really like about a particular piece of work might not have even existed had not X, Y or Z not also been involved.

SS: That’s been my experience.

DC: So when you’re done with a movie, you feel like you can turn it loose?

SS: Yeah. I try not to take it that seriously. I’m grateful that I’ve never been after fame or, like, millions of dollars. I’m happy to be a working actress and paying my mortgage and living and learning.

DC: One of my favorite quotes can be found at the top of this blog. It’s from Bertrand Russell, and it says, "One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."

SS: (Laughs) Or taking anything too seriously!

DC: What is the most important thing that you brought out of your experience with Becker? You said it was a real stabilizing force for you. Is TV something you’d like to get back into?

SS: I remember Ted (Danson, who played the show’s titular character) would say, “One day this will be done and we’ll all look back and realize what we had here.” And I would say to him, “We realize what we have now.” (Laughs) “And we appreciate it.” I think everyone in that show had been around enough to appreciate it. Everyone had families—Well, almost everyone. We were so lucky on Becker. We had extraordinary writers, with Dave Hackel at the head of it. Everyone else turned left, he would turn right, and not just to spite everyone, but because he has an original way about him, and he’s so smart. I know he was tough on the staff writers, but he brought out the best in them. Having writing like that, and a cast like we had (the cast also included Hattie Winston, Nancy Travis, Alex Desert, Terry Farrell and Saverio Guerra), and then Andy Ackerman directing the first couple of seasons, it was a well-oiled machine from the beginning. You’d come in—It was basically 9:00 to 5:00—and the goal is to laugh all day. (Laughs) And you could make money. It’s hard to make money in movies anymore, but in TV? That’s why you see movie actors in TV now.

DC: And when you hit 100 episodes, you go into syndication.

SS (emphatically): Thank God.

DC: And suddenly things look a little different?

SS: Mm-hmm. But you gotta be careful with this Hollywood machine, because whatever it gives you—There’s a lot of money flying around and a lot of praise and excitement, but as much as it gives you, it’ll take away if you can’t stop and step out of that machine and take a breath. The syndication residuals meant a lot of money that I went through, and I think that a lot of people in TV series, or just in the business in general, can really fly through it. And as fast as it comes, it goes. Your situation at any given time is very transient—show business attracts transient-type people, the nature of it is transient. So I’ve found it a really great challenge to learn to practice building something within this transient system. It’s all still pretty new for me, and it’s amazing the amount of effort it takes to step out of that stream, that flow, the churn of that machine. It’s powerful.

DC: And I would imagine at any one time you’re being pulled in several different directions, being in that stream, some of which you may not really want to go.

SS: You walk out your front door and you’re just bombarded with advertisements and images—be this, be that, you need this, you need that—and that’s what being in show business is like. It’s easy to get lost and to dissipate. But it’s also this incredible challenge to grow and build within it. So you’ll have to check back with me in five or 10 years and see how this experiment is continuing to unfold, whether I’ve been up to that challenge!

DC: Well, from what I’ve seen of your work, Saw and Saw II being primary examples, it looks to these eyes like your approach is working, certainly if the evidence on screen means anything.

SS: Hopefully the goal is to build substance in one’s life and soul, and then that substance translates on screen, which then translates into more opportunities and a higher quality of work. The goal is have that substance to offer and share—we’re here to help each other and give to each other.

DC: Which is what the art of acting is about.

SS: It’s supposed to be. It rarely is. Most movies are satisfied with simply assaulting your senses for no good reason, and you come out exhausted. But the movie that can build something in you, that’s one that’s worth experiencing. I just saw Shopgirl, and there are a lot of fine things about it, especially the performances. But it seemed like the point was, we’re all human and we all fall short and we’re handicapped and limited in various ways. Well, we all know that. How about, if I’m gonna take an hour and a half away from my family and go to a movie, give me something a little more complex to shoot for, rather just an affirmation of what I already know or a confirmation of my worst fears.

DC: Given that thought, what actors or directors or screenwriters do you feel are doing that, consistently aiming a little higher, that you might want to work with?

SS: I love Cameron Crowe. I haven’t seen Elizabethtown yet, but, to me, Cameron Crowe’s movies shoot for that higher principle, that higher standard, what it is to love and have a real relationship. He’s searching for something noble, and his characters struggle through their humanity to reach a nobler plane, with love as the goal.

DC: He’s got strong ties, in spirit and influence, to a lot of great writers and directors down through film history, in terms of how he approaches character and story structure. A lot of filmmakers of his generation pay lip service to these directors and writers, if they’re aware of them at all, but they’re not all that genuinely informed by the classic work. Crowe made a very strong connection with Billy Wilder in the last years of Wilder’s life and released a fascinating book of interviews covering the director’s life and each of his 74 films as a writer and/or director. Whether or not he achieves that Wilder quality in his own work, he’s set up Wilder’s example as a storyteller and a visual artist as a template for himself to follow.

SS: Cameron Crowe edited the book?

DC: Yes. It’s almost like the DVD commentaries for every Billy Wilder movie that he never got to record—Crowe gets him to talk about every one of Wilder’s movies-- and it’s very interesting then to see how Crowe tries to take Wilder’s lessons and transpose them to his own work. Crowe’s trying for something similar to what Wilder achieved, but he’s filtering it through his own sensibility, whereas Hotshot Director A,B or C might just say, “Ooh, I’m gonna make my homage to a Billy Wilder movie,” and it comes out hollow.

SS: This book sounds pretty essential.

DC: I think so. I’ll lend it to you if you’d like. But similarly, is there somebody in your career who stands out, who has a special place in your heart as a cherished colleague, or somebody you’d like to work with again?

SS: That play I did with Richard Dreyfuss was pivotal for me. It was more inspiring than an award. He was a good, caring mentor. It’s a shame that that kind of thing doesn’t seem to happen too much anymore. It used to be the way people came up in the world in any kind of craft. Robert Carnegie is another important person in my professional life. My life is so integrated and interwoven with acting, especially when you get to this particular level. There’s so many different levels to work as far as income and keeping the momentum of your career going, but, hey, a job’s a job. If it’s a really bad movie, people aren’t gonna see it, so you don’t have to worry about ruining your career. If you’re a working actress, some are gonna be better than others, and every once in a while one is gonna really shine. But meaningful exchanges, professional or otherwise, are the meaty stuff of life. There are people in Hollywood who, from their work—whether they are actors, directors, cinematographers writers—with whom I would guess I could have a real, honest exchange, should I have that opportunity. But you never know until you get there. The exchange I have with my family or someone I meet on the street today are likely to be far more important or meaningful. I look forward to any opportunity I have for substantial encounters in life. And you have to be available for them when they arrive, and that’s not always easy. And it really goes against the flow here in Hollywood to have those kinds of experiences—everything seems loaded against it. But that’s what makes it special when they do happen. So if you have even just one of those moments in a movie, it’s a success.

DC: Well, you made Saw, a movie that I think works only in fits and starts, a success for me through your one moment, and you stretched another wonderful performance throughout the sequel and, by your increased presence, made it a much better movie overall. So, as I see it, you’ve got at least two honest exchanges in your pocket.

SS: Not that you’re biased—(Laughs)

DC: (Hackles are up now) What are you talking about? I’m perfectly objective! I’m a robot!

SS: I read your reviews. Those are the only ones. (Continues Laughing)

DC: Wait till I burn you in print. That’ll all change!

SS: I’m sure it’ll come at my loftiest moment. Inevitably, the burn will come.

DC: “If anyone here present knows of any reason why Shawnee Smith should not accept this Best Actress Oscar, speak now or forever hold your peace.” “Uh, excuse me, Mr. Hanks. You got a minute?” No! I don’t think so!

SS: You’ll have to in order to prove your credibility. It’s a natural part of the process.

DC: “Look, everyone. Look what he was willing to do to prove his ‘objectivity.’”

(Both Laugh)

DC: My final question: What do you want for Christmas?

SS: My daughter’s two front teeth. (Laughing) And my son in my arms. Those would be the best gifts. What else could even come close?

UPDATE 12/12/05: This afternoon, at around 5:45 p.m., my wife got a call at home informing us that Shawnee had successfully delivered her little boy and that all the happy satellites of family and friends revolving around her were as excited as could be upon his arrival. Mom gets her Christmas wish with a little under two weeks to spare. Now it's time to work on those teeth. Congratulations and lots of love from our family, and the SLIFR family too, to you and yours, SS. We can't wait to meet him.

9 comments:

blaaagh said...

Oh my god, what a great interview! I have way too much work to do this morning to have spent all this time reading it, but who cares? I enjoyed every word of it. I look forward to seeing what she does next--well, I mean after the baby comes.

Sal said...

Dennis, I should be asleep right now after working all night but the moment I saw Shawnee’s picture on your front page I was hooked.

First let me say this. When I was in film school at the tender age of 40, I began to find myself surrounded by an unusual group of people who all had very different motivations for wanting to make films. The most obvious were the group that wanted to become famous. Then there were those that wanted to make bushels of money and become famous.

Yet the group that I found the most fascinating to be around were those that were interested in doing good work. It didn’t matter to these people about how much money they could make or the kind of rewards they could receive, it was about working with other talented people and making something that everyone could be proud of and sharing it with others. Being the oldest guy in the bunch was very interesting to me but to my surprise it really didn’t faze the others because they understood me and I felt what they felt.

Now naturally if the work we did garnered praise and rewards, obviously they would be greatly appreciated especially if they came from other film makers. It’s a natural instinct to want yourself or your work to have value and meaning and ever since childhood we have valued being rewarded for a job well done. Those wants and desires never change as we grow older. Most of us just learn how to prioritize their value.

Because as we grow up and mature a great many of us want to pass our values and our inner beings to our children and those precious gifts become the most valuable reward we will ever receive.

Am I rambling???

What I’m getting at is that I’ve had a couple of opportunities to meet and speak with a few actors and actresses and I will tell you that Shawnee Smith beats them all. Here is a successful actress who has managed to find that happy medium in her life where she can do the work she wants to do and still find her life's center. Shawnee makes no attempt to “pretend” how important acting is compared to being a great mother. She sounds like a really great, interesting, mature, thoughtful woman and frankly Dennis I’m a little jealous she’s your friend.

Invite her out to the drive-in sometime. Maybe Jeff and Frank can arrange a screening of The Blob. I hope that didn’t ruin my chance to meet her someday.

Peet said...

This girl is the real deal, that's for sure! Let's hope Hollywood is paying attention. What a refreshingly relaxed and attentive interview, Dennis!

By the way: Shawnee's quote is from Friedrich von Schiller. Here's the full version:

You worthy critics, or whatever you may call yourselves, are ashamed or afraid of the momentary and passing madness which is found in all real creators, the longer or shorter duration of which distinguishes the thinking artist from the dreamer. Hence your complaints of unfruitfulness, for you reject too soon and discriminate too severely.

Not that I knew this by heart, mind you... I googled it.

Wonderful quote. I'd say good criticism is creative itself. Evaluation, however, is most likely to stop creativity in its tracks. That's the way we feel about it at 24 Lies A Second, anyway. Too bad 95% of the criticism out there is all hype, bashing and star ratings.

To quote Marcus Tullius Cicero:
I criticize by creation, not by finding fault.

And yes--I googled that too...

Peet

Snake Plissken said...

Dude, you know the front woman for Fidolla Ho? (That's how I remember her, along with her being the sole bright spot on that otherwise useless sitcom Becker).

That is just too cool.

nilblogette said...

I have seen Shawnee Smith four times in the three years I've lived in Los Angeles, and I have never once had the guts to talk to her. I've always been a big fan, but this interview makes me like her even more.

blaaagh said...

I especially liked her mention of the Uta Hagen book and how it had influenced her work--I, too, have benefited from Hagen's teachings, without actually studying with her in person (and I like her second book, "A Challenge for the Actor," even better). Any actor, or anyone interested in the craft of acting, could find some enlightenment in Uta Hagen's books, even if you skip over parts; I wouldn't skip the part at the beginning of "A Challenge", though, where she talks about what it takes to make an actor. Quite a bit of what Shawnee Smith says about acting and its relationship to one's life reflects what Hagen wrote.

I also was intrigued with Shawnee Smith's discussion of how so many women's roles are all about the sexuality, and her assertion that "owning" one's sexuality doesn't necessarily make everything right.

The quotation from Friedrich von Schiller, and ensuing comments from Peet, are heartening and thought-provoking about critics and criticism: I've had a hard time figuring out why, when I read some criticism, it's exhilarating, and when I read other criticism, it's totally deflating and discouraging. So this had shed some light on it for me.

Finally, Dennis, I know it's difficult to be friendly with a person and also to admire their creative work, particularly if they're famous, without somehow appearing to be a boob, and I think you did a great job of interviewing your friend whose work you also admire and respond to. You managed to bring forth her charming personality and intelligence at the same time as you allowed her to reveal quite a bit of her way of working.

Thom McGregor said...

Shawnee is a very sweet, intelligent, grounded person with no element of lofty starriness anywhere in her visible life. I don't know her well, but she seems to me to be so calm and even beautific. At first I couldn't get past remembering her in previous roles, in Becker, The Stand, and especially in an episode of The X Files where at the end this creepy worm thing explodes out of her throat. So I did feel distracted at first whenever talking to her face to face, half-expecting an alien worm to crash out of her neck.
So that certainly is a compliment to her acting skills. But I like to think of her as a mini-van-drivin' mama, juggling acting, teaching her little girl, going to parks, ice skating, ballet school. Oh, and then acting. She juggles gracefully, and I admire her so much as a person. Dennis, this is the interview that should have been. Should have been when she first came to stardom, when she was on Becker, and when the Saw movies came out. You let your subject talk about what really means to them, and that's wonderful. Congrats, Shawnee! Can't wait to see and hold the baby.

Dakota O'Neal said...

I'm a HUGE fan of Shawnee. I love all her work. I love her performance in movies and I love her music (I own Fydolla Ho and Untied(both autographed)). She is absolutely amazing. I only hope for her FAME to get Bigger and Bigger. She's been around so long and worked so hard, she deserves a lot of roles others just couldn't do as well as her. This was a WONDERFUL interview. I've read a lot of Shawnee interviews and this is by far the BEST. Thank You for putting it out there for people to see. And Shawnee if you ever read this.... I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know!

Anonymous said...

^What he said! Loved her in Becker and X-Files, and in Saw and Saw II. Thought it couldn't get much better than good TV and movies. Then I tried out Fydolla Ho and I love it! Thanks for being so good at basically everything, Shawnee. :)