Lukas Haas

Posted:  April 21st, 2010 - ACTING, ACTOR, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, GUS VAN SANT, INTERVIEWS, LUKAS HAAS, NICK CASSAVETES, STEVEN SPIELBERG

 

Lukas Haas. The fervently charming actor talks about a career that spans almost three decades in front of the camera.

Los Angeles, 2010

 

Interview by VIFILL PRUNNER

 

THENEWCINEMA: You have been a professional actor since you were five years old. That makes almost thirty years in front of the camera.  Do you still have a passion for acting?

LUKAS HAAS: Me, yes… yes of course!!!  It’s one of those jobs where… it is a real fortune to be able to do it… I mean acting as a profession.  For one thing it’s obviously a really creative job and there are all sorts of facets to it that keep it interesting and creative… Through my career I have met really interesting people and gotten to go to amazing places and done really interesting things I never would have expected to be able to do.  And at the same time I get to be creative and take on different challenges and different characters. So it’s a great, great job.  It’s hard not to be passionate about it.

 

TNC: You just finished shooting ‘‘Inception’’ with Christopher Nolan. Tell me about your experience working with him.

LH: Chris is great!  He is a really interesting guy and he is so in control of his craft… what he does… he is a real master of film making. You don’t get to work with all that many directors like that in your career.  I have worked with some great directors… but its only once in awhile I get to work with a director like that.  It’s impressive, he knows exactly what he is looking for and that gives you so much confidence in him. You know that he knows what he’s doing and you can rely on his vision. Sometimes you work with a director, especially if it’s a young director, and you… you’re almost trying to help them figure out what they want. But it was the opposite in this case… you had to keep up!

 

TNC: Is he an actor’s director?

LH: Well he is an extremely visual director. He is really great at setting up the circumstances of the scene and making you understand what it is going to look like visually.  That’s really where he excels. I definitely feel he is a solid actor’s director, but that’s not necessarily his focus. That being said, a lot of the best directors I’ve worked with don’t necessarily have all that much to say.. they only step in when they need the actor to make an adjustment… that’s how Chris was. One good thing about him, is that he is sort of light hearted and loves to joke around and have a good time on the set. That keeps a good atmosphere on the shoot which is important.

 

TNC: How was it different working with Gus Van Sant on ‘‘Last Days’’?

LH: Gus is a one of a kind guy. There are not really any directors, at least that I know of, who are just able to do exactly what they want to and don’t care… or really have to answer to anyone. For example Chris has to make a movie that is profitable… Gus just makes a movie for the art of it. It’s a pure experience and there is a lot of freedom in it.  It’s really rare that you get to work that way. We were all living in a house together… there was no script, no lines, just an idea. We had our cameras and we talked about it a lot, then just sort of filmed. We came up with ideas and worked on them together. It was a totally unique experience! There is nothing before or since that I have done like that. It was really extraordinary… not sure there is anyone else like that out there.

 

TNC: So you guys didn’t do any rehearsals or anything like that? He would set up a scene and you guys just sort of worked it out on the spot?

LH: Well there was an outline kind of script with no lines, just actions and ideas. We didn’t do traditional rehearsals… but we did do things where we would decide what the scene was about and then come up with the lines. There were some stories in the movie that I sort of made up on the spot or… there were a couple stories that had actually happened to me that I told as if they were coming from my character. Some made it into the film and other ones didn’t… it was just a really unique and interesting way to work. He was shooting the whole thing like a poem… a film poem. That’s how he kept on explaining it. I didn’t completely understand that until I saw the film but once you see it there is no other way to explain it.

 

TNC: How long did you guys shoot for?

LH: We shot for about a month and a half or two months… something like that.

 

TNC: You were there from day one until the last day?

LH: Yeah, I was there the whole time.

 

TNC: You have done a lot of movies both commercial and art house. In the end what do you prefer, art cinema or commercial cinema or does one not exclude the other?

LH: Well it depends, but I think in general I definitely relate more to films like the Gus van Sant film. Where you are really just making a movie in a pure kind of way. I think some of my better films have really been the independent ones. At the same time if a bigger movie is made in the right way and the director has the right intentions and sort of knows what he wants to accomplish then I think it can be just as great to make a studio film. It’s not the best example because it was so long ago but “Witness” was one of those movies. It was a very big movie at the time, but it was also really well made. After all these years it’s still probably my favorite movie I have been in. So you know, I think it just depends on the filmmaker, script and everything else more than the budget.

 

TNC: What do you look for in a director?

LH: Well, I think it’s important for a director… for one to have a really clear vision of what they want to accomplish and also to be able to explain it to you.  Not just intellectually, but in simple tangible terms.  Also it is about something they accomplish not just in what they say but also in how they hire the crew and the other actors and their demeanor on set.  There are certain directors, when you step onto the set you just understand… you don’t even need to talk to them. You understand what they are going for just by the other people working on it, and the whole set up of the movie. Also a lot of directors talk too much… you know what I mean?  It’s important to just say something simply to convey the idea… otherwise you can lose the thread.  If they over talk it, it’s easy to lose the point.  He needs to be able to say in a couple words what he needs from you.

 

TNC: What on the other hand are you not looking for in a director? What’s something that’s really fucking annoying and a pain in the ass?

LH: There are a lot of things like that, but one of those things… is that if they don’t know what they want and they’re trying to find it, it can be frustrating. I guess the opposite of what I just said.

 

TNC: Is there anything that you feel is often neglected on set? Something you find is difficult for actors that could be improved?  Anything from accommodation, to crew, to direction, anything.

LH: That stuff is usually less consequential. That stuff doesn’t matter too much. I could be stuck on set all day and of course it would be nice to take a break.  But to me that stuff doesn’t matter. It’s more about the actual work we are doing. If we are able to accomplish what we’re setting out to accomplish then I am ready to do anything as long as we make a good movie.

 

TNC: Do you like to rehearse?

LH: It depends on the movie. What’s weird about making films… is that they are all so different. The directors are different, the scripts are different and the characters are so different. So when we talk about making a movie it is always in such general terms. There are movies that I have not done any rehearsal for and they came out great and I was glad we didn’t have any. On the other hand, there are movies where we rehearsed for weeks and weeks with long, long rehearsals and it worked out really well for us as well. It just depends, it is never the same answers for different kinds of movies. But generally speaking I think having time for rehearsals is important.

 

TNC: Out of all the directors you have worked with, who did you feel the most connection with?

LH: That’s a good question.  It depends… I worked with Steven Spielberg when I was a kid and he was awesome. He would stock the fridge with my favorite ice cream or he would ask me if I wanted to do a scene again just for fun… that was a big scene with special effects and all. I mean I was a little kid, but he was really, really fun to work with. On a different level, Rian Johnson whom I worked with on “Brick”, I don’t know if we had a strong personal connection, but I really understood what he was trying to do with his movie. In that way we had a real connection and we had good conversations on how to get there. Peter Weir obviously…  he would put headphones on me and play me music before a scene in order to convey the feeling of it and to put me in the state of mind that was required for the scene. It was a really smart way to work with someone as young as I was because it was so easy to understand and really made a difference in my performance. He was a gentle but firm director and was always able to get what he was looking for. That was one of those film sets that just had a feeling to it. Everyone understood what kind of movie we were making just by the energy and focus on the set. Like I said, that was my favorite movie that I have been in. It was a long time ago, but I have not been on a film that I liked as much as that one.

 

TNC: Did you ever study some kind of acting method? Do you use a method?

LH: No, I have tried every once in awhile, but I just have my own… I grew up as an actor from the age of five so I never really thought it out that much… I just kind of did it. As I got older, I began to understand more of the complexities and dynamics of what I was doing and how to really become a character rather than just act naturally. But it’s always a work in progress… its something I’m always striving to improve. I think what I try to achieve is naturalism. Connecting on a basic level to the character and the emotions of the character… find whatever the situation is in the scene. It’s pretty simple really. Afterwards it’s just about accessing that.

 

TNC: Do you do breakdowns for your characters in a methodical way? Do you write back stories and such?

LH: I definitely read the script over and over again and get a real feel for the character… but I haven’t made a habit of writing stuff down.  The more you read it the more it becomes part of you.  So you think about it all day long, when you’re driving, when you’re eating… whatever you’re doing.  You imagine how your character might do it, you start to develop ideas on who this character is and that sticks with you and that becomes the reality of the character. Character development is extremely important because when you are on set you already know… no matter what the director throws at you, you know the character so well that you don’t even have to think about it.

 

TNC: Do you do anything specific when preparing a role?

LH: There are specific things for specific characters. Of course there are characters with accents, so you have to study that.  If a character is from a specific place I might study about where they come from… each character is different obviously. There was a film I did called ‘‘Rambling Rose’’ where Robert Duval played my father.  For the role I decided to try to kind of mimic him because I know I have traits that are like my own father’s.  So although it’s kind of an obvious choice, at the time it was the most specific choice I had ever made for a character. I just literally followed Bob around trying to pick up his mannerisms and make them my own. One good example is a movie I did a few years ago called ‘‘Brick’’, where the character just seemed to jump out at me. I had barely even read it, because who the character was came to me very quickly… I understood him right off the page… so that was easy. Sometimes you don’t even have to do anything, you just understand. The director gave me a cape to wear and a cane, and that was it… the character was there. I don’t think I just have something that I do every time.

 

TNC: What would you recommend to a young actor starting out? What can he do to get his first real gig, getting an agent, become part of the circuit?

LH: That’s tough man. You know… I don’t know if I would have started acting if it weren’t for having gotten a part as a kid. I guess I was just lucky, I get to do it and it’s just one of those things. But I think the main thing is to try to figure it out… what’s the best way for you to get yourself out there.  It’s important to be wherever films are being made. If you’re in America its important to be in LA or New York and try to get involved in the film community… somehow find your way in.  You have to be really tenacious about it… really, really want it… you can’t just want to be famous or something. You have to really love acting and the craft of it.  Be willing to face rejection and keep going. It might take years, but if you keep going I think… that’s one of the most important things.

 

TNC: What’s a common mistake you see young actors do when pursuing their careers?

LH: Well usually the mistake the actors make is once they have already kind of started. For example someone who has just done one movie will already think they are going to be a huge star or think they will be able to do any movie they want. They get ahead of themselves and one movie doesn’t do much for anybody no matter how big it is. So again you have to stay tenacious. You can’t give up before it’s actually happened. The other thing is that people start to rely on what they have done before and don’t work hard. Like with anything, It’s always important to keep working hard. Some actors will start to get not so fun to work with because they become full of themselves. Usually that only happens in the beginning when they start to feel the momentum of their career. I don’t think that… certain… I think most actors that I know have gotten through that, but some kind of have to adjust because… the whole fame part of it is weird and sort of beside the point. If an actor… you want to act… as a consequence you may become famous so you have to deal with that on a personal level and not let it affect your work.

 

TNC: You have worked in the theater. How is that different from film?

LH: Theater is a totally different animal. For me personally… I grew up acting in movies and I love it. I feel really comfortable there. Theater is a performance, a live stage act. The schedule is… you’re just doing the same thing over and over again. You can find different ways… I mean theater is good practice, its good for your instrument because you work with the same lines over and over again and try to find different ways to say them and different ways to get the idea across. So that can be very helpful. But personally I like the small moments in films and the small things, the subtleties that on stage don’t show. Everything has to be projected on stage, so for me it’s not as fun.

 

TNC: What kind of roles do you like the most to play?

LH: As an actor its hard to say ‘‘I want to play this kind of role’’. Part of the fun of being an actor is that the roles are different every time. Also usually as an actor you don’t really get to choose, you don’t get to decide what you will find. You have to look at all the roles out there and hope you find something that’s unexpected, that you didn’t expect to play, something that’s a challenge and interesting. That’s what I want to play… the most challenging character… one that surprises me, that other people wouldn’t expect from me. I guess that is what excites me the most… when I feel the most sense of accomplishment.

 

TNC: What do good actors have in common?

LH: Its hard to say…usually what I feel about a good actor is that they kind of inspire me. There are certain actors that you feel challenged by and you feel you’re going to do a better job by working with them. You feel immediately engaged in the scene and that’s kind of rare. I have not worked with a lot of actors that I have felt that way about. A great actor inspires you to do better.

 

TNC: With the arrival of new technology it is now possible to both make and soon distribute without a studio or distribution deal. Why don’t more actors package there own projects, find a director and produce their own films? I mean not just on the George Clooney level, but make small films where they have freedom?

LH: That’s easier said than done I think… I’ve been writing a film for awhile and I want to get it made one day. But making a movie is one thing, getting it out there is a whole other story. When you put that much work into something and you bring people together to work with you, you ultimately want people to see what you’ve made. So, anyone can get a video camera and put a film together if they are determined enough.  But if you don’t have some kind of financial backing its almost impossible to get it into theaters… If you are extremely talented and make a really good film and you get lucky then maybe you can make it through the festival circuit and maybe someone will finance a release… but it’s a hard thing to do. I’ve been in a lot of films that have gotten very small releases or no release at all, and it can be very disappointing. Especially if you really put a lot of energy and passion into it.

 

TNC: There used to be a time when big Hollywood stars would work on tiny European films, some without script or significant funding. I know there are exceptions, but what do you think changed?

LH: I’m not sure actually. I know that there are issues with visas and logistical problems sometimes. There was a film that I was supposed to do in England one time, but the British actor’s union required a certain number of British actors so they wouldn’t issue me a visa and I wasn’t able to do the film. So much of it has to do with budgets and who’s paying for what and what the bottom line is. The business has become more fame and money oriented than it used to be… talent is not as much of a commodity as it was ten or twenty years ago… now fame is the commodity. That’s why you see films being made with reality stars in leading roles and not as many with talented actors… I think talent is still valued more in Europe than it is in the US.  But the system in general has become more reliant on formulas and numbers.

 

TNC: Tell me about your best memory from being on set?

LH: I have had so many… its really hard to just pick one out. I remember doing a scene in a movie I did called ‘‘Rambling Rose’’ the one where Duval played my father. It was a scene with Laura Dern and it was a very difficult scene. The whole movie kind of hinged on this scene working. We filmed it for two days, and it was the first scene I’d ever done that involved sex. Also it was a big crying scene… just very difficult. Laura and I put everything we had into it and we really made it work. I think it may be the best acting I have done. When we finished the feeling of accomplishment was really wonderful… I don’t know, it wasn’t really anything specific, it was just nice feeling like we’d created a beautiful scene together. I’ve been lucky though to have a lot of wonderful moments. There are other moments in my career that I will never forget that were not on set…

 

TNC:  I read somewhere that you were composing a song for Nick Cassavetes.  How is your music going?

LH: Yes I actually did write a song for him but he didn’t use it in his movie, but I wrote one… I think its a pretty good song.  But my music… I love doing it. That’s one thing… music is great… like I was saying with acting you have to choose roles that other people have written. With music you don’t have to do any of that and you don’t have to work with anyone else… a director or anything.  You just write a song and sing it and it’s yours. So I guess with music it’s mine more than my acting is, in a way it’s where I get to express myself the most… I mean on a personal level.

 

TNC: Tell me about Nick.

LH: Nick is great. He is one of my really good friends. He’s… he walks to the beat of his own drum. He doesn’t really care what anybody thinks… he just does what he wants to do. He is very independent and he knows where he is going. He is like a… what’s the word for it… like a cowboy. You know what I mean?

 

TNC: Like a film cowboy?

LH: (Laughs) Yea exactly. He is out there on his horse just doing what he wants and he is really good at it. He is like a really unique guy and I love him to death.

 

TNC: Does he ever talk about his father, because that must be pretty hard being a filmmaker and the son of John Cassavetes?

LH: Yes he totally talks about his dad openly. I think he admires him so much that he wouldn’t have it any other way. I think he has managed to transcend that and become a director in his own right. That is pretty incredible.

 

TNC: You once worked with Woody Allen. What was that like?

LH: Well… I can tell you a funny story. One day I was walking with Alan Alda from my trailer and we passed him on the way to the set. We both said “Hi” to him and he just kind of nodded, mumbled something and walked away. I looked to Alan Alda and asked “Is this how he is always?  Does he never ‘talk’ to you?” Alan looked at me than said “I have done three movies with him and I have never had a word, never a conversation with him, not once”. So I guess he doesn’t talk that much… I mean he talked to the girls, but not to us.

 

TNC: Great story.

LH: Yes funny moment.

 

TNC: Finally, If you were a dead Hollywood actor, who would you be?

LH: That’s easy, Marlon Brando. If I could be any actor dead or alive I would be him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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