Variety Studio: Actors on Actors


Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and more

Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Renée Zellweger (Judy) discuss portraying real-life iconic characters: Fred Rogers and Judy Garland. Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems) talk about how riffing helps in drama. Awkwafina (The Farewell) and Taron Egerton (Rocketman) speak about cultural differences and Elton John's songs.

AIRED: January 02, 2020 | 0:26:19


male announcer: Have you ever wished you could go

behind the scenes with your favorite Hollywood stars?

Adam Sandler: This was probably the most free

I could ever be in a movie.

Brad Pitt: Yeah.

announcer: Variety Studio invites you to listen

in as today's top actors discuss their craft.

Tom Hanks: How often does a director come to you and say,

"Take more time for this?"

Taron Egerton: And I just knew at that moment,

"This is what I'm gonna do. I'll be an actor.

Awkwafina: Yeah.

announcer: With Tom Hanks and Renee Zellweger,

Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler,

and Awkwafina and Taron Egerton.


Ramin Setoodeh: Welcome to

"Variety Studio: Actors on Actors."

I'm Ramin Setoodeh.

In this episode, we'll revisit some of the most talked-about

performances of the year.

First up, Tom Hanks and Renee Zellweger are earning

rave reviews for their portraits of real-life legends.

Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks

channels the warmth and compassion

of children's television host Fred Rogers,

or "Mr. Rogers" to most of us,

in "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood."

Mr. Rogers: We are trying to give children positive ways

to deal with their feelings.

Ramin: In "Judy," Oscar winner Renee Zellweger captures

the fragility and fears of Judy Garland as she embarks

upon a set of London performances in the final year

of her life.

Judy Garland: They hound people in this world,

anybody who's different.

They can't stand it.

Tom Hanks: What is the first thing you do when--I mean,

the legend is--like, playing Judy Garland, that's like

playing Elvis, or, you know, it's like playing John Lennon

or something.

What's the first thing you do?

Renee Zellweger: Well, I mean, there's a lot of material,

thank goodness.

Tom: You watch everything.

Renee: You watch everything, all of her, you know,

her body of work.

Tom: Did you have a--well, did you have an overabundance

of information you had to sift through?

Renee: Well, you try to be judicious about what it is that

you take as fact, you know, consider the source.

Tom: Right.

Renee: So there was a lot of contradictory information,

and a lot of it was--it seemed like, oh, the truth is

in here somewhere, but that's not it.

It sort of lies in between these bits of information, and there

are so many biographies out there of people who claim

to have known her that don't get mentioned in the biographies

of the people, or the autobiographies, rather,

the people who we know knew her from public record

or because it's a familial connection, you know?

Tom: You look at that output prior to "The Wizard of Oz,"

and she had already--I mean, she had all--they worked herself

into a puddle in that backbreaking, kind of,

quick--like, all those big musical numbers

for those Andy Hardy movies

and everything else that she did.

And how old was she when she made--

Renee: "Wizard of Oz"?

She said she was 16. Wasn't she 15 or 16?

Tom: Oh, man, oh, man, that's tough.

Renee: Yeah, she was just starting to--her body was just

starting to change, and I think that one of the tools that they

used to keep her slim besides binding her and tryin' to keep

her weight down--because they didn't want her to be voluptuous

because they had finally found a way to market her as the girl

next door, and God forbid that Dorothy be sexy, you know, so

they bound her and kept her, you know, her weight down.

Tom: I was disappointed that we didn't get to see you

recreate moments like from "The Harvey Girls"

or "Meet Me in St. Louis," or these other ones where

she had--but this is from what the reading that I did--was

she had that kind of, like, negative self-image that she

wasn't the prettiest woman on camera, and, yet she's

the only one you look at, you know?

Renee: I know, she's just ethereal, wasn't she?

She was so beautiful.

It's impossible to imagine that she had that--I don't know--that

she'd been broken down to where she couldn't see it.

Tom: The expression that she was able to put into what was,

I'm guessing, was prerecorded tracks--you know, the songs

were all prerecorded?

Renee: In the MGM movies?

Tom: In the MGM days.

Renee: Yeah, she talks about that, yeah, that they would go

in the morning and lay down the tracks, and I heard that she did

something like 28 takes of "The Man That Got Away,"

until she could recognize that everybody in the room

was feeling it the way she was feeling it,

and then she was happy.

Tom: But then the recreation of that on camera to a playback

in which you're not really impacting the soundtrack

because you are--essentially, you're miming or mimicking

or recreating something, but her eyes and her face

and the emotion that she put into that is--I wouldn't

know how to do that.

Renee: I did know that Rupert wanted to establish the story in

a way that you would understand where she was in terms of her

ability to access her instrument at that time, so you wouldn't be

quite sure whether or not she was going to succeed.

He wanted to set that up so that it seemed a precarious moment

when she stepped onto the stage.

Tom: When you finally sing and the fireworks go off

and everybody who's watching the movie has to collect

the back of their head because you've blown them away so much,

those weren't prerecorded songs.

Did you do you those--you were recording those live?

Renee: Yes.

Tom: And did you do them all in a row

because of the block shooting?

Were you always in that space?

Renee: No, we could do a couple numbers a day.

Oh, there were a couple of days when we would have to cram

in a lot of things on the side.

Like, we had a week or something to get all that stuff together.

I was curious of a couple things in your process.

I mean, by the way, congratulations.

What a beautiful representation.

Tom: Oh, well, thanks, thanks.

Renee: I mean, really. Tom: Likewise.

Renee: But that's just somethin' that you do.

You have this--it's so--

Tom: Oh, it's scary. It's scary, isn't it?

Renee: It's weird because you're such a recognizable,

unique person, and, yet you disappear in whatever it is

that you do.

It's really magic.

In the experience of playin' him, how was it different

to you?

Tom: The biggest challenge I felt, as portraying Fred,

was the genuineness of him.

You think about it: He's not goin' through

an extraordinary crisis.

He's literally just being Fred Rogers being interviewed

by a journalist, and there was no agenda.

There was no--he was just simply a guy who worked very hard

at his job and took it very, very seriously, and I think that

when the job you're taking seriously is to make

two-year-old kids feel safe in the world,

that's not necessarily a real active choice.

You know, that's not-- there's not a lot of

"Sturm und Drang" to it.

There's no, you know, train for that.

You don't learn how to fly a plane or something like that.

You don't--you're not dealin' with it.

You have to, instead, just embody this kind of ministerial

quality 'cause he was an ordained minister.

He was a Presbyterian reverend, you know, but his church

was this television show, and if you're not specific about that,

you're just gonna come off as some sort of, like, saint that

always has benevolent, beguiling eyes, you know,

and always has a gentle manner.

Renee: Well, and then the voice and the lilt in his voice,

and his movement, the way that he carries himself,

he's such a gentle presence.

Tom: I had a great difficulty slowing down.

Renee: Interesting.

Tom: And if I was going to show you--we were gonna sit down

in the movie, I would get to a point and say,

"Okay, that's my first day of shooting."

They had more--they had been working for two weeks,

and this is my first day of shooting.

Renee: Yes, 'cause there's a stillness that you embody.

Tom: Yeah, but compare that first day of shooting stillness

to a week later in which, first of all, Marielle Heller is,

you know, kicked my butt just enough, and I have learned how

to feel as though I'm not just wearing clothes, but that

the clothes are wearing me, and I become somethin' else.

That--I'm a wise acre, and I talk a lot, and I have a lot of

energy, and to slow down like that, how often does a director

come to you and say, "Take more time with this"?

They never say that.

Renee: Oh, no, no.

Most of the direction that you get in a career is

"All right, speed that up. Talk."

Tom: "Just say the words." Renee: "Act faster."

Tom: Yeah, yeah, "Act faster. Say the words."

And you as Judy, I mean, you had this ongoing, constant twitching

that was going on that came from, you know,

a different source besides just her personality, but were you

exhausted at the end of some working days?

Renee: Well, probably, but, you know, that's one of those

things that you train yourself not to pay attention to.

Tom: Yeah.

Renee: Yeah, 'cause it's irrelevant.

You can't do anything about it, so there's no reason to--

Tom: Oh, if you look at a clock--there's a reason why,

you know, your clocks, your watches never work when

you're performing 'cause if you actually keep track of the time,

you're doomed.

Oh, my God, we are gonna be here--

Renee: Twelve hours before breakfast.

Tom: We're gonna be here till 10 o'clock at night.

You can't let that happen to you.

Renee: No, definitely not.

And with--you know, there are certain things where you don't

want to stop anyway because you get greedy, and you just

want more materials so--

Tom: And it happened, I might say, particularly,

when we were working in the "Land of Make Believe,"

and the opening, I could not get enough of Fred in Fred's house.

I actually--I took naps on the set just because I--

Renee: Oh, you're kidding.

Tom: Well, there's a comfy couch there,

and so I don't wanna go all the way back

to a dressing room, and there it is.

Renee: And it just felt--

Tom: I wanted to stay there all day.

When they finally wrapped, it's like,

"I gotta take off these clothes?

I'm gonna go back and be myself again?

I'd love being in Mr. Rogers' house.

Renee: Ensconced in that?

Tom: Yeah, as Mr. Rogers because it was just

so wonderfully soothing.

Renee: Oh, how special.

Tom: It was just beautiful.


Ramin: Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler,

two of Hollywood's biggest movie stars continue

to add new dimensions to their careers.

Brad Pitt delivers a riveting turn as a stunt double in

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," director Quentin Tarantino's

love letter to 1960's filmmaking.

Cliff Booth: Well, look, Red, I'm comin' in there.

With my own two eyes, I'm gonna get a good look at George,

and this ain't stoppin' me.

Ramin: In the black comedy "Uncut Gems,"

Adam Sandler makes a sharp, dramatic turn

as a jeweler with a gambling problem.

Howard Ratner: Of course, you're mad.

You're mad, and it makes sense.

You can punch me if you want.

female: Oh, thanks.

Brad Pitt: This is my favorite Adam Sandler story that

I heard from Bennett Miller.

Adam Sandler: Oh, really?

Brad: Yeah.

And it was that you were at NYU,

and it was an acting coach, I believe, or acting professor.

Adam: Acting professor, yeah.

Brad: Okay, and he took you out for a beer, and he kindly

said to you, "Think about somethin' else, buddy.

Listen, you got a heart, but you don't have it.

You don't have it."

Adam: Yeah, yeah, right, right.

Brad: And "Choose another path."

Truth? Truth?

Adam: It was like that.

Brad: This is why it's my favorite Adam Sandler story--and

I think it says a lot about you--that you ran into him

at the height, you know, when you're getting the ultimate

payday, and you're with a bunch of friends, and you run into him

out at a bar, and anyone would think that's the opportunity

where you go, you know, you rub it in his face, and reportedly,

what you did was you said, "Hi," and you introduced him

to your friends, and you said, "This is the only teacher

to ever buy me a beer."

Adam: Somethin' like that.

That's right, that's right, yeah, yeah.

Brad: True? Adam: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brad: I think it just--that's the guy I know, and I think

that's why you're here after all these years.

Adam: I love you. You too, Brad.

Me and you know each other from many years ago.

We kind of, like, started gettin' to do more and more

of what we wanted to do at the same time.

Brad: Yeah.

Adam: I think you were ahead of me, but, like,

in the same era of gettin' to do stuff

that was important to us.

Brad: Yeah, when we started, it was--I mean, I got out here

at the end of the '80s.

When did you? Early '90s?

Adam: I finished college '88, got here, like, '89, end of '88.

Brad: And then it was still, you know, it was

big blockbusters with Stallone and Schwarzenegger.

Adam: Sure.

Brad: And then we went through the '90s.

We're independent cinema.

Adam: Right.

Brad: Which, certainly, Tarantino was a part

of its birthing.

And then streaming service came along and blown it wide open

again in a very interesting way.

Adam: Yeah.

Brad: On the other hand, people talk about lamenting

the death of the cinematic experience.

"Is that gone?"

Because the home experience has gotten so good.

Adam: I don't see it being gone.

I like saying, "I saw your movie in a theater."

Brad: Yeah, I don't see it being gone.

Adam: It's different now.

Brad: It'd be fewer--

Adam: Yes, yes, but it's exciting when you're there.

You're exciting.

It's very exciting when you're at a movie theater,

and when I saw--it's funny.

I saw your movie a week ago, or five days ago--

Brad: Which?

Adam: "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

Now, you get that script.

I know. I've seen Quentin.

He goes hardcore at perfection in the script, so if you--

Brad: Tarantino's different.

Tarantino--I mean, he's never done Shakespeare--

Adam: Yes.

Brad: But there's--you know, there is a specific rhythm,

you know, they talk about the--and I found that

with the Cohen Brothers, and I find that with Tarantino

that there is a very particular, you know, music to it,

and where, you know, some jobs we do, we get to riff,

and that's great.

We make it natural and put our real interesting bits in it,

you know, and we make it our own, but here I find it only,

just, like, it lets the air out of the tire,

and that stuff just "pfff."

Adam: Yeah, you feel it, yeah.

Brad: But when you do comedies, when you do--you know,

what I've noticed about--you know, usually you have a group,

and you guys are used to riffing.

You guys will try another line, and another line,

and then another take, you'll throw out another--

you know, look for that cap or--

Adam: Look for--you're always lookin' for

a big out there, sure.

Brad: Do you bring that same thing when you get to a drama

or a serious thing?

Adam: Well, you know, we did go off the script a little bit.

Mostly script, but then on occasion, before action,

I would be back in a different room, about to enter a set,

and the guys would say,

"Yeah, hey, maybe say this when you go out there.

See what happens, you know?"

And then we went off like that a few times.

Brad: Yeah, I worked with Adam McKay once.

He would do that.

He would just be throwin' out, "Serious now."

Adam: Right.

Brad: And that's what I drew from whenever I see

the comedy guys, like, riffin' like that.

It's always fresh.

It's fresh. It's fresh.

But, all right, back to "Uncut Gems."

I'm a little obsessed with comedy right now.

That's why I'm bangin' on your door that way.

Adam: I love when you--yes, I love that you like this.

Brad: But this movie, first of all, hats off, man.

That was phenomenal.

Adam: Thank you, buddy. I'm so happy you liked it.

Brad: But, oh, my, watching it, oh, my God,

I was so anxious.

Adam: Yeah, right, right.

Brad: Your guy, you know, watching someone--you know

the way they describe an airline disaster

is like a series of bad mistakes?

It's never just one mistake?

Adam: Sure.

Brad: And when you watch, like, just a man

just keep making bad choices.

Adam: That's right.

Brad: Oh.

Adam: It's so funny too because, you know,

when you're shooting, it's scene to scene.

It's, in the morning, you shoot one scene, and you go,

"Oh, that's where he makes that wrong decision.

Okay, let's concentrate on that.

But, as a whole, when you watch the movie back,

"Yeah, oh, yeah, that does get on you, man."

Brad: Oh, it's, oh--

Adam: You feel terrible.

Brad: Oh, man, but doing it though, isn't there

a certain perverse freedom in it?

Adam: Yeah, oh, my God.

Brad: You're like playing it? Isn't there a sense of fun?

Adam: This was probably the most free

I could ever be in a movie.

Just, he made so many mistakes that--and it was so unlikable

at times, and that--

Brad: He was never unlikable.

Adam: Well, in my head, he was, but I'm glad--

Brad: He never unlikable.

Adam: Yeah? That's good to know.

Brad: You, in fact, you worried for him,

and that's why it was so, like, anxiety-producing.

Adam: And well, I have that, okay, but let me just--your

character, to me, I thought your guy was so warm, so kind.

Loved Leo's character--was his brother.

Brad: It was nice playin' a guy with--who had kind

of evolved past drama.

So there was never, you know, those--like, some of the scenes,

you had panic scenes in "Uncut Gems," where you're

in full panic, breakdown-mode, like you're scared

for your life, like it could all--the walls

could come tumbling down, and you know there's mornings

when you go in, and you gotta put yourself

in that position.

It's an exhausting kind of day. You know what you're up for.

You're up for a 15-round fight when there are only

12 rounds now.

And I don't know how you get there.

What do you do?

Adam: In this, in "Uncut Gems," I've had movies where

I had to break down before, and I get really nervous

about those days.

If it's a couple days or so, I mean, I'm not kiddin' ya--

Brad: Leading up to it?

Adam: Leading up to it, I'll say, I'll say, "When is that?

When are they shootin' that scene?

Is that--"

Brad: Counting down on the call sheet, when I see them--

Adam: Exactly. That--it screws me up.

Brad: "Oh, the third week, I know I'm approaching that.

I gotta be up for it."

Adam: And then once you do it and if you get there,

you're like, "pshhew, oh the rest is--"

Then you're like, "No, it's--" You still gotta get--

Brad: Next week.

Adam: You gotta be--yeah, yeah, I don't know.

Brad: I do the same negotiation--check.

Adam: Yeah, I didn't do as much as I usually do

where I put this pressure on myself.

I just said, "I'm feelin' like this guy."

I really did my backstory.

I worked hard at this character and knowing the way he thinks

and where he goes--in my head.

I felt confident that I knew the guy.

So I was a little more confident than usual on the days he had

a really awful day where I had to break down or whatever.

I was just like, "Let me just go.

Let me just do it."

Instead of doin' that whole thing of worrying and worrying,

I just did my own way of getting there, and I actually talked--I

called my wife, and I said, "All right, today I'm there.

I gotta do this."

And she gave me some thoughts, and blah, blah, blah,

and so I looked good.

It was great. I got it done.

Brad: It plays.


Ramin: Rising stars Awkwafina and Taron Egerton are receiving

applause for films based on true stories.

Rapper and comedic actor Awkwafina is a revelation

in "The Farewell," a drama inspired by the film director's

own family.

Billi: But I never saw him again, and every time I came

back to China, he just wasn't there anymore.

And I come back, and he was just gone.

Ramin: And in the Elton John musical biopic "Rocketman,"

Taron Egerton hits all the right notes as the piano-playing

legend behind some of the biggest hits in music history.

Elton John: The problem is you never have understood me

and what I have to go through.

Do you know what?

I should've sacked you when you left me.

Taron: Awkwafina, hello.

Awkwafina: Hello.

Taron: Can you tell me about the experience of playing

Billi in "The Farewell"?

And what was it like when you first read the role?

What did you think of it?

Awkwafina: I think my approach to it was really driven

by, like, relatability to it.

I think I drew a lot from my own experiences going back to,

you know, China or Korea to see my family, and then, also,

when I read the role, I think she's going through stuff that

she's not necessarily talking about all the time, and I think

that that was a big thing for me.

Like, she's not really gonna get to a point--she will,

at some point, like, bare all, but, like, right now,

she's just going through stuff.

Taron: It's interesting, isn't it, 'cause you see her

in two different modes 'cause you see her at home in New York,

and there's a bit in the street where someone talks to her, and

she's on the phone, and she's kind of irreverent and quite--

I don't know, "devil may care," but then you see her, this

portion of the story where she goes to visit her family in

China, and she's really--kind of, like, there's a pressure

to be a certain version of herself that pleases her family.

Awkwafina: Yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure, and I think that

there's a kind of face that you put on with your family when

you're all kind of as a group going through

a devastating event.

Taron: And did you feel--'cause it's Lulu Wang, isn't it?

The director?

Awkwafina: Yeah, yeah.

Taron: And her--it's autobiographical?

Awkwafina: Yeah.

Taron: Did you feel like you had to emulate her or,

in any way, kind of--or did you--more a version of you?

Awkwafina: I think it was definitely--I mean, you know,

with that specific role, Lulu wasn't very, like,

"You need to sound like me," "You need to do this,"

and also, like, you know, well, in your case, like, it wasn't

an already, kind of, like, this established public figure

where, you know, it's--but, like, the character ability

itself just kind of turned into something that we both built,

and she really trusted my input and things like that.

But, for you, did you, like, feel, like, that pressure,

like, to--

Taron: I think I felt the pressure, but I think we made

a creative decision quite early on to not be overly pegged down

by it because we were--you know, the movie "Rocketman"

exists in reality that isn't quite like ours.

There are these fantastical strange things where, you know,

characters float and sing underwater and those sorts

of weird things, but the story is told from a rehab clinic,

a therapy room, so it's quite personal and exposed,

and the sort of logic we were working on was that the more

of me we can get in them and the more exposed it feels

and the more inside-out it feels, rather than outside-in,

which I suppose is what something that would be

more impressionistic is, the more interesting it would be.

That's what we hoped, anyway.

One of the things I wanted to ask you about is

there's a really--there's an amazing scene,

and the gentleman who plays your uncle is really--

Awkwafina: Amazing. He's amazing.

Taron: A really extraordinary--

But there's a really interesting scene because your

character is carrying some guilt about not engaging with your

grandmother about what's happening to her, and you posed

this question from quite a, I suppose, quite a Western

perspective because it feels strange not to tell somebody

that they're not well, and I'm interested

in what your perspective as an actor is on that.

Awkwafina: I think, at first, I was very much

the Western perspective of it because we're taught certain--we

have various beliefs instilled in us that revolve around

privacy and, like, there are issues with that when it comes

to, like, not sharing, and here we look at it in a very specific

way, and I think that everyone feels that it's their right

to know about it, and it's funny because my grandma,

who's Chinese, I was watching it with her, and my aunt is not

Chinese, and she basically was like, "Have you heard of this?

Like, this is crazy."

And my grandma was like, "Duh, like, this is like, of course.

Like, this is, like, this is what we do."

Taron: So would she have wanted that?

Would she want that for herself or--

Awkwafina: But then I asked her, like,

"You want that for you?"

And she's like, "No," like, you know, "There's no way."

But it wasn't really until that scene with the uncle.

He was really, like, kind of hammering it in that I realized

that it is a form of care in that culture.

It's a way that they find to protect someone that they love

from feeling that, and so I can't say if, like,

if my opinion has changed, but I can say that I understand

very fluidly where both--

Taron: Well, there is not a definitive answer,

I guess, is there?

It's such a--it's a really--it's a gray thing.

Awkwafina: It's totally gray, and I think it's just one of

those things that it's--when it comes to the surface

in different contexts, you don't really know how to, you know--

Taron: Yeah.

Awkwafina: So, like, when you were looking into Elton John's

music and his kind of, like, lifelong relationship with

music, what did you find?

Taron: Playing Elton John is an interesting thing because,

although he is a creative genius, he kind of only--he is

only able to do what he does with this lyricist, this poet,

Bernie Taupin, who's the other central figure in the film.

Awkwafina: He was incredible, yeah.

Taron: Yeah, yeah, Jamie Bell is amazing in it,

and he's portraying an amazing guy.

So there's this wonderful kind of--they are two sides

of a coin, and it kind of creates a symbiotic relationship

where they kind of really need each other,

not only creatively, but emotionally.

In terms of the music, you know, I think the first time

I remember being aware of him was probably "The Lion King,"

because I was, like, six when it came out, so I was right in that

sweet spot, and in 2002, there were greatest hits.

I had "Greatest Hits" album that came out, and then I actually,

when I was 17, went on audition for drama school,

my "performance through song" audition piece was "Your Song,"

which is weird.

It's a weird, spooky little bit of--yeah.

Awkwafina: Did you work with Elton John at all?

Like, with the--

Taron: Yeah, I mean, before we started, he really--both he

and David, who produced the film, really allowed me

into their life, and I went and stayed with them, and Elton gave

me the first diamond ring he ever--diamond earring he ever

bought, which I wear in the film

in all the therapy room stuff.

Awkwafina: Wow.

Taron: I know I've been really lucky.

Awkwafina: That's so cool. That's amazing.

Taron: It's been a really weird experience of playing

someone and getting to know them quite well.

Awkwafina: Yeah.


Ramin: We hope you've enjoyed our look inside the world of

"Actors on Actors."

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Under a Minute
Theater Talk
Theater of The Mind Radio Drama
The Historic Attucks Theatre: Apollo of the South
State of the Arts
Stage Players
Shakespeare Uncovered
Open Studio with Jared Bowen
On Stage
Mark Twain Prize
Little Country Theatre: 100 Years at NDSU
Light Falls