Our kids think we’re the dorkiest people on the planet.
On A Mighty Heart, you didn’t receive any star treatment, you were shot in natural light and often you didn’t even know if the camera was on you. How did you find working with Michael Winterbottom?
Every actor should be begging to work with Michael Winterbottom. He loves documentaries and he finds the reality in the situation. He doesn’t allow the actors to think too much and get lost in any false moments.
How did you approach the scene where Mariane breaks down at the news of her husband’s death?
You have to be prepared to make it personal. Because we knew the people we were playing, everything felt so real. All the men had tears in their eyes and it wasn’t acting. We just thought about Mariane getting that news…
It was a risky move to actually make yourself up as the mixed-race Mariane Pearl…
I wanted to seem as much like her as possible but we agreed that we would take it so far and if it seemed silly or distracting, then we would remove it. But we found that it seemed to feel right, so we went with it.
How did you manage to get to grips with the accent?
It was really hard. I kept saying that people were going to criticise me, because her accent’s not totally French and not totally Cuban. I studied all her tapes from over the years. She has a way she speaks, as opposed to an accent. I expected a sad, slow voice… but she actually had a very high-pitched, fast voice. Amazingly, after her son was born, her voice changed completely – it dropped.
Why do you think that so many movie stars are now signing for politically engaged movies?
Things come in waves in this business... but I hope it’s not just a wave. Still this is the movie business – so if one political film does well, they make seven!
You’ve visited some of the world’s most brutal crisis zones. Does it ever get to you?
No. It did when I first started travelling. I grew up in LA and then I went to Sierra Leone and saw a sea of people with their arms and legs cut off. But it became clear to me that if women like Mariane can be as strong as they are, how could I be sitting in my house crying? I’m very conscious that letting my emotions get the best of me doesn’t help me stay focused to speak on behalf of these people or focus on policy making.
Are you looking to stick to more serious roles now to reflect your role as a humanitarian spokesperson?
Well, I’m playing an assassin at the moment [in Wanted, opposite James McAvoy]! I’m jumping off trains and things. I’m an assassin who trains assassins. I never have an idea of how I’m going to represent myself to the world. But I go through stages as a woman, and as I get older I’m sure I’ll be less silly and more serious. [Pause] Maybe it won’t work out and I’ll just get more silly!
A few people have been surprised that Brad’s embraced your political agenda as well…
Well, he was already political when I met him. One of the reasons that we came together was that he’s very socially and politically aware. He bought the rights to A Mighty Heart before we even knew each other. But he has been more outspoken since. I think that’s not so much me as becoming a parent. We actually argue politics at home. It’s the only time we argue…
What do you argue about?
Justice. Whether things should be harder or softer. I’m a little on the harder line.
Do you have any professional ambitions left?
This film is a dream of mine. I didn’t know it going into it, but it is. I’ll work on and off for the next few years and then my dream after that is to be at home.
Wherever you go, you’re trailed by a legion of paparazzi. How do you deal with that?
We don’t. We kind of ignore it. On occasion you wish that they weren’t at your kid’s school but you also can’t give much thought to it, because it would drive you crazy.
Both you and Brad are still routinely classed as two of the world’s sexiest people…
[Laughs] Our kids are going to find that funny when they’re older because they think we’re the dorkiest people on the planet. We’re very much parents together. Certainly we have moments of being sexy and fun and I do find Brad very, very sexy obviously, but I believe we’re together for the right reasons.
These days you don’t have to do very much to get famous...
You’ve made a habit of consistently interesting career choices…
Sometimes you’re pickier than others. Sometimes you have to just say, “Well, this is the best thing that I can find. I think that it’s good enough. Maybe if I can put a certain spin on it then it’ll be good…” Sometimes you get lucky and really smart people want you for obviously great projects.
So what was the case with 1408?
That was one I heard about and thought, “Wow, that sounds great!” It’s a horror film but also a supernatural kind of mindbender. It was psychological and it reminded me of the Twilight Zone and it was also kind of like a punk rock song. It was like, “Wait a minute! You guys are just going to put this guy in a room and then sustain that? You can’t do that!” Then you realise that you like the challenge of it…
What was the challenge?
Well, it’s physically demanding but it’s also psychologically demanding, because usually any version of hell is going to exploit you and torture you with ghosts from your own past.
Isn’t your character really just looking for something to believe in?
Yeah. One of the many things that Stephen King’s a master of is creating these characters with very, very rich lives and tragic pasts. Mike’s been a bit of an ambulance chaser, exploiting and writing about all these haunted places. Secretly he’s looking for any proof that there is another world. He’s daring the gods or the devil to come and show him there’s something over the River Styx. He’s being defiant and cynical to the point where, in any good story, if you tempt the gods you end up paying.
Because it’s just you onset acting alone for so long, did you try and shoot it differently?
Well, we tried to shoot as much in sequence as we could. It was a pretty wild experience. It’s like nothing I’ve ever done before. It was like an Escher painting in that you were always going in through the out door and coming back around on yourself. It was really very hallucinogenic.
The numbers in 1408 add up to 13. In the movie, room 1408 is actually on the 13th floor. Do you hold any store with all this numerical gubbins, or have any other superstitions?
I do, actually. It doesn’t have to do with numbers, though. Mine is simply that I trust the vibe going into something. If I like the way that something feels when I’m in there, then I’m fine. If I don’t, I know right away and just want to get out of there. There are some places you go where you know you shouldn’t die in. It’s like, “You know, this is not where I want to go out.”
You’ve got three movies coming out by the end of the year. Did you just start saying yes to everything?
No, not at all. It takes two years to get something started so I might have said yes to something two years ago that’s coming out this summer or fall. Martian Child was originally supposed to come out in spring, but with the corporate stuff they do with moving films around, trying to play that chess game, they decided it’d be a better autumn movie. I did Grace Is Gone and 1408 last year and both of those are coming out this year. And then I’ve co-written and produced another movie which was going to be called Brand Hauser: Stuff Happens, but is now called War, Inc.
Your sister and regular co-star Joan’s back again for War, Inc. Is it just more comfy having family on set?
Pretty much, yeah. I mean, I’m totally guilty of nepotism, but if you were producing a movie and you could have my sister in it... I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t take her.
After movies like Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, you’ve become famous for your musical taste. What are you listening to at the moment?
Well, there is a great artist that I’ve become friends with who I want to use in one of my movies and who I’m kind of in love with – Regina Spektor [Russian-born New York anti-folk singer]. She’s fantastic.
You’ve been in the business for 25 years now. Has being famous changed for you?
It’s gotten more and more insane – invasive and insane. And now there’s not even the pretext that anyone has to really do very much to get famous. Now you can just get into the circuit.
Does living in Chicago help you avoid all that?
Yeah, you can stay out of it. It’s a little bit tough in LA. In the summer, wherever you are, at some point they’re going to get you, but you don’t have to go to the restaurant with the photographers outside. You have to choose to go there and then you have to choose to do crazy, fucked up shit to get on camera. So if you want to do that, you can do that. I don’t…
I wanna be in a superhero movie. I’m tough enough...
Kidnapped, drugged, force-fed vital organs... your character in Captivity really goes through the wringer. Was it a tough shoot?
The finished product looks a lot more gruelling than it really was. The hardest part in the movie was the scene where I’m in the chamber being covered in sand. That stuff got everywhere. There was no way to ‘act’ it, really – the sand was just coming down, doing what it does, you know?
There was public uproar over the sadistic posters for Captivity in the States. Were you surprised?
Kind of. I think it was the fact that it’s a female character – when it’s a guy people don’t take things so seriously. It’s quite funny to put out an image that’s too scary for the public. I guess we did what we aimed to do!
Would you say Captivity fits the ‘torture porn’ mould, like Hostel and Paradise Lost?
I haven’t seen Hostel but I’ve been told there’s a lot of nudity in it and we don’t have that in our movie. It’s more about the struggle than the character’s sexuality. In most horror films the girl who gets naked gets killed first. We didn’t stick to those rules.
Your character is targeted in Captivity because she’s famous. Does being in the public eye yourself make you feel more vulnerable?
It does alter your privacy. In interviews, in junkets, you tend to tell a lot about yourself. I recently wrote a blog for the National Hockey League, which was one of the most intimate things I’ve ever done. But I tend to stay out of the public eye a little, compared with some of my peers.
The concept of a ‘personal hell’ is key to this film. What’s your idea of a personal hell?
I don’t like anything that’s confining. I’m sort of a control freak, so anything that makes me feel like I’m out of control is a bit uncomfortable. But you know how it is, sometimes it’s good to live a little!
You starred in House Of Wax not long ago. Are you a horror fan?
I don’t have a favourite film genre, but I do tend to be drawn to characters that go through some sort of traumatic experience and come out positive on the other side. But to be in the kind of horror film where you just get whacked in the first 10 minutes, that isn’t really my thing.
In the past you’ve auditioned to play the roles of Lois Lane, Mary Jane, Susan Storm... are you eager to do a comic-book movie?
Yeah. I wanna be in a superhero movie – I think I’m tough enough to do it! If I said I didn’t want those roles I’d be lying, but if I let every missed role bother me I’d be in an insane asylum! I’m not so competitive in that respect. But hopefully something will come along that has more aggression, more edge, than the typical comic-book damsel in distress.
You don’t seem to go in for many light-hearted roles...
I just did this romantic comedy [My Sassy Girl]. But even in that film my character is completely off her rocker and is not the usual girl the guy gets at the end of the film. I wouldn’t normally go for a romantic comedy but this character has something interesting about her.
Do you think we’ve reached saturation point with remakes?
Everything goes in waves. So long as there are cool movies and younger generations wanting to see what their parents saw, there’s always going to be an appeal for remakes. When Drew Barrymore’s company did Charlie’s Angels, as much as it was an iconic show for my parents, for me it changed the way I thought about the original. There’s nothing wrong with that.
You’re also playing a quadriplegic in He Was A Quiet Man. How was that?
I was at my wit’s end because I hadn’t read anything good for a while. But I loved this script, so the producers shipped a wheelchair over and I spent almost 13 hours in it. On set I stayed in the chair between takes, doing 14-15 hours a day. I felt physically sick at times, but it was a lot of fun too.
Is there a 24 movie in the pipeline?
There’s definitely room for it. But it depends on whether or not Kiefer can take it any more! The poor guy’s been hacking away at Jack Bauer for years. If he’s into it, it’ll be great, because everything he does is awesome.
So you’d be up for it, too?
Oh yeah. People love to watch my character Kim, but she’s also a bit of a spanner in the works and I wouldn’t want her to be that. Three years ago I wanted her to be Jack’s partner and kick ass, but to the producers it was like, “We’ve got to be realistic about this.” But if the movie comes round and it works to have her there, then I’d love to play her again.
I touched the Bible Lincoln was sworn in on. I’m obsessed.
You and Pierce Brosnan couldn’t possibly loathe each other more in Seraphim Falls. Your war veteran character, Carver, really wants Brosnan’s Gideon to suffer...
Absolutely. As he tells his posse, “Extremities only.” Carver wants Gideon to suffer and of course he’s suffering as well. Profoundly so – almost as much as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, he’s living with the horror of a one-track mind. Revenge is such a sickness in our society.
Revenge is a timely theme but Westerns aren’t as popular as they were even a decade ago. Apparently, it’s all George Bush’s fault, for presenting himself as a fake cowboy.
That’s interesting. But when it comes to my generation, we were steeped in the Western genre. Certainly as kids at the Saturday matinees, it was always Westerns. If it was a detective story instead we’d leave in droves. It was like we were being insulted! But guys on horseback, and especially those really bad B-movies where Audie Murphy was playing the hero, I thought they were great. They were our version of the Greek myths.
So what was it like, getting back on the horse?
Well, I’m lucky because I can ride. I was on a horse while filming in the former Yugoslavia in the mid ’80s. I was playing this character called Grak, King of the Pitts [in 1985 TV movie Arthur The King] and I had to ride into Camelot and capture Guinevere. I was on this horse called Drina who was 17 years of age; she was famous because she was Kirk Douglas’ horse. She would stand like Eeyore from Winnie The Pooh – the most unheroic horse – but once she heard the phrase, “And we’re rolling…”, suddenly her neck straightened, her ears went up and from a standing start this horse would go into a gallop. Then, when the director said, “Cut!”, she would walk right back to the start mark and go like that again [mimics Eeyore’s droopy demeanour]. It made me look good that she knew what she was doing.
This is the first time you and Brosnan have worked together, although you were both in the running for James Bond in the early ’90s…
I’ve known Pierce for a bunch of years and it’s just cool to work with your mates. He’s such a good guy, just a total sweetheart. I was courted for the role of Bond after Schindler’s List, along with a bunch of other actors. But I was thrilled that Pierce got it because he really wanted it.
Originally you were working as a builder in Belfast in the ’70s. How did you make the leap from that job to full time acting?
Well, I was a late starter. I only turned professional when I was 23. I’d always been performing in plays at school and somewhere along the line I just segued into getting paid for it. It was wonderful – I’ll never forget getting my first pay-cheque for being in the theatre. And those days, it was at the height of the Troubles, so Belfast was dangerous. But that theatre I worked in never closed its doors. Sometimes we’d have to stop the show because there’d be a bomb scare. Soldiers would come in and search under seats…
What was it that drew you to acting in the first place?
I loved the craft of pretending to be somebody else. I have always found it very liberating. It made me feel good back then – and still does. There’s something about the process that can be mystical.
When you get offered great roles of the quality of Oskar Schindler or Michael Collins, do you tend to panic at first or do you simply think, “I deserve this”?
There is always a wee bit of panic for a few seconds, that’s for sure. Steven Spielberg called me up two years ago and said, “I want to send you a script about someone.” I said, “Thanks, Steven. Can you tell me who it is?” All he said was, “No – he did live.” Two days later, this script arrived and I’m just like a kid. I’d worked with Steven but the fact he’d called me up personally was special. I opened the script and there was one word on it: Lincoln. My knees shook. Literally. That had only happened to me once before: when I met Muhammad Ali in the ’80s.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln… That title definitely has a better ring to it than Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
I know. We’ve already done make-up tests. And I’ve done a lot of research. I’ve visited where he was born, I’ve touched the Bible he was sworn in on, I’ve held his wallet, his glasses, his penknife. I mean, I’ve had carte blanche. I’m obsessed with the man now. So… we’ll see how that goes [laughs]. And then I think I’m going to have to retire because I don’t think I’ll be offered anything after that! What else can I possibly do?
I do have a bit of a temper and I don’t suffer fools very easily...
You’re in Edmond, which is written by playwright David Mamet and directed by the man behind Re-Animator. It sounds like a wild collaboration…
It sure does… well, at least from a distance. Stuart Gordon actually directed the first production of [Mamet’s play] Sexual Perversity In Chicago, so he’s an old friend. I got involved because I was doing Oleanna in London and [Edmond star] William H Macy came to see it and told me he was trying to set up this movie.
So what grabbed you about it?
David Mamet is so vicious in the way he writes. My role’s small but it’s 20 minutes of non-stop dialogue with William H Macy. I thought if nothing else, it would be a masterclass in how to read Mamet’s dialogue. The quality is more important than the quantity.
You and Macy have a pretty odd post-coital scene. Have you ever had any weird post-sex experiences?
I’m certainly not going to talk about them with you!
Edmond’s definitely disturbing, but you’ve never really done a lot of horror movies. Why not?
In horror movies actors don’t really have to do much except run around in fear or act like they’re afraid. It’s not very psychologically interesting.
So you’re not going to be fighting zombies in Stuart Gordon’s upcoming House Of Re-animator, then?
Uh… no… But if it was Shaun Of The Dead 2 I would! I’m a big fan of those guys. I just saw Hot Fuzz. But I would have to be a zombie fighter in Shaun 2, I couldn’t be a zombie. It requires too much makeup.
When you were little you almost played the vampire kiddie in Interview With The Vampire, didn’t you?
Yeah, that was really early on, for me.I think I got pretty close to getting it.
Have you forgiven Kirsten Dunst for stealing it?
Absolutely! I have no qualms about that because it would have changed my life too early. I wouldn’t have wanted that at such a young age. I’m very happy with how things turned out.
You’re always a forceful presence on-screen. Are you like that in real life?
I play out that aggressiveness in my characters. I actually think I’m pretty laid back. That doesn’t mean I’m weak, though. I think there’s a lot of power in silence, so I don’t need to raise my voice a lot. But I’m very clear about what I want and opinionated. I don’t know… I do have a bit of a temper and I don’t suffer fools very easily. I’m also pretty intolerant of people who are ill-mannered.
You recently made your writing and directing debut on Raving. Was it a good experience?
It was a terrific experience! I loved every minute of it. It was a thrill to see something that I had imagined in my head and to hear actors saying words I had written. I loved having to be ‘front-footed’ as I call it. When you’re an actor you’re waiting around and letting someone else take the lead, but when you’re directing it’s you guiding the schedule and solving problems.
How’s The Bourne Ultimatum coming along? What’s the deal with Nicky?
Nicky’s situation is a little more complicated in this one. She’s forced to decide whether or not she wants to stay involved in the CIA. The operation that she had been working for has become suspect and she’s not sure she approves anymore, but she has to figure out a way to get out... and stay alive.
We’ve heard rumours about a relationship between Jason Bourne and Nicky...
I guess that depends how you define relationship! [Laughs] As far as Nicky’s concerned, Jason didn’t kill her in the last movie so she feels she can trust him. And he needs to trust her because she has a lot of information. She was around earlier than anyone else and even before the first movie when he was in training. So he’s trying to resuscitate his memory and she’s the only person who can help him.
So there’s no love story bubbling away underneath?
There might be, but I can’t really talk about it. It’s not what you would expect though, which I think is a good thing. The obvious way to deal with it would be to have them hook up, but you have to remember that this story takes place right on the heels of the last movie. Jason’s girlfriend has been murdered pretty recently and it wouldn’t speak very highly of him if he recovered from that so quickly. But there is a... frisson, shall we say.
Do you have a bit more fun in this one?
I’ve had lots of weapon training! It’s the kind of stuff that Nicky would have done in the CIA. What’s great is that in order to fake using a fake gun you have to practise with a real gun. All I get to shoot in the movie is a 9mm but during training I took the chance to try out some bigger guns too!
Steven Spielberg made me cry 17 times in one day...
We’re next going to see you in Waitress…
Super story. Keri Russell plays this closed-off character who’s in an abusive relationship with a dangerous man. She enters this eating contest – it’s her way of dealing with the world.
Er, OK. And how do you come into it?
I play her obstetrician-gynaecologist and we have an affair. Keri Russell has this abusive husband, so we forgive her for being unfaithful. But my character is married – he’s in a relationship that seems to be perfect. I tried to give him that sense of a nebulous relationship, where obviously he’s unhappy. He’s looking for something outside.
Any other projects in the pipeline?
Well since Drive just got cancelled, I guess I’m going to go back to LA and start pounding the pavement again!
Even after Serenity and Slither? Surely there are plenty of people pounding at your door!
I do get offers now and again. When Joss Whedon hired me to work on Firefly, I hadn’t played a lead before. People would see me and say, “He’s really good, but we don’t see him carrying a show.” If that’s going to be the prevailing attitude then nobody’s ever going to give you a show… But Joss Whedon is different.
How was your first meeting with Joss?
I came into this office and there was a lovely casting lady sitting there and a guy in the corner: a mess of red hair, straggly beard, purple sweater with a hole in it. And I thought, “This is very nice, these people are kind of cool. I wonder when Joss is going to get here…” And then the casting director stood up and said, “OK I’m going to see you guys later.” And left. And I thought, “I think this might be Joss!”
We talked for about 45 minutes. He had every base covered. Anything I asked him. This was a clever bastard. He made me a lead!
So what happened with Drive? Why do you think it got cancelled?
I said it when Firefly was cancelled – if I knew the inner workings of TV executives I’d be a smarter man than I am. It was obviously a good show so why let a good show run for three weeks and then pull it? I suppose there must be certain calculations that aren’t available to me.
How did you deal with it?
I went online and listened to the fans gripe and it seemed to calm my nerves. I could commiserate with them, rather than do it by myself.
Your first ever film was Saving Private Ryan? Was that scary?
I had never been to London. I was staying in a hotel just off Piccadilly Circus. Time difference... nerves... excitement... movie… Spielberg! I was incredibly tense. All I had to do was cry. I’d just spent three years doing just that on a soap opera, but I was so tired and so tense that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t cry!
Did Spielberg give you any advice?
We did the scene and then it was, “Cut! That was awesome. Nathan, how do you feel?” I had to say to him, “What are you talking about? I couldn’t do it!” I was beside myself. He leads me out, we’re behind this blown-out building walking behind this army truck and he says, “Tell me about your story.” So I tell him about the character’s back story, the family, the brothers hit by a car. Then he talks... and makes the story I’d given him so real and sad I cried on the spot. I ended up crying 17 times that day.
You seem to have enjoyed plenty of positive working experiences…
I remember talking to James Gunn [director of Slither] and saying how I’d had such a great time on the jobs I’d done and how that couldn’t possibly last. And he said, “Why can’t it always be like that?” And I said that I’d had a couple of sour experiences, met a couple of sour grapes. But now I’m pretty sure you can work with great people a lot of the time.
So what other directors would you like to work with?
I’d love to work with Alfonso Cuaron. Oh. My. God. There are some shots in Children Of Men that… Well, I have no idea how they did them. There must have been days of rehearsal and filming for just one shot.
How does it feel to be something of a sci-fi icon? You even have your own MySpace page to interact with your fans, right?
I put that page up originally because there was a fake page! It freaked me out, this dumbass getting kicks out of it. What a dick. So I put up my own page. I go to it once in a while to reply to any funny messages. It’s satisfying… but I get a lot of messages and I’m a slow typer. Two fingers only...