Fugitives facing the firing squad have looked more relaxed than David Strathairn does right now. One of the most perspicacious character actors of the past 40 years, he has been exceptional so often on screen that any attempt to list the highlights runs the risk of simply transcribing his IMDb page: Nomadland, LA Confidential, The River Wild, Sneakers, a batch of rigorous dramas by his longtime friend John Sayles (including Matewan and Limbo), a fling with Carmela on The Sopranos, a career-best performance as a predatory teacher in the indie gem Blue Car, and an Oscar nomination for Good Night, and Good Luck. Today the 72-year-old, who resembles a lean, lined Cary Grant, is sitting bolt upright and strangely far from the camera as he talks via video call from New York. Or rather, doesn’t talk. I have just asked him a question that he considers irrelevant, even impertinent, and he has clammed up.
To think, it all started so well. Discussing his new movie, Guillermo del Toro’s 1940s-set noir thriller Nightmare Alley, Strathairn is in his element. In this adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, filmed once before, in 1947, he plays Pete, a soused, weather-beaten mentalist who performs a mind-reading act with his wife, Zeena (Toni Collette), at an insalubrious travelling carnival. The doggedly cheerful couple have seen better days. “Pete was at the top of his game many years earlier when they were in Paris,” he reflects. “He has this idea that he was once a great mentalist on the most renowned stages. It’s an interesting contrast to where we find him in the film.”
Into the couple’s life stumbles Stanton (Bradley Cooper), a handsome but shady sort to whom Zeena takes an immediate shine. Is Pete alert to his wife’s infidelity? “I don’t know,” he says thoughtfully. “Did you get any sense of that? It was talked about but we didn’t want to indulge in it too much. The idea was to make Zeena and Pete one entity. There’s an emotional bond, and they’ve spent so much time together. Was he aware that she has this side? Would she have had other Stantons? I’m not sure.”
Even now, the actor sounds grateful to have found himself on the lavish set of a Guillermo del Toro movie. “The production design was extraordinary,” he says. “Then you had the rain, the mud, the boardwalks, the texture of the tents. It was so gritty. That world informs who the people are.”
Strathairn trained to be a clown straight out of college. Did making the film take him back to those days? “Uh, it had trappings of that, yeah,” he says. “The sense of community. A bunch of wildly eccentric individuals.” How deep did he get into clowning? “Deep enough to learn how to fall down and get up again.” How does it compare with acting? “Uhhh … I dunno.” He is beginning to wriggle in his seat. “They’re probably similar in essence. Catch the people’s attention and try to transport them into another reality.”
Did he see any overlap between Pete and himself? After all, an actor – like a mentalist – needs to be a good reader of people. “Well, you hope you are. Actors are sort of conduits for human behaviour.” Pete maintains that anyone who reads people will have learned the skill as a child. Is that true of Strathairn, too? “I think it’s true of all of us.” All actors or all people? “Anybody. There are so many clues out there.” What sort of child was he? Quiet and reserved or kicking with the fray? He lets out a protracted, agonised sigh. “Ahhh, I dunno,” he shrugs. Then nothing for five or six seconds. “I don’t think I was anything other than a normal kid.”
Why the enormous sigh? “I sort of don’t think we should be talking about me,” he says. “We should be talking about the film, really.” Seven seconds pass in silence. Is he uncomfortable speaking about life off screen? “No, I just don’t think it’s a propos of doing PR for a film to talk about ‘what I was like as a kid’.” He treats that last phrase like a stinky sock which must be held away from his face. “That’s not … I don’t think that’s applicable to the film. To the project. It’s not, uh … No.” He reaches for a reference to the psychoanalyst played in Nightmare Alley by Cate Blanchett. “I mean, I’m not in Dr Lilith Ritter’s office!”
I protest gently that I wasn’t intending to analyse him; I was trying to get an idea of how someone without an acting background (his parents were both medical professionals) might have been drawn to the business. “I know, I know,” he says softly. I conduct a quick mental inventory of the topics I had hoped we might touch on. Strathairn was superb as Meryl Streep’s milquetoast husband in the action thriller The River Wild but the chances now of him reflecting on his brief, real-life connection to his co-star – Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer married his son, Tay, in July 2019 before separating 42 days later due to “irreconcilable differences” – have become vanishingly remote. It would not be a propos, as he might put it. I cross the subject off my list.
We drift back to Nightmare Alley, and to the scene in which Pete warns Stanton of the risks for any mentalist who becomes seduced by his own confidence tricks. Isn’t that a danger for an actor: that one might believe the hype? Strathairn pulls a face as if to say: again with the personal stuff? Another long silence passes, during which he shakes his head and glances away. I joke with him that, for the purposes of the tape, I will at this point need to describe aloud what he is doing: He shakes his head, I say. “‘He shakes his head,’” he repeats dolefully.
A few seconds later, however, a switch seems to flick inside him, and he decides that he will answer the question after all. “Actors believing their hype can be a slippery slope,” he agrees. “There are a lot of banana peels out there in that respect.” Was his own head turned when he received that Oscar nomination (his only one so far) for playing the journalist Edward R Murrow in George Clooney’s McCarthy-era drama Good Night, and Good Luck? “Yeah it was kinda like: ‘What’s this all about?’ When I’m working, it’s about the work, not what comes afterwards. It was like an out of body experience. My eyes were wide open all the time taking it in, because it may never happen again. It was like being at a circus.” Only this time he wasn’t a clown.
Even when he has been part of a hit (such as his two Bourne thrillers) or an Oscar-magnet (such as Nomadland or Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln), he hasn’t usually been sent out on to the publicity circuit; his more famous co-stars tend to shoulder that burden. Perhaps this explains his discomfort with personal questions. Some character actors may crave the fame and attention that comes the way of their superstar colleagues but Strathairn seems not to be among them.
Get him on the finer points of his craft, though, and he unclenches. To rescue the mood before we finish, I ask whether he has read Mark Harris’s recent book about the director Mike Nichols. He has not. Then he won’t know that he is singled out as a valuable influence on Nichols’s 1983 film Silkwood, where he played one of the workers at a plutonium plant alongside – that woman again – Meryl Streep. I read him the relevant passage, which describes how his decision to chew gum and blow bubbles helped to “loosen up the blocking of a static scene”.
He seems captivated. “Wow. I do remember that. Probably I was just trying to keep myself busy. And I felt also that there was this lack of awareness about working in the radioactive environment: you were touching food in your mouth, but you didn’t know what was in the shit you were dealing with. It was a disconnect between the toxic surroundings, and this person thinking: ‘I’m just working in a factory.’ Hmm. That’s really a great film. Wow.”
All at once, he has been spirited back to the more creative space of the film set or rehearsal room. He looks happy at last. We say our goodbyes. His nightmare is over.
Nightmare Alley is released in the UK on 21 January