Austin Pendleton’s fulfilling acting journey includes memorable work in both film and television, and even if the name doesn’t ring a bell you’ve undoubtedly seen one of his movies. His latest is Sunset, an ambitious indie drama about a nuclear strike which may obliterate the United States East Coast. During the phone interview, Pendleton had a ton to talk about, including his work on Catch-22, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, and the resonant short Calumet (which can be seen on Amazon Prime). Check out our exclusive Q&A with Pendleton below!
Sunset’s premise of a possible nuclear tragedy, as seen through the eyes of a group of friends, must have been an intriguing choice for you.
Well, I’ve done a lot of indie films and so if I like the part I do the movie! And if I love the actors and director (as well). Because in feature films and big time TV you go through a lot dry periods. You totally are grateful for the fact of indie films, particularly ones as good as Sunset.
What stood out for you regarding the narrative of Sunset? Director Jamison M. LoCascio really let the characters organically grow throughout the story. Plus, did you develop a backstory with your character?
The whole juxtaposition of that against a huge backdrop of the beginning of the end of the world. It takes its time with the people just as you say. Absolutely.
My teacher was Uta Hagen. She talks a lot about that. Have you ever read her books on acting?
No I have not.
Her books are a very accurate reflection of her teaching. She’s very big on developing a history. That is your own private work. You don’t talk to the other people about it because it’s your history. The only thing the other people ask is that what you do is convincing. Whatever it takes for you to do that, they don’t interfere with you. They don’t make you tell them what your history is. It’s the history you develop for your character and that’s private stuff.
It’s only if for some reason what you’re doing doesn’t work when they’ll say something like ‘whatever you think you figured out about your past is not helping you give this performance (laughs). So then you change what you worked about the past.
Can you discuss your short Calumet? The character you built within 14 minutes was beautiful and it’s a wonderful performance. I saw the short on Amazon Prime after watching Sunset.
Yeah. Well first of all, I love Alex Thompson. He’s a great guy. And I’m probably going to do a couple of other films with him. It’s a beautiful story and a story like that is challenging. I, thank God, have not had to face anything like that yet. I didn’t even ask people who have (Alzheimer’s Disease) – I just went to the script and I tried to imagine it. It’s a terrifying story and I do know people who have had to deal with that and I’m sure you have to. It’s terrifying.
What was your experience like working with Orson Welles on Catch-22?
Everybody was very lonely there in Mexico. Almost all of it was shot on the Baja peninsula and so we were almost the only ones in the hotel and the only ones other than us in the hotel were people who would come every year to fish in Baja. We were kind of isolated and it was before we had thinks like email or anything like that. People were desperate to get out of there.
When Catch 22 was being made everybody thought it was not going well. Certain scenes would be shot over and over again because Mike would look at them and he wasn’t happy with them. And people were being kept longer. I was only kept for two weeks because Orson would only stay for two weeks and everything I did was with him. But there people who thought they would get away for a while and they were called back – it was a very unhappy film set even though we all liked each other. We all wanted it to be over with.
(There was) a pervasive feeling that the movie wasn’t working well. But then when I saw the movie a year later, I thought it was marvelous. It wasn’t well received at the time it opened. Its reputation has grown over the years. When a whole new generation sees it they say ‘Oh this movie, it must have been a sensation when it opened.’ I say ‘Well no, it’s more of a sensation now than it was when it was made.’
Other times you make a film and it was a glorious experience and then the film comes out and it really isn’t very good (laughs). It’s hard to tell on a set how the movie is going to be. There is no correlation between the atmosphere on the set – What’s Up Doc? was a very hard film to make it. We were all very close though on What’s Up Doc. That kind of comedy is so exacting. You have to talk so fast (laughs).
Peter Bodgdanovich is a great director . . .
A marvelous and demanding director, but a great director. Making a comedy is very serious business.
You directed Elizabeth Taylor on Broadway with The Little Foxes and also worked with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman on Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Do you find a commonality among the best actors, whether it be on the stage or silver screen?
It’s a different experience according to the script and the nature of the script, but all the people you just mentioned were very open people. The happiest seven hours I spent on a film set was in that living room in that house in Kansas City playing that scene with Joanne in Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. That was the happiest time I ever had on a film set.
But for the same reason, it was great making Sunset. All these other actors and the (Sunset) director are just so open. It was that way in What’s Up Doc. There are no games going on. And Elizabeth Taylor. All these people are just seriously there to give and take, you know?
The only thing that is different from that is when someone is not open and won’t open up. You have to do everything according to exactly what they want. They’re not interested in anything else. I won’t name names but I’ve had that experience. All the people, both in directing actors on the stage and working with actors in film, TV, and stage – if they’re open, it’s basically a good experience. You open yourselves up to each other.
Do you feel more passionate about your craft than ever before?
I still love it. I love it more than I did in 1962.
I don’t know. It just gets more and more – you do lots of different things and it keeps expanding your sense of things that you would like to try to do.
My final question to you is can you name one movie, it doesn’t have to be your favorite movie, that you continue to watch as the years go by?
The one Orson Welles made after Citizen Kane – The Magnificent Ambersons – would be that movie for me. Even though it’s a little bit flawed because after he completed (the film), it was kind of injured by the studio – but not that much. I just think the people in it, the relationships, the way it’s shot, and they way it evokes a whole vanished world and everything – and I try to see it in a theater. Here in New York, we have that theater called the Film Forum. Every time they show The Magnificent Ambersons, I drop everything and go down there.
Is it a myth about New York feeding one’s craft as opposed to Los Angeles being a business town?
Well I happen to like New York more. I grew up in Ohio and I was first brought to New York by my parents. I came to New York when I was seven years old. I remember walking down some street saying out loud ‘This is where I’m going to live when I grow up.’ I loved the city. In terms of the working environment, it depends on the particular project. Whether it’s New York, Los Angeles, or Kansas City as it was with Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Or anywhere. It’s the project itself that makes the actual working environment rather than the town you’re in. I’m very exited to be in New York but I’ve worked on film projects in New York that were really dull (laughs).
Last question – was it that made those hours on Mr. and Mrs. Bridge such a memorable experience for you?
It was Joanne. It was (director) Jim Ivory – he’s such a patient director. You can do it over and over again and he’d say little things to help. Just little hints he’d drop. And Joann, acting opposite her, she was so there. Take after take, whether the camera was on her or on me, she was as there when she was off camera for me as she was when the camera was on her. Each take we did, it just seemed to deepen and in fact, and here’s where you know when you’re working with a great actor. The more you repeated (the scene), the more spontaneous it got, which sounds like a paradox. With the great ones, that’s what it’s like.
Thank you so much for your time, it was a pleasure speaking with you!
You too Greg! Have a good day, okay?
Sunset, co-starring Liam Mitchell, Barbara Bleier, Juri Henley-Cohn, Suzette Gunn, and David Johnson, is now out on DVD, Digital, and VOD. Pendleton hits the stage as the director and actor of Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III. Performances begin August 1 at the 124 Bank Street Theatre.