Meeting with Seàn James Sutton, October 22 2018

So yesterday we talked about improvisation for actors.

S: Yes. And I think it’s sadly lacking because you get so many actors who don’t really understand themselves and find improvisation hard.

Understand themselves as actors or people?

S: Both actually. I think you have to be very confident and sure of yourself as an actor to be able to improvise. So, for example, if you lie to yourself in everyday life, then you can’t adopt another character because there are always the lies underneath.

But isn’t acting something like a lie?

S: Yes, of course acting is a lie.

But maybe a lie to others, not to yourself.

S: Yes, acting is a lie but under that if you’re lying to yourself, if you’re not truthful to yourself, then you can’t, I think, have another layer or character on top of that. It’s not a solid foundation if you are not sure and confident in yourself, if you can’t say: This is who I am. Take for example, an actor’s sexuality. A straight male actor who is confident in themself can play a gay man. But if that same actor isn’t sure of their own sexuality or worries about it, then playing a gay person becomes a lie upon a lie and more difficult and because the actor isn’t true to themself it will come out in their performance.

There is an interview with Gaspar Noé and Vincent Casselle where Noé talks about how he wanted to introduce a sex scene between Casselle and his wife at the time, Monica Bellucci. The whole project started with this idea to shoot a film with a real sex scene. Casselle didn’t want to but Bellucci convinced him and in the end they shot the scene but Noé didn’t use it in the film because it was too vulgar for him. It didn’t match with the idea of the film. Casselle said that in front of the camera he and his wife simply didn’t want to have sex as they usually had sex together and so they acted and this acting resulted in a vulgar scene. What I want to say is they didn’t want to show themselves to the audience.

S: Exactly.

I think this is a basic issue with actors. The actors were giving a lot of themselves and their intimacy to the audience. It’s their job. But when it’s about sex, well in this case these two actors were not ready or disposed to show themselves in this specific situation to the audience.

S: Perhaps, yes. But I’ll go back to my original point again: I think that if you are certain in yourself, you know who you are, then you can give anything and you can also add or change aspects of the character you adopt later on.

You mean you won’t show yourself to the audience?

S: No, no, you will show yourself. But only if you want to and if the character demands it. If the character you’re portraying is similar to you in certain respects you’ll show yourself, you’re happy to show yourself. But if there’s a moment when you start lying to yourself then there’s a block and there’s a wall that goes up and that wall lies between you and the character and that wall will prevent the truth from coming through. As a really mundane example, if you look at your body and you say: Yes, I’ve got a few extra kilos here or I could do with bigger muscles well then you’ll likely be embarrassed or reluctant to show your body on camera. But if you’re truthful and say, yes, I’ve got these extra kilos and this is who I am, then you can show that honesty on the screen. Obviously that’s a very physical thing but the same thing happens mentally and emotionally.

Liking yourself. That’s another matter.

S: Yes. But it’s also about accepting yourself: I accept myself, this is who I am. Simply put, I believe that as an actor you have to look at yourself objectively and say: this is me, the good and the bad, but this is me and I accept it. Once you’ve done that you can be whoever you want to be. Again with that mundane example, if an actor is self-conscious about their big stomach, even subconsciously, then when they’re on camera they will try and adjust their posture to prevent it showing too much because they’re embarrassed about it. Of course the upshot of this is that a lot of actors try to play certain characters which, in real life, are an idealised version of themself: brave, honest, good looking, sexier, whatever. They confuse what they’re doing on screen whith what they would like to be in real life. A more grounded actor will understand that who they are, and who the character on the screen is, are very separate. And all this goes back to improvisation because when the director says: okay, here’s a scene and I want you to improvise, the un-accepting actor will subconsciously say: okay the character would do this, but I want to come across as something different and so they will not show the truth. But if you’re honest with yourself and say this is who I am then you can add anything on top of that and change completely and be free to show the true character rather than the character with little bits of the actor and their personal neuroses and psychoses wrapped up inside. A good actor is almost a blank canvas on which the character can be painted. I think that’s an ideal situation and to be honest with you I think that if it can be acheived then it often comes with age and maturity. Well, I’m 57 now and I think when I was 20, like all 20 year olds, I was self-conscious. At that age you are very aware of the way you look and the way you act and what you think others think of you. We were like that because we wanted girls to like us and I was trying to present an image of myself that wasn’t necessarily true. Of course the older you get the less important that becomes and so now if a director says to me, Seán, can you do this I say, if the character does that then I will do that as that character. I don’t have a problem with that.

I don’t remember who said this, but it was something like: if you give me a name you limit me and you stop me becoming all those people or things I could be. So maybe the other way around could work too: if I’m able to cancel my personality, I’m freer.

S: Exactly. That’s it. That’s precisely it. You can create the character if there’s a blank canvas and if there’s nothing there that’s holding you back. If inside yourself you have, I don’t know, mother issues, for example, if you’ve got these issues then they’re going to come through and you’re not going to be a blank canvas. But if you’ve sorted those issues out in your mind, you know who you are, then you can go forward as a different character.

So it’s a little bit strange at this point. We have different possibilities; completely opposite possibilities. I know myself and I accept myself; or I can completely cancel my personality.

S: But in a way it’s the same isn’t it. If you accept yourself and say this is who I am and are happy with it and it is what it is, then it is cancelled in a way.

Your own character is not important anymore.

S: Yeah, it’s not important.

Okay. So perhaps it’s simply about not thinking too much of yourself?

S: Yes, I think that sounds right. Of course though it’s impossible to fully get there. The thing is that your character is undoubtedly going to be influenced by who you are both physically and mentally but you need to try and cancel it as much as you can in order to add the character on top of that. Of course all the flavours of your real self are going to come through so if you’re a naturally emotionally fragile person your character will be more emotionally fragile perhaps than an actor who is naturally not like that. But you’ll see some actors who continually play themselves almost without regard for the character.

I think that’s 99% of actors!

S: Yeah. I don’t know why but often it tends to be American actors like that; just different versions of themselves in every film. It’s almost like some of them try to reduce the character as much as possible till it becomes the actor, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I think so because I am posing to myself the same question but from another point of view point, the view of someone behind the camera and not in front of it. I have to ask myself how can I push the actor to the point where they are right for the story. So it’s a different thing I think and it’s always extremely hard because you have two kinds of of acting: one is mental and the other physical; some actors are very good physically and some actors are very good mentally, but it’s really hard to find someone who has both these qualities.

S: There’s obviously a big overlap between them but I think that’s true. But I also think a lot of that comes from the director, especially because there are many different sorts of directors. You’re going to get directors who will have a scene in mind and they will say, right I want my actor to go from here to there do it this way exactly as I imagined and that can be restricting for an actor; but at the same time you get the opposite.

In my experience most actors expect to be told exactly what to do and if you don’t do this they say you don’t know what you want.

S: Right but it has to be a balance with the director because you get the other directors who just say: okay off you go and for most actors, they will be like, oh fuck I’m in the middle of nowhere, what do I do now? It all comes back to the preparation beforehand though: if the actor knows his character inside out they won’t be saying what do I do now, they’ll just move and do what their character demands.

So there is the question what would my character do now, not what would I do now.

S: Exactly. What would the character do. If you know your character and really are your character then it takes on a life of its own and sometimes you’ll find yourself in a scene and out of nowhere you’ll do something and you think, fuck me where did that come from? – you hadn’t planned it but it was the natural thing to do and those moments are special ones for an actor.

That’s an interesting point because if you’re the author and you’ve written two different characters it means that you’ve been able to put yourself in the situation of each of these people. As an author I am able to do this but then I have to transmit this process to the actors so that they know what I mean and if that doesn’t happen then it’s a little bit disappointing.

S: But this all comes down to the actor again. If you get a good actor who is more secure in themself then they will allow themself to go into risky places mentally where they do not already know what their character would do. But they can do it because they’ve got the self confidence and the ability and that’s rare.

Yeah, I think it’s the same thing for directors and for actors in this case. You just have to have the question clear in yourself: Why do I want to act and why do I want to shoot? And if the reason for that is the red carpet you won’t be able to be either a good actor or a good director.

S: Yeah. That is totally true.

It’s a good question to pose to any actor. Why do you want to act? And the answers are some of the most bizarre things.

S: I was thinking about that the other day. Why do I want to act? I tell you what, I didn’t know I wanted to act on film till I began acting on film. So I did some theatre acting at school and a college. I took a few classes whatever and it was fun, you know, and I was acting, well, basically to meet girls, you know, it’s the usual thing.

But that’s a valid reason!

S: Ha ha, yeah, I guess so. But then I gave it up for a long time when I went abroad. I’ll tell you what happened next. I was in in Athens and I saw an advertisement for new faces for to be in advertisements. Okay, just for a laugh I went along to an open casting and they said yeah, you got an interesting face and we’re going to put you in this advertisement. It was a tv ad for a bank and I hadn’t been on a film set before but the moment I arrived, literally the second I stepped onto the lot, I felt utterly, utterly, utterly at home. It was like I thought to myself, why haven’t I done this before? So for me, it was just like I sort of fell into cinema and fell in love with it; it was just like: this is me, this is natural for me.

It’s yeah, it’s an emotional reason.

S: It was totally emotional. This is where I belong, you know. But the truth is that as an actor you spend maybe 5% or 10% of your time on set actually acting; the rest of it is administration: learning lines, applying for work, meeting people, auditioning, and so on. But that precious time you spend on set makes up for everything that goes before it: all the bollocks that’s got nothing to do with acting per se but which you have to do anyway.

If it was more then maybe it would lose also bit of its magic don’t you think? Talking about Noé again, he said once in conversation with another director that it would be fun if they were able to shoot all the time and do one movie every year. But personally I don’t think that would be fun because it would really lose the magic.

S: I think you’re probably right there. Yes, because it’s a matter of contrast, isn’t it?

It’s simply you can’t have fun every day. Otherwise it becomes a little bit stale.

S: Yeah. You have to have the extremes. The one extreme is, you know, looking and preparing for work: writing off applications, learning lines, you know doing the drudgery if you like. But honestly, it’s all forgotten when you have that time on set. Me, I want to arrive on set early and leave as late as possible because when you’re there surrounded by the trailers and the other cast and the crew and the bustle and everything else, the whole environment is the most wonderful environment I’ve ever been in.

On a slightly different tack, some days ago I had a discussion about writing and I told this young guy that I could show him how to write technically but I couldn’t show him how to live and if you don’t live and suffer you won’t ever be a writer because writing is about life. And I think it’s the same thing with acting.

S: Yeah. I’m not sure about the the suffering part though…

Yes, suffering. I don’t mean torture, not that kind of suffering, but the need to discover yourself because if you do that you will perhaps meet some not-so-beautiful aspects of yourself and have to handle that. And that’s a first step in suffering.

S: Yes, if we clarify what suffering is then I think you do have to dig deep. You have to have been there and done it and faced it head on. To be a writer or an actor I think you need to have to have been out on your own and if not to have experienced what the character has experienced then at least to have experienced something like it; perhaps a shade of what the character has gone through. You’ve got to be able to relate to what they’ve done in order to understand why they’ve done it and how they are reacting to it. But again, this is missing I think from a lot of young actors; you know they come straight out of drama school and they haven’t lived anything. They can play safe characters within their own experience, but they can’t understand characteres who have been out in the world.

If I shoot a film which is very important for me then this can be as good for others, but it becomes a very good movie if they find something in this movie which touches them, which is relevant for them.

S: I would totally agree. Take Les Quatre Cents Coups [400 Blows] by Truffaut. I had a very different upbringing from the protagonist in that film but there are a couple of scenes when he was doing something and I thought: yes, that’s right, yes, I’m with you there, that’s me, I’ve done that – or my version of that. And I think that when a film does that to you then it really becomes an important film for you and when it touches you in that way it can become a magical moment. It’s when you look at a film like that and it really resonates with you personally. With most films it’s less a case of them relating to you on a personal level, but more a case of you trying to relate to the character: saying to yourself that if I were that character, what would I do? You know, if I were this superhero who would I punch next, kind of thing.

That’s extremely important. When I shoot a film I want to involve the audience and to show I’m with them and I hope they’re with me and maybe we can do this together until it’s complete.

S: And the way to do that is to be real.

Yes. Sure. To be real and not arrogant. And if you’re able to do this then that’s the best. You don’t have to spend 20 million dollars to make a film, but just make something real.

S: I think the amount of money spent on a film is almost irrelevant in many cases. I’m thinking of one of my favourite Greek films, Evdokia which is an utterly brilliant film, unbelievable. It’s a story about a Greek soldier doing military service and he meets a girl and, you know, it’s almost a nothing story but it captures more than any other film I’ve ever seen a certain type of Greek mentality. And the thing about it is that the production values are appalling; it was made on a shoestring and you watch it and you think, the sound is terrible, some of the shots are terrible, some of the acting is dodgy… but the essence of the film was so truthful that you are spellbound by it and if you know something about Greece you can really relate to it. I was watching it the other day and thinking, yes, I’ve seen these people, I know these people, I know how this works. And money was irrelevant to the film; if you put 20 million euros to remake Evdokia it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good because it would lack the heart of the original film made to show truth rather than simply make some money or follow a trend.

And that’s something the industry isn’t even able to do because it’s an industry. Along with money, take technology for example. It’s an old discussion and it’s pretty clear for me at least. The answer is simple: it’s not what you use, it’s how you use it. If I have a certain idea I want to realize on set so I say, okay, this would be better with green screen because I can transmit my idea in a better way. The problem today is very simple. They don’t use the green screen to solve a problem or to get a better result; no, they use the green screen simply to use green screen. And that’s so amateurish.

S: No, no, I totally agree.

Everyone seams to be convinced that he or she would be able only to shoot a good film with an Alexa. But that’s completely pointless if you can’t already shoot your film witha cell phone. – It’s not about the film it’s about the technique.

S: Exactly and if you look at a lot of the classic films from you know, the 50s, 60s or whatever, they don’t have the technology but they are still amazing films.

Fassbinder shot on 16 millimeter for nothing and it wasn’t a problem like it would be today.

S: Exactly. The the pendulum has swung so far towards technology we could do everything with CGI and it’s too much in some cases. I think it takes away from the essence of the film, which is the story between, say, this man and this woman or this and that; and it’s like the actual core of the film has become less important in a lot of cases. And I think that for an actor – taking us back to that for a moment – you want to get try and get back to that core because that’s what you’re trained for. That’s what you want to do. That’s why you’re there: you didn’t become an actor to work in CGI. Ha ha, yeah, you do it because you need the money but you know, I think if you asked me if I wanted to work on a sort of a zillion dollar CGI blockbuster or an indie movie I’d say well… a zillion dollar blockbuster because I need the money! [laughs]

But these days who goes to the cinema? The theatres are empty. Who really wants cinema with a certain content level? People don’t go to the cinema anymore because they just don’t get that content there. Now it’s all on the internet. It’s the same thing. They tell you that you have to shoot your film like this or that because we need the money back, but if you ask the audience, if you really ask the audience and not those 10 people who are watching your film and like your film, what they like and what they think is a good movie or what’s a bad movie, the result will be completely different from what the so-called industry is telling us.

S: Oh totally.

It has nothing to do with that. The point is we have a distribution industry and they don’t want to take any risks. But if you don’t take risks, you won’t get a good movie.

S: That’s it. You watch a mainstream movie and within the first five minutes you know exactly how it will end. I think in a way that we’re fortunate to live in Europe to be able to have access to much more thoughtful films.

If you stay in India, you will have something like 900 new movies to watch every year.

S: The mainstream channel deliveries, you know talking about the television channels, Netflix, Amazon and so on in the UK and in America and to a certain extent here in Italy, are just pumping out the same old same old. But because there are sorts of European filmmakers who are coming up with something different, obviously foreign language films, then that gives you something different here. So we’re fortunate to have that here. It’s a language thing as well. I think because in America and in Britain foreign language films are often regarded as the devil’s spawn: no we don’t want to go and see that because it’s got words at the bottom of the screen and why aren’t they speaking English? So I think living in somewhere like Europe you have easier access to different language films and different ideas. And I mean okay streaming has helped around the world but if you’re brought up on standard US/UK products it’s harder to get out of that groove and find more interesting, different, or slightly more unusual and less predictable films.

But these days you can find them online anywhere in the world.

S: It’s harder though. If you’re in Britain and all you have seen are English language films produced in America or Britain and that’s what you’ve grown up with it’s hard to suddenly see a film with subtitles. And there foreign language films have always been viewed as a little bit of a sort of arty-farty and slightly dangerous; and right now in Britain, even xenophobic.

I’m hoping you’re exaggerating.

S: Maybe. But I do think you have to work to find films worth watching; you need an open mind to foreign films.

And some times on Netflix you can find some pearls.

S: Pearls amongst swine.

You know I’ve found some really good films on Netflix – maybe because they didn’t know what they were doing. Thanks to them anyway.

S: What next?

Well yeah, I can’t finish this chat by thanking Netflix, so let me ask you what you look for in a director.

S: Well, as an actor, what I would like in a director is someone who will let me know in general terms what they want but who will give me room to do to play with the idea. I personally don’t like when you’re given one shot at the scene and you’ve got to do it in one take only, usually because of time or money constraints. Because for me the first take is always a little bit mmmm: I’ll do it and I’ll think, I know I can do it better the next time. For me maybe the second, third, or even fourth take has got something really interesting in it but a lot of directors don’t do that. So if I’m going to define my perfect director, someone who’ll let me do 3 takes!

I don’t know the directors you’re working with, but normally they shoot too many takes. With film stock they shot with a ratio of between five and ten takes to one to edit film. Today with digital you’re at 20 to 1. And in Italy there is this this completely stupid sentence: una per sicurezza.

S: Yeah, one for safety. I like to take my time on set and work through the scene with the director. But you get big TV serials for example, and they are on a budget and they’ve got to shoot, I don’t know, 15 scenes in that day. And it’s bam-bam-bam and they don’t have time to explore. And even to a certain extent with the Indie movies it’s the same. As an actor it’s rare that you will find a director and a film project where you can play with the ideas.

Okay, just one second because I just can tell you how we normally work on set: we do rehearsals until we’re sure what we’re doing and then we start shooting. So we set up the scene and we do the dialogue and so on but we don’t shoot until we’re sure about what we’re doing. We’ll shoot this but I don’t want to go home with terabytes of footage and loads of takes. So what you’re saying is okay, yeah, you can explore but once you discovered what you are after, you will shoot it and you have to shoot that once.

S: Once? No! A couple of times at least.

Shoot it four or five times? What’s the sense of this?

S: It’s because there are nuances which can come out when you shoot. You can rehearse till you’re blue in the face but until the director says action and, you know, you’re actually shooting live if you like, you never quite know what’s going to happen. Which is good. Rehearsals are different.

No, I’m not talking about rehearsals. We go to the set to shoot right? Okay rehearsals are done and we go to the set to shoot so we set up the scene and everybody is doing his or her job. And I have the camera there and I’m not shooting. So everybody does his or her job and once everything is fine we find the thing we’re looking for and then we shoot it. So you have already explored. It’s not a rehearsal, it’s a setup – and don’t tell me I mean if we are shooting 16 millimeters because that’s different because you hear the motor and that has a certain effect on the actors. But if I’m shooting in digital, I mean you don’t even know if I’m shooting. But if I go over three takes it means to me that there is something wrong.

S: Fair enough. But let the actors do two or three takes and don’t stop at just one. Unfortunately the majority of directors won’t do that. They’ll say: right let’s have a rehearsal, okay, looks good, action, cut, let’s move on. Sometimes as an actor you feel frustrated when that happens because you’d like to try something else.

I totally agree; as I said before, I want to have a clear and coherent idea of what I’m doing but I leave some space for interpreting. But it’s really hard to work with differently trained actors who simply are trained to accept orders from the director and then to do it like this, like a puppet. I can redo a shot 10 or 20 times, but I won’t shoot it for more than three times because it’s a question of efficiency and of money if I have to go and watch hours and hours and hours of footage and if you look at that footage, say 10 takes of the same shot, and you know one take the actor has his head a little bit like this and the other little bit like that and it doesn’t change really so much.

S: Right, because if you’ve got good actors you will have maybe three or four takes of the same scene and you will say this one stands out and not just because of the position of the actor’s head but because the actor has added something more, something interesting.

Yeah, and it’s often that I see that on the set. I don’t have to watch the monitor for this because it’s an emotion. That’s another point, if you’re working with actors, and you ask them, how was this shot for you? and they don’t know how to answer… well what kind of an actor are you if you can’t even say if you felt happy or not with a shot?

S: Right! But I can tell you for a fact that a lot of directors are not doing that. So what are we saying? Maybe that directors get the actors they deserve? [laughs]

Exactly and it’s really about the question, why are we here on the set? Why are we doing this work which is really hard work and pretty nerve-racking? Why are you doing this, and what’s our motivation?

S: Because we’d rather be doing this than anything else? That’s why we’re doing it. There’s no job in the world that would be better.

The answer can be a very simple but most of us don’t have an answer to this question. For many people it’s really about money and about the red carpet and that has nothing to do with cinema.

S: Yes, I totally agree with that. Personally I think that if I were in a position of having a zillion euros in the bank, I wouldn’t be saying, OK I want to do this big studio film. I would be thinking I want to do a film that I really, really, want to do it; a film which would stretch me and test me. I don’t quite understand sometimes when these big Hollywood actors just churn out variations on the same film again and again. I think if I were in their position where I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent or whatever I would do projects that have an essence to them, something that speaks to me rather than you know, a sort of super-hero blockbuster or something like that. But it’s hard in that respect. It’s hard because for 99% of actors you do what’s out there and you don’t get the opportunities, you know for 99% of actors we are, as they say, talking props.

And talking of the budget normally in Italy this is a really extreme situation because if you say in Germany, I shot this movie with 50,000 euros, they say Hey, wow, how did you do this? that’s great! But if you say in Italy I shot this with 50,000 euros they will laugh at you and say it can’t be a good movie. No, if you find a way to shoot with little money this depends on many factors and it depends in a very important way on the actors you are working with. That’s logical to us. But often the actors on the film are completely underestimated because they are seen as puppets.

S: Like I said, talking props.

Yeah, if you want to make independent cinema as a director you need to have a good relationship, if not a friendship, with as many actors as possible.

S: Totally agree

And that’s not a thing that happens on the set. I think that happens at the bar. But today if you go to the bar you will see a table where the directors are sitting and discussing new digital formats and cameras.

S: And on the table where you find the actors they’ll be discussing why they didn’t get that role and gossiping! [laughs]

It should be different. There should be a table with one or two directors and 10 actors and another table with 1 DP and a sound engineer and 10 actors. Here’s a short anecdote Jean-Louis Trintignant told when he shot the with Risi Il sorpasso in Rome. There was a restaurant there in the evening and after the day’s shoot everybody from Cinecittà went there to have a plate of pasta and they were eating and a guy came in and told the others he’d just seen a great movie about a bank robbery. He said how they dug the hole and they took the money and so on and one of the Italians said come on, if you shoot something like this in Italy they will dig the hole but instead of finding money, they will find a guy eating spaghetti! And a director stood up and said that was a great idea and he would shoot this movie and he said I’ll shoot it with you and you and you pointing at different actors there. The director was Monicelli and the actors were Gassman, Salvatori and Mastroianni, and the film is I solitti ignoti which is cult movie in Italy. And they shot it in three or four months. He stood up and said I will shoot this and a few months later the film was at the theaters.

S: So if you know your actors you can do that you.

It’s the restaurant. We are missing that restaurant.

S: Let’s go and eat then.