The king of small moments

"Big Night" director Campbell Scott chats about "Hamlet," famous parents and his new psychological drama "Final."

Published January 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

A handsome writer whose cockiness masks loneliness chats up a flirtatious woman at a party, while her boyfriend looks on. A grieving and bewildered gay man in the early '80s helps too many loved ones cope with AIDS. A commitment-shy Seattle resident realizes that he may have found "the one" when she reaches over to unlock his car door.

These men are made real by actor-director Campbell Scott in "The Daytrippers," "Longtime Companion" and "Singles." A veteran of more than 15 films, under directors from David Mamet ("The Spanish Prisoner") to Bernardo Bertolucci ("The Sheltering Sky"), Scott has a knack for finding the small gestures that define his characters. After co-directing two films, "Big Night," with Stanley Tucci, and "Hamlet" (2000), with Eric Simonson, he makes his solo directorial debut with "Final," a tense psychological drama starring Denis Leary, who finds himself under lock and key in a barren mental institution, unsure of when or how he got there, and Hope Davis, a doctor assigned to his case who has a hidden history of her own.

Scott is the son of the late, legendary actors George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, a pedigree that could have been a disaster for an eager, ungifted actor. Fortunately, Campbell Scott's career speaks for itself. I recently spoke with him by phone about trust, "Hamlet" and who people think he is.

I heard that you claim never to have seen a movie you didn't like. Is that true?

I heard that, too, but it's totally untrue! Although when I was younger, there was a time when I was, as [actress] Deborah Rush would say, sort of "an ingrown toenail of a personality"; I just wanted everything to be ... nice. So I might have said something like that. Or maybe, actually, I was being sort of contrary, defying the masses of film snobs out there. But no, it's not true. Actually, I dislike at least something about most movies. And I think I've gotten more jaded about them as I've gotten older. Maybe that's inevitable, especially if you work on them. A builder, after a while in a house, will start to notice the things wrong and think, "Wow, this house sucks." He can't help himself -- hopefully because he's a good builder and tries to do as well as he can.

But on the other hand, I have to say that everyone I've ever met in my business who's good at what they do, there's some part of them, no matter how cynical and jaded and biting and they are -- and I like all of those things! -- there's something about them that has retained an ability to watch things like a totally young audience member, the way we all started. My best example is my mother, who was like that. She was a very complicated person and artist, but I remember realizing, God, she actually retains kind of an 8-year-old's wonder about what she does, about people just getting up and expressing themselves. And everyone I've ever worked with who had something, had that. I remember -- dropping names -- Bertolucci had the same thing.

I think you're allowed to drop the name if you've worked with him. If you, like, took a train with him, it might be different.

Yes, I once flew standby with Bertolucci ... You know, but I did watch him. [Laughs] We were stuck in the desert, what else did I have to do? And it amazed me that he had that 8-year-old quality. Like he was in church sometimes, when he was doing what he was doing. And that seems to be a key to staying ... good.

You've said that if you had your choice, you would act for the theater and direct film. Why?

I think those are the ways you use yourself the most in those two mediums. Acting in film is ... no secret, it can be very exotic, exciting, interesting -- and oftentimes incredibly tedious. And you're just a really small part of what you're doing. Not that I need to lord over what I'm doing, although I'm sure anyone who lasts for a while has some sort of control issues.

But in film, it's a lot of sitting around, as an actor, and also a lot of manipulation of your work. By the director, by the editor, by the other actors! And it requires an incredible capacity for trust, which often is -- I don't want to be too harsh, but often is slandered. That's life. I'm not whining about it. I understand what I'm doing now -- way better than 20 years ago -- when I'm in a film, and I proceed accordingly. And there's nothing better than making a film where you do trust everyone, and everyone not only uses your input but makes it better. That's thrilling. But how many films has that really happened on, for me? I can count them on a hand. So, ultimately, it's a time issue. I'm 40. I have a son. I don't want to be five months somewhere, wasting time.

Directing film is much more engaging for your mind. And acting in theater, it seems like home. You go to the same place, the dressing room's kind of cozy hopefully, and you work on the subtleties of the same thing, every night, with a new audience. And that's wonderful, using a different kind of muscle than you usually can in movies.

So "Final" is your film directorial debut as a solo director. What did you learn?

Without being too self-helpy, the first thing you learn is how to stand by yourself. I think all good directors have some kind of co-director, even if it's unofficial; you need a sounding board. Even if you're a tyrant, you need someone who'll help remind you why you're there in the first place. Because you can get lost. But in the end, you are the director, and it's up to you.

To me, real directing is simply choosing the right people to collaborate with and encouraging them. But that's a lot harder than it sounds. The psychology of being a director is something that, when I started, I was totally unprepared for. It's the part I disliked the most, and the hardest part. You're not responsible for everyone's personalities, but you are responsible for the dynamic of the crowd: how they express themselves, how they work. And that can be intense, and exhausting. But then, so what? It's your job; you figure things out.

When I was speaking to a friend about "Final," the only thing that she knew about the film was that Denis Leary was in it, and she said, "Well, he's cool! I'll go to it for that!" Sometimes things succeed for other reasons than the ones we were counting on.

Sure. To be frank, I think "Final" is incredibly flawed. But there's also something raw, and totally not what we normally see, that I love about it. And everybody in the movie, I love what they do, down to the smallest part.

We'll see what people think. For me, it's very difficult to process film criticism, not because it's criticism but because ultimately, it's unhelpful! Since the making of the thing is over. The way I do it is, after the fact -- way after -- I take the stack of criticisms and read them as a whole. Then they can serve you. You're not looking at the opinion of one person but at a whole graph of feeling. And it's fascinating. Usually, the first thing you figure out is that no one agrees about your movie! They might agree in general ways -- that it kind of sucks or doesn't suck, works or doesn't work -- but as to the specifics, it's ultimately personal, as it is with all audience members.

"Final" involves questions of civil liberties, and the abuse of them. Obviously you made the film before our current situation, but what do you make of what's going on now?

I have to be careful about this because I don't want, for a second, to seem like we're using the events of the past three months to make our film appear more interesting. Of course, never. But things are raised in the film that are now even more in relief because of what's happened recently, issues from bioterrorism to just being in a world that you can't trust.

In a general sense, a guy wakes up in a mental institution. He doesn't know how he got there, where he's going, and there's a sense of doom about him. And that's something we can all identify with, certainly now.

And there are other things about living in our current world -- the legal issues of keeping people alive or not, for example -- that are also in the film. These are impossible decisions to confront, let alone make. And yet we're expected to do it.

You seem to have a relationship with "Hamlet." You played it twice on stage, starred in and co-directed a film version of it; and you named your production company [Brief Chron Productions] after a quotation from it.

How did you know that's from "Hamlet"?

I didn't -- I was told.

OK. I have a personal attachment to the play, yeah. And as I was becoming a film director, I always wanted to try one more time to go there. I have a big thing about Shakespeare. I believe in Shakespeare for our country, being done by Americans for American audiences. We don't get enough of an opportunity. But I just love the way it sounds when Americans do it, too, and I think audiences respond to it. You're talking to someone who thought Shakespeare was the most boring thing on earth 15 years ago. That's often what we think when we first learn it or hear it. We don't care; what's the big deal? But I'm a convert.

And specifically with "Hamlet" everyone has had experiences that let them identify with that play: being a young person thrown into a circumstance where they have no comfort, very few friends. Those he has have no power to help him, and he's being forced to become a man. It's just beautiful, and full of the best questions in the world. There's not an answer in that play, not one, but the questions are better than ever. They're ... [Sneezes.] Excuse me, I'm allergic to talking pretentiously about Shakespeare! [Laughs.] But really, the questions are more beautifully put than in almost anything you've ever read. And the questions are the important thing. Who is going to say they know the answers? If you know them, you're probably dead. Knowing answers doesn't seem to be what we're here for.

This next question -- I'll understand if you don't want to answer it.

"How did your parents influence you?"

Not exactly, but close. Sometimes when children are interested in entering their parents' fields, the parents will either encourage or discourage it. How was that in your house?

That's not too bad. I'll give it a shot. It's obviously more complicated than this, because your parents are your parents, but the short answer is, I didn't really ... I did a play or two in high school, but I was a bit of a druggie, to tell you the truth, a bit of a pothead, and I didn't care that much about acting. It seemed exciting, but I certainly didn't -- there was nothing I really showed to indicate that I wanted to get into this business. I went to college to become a teacher. So it wasn't something my parents really had to deal with, since I didn't seem to be headed that way.

I think they thought, certainly, it's a shitty life, and they might have discouraged it if it had been presented when I was younger. They certainly gave the feeling like, "Please, try to find something else to do!" But it was their passion, so how much can you really do that? If you love your children, which they did, how much can you dissuade them? But my dad was gone by the time I was 13 -- my parents were divorced. And, you know, your mother -- ultimately, once you do show what you want to do, she's gonna go, "All right. I'm your mom." And that's what mine did. She played it quite well, I think. She was very hands-off. Once I finally showed that I was going to do it -- or try it -- I think my father was kind of quietly, um, watchful about it, and my mother was encouraging. And they were pros, and I learned that from them: a professional outlook on what we do. That it's a job -- approach it with some dignity, and treat people with respect, and do the best you can. They had that in spades. Personally, we were all over the map, like most families. But professionally, they were right on the money, and I'll always be grateful for that.

Of the different movies you've been in, is there one you're most recognized for? Do people come up to you and say, "You're that guy from ... "?

People rarely know who I am -- and I consider that a real coup. Not like, "I'm a big star, and they just don't recognize me," but because hopefully I'm changing all the time. I like to inhabit roles, grow beards and mustaches and be different. So often what I get from people is, "Didn't I go to high school with you?" They can't quite place me, although they're pretty sure they've seen me somewhere.

You are sort of the king of small moments, in your films -- little expressions or tones of voice that convey a lot and stay with the audience.

Thank you. That's part of what I learned, going from theater to film -- and it took me a while. You should have seen a couple of my first performances, when I was on film but still playing to the back row. But then I began to recognize that to me -- to bring it all full circle -- as an audience member, what I love is those details. So that becomes what you look for. And hopefully you're not repeating yourself too much or doing too much shtick. But those are the things you're really looking for.

By Pam Grossman

Pam Grossman is a poet and freelance writer who lives in New York.

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