Martin Landau has had an extraordinary career that spans more than 50 years in show business. A student from the Actor’s Studio—his classmates included James Dean and Steve McQueen—Landau still teaches at the West Coast Actor’s Studio, where he is the artistic director.
Perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood,” his career highlights included such roles as a gay villain in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” back in 1959 and as the morally conflicted Judah Rosenthal in Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
In the new film “Remember,” directed by Atom Egoyan, Landau plays Max Rosenbaum, a Holocaust survivor who lives in a nursing home with Zev Gutman (Christopher Plummer). Because Max is wheelchair-bound, he gives Zev — who has dementia — a letter with instructions to complete a mission to track down Rudy Kurlander, the Nazi officer who killed both of their families in Auschwitz.
With Max as the mind and Zev as the body, Zev travels across North America to find Kurlander. “Remember” spins an intriguing drama that raises questions about guilt and forgiveness, history and revenge.
The actor spoke with Salon about “Remember” and his memories of making movies.
In “Remember,” you play a kind of puppet master who manipulates things from behind the scenes. Max is in a wheelchair, and carries an oxygen tank but masterminds a devious revenge. How did you connect with the character?
One of the things I wanted to do was get the wheelchair down to the point where I looked as if I lived in it for a while. It becomes part of my characterization. Living in that room, where the telephone is important when Plummer’s Zev is out on the road, or doesn’t call me, there are little details ... I run the Actor’s Studio on the West Coast, and one of the things I say all the time to the people I teach — many of whom are acting teachers — is that an actor needs to make choices that make him present. Half the things I choose to do are not seen by the audience, but for me, to make me more comfortable. Most of the performances are like a locomotive — a character going on a track. In reality, people are in doubt. So what an actor does has to fill that space, and fill in that blank created by the writer. That’s what I care about. I like this film because in 10 years, Holocaust movies are going to be period pieces. This was an opportunity to do one.
On that last point, why do you think people keep making Holocaust movies?
I played Simon Wiesenthal in “Max and Helen” and I asked [Wiesenthal], “If you hadn’t done what you did, would anyone else have?” He said, “That’s why I did it. Everyone else wants to forget.” As a Jew, there’s a need to keep that atrocity alive. There were Catholics and gypsies and homosexuals who died in the Holocaust too. It’s amazing that people allowed this slaughter to take place. There’s a need to make these films, and reiterate it happened. There are groups that have denied it, including Mel Gibson’s father. “Remember” is to say this did happen and it's something that needs to be spoken about and not swept under the carpet.
When I read the script for “Remember,” it resonated. I hadn’t worked with Atom [Egoyan] in 28 years. Balance in this picture is very important and I gave Atom different versions of every scene I did. Every one was true and honest, yet had different textures, so in editing he could modulate what I did to balance out other things.
Your character, Max, seeks revenge in “Remember.” You also excel at playing villains, as in “North by Northwest” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Do you like playing sinister characters?
I don’t think villains think they are villains. When I first started in Hollywood after training for the theater, I played Hispanics, and Native Americans—things I would never be cast in today if I were a young actor. But those castings helped me—I tried to humanize those characters. In “North by Northwest,” my character, Leonard, was written as a heavy. But I played him as a homosexual, which gave him a reason for wanting to get rid of Eva Marie Saint’s character. Everyone told me not to, and people thought it would give people the wrong impression of me; that it would hurt me as an actor. But Ernest Lehman [the film’s screenwriter] added a line which was, “Call it my women’s intuition, if you will.” I say it in the scene where I teach Mason the gun was filled with blanks. I always tried to play the bad guys as guys who didn’t know they were bad guys. There are villains we run into all the time, but they don’t think they are doing anything wrong. If they do, they think they are cunning and smart. When people break laws and ethical rules, they justify it in their own terms. I never thought of my characters — particularly in episodic TV — as bad guys. Any choice an actor makes affects the performance: Who is this person, where is he from, what does he sound like? In most writing today, everyone sounds the same. But people come from different places, went to different schools, attend different churches, etc. Did this character go to school on a Sunday happily? Did his parents insist he go? Did he go to college at Yale or Northwestern or UCLA? Did he not finish high school? You have to bring a lot of stuff to a character. The more you convince yourself, the better you feel sitting on set.
Max and Zev are seeking revenge for something decades in their past. Are you someone who likes to hold grudges?
I don’t live out my grudges. I started out as a newspaper artist, and there are lots of grudges I could be holding. Anger takes an awful lot of energy, and it has no real value. I don’t think feelings have names. We give feelings names—when a script read “angrily, violently, jealously, humorously” that’s to let you know about a scene. Feelings are feelings. A well-trained actor lets feelings flow through them if they allow them to. If you hold onto a feeling, it can short-circuit you. Living in the present allows feelings to flow through you. You enjoy yourself more than people harboring all kinds of resentments.
I had to find stuff to allow those feelings of revenge to enter my feeling as Max. Chris [Plummer] is the physical being that I can’t be. I’m the mind he doesn’t have. He’s radically affected by dementia, and has good days and bad days. He has lapses and functions well. I have to say wonderful things about Chris. He came in to do some off-camera voice on the telephone so I wouldn’t have to do it with a script clerk. That’s a mensch.
There is a sense of reinvention in “Remember,” with characters shifting identities and even reality. What are your thoughts on this topic, especially as someone whose career has renewed itself probably every decade.
I think that if you stagnate, reinvention is part of being human. We’re the only mammals who can say, “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” Other mammals work on instinct and impulses. If we should and don’t—uh-oh. Or shouldn’t and do--uh-oh.
Let’s talk memories. What do you remember about James Dean and Steve McQueen?
They were friends of mine. Half the people I grew up with and did theater with are gone. The other half don’t recall breakfast. I’m fortunate to have long- and short-term memory and still able to work at this age. I’ll quote Adolph Zukor who said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” I have a sense of humor about this. Jimmy was 24 when he died; Steve was 50. Those were guys I started with. I have memories of everyone I came up and along with. I’m writing my memoirs. I have enough for three books. I have anecdotes about everything. I have massive memories of both of them, because I knew them both and worked with them. Jimmy was my closest friend for a couple of years. I was a little older. Those years were crammed full of wonderful moments and lots of life. I had great memories of Walter Matthau. There’s all kinds of stuff I could dredge up.
He became a good friend of mine. He was depressed that he couldn’t have the stamina or the energy to do all the movies he wanted to do. He talked about his wife, Alma, who was ill at the time, but she survived him. He was a provocateur, and we got along as well as we did because we came from two different worlds—I was from the theater, and he was London and from film. We got along because he trusted me—like playing Leonard as a gay character. Peggy, Hitchcock’s secretary, said he really liked me a lot. He was very nice to me and I treated him with a lot of respect. He loved to startle people with his sense of humor.
It was a lot of fun.
Woody doesn’t direct at all. If he doesn’t like what you are doing, he’ll fire you. With “Purple Rose,” Jeff Daniels was the fourth actor to play that role. I haven’t been directed by anyone in 35 to 40 years. If they don’t like it they’ll tell me. I hit the marks. If a good actor comes in with stuff that fits, he’ll work. A director can’t teach acting. Casting is an enormous part of directing. If the actor can play the big scene, they can play the part. Woody doesn’t direct at all. He says he doesn’t know how. He hires you and hopes you can do it.
Tim [Burton] and I get along very well. I understand Tim. If you were watching us, we’d finish each other’s sentences. When I rehearse a scene for Tim, our conversation working is monosyllabic. I’ll rehearse with a fellow actor, like Johnny Depp, and Tim will come up and he’ll say, “You know …” and I’ll say, “Yeah,” and then I’ll insert something, and Tim will say, “Exactly!” And then we shoot. It’s like we don’t talk to each other. Or we do, but it’s not a sentence. We know what we want. We don’t have to talk about it. When we’re not working, we’re very verbose.
I was the token white. After that film, Halle [Berry] asked me to do a narration of a bio on her. I love Halle. She’s a great girl. Everyone was black on “B.A.P.S” except me and one other actor. It was a reverse of how things were in the 1950s, where no one black was on the set.
Max and Zev want to leave a legacy. What do you want your legacy to be?
My philosophy at the Actors’ Studio is: If I didn’t do what I was telling them to do, they wouldn’t show up. I’d like people to realize I’ve never repeated a character, because I’ve never met two people who were alike. Everyone is distinctive and unique. I approach a role that way. My job was to become the best actor I could — and live many lives, not just my own, pretty fully — and I’m still learning how to do it.
What’s next for you?
I just finished a film with Paul Sorvino where I play a doc named Howard Weiner. Is it pronounced “weener” or “whiner”? Either way you can’t win. Three years ago he made a documentary called “What Is Life?” where he interviews all kinds of people for an hour and a half. And at the end, no one knows. He’s a scientist, and he needs proof. But no one has proof. People have faith. I just ask myself when I finish a crossword puzzle, why did I learn all this shit?