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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 19, 2010

Director-actor chemistry a sought-after formula

By Scott Bowles, Anthony Breznican and Donna Freydkin
USA Today

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Clockwise from top-left: Director Quentin Tarantino says actor Samuel Jackson "got my jokes," helping form a trusting relationship. Director Clint Eastwood and actor Matt Damon worked first with "Invictus," and more work could be ahead.

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The right chemistry with an actor, directors say, can be more important than the script.

"If they don't get me," asks director Quentin Tarantino, "how are they going to get the movie I'm trying to make?"

Today's release of "Shutter Island" marks the fourth collaboration between director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonard DiCaprio, a union both men describe as based on trust. Tarantino and other filmmakers have similar bonds with their actors.

Tarantino says he forged his partnership with Samuel Jackson ("Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown") by testing Jackson with his bawdy, often racially tinged humor.

"He got my jokes," Tarantino says. "It seems like a small thing, but if you know you're on the same page with your actor, you're going to trust each other more. You naturally want to go back to them."

And when a director connects with an actor, he'll keep working with him, as Steven Soderbergh can attest. Matt Damon has starred in four of his films and will work with him a fifth time in Soderbergh's forthcoming Liberace biopic.


Damon also has a close working relationship with another director: Clint Eastwood.

"Morgan and I were saying yesterday, 'Maybe if we sit out for the next few years and let Clint get some more experience, he's really going to be a great director,' " jokes Damon, sitting beside co-star Morgan Freeman as they discuss the 79-year-old "Invictus" filmmaker. "We're going to let him get some more films under his belt, though."

"Three more," Freeman says.

"Three more would be solid," Damon agrees.

Joking aside, these two are devoted Eastwoodians. Both earned Oscar nominations for their work in "Invictus," Freeman a lead actor for his role as Nelson Mandela and Damon a supporting contender for playing rugby captain Francois Pienaar. Freeman won his first Oscar for playing the grizzled ex-boxer in Eastwood's 2004 "Million Dollar Baby," which also won best picture, and before that starred alongside him in another best-picture winner, 1992's "Unforgiven." Damon is now starring in Eastwood's "Hereafter."

Eastwood jokes that Freeman is his good-luck charm: "If I was a superstitious guy, I'd be wanting him in every film, since the first two films we did got best-picture awards, but that's not the way I am. I just admire him very much as a performer, not only because of quality, but because he brings it effortlessly. He comes to it extremely well-prepared. And I could say the same thing for young Matt. When he steps up to the plate, he's ready to go."

Freeman says Eastwood disdains needy actors. "You don't really want to go to Clint and say, 'I just would like to talk a little bit about the character?'" Breaking into a whispering, squinty-eyed Eastwood impression, Freeman sneers: " 'Why ... ?' He expects you to know what you're doing. And he's going to take two giant steps back and let you do it."


Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz aren't just Spain's moviemaking dream team. They're also buddies in real life who share what Cruz calls a "secret language."

"We almost can read each other's minds. All these years of friendship and working together have created our very special bond. Our relationship has grown naturally, to more trust and really knowing each other deeply," Cruz says. "I was 17 when I met him. What has not changed is that when I'm on the set, I don't feel more relaxed because he's my friend. It's the opposite. He doesn't relax with me. He doesn't become less demanding because we're friends. I don't relax with him either."


Together, Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman have created some of their most memorable work. Their third collaboration, 2009's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," is up for a best-animated-movie Oscar.

Their first, 1998's "Rushmore," kick-started Schwartzman's acting career. From the start, the writer/director says, he saw something special in Schwartzman.

"I met him because he came to audition for 'Rushmore,' and I had been looking for over a year for someone for that part," Anderson says. "The fact that I instantly chose him and thought he was right for it is an indication of how much I enjoy him as an actor."


Jeremy Renner, the Oscar-nominated actor for "The Hurt Locker," says he hopes to have a Scorsese-DiCaprio type of relationship with "Hurt Locker" director Kathryn Bigelow, who is also up for an Oscar.

Renner says while all the actors bonded with Bigelow during the 16-hour days of filming in 120-degree heat, he felt a friendship eclipsing the work relationship. "I seemed to get into fewer, say, heated discussions with Kathryn than maybe the rest of the actors," he says.

"I think that's chemistry. If you can't work again with that director right away, you at least want to find someone like her."