By Warren Curry
Much like Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard first burst into national prominence thanks to his starring performance in Dead Poets Society. Hawke and Leonard have worked closely ever since: They formed their own theater company in New York, starred in Richard Linklater's grossly underrated 2001 film Tape and re-teamed, although with Hawke serving in a different capacity, for Chelsea Walls.
Leonard's other acting credits include Much Ado About Nothing, The Age of Innocence, The Last Days of Disco and, as you'll read about, last year's Sylvester Stallone vehicle (no pun intended), Driven.
(Note: This interview was conducted as part of a press roundtable, therefore not all of the questions were asked by CinemaSpeak.)
How much of the world of this film have you been a part of?
Very little; Ethan will top me. When I talk to Ethan I feel like a plumber. Ethan has lived his life in the arts in a way, which mirrors the film that I haven't.
What do you hope mainstream audiences learn about this culture?
Well, I don't hope they learn anything. Mainstream culture -- I immediately think of my family without me in it. I don't know who goes to see films or why. It's hard enough for me to go see films and it's part of what I do for a living. I find the film moving and beautiful, and about really interesting people, who do interesting things for interesting reasons. I don't think I'll ever forget that scene with Kris Kristofferson in the elevator with the little girl. I don't know why people go see which films they do, but I think it's a gorgeous film and there are moments in it, most of them which I'm not in, that I'll remember forever. I can't say that about most films I've seen.
Did Nicole Burdette have you in mind when it came time to turn her play into a film?
I think that's true. Ethan, me, Steve Zahn, Frank Whaley and Nicole had a group that produced theater together; we produced about 18 or 19 plays over 4 or 5 years. We had a focus period where we intensely produced things and worked on things, but it was never a theater company -- we never had an office. We just found plays that we liked or that our friends wrote, and we rented a 99-seat theater for 3 months, rehearsed it and put it on.
What was it like working with Ethan as a director?
It was great. It was like working on a play for me, which is very familiar and helpful. Ethan and I did a film called Tape, which was directed by Rick Linklater and, originally, we were going to shoot it all in one take. We rehearsed it that way, so by the time we were on the set, we were ready. Then we realized, when we were rehearsing it with the camera and figuring out how to do this, that we were already compromising. Already we'd gotten to a place where... it's like when someone's pitching a perfect game and then blows it in the seventh inning. Once the innings start building up, it becomes less about the game and more about the pitcher. God, that was a boring analogy! But, I realized that we'd now gotten to a place where people were going to think about how we're shooting this instead of what we're shooting; "what" is very much more important than "how." That's the way my favorite director's direct, and that's certainly the way Ethan directs.
Why do you think a lot plays don't translate well to film?
I was watching Sunset Boulevard the other night, and there was a time when that's what film was: It was filmed theater or filmed vaudeville. Then film started to take on its own persona and had it's own reasons for being, as something other than theater or vaudeville. I think now if a play really works well on stage, whether it will work on film is a complete crapshoot. Now, what makes a film work -- 50% of that is what moves an audience. I don't think it really matters; you can take a great play and blow it or you can take a great play and make an incredible movie.
The Chelsea Hotel has housed quite a few masters of art, from Jimi Hendrix to Dylan Thomas. When you were shooting there did you feel anything special?
It's a remarkable hotel. New York has a lot of history, but it's such a multi-industrial town and a multi-cultural town. I think the pinnacle of my career was winning a Tony Award, which I did this year, and within 15 minutes I was walking my dogs on my street and it was over; even I felt it was over. It was gone. I was the man for a minute, in a best supporting way, but then you walk outside and you're like, "Oh, no one gives a shit about this," and it's great. Chelsea is a very special place, because it's extremely artistic. It's artistic in a way that there are writers and singers and dancers and painters all in one place. Somehow, to me, that feels more common out here (L.A.). The boundaries between artists I think are a bit more liquid out here than they are in New York. I don't know any other place in New York like Chelsea, where it's just all artistic. That's rare in New York.