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Paul Newman on "The Road to Perdition"

Many of the eulogies for the late great Paul Newman have focused on the saintliness of the man, an aura of goodness that emanates from him both on and off the screen. “Someone Up There Likes Me,” indeed. Truth be told, he always had a knack for playing an asshole, whether an outlaw or a rogue or an outcast or a downright villain, that twinkle in his beautiful blue eyes could just as easily evince malice, irony, corruption or anarchy as benevolence and beatitude. “The Left-handed Gun” (1958), “The Hustler” (1961), “Hud” (1963), “Hombre” (1967), “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), “The Sting” (1973), “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)... I think most fans would prefer these over, say, “The Silver Chalice” (1954).

Overlooked also has been his last on screen film role, “The Road to Perdition” (2002), Sam Mendes’s adaptation of the Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner’s graphic novel about a Depression era Chicago hit man, played by Tom Hanks, on the lam from the mob. Newman plays the ruthless but avuncular mob boss, who is also serves as Hanks’s ambiguous father figure. Newman got his tenth, and last, Oscar nomination for the role, for Best Supporting Actor.

 Coincidentally, it was also the last film shot by Conrad Hall, who died in 2003. Hall won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, his third, the other two being for Mendes’s “American Beauty” (1999) and “Butch Cassidy” (1969).

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the movie are Newman’s performance and Hall’s stunning images. Hanks is pretty good, too.

I was fortunate to have attended a press conference with Newman in Chicago when he was promoting the film. As might be evident, he is ironic, mischievous, anarchic, with a definite aura of saintliness.

PN: [Looking incredulously at the tape recorders assembled before him] It looks like somebody’s ready to declare a war. [laughter]. My God.

Q: is this project your swan song?

PN: No, it’s probably closer to a vulture than a swan song. I keep trying to retire from everything and discover that I retire from absolutely nothing. I was gonna get out of the racing business, and I’m back in the racing business and I was gonna let someone else handle this spaghetti sauce and I’m back with the spaghetti sauce…I just finished the first play that I’ve done in 35 years [he played the narrator in a Broadway production of “Our Town”], which is like sticking a rifle in your mouth. So, um, I don’t seem to be able to retire. Maybe if you get me a different swan.

Q: anything else you’d like to do?

PN: I’d love to do another film with Joanne [Woodward, his wife of 50 years], and we’re looking at something down the pike [presumably the HBO TV-movie “Empire Falls” (2005)]. I can’t really discuss it right now, but there’s still a little vinegar left in the old dog yet.

Q: [Something to the effect of... “Tom Hanks, blah blah blah?”]

PN: Strangely enough you know, Tom and I, the majority of the work that we did was not with each other. The trouble with these interviews is that you get asked the same question, and by the end of the day you feel like a real moron because you have such a limited perspective of things. So the question that was just asked me, I feel like I’m repeating myself, so should I try to say something different about Tom, so I don’t sound repetitious, or should I just give the same answer? He has the quality of not dodging things, which is as true off-screen as onscreen. and there’s no fancy footwork, there’s no approaching things sideways and what you’re lookin’ at is what you get. And that’s refreshing.

Q: Do you approach a role differently to hide Paul Newman the icon?

PN: No, you say I’m an icon. My grandchild is not thinking I’m an icon. He’s three years old and he came to the door the other day and said, “I am OBSESSED by ‘The Yellow Submarine’!”  What will he say when he’s six? So  the [Newman's Own] spaghetti sauce is good to think about. Morning, noon and night. Think about spaghetti sauce. Think about hustling other people to buy the spaghetti sauce.

Anyway, I don’t think about any of that [icon] stuff. What you’re able to achieve on the screen has nothing to do with you. the only thing sometimes I think is you pick up certain mannerisms from characters you play and they become part of the way you present yourself. the only two things that ever stuck to me were, unfortunately, from Rocky Graziano [the boxer he played in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956)]. I never used to spit in the street. I was with Rocky for about 9 weeks before the picture began filming, and I spit in the street. It sickens my wife. And I never used to swear. I never used any kind of foul language. Now it’s not worth being in the same room as me. It’s funny, of all the attributes that could have stuck to me that those were the two that stuck the strongest and the longest. But, I really don’t take much of it seriously, I really don’t.

Q: Nice work with the piano. Is that you playing?

PN: the piano is great fun and we worked very hard at it actually, cause it's not really about playing the piano, it's about doing something together.

Q: What will the audience get out of performance?

PN: I don’t know. I just hope it will have the ring of truth about it somehow.

Q: How do you prepare for the role?

PN: I insist on two weeks of rehearsal, which I give for nothing. And that has happened in almost every picture I have done since 1954.

Q: why do you insist on it?

PN: You discover a lot of things on your feet, and if you don’t have any rehearsal that anything that happens on screen is by accident.

Q: How did the loss of your son [Newman’s son Scott died of a drug overdose in 1978] impact your performance [his character in the film has a troubled performance with his real son (played by Daniel Craig] and his surrogate son played by Hanks]?

PN: well that was a very long time ago…I don’t think at all. But it obviously has impacted me in other ways. In outside work that I do.

Q: I have you noted any changes in your acting acting style over the years?

PN: well, I certainly wasn’t on the cutting edge of Stanislavsky or the Actors Studio. I came in late, I had a fairly long and detailed formal education in the theater at Yale. Almost everything that I learned about being an actor came from those early years in the Actors Studio.  There’s not a performance that I can look at comfortably until after, oh , the late 70s, without any sense of satisfaction. The other interesting thing is that the Actors Studio has bled overseas to England and I suspect they do it better now than we do. I also suspect they have a very formal training in classics, which our actors don’t have.

Q: What’s it like playing in a gangster movie?

PN: The film unlike other gangster films, is not really about explosions, it was about family. But not even in the sense of Mafia family, but it was really about family and vengeance and I can understand that, and not only understand it, in some cases admire it. That they happened to occur within the confines of the Irish mafia is what’s different. I just found everything that happened in that film compelling and promising and it gave me chance to deviate from the kind of stuff I usually do.

Q: Did you continue to fulfill your reputation as a practical joker?

PN: Uh, that’s part of my life that thank God, no longer exists. Actually, Bob Redford and I had a series of confrontations. He was there first with something, and after he pulled it I said, ‘you made a big mistake Bob, for two reasons. One, because I’m richer than you are, and two, because I have more time that you have.’ I pulled one on George Roy Hill and it frightened him and we had a terrible confrontation and he said, ‘behind every practical joke there is an element of malice’ and that pulled me up short. So, I’m trying to regulate to like one or two a year.

Q: To what do you attribute the longevity of your marriage?

PN: I don’t know what she puts in my food.

Q: What’s your favorite flavor among the [Newman’s Own] salad dressings?

PN: Italian family dressing.

Q: You don’t consider yourself an icon, but who are the icons and legends for you?

PN: Brando, Olivier, there’s really too many...I really should not have mentioned them because by forgetting somebody you’re beating them out of a category in which they belong. I’d have to go through all my books, and it would take me five days to figure it out really. And I’m not being sloppy about it, there are just too many people that I admire. Joanne’s in there somewhere too — I would’ve been killed if I didn’t say that.

Q: As a celebrity is it part of your responsibility to help people?

PN: This is not a celebrity issue. This is a political issue, and the concept that a person who has a lot holds his hand out to someone who has less, or someone who isn’t hurting holds his hand out to someone who is, is simply a human trait that has nothing to do with celebrity.  I am confounded at the stinginess of some institutions and some people. Bewildered by it. You can only put away so much stuff in your closet. In 1987, what the average CEO earned against someone who is working in his factory was 70 times. It’s now 410 times. If you eliminate the middle class, which we are slowly doing, incidentally, Aristotle said the greatest government is the government that has the least amount of people on each end. I don’t think there’s anything exceptional or noble in being a philanthropist. It’s the other attitude that confuses me.

Q: What made you go back to stage work?

PN: Joanne is the artistic director of Westport country playhouse.  She was putting on “The Trojan Wars.” No,  “The Trojan Women”…thank you! He got it late, but he got it!

Q: What did your father do and what was your relationship with him like?

PN: My father was a partner in the sporting business store. probably the best sporting goods store west of the Appalachians. he was the oldest seller of radio in the us. during the depression, 85% of the sporting good businesses went out of business. In the middle of the Depression, he came to Chicago incidentally, and got $100,000 worth of goods from Spaulding, and $100,000 worth of goods from Wilson on consignment. The reason he got $200,000 worth of goods was because both of those companies knew that if he sold a baseball glove for $4.25 that there would be a check in the mail for $2.18, which they were entitled to. I learned a lot from that. He survived because his reputation was impeccable.

Q: what do you love most about your career as an actor? and dislike?

PN: I’m in one of those positions where I have too many on both ends of the spectrum...I don’t know. I suppose the best actors are children. So, to that extent that you can maintain that childlike part of your personality is probably the best part. The worst part? This. (laughs)

Q: What’s it like being here in Chicago?

PN: We shot “Color of Money” here, and Joanne shot a wonderful 16 mm film here. I’ll never forget, we were shooting “Color of Money,” and we were staying in a hotel and the Chicago bears had just won the Superbowl and I had to get up at 5 in the morning, and the cars were streaming down the streets with their horns blaring and I couldn’t sleep and I looked out the window, and 15 floors beneath me the streets were still slippery from the snowfall, and there, splayed out on the hood of a car, up against the windshield was this football enthusiast, and the car was going about 50 miles an hour, and I’ve always wondered whether that guy survived. Listen, 25 years ago, if you’d asked me what the 5 greatest cities in the us were, I probably would’ve said New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, and now I’d say Seattle, Chicago, Boston, and New York. So, Chicago’s a wonderful city to be in and it’s a great time for the people who live here. Its vibrant, its got art and culture, a couple really feisty left wing newspapers.

Q: What does it take to get you to do a movie since you’re so picky about roles?

PN: I haven’t the slightest idea. and it changes from year to year too.

Q: Why this movie?

PN: Well, I thought it was a pretty showy piece of work. and I also knew that the movie was going to be wonderful . I haven’t seen it, but I would bet my bottom dollar that the movie itself is wonderful.




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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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