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