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Josh Lucas and David Strathairn Lend Their Voices To Trumbo

Josh Lucas and David Strathairn at the New York press day for "Trumbo."

Josh Lucas and David Strathairn at the New York press day for “Trumbo.”

Josh Lucas and David Strathairn Lend Their Voices To Trumbo

by Brad Balfour

Originally posted on July 1, 2008.

Though not quite the stars of Trumbo, actors Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) and David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck), join with Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Danny Glover, Nathan Lane and Liam Neeson to lend a theatrical voice to this cinematic testament about the late screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Based on a theatrical version that had been staged in New York and Los Angeles several years ago (created by Trumbo’s son, Christopher), this film uses the letters Trumbo wrote to friends and foes alike, plus mixes in documentary footage, historical archives and theatrical readings to make this award-worthy release.

In the first flush of anti-communist Congressional investigations (they were witch-hunts really) led by Senator Joe McCarthy, Trumbo was arguably the most famous of the “Unfriendly Ten” screenwriters who were blacklisted in 1947. Until the early ’60s, when Trumbo’s name finally reappeared on the films Spartacus and Exodus, he wrote under a pseudonym for a very few producers who were willing to help him.

Now through director Peter Askin’s documentary, the dramatized readings from Chris Trumbo’s epistolary drama been couple with newsreels, interviews, and the few film clips of Trumbo that exist to fill the historical gaps missing from the play. Not only does this documentary show how defiant Trumbo was, but how his insistent visibility eventually helped break the Blacklist. More importantly, it illustrates how easily the process to erode civil rights rolls forward once things start down that slippery slope – as is happening today.

Since Trumbo was such a prominent figure in Hollywood over a half-century ago, it was important to discuss him and his legacy with Hollywood stars Lucas and Strathairn – not just because they portrayed him through these readings – but because both, in their own unique way, have been so affected by his legacy. Both veteran actors discussed their experience and his impact recently in New York City.

Each of you brings something new to the Dalton Trumbo letters you read. How did you get into Trumbo’s head?

David Strathairn: Well, it’s a steep slope to get into his head actually, but I’ve done a bunch of readings of short stories and play readings, and that’s kind of the format. I tried to find some music to it so it’s listenable, and then what you are saying starts to couple-up with that. When poets or writers read their stuff, it’s not performative and therefore, maybe not as engaging. So the challenge was how you give his aesthetic, plus present it in as clear a form.

Josh Lucas: I had a great experience last year, when I did [the play] “Spalding Gray: Stories Left Untold,” which was, in a sense, the same format as this where you have actors performing as a character in a way. They structured that play with five actors playing five different essences of Spalding, and that created the whole Spalding, because Spalding himself was so complex, and I think there’s something quite similar here in that you have a character who has awesome literary intelligence and intellect, but also anger, rage, and incredible humor. The reason why the film works in this format is because watching Nathan Lane do that piece on masturbation is amazing. And for me, it was about saying how do you relate this particular story in your life – who you are, and where you are – to what this man might have been going through, and this was the process that was fun for me. Particularly because my piece was somewhat romantic, and has quite a bit of pathos underneath it because he’s in prison as he’s reading it.

Did you choose the particular letters of Trumbo’s that you read or were they assigned to you?

David Strathairn: They were assigned. Peter [Askin, the director] or whoever ], decided that these were the ones that were assigned. I don’t remember him saying why…

The actors reading the letters seem to embody, to take a word from Josh, the “essence” of Trumbo, brilliantly conveying different aspects of his persona. What sort of research did you do to get yourselves into character? 

Josh Lucas:  I think one of the things the film had to deal with in its construction was that there wasn’t a lot of footage on Trumbo, and much of it is used in the film, and I think that’s why actors were necessary to tell the story – to hear the letters, hear the writing and the incredibly razor-sharp nuances of how the letters are constructed like poetry. So what we had to work with, for me at least, was not dissimilar to what you see in the film. But mostly what Peter [the director] wanted to do for us was to get our take on it, and not necessarily by any means try to be like Trumbo or sound like Trumbo, or move like Trumbo. Which is why its effective, moving from these personalities like Donald Sutherland moving into another actor like Michael Douglas, and the way that each person’s essence is so different.

David Strathairn: It was a great design. If you had done Trumbo the way that they had done a traditional biopic – to have one personality try to inhabit him – that’s an impediment to the material, because then everybody’s going to be focused in on how this particular person is inhabiting or presenting him. In this way, you get a lot of different voices, and the variations – or the collage of people – is entertaining, and refreshing moment-to-moment, but it also in a way displays the universality of what he says. It’s a lot of people dancing on the same floor, and you can see how substantial that floor is.

Click here to read the rest of the interview!

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