If you listen closely to the tape of NEWSWEEK’S fifth annual round table, the first thing you hear is one participant kissing another participant on the cheek. Yes, that’s right: we invited actors this time. On the Saturday before the Golden Globes, we sat around the table with folks who had given some of the year’s most riveting performances: Will Smith, Tom Wilkinson, Nicole Kidman, Naomi Watts, Billy Bob Thornton and Sissy Spacek.. Except for the kissing, it was an entirely unpredictable session. Spacek and Wilkinson starred in “In the Bedroom” together, and Kidman and Watts have been buddies since they were teens in Australia. Still, some of the people at the table had never met. What followed was a surprisingly candid discussion punctuated by outbursts of laughter. Towards the end, Thornton announced, “I don’t know many actors. I kind of hang out with musicians, mainly. When I came here, I thought, “Are we gonna sound pretentious? What are we gonna say to each other?” They found plenty. The second the tape recorder was off, Smith took Thornton aside and pitched a comedy he thought the two of them should do. Which is great. As long as we get 10 percent.
Excerpts from the discussion:
We’re going to start with a question that will probably backfire. Could we go around the table and have everybody name their favorite movie of the year?
BILLY BOB THORNTON: Wow, that’s tough.
SISSY SPACEK: I think I need some water.
Everybody here is an adult. Nobody cares if their movie isn't mentioned.
NAOMI WATTS [laughs]: Ooh, that's very sensitive of you!
OK, question withdrawn. Let's move on.
THORNTON: What's interesting about the people that are here is that ... When I saw "In the Bedroom" and "Mulholland Drive," I sort of thought, "That's what I do." You guys were great, and I knew it instantly. I thought, "Wow, they did some good s--t this year." But when I watched "Moulin Rouge" and "Ali" I was thinking, "I could never do that.” Will, you're playing this, like, larger-than-life figure, and Nicole, you're in a big extravaganza and everything. Those things amaze me. I'm sort of an actor because I've just been a hobo my whole life. Do you know what I mean? People say, "What's your process?" I don't know. I just grew up and it was really weird and sometimes it was horrible and there was poverty and strangeness and near-death experiences. What I'm saying is, I just lived an eclectic life. They turn the camera on and it's like, "Here I am!"
Will, your dad was in the Air Force. That must have been good training for working with directors.
WILL SMITH: Right. When I was growing up, we had to put hospital corners on the bed and be able to bounce a quarter off of it and all of that. And this is really a director's medium. My father always used to say, "I'm in charge. If two people are in charge, everybody dies. You move when I say move." He became an electrician, so we were always in very dangerous places -on roofs and up on ladders and all that. So that really prepared me as an actor. I know how to support a general.
When you're young and you first start going on auditions, you have to suppress a lot of what makes you who you are -your accent, your background. Sissy, what made you right for "Badlands" must have made you wrong for a lot of other things.
NICOLE Kidman: "Badlands." [Bowing to Spacek] We hail you!
SPACEK: When I first moved to New York, people said to me, "Get back on the plane. You don't have a chance.” They told me to get rid of the accent, and at that point it was impossible. But because of "Badlands" I realized early on that for me it was all about being in the right project until I could learn to do other accents.
THORNTON: Sissy and I obviously had a very similar thing. And I gotta say, that's one of the bizarre things about becoming a successful actor. Suddenly all that stuff doesn't matter any longer. They will let, like, Jack Nicholson play a king. Well, Jack Nicholson is not a king-he's like a guy that you're afraid might do something to your children. When I was coming up ... I'm a bad auditioner. Horrible. If I was playing a bad guy in an audition, I would go in with this casting director who expected me to scream and scare them and spit all over them, and I would just sit there and kind of read the thing off the paper: "I... am going... to.... kill.., you."
KIDMAN: And the other thing is that once I get a role, I get convinced that I can't do it, and the director has to convince me that I can. It's a very strange psychological process. I mean, with "The Others," I begged to get out of the movie because I just didn't want to play a woman who did those sorts of things to her children. I had read the script and reacted to it as a great piece of writing, but then I arrived in Madrid and went, "Oh, no way! I'm out of here!" I begged them. I literally came up with a list of other actresses. I was convinced Julianne Moore would be fantastic in it, and I knew she was in Italy on "Hannibal,” so she was close.
SMITH: You really planned it out.
KIDMAN: But they wouldn't let me go. And the process of that week-not sleeping, having nightmares, having an absolute almost breakdown-that was kind of my preparation. By the time Monday came, I was this distraught woman.
How do you make a scary movie with little kids and not scare the hell out of them?
KIDMAN: Those kids had Game Boys, and they were not scared at all. They were so uninterested in being in that movie-they wanted to be in "Harry Potter.”
Even once actors start landing roles, they tend to be nervous. Some are constantly paranoid that they'll never work again.
TOM WILKINSON: I was out of work for two years. I'd just done a big successful TV show in England and a tumultuously successful run in the West End of London in "Ghosts" with Vanessa Redgrave. Well, I went on holiday to Bali and I thought, "There will be a stack of scripts two yards high when I get back.” Nothing. Nothing. For two years. The best offer I got was, "Do you want to play Malcolm in 'Macbeth' in Bristol?" F--kin' hell! Suddenly your world is gone, and you just think, "I thought I was good. I thought I had a future in this game.” And you start questioning yourself in the most extraordinary way. A lot of actors don't survive it.
WATTS: I've been working for 12 years, and I've always worked -but on things that I wished I wasn't in. And there's been huge gaps in between. Nic and I have known each other for years and years now, and she always used to say, "One thing, Naomi. One thing can change everything."
KIDMAN: "It'll turn on a dime.”
WATTS: I had six auditions where there was bad feedback, and my agent at the time sat me down and said, "Listen, Naomi, something's going on. You're a good actress, but all these casting directors who once loved you are saying, 'She's too intense. She wants it too badly. Is she afraid she's getting older?"' It was really insulting and horrendous-to the point where I just went, "OK, I can't do this anymore." Then "Mulholland Drive" gets into Cannes, and since then my head is spinning and its like this whole other world where I'm getting offered movies without auditioning. It's so bizarre. And now I'm sitting here with my friend who used to say, "Hang in there. One thing.”
KIDMAN: We've been friends since we were 14. It's so weird sitting here now at the table with you. Unbelievable. Unbelievable.
Will, a lot of black actors have talked about fighting to get cast in what studios thought of as "white" roles.
SMITH: Whoopi Goldberg talks about it a lot -about how you have to actually go in and try to convince people to make white characters black. You have to really force the issue and try to make the producers completely change their vision. I mean, with "Independence Day" the producer, Dean Devlin, loved me. And the director, Roland Emmerich, kind of liked me. But the studio was saying, "Black actors don't translate internationally.”
How does a studio say that-do they put it in writing?
SMITH: The head of the studio doesn't say it, you know. But business affairs or casting will say, "Listen, the truth of the matter is .. "
THORNTON: Each studio has a racist hired to do it. [Laughter]
SMITH: Just recently I signed on to do "Runaway Jury," and Grisham actually said no to me. I didn't even dive into it. I said, "You know what? Just let it go. Just don't even worry about it."
Couldn't Grisham say that he just didn't want Will Smith?
SMITH [laughs]: Well, it was a little more clear than that. It was slightly, slightly more clear than that.
THORNTON: They asked me if I'd like a role in that motion picture. Do you know what I said? When my agents called, I said, "How many times do I have to tell you guys: if any actor is attached already, the good part's gone.”
WATTS: What's ideal is to be in a position where you can be in movies that you want to see-movies that really interest you. I don't really go and see sci-fi movies. I don't really go and see big, blockbustery action movies.
SMITH: That's all I do!
THORNTON: Naomi, meet Will Smith. Will, this is Naomi. [Laughter]
WATTS: I've never seen you in anything! I'm kidding, I'm kidding.
It seems like the best roles these days are in independent movies.
KIDMAN: Not necessarily. I mean, "Moulin Rouge" is a studio movie. We said, "OK, we want to make a musical, and we're going to sing Elton John songs, and it sounds really bad but it might work." And the studio was terrified. Absolutely terrified. But when they saw the finished film, they said, "We're going to support it.” In terms of America, it's not been a massive financial success, but around the world it did really well. And the studio stayed behind it.
THORNTON: The thing is, a pure vision is the single most important thing in making anything. And when you make a big commercial movie, that vision becomes clouded because there's so many people involved. So in an independent film, you've got some guy like Jim Jarmusch who says, "Here's what we're going to do," and you go do it. And nobody gives a damn because the movie cost $1,000,029 to make.
SPACEK: One of the things that I see, though, is that if a film has a huge budget, the studios put a lot of money into advertising it to save their investment. But if it's a wonderful little film that didn't cost much, then usually-not always, but usually-they don't put the same machine behind it. They just throw it out there.
THORNTON: How about this? Let's say that today we all went over to Sherry Lansing at Paramount and said that… Who's a big director?
THORNTON: Yeah, Soderbergh. Soderbergh is going to direct all six of us in a movie, and we're going to do it for $3 million. So we go to them and we say, "Look, Steve's a great director. He's a good guy. You're not gonna have any problems. None of us are on dope-anymore." [Laughter] We say, "We've all had our physicals. OK, OK, we'll even shoot in Montreal.”
KIDMAN: And pretend it's New York.
THORNTON: "Let us do it exactly the way we want to do it. It's only gonna cost you $3 million, but it's gonna cost you $132 million to market it-exactly the same amount of money it cost you to do 'Jurassic Park,' or whatever. So how about it? Right now you like us a lot because we're on that damn [Golden Globes] show tomorrow night, you know? We're in the news and s--t. I drank some blood last week, or whatever the hell I'm supposed to be doing. So you got all the stuff you need for your marketing machine."
SPACEK: What would they say?
THORNTON: They would absolutely say no.
SPACEK: They will only [spend that much on marketing] if it's a big-budget film and they're protecting their jobs.
THORNTON: You know what they'd probably say? This group of people at this table, as much as we're in the news or whatever, we are still not the five movie stars that they' re positive about. Will, even though you're in big movies, you're still black.
SMITH: That's right.
THORNTON: Nicole, you're a very famous movie actress, yeah, but you know what? You're not Julia Roberts. She's the top one.
KIDMAN: Yeah, that's true.
WILKINSON: I'm English.
THORNTON: You're English, that's right. I'm a hillbilly, Sissy's a hillbilly.
WATTS: What am I? I'm f--ked.
THORNTON: You're brand new. Even though you've been here forever, you're brand new.
KIDMAN: Hey, I would still want to see a movie with us in it. Let's work on it.
THORNTON: They would say, "OK, we'll do it with the six of you and Steve Soderbergh-we can get Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, too.”
The scariest thing about studios sometimes is that their marketing campaigns actually work. There are movies the audience doesn't really like that are huge hits.
SMITH: My biggest emotional defeat and the greatest emotional pain I've had as an actor was when "Wild Wild West" opened up to $52 million. The movie wasn't good. And it hurt so bad to be the No. 1 movie to open at $52 million-and to know the movie wasn't good.
SPACEK: Is that like when Elvis was performing and the crowds were still freaking out and screaming no matter what he sounded like?
SMITH: It felt like I cheated my audience.
WILKINSON: Sissy, do you remember that fax we got from Miramax about how to conduct ourselves when talking to the press about "In the Bedroom"?
SPACEK [laughs]: And you're going to talk about it now?
SMITH: Top-secret memo!
WILKINSON: There were about 10 things. You're not allowed to refer to how much the movie cost to make. You're not allowed to call it "The Little Train That Could.” Not that one would. But I read these things and I thought, "Well, for heaven's sake, why not? Who cares?" Are we going to pretend that this movie cost $25 million to make when it cost $1.3 million or whatever?
SMITH: I move to strike! I move to strike that from the record!
SPACEK: You know, the irony to me is that, having sat around the table for 30 years, the conversations about the movie business never change. It's the same conversations for the last 30 years and there are no real answers.
Sissy, people always write about those years in the '80s when you stopped making films.
SPACEK: Oh, you mean when I "retired"? Yeah, I read that. I don't know how the rumor started that I had retired. I just had children, and you know how children are -you've got to take care of them. And quite frankly, at that time there was nothing that I really wanted to do. Well, there were some things that I chose not to do because my children were little.
You turned down "Terms of Endearment."
SPACEK: How'd you know that? My baby was a baby then.
Tom passed on "Titanic" because he didn't want to be away from his family.
WILKINSON: They didn't actually offer me a part. They just said, "How would you like six months in Mexico?" I said, "I'm not going away for six months,” I got the same call on "Lord of the Rings.” I don't want to go to New Zealand for a year.
THORNTON: I have a water phobia. I read the opening of "Private Ryan," which was already offered to me, and I said, "Walking on the bottom of the ocean with a pack on my back? NO!"
WILKINSON: I'm experiencing something right now about a script. There's a very good script, and there's a very good role in it-a guy who's bonkers.
SMITH: Always do bonkers.
WILKINSON: Part of me says, "Yes, I want to do it.” And another part thinks, "I'd have to be away. And is it going to be a great film for me?" And then yet another part of me says, "If I don't do this role, somebody else will?'
SPACEK [laughs]: Right. "I don't want it, but I don't want anybody else to have it.”
Obviously there are times when an actor actively chases a role.
WILKINSON: Does anybody ever pursue roles? Do you find out about a role you really want to play, and ring people up and badger them?
KIDMAN: I've done it once, but I find it sort of embarrassing. I find it a bit sort of crass.
The one you went after was "To Die For."
SPACEK: Oh, you were brilliant in that.
KIDMAN: They so didn't want me for the film. I got so lucky getting that role.
SPACEK: No, they got lucky.
Sissy, you went after "Carrie."
SPACEK: I fought for it. Oh, it was humiliating. I had worked with Brian De Palma as a set decorator on another film, so I knew him and I thought, "I've got an in!" There were three actresses testing for Carrie, and I got a commercial for the day of the test. I called Brian, saying, "I've got a commercial. What should I do?" Knowing he would say, "Oh, Sissy, don't be ridiculous! Come to the test!" I don't know why I was stupid enough to even make the call. I mean, now it sounds really dumb and insecure. But he said, "Do the commercial.” I thought, "Grrr! No, I'm not gonna do the commercial!" He made me so mad and hurt my feelings so deeply. In that moment, I became Carrie.
THORNTON: Don't you guys find that the roles that you end up doing-that you already are them?
SMITH: There is a certain aspect of your personality that already exists in the character. For me with "A1i' what spoke to me was, I so want to say "I'm the greatest" all the time, you know? [Laughter]
SPACEK: It just felt right?
SMITH: It just felt so perfect! I was raised differently. You know, my mother and my grandmother always said, "If you feel those things about yourself, that's OK-but let other people say it. You don't have to say it yourself.” But I've always been like, "Don't you dare put your movie on July 4th! My movie is on July 4th! If you put it on there, won't nobody come see your movie!" You know? That's what I'm thinking when they ask me that in the press.
THORNTON: We are so the opposite. We are so the opposite. I read "Man Who Wasn't There" and I go, "That's me. Dark f--kin' guy sitting in the corner who won't talk to anybody. I can do that. I want to tell people that I'm apathetic, horrible wretch who is twisted and tormented inside. Yes!"
Are you ever so into a character that you drag It into real life?
SMITH: My first wife and I got divorced because of that. I was doing "Six Degrees of Separation." I was a young actor, and I was really hell bent on doing a good job in this role. I prepared so much I would go out in the streets and, like, go to a jewelry store and try to determine what I liked versus what the character liked. I was so far into the character I didn't realize that at home I was responding like my character. I had reprogrammed my instincts. We were newlyweds. We had been married for three months, and she was like, "Who in the hell is this dude?"
Billy Bob, you mentioned your water phobia earlier. Is it true that you also have an antique furniture phobia?
SPACEK: You don't like antiques?
THORNTON: I can't be around 'em.
KIDMAN: So it's true that you don't like going to England?
THORNTON: No, no, no. I love England. I would probably be more freaked out in, like, say, Scotland. I have a weird thing about big, old ornate sorts of carved things with velvet. And big draperies. It's old creepy, castle-y stuff. When I go to London, I stay at the Metropolitan because it's very modern. See, when you're in London people assume you'll want to stay in [some famous old hotel]. You know? "So-and-so was beheaded there!"
It must be daunting to know the public and the media know so much about you.
SMITH: There is something that's oppressive about being in a position where every single aspect of your life outside of your work is up for scrutiny on the Internet.
THORNTON: I never read anything. I'm terrifled of the stuff. But a guy on an airplane handed me a magazine, and there was an article about me. It was one of those really fantastic articles that you dream of reading about yourself as an actor. It was like, "My God, you're the best actor that's ever been. Marlon Brando shouldn't even think about you." And then, I swear to God, I turned the page and it was like, "What the hell are you doing with your wife? She's prettier than you! You're a weirdo, and you live in a dungeon!" On the next page, it had ripped me to shreds like I was a piece of s--t. Two or three years ago, I was in People magazine on the "10 Worst Dressed" list and then the next week I was in the "Sexiest Men" issue.
WILKINSON: Well, you can be sexy and badly dressed. [Laughter]
SMITH: There's a real dehumanization, though, that goes on when you're not a person, you're actually a thing. There is a certain talking at you and about you that is not human.
KIDMAN: But there is a positive aspect. Not to be Pollyanna, but you do get to meet people. I'm shy, right? I'm sure everybody sitting at this table is shy, because most actors are quite shy.
SMITH: I'm not.
KIDMAN: No. Maybe you aren't shy.
SMITH: I've always been a clown.
KIDMAN: The women at the table may be quite shy, but you get put in a position where you are forced to meet people, and that is kind of amazing. I would never go up and talk to somebody first. I just wouldn't do it.
It seems like pressures from Hollywood Itself are as hard to handle as anything else.
SPACEK: To survive, you have to not take anything personally. You know? It's an industry.
KIDMAN: I can't help it. I take it all personally.
THORNTON: I can't help it either.
KIDMAN: I hope I get to the stage where I don't.
SPACEK: You will.
KIDMAN: I don't have "business is business and friendship is friendship" or whatever. It all crosses over ... If they call and yell at me on the phone, which has happened recently: "You better get over here! You've got to promote this thing!" "I'm in Sweden making a movie, and I can't go to the director and say, 'Oh, by the way, I've got to go back now because I've got to promote a movie.' It's the director's life. This movie is his I can't do it." "What do you mean, you can't do it?" Then I end up crying and getting very upset, and I take it personally. I call my mum and my mum says, "That's enough now. You come home. You're not cut out for this industry." Then you end up sick and they say, "Why is she so fragile?"
SPACEK: You need to get caller ID.
KIDMAN: I have it. I was just on the phone with Naomi about this. I was so upset.
WATTS: You have to be fragile. You can't compartmentalize everything.
SPACEK: Nicole, you're right-you're the one that's right. You're working on something else right now that you can really affect. You've done your job. They need to do their job.
Billy Bob, you said you take things personally, too. You had a surreal moment early in your career. "One False Move," which you co-wrote and starred in, came out and some studio immediately wanted to do a remake.
THORNTON: Yeah. "One False Move" was still in theaters, and my agents called one day and they said, "Great news! We've got great news!" They're all on the speakerphone. There's 50 of them in the room, you know? I can't remember the name of the studio, but I believe it might have been TriStar. They said, "We've got great news. TriStar called, and they're going to remake 'One False Move' with movie stars!" I swear to God. And they thought I was going to be happy. The movie was still in the theaters!
What did you say?
THORNTON: I said, "I'm coming down there right now, and I'm going to kick your ass.”
Naomi, you're having such a great moment right now with "Mulholland Drive!” How do you resist saying yes to a million scripts and going too fast?
WATTS: For me the temptation is, yes, I want to do everything, because I haven't worked. The material I'm reading now has elevated from what I was reading before by about 1,000 percent. I mean, I wish I could fit it all in. And it sounds ridiculous, because a year ago I didn't have anything.
Nicole, you said earlier that it's unbelievable to be sitting here at the table with Naomi.
KIDMAN: It's beautiful. It makes me cry, actually, because Naomi's like my sister. I am genuinely... [Kidman sees that Watts is tearing up and starts tearing up herself Kidman laughs.] Oh, God, now you've started it!
THORNTON: Now I'm gonna cry!
KIDMAN: This is not that kind of friendship where it's like, "Oh, yeah, we were friends." We've shared boyfriends, breakups, bottles of wine when we thought our lives were over. I mean, every single thing you can imagine. She moved into my house when I got divorced and took care of me. And now we sit at this table. From Australia. That's kind of wild, really.
This is supposed to be the Oscar Round Table, so before we finish up we'd better actually talk about the Oscars.
SPACEK No, you'll jinx us all!
KIDMAN: Yeah, don't mention the Oscars.
SPACEK: Let's live in the moment. Just say we'll go if we're invited.