It’s a scientific fact that if you add Oliver Platt to anything it gets 34% better. There are numerous examples of Platt elevating films even with his smallest of appearances. However, this week he took off his actor’s hat and served as a narrative feature juror member for SXSW. He also has a role as a food critic in Jon Favreau‘s Chef, which premiered at the festival, but Platt was in attendance to be a part of the festival, not to promote a film. And yet, he made the time to speak with us.
Platt was my final interview of the festival, and it couldn’t have been a better note to end on. Interviews can be tough during SXSW. Sometimes you’re lucky to have more than 10 minutes with whomever you’re interviewing. In many cases, it’s never done in a helpful setting, either. Too often you’re in a small room or restaurant packed with people speaking at an excessively high volume. Or, in one instance, you’re on a stage under a spotlight in some darkly lit bar being watched by 15 strangers. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with Platt. At the last minute, an interview slot opened up and we met him in his hotel lobby the following day for a lengthy conversation. It was an all around ideal situation, and we used it to explore the overriding theme of the festival.
Is it nice coming to a festival to see movies rather than promoting them?
It really is. Let’s face it, they have 1,300 submissions and they choose eight. What’s really fascinating is these movies are all completely different from each other, and yet the themes that they have in common really give you this sort of snapshot into what’s on people’s minds.
Any specific themes?
Oh, absolutely. A lot of them deal with the way the internet has sort of insidiously wormed its way into the most private aspects of our life, in relationships, intimacy, is very much a common theme. That’s definitely one.
One SXSW film you’re in, Chef, definitely shows one of the many downsides of social media.
Absolutely. The thing is, on so many different levels, too, is how it’s such a double-edged sword. As a communication tool, as something that people come to, you almost start to unconsciously develop…there’s your authentic self and then there’s your internet self. And then people obviously sometimes have multiple internet selves. It’s very, very confusing.
Are you on Twitter?
I really only just started to tweet. I’m not very good at it. But it’s a process. I figure I’d learn how to do it in case I ever end of having something important to promote. It’s just a helpful tool. To me, the real value of Twitter is in terms of creating a personal news feed, finding out what’s going on in the world. This is no sort of news flash, but it sort of was to me when I first figured it out, that professional news journalists, most of them get their news from Twitter. It’s a really great way to find out what’s going on in the world and sort of curating your own personal information feed about finding out what’s happening in the world.
It’s so interesting because these movies examine this, too, is that it’s really created a whole different concept of privacy. This notion of privacy is completely changed with the younger generation that’s really grown up with these tools in their hands.
I’m sort of much more old-fashioned, so I don’t assume that people want to know what I had for breakfast. Like I say, it’s a process. I hit a great food truck last night. I thought at least it’s a way to align yourself with things you like and maybe help people out.
On a personal level, it takes away something. Maybe some of those family members you would call you’ll just send a message to now.
That’s right. But that’s the whole thing. It’s the assumption that communication is taking place. And it is. But nothing can replace face-to-face interaction. It’s the loss of that or the assumption that that is a valid substitute I think is really scary.
It’s also scary what people will say online.
That’s the other thing, people saying things that they would never say. A lot of the loss of civility in our day-to-day interactions I think can be traced directly back to that.
That’s what’s funny about your character in Chef. He writer terrible things, but he probably would say them to Carl Casper’s (Jon Favreau) face. There are a lot of critics that wouldn’t do that. What’s your take on modern film criticism?
My brother is a food critic. I grew up with a critic. Critics, among many other things, you look at them on the most practical things, they are consumer advocates. So they are saying, “I like this. I don’t like that. This is what I think.” Yeah, exactly. We all have our function. The danger is when anybody starts to think that what they do in particular is more important than anybody else.
As an actor, do you find reviews helpful? Do you read them?
I don’t, especially when I’m doing a play. It’s just insane. Terrible idea. I learned that when I was very young, even with good stuff. God forbid they mention some moment of yours they liked. It’s gone for good, because you are like, “Okay. Here comes my big moment. Oh, shit. What happened to that moment?” You get in front of a camera, you get on stage, you are trying to…you are actually, among many other things, the actor tries to forget who you are and become somebody else. It doesn’t serve you to get into too much what other people think.
When you’re on stage, are you thinking about the audience?
When you are doing live theater, the audience is a crucial partner and teacher, actually, especially in early performances and previews. It’s an exchange. That’s what makes it so exciting. On a film set your audience is really the director. You place a tremendous amount of trust in a director. You are trying to give them as many options as you can for the narrative for when they are putting it together.
When you are working on stage, it’s happening between you and the audience. Yeah, you are absolutely up there trying to play the scene, tell the story. But a live audience is unquestionably a much more active participant in the process. That’s what makes it so satisfying. You find out very quickly if they are paying attention or not.
Do you have a specific way you like to work, or does it change on every project?
It’s funny. The first creative act, actually, whenever you get a job is you go, “How am I going to work on this?” First there’s panic, like, “Oh, crap. I gotta try and see if I can possibly convince these people that I’m somebody else,” which is a terrifying prospect when you’ve been doing it as long as I have. This is also one of the most fun things about what I do for a living, is you…there’s so many different ways to peel an orange.
Can you just know what you have to do from square one? Like, go into or leave a scene knowing you did exactly what you had to do.
The way that I would respond to that is a good day for me is when I’m walking away from the set or out the stage door and I was surprised by what happened. Planning or the feeling that I’ve got this figured out actually can be really destructive. Ultimately, performance is a living, sort of fluid thing. A sense of “I’ve got this figured out” can actually be your worst enemy.
Can you recall any days you left work feeling that “surprise”?
Not right off the bat, but I can guarantee you that that’s…another way to put it is you work really hard before you get to the set or the theater so that you can play when you get there. You do your homework, but that’s just setting you up to surprise for, hopefully, yourself and everybody else.
Obviously there’s a blueprint, which is the language, the script. Obviously the fluidity in filmmaking is a much more dynamic element because it is about catching lightning in a bottle, and you do repetitive takes. The best filmmakers that I’ve worked with are the ones that do have a confidence in their vision, but they also understood the fluidity of the medium, and they want to be surprised.
Whereas, in the theater it’s much more about the language. The script might change a little bit in rehearsals, if at all, but that it’s more about making sure, especially because you are doing it eight times a week, that you put yourself in a place like it’s fresh. The last thing you want an audience to think is they are watching the 100th performance. You want to fool them into thinking they are making it up. I’m never more thrilled when I am watching somebody and I think that they are making it up.
How about for film? Do you want to know how an audience responds to your film performances?
It’s really interesting. I’ve gotten to a place, and I don’t necessarily know why, I don’t need to see everything that I’m in anymore. It happened about 10 years ago. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care. It doesn’t mean I’m not interested, but I’m not longer compelled…You are like, “Ah, it’s me.” You know? For me, you focus on the process. God knows you want it to be well-received and it to work and to have served the story. Absolutely. But once you leave the set, it’s pretty much out of your hands.
So, you should never feel precious about how your performance may be shaped in editing?
It’s about accepting the rules. That’s the process. Actors are a deceptively small part of the storytelling process with film. We just are, because so much can happen. If you don’t end up being happy with how it turned out, you do your best. You signed up for that. You signed up for not having ultimate control, which is why you have those conversations with directors beforehand.
Is it easy to find directors and material that gets you interested? Is it ever a challenge waiting for them to come along while also having to work?
Is it easy? What’s interesting for me is watching how young actors…I’m very, very lucky that I have, for better or for worse, established myself. But I see young actors having to be much more entrepreneurial because of the collapse of the traditional distribution systems and the economic models completely changing. I’m incredibly impressed by the level of enterprise that I see in younger actors taking responsibility for the storytelling process.
You are always just looking for something that…I’ve been very blessed and I’m aware of that. That question often comes in the form of: Is there a role that you have always wanted to play? For me, I want to stay interested. So that often means doing something different from what I just did. I guarantee you, if I am not interested, you are not going to be watching me.
Do you ever have to be business-minded about your choices or have a strategy?
I don’t have any sort of grand plan about playing Hamlet or anything like that. I’m just interested by the next thing that comes along that interests me. You have to be aware of how anxious the business is to put you in a box and say, “He does this and only this.” I guess one of the positive byproducts of choosing different stuff to do is that you’ve hopefully created is this idea that you are somewhat versatile. But having said that, one of my favorite quotes, Alec Guinness, who was a brilliant, brilliant actor, said, “The best of us have three, maybe four faces.” Maybe I have two. I don’t know.
[Laughs] Before I let you go, I have to say one of my favorite movies is Bulworth. What was your experience like on that?
It was an incredible experience. Warren’s an actor, so Warren invites actors into his process. He’s an extraordinary collaborator. Actually, I’m thrilled to tell you that the next movie I’m going to be working on is Warren’s…
The Howard Hughes project?
I’m very excited to see that.
I’m going to start working on that next month. It’s just thrilling for me because working…Again, for us, at the end of the day, do we care how it turns out? Of course we do. But what it’s really about is the process. Bulworth for me was, in that sense, a highlight of my working life so far. I love the movie.
His process is such a thing of its own. He really takes time on his projects, and it shows.
He makes so few movies. It’s his output. Talk about quality over quantity.
Another movie of yours that has been gaining fans over the years is The Ice Harvest.
Well, I’ve been thinking about The Ice Harvest a lot recently because of Harold’s passing. Talk about a lovely man, and also the most naturally joyous collaborator. It’s sort of a relatively obscure movie and I’m happy to hear you saying that it’s catching on. I love that experience and I love that character. He’s a great character. He’s this sort of this flailing loser with all the trappings of superficial success. You catch him on a night when he’s really getting in touch with his dark side, too. Robert Benton and Richard Russo wrote the screenplay. That was a wonderful screenplay.
Chef opens in theaters May 9th.