David Strathairn Says "Good Night and Good Luck"
(from brink.com 8/16/06)
The title of George Clooney's second feature film as a director, "Good Night, and Good Luck" also served as the familiar sign-off of Clooney's real-life protagonist, Edward R. Murrow when he hosted the legendary live prime-time television news program, "See It Now," in the early 1950s. The show's most famous hour was when Murrow, his producer Fred Friendly, and their staff dared challenge the methods and honesty of all-powerful Senator Joseph McCarthy, who rose to preeminence by accusing individuals in the government, military and media—including anyone else who challenged him--of being communists and traitors. nalists with integrity, is about their confrontation, when McCarthy was exposed for the first time on national television.
Film and stage actor David Strathairn plays Murrow with such uncanny insight, that he gets into his skin, showing his strength of character, his intelligence, and even his insecurity. It's no wonder Clooney said he was the only actor he considered for the part. His powerful performance made him a Best Actor contender alongside Clooney's two nominations for his directing "Good Night, and Good Luck"and acting (as a supporting actor in "Syriana").
Prior to its American premiere at the New York Film Festival in September, Straithairn spoke about making the film.
Q: Did you know George Clooney before he called you to play Edward R. Murrow in his film?
DS: I didn't even know who George Clooney was. Of course, I'm kidding. But unlike others in the cast, I not only hadn't worked with him, I hadn't met him. So I can tell you that I had no expectations of him as a director. Fortunately, the actual making of the movie day-to-day was a delight, to put it mildly. George just understands every requisite of directing, particularly working with actors. He provided a safety net for us, which actors really need. And at the same time, no one was safe from any of his jokes.
Q: I know that Clooney shot some scenes in one take. Was that the most difficult thing for you as an actor?
DS: Not really. What comes to mind was that a couple of the broadcasts were pretty scary to shoot. Because of the tight relationship I had with the camera, my movements were constrained strained. The words, the cadence, and his focus were so important. Keeping Murrow in focus through those scenes was a task every day. But George gave me a lot of support, trust, and sense of freedom, and I had the feeling I was giving him what he wanted.
George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr. and David Stratairn
George Clooney, Robert Downey Jr. and David Stratairn
Q: What about the responsibility playing a real person as opposed to a fictional character?
DS: They are two different beasts, but in both cases you are always responsible to the script. In playing a fictional character, you have to pull something out of the imagination of the author from the get-go. In playing a real character, especially when it's someone of such magnitude as Edward R. Murrow, at very least you should be respectful to the image people who knew him still have. There is also a responsibility to present an objective, respectful image to people who have no idea who he was. Good Night, and Good Luck wasn't a standard bio picture. George wasn't exploring a man at home or his farm, or anything but Murrow as a television personality. I didn't do an impersonation, but for the Murrow I play in the movie, there was much archival material I could look at it, including the iconic images of Murrow on the McCarthy broadcast.
Q: When you were delivering Murrow's 1958 speech in which he seems upset at the direction television news had taken since his confrontation with McCarthy in 1954, did you question whether he considered himself a success?
DS: I'm sure that wasn't the case. He was a very humble man who shied away from the limelight, even though embraced it in a fashion and was very aware of how the camera gave him magnitude . Because after almost every broadcast he was sweating and nervous. I think he was propelled to do what was right in regard to McCarty; he wasn't saying I'm going to make a hero out of myself by going after these people. In fact, it took him a long time to get into the game. He was very reticent to go out against McCarthy.
Q: So do you think he thought he failed?
DS: A great question. I think he had an abiding hope that he was doing the right thing, an innate confidence. I think—and this has been said by others—that he was never quite sure that he got it right.
Q: My earliest memories of Murrow in the '50s were of him on "See It Now" and his celebrity interview show, "Person to Person." He seemed deadly serious yet somehow his humor came through. That's how it is in this movie.
DS: George didn't give me any funny lines, but he told me if "you do this, you'll get a laugh." Murrow was quick and he was witty, but at this particular time in his life, maybe he didn't exhibit a sense of humor as much as he did a sense of irony.
Q: How did it strike you that back in the '50s, that television journalists at CBS and elsewhere were required to sign loyalty oaths?
DS: It's not as if times have changed that much, even without the oaths. How many journalists are present at White House press briefings who want to say something but fear they will lose their jobs if they do? So many are between a rock and a hard place. What's insidious today is that a journalist can't just point his finger at one individual and say, "Oh, it's Joseph R. McCarthy." Who can you point your finger at and keep your job? You can be comprised in so many ways, including losing your job. So it's still really scary. Our film shows Murrow and the others at CBS put their jobs on the line to tell their stories. I would think this gives hope to today's journalists when they come to that fork in the road when they must decide whether to keep quiet or speak out.