Today I’m very excited to be able to write that the legendary screen actor Barry Corbin (No Country For Old Men, Northern Exposure) has sat down and joined me for a chat about his fascinating career. Interviewing Barry wasn’t like interviewing some other actors and directors… it was more of an extended chat about the people he has worked with and the relationships they have formed (with particular reference to Tommy Lee Jones). We talked about how he approaches his characters, how Eastwood and the Coens directed him and what he looks for in his roles as the years roll by. Look for all of that and more below…
I describe No Country for Old Men as being one of the top ten films of the last ten years so I’m going to have to ask you about your involvement in that… how did you get the role in the film and did you realise the significance of your scene right away?
Well my son was up for a role in that and he said “Dad you’ve got to go in for this, it’s a great script with a lot of old men in it!” I thought they would call me if they want me because I’ve met the Coen brothers before. I’ve never worked with them, but we met several times. Then I forgot about it until my manager called me and said “the Coen brothers want to offer you this part in No Country for Old Men. You may not want to take it as it is only one scene but it’s with Tommy Lee Jones”. And we’re friends you know? So I said “well let me read it” and I started with the script and there was all this blood and guts and killing going on… I kept on wondering when this Ellis character was coming in! Then finally I got to that scene. I read it and thought “Good God!” I went back and read it again and then I didn’t even finish reading the script but called my manager and said “hell yes I’ll do it, that scene is the movie!”
Haha so you recognised that straight away then…
Oh yeah, that scene explains everything that goes on before and everything that goes on after it. It is the explanation of the movie and so I was delighted. Afterwards I had a load of old actors come up to me saying I stole their part but the truth is that I was never in for it, they just called me up about it… so that was a nice surprise.
Oh yeah it’s such a powerful film, I think it deserves the best picture award. A lot of times I disagree with them but I think that one deserves it.
Oh without a doubt! What’s it like being directed by the Coen’s then?
Well we spent a day and a half on it, and I think I was talking to Ethan when I said “I just want to ask you one question. Do you guys ever give anyone any direction?” and he said “If we cast it right, we don’t have to”. And I thought that is a smart deal, a smart thing.
So do they literally sit back and watch you do it?
Yeah pretty much. They just sit and watch a take and then just talk between them. They wouldn’t say anything to Tommy or me, and I couldn’t hear them either… don’t know if he could. Then they would turn back to us and say let’s do it again. Let’s try it again.
How many takes where there in the end?
Oh we didn’t do it that many times, we did a lot of set up. It’s not a long scene and only has the two of us, but they covered it from every angle. We actually did most of it in the one day and then just came in to do a couple of little clean ups on the second and I think I was done by noon on that second day.
Now you’ve worked with Tommy Lee Jones several times before… is it just a happy coincidence that you keep working together? Does he request you?
I don’t know! For his picture The Homesman I know he called me about six months before he was doing it and asked if I could be a part of it.
I only play a small part; the big ones go to the crazy women, to Mary Bee Cuddy who’s Hilary Swank’s character and to Tommy Lee’s. I have a couple of little scenes at the beginning and they’ve got John Lithgow in the there playing a small part…Tim Blake Nelson and Meryl Streep, there’s a bunch of us in there with small parts.
How does he (Jones) compare on set as an actor and a director? Is he more intense as one or the other?
He is a very talented fella. A good director and a wonderful actor who is pretty intense all ways around! He’s a smart one and went to either Yale or Harvard and is clearly very intelligent and quick. Hard to keep up with sometimes… I like him, you know?
Yes, I guess that was the first time. Let’s see now… then there were a couple of things he wanted which I couldn’t do as I had other things going on already. We did the Lonesome Dove together but never had any scenes together, then In the Valley of Elah, No Country and finally Homesman. So we’ve worked together quite a bit.
And talking of Westerns, didn’t Clint Eastwood request you for Honkeytonk Man?
Yeah! I had done Any Which Way You Can with him before and then he hired me to do Honkeytonk Man and I haven’t heard from him since! So I don’t know if he was happy or not!
But he is very relaxed. He knows exactly what he is looking for. In fact he cuts the movie in the camera. He doesn’t overshoot anything as he is very methodical and doesn’t shoot a lot of extra stuff like a lot of directors do. I think that shows a strong confidence in what he is doing… he doesn’t wear you out with takes that’s for sure!
How do you approach smaller roles then? What level of preparation do you go to?
Well I have to look and see where my character sits in the overall narrative. Then you’ve got to build the backstory because you don’t have the luxury of letting the audience get to know you slowly, instead they have to get the whole person in just one or two scenes. So that needs to be very clear in my mind. Otherwise the audience is going to be confused, they are going to see me sitting up there, floundering around trying to convince them I am something I’m not. So it has to be very clear in both mine and the audience’s mind.
So when you’re preparing what sort of things do you do when you have to build such a concentrated character?
Well I normally write out a narrative of how this person got to be at this particular point in his life. If I’m playing somebody’s father I write out my version of his relationship with his child and how did they grew up together. You build all that up and that then subconsciously plays into the scene.
Well I work through it and then if the director disagrees with me then he will tell me, but it’s his deal so I will be an asset whenever I can. Which isn’t to say I will just throw everything away and be a puppet, I won’t do that. But I’ll bend to his way of thinking and hopefully he will bend a little to mine. You know it is a collaborative effort. Most people don’t realise that we are in a collaborative business. I was talking to a screenwriter one time and I said “as much as you love your words the script is a blueprint, and we don’t live in blueprints. We live in houses which the blueprints helped to build”. That’s my take on it and the guy said “oh, I never thought of it that way”.
Well it makes sense doesn’t it? If it is just the scriptwriter then it’s just one person’s voice…
Yeah, it would be a novel! If you’re going to write a novel, write a novel. But if you’re going to write a script then people are going to play something differently to the way you intended. But if you’re open minded then you’ll see that sometimes they are playing it in a better way than you intended.
Unexpected things often seem to lead to the best results don’t they?
Well if the director comes in and stifles the actor’s creativity from the beginning you’re going to have a very stilted, unimaginative and unemotional movie. Sometimes the director and the writer can be in complete agreement on something, then they cast it and the cast says well I think it may play better this way. And because the director has already decided how they want to play it they dig their heels in and that immediately throws cold water over the actor’s creativity. Now I’ve worked that way where someone comes in and told us how it is going to be done and you become like a worker, a farm hand.
Well I certainly look for something which I haven’t done before, and that’s getting harder and harder to find. I think that as you get older your choices get narrowed some as you’re picked out based on your age more than anything else. That’s alright with me though because I’m outliving all these guys…
Is there a dream role out there, something you would drop everything for if it came along?
Oh god I don’t even think about that. I just love working, that’s the fun part for me. The work and the friends you get along the way. The pay doesn’t really matter. I mean it’s nice to have it and I couldn’t afford not to as I have people who are dependent on me, but the amount isn’t really the issue. It’s the work and the people I’m working with, that’s the issue. Some of the best movies that I’ve made have been emotionally very trying and hard, whereas some of the worst ones I have made have been great fun!
When somebody asked me what my favourite role was I said “that’s like saying what’s my favourite child? I love them all but some of them are ugly!”. You can’t really compare them, I just love to work and that’s the bottom line of it.
And was acting something you always wanted to do?
Oh yeah, from as long as I can remember. I used to go to those Saturday matinees, only later on did I start training seriously. I got into classics, a lot of Shakespeare and British plays like Pinter…
Would you do a play now if one came your way?
I do a one man play which I bring out once in a while. As a matter of fact I did a little piece recently which isn’t a play but a story I do with musicians… I’m always doing something. If I’m not in a film I’ll be on a stage somewhere!
And on that note Barry and I gradually wrapped things up. I hope you enjoyed this interview, I know I found my guest to have a very interesting story to tell! Please do drop your thoughts and feelings off in the comment box before you leave!