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‘I Don’t Think We Should Be Talking About Me’: Visiting David Strathairn’s Own Nightmare Alley

fThe firing squad leaders looked more relaxed than David Strathairn does now. He is one of the most astute actors of the past 40 years and has been on screen so many times that any attempt to list the highlights risks putting his IMDb page: Nomadland, LA Confidential, The River Wild, Sneakers, a series of rigorous dramas from his old friend John Sayles (including Matewan and Limbo), a throw with Carmella on The Sopranos, a career-best achievement as a predatory indie gem teacher blue car, and an Oscar nomination for Good Night and Good Luck. Today, the 72-year-old, who resembles a slender, lined Cary Grant, sits dead straight and strangely far from the camera as he talks on a video call from New York. Or rather, don’t talk. I just asked him a question he deems irrelevant, even impudent, and he shut his mouth.

To think it all started so well. Strathairn is in his element when discussing his new film, Guillermo del Toro’s 1940s noir thriller Nightmare Alley. In this adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, previously made into a film in 1947, he plays Pete, a soggy, weathered mentalist who reads minds with his wife Zeena (Toni Collette) during an unhealthy traveling carnival. The stubbornly cheerful couple has seen better days. “Pete was at the top of his game many years earlier when they were in Paris,” he recalls. “He has the idea that he was once a great mentalist on the most renowned stages. It’s an interesting contrast to where we find him in the film.”

In the couple’s lives, Stanton (Bradley Cooper), a handsome but seedy sort, stumbles upon whom Zeena immediately takes a shine on. Is Pete alert to his wife’s infidelity? “I don’t know,” he says thoughtfully. “Did you understand any of that? It was talked about, but we didn’t want to get too involved. The idea was to make Zeena and Pete one entity. There is an emotional bond and they have spent so much time together. Did he know she has this side? Would she have had other Stantons? I’m not sure.”

Even now, the actor sounds grateful to have found himself on the lavish set of a Guillermo del Toro movie. “The production design was extraordinary,” he says. “Then you had the rain, the mud, the boardwalks, the texture of the tents. It was so grainy. That world tells who the people are.”

Strathairn with Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photo: AP

Strathairn was trained to be a clown straight out of college. Did making the film take him back to that time? “Um, it had attributes of that, yeah,” he says. “The sense of community. A bunch of wildly eccentric individuals.” How deep did he get into clowning? “Deep enough to learn to fall and get back up.” How does it compare to acting? “Uhhh…I don’t know.” He begins to wobble in his seat. “They’re probably essentially similar. Grab people’s attention and try to transport them to another reality.”

Did he see any overlap between Pete and himself? After all, an actor – just like a mentalist – must be a good reader of people. ‘Well, you hope so. Actors are like channels for human behavior.” Pete claims that anyone who reads people learned the skill as a child. Does that also apply to Strathairn? “I think it applies to all of us.” All actors or all people? “Somebody. There are so many clues.” “Ah, I don’t know,” he shrugs. Then nothing for five or six seconds. “I don’t think I was something different from a normal kid.”

Why the huge sigh? “I don’t think we should be talking about me,” he says. “We should really be talking about the movie.” Seven seconds pass in silence. Does he find it uncomfortable to talk about life off screen? “No, I just don’t think it’s a proposition to PR for a movie to talk about ‘what I was like as a kid’.” He treats that last sentence like a smelly sock that needs to be kept off his face. “That’s not… I don’t think that applies to the movie. To the project. It’s not, uh… No.’ He seizes on a reference to the psychoanalyst played in Cate Blanchett’s Nightmare Alley. “I mean, I’m not in Dr. Lilith Ritter’s office!”

I protest softly that I had no intention of analyzing him; I was trying to get an idea of ​​how someone with no acting background (his parents were both medical professionals) might be attracted to the company. “I know, I know,” he says softly. I’m making a quick mental inventory of the topics I’d hoped we’d broach. Strathairn was fantastic as Meryl Streep’s milquetoast husband in the action thriller The River Wild, but chances are he’s now thinking about his brief, real-life connection to his co-star — Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer married his son, Tay, in July 2019, before Breaking up 42 days later because of “irreconcilable differences” – are vanishingly far away. It wouldn’t be a proposition, as he may have put it. I cross the subject off my list.

David Strathairn
Strathairn as Edward R Murrow Good Night and Good Luck. Photo: Warner Bros/Allstar

We drift back to Nightmare Alley, and to the scene where Pete Stanton warns of the risks for any mentalist tempted by his own confidence tricks. Isn’t that a danger for an actor: to believe the hype? Strathairn makes a face as if to say: again with the personal stuff? There is another long silence, during which he shakes his head and looks away. I joke with him that for the purpose of the band at this point I will have to describe out loud what he is doing: he shakes his head, I say. “He shakes his head,” he repeats gloomily.

A few seconds later, however, a switch seems to move inside him and he decides that he… shall then answer the question. “Actors who believe their hype can be a slippery slope,” he agrees. “In that regard, there are a lot of banana peels.” Was his head turned when he received that Oscar nomination (his only one to date) for playing journalist Edward R Murrow in George Clooney’s drama Good Night, and Good Luck from George Clooney’s McCarthy-era? “Yeah, it was kind of like, ‘What is this about?’ When I’m at work, it’s about the work, not what comes next. It was like an out-of-body experience, my eyes were wide open the whole time, taking it in because it might never happen again. It was like being in a circus.” Only this time he wasn’t a clown.

The Wilde . River
Strathairn with Joseph Mazzello and Meryl Streep in The River Wild. Photo: Universal/Allstar

Even if he was part of a hit (like his two Bourne thrillers) or an Oscar magnet (like Steven Spielberg’s Nomadland or Lincoln), he usually doesn’t get sent onto the publicity circuit; his more famous co-stars tend to carry that burden. Perhaps this explains his discomfort with personal questions. Some character actors may crave the fame and attention their superstar colleagues get, but Strathairn doesn’t seem to be among them.

Get him to the finer points of his trade, however, and he relaxes. To save the mood before we’re done, I ask if he’s read Mark Harris’ recent book on director Mike Nichols. He does not have. Then he won’t know that he’s been picked as a valuable influence on Nichols’ 1983 film Silkwood, in which he played one of the workers at a plutonium factory next to – again that woman – Meryl Streep. I read him the relevant passage, which describes how his decision to chew gum and blow bubbles helped “unblock a static scene”.

He seems fascinated. “Wow. I do remember that. Probably I was just trying to keep myself busy. And I also felt there was a lack of awareness about working in the radioactive environment: you touched food in your mouth, but you didn’t know what there was in the shit you were dealing with. It was a disconnect between the toxic environment and this person who thought, ‘I just work in a factory.’ Hmm. That’s a really great movie. Wow.”

Suddenly he is stimulated back to the more creative space of the film set or rehearsal room. He finally looks happy. We say goodbye. His nightmare is over.

Nightmare Alley has been released in the United Kingdom on January 21