Earlier this month, The Envelope gathered some of the industry’s top actors not just to talk about their current, award-contending films but to take the temperature of a community rattled by revelations of sexual harassment and assault claims against the likes of movie titan Harvey Weinstein and others. Beyond that difficult subject, Times film writers Amy Kaufman and Mark Olsen led Gary Oldman (Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour”), Hugh Jackman (“Logan,” “The Greatest Showman”), James Franco (“The Disaster Artist”) Jake Gyllenhaal (as Boston marathon bomb victim Jeff Bauman in “Stronger”), Jeremy Renner (“Wind River”) and relative newcomer Timothée Chalamet (at the center of the tender coming-of-age story “Call Me by Your Name”) through discussions of the best working environment on set, obligations to the real people an actor portrays, giving the wacky an emotional depth and, yes, Chalamet’s peach scene.
Here is an excerpt from their conversation edited for length and clarity.
Olsen: This is often a celebratory time, but there’s something of a dark reckoning happening in Hollywood right now. It’s very difficult for everyone. What is it like to be a man in Hollywood at a moment like this?
Jackman: I just have unbelievable empathy and am so inspired by all the people coming out. I think the amount of shame and guilt that is attached to this entire subject, and the courage it takes to step forward is humbling to me. I don’t think it matters if you’re a man or a woman, it’s a human issue. On some level, it’s really a great opportunity, beyond just our industry, really among society.
Gyllenhaal: I feel like all of us are sort of in a space where we’re not really quite sure what to say, in that it’s a confusing time. I feel like the most important thing that I’ve discovered in this period is to listen.
Oldman: The world has always been morally imperfect and Hollywood is no exception. It’s had its scandals since Chaplin, you know? But it feels like so many things in the world, not just in Hollywood, but globally, are coming to a head. Ultimately, only good can come from it.
Olsen: Jeremy, you and the creative team of “Wind River” have essentially fought to take the movie back from the Weinstein Co. and with that movie in particular, dealing with the victimization of women, it must have felt especially sensitive to have this all happen.
Renner: Yeah, it was very frustrating, painful and hard on all of us, for the filmmakers and for the film. But again, with any problem in life, it’s always great to attach it to something that’s actionable. Pulling the film away and keep it clean from them, and then all of our proceeds go to the indigenous women on the reservation. And so there was something really actionable that feels good.
Olsen: We’re noticing how many of you are playing real-life characters. James, you have a very different kind of true story.
Franco: Let’s talk about my wacky movie.
Olsen: It actually takes the subject matter much more seriously and gives it an emotional depth beyond what many would expect. Was that important to you?
Franco: My movie is about the making of the best worst movie ever made [“The Room”]. I play a real guy, Tommy Wiseau, and I directed it. It would’ve been very easy to poke fun at Tommy. It’s why his movie is still being talked about 14 years later, and why we made a movie, because it elicits laughter. It’s wacky as hell. And the book that my movie is based on, it could’ve been just a series of, you know, silly anecdotes about making this movie, and all the mistakes they made. But instead, Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell made it this universal story about outsiders with a dream. And that’s what I loved. If we just treat this guy as any other artist, an outsider artist, it’ll become much more than a spoof.
Kaufman: You got really close to Tommy, and when I’ve seen you guys do press together, you do his accent next to him.
Franco: It’s very infectious.
Gyllenhaal: That last scene at the very end of the credits, where you guys meet, is the most insane moment.
Franco: That’s a whole story. I had to get his life rights and he was kind of a dictator, you know, when he made that movie. And you can understand, he had been told no his whole life. He was like, “Hey, I’m like James Dean.” And you can imagine the whole world saying, “Uh, no you’re not, dude.”
Franco: So, he learned that the only way he was ever going to get anywhere is if he did it himself. So, his one stipulation was that to get his life rights, he had to have a scene in the movie. But he didn’t read the contract, and it said we only had to shoot it. We didn’t have to keep it in. But look, to my credit, we were trying to do a scene where we could actually keep it, but he kept insisting that it be opposite me. [Wiseau accent] “No, it has to be with James. Has to be with James, dude. With James.” So we shot this scene but we designed it so that it could easily be cut out, because it’s like Tommy versus Tommy [on screen]. And then we realized we could just do, like, a Marvel tag at the end, and it would be perfect.
Gyllenhaal: It’s incredible. That scene is incredible.
Kaufman: Jake, you got close to Jeff Bauman, who’s the real-life inspiration for “Stronger.” How do you deal with making the subject OK with doing the story, but also doing your own thing?
Gyllenhaal: There’s a massive responsibility, right? And just given the subject matter, it’s not only to Jeff but to all the survivors. The pressure’s on to make sure that you do it right, that you do it honestly, and that you are thoughtful and accurate. And I think that’s what Jeff wanted. He just has a kind of BS monitor, so for me, it was always about vetting that. But he knew it was semi-fictional.
Jackman: Did he read the script?
Gyllenhaal: No. He had written a book, and then he met all of us. I spent about a year with Jeff before we started shooting, so he knew kind of what we were getting into, and we were all very close, and we are all still very close. The movie’s not a movie to me anymore. The movie is now an experience in my life. He’s now my friend, we talk every day.
Kaufman: What about when you’re playing P.T. Barnum or Winston Churchill? Obviously, you don’t have as many opinions to worry about.
Oldman: There are ancestors, there are living relatives of Winston, one of which now, it amazes me, occasionally, I will get an email and it will say Randolph Churchill. And it’s strange. It’s bizarre. But you have some responsibility to those living relatives that are around. And Randolph thinks I’ve done his great-great-grandfather a good service, and they like the movie. I remember years ago doing “JFK” and I met Marina Oswald. And she was very unimpressed.
Olsen: You turned down the role of Churchill at first?
Oldman: I turn most things down because I always think they should actually get someone else. Why do they want me? I’m nearly 60, but I’m still insecure, and fearful, and all of those things. With something like Churchill, you’re not only playing arguably the greatest Briton that ever lived, to some, and this icon, but you are walking in the shoes of all the other great actors who have played him, and quite recently too. So you have to slay those dragons. So, yes, fear is a great motivator, and playing Winston, at some point you’ve got to step out onto the wire. Most of the things that have been successful in my career were the ones that I said no to.
Franco: You turned Sid Vicious down?
Oldman: Many times.
Renner: That’d be a travesty.
Oldman: It was just never my bag. That punk stuff, you know? I was a Motown man, James Brown and all that, right?
Renner: Would you be less insecure if you were completely ignorant to who Winston Churchill is, or whoever that you’re playing? If there was a complete unawareness? Would you still be insecure? I played Jeffrey Dahmer but I didn’t know who Jeffrey Dahmer was. And I just learned very quickly who he was, but I can’t have judgment on a character, just an unawareness or ignorance to him.
Oldman: Yeah, absolutely, an ignorance to it. It’d be —
Renner: Less pressure, perhaps?
Oldman: Churchill was the man who saved the world. He didn’t literally single-handedly, but that’s the impression that one’s given, you know? He was the man that beat the Nazis. It was my dear friend and one of the producers of the film, Douglas [Urbanski], and it was my wife who sort of sat me down and said, “You’re going to stand in a room with 600 people, and you’re going to say, ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat. We shall fight them on the beaches. We shall fight them,’” three of the greatest speeches written in the English language. And you know what? I just thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I could be dreadful, but I had a go. I am being handed this gift and I should get my act together.
Jackman: And I’m so glad you did.
Oldman: Well, thank you. Me too. It was just— and given all the paraphernalia, it was oddly the most freeing and the most relaxed I have ever been on the set.
Kaufman: Timothée, you’re just starting your career, do you feel the opposite like, I can’t turn anything down yet?
Chalamet: Yeah, it’s exactly it. Yeah, yep.
Kaufman: But you still seem really discerning.
Chalamet: Well, it’s not a selection of riches, nor should it be. I don’t think it is for anybody my age. Sometimes there are opportunities to audition for things that I’ll say no to, but that’s about the only thing in life I’m saying no to.
Kaufman: That’s kind of true. Have you guys seen the peach scene?
Gyllenhaal: You didn’t say no to that scene — or really to that peach.
Chalamet: There’s a scene in this movie, that’s probably the reason that I’m here, right? There’s a sex scene with a peach that — why am I bringing this up? Look, you guys talk, man. I’m with like five heroes right now. I’d be totally content to just listen to you guys speak.
Olsen: From the moment the film premiered, that scene in particular, people couldn’t stop talking about.
Franco: I heard that scene was in the Churchill movie, and they took it out because —
Olsen: You’re also in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” so you’re having something of a moment right now, what’s that like for you?
Chalamet: It’s tremendously overwhelming. Like I said, I’m looking around here right now, and these are all people I’ve been admiring and studying, and Gary’s in “The Dark Knight,” which is the movie that made me literally want to act. So, it’s just surreal. Somebody said to me the other day, you should keep a journal of this period in your life and try to chronicle this period of intense transition. But I didn’t really like that because that feels like I need to suffocate the moment with appreciation or something. I’m no good at that. So, I’m just trying to treat it like everything else.
Oldman: How old are you?
Kaufman: Do you guys remember being that age in the industry? What was that moment like for you?
Jackman: I was not in the industry. I had my first acting job at 26. So, I think I was working at a Shell service station doing midnight ‘til dawn. So, you’re doing great, man.
Chalamet: I know, it’s all downhill from here.
Oldman: I was in Glasgow doing rep, so just out of drama school at 21. So I wouldn’t have been able to sit there with your confidence like this.
Gyllenhaal: I was doing “Donnie Darko” when I was 20.
Kaufman: So you know what Timothée’s going through.
Gyllenhaal: I don’t think anybody really liked [“Darko”] as much as they like —
Chalamet: That’s one of my favorite movies!
Gyllenhaal: But at the time, people were like, what is that thing? It was very long and it was weird. And then everyone in the UK sort of found it, and it was like, this is so cool.
Oldman: [To Jackman] What were you doing up to 26?
Jackman: From midnight to dawn at a gas station — you meet the greatest characters. This one guy still writes to me, who has a rocket ship going to some planet. Anyway, I did a degree. I majored in journalism, a communications degree. I traveled, and then I got into acting.
Oldman: But you always had that voice, yeah, singing?
Jackman: No, that was a surprise to me. I mean, I was doing musicals, amateur musicals. I was always doing plays. It was like, for me, it was a hobby.
Gyllenhaal: You didn’t wake up one morning and you were just like —
Jackman: I’ve got to tell you, I auditioned for “Beauty and the Beast.” It was straight out of drama school. And I got to read for Gaston first. So I walk in, I’m 6-foot-2, and I read, and I could see them all go, Oh! And they said, what are you going to sing? I’m going to sing “Stars” from “Les Mis.” And I completely cracked on the last note, I just saw them all deflate. And then they sent me to a singing teacher, and I am probably the only professional actor ever to have it in his contract that I had to have a singing lesson once a week during the 12-month run.
Oldman: I used singing, over my career, even with Churchill. I got an opera singer in and we worked out his range on the piano.
Oldman: I did the same with “Dracula” years ago, and then you intone, you know, and you sing the text. [To Chalamet] There, kid, there’s advice for you.
Olsen: Jeremy, it’s funny you mentioned playing Jeffrey Dahmer. That was the first time that I really saw you on screen. Was there a role or moment for you where you felt like, oh, I can do this, where it really came together for you?
Renner: I mean, I don’t go home with any particular day or scene being like, oh, God, that was a great day. That was amazing. It’s just every moment to me is always challenging, challenging material, challenging behavior. I feel like maybe certain experiences because the set experience is great like on “Wind River,” “Hurt Locker,” a few movies where everybody’s in it for the right reason. We’re all in it together; there’s no egos. That feels good. That feels like, oh, yeah, this is where I want to be. This is what I want to do.
Gyllenhaal: That’s what Hugh’s sets feel like, when we work together. It always comes from that space of people who are egoless and wanting to do something good, and wanting everyone else to succeed in that space. It allowed for so much discovery on my own, when somebody who was the leader of the group says, like, yes, that’s amazing. That encouragement always allows you to make bolder choices. [To Jackman] Working with this man is really, truly a joy. He’s the nicest guy in the world. And that’s the last nice thing I’ll say about him for the rest of the chat. I will now systematically tear him apart.
Oldman: I’ve heard that about you.
Jackman: Well, I told you before…
Jackman: And I told James to tell you as well.
James Franco: To Hugh!
[laughter as they raise a toast with their coffee cups]
Jackman: That’s the most important thing to create, a safe environment, where everyone can feel they can really be themselves and take risks, and learn and do things. And actually, sometimes just being a nice guy on set or a leader, that can be BS too. You’re like, you just really have to find something where we’re really getting to the humanity of a scene. It’s up to the acting troupe or the people on set to create the atmosphere.
Chalamet: As a young actor, when you get on set — and I think of, in my experience, there’s Matthew McConaughey on “Interstellar,” or I just did a film with Christian Bale too called “Hostiles.” And when I worked with James on “The Adderall Diaries,” and he was the lead man — when the guy at the top of the call sheet’s setting that generous tone, and creating a safe space to be open creatively, to fail, to make a bunch of bad choices and a bunch of bad takes, that helps down the call sheet.