This week’s podcast was recorded from the hair and makeup trailer (in one of the 50 States) on Matthew Modine’s latest film. Giles and Lucinda were lucky enough to catch up with him to discuss his career and his advice for filmmakers and actors.

You can listen to the podcast here: 

One Big Film Family

Matthew is a legendary and very well-established actor, but that is not where his talents in the film industry end. He has dipped into every filmmaking discipline, in order to better understand the industry as a whole. 

“It’s important to know, as I sit in the hair and makeup department, how important their job is. How many hours they put in, the difficulties that they face, the preparation that they go through, the thoughtfulness, and how they help to create the look of a character.”

Matthew said that often we give credit to those departments in costume dramas, because they rely heavily on wigs, makes up and costume, but “each film, it doesn’t matter if it’s a futuristic film or a contemporary film, there’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into the mental state of the character that the make-up, hair and costume department are trying to create.”

When he played Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, he explained the level of detail that was focussed on Charlie’s appearance to reflect his emotional and mental state. In the film, Charlie begins as an intellectually disabled who would like to be a genius. In order to achieve this he agrees to undergo a laboratory experiment. It raises his IQ levels dramatically – which has an effect on his mental, physical and emotional state.

“In the early stages, we made all of Charlie’s clothes really big and ill-fitting.” As his mental state changed in the film, his costumes became “a little bit smaller. So they fitted him a bit better. It was the same shirt, the same pants, the same type of material and the same patterns, but suddenly he looked more put together. It’s a subtle thing, you wouldn’t notice watching the film, but you notice that he becomes more comfortable in his human flesh.”

“Really early on I realised that everybody on the set has an important job. Did you ever play with a magnifying glass when you were little? And with the sunlight you make a beam that’s able to start a fire?”

Matthew said that before arriving on set, the magnifying glass is further away and less focussed. But as soon as you step on set you start to focus it. “You’re trying to create a beam that can start a fire, so that when they say action and cut, there’s a moment where you’ve made something that’s really brilliant. Capturing lightning in a jar.” 

And that level is focus is necessary for all members of the cast and crew. “Everybody involved in the process of making the film, everybody’s bringing that focus together. If you can understand that and appreciate that as a young actor, that all of those people are your scene partners, they stop being a distraction.”

Whether it’s the grips, electric, the boom operator, the sound guy (or girl), “the makeup artist that comes into powder your nose, or the hair department making sure that things match for continuity. All those people are your scene partners. And all they’re trying to do is make the best possible scene.”

Working with Directors

Matthew has worked with an incredible list of brilliant directors and says “one thing that all of those directors have in common, and I’ve also heard it from directors that I haven’t had the pleasure of working with, is that the most important thing is casting the right actors – finding the right person to interpret that role. And casting the right crew.”

“But one of the things that Stella Adler said to me when I was studying with her was that if you wait for a director to tell you what to do, you’ve lost.

The director’s job is “kind of like a conductor. The conductor stands in front of all those musicians and is directing them like a film director, but the responsibility of everybody in every department is to go and learn their part.

If you’re playing the violin, it’s not the conductor’s job to tell you how to practice and learn those notes and interpret the music. That’s why they picked you to be the lead violinist or lead cellist or percussionist. It’s your job to learn and interpret the music. And then the conductor stands in front and he goes ‘a little bit softer, a little bit harder, a little bit faster, a little bit slower, stop now, calm down’… it’s your job, your responsibility to do all of the homework so that when you can come in, you can take those subtle directions.”

He says his favourite direction was when he was working with Stanley Kubrick. Stanley asked Matthew to act scared.

“Everybody has their own lens of life. And each of them is going to be a little bit different. It doesn’t require a great conversation. If you’ve done your homework and you’re prepared to play the role, a direction like ‘act scared’ is actually really specific.

When working with a director, Matthew’s advice is to do your homework, so that when you “come in, you can take those kinds of subtle directions from the director.”

To hear more of this amazing podcast with Matthew Modine, click here.

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