I’ve been watching Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee on Netflix. It’s a show where Jerry Seinfeld picks up some other famous comedian in one of many super cool classic cars, and takes them out for coffee. I’m not sure why I’m watching it, really; it’s just two people chatting, and sometimes something weird happens, but frankly, I’d probably laugh more and have more weird things happen just by getting coffee myself with one of my sisters. I think it’s the cars the bring me back.
In any case, there was an interesting episode featuring Christoph Waltz. Unlike the other guests – people like Chris Rock, Tina Fey, or Jim Carrey – he’s not really known as a comedian, per se. But Seinfeld invited him on the show because his Oscar-winning role in the film Inglourious Basterds, as Nazi Hans Landa, is both horrifying and really, really funny. It’s an amazing performance that walks a tightrope between cruelty and delight, and well worth watching (it’s one of my all-time favourite films, too).
There’s a part during the Comedians in Cars show when Seinfeld brings up this role, and asks Christoph Waltz all about how he managed to pull it off. Christoph says something really interesting about acting:
“I think it’s a very practical thing. It’s more of a craft than an art. The art is in the writing.”
And then he says:
“I don’t believe that there are good actors and bad actors. I think there’s appropriate casting and wrong casting. So if you are right for the part, you will be good. And if you’re wrong, you can be the best actor in the world, and you will be bad. The rest is…showing off.”
I think this is pretty revolutionary. This idea, that a movie or a play or a TV show is built on the writing, not the acting, is contrary to what a lot of people think. People idolize actors; they are the faces they want to take selfies with, they are the ones they want to see on the red carpets. I bet I could put a dozen pictures here of top writers and you wouldn’t even recognize them; maybe you don’t even know their names, even the Academy Award winning ones. You’d probably recognize Woody Allen, but that’s because he gets in front of the camera. Maybe you could point out Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino. But could you pick Billy Wilder or Ingmar Bergman out of a lineup? Have you ever even heard of Charles Brackett or Paddy Chayefsky, each of whom have won three Oscars for screenwriting?
I’m not upset or anything – maybe it’s a good thing that writers are free to toil away in quiet rooms and the dark back corners of pubs, rather than being mobbed by admirers whenever they go out. Maybe that’s how they can turn what they do into an art, instead of poor actors who, apparently only have a craft.
But I do think, maybe, there’s a marriage between writing and acting that can elevate either into something special. The right combination can create magic – and the wrong combination can mean disaster. I’ve definitely seen actors in some parts where they seemed terrible, and then in other places where they were brilliant. It’s interesting to think that the problem isn’t the writing or the acting, but just the fit between the two.
(Maybe “Best Casting” should be an Academy category – hm.)
I’m pretty pleased, in any case, to see an actor I admire give the real credit to writing. I’ve never much been interested in writing a screenplay, but maybe if Christoph Waltz is interested, I’ll give it a shot.