As Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, David Strathairn doesn’t just play the famous newsman — he channels him. It’s an act of conjuring in which every fiber of Strathairn’s body seems possessed of Murrow’s dogged perseverance, honesty and conviction that he wasn’t merely staring into a camera’s lens but looking straight into the eyes of every viewer out there in TV land. As Clooney himself says of the actor, “The movie doesn’t exist without him. I don’t know another actor who could play the role. I got very lucky.” It’s a role for which Strathairn, best known for his work in the ensemble casts of director John Sayles, was awarded the best-actor prize at last month’s Venice Film Festival, and for which he must surely be considered an Oscar front-runner. Recently, I spoke with him about the delicate art of bringing Edward R. Murrow back to life.
L.A. WEEKLY:Is there a particular challenge in playing a figure as well known as Edward R. Murrow that you wouldn’t encounter playing a completely fictional character? DAVID STRATHAIRN: Obviously, the outside is accessible with somebody like Murrow, who’s been documented not only in words but in film and in people’s minds. So there’s just a whole treasure trove of available stuff that you can access, whereas you just have to bring all of that out of the ether for a character that is pure creation. So the challenges are different in that respect, and perhaps there’s a slipperier slope when you’re dealing with a historical character, in particular a legend and in particular a hero — to be responsible to that memory.
So how do you find the essence of a character like Murrow? You’re always looking for a handle to carry you through, whether it’s “What controlled substance would my character abuse himself with?” or “What book would he read?” There’s a whole gamut. In this story, in this man, in this film, I think the situation called for finding a handle about Murrow that was particular to what was happening, to the event. That’s what I tried to do, to figure out what was going on inside this man’s mind as he was sitting there on TV, relaxed, posed, almost catatonic at times. It became about his sense of confidence and ease — that this is where he belonged, that this is where he felt at home, in this kind of frenetic, dangerous environment. It became about giving a sense that, behind that exterior image of a man sitting taciturn in the back of the room, something was burning inside. Even today, there’s so many things about him that remain a mystery to me.
What about the smoking? It was hard for the first week — it was more difficult thinking about it than actually doing it. I was so paranoid. I thought for sure I’d lose my voice after a couple of days. So I experimented with all kinds of cigarettes and ended up actually smoking pipe tobacco, which smelled a little bit better.
What were Clooney’s strengths as a director? How he participated with us — how he made everyone feel that they all had as important a task and contribution. He was with us as well as apart from us. He’d be in the scene — right there with us on the ice, everyone’s just throwing the puck back and forth — and then, “Okay, we’re going to do this again, but we’re going to do X, Y and Z differently.” Since he has acted, he has an idea of the best environment for an actor to be working in, and he created that. It freed you up to do what you felt you wanted to do.
How did you view the relationship between Murrow and Fred Friendly? It was like actor and director in a way, because Friendly really directed the day. He micromanaged the news, everyone’s assignments. He was the stage manager who gives you your cues — the man with a finger on everything. Which George was. He cast himself perfectly, although he cut too much of himself out of the movie, I think. There was so much more to show, how important Friendly was in that respect. He was there, at Murrow’s feet. He was his handler. He was his guide. He’s the man who’s taking him over the rapids — he’s sitting there with both oars, and Murrow’s the one trying to chart the course.