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Thessaloniki: Tandem Master Class with Chris Cooper & David Strathairn

Day number five of the fest opened with a One-Two punch tandem Master Class delivered by Oscar winner Chris Cooper and multiple award nominee Davis Strathairn, two of the best character actors currently active in American cinema. Both are here in Thessaloniki accompanying director John Sayles on his full-scale career retrospective, ongoing throughout the festival. Both actors have appeared in a wide variety of roles in Sayles pictures and have made their mark in countless other films with various other directors.

Strathairn came to wide international recognition for his iconic portrayal of mythical American journalist, Edward R. Murrow in "Goodnight and Good Luck", directed by George Clooney in 2005, and Cooper was attributed a Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of a Swamp rat recluse opposite Meryl Streep in "Adaptation", 2002. He was also remarkable as the gay ex-marine living next door to Kevin Spacey in "American Beauty", a multiple Oscar winner in "American Beauty", 1999, and as the savvy horse trainer in "Seabiscuit", 2003. Both are the kind of actors who can disappear so fully into a role that one barely remembers them except as the character in question. There are many other shared commonalities between them, (original roots in the theatre, near contemporaries in age, born 1949 and 1951, respectively) although they tend to portray vastly different kinds of characters on screen, Strathairn more at home in urbane sophisticated roles, whereas Cooper, who hails from Missouri and Texas, is more likely to appear as an earthy mid-westerner or a sly country bloke.

In response to an audience query as to what questions he would himself ask a director when trying to decide whether or not to accept a part offered, Strathairn, after considerable reflection, said that he would, first, want to know why the director chose him in particular over other candidates for the role, secondly, what was the directors view of the character, and, finally, what was he trying to say with the film. Both actors agreed that “having to go to places with a character who goes very much against the grain of your own personal beliefs” – i.e., playing unsavoury or politically loathsome characters – (the gay Marine in “American Beauty”, the Bush-like politician in “Silver City”, the psychotic cop in “My Blueberry Nights”, the dyslexic babbler in “City of Hope”) -- sometimes forces them to do their best work.

Cooper and Strathairn have both been featured in numerous Sayles films in both supporting and leading roles and regard him as a mainstay of their acting careers. Asked if he ever does a job just for the money Cooper replied that it was “about a three-to-one proportion – three good films he really wants to do, and one ‘whore job’ to pay the bills. What these two unusual screen craftsmen really share, however, is a kind of theatrical honesty which makes them totally believable no matter what the role, and a dedication to the profession that is a light year away from the narcissism of Hollywood. One might also add that both actors have very distinctive speech patterns (in Strathairn’s case an almost professorial, vocabulary-rich delivery, with Cooper, a seductive mid-western drawl that isn’t quite a drawl after all…) and a kind of low-key screen charisma that ploughs them into your sub-conscious whether you like it or not.

This session turned out to be a true "master class" in that it had the qualities of a compact College Course that could have been entitled "Screen Acting 101", monitored, incidentally, by festival president, George Corraface, who is himself a well-known Greek actor and a dead ringer for the early Tony Curtis. The entire proceedings were recorded on tape and will comprise a separate report elsewhere. Some of the subjects covered were; the influence of dreams in the role preparation process, the various approaches to the composition of a character, working methods -- staying in or out of character during the filming process, the joys and difficulties of the metier, and innumerable personal observations from lengthy parallel careers. Suffice it to say that this two-hour tandem disquisition on the art, psychology, and philosophy of acting, both screen and theatrical, was alone worth the trip to Greece.

Of films seen during the day, two are worthy of special mention. In the ongoing section on New Spanish cinema, "The Ferpect Crime" (El Crimen Ferpecto) which deals with a very Imperfectly accomplished killing by a department store Don Giovanni, was a rip roarer, with co-star, delicious Ugly Duckling Monica Cervera, in attendance, and "Juno", Jason Reitman's follow-up to "Thank You For Smoking" wowed an eleven PM audience. The latter film was very well received in Toronto and won a prize at the recent Rome festival. The mostly unknown cast, especially newcomer Ellen Page (the saucy 16 year old heroine) and Jason Bateman, the reluctant adoptive father, will certainly emerge from obscurity with this one.

by Alex Deleon, for www.filmfestivals.com

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