Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. When I walked into the room to sit down with the legendary Martin Landau, I figured 15 minutes was just about enough time to at least scratch the surface of his amazing career while also digging into his thoughts on the incredibly memorable voice work he did for Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, but that assumption was about inaccurate as you can get.
You’ll notice this interview is strange in that I don’t ask many questions. Turns out it’s best to keep your dirty mouth shut when Martin Landau is speaking because he’ll shower you with stories with even the slightest bit of prodding. He even gave me a little show, flawlessly dropping in and out of character voices during the interview. It was actually pretty amazing to witness. At 84 years old he was still sharp as can be and had more energy than I do!
Unfortunately that meant I didn’t get a chance to discuss working with Hitchcock or Rod Serling like I desperately wanted to, but perhaps there’s an AICN Legends chat in our future. You never know, but I’d love it. Hell, I’d jump at the chance if only to tell him how much I adore Alone in the Dark (the 1982 slasher movie, not the bullshit Uwe Boll video game movie).
Anyway, the only bit of background you need going into this interview is that when I was introduced I brought up our previous, brief encounter when Mr. Landau came to Austin for the premiere of EDTV with Ron Howard and the rest of the cast. He was very nice to engage an 18 year old me in conversation and that chat stuck with me ever since.
At the mention of that event, Mr. Landau slipped on a Southern drawl and I flipped on the recorder. Here’s the conversation that transpired. Enjoy!
Martin Landau: We had a nice time, I’ll tell you that. We had a good hoedown!
Quint: I remember the post-screening party at Antones.
Martin Landau: That was a big ol’ party! Now, I’m talkin’ like a southerner now, but that happens to me, know what I’m sayin’? Matthew (McConaughey) played my stepson in that picture, as did Woody (Harrelson). Ron Howard directed it and Sally Kirkland played my wife. Yep, that was a few hours ago.
Quint: I remember being really impressed that after Jimmy Vaughn played and Matthew and Woody and all those guys ditched out it was you still hanging out, closing down the party.
Martin Landau: In those days I was younger. Outside of my back, which acts up and I carry this (holds up a cane) for that, I don’t feel that much different. I’m still pretty alert and fortunately long-term memory and short-term memory is okay. (Knocks on the table loudly) Come in! Oh, sorry. (laughs)
Quint: Well, thank you for being so nice to me back then. I’m a big fan of yours, so it meant a lot.
Martin Landau: Well, hey. Why wouldn’t I be? You’re a nice fella! Until someone does something terrible to me, why wouldn’t I be nice? (laughs) Tim (Burton) is a nice guy and a very talented guy. I know other guys who are nasty.
Quint: Do you think part of the reason Tim has an almost Orson Welles-like stable of actors that come back to work with him time and again is because they enjoy working with him not just on a professional level, but on a personal one as well?
Martin Landau: I understand him. A good director creates a playground for actors. That’s what a good director does. I literally have not been directed for 30 years. I come in with stuff, having thought about it and having made some choices and I think if they don’t like it they’ll tell me. Well, they don’t tell me, so I do what I do.
I’ve never met two people who are alike, so each character is very, very specific. They come from different environments, they are physiologically different and as a result they are emotionally different. They speak differently because (slips on a thick Irish accent) “You know, all the Irish guys I grew up wit in New Yawk tawk like dis. Only de Irish guys. Jimmy Cagney sounded like dis, Carrol O’Connor… All Irish New Yawkers.”
The Italian guys are different. (Italian accent) “Hey, comeovah here, I wanna ask you sumpin. Stay deh hell outta dis. You’re a nice, healthy guy, I want you to stay that way. Why you laughin’? I’m talkin’ to you!”
It’s all about music. With Ed Wood, he had to be Hungarian. It was Bela Lugosi! I mean, God… I even said to Tim, “If after five minutes this Landau guy isn’t doing a good job, we don’t have a film. They’ve got to believe I’m Bela Lugosi and I’ve got to find out how to do that.
This guy (Frankenweenie’s Mr. Rzykruski), it says in the script he’s European. He’s not Hungarian. He’s not German. He’s not Russian. Basically he’s not anything but European. I had to create a dialect, in a sense. He came “Slobovia…” where all the slobs come from. (laughs) What I’m saying is, it’s sort of a generic guy from everywhere and nowhere. He’s a zealot, he’s passionate, he’s sensitive and idiosyncratic and very undiplomatic.
Quint: He speaks his mind. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is your character addressing the audience of parents.
Martin Landau: If you’re a teacher and have a meeting with the parents and tell them they’re stupid and expect to hold that job… He commits professional suicide! I like the character. He sees himself in Victor. He’s a little crazy, but he loves science. I can understand it, you know? I love acting and I love theater and I love film and half the people who make them don’t know anything about making them and/or acting.
There are a lot of actors who are considered good actors who are not good actors. All an audience wants to believe is that what’s going on up there is happening for the first time ever. If I have to laugh at a joke, it’s funny the first time, but if I have to do it 15 times, which I have to in a film… Or cry. No one tries to cry. How you hide your feelings tells us who a character is. Try not to cry. You don’t try to laugh, no one tries to laugh except bad actors. Why? If I tell a racial joke and you laugh, you’re telling me something about yourself. A drunk doesn’t try to be drunk. He’s tries to be sober. He wants another drink. He’s trying to get the bartender to believe!
Anyway, the point I’m making is that how a character hides his feelings tells us who he is. Most actors don’t do that. They show you what they’re feeling. That’s bad acting. Bad, bad, bad acting. Some of those are big movie stars who are considered very good actors and the press thinks they’re great actors. They’re terrible and they put me to sleep. It’s totally predictable! I know how a scene is going to end before it starts. Anyway, I’m a bit of a snob. I am artistic director of Actor’s Studio West, Mark Rydell, who directed On Golden Pond and The Rose, and I. The New York Actor’s Studio is run by Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel.
Quint: It’s clear that you give the voicework your all in the film. Is that a different process artistically than your typical film performance?
Martin Landau: It’s fascinating. If I had been on camera, I would have played it the way it was animated. This is what knocked me out. If you do the voice, it’s then up to the animators. You do the voice first, it’s not the other way around. They have to make it work, but it’s exactly how I would have played it! That’s what baffled me.
The character, in an odd way, looks like me younger and Vincent Price younger. It looks like me in a certain way and he behaves exactly as I would have behaved in this part, which knocked me out when I saw the movie because you’re relinquishing that in this instance.
Behavior is a very important part of a character. Lugosi’s behavior is different from mine. He had a different energy to the fingertips, he had a softer hand, I have a lot of teeth and he had a black hole… It was very different.
Anyway, I love this movie (Frankenweenie) because it was a movie he wanted to make 30 years ago and didn’t get a chance to make it. He is Victor! That is what is sensational to me.
Quint: I really like the opening of the movie, when Victor shows his family his home movie. It tells the audience right away that the whole movie is all about the love of storytelling.
Martin Landau: I know! I think his two most autobiographical movies are Edward Scissorhands and this, in terms of who Tim is. He’s that misfit kid who didn’t fit in. He had his own predilections and lived in a nice row of houses in Burbank and was odd. He still is that kid. That’s the thing that’s wonderful. He never lost this movie. He loves stop-motion and he was very hands-on.
Quint: Another aspect of the movie I really liked was that you can see the fingerprints of the animators from frame to frame. There is a drive to make stop-motion animation perfect, but there’s some degree of warmth in seeing the ruffle of a puppet’s clothes. It reminded me of seeing Willis O’Brien’s fingerprints on Kong.
Martin Landau: Absolutely. It’s gotten more sophisticated, but this is what Tim grew up with. The character of stop-motion as opposed to CGI animation… it’s different, there’s no question it’s different. He wants that. Thirty years later he could have made this differently.
The one good thing that he wouldn’t have had 30 years ago is the 3-D aspect of it, which is used well, I think. You don’t have things falling into your lap. It’s not about that. It’s about putting you in it in a certain way and it’s done without self-consciousness.
Quint: And considering the type of films Frankenweenie is a love letter to, there’s a precedence for the use. Creature From the Black Lagoon was a big 3-D release.
Martin Landau: House of Wax! I remember them from when they first came out, sitting there like a boob with those blue and red glasses. I used to look around and everyone in the theater was wearing these paper glasses and ducking away from Vincent Price!
What I’m saying is Frankenweenie is great and I’m happy Tim made this film because it comes from some place deep inside him, I promise you that. And it’s good!
Quint: You can feel the passion behind the film for sure.
Martin Landau: You gotta realize… he’s in Hollywood, working with big budgets and he still only makes things he wants to make. The only other person who does that, and he had to go to Europe to continue, is Woody Allen. Very different kinds of movies, but Woody couldn’t do it anymore here. He never did it in Hollywood, he did it apart from Hollywood, and his sources dried up.
Tim… there’s no one else who would do this. Who would have made Ed Wood, for Christ’s sake, outside of Tim Burton? He was supposed to do a movie with Julia Roberts and then got the script. When I talked to him, he said “I was supposed to do this other movie, but I talked with Johnny Depp and if you do this movie with us we’re not going to do the other movie.”
I had never met him before and he’s telling me this! He said, “I don’t know anyone else who can do Lugosi.” I said, “What are you talking about? There’s 100,000 actors in SAG.” He said, “I don’t know anyone else who could do it.” I said, “I’m not sure I can.” I mean, a 74 year old Hungarian morphine addict alcoholic would be hard enough, but he’s gotta be Bela Lugosi, for Christ’s sake!
Bottom line, he and Johnny said if I didn’t do it they weren’t going to do the movie and I didn’t even know the guy! But he knew that I understood Lugosi’s plight.
Mr. Landau’s boundless energy and eagerness to discuss his art and life’s work made this interview feel real short as we were sitting together and I hope some of that energy worked its way into the transcription for you guys.
God willing I’ll get to follow up with Mr. Landau in the near future and discuss some of his earlier work, but this chat wasn’t too shabby if I don’t say so myself. Hope you guys dug it!