In Conversation with Alexander Payne: I like Actors That Can Act Quickly

Aspiring actors, listen up. Here’s what filmmaker Alexander Payne is looking for, whether he’s casting for the lead role or a one-line extra. “A movie needs to be zippy, so I like actors who act quickly,” says Payne. That doesn’t mean the actor needs to be a fast talker. Payne says he’s “been at this professionally for 25 years” and is “impressed when actors can communicate whatever needs to be communicated efficiently, delightfully, and effectively.

Kurosawa used to say that he liked working with Toshiro Mifune because Mifune could express in three gestures what took other actors seven.”

Payne says, “I’ve always been very much interested in wordless storytelling,” adding, “And I like to keep movies at or under two hours, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with excellent actors throughout my career.” Payne’s films include Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways, and About Schmidt. Those are proof that his filmmaking style is quirky and quick, and he has a panache for finding the perfect person for each part.

Matt Damon is one such actor. He worked with the director on 2017’s Downsizing. Damon has admitted to being astonished by Payne’s meticulous process.
“That was the first chance I had to work with Alexander. He’s very sure of himself and the shots he needs to make. I’m not saying he tries to be overly controlling.

But, instead, he knows when he’s got the shot — that’s good. It makes you feel like you’re in the hands of a master director,” said Damon. “I am proud of the film,” says Payne. “Many of us put a lot of heart, soul, and love into that film.”

Hollywood Heavyweights and The Holdovers

Meryl Streep, Jeff Bridges, Marion Cotillard, Clarke Peters, and Javier Bardem are just a few of the actors Payne hopes to work with someday. “There is an efficiency to my work now, which I am enjoying,” shares Payne. He’s currently working on The Holdovers, which takes place in the 1970s at a New England boarding school during Christmas break.

“At the same time that I’m directing this, I have two or three other scripts percolating,” he says. “I’m chipping away at some myself and am also working with other writers and giving notes.” Payne says he would like “to move quickly from film to film,” but in his experience, getting the screenplay right “is the hard part.

I really think that is the hardest part of all filmmaking. On the one hand, I want to be making a film every single day of my life. On the other hand, I want to speak only when I have something to say.” Payne believes that an essential trait for directors “is to love people and to love his or her characters.”

He says, “I am extremely happy and feel extremely lucky about being able to have a career in filmmaking. I desperately love movies and am so glad that my love of watching movies as a film geek was able to translate into a career.” Payne also enjoys mentoring the next generation of screenwriters and filmmakers. “I’m working with one young writer who is writing a script for me,” he says. “He tells me how much he is learning from me, which is flattering. I hope that is true.”

Alexander Payne on the Importance of Extras

“It’s always hard to come up with an idea, realize it, flesh it out, and get financing,” says Payne.

Sure, casting A-list actors can help a film get financed, filmed, and marketed well enough to get people into seats, which results in skyrocketing receipts.

However, Payne believes that secondary characters are often the ones doing the heavy lifting in his films.

“It’s easier on leads because they have the landscape of the entire film to build their characters,” he says. “It is tougher for bit players or smaller character parts because they have to suggest an entire human being in one or two or three scenes.”

The 61-year-old director tends to cast a mix of highly seasoned professionals alongside nonprofessional actors from, say, community theater and real-life people with zero previous acting experience.

For example, he engaged actual retired farmers for his 2013 film Nebraska.

“It was a long process of putting out casting notices,” recalls Payne. “Slowly but surely, over months, some of these farmers’ children submitted audition tapes. That is how we began to assemble the cast.

There are many people in Nebraska — Bruce Dern’s character’s brothers and their wives — who have spent their entire lives in rural Nebraska and had never even been in a high school play.”

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