David Strathairn Interview

The veteran actor plays Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney's latest film, Good Night, and Good Luck.

Edward R. Murrow was the greatest newsman of his day. He spoke to America during the dawn of the television age and set the standard for integrity in journalism. In 1953, during the height of McCarthyism and ‘The Red Scare', Murrow took on Senator Joseph McCarthy and challenged his tactics in front of the entire country. Good Night, Good Luck, was Murrow's trademark denouement. The film is based on this particular event. It shows, quite brilliantly, the dangerous line Murrow and his colleagues walked in their defense of American ideals. David Strathairn, one of Hollywood's venerable character actors, steps into the lead to portray Murrow. Strathairn perfectly captures Murrow's acerbic wit and hard-nosed delivery. It is an exceptional performance that's sure to be recognized at award time.

How did you research this role? Did the script give you deeper insight into Murrow than his news footage?

David Strathairn: There's always more than what's on the page. They're two different beasts, so to speak, like when you have to pull something out of the imagination of the author. It's a fictitious thing. You're responsible to a different set of circumstances, but always you're responsible to the script. And in this particular case, it wasn't a biopic. George [Clooney] wasn't exploring a man in a bar or alone on his farm, so that to a certain extent focused what I had to be attentive to. But yes, there is a responsibility when there is a historical character. Especially of such magnitude as someone like Edward R. Murrow, that you are at least respectful of the people who know him and are still alive. And then there's a responsibility to present as objective and respectful an image to people who have no idea who he is.

How do you play Murrow as a character without doing an impersonation of him?

David Strathairn: No, this is not an impersonation; because this is particularly an event around a television moment. That is where his public presence mushroomed. There were images that were iconic and we have lots of archival footage to look at.

Can you talk about working with George Clooney as a director? What was different about him?

David Strathairn: The making of it, day to day, was a delight, just to put it mildly. There's a particular requisite of directing a film, and he knows how to do it. You feel like there's a safety net for you, which actors need. Especially when they're treated, from A to Z, as though they're a part of the team. And no one's safe from any jokes.

Did George make you the brunt of any practical jokes?

David Strathairn: I wasn't. Casting me was a practical joke, I think. The boys in the newsroom had a lot going on. But no one person was the brunt of everything.

What was the most difficult scene to film?

David Strathairn: A couple of the broadcasts were pretty scary because of the tight, finite relationship with the camera. The movement was so constrained. And the words are so important and the cadence and the focus. I was scared about those. But at the same time, George gives you a sense of trust and allowance and support. You have a feeling he's getting what he wants. There's a freedom there, but also keeping Murrow in focus.

Do you think Murrow had any problems in front of the camera? Did he embrace it?

David Strathairn: No, absolutely not. He was a very humble man who shied away from the limelight, even though if he embraced it in a fashion, like in London. He was very aware of the camera. I think he was propelled by an innateness throughout this. He wasn't saying I'm going to make a hero out of myself, or I'm going to go after these people. It took him a long time to get into the game. He was very reticent to go out.

Did Murrow ever have any doubts? Did he ever question going after McCarthy?

David Strathairn: Great question, because after almost every broadcast he was sweating, he was very nervous. And I think he felt that he hoped he was doing the right thing. But I think he never was quite sure if he got it right.

Are the themes of this movie relevant today? Is it an indictment of The Patriot Act?

David Strathairn: Maybe it's no coincidence that the film is being released the same week it's being voted upon. If it is a platform for potential neurosurgery to be applied on that, then yes. But George will adamantly say this was not intended as a prosthletizing polarizing picture.

There's a lot of smoking in the film.

David Strathairn: You have to, because that's what they did.

Did you pick-up the habit on set?

David Strathairn: No.

Was there a lot of rehearsal time? What did you do to make the newsroom so authentic?

David Strathairn: We were given copies of the times from March 1953. So we had the headlines of what was happening that day, or the day before. And George would say, "You're going to cover local news, you're going to do the obits, come up with a story about today and pitch your story during the scene. Boom there we go. You try to find something that is not directly related to the scene that day, but something that's germane to the issues. We got our hair and makeup done and everyone's memorizing lines. George would come in and say, "What you got?" It was a really testament to the ensemble, these guys were amazing.

Murrow had a wry sense of humor. How did you convey that in the film?

David Strathairn: George gave me all the funny lines. I mean, he didn't give me any funny lines. He told me if you do this, you're going to get a laugh. I wasn't aware of a particular moment of Murrow's sense of humor. He was quick. He was witty.

The media gets criticized today for not being critical of the establishment. Do you share that belief?

David Strathairn: How many journalists are there now, who want to say something? I mean, how many journalists are between a rock and a hard place now? Those people who are embedded somewhere and can't get their stuff out. What is most insidious today is you can't go, "It's Joseph R. McCarthy and point a finger." The fear that is in the room today is not as specific as it was then. You could be compromised in so many other ways than losing your job or going to jail. You may not even know you're being compromised. Maybe this film can encourage and give hopes to those people.

The film was premiered at a gala in honor of another legendary newsman, Walter Cronkite. What was he like?

David Strathairn: It was in his honor, but he somehow had been touted as the host of the evening. So he got up and said, "It's an honor to be here as your host, but I want you to know I'm not paying for this."

Good Night, Good Luck. opens in NY and LA this Friday with a wider opening October 14.