In a perfect world, David Strathairn – who will be gracing the Read Local! Red Hook Literary Festival with a live reading of a short story by his longtime collaborator John Sayles – would not be forever pigeonholed as a “character actor.” Especially following his Best Actor Oscar nomination for his remarkable performance as pioneering telejournalist Edward R. Murrow confronting McCarthyism in George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck in 2005, Strathairn should have been peppered with offers for leading-man roles – one would think.
“Character roles are mostly what is presented,” he said in a recent interview with Almanac Weekly. “Casting agents have a tendency to see you in terms of what you have already done. Age is also a factor. Nowadays I get to play figures of authority.” Those sorts of roles have included kings and dukes, doctors and bosses, judges and senators; action movie fans know Strathairn for his portrayal of a CIA honcho in a couple of the Bourne films. Most recently, he brought his capacity for gravitas and a dignified, patrician bearing to the role of Secretary of State William H. Seward in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
“It was quite special,” said the soft-spoken Strathairn of that experience. “Spielberg surrounds himself with top-shelf people…. Every director has a different way of communicating their thoughts. You’re always learning something: a different way to peel the onion.”
But even on Lincoln, the actor was deprived of what one might have regarded as his due level of appreciation: Not only did he miss out on the Supporting Actor nominations snagged by Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, but he didn’t even get to take home that smashing yellow silk dressing gown that Seward wore around the house in the film. Strathairn laughed when I asked about it, and noted that the luxurious garment was entirely in keeping with the secretary’s real-life belongings, which he had researched at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York. “He liked the finer things in life. He loved art and fine furniture.”
Doing his homework into characters’ backstories may be part of the explanation for how fully Strathairn seems to vanish into his roles. “I think doing research is important – not only historically, but because it helps you bring out traits and affectations that tell you something about the character,” he said. “Historical stuff is always fun.”
Although “Story comes first” for Strathairn, in terms of deciding which parts to accept, “I like characters who are fleshed-out, complex and valid and have a reason to be there – not just a plot-driver. I’ve played good guys, bad guys; I haven’t done too many funny guys.”