AFI FEST Panel: Playing Political Figures To Those Simply In Love – Anton Yelchin, Evan Rachel Wood, Armie Hammer and Kirsten Dunst Talk Being Young in Hollywood
This year’s Young Hollywood panel (presented by the Los Angeles Times) brought together rising stars Anton Yelchin, Evan Rachel Wood, Armie Hammer and Kirsten Dunst to discuss how they got started in acting, what it is like working with impressive (and at times intimidating) directors like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen and David Fincher and how their success is shaping their careers. Hammer and Dunst are each featured in films screening at the festival (J. Edgar and Melancholia, respectively) with Hammer as Edgar’s right-hand man and Dunst as a depressed bride. Yelchin and Wood have been getting attention for their performances as one half of a long distance relationship in Like Crazy and the tempting intern who may undo an entire presidential campaign in The Ides of March.
The four came together Friday night (with Hammer fresh off the premiere of J. Edgar the night before) and there was a palpable energy between them as they would get so excited or intrigued by another person’s answer it would sometimes feel like we were simply overhearing a conversation between new friends. It was interesting to see Hammer surrounded by three actors who have been doing this since they were young (as he is just getting started in his career) and how he was just as engaged in their answers as the audience, asking which project they would be referring to in a story or simply being shocked over hearing about directors who preferred to do scenes in a single take.
Since AFI Fest takes place in the heart of Hollywood at the famous Grauman’s Chinese theater, the four were asked to what their first “Hollywood” moment was. Wood revealed that, like most fellow fourteen year olds, she was a fan of Clueless and while she was filming Thirteen, Jeremy Sisto (who had played Elton in Clueless) drove her home and all she could think was how cool it was to have Elton driving her home, just like he did with Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in the film (but without Sisto abandoning her in the Valley at the end of their ride). Even though she started her career acting alongside Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire, Dunst said her first real Hollywood moment was when she moved into her current home and realized Michael Stipe was her neighbor. As a big R.E.M. fan, she said it is still surreal to have Stipe ask her to be in his music videos or sing her acoustic jams on occasion. (With Wood whole-heartedly agreeing) Yelchin had a very specific view of Hollywood thanks to a trip to a “restaurant/arcade/sex shop” with his uncle near the Knickerbocker hotel when he was five and witnessed a group of punk kids walk up to someone’s table and take a bite out of their cupcake. Yelchin was so struck by this image he said that is what he still thinks of when he thinks of Hollywood. Hammer, like Dunst, had a more recent “Hollywood” moment at the DGA awards when Kevin Spacey introduced him to Clint Eastwood (since Hammer was to begin filming J. Edgar the next day) and even though Hammer freaked out at the idea of meeting the famous director unprepared, he relented and after introductions Eastwood simply told him, “I’m looking forward to seeing what you do tomorrow.” (No pressure!)
When preparing for a role, Hammer revealed that he actually works with his own researcher to help him really dive into the characters he is set to portray while Dunst said she leaves the research aspect up to the director and with a film like Melancholia, looked to director Lars von Trier’s own experience with depression to help in her preparation for that role. On the topic of directors, Hammer said there was a stark difference between working with a director like David Fincher in The Social Network who would stop a scene because someone’s head may not have been at the right angle versus Eastwood who would essentially say, “Stand where you want.” Although intimidating at first, Hammer said it showed the level of trust Eastwood had in his actors. Wood confirmed that with Woody Allen, it is all about the casting and was terrified her first day of shooting Whatever Works because Allen was known for firing actors on the first day if it did not feel like it was working. (Luckily for Wood, Allen stood by his casting choice)
Having each worked with big names like Fincher, Eastwood and Allen, Yelchin recalled being twelve and screen testing for Hearts In Atlantis with Anthony Hopkins and being so nervous his eye began twitching and would not stop twitching for the rest of the day. He said after that he realized that you just need to stay focused on yourself and not get overwhelmed or caught up in who you are working with. Wood agreed that to be an actor, you have to be fearless otherwise you will regret a performance where you held something back. All four admitted that although it can be intimidating to work with well-known names, it is really a moment to shine and work with high caliber artists and the key is to remember that and take in that moment.
With award season starting to gear up again, the panel was asked how taxing it is to go through the awards circuit (as Hammer did last year with the success of The Social Network). Wood said if you care about what you created and worked so hard on (yes – there was a brief pause as Wood cracked herself up over inadvertently saying “hard on”), you will want to spend time talking about it. Hammer said it is simply an odd job where you go to a hotel and essentially get locked in a room for the day and get asked the same questions by a slew of different people while having to make your answers sound fresh each time. He agreed that the process is certainly easier if you pick projects you could (and would want to) talk about all day.
All four agreed that while nominations and awards are always nice (and can help boost your paycheck), they are most helpful in getting smaller projects made or recognized since that success can help translate into funding for non-studio films. With a film like Like Crazy, Yelchin said he was most impressed that it proved how anyone can make a movie now – just grab a camera and ten friends who want to tell a story and are willing to help make it, making this an incredibly inspiring time in filmmaking. Dunst noted that there are certainly differences between a big budget film like Spider-Man versus a smaller film like Like Crazy and the challenge with bigger films is keeping your energy up since those scenes can take a while to set up whereas Yelchin, Felicity Jones and director Drake Doremus would be able just take a camera and go film their scenes for hours on end.
Wood spoke briefly about the differences between television and movies (having acted in HBO’s True Blood and Mildred Pierce), noting that television shoots much quicker than a movie, but that accelerated pace helps to keep the energy high. Hammer had a brief stint on Gossip Girl and said television was a strange experience for him because his character’s entire back-story would change from moment to moment. First he was set to play a man from Spain then from France and then finally from a plantation in the South making his job as an actor and getting into character a bit of a whirlwind. Hammer did give some good advice to the audience telling any other aspiring actors to take the craft seriously in order to be successful at it, which he did not do at first and equates that with his lack of success in the beginning. He advised to truly know yourself because then you can better know the different characters you are playing.
As for what keeps them excited from project to project, Yelchin joked that “crafty” (meaning craft services) is what keeps him coming back. Hammer said he honestly loves everything about his job so it never feels like work to him (even if it means getting up for a 4am call time) while Wood and Dunst agreed that any time you are immersed in a scene and you experience a true moment with another actor, those are the moments that drive them to chase down that experience again and again.