Though not quite the stars of Trumbo, actors Josh Lucas (Sweet
Home Alabama) and David Strathairn (Good Night and Good Luck),
join with Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti,
Danny Glover, Nathan Lane and Liam Neeson to lend a theatrical voice
to this cinematic testament about the late screenwriter Dalton
Trumbo. Based on a theatrical version that had been staged in New
York and Los Angeles several years ago (created by Trumbo's son,
Christopher), this film uses the letters Trumbo wrote to friends and
foes alike, plus mixes in documentary footage, historical archives
and theatrical readings to make this award-worthy release.
In the first flush of anti-communist Congressional investigations
(they were witch-hunts really) led by Senator Joe McCarthy, Trumbo
was arguably the most famous of the "Unfriendly Ten" screenwriters
who were blacklisted in 1947. Until the early '60s, when Trumbo's
name finally reappeared on the films Spartacus and Exodus,
he wrote under a pseudonym for a very few producers who were willing
to help him.
Now through director Peter Askin's documentary, the dramatized
readings from Chris Trumbo's epistolary drama been couple with
newsreels, interviews, and the few film clips of Trumbo that exist
to fill the historical gaps missing from the play. Not only does
this documentary show how defiant Trumbo was, but how his insistent
visibility eventually helped break the Blacklist. More importantly,
it illustrates how easily the process to erode civil rights rolls
forward once things start down that slippery slope as is happening
Since Trumbo was such a prominent figure in Hollywood over a
half-century ago, it was important to discuss him and his legacy
with Hollywood stars Lucas and Strathairn not just because they
portrayed him through these readings but because both, in their
own unique way, have been so affected by his legacy. Both veteran
actors discussed their experience and his impact recently in New
Each of you brings something new to the Dalton Trumbo letters you
read. How did you get into Trumbo's head?
David Strathairn: Well, it's a steep slope to get into his
head actually, but I've done a bunch of readings of short stories
and play readings, and that's kind of the format. I tried to find
some music to it so it's listenable, and then what you are saying
starts to couple-up with that. When poets or writers read their
stuff, it's not performative and therefore, maybe not as engaging.
So the challenge was how you give his aesthetic, plus present it in
as clear a form.
Josh Lucas: I had a great experience last year, when I did
[the play] "Spalding Gray: Stories Left Untold," which was, in a
sense, the same format as this where you have actors performing as a
character in a way. They structured that play with five actors
playing five different essences of Spalding, and that created the
whole Spalding, because Spalding himself was so complex, and I think
there's something quite similar here in that you have a character
who has awesome literary intelligence and intellect, but also anger,
rage, and incredible humor.
The reason why the film works in this format is because watching
Nathan Lane do that piece on masturbation is amazing. And for me, it
was about saying how do you relate this particular story in your
life who you are, and where you are to what this man might have
been going through, and this was the process that was fun for me.
Particularly because my piece was somewhat romantic, and has quite a
bit of pathos underneath it because he's in prison as he's reading
Did you choose the particular letters of Trumbo's that you read
or were they assigned to you?
David Strathairn: They were assigned. Peter [Askin, the
director] or whoever ], decided that these were the ones that were
assigned. I don't remember him saying why
The actors reading the letters seem to embody, to take a word
from Josh, the "essence" of Trumbo, brilliantly conveying different
aspects of his persona. What sort of research did you do to get
yourselves into character?
Josh Lucas: I think one of the things the film had to deal
with in its construction was that there wasn't a lot of footage on
Trumbo, and much of it is used in the film, and I think that's why
actors were necessary to tell the story to hear the letters, hear
the writing and the incredibly razor-sharp nuances of how the
letters are constructed like poetry.
So what we had to work with, for me at least, was not dissimilar to
what you see in the film. But mostly what Peter [the director]
wanted to do for us was to get our take on it, and not necessarily
by any means try to be like Trumbo or sound like Trumbo, or move
like Trumbo. Which is why its effective, moving from these
personalities like Donald Sutherland moving into another actor like
Michael Douglas, and the way that each person's essence is so
David Strathairn: It was a great design. If you had done
Trumbo the way that they had done a traditional biopic to have
one personality try to inhabit him that's an impediment to the
material, because then everybody's going to be focused in on how
this particular person is inhabiting or presenting him.
In this way, you get a lot of different voices, and the variations
or the collage of people is entertaining, and refreshing
moment-to-moment, but it also in a way displays the universality of
what he says. It's a lot of people dancing on the same floor, and
you can see how substantial that floor is.
Many of the actors, including yourselves, convey much emotion
when reading the letters. Did [Peter] and screenwriter [Christopher
Trumbo] direct you towards this emotion?
David Strathairn: I don't know how it happened for you Josh,
but he just said "read it and hear it." It certainly wasn't "turn
right, here" it was more "I can see where that's going, do it
again," and it felt very creative and organic, with no sign posts
along the way. Because the material speaks for itself you release
to it and it is affecting. It's always tricky when you're
presenting something like this to not be overbearing, or not be
affected by your own particular stuff so you don't trample, because
maybe what he meant to be funny sometimes was also so full of
pathos. It's safe to be careful.
Josh Lucas: Yeah, the guideposts were in the writing. No one
was telling Joan Allen, "This is when you should tear up." The
writing is so good. It's just infused with incredibly humor but
incredible pathos. I think there's a moment in the film where Trumbo
actually says, "All the greatest jokes have the greatest tragedy
underneath them," and so throughout reading it, there were still
moments where you couldn't help but be led a certain direction. And
the way Peter was directing it this sort of black box element of a
group of actors in a theatre was, "Let's see what happens."
How familiar were you with the works of Dalton Trumbo before
embarking on this project? Do you have a favorite?
David Strathairn: My introduction to him was Johnny Got
His Gun, and then I had been in the development of a project
years ago called The Hollywood Ten, so there was his presence
in that. And some of his films The Brave One and
Papillon obviously but not in as much depth as I've come to
Josh Lucas: Same for me. My parents were hardcore anti-war
activists, so Johnny Got His Gun was essential, and obviously
Spartacus. The letters were probably the most revealing, and
I think that's what the film in a sense is most concentrated on. And
I think those letters are extraordinary.
David, in your Oscar-nominated film Good Night and Good Luck,
you've already broached this subject of the blacklist, Joe
McCarthy's HUAC anti-communist investigations and the "Red Scare,"
albeit from an entirely different point of view.
David Strathairn: This [production] felt like you were in the
street reading Dalton's stuff. There was a little more grit and
affect. [CBS newscaster and analyst Edward R.] Murrow was obviously
insulated, but he got into the whole neurology of that timepretty
incisively but he, because of who he was, responded in a different
So it was interesting to see that he had this forum where he could
at any given time speak to three million people, whereas Trumbo
his megaphone was shredded, compared to the elegance of Murrow's.
But they were both coming at the same issues with I think as much
passion, although their aesthetic definitely was different. When you
read some of Murrow's stuff, he was as razor-sharp about the issues
The two of them probably would've had a good talk.
Josh, you said your parents had been anti-war activists. What
insights did you gain from this, and is there a particular resonance
in light of today, with the Bush administration's (and the media's)
handling of the Iraq War?
Josh Lucas: The integrity of what [Trumbo] did was pretty
incredible. I grew up with that [as well], but in a time where it
wasn't as difficult to do, in the '60s and '70s, as it was for
Trumbo. So my parents weren't exactly rare in a way that I think
Trumbo was rare, and unfortunately I think we've gone backwards to a
time where it's become rare again, where its become incredibly
difficult for actors or politicians or personalities or citizens
period to stand up and say what they believe without having very
difficult repercussions placed on them.
I just did a film with Susan Sarandon [Peacock] who talked
about how there was a period of time where she felt like she was
bashing her head against a wall in a very painful way, and there
were repercussions. No one was blacklisted per se, but that was a
big shift in the country, to go from a time with my parents where it
was readily acceptable I watched my father get arrested for
trespassing consistently, and it was "cool" as opposed to after
2001, where anyone who was protesting in that way, literally,
[could] lose their jobs.
Actors who are doing it on a certain level like Sean Penn were
genuinely being demolished for it in a public sense and yet in
hindsight, it turned out well for them I think in a way, because
it's quite clear that, as in Trumbo's case, they were in the right.
But it takes insane courage, especially back then, to be one of the
only ones to say "I'm not going to allow this," and not only become
broke for it, but go to prison for it when you have young children.
This film also celebrates a bygone era. It's an epistolary film
based on these beautiful, long-winded letters, whereas now we live
in the era of text-messaging and abridged conversations.
David Strathairn: That's a great observation because in a way
it was a bygone era, but letter writing was amazing. People think of
it as some archaic art form, but that was really how people
communicated. I just did a play about Brutus and Cicero,
"Conversations in Tusculum," and they were like the original pen
pals. They wrote volumes to each other.
Josh Lucas: I don't know about you, but I'm at a time in my
life where when I text, I'm forcing myself to use full words
[laughs]. And I'm forcing myself simply because it's for me to do,
not for the other person because everybody now is getting to know
these abbreviated words, and the idea of sitting down and writing an
elaborately, well-constructed, beautifully-worded letter to the
phone company, it's extraordinary.
David Strathairn: Yeah. So if the film just does just that on
a historical level, great. To make people aware, of all the
political resonances and personalities that are in it, [even
better]. But that's something that people sort of look back and say,
"Oh yeah, people used to write letters and used to [mimics typing]."
Did this project make you want to do more theater?
David Strathairn: Yeah, I just did one in March. But hey, I'm
always looking to do theater.
Josh Lucas: I haven't done one in about a year myself, but
it's what you search for constantly. It's a question of how you make
a living doing it, and when do you find a piece that you want to put
out into the jaws of the New York critics, because it's a really
difficult environment. It's a very mean environment in a way, so it
has to become something you have to do if you really love the piece.