Austin Pendleton might be the most famous actor you don’t know. With a career spanning more than 40 years, if you saw his face you’d more than likely recognize it—but the name? Unlikely. Now a documentary, Starring Austin Pendleton, which screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, shines a light on Pendleton, and reveals how the consummate character film actor is also one of the most influential figures in American theater in the last three decades—prompting the likes of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman to call Pendleton one of the greatest influences on his career. Paste sat down with the film’s co-directors, David H. Holmes and Gene Gallerano, to find out more.
This documentary has been a few years in the making now. What was the impetus to make the film?
David H. Holmes: It’s actually seven years in the making. Gene and I were cast in a play that Austin Pendleton was directing in 2005 [War in Paramus by Barbara Dana]. We became good friends with him and independently decided to take acting classes with him. A few years later we decided to film the classes but quickly realized that what we were filming was so good that we had to take it out of the classroom.
Gene Gallerano: When we started filming, the first four interviews that we did before we shot anything with Austin were with Olympia Dukakis, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman. That shot us on a new trajectory, because the things that were coming out of their mouth and insight and beautiful things that they said about him applied to a larger topic and became this piece.
There are plenty of acting teachers and character actors, especially in New York. What is it about Austin Pendleton that demands attention?
Holmes: Well, there’s an energy in the way that deals with people and what he does that’s very arresting. From the film side of his career, most people remember him for his weird roles, or where he was funny in movies like My Cousin Vinny and people go, “Oh that guy, he’s so lovable.” But in the New York theater scene and Chicago too, he’s known as this kind of guru for young actors. His intellect is staggering and he’s so available, and he splits his career in two like that and it affects people.
Gallerano: Austin is very similar to Bill Cunningham [the New York Times’ society photographer] in that everyone in fashion knows who he is, he’s of the utmost importance, and yet if you see him walking down a street you just see a crazy eccentric in a blue jacket taking pictures of someone.
Why do you think there is such a dichotomy between Pendleton the character actor who works consistently but who is not a huge star, and Pendleton the theater figure who is held in such high esteem?
Holmes: Well, that’s a big question but it deals with the nature of art. His roles in movies—the goofy professorial types that he gets typecast in, play much easier because of the way he looks and his stutter and his general unkempt appearance, which makes sense to a whole large group of people. But the kind of stuff that he does in theater is much more alive. It’s why guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman took on the mantle of what Austin was doing so well. He kept a film career that allowed him to support a very earnest theater career.
Gallerano: Even when Philip Seymour Hoffman had his big break, arguably with Capote, I would say, he was doing theater that had changed everyone’s opinion on how to look at that art form for an entire decade prior to that, and it was the exact same trajectory artistically as Austin until they were put on a different path. When Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away, the lights on Broadway were dimmed, and I thought that they would never do that for Austin, and yet everyone in the theater scene in New York has a profound story that moved them while working with Austin, and he instilled that in Hoffman as well.
Given the standards that Hollywood places on looks and appearances, it’s easier to carve a niche in theater and then, within that niche, act on a higher plane?
Holmes: It’s interesting because Wallace Shawn [The Princess Bride] says something interesting in the documentary, he says that it’s more likely that he would be elected president of the United States than be cast as president. It’s a very true statement but it’s very funny when you look at someone like Bernie Sanders—no one would cast that guy as president either!
One idea touched on repeatedly in the documentary is that Pendleton just wants to work, and that the work is almost more important than any esteem attached to it. Is that correct in thinking?
Gallerano: That’s a huge aspect, the importance of just doing the work. Because you have no control over the rest, and if you think you do then you’re wrong because that’s not how this business operates. The only thing you can control is how you approach the work and how you handle your journey while doing the work. The rest is just crazy. Everyone wants to be successful but sooner or later you have to break down the definition of what success might be.
Holmes: That attitude has certainly helped Austin’s career. As an actor myself and following Austin’s lead and getting to know this business, you realize that a lot of actors become bitter with age, but Austin has none of that. Whether he’s doing a play where he’s acting or directing with huge stars or he’s doing something with students, the priority is always good work where you can be proud of it. There is a monk-like restless obsession with just working, and I think for actors and other professions that can be a great guidepost. Just look at Philip Seymour Hoffman, he brought the same energy to collaborate and work with as many people as possible, or Ethan Hawke, who is the same way. These are all students of Austin and you can feel that influence in so many actors throughout New York, Chicago and throughout the world.