Fewer actors have the careers of Paul Sorvino and Martin Landau. Fewer still are putting out the same caliber of work in their 80s as they were in their younger days. Yet, in the Tribeca-premiering The Last Poker Game, the actors—and 78-year-old debut director Howard Weiner—find beauty, humor and understanding in age, whereas some creators seem to throw in the towel.
At Tribeca, the three sat down with Paste for a discussion on acting, friendship and the film they made together.
Paste Magazine: Could you tell me what it was like as a first-time director, working on this project?
Howard Weiner: It was like stepping into another world with two amazing people. Like getting on a boat and getting in a storm, wondering what was going to happen. But you’ve got these people with you and you realize you’re together and you’re all gonna be on this journey together.
Paste: Was there a moment that you felt like, “Ah, this is what being a director is like?”
Weiner: At the very beginning, and [Sorvino and Landau] can talk about this, we came up with a way to think about the movie, and that was a little different. As for the technical aspects, you’re always up against the clock. But I also realized that I was in charge and that they (pointing at Sorvino and Landau) have to do what I say. I remember once, there was a scene with Paul and we’d already shot it and torn everything down, and he comes to me and asks, “Could we do that again?” Everyone was like, “No, no, we can’t do it again.” And I looked at him and said, “Let’s do it again.”
Paul Sorvino: That’s exactly right, and most first-time directors are scared outta their minds. This is the best experience I’ve had in 30 years, since Goodfellas.
Paste: Was that because of the relationships you all developed together?
Sorvino: I’ve known [Landau] a long, long time. I was a great admirer and he came to see me in one of my first successes on Broadway in That Championship Season, which had reviews written, I think, by my mother. I was so impressed with him coming that I thought, “I’ve really gotten somewhere.”
Martin Landau: We became so close that we’d look at the script in the dressing room for 15 minutes, run it and see what the scene is about. [Weiner] wrote it, he knows what it’s about. But what’s between us, what’s that really about? A lot of the time with an independent production, you go onto the set and you rehearse it in front of the crew and at that point the cinematographer takes over. You start accommodating the camera instead of the camera accommodating you.
Sorvino: The other part of it is—how many people have done Shakespeare? This way and that way and why is it always different? Because it can be different and must be different. Richard Burton’s Hamlet was different than Kenneth Branagh’s. The sensitive, well-crafted actor understands what needs to be unique about each performance and you need a director that understands that.
Landau: The point he’s making is that there’s no silences in Shakespeare. Everything is spoken. No inner life, all soliloquies. All Hamlets are different and it’s the most overwritten play ever written. Yet! Since Shakespeare is no longer alive, it becomes the actor’s character. Every young actor wants to do Hamlet on the West End. Why? Because they can bring something to it. And that’s what it felt like figuring out these scenes. Two actors finding different things inside them. But we got along immediately. Paul and Howard were like family. I haven’t said that about anyone since Alfred Hitchcock.
Sorvino: (Hitchcock voice) Good evening. (Regular voice) He called actors cattle, didn’t he?
Landau: No, no. He said actors should be treated like cattle.
Paste: That somehow sounds worse. So this sensitivity you developed together, did that manifest in your on-screen conversations? Take, for instance, the scene where you’re telling dirty jokes to each other? Were those your own dirty jokes?
Landau: We improvised from time to time, but only when [Weiner] asked us to.
Sorvino: I asked him if he minded if I changed some wording and he said, “No,” which for a first-time writer/director takes some guts. That’s big balls.
Landau: 95% of what you see in the movie is scripted.
Sorvino: To differentiate from Goodfellas, which [was] 40% improvised, but that’s the way Martin [Scorsese] works. He directs improvisation and is phenomenal at it, as we all know, but you’re not sticking to the script. In The Last Poker Game, there’s so much knowledge that you can’t change much because if you do, you change the meaning. The little deviation we did here and there was for naturalness, which was directed, accepted and licensed by our director.
Paste: Did you all do a lot of research to reflect this knowledge?
Sorvino: I did no research, but Howard did. He’s the writer, that’s his job.
Weiner: As a doctor, I’ve been in those homes and I know what goes on there. One of the things I wanted to do is put the actors in the homes with actual residents, which, obviously we had to get permission, but I knew it was there and I felt it in the film. It’s all due to these two. It’s their facial expressions. I don’t know if you saw it but when Martin’s telling a joke, you just see Paul’s eyes and he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Paste: They’re like a classical comedy duo, like Laurel & Hardy.
Landau: All an audience wants to believe is that what’s going on is happening for the first time. That’s what we tried to do. You don’t want to see the rehearsals or the slickness, just new. Present. Now.
I felt like I was in this home. And the wonderful thing about the script, this relationship between characters would never have happened otherwise. I play a doctor, [Sorvino’s character] ran a fruit and vegetable store. He probably had [slept with] 200 women while I had five maybe in my life. He likes baseball, and baseball’s OK. I like him.
And the sex scenes. They’re not offensive, they’re just real. A guy who hasn’t had an erection in five years suddenly gets one? That’s courageous to write, and for me to tell [Sorvino’s character] that I’m doing it for him, well that’s so intimate.
Sorvino: I was just thinking I lied to you before about doing no preparation. The research I do is practicing the guy. When I tried doing Henry Kissinger, I tried reading a book of his and woke myself up after twenty pages. No books. For this movie, I did something I’ve never done before and [Landau and Weiner] don’t know this: I’m playing myself. Old school actors always played themselves. Bogart? That’s him. I tried this, tried to take a chance. And I think it’s the best thing I ever did.
Paste: In getting in touch with this character that you played as Paul Sorvino, did you learn anything about yourself?
Sorvino: When I saw the movie, I did! I knew that was me. That’s how I would respond to things.
Landau: I always see you in your work. When I play characters, the audience sees a perspective and the director sees a perspective, but mine is always different. Education, what schools I went to, what dialect I had, what churches I went to (or didn’t go to). And Howard knows doctors. So if I wasn’t being doctorly, I was waiting for him to tell me, and he never did.
You know emotions don’t have names, we’ve given them names. Psychologists and writers. “Longingly,” “angrily.” Anything in brackets. It’s crap.
Sorvino: Good actors cross those out as soon as they read the script.
Landau: Right, so when [Sorvino] talks about playing himself, that’s what he’s talking about. It’s the kind of unnamable emotions you can find. It’s why everyone wants to play Hamlet when they’re young. You can play yourself.