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They're Company Men and Women

Directors who rely on a regular group of actors continue a tradition benefiting all parties.

November 26, 2000|SUSAN KING | Susan King is a Times staff writer

When writer-director David Mamet ("The Winslow Boy," the upcoming "State and Main") sets out to do a new film, he turns to a select group of actors whom he's frequently used before--his stock company. "It's like working in a quartet," explains Mamet. "You like playing music with the same people."

In using a stock company of actors, Mamet is actually carrying on a tradition as old as cinema itself, one used by such legendary directors as D.W. Griffith, Preston Sturges and Orson Welles. Passed on to such distinctive directors as John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Ingmar Bergman, the tradition has been embraced by contemporary filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Kevin Smith and the Coen brothers.

Joel and Ethan Coen ("Blood Simple," "Fargo") find that working with the same actors clarifies the writing process. "For whatever reason, once you know an actor, it makes it easier to write [a character] somehow," says Ethan Coen. "I don't quite know why, because it's not as if the parts we're writing are like the [actors] themselves, but somehow it makes it easier to write characters when you know who you are writing for."

The Coen brothers' latest film, the Depression-era comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," opening Dec. 22, features such familiar faces as John Goodman ("Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "The Big Lebowski"), Holly Hunter ("Raising Arizona"), John Turturro ("Barton Fink," "Miller's Crossing" and "The Big Lebowski") and Charles Durning ("The Hudsucker Proxy"). Other Coen faves include Frances McDormand ("Blood Simple," "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and "Miller's Crossing"--she's married to Joel Coen) and Steve Buscemi ("Barton Fink," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski").

Goodman, who plays a one-eyed con-man Klan member in "O Brother," enjoys working with the Coens because "you don't have to skip around and look for a way to communicate. It's just right there. With these guys, we are on the same wavelength. Since they write these roles with me in mind, there are not a lot of questions. We know each other and what we are there for."

The actors also are eager to work repeatedly with these directors because they are willing to cast them in challenging, diverse roles. Goodman has played everything from a murderer to a bowler for the Coens.

"What's interesting about it is that you get to know these people and who they are as actors," says Joel Coen. "It's frequently the case when you do realize they are capable of doing a lot more different kinds of parts than they usually are given credit for in terms of how they are conventionally cast. That becomes what's interesting . . . to keep it as different as possible from movie to movie."

Besides casting the same actors, the Coens also hire the same technical crew. "We have worked with the same [director of photography] the last six movies and the same designer on five. We have a lot of standing collaborations with lots of people. It's just a working methodology that kind of evolved."

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In the comedy "State and Main," also scheduled to open Dec. 22, Mamet pays tribute to such Sturges small-town comedies of the 1940s as "Hail the Conquering Hero" and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek." Set in a quaint Vermont village, "State and Main" deals with what happens when a movie company arrives to shoot a film. The comedy is peppered with such Mamet veterans as William H. Macy, Patti LuPone, Ricky Jay, Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's wife) and Clark Gregg.

"It's great fun being on a set with those people," Mamet says from the set of his latest film, "Heist," which also features Pidgeon, Jay and LuPone. "It's like film camp."

To Mamet, Sturges--who almost exclusively used a stock company of actors, including William Demarest, Joel McCrea and Franklin Pangborn--was the master "in terms of the direction, in terms of the script," he says.

Both Macy and LuPone have a long history with Mamet--nearly 30 years for Macy and 24 for LuPone.

Macy, who has appeared onstage in Mamet's plays and in such films as "Homicide" and "Oleanna," says that for an actor, the benefits of working with the same director are "legion, and the downside is very minor. The benefits are you cover your bases a little bit more if you work with the same person."

"I work with several people over and over again [including Paul Thomas Anderson in 'Boogie Nights' and 'Magnolia'], and if one of those guys gets a job, dollars to doughnuts I'm going to get a job too. So you can see your work coming."

As directors' fortunes rise, he adds, "so rises your fortunes. A lovely experience is when you have been on someone's coattails for a while and suddenly you find yourself able to pay back a little bit."

Like Mamet, Macy finds working with his friends akin to a big party. "Everyone is gung ho to go out," says Macy, who plays a harried film director in "State and Main."

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