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Weekend Chat

Interior Moves

Eva Marie Saint recalls Method training with Elia Kazan and Lee Strasberg, and her first two film assignments, opposite Marlon Brando and Bob Hope.

February 01, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre pays tribute to some of the greatestMethod actors including Marlon Brando, John Garfield, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight with its series "The Method: A Revolution in American Screen Acting 1945-70."

The Method had its genesis in Constantin Stanislavski's work with the Moscow Art Theater in the early part of the 20th century. It was Americanized in the 1930s by the short-lived Group Theatre in New York. The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan with Cheryl Crawford and Robert Lewis and quickly became the main laboratory for the Method, a style of acting that was, according to author Foster Hirsch, "rough-and-ready, instinctive, improvisatory, proletarian, physically active and defiantly emotional."

The festival, which begins tonight and continues through Feb. 11, kicks off with the 1954 classic "On the Waterfront." The drama won eight Oscars, including best film, actor (Brando), supporting actress (Saint) and director (Kazan).

Based on Budd Shulberg's novel, "On the Waterfront" is a taut, gritty drama set on the rough-and-tumble Hoboken, N.J., docks. Brando plays a washed-up fighter, Terry Malloy, who falls in love with the shy, convent-educated sister (Saint) of the "stool pigeon" he had set up for the tough union organizer (Lee J. Cobb). Rod Steiger and Karl Malden also star.

Following the screening of "On the Waterfront," Saint, 76, will discuss the film.

The actress, whose movie credits include "North By Northwest," "Exodus," "Grand Prix" and "Loving," recently talked about the Method and her experiences making her film debut in "On the Waterfront," over the phone from her home in Westwood.

Question: Will you explain the Method?

Answer: You create both the interior life and the logical behavior of a character. People say which came first, Freud or the Method?. Well, Freud did, but the Method was really reflecting what was happening in America in those days. So when they say Marlon and Paul [Newman] changed the American culture, it's the other way around. They reflected what was happening in America. Everyone was being analyzed. Everyone wanted to know about the inner soul of people. To this day, it's difficult to accept acting that is not interior and not giving pieces of yourself away--that is all words and thinking from the neck up.

Q: How did you become involved with the Method and the Actors Studio in New York?

A: I was actually at the American Theater Wing [studying] and somehow it seemed like a natural thing to go into the Studio. Kazan was auditioning [students] then and I got in. I think it was special for me because I was really, really very shy, just starting out of college. I worked with Lee Strasberg. He would get to know you a little bit and then you would observe [the class] and then you finally would have to go up to bat and work on a scene. He gave me a very emotional scene to work on--I had to cry. I came from a very loving family, but we didn't show sadness or anger. So I hadn't cried in front of anybody. I did it and no one laughed. I sensed and felt the empathy from my peers. It was like a white light. It was a door that opened and stayed opened.

Now I guess someone else could have unlocked that door. It was a special day for me and it was because of Lee. I always adored him. Yes, he could be frightening. Yes, he was demanding, but it was that feeling that he cared. If he cared that much and he had that much faith in you, you better have that much faith in yourself. I was there for about nine or 10 years.

Q: How did you get the role of Edie in "Waterfront"?

A: Kazan took me into a room with Marlon. It was an improvisation. He gave Marlon an action to play and he gave me gave me an action. Usually, when you improvise, one person is given an opposite action and it usually becomes a conflict--a very lively dramatic encounter. What I was told was that this young man was coming to my apartment. I lived with my mother and my father and my sister. This was her boyfriend and she was out and when he came to the door [I was told], "Do not let him in the house."

All I know is that Marlon got in the door and turned on the music. We started dancing. He flicked my skirt. Kazan saw the sparks fly. That's how I got the part.

Q: Were there a lot of improvisation and rehearsals on the set of "Waterfront"?

A: Constant rehearsals. I never made a movie that way. Most of my scenes were with Marlon. There was a rehearsal room [at a nearby hotel] and we were always rehearsing while Kazan was filming. Kazan would be doing a scene and they would have to change the lights for the close-up and he would come to where we were rehearsing--because our scene was next--to see how we were doing and give some notes. Then he'd go back to the set to finish the scene he was doing and we would continue [rehearsing]. Then we would be on the set to do our scene.

Q: What was it like working with Brando so closely?

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