Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Frank Wood has been a familiar face in New York-based movies and television shows for nearly twenty years. A recurring player on Flight Of The Conchords (as Murray’s assistant) and more recently The Knick (as one of the hospital board members), Wood has acted alternated blink-and-you-miss-them appearances in films and TV episodes with meatier character parts. He was Charlie Skinner’s treacherous CIA source on The Newsroom; a key Kennedy advisor in the claustrophobic Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days; and the phone company boss who sets off a tragic chain of events in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Over lunch before a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, opposite Forest Whitaker, Wood described some of the ins-and-outs of life as a day player, and how he adapts his technique from the stage to the screen.
Hughie (Broadway, 2016)—“Desk Clerk”
Frank Wood: It had a short rehearsal period, shorter than was originally intended, so there was a lot of time where Forest Whitaker and [director] Michael Grandage ended up having time alone. But it’s been just beautifully realized, I think, and I’m really enjoyed it.
The A.V. Club: Why was it shortened? Because of Whitaker’s availability?
FW: Yeah, he was in a movie and it went over schedule. It’s a lot to take on for any actor, I think, under those circumstances. It’s him talking the whole time. He’s such a beautifully relaxed performer, and he’s hard on himself, but in the course of performance he’s very good at letting things go. If one moment doesn’t quite work out, he’s really good at recovering for the next moment.
O’Neill has about four places in the script where he describes clearly what the night clerk is thinking, so there’s a lot of text where I can say, “Okay, these are my thoughts. My thoughts are outside the hotel right now.” A lot of characters that have a lot of stage time but little to say, there might be a description of the quality of their thoughts, or even what they’re thinking about, but rarely an actual inner monologue written out, with other characters in it. That’s really unusual.
Small Time Crooks (2000)—“Oliver”
FW: That might be the smallest appearance in anything on film I’ve ever had. Auditioning for it was more interesting than the day of shooting. The audition did include being in a room where I saw Woody Allen sitting over there, this odd man sitting off to the left in a comfy chair, as I read the three lines or so that I had with the casting director.
She told me before I went in, “He’s not going to talk to you.” So I read it and I said thank you and I walked out. Then doing it was—Hugh Grant and I were partners in an art gallery. We shot it from one camera angle, and then I had to make the point that I had to be back in time for Side Man [on Broadway], and I think that might have been responsible for the fact that you just see me in profile for a second. So it was a big deal to get the role, and then it turned out to be a very tiny part.
AVC: I’ve heard that Woody doesn’t talk to his actors much.
FW: Yeah, I think he likes to cast the right people, that look and sound right, and they’ll figure it out. I was looking at a slide, and he said something like, “Maybe you can hold it up a little bit higher, maybe at an angle here.” Something technical. But there was no real conversation about what’s going on in the scene.
Pollock (2000)—“Frank Pollock”
FW: That was similar. Ed Harris was not un-conversational, but I don’t remember finding a way to do anything but show up and kind of walk through a field and sit for a photograph. It was a very odd experience, because I didn’t know, really, what you have to do to be in a film. Ed Harris was very enthusiastic. He was a very good guy to work for because he was into it, and he was into all the people he had working with him, and he was encouraging and all that. But I didn’t really know what questions to ask.
AVC: You won a Tony for your role in Side Man in 1999. You were in a number of big movies the year after that. Did that award, and that production, help to launch your film career?
FW: The production of Side Man was absolutely like a watershed for my career. And the Tony, obviously, part of that. First of all, when we started doing Side Man Off-Broadway, I called an agent whom I’d been sort of in correspondence with off and on over the years. I said, “I’m in this play, come see it, and I need representation.” So he agreed to represent me, and when that moved first to the Roundabout and then to Broadway, it began to be a play that had enough traction so that I started getting auditions I’d never used to get before. That included film and TV, which truly, with some very few exceptions, I had never gone up for. It changed the sort of work I was being seen for.
Thirteen Days (2000)—“McGeorge Bundy”
FW: I did research. I knew a lot of people growing up. Part of my childhood was in D.C., and my dad worked in the Johnson administration, so there were all these family friends. I met McGeorge Bundy’s widow, and talked about him. But it didn’t add up to what was in the script, and in the end the movie they were shooting was based on the story they want to tell, not necessarily on the historical truth.
AVC: So you couldn’t raise your hand and say, “But McGeorge Bundy wouldn’t have said that…”
FW: Right, right, exactly. They had already figured that out. They had already decided they didn’t care.
AVC: You have one big scene with Kevin Costner, playing a Kennedy aide, where he chews Bundy out for not showing proper respect to the president.
FW: I don’t have a very good memory of what we did. Through that movie, I would show up and there would be different configurations of scenes. The scene was at a desk, then suddenly we were walking down a hallway. And I had a very hard time finding these relationships, finding a way to make myself recognize this lack of respect for him. How would it manifest itself? How would I carry myself? How did McGeorge Bundy choose to approach this day? You’d get off the set and you’d go home—I was staying at a friend’s apartment—and I just sort of didn’t know what to do with these little snippets, the way these things were written.
So I think the result is relatively flat, instead of nuanced, because it was hard for me to hold on to a point of view about these scenes, what was happening. I remember being disappointed that I was not more like McGeorge Bundy—not as quick, not as deft, and not the intellectual gravitas that he had. Thinking about those things wasn’t particularly helpful. I think had I run through the text as written, and asked questions directly from the text, it would have been a little more useful. It was so hard with a script like that to find an arc. I think I was always sort of looking for the day when we would weed through the script and make these decisions. In the theater, you get a lot of drawing out from your director or the other actors, a lot of “Let’s stop here and work with this” and “Let’s see how we can make this work.” There isn’t that psychological architecture when you’re working on a movie.
AVC: Thirteen Days is this epochal assemblage of 30 or 40 of the greatest “middle-aged white guy in a suit” character actors. What was it like to be part of that?
FW: I remember I got to the airport that first day to go to California, and Henry Strozier was there. He’s not someone I knew well, but he was playing Dean Rusk, and he had a slightly cynical attitude about going out to make this movie as a kind of money job but not a serious work of art. And I had given up Side Man, which was going down to D.C. to the Kennedy Center, but without me, to be in this movie. So I was all like gung-ho, but then feeling slightly [deflated]. But being there, it was fun, to meet Kevin Costner and have people work on my hairpiece and meet this sort of club of actors.
AVC: How did Costner fit into that ensemble?
FW: He was very friendly and affable, and very encouraging. He helped me from time to time. We would run lines if I was having trouble sort of staying in it, which I did a couple of times. I was fumbling a little bit, and he took me away and we walked it [off]. He was lovely and relaxed, but you know, the ensemble, for a movie like that, there’s definitely a sense that there’s the center and everybody else sort of takes their place concentrically around it. Your moments come and go, when you’re important and not important, and I tried to be sensitive to that.
AVC: Just technically, scenes around a table are hard to shoot, aren’t they? And most of this movie was people sitting around a conference table.
FW: Right, it was around a table. I volunteered to be one of the smokers, which of course turned out to mean I was smoking constantly, and I would need a cigarette that was cut down to the length it was in the last shot. And there was a lot of just repeating mundane stuff and reconfiguring the group of men and deciding where they were at the table. It’s funny how you walk from your trailer, when it’s time for your scene or whatever, and then you wait a long time and they figure things out, and then what happens and what’s said feels really inconsequential. Important events in the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis feel like very small expressions of drama, very fragmented. I thought Bruce Greenwood as Kennedy, both he and Steven Culp as RFK, were actually very good at capturing those guys and capturing their tempers. A lot of us, I feel like it was just a word here and a word there, and stick your head in. [Laughs.]
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)—“Hotel Manager”
FW: Wes Anderson cast me, and I showed up for two days of work, two weeks apart, at the Waldorf Astoria. Wes Anderson was very enthusiastic about introducing me to Gene Hackman, who was sort of wandering around the Waldorf Astoria, which was [reserved] just for the movie—there was nobody else there. But Gene Hackman clearly was not interested in me. You know, whatever he was doing, he was not interested in meeting people or saying “Hi, lovely to know you.” So he shook my hand and looked vaguely distracted. I think what was interesting about him was that he was clearly working from the point of view of his character, even when we weren’t shooting, and I was very much close to my own affect, and finding very little I could think about other than saying the line and kind of finding my own comfort zone.
I even at one point asked Gene Hackman whether something I was doing was helpful to him, and he was like, “Oh, no, don’t ask me, ask the director.” So that was a useful thing to learn: Don’t build little protective choices. Go, do stuff, let the chips fall where they may, and then they’ll tell you to do something differently if they want you to. But it doesn’t help one actor to hear if the other one has a static way to work: “I’m going to try this in the scene.” At least to Gene Hackman, coming from me, that was not useful. He didn’t want to stop and think about things like that.
I liked it, but it’s still part of a kind of mishmash of stuff you do in film/TV where, if you don’t have a principal role, it all feels a little bit like a crazy day that happened to you.
The Sopranos (2001)—“Dean Ross”
FW: I think it came through being in Side Man with Edie [Falco]. We met at her apartment the day before and we read lines, because I hadn’t been in a lot of TV. We did it a couple of times and she said, “Are you nervous?” And I said, “A little bit.” She said, “Don’t be.” Then we got through it, and I remember the director wanted to get a little more warmth out of me, and I was not sure how to do that. I thought I was being sort of direct and appropriate to a dean, the way a dean would be. “More like a guy who knows how to get money out of people.” “Oh, okay.” So then I tried to be more [like that], and Edie was encouraging and helpful.
The Knick (2014-15)—“Mr. Havershorn”
FW: From a technical point of view, it’s interesting what [Steven] Soderbergh is doing. He spent so much time developing a way to have this camera so that he doesn’t have to move the light setup every time he wants to change angles—and he doesn’t change angles that often anyway. So it’s incredibly economical. The first day I shot that took me by surprise. Since he’s in charge of the script, and he’s in charge of editing, there’s very little conferring he has to do with anyone. So if he’s decided he spent enough time on a scene, and you still haven’t said all the lines in it, it doesn’t matter to him. So initially, I was just sort of starting to relax into [the scene] and get this script figured out, and we had moved on. But I grew to love that. I grew to love going into a room and knowing it’ll be over pretty soon.
AVC: Where did that accent come from?
FW: [Laughs.] It came from my decision, upon learning that I had got cast in the role, my fear that I would not be enough. Like, if I just talked like this, I wouldn’t convince myself that I lived in this world as this guy. And I went and found some advice from Deb Hecht, who’s a dialect coach—she works at Juilliard, and she worked at NYU for a long time. I practiced doing a kind of New York Brahmin accent. It was supposed to be sort of George Plimpton.
AVC: Yes, of course, although I guess my untrained ears registered it as a Boston accent.
FW: It’s close, because they all meet at Groton. It’s definitely, like, [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt. And there is the anxiety, having worked on it, that Boston is very close, so you theoretically would work out some details to make it more New York-based. But that’s a perfect example of something I kind of wish I could do over again. Watching the series, it’s so much better when people are just comfortable with themselves. You know, I didn’t need that accent; I could’ve just talked. I would have been fine.
AVC: When you make a decision about something like that, do you talk to anyone about it beforehand, or do you just do it?
FW: No, exactly, I was thinking about that, and there’s no sort of chance for that conversation. I suppose I could have emailed somebody at the production and said, “I’m thinking about an accent.” But I was afraid that that would—I’m not sure what I was afraid of. Whenever I get hired in a TV job, I somehow feel like there’s no access until you get on the set. Which isn’t entirely true. But I decided to do it on my own, and nobody said stop. So I kept doing it. And it felt good to me. But I’ve watched it since and my reaction was, “Not so good.”
AVC: How do you feel about watching yourself on screen?
FW: I’ve gotten used to it, and I find that if I was happy with a day’s work when I did it, I will often want to see it. But I definitely went through a period where seeing myself on screen was upsetting. I would just see myself as behaving falsely. I’ve watched a couple of things on The Knick, where there was one thing made me lose three days of sleep, and there was one that I watched where I was like, “Oh, okay—not so bad.”
AVC: Do you recall which scenes those were?
FW: The first time you see me was sort of in soft focus, and you’re really watching Jeremy Bobb as he learns that all his plans are crumbling or whatever. The day of shooting that, I was so satisfied. I had a theater actor’s satisfaction with the quality of my work. But I was really too big, and I’m not talking to anybody. I thought I was sort of grotesque. There was something weirdly imbalanced about my performance. [The other scene] was the one where you see me mostly in profile in a board meeting, I was like, “Oh, I seem to be of a piece, I seem to be whole. I don’t see my effort. It sounds like I actually am that guy.”
So I like watching myself, but it is filled with possibility for recrimination and self-judgment.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)—“Evaluative Services Doctor”
FW: It was [filmed on] Roosevelt Island, and it was sort of beautifully awful and grungy. Again, it’s just always so much more truncated than I imagine. The day can be long, but the interaction with people—the director and Philip Seymour Hoffman—is often sort of small. It was fine, it was lovely, but it was just very technical. Hanging around and doing those lines and getting a little bit of direction, like, “Yeah, you know, put those lines a little closer together. No pauses.” Or, “It’s taking a little too long.” You really have to be ready for all the technical stuff to just be water off your back, and sometimes I’m very anxious. So that was a perfectly good experience, nobody was mean to me, but I left going, “Aaah. Oh, well. I don’t know.”
Changeling (2008)—“Ben Harris”
AVC: What was your impression of Clint Eastwood as a director?
FW: He’s very economical, very soft-spoken, and never says anything like “Action.” He just sort of turns to the camera crew, and then at some point you go, “Oh, I guess I’m supposed to be talking.” You kind of figure it out. At one point I made a technical error. He’d asked me to stand next to Angelina Jolie—they wanted to direct focus, for the lights and everything. So what I did [during the take] was exactly what I did when they focused the lights: I stood there for a moment and then I walked away. Theoretically, I was supposed to stand there and listen there the whole time she was on the phone, talking to whoever. Rather than redo it, they just followed me as I walked away. Clint Eastwood said, “Actors sometimes have the right instincts.” Which to my mind wasn’t instinct, I was just making a mistake. I liked him very much as a director.
That’s a really good example of remembering that the circumstances of the story matter more than the lines. I got out there and I had this scene with Angelina Jolie, and I met her, and the first thing she said to me was, “I don’t really have all the lines down, so I’m just going to improvise.” I said, “Oh. Oh, okay.” And then I remember asking her if she could say this line or that line—I had in my head that I needed to react to what this line was in order for the rest of what I said to make sense.
If I had it to do over again, I would’ve been like, “Oh, this is a great opportunity to improvise with Angelina Jolie. We’ll walk through the street and she’s just going to say stuff and I’m going to say stuff, and if it doesn’t work out, Clint Eastwood will say, ‘Do it again, and make sure this happens.’” And when I was bringing this up, Eastwood said, “Oh, yeah, you probably should say those lines, Angelina.” But it was beside the point. For a play, that exchange is vital. But for the movie, just seeing that I’m her boss and I kind of have a crush on her, it doesn’t matter how that gets across. But instead I started thinking I want to get that line in, so I can have this reaction. And that’s not—the good reactions you get when you get in front of the camera are not the ones you planned to have. I don’t think many actors would be surprised to hear that, but I keep having [to relearn it]. In a way, film is very improvisational, although someone like Aaron Sorkin wants all the words said. All the prepositions, all the “of”s and “it”s. So you get bogged down in that, too. But the way his speeches are shaped is very important to him.
The Newsroom (2013)—“Shep Pressman”
AVC: So Aaron Sorkin was on the set when you filmed your scenes?
FW: Yes, he was on the set. I had two scenes, and he was very significantly on the set the second time, where I slapped Sam Waterston. That was more like theater, in that it was an intense evening. The first scene, that’s in his office, that was a long night of shooting, with a lot of lines to say, and everyone was sort of geared up for it. Sam and I had worked together on a King Lear beforehand, so when I got out there he was friendly. He called me the day before we were going to shoot and said, “Do you want to get together on lines?” Again, it was unusual. So we got to his trailer and we ran the lines, which on the set is so hard to do. But that was exciting, because it felt like we were both about to give a performance, and everyone was paying a lot of attention to us. Even though it still was technical—like, “Don’t take so many sips of your scotch.”
Then doing the scene in the garage was also fun. Like the line where I say something with a shout, I can’t remember what the word is, but I shout something. The first time I ran through it, I didn’t shout it, I just sort of said it, unemphasized. Aaron Sorkin came over and he said, “You know, you’re a lovely actor, and I respect you. Whatever choices you make are fine. But there’s room here for an explosion.”
Dan In Real Life (2007)—“Howard”
FW: That was an example where the director really recognized the value of rehearsal, and he got most of us, some people couldn’t be there, a week before the shooting started. We played a lot of variations of the games that they play in the movie, football and crossword puzzles and stuff. We did an opera, and we learned our parts for this talent show. A lot of that was just worked on before the shooting began.
Peter Hedges was sort of given this script, and some producer or production company said, “We think you’re the right director for this.” Because it was a formulaic romantic comedy, and he tried to sort of massage it into something a bit more plausible. I think that’s one way he did it, to get us all together so that there would be fewer jokes or punchlines and more [natural behavior].
AVC: What was Steve Carell like to work with?
FW: He was as you see him [onscreen]. We went out a few nights together. People would recognize him in a bar, and I remember this one woman [beckoned him with] her finger at him on the dance floor, and he went “No!” in a very sort of easy way. I didn’t get to know him very well. I had that reaction to very successful, famous actors. I often get kind of unwilling to do the simple thing of making conversation with them. That remains a tendency I have, to try to disappear sometimes. But I liked him a lot.
Here’s another thing: He and Peter were talking about a scene that they were just about to shoot, and they were discussing whether he was in love or not. I remember thinking, in a play, that conversation would have happened by now. Not in between takes, you know?
The Taking Of Pelham 123 (2009)—“Police Commissioner Sterman”
FW: John Benjamin Hickey and I traded roles. I got cast as the aide to the mayor, we had one day where we were both virtual extras in a scene that was shot from a long distance, and then over the weekend I got a call from Tony Scott, the director, saying, “You know, I’d like to switch you.” I don’t know why that happened, but I said okay. So I became the police commissioner instead of the aide to the mayor. That was a kind of show up and see what happens, hold onto your pants and live, because in that shoot there was a lot of extras, a lot of action, a lot of tempers flaring. I mean, in the scenes, especially in the bunker for the MTA, there were all these fights happening, and you just have to spend the time waiting between takes kind of living with yourself and reliving the scenes, walking around and keeping [that energy] alive.
AVC: In a role like that, where your character is mainly defined by his role in the plot, what exactly are you keeping alive? I mean, do you create a whole inner life for this police commissioner who doesn’t have a first name?
FW: Right. No, that’s a very good question. I kept trying to think of, what is he concerned with? Saving face, and getting somebody to listen to him.
Flight Of The Conchords (2007-09)—“Greg”
AVC: What was your take on the Conchords, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie?
FW: They were very good to work with, because they were having a good time. I think they were exhausted by having to come up with two seasons’ worth of material. But they were lovely. They were very much themselves—dry, funny New Zealanders. They were extremely nice guys. Sometimes I’d be in a play, and they both came at different times to see me in a play.
I auditioned for two roles. One was for Greg, and the other was the crazy fan’s husband, which ended up being played by David Costabile. But I remember very much understanding holding up a poster and saying, “How about three exclamation points?” and saying “Well, I don’t think that’s necessary.” I knew very little else about what he would be—somebody’s assistant. And I did not understand the Flight Of The Conchords phenomenon at the time, and the scripts almost didn’t register as dramatic or interesting. But that was one of the better jobs I ever had. That truly was a recurring role where I felt like I showed up and I could relax. I mean, I had to look at those scenes and make sure I understood the premise, but there weren’t a lot of lines to learn, and when I did have a few they always got changed anyway. I always got to do variations on them. And I got to do my own sort of dry, ironic schtick, that was true to me even before I did Flight Of The Conchords.
The Favor (2007)—“Lawrence”
AVC: The Favor kind of disappeared after screening at a few festivals, but it’s a film in which you played the leading role.
FW: That was the first time I had the chance to be there for a lot of the movie. That’s where I learned how to take responsibility for the choices I made, or how to own a role. If you’ve only got one day on a movie or even three or four days, it’s hard to feel like you have any authority. Eva Aridjis directed it and wrote it. It was about a guy who meets his old high school girlfriend, and they haven’t seen each other in years, and she has a son. She has a freak accident, and he takes on responsibility for the care of her son. It was shot in Bayonne, New Jersey, mostly.
I remember feeling underwhelmed—every time we shot a scene, I couldn’t believe that was it. I think a lot of actors will say of their first exposure [to filmmaking], “Really? That’s what’s going to be the performance?” But when I watched the movie I was like, oh, okay, not bad. I saw that my efforts amounted to something. But what I felt was happening at the time was completely unacceptable. I mean, I didn’t stomp around complaining, but I remember leaving at the end of the day going, “That was awkward. That feels unrealized.”
AVC: I haven’t interviewed many actors who have been as vocally self-critical as you tend to be. Those scenes in The Newsroom are amazing!
FW: I think there are plenty [of self-critical actors] out there, but yes, I am self-critical. Particularly because you can watch yourself in movies. When I experience life on stage, I feel like I take flight. Sometimes I really have this sense of revelation. That also might be utterly false, but I will leave a performance on a given night and go, “This is what I’m living for.” And I so rarely feel that way in film and TV. I can see when people do, though, that I admire and envy. On The Knick, there are these two people, the Irish ambulance driver and the nun, Chris [Sullivan and Cara Seymour]. I don’t know whether when they’re filming it has the same sort of chopped-up feeling I have when I’m doing something, but I watch that and I go, they are holding onto something. Individually as actors, and also that relationship they’re building, it’s really lived-in and I admire it. So, anyway, I am self-critical, but it’s hard not to be. All I can say is I’ve had these experiences where I feel like I have done good work, and I’ve had experiences where I go, “Oh, that’s just not….” What I’m after is some sense of transformation, a sense of starting here and ending up here. That may not be necessary, but it’s the thing I keep coming back to, the sort of kick I’m looking for.