On October 7, 2020, Eddie participated in a phone interview with some of his fans that run sites and social media accounts dedicated to him. This time the small group were able to discuss his newest film The Trial of the Chicago 7. As always I felt extremely honored to be one of the individuals included in this phone call. Thank you to all who helped make this interview possible.
One thing that you will not see in this transcript but I want to point out is that Eddie is always so kind and gracious to his fans. He took the time to ask after one of them and their friend that he had spoken to previously. And he is always so sweet when he talks about his family.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is released today on Netflix (Watch it here!). This is a powerful film that is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The film tells of the events that occurred in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trial that took place the following year. I recommend each of you to take a moment this weekend to sit down and watch this film. And may we all take something from it that will help us to want to fight for something better in our world.
Charlotte (Texas, USA) — Moderator
Ivonne (London, England)
Marci (Oklahoma, USA)
Erina (New Zealand)
Ali (Utah, USA)
Eddie: Hey guys! It’s weirdly reassuring to hear from the Troop around the world, albeit in the middle of the night. I’m at home. I have a sort of afternoon off Fantastic Beasts, and Luke is just back from nursery school, so there’s the chance that he’ll come flailing in, and I apologize.
Ivonne: In terms of getting into character — again playing a real person who’s still fresh in many people’s minds — how did the process of getting into character differ from your previous experiences?
Eddie: You know, what’s interesting about this film, playing Tom in relation to the other real people I’ve played, is it’s part of an ensemble, it’s not a biopic. It’s a moment in his life and it’s through Aaron’s gaze. And it’s interesting, whenever I do a film that’s kind of about real life, the most riveting part of it for me tends to be…how it opens up parts of gaping holes in my own knowledge and means that I get to investigate periods in history and specific people that perhaps I had not heard of otherwise. So I approached this one in the same sort of way…read all around Tom, I watched as much material as I could. There’s some wonderful stuff on YouTube, which is now one of our great resources. But I also looked at Jane Fonda’s documentary, even though his relationship with Jane started after this. I’ve spoken to you guys before about how often when I’m playing characters based in history, I go in London to the National Portrait Gallery or look up portraiture and see how other photographers, artists have interpreted characters. And one of the interesting things on this film, for me, was looking at some of the court sketches. They’re quick sketches that give a sense of the physicality. But at the same point, this was clear to me that this was Aaron’s interpretation of Tom, and he was quite freeing…we didn’t have the time or the money for full prosthetics or wigs. So there were limitations as to how far one could take it…I literally hear Lukey coming down the stairs. He’s wanting to come in, but Hannah’s encouraging him not to come in. (Laughter) So what I tried to do was do all that research, kind of for me, and also to try to portray the core of Hayden as much as I could. But then it was about throwing it all away and kind of just reacting to the other actors. And it was an extraordinary troupe of actors. So what ends up happening is probably about one percent of the research you do is of any use. But you hope that somehow it sort of bubbles out in your performance.
Charlotte: Since Theory of Everything, you’ve really had a heavy responsibility for carrying the films you have been in — even the Fantastic Beasts ensembles. Chicago 7 seems more a cast-of-equals — you aren’t even the only Oscar winner. I wonder whether that put less pressure on you and freed you up in some ways in approaching your role.
Eddie: That’s a double-edged sword in some ways really. Yes, it is, you don’t feel like it’s on your shoulders. But when Aaron accrued such an extraordinary ensemble, you know that you’re going to be surrounded by heavyweights, and any weakness in your own work is going to show up. And it’s a sort of twofold thing. What was really wonderful for me, particularly in those court scenes when Tom was listening, was really just to watch this sort of orchestra of actors all who had completely different processes and came from different backgrounds, different nationalities — and to watch them play. And I describe it in musical terms, that in some ways, you had these different kinds of music colliding, whether it was punk with classical or jazz. And similarly, the actors all had different methods and processes. To this day, you’re always trying to learn and steal techniques from different people. I really enjoyed that side of it. At this point, you try not to feel the pressure too much, because otherwise that does end up being stifling. But Aaron created an environment in which we were all able to play, and he also cast a really open group of actors. We would all discuss it and partner in it and try different things, and I got great pleasure from that.
Marci: You’ve mentioned before that you sometimes practice voices on the Tube. There have been a lot of people who have been surprised by your American accent. How did you practice your accent for this role?
Eddie: Years ago on The Yellow Handkerchief I worked with a lovely man called Michael Buster, who is based in Los Angeles, and he’s a dialect coach. He trained with a man named Tim Monich, who is the sort of don of dialect coaches, who I worked with a bit on The Good Shepherd. My process on The Yellow Handkerchief and Hick, actually, after that, and a little bit on Red, when I did it on Broadway, was I’d go to see Michael. I’m not inherently good on accents. Some people can just burst into impressions, and I’ve never been that actor, sadly. So it takes quite a lot of work for me, but I love that work. You know when we were talking about process — process is a nebulous thing, but when you have an accent, you have a sort of tangible thing to start with, and I have to learn it like music. I have to start months early and break it down to tiny sounds, and there are moments when you’re like…I’m never going to be able to be free with this. But the reason I have to start so early is that by the time it comes to filming, I need to be able to improvise, I need to be able to completely have it in my body in some ways. And so what happened on this one is Michael — even though there was not a big budget on this movie, I was quite insistent that I was able to work with Michael. When the film was first going to happen with me in it, Michael flew over to London and we spent two weeks working on the accent. That involves working through sessions, watching material, recording on my iPhone and walking around the streets of London, as you said, and on the Tube kind of talking to myself. Because quite often, you feel like you’re articulating it correctly, and when you hear it back in relation to what Michael is doing, it’s only when you’re listening back to both of your voices, you realize how wrong it is. And so I was doing all that, and I was excited to go to Toronto, and Hannah had found somewhere for us to live, and we were taking the kids, and Iris was coming out of school, and I got a call from Michael when he got back to Los Angeles and he said, “I’m so sorry to hear it’s fallen through.” And that was the first I’d heard that the film wasn’t happening. So that’s the extraordinary thing, that I’ve sort of been working for it and so excited for it, and obviously Aaron — in some ways it’s a dream project for me. So suddenly it was like — will it happen again? I put it to rest for several months thinking I can’t get my hopes up on this one because it’s been gestating for 15 years. But the accent and the words were still kind of rumbling around inside me, and when it did resurrect itself, I flew to New York a week before my family flew out, before we started shooting, and Michael came there and we did a week’s work. He came for the first day on the set, and then he kind of left me to it. It’s riveting on accent things with a dialect coach — it’s far more than it sounds like because there’s a kind of investigation where the character came from, when they moved somewhere, what else (?) they might have. But there was an interesting choice there because when you listen to Tom, he has a very specific…when he says an “ing” sound, he tends to pronounce “een.” And it’s quite eccentric, and I was desperate to go there because it felt so specific to him, and I was sort of gently discouraged by both Michael and Aaron. And I think it was because his voice itself had an eccentricity to it, so if it was me, an English actor doing an American accent for the first time as far as quite a few audience members were concerned, it might be off-putting. So I ended up simplifying it to a sort of less specific version of who he was.
Erina: You’ve said in the past how you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan and in particular his show the “West Wing.” What was the feeling reading this script for the first time after appreciating his work from afar for so long?
Eddie: I was on holiday with Hannah, and I had just ruptured my foot on The Aeronauts, and had been stuck in a basket for months, and we had left the little ones with my mum and dad for a weekend, and were going to Morocco. And I ended up getting food poisoning, and I couldn’t really walk. It was not really what Hannah and I had hoped for. But then this script arrived. Because I love Aaron and because it’s so rare that the people you really adore want to work with you, I was pretty much straight-up “I’ll do it.” And my agent was like —you should probably read it. And there was quite a hesitation as I read it — going, God I hope it fulfills everything I dreamed, and it sort of did. He really is firing on all cylinders in a courtroom with a script he had written 15 years ago that he continued to work on. It was a real passion project for him, and you could hear it in the language. But what was interesting is that it then became a little bit complicated because you’re working with your hero. But at the same point you have a great sense of your skill set at the table or otherwise why were you hired? What was interesting for me was the whole scene where Kunstler cross examines me and it cuts to flashback. And that’s how it was written in the script — it cut to these flashbacks. But from an actor’s point of view, I needed to know what the whole discussion was. Like when it cuts to flashback, I needed to know what conversation was going on in the room between Kunstler and Hayden in order to know where to place myself emotionally. So the way I would do that normally is I would fill in the gaps — I would write my own version of what those scenes were so I could get there. It’s important that Mark Rylance was in the same place, so I had this thing going — do I ask Aaron Sorkin to write me an extra bit? And I was — I can’t ask Aaron Sorkin that. And so I ended up writing my own version of it and then sent it into Aaron saying, I’m sure you’re too busy but I’m just doing this to make sure that my thought process is in the right place. Please feel free to ignore it, but I just wanted to check to see if the sort of thing you were imagining during this flashback moment. He sent me a one-liner back saying: “Thanks for this, Eddie. I’ll give it a stab myself.” I take the claim as being the only person in the world who was ever sort of stupid enough to send writing to Aaron Sorkin. He did write the whole scene, and when we shot the scene, even though as it is edited in the film it’s back as it was originally scripted, we did shoot this whole scene. It was pretty riveting to get to go head to head with Mark in such a sort of brilliant way.
Ali: This past year has brought many issues and concerns to the forefront of society. While the Trial of the Chicago 7 took place 50 years ago, what do you hope that viewers take from this movie to help us with what society is facing today?
Eddie: One of — sort of weirdly — the quotes that stuck with me as I did my research was one from Robert Kennedy, Jr., where he said that democracy is messy, it’s hard, and it’s never easy. And I think that this film just sort of reiterates that. At the same point, I hope it shows that it’s something worth fighting for and that the messiness is part of that process — but also how scary it is. For me it proved that we can’t take our history for granted, that we need to relook at our history in all senses, and remind ourselves consistently and that although maybe ____ changed and shifted in some ways we haven’t, and maybe try and learn from that. I hope it reminds us of the important of relooking and relearning from our history rather than just taking it for granted.
Ivonne: Obviously the film industry has changed a lot in just the year since you filmed Chicago 7, but can you talk about what you (and maybe the other Brits in the film) may have observed about the differences between filming in the U.S. and the U.K.?
Eddie: I don’t know if it’s a difference between the U.K. and the U.S., but certainly for me it’s shooting something on location. The first couple weeks of this, we shot in Chicago, and even the band of actors — we weren’t all living together, but we would, Jeremy, and Alex and I, Sacha — we would go out to dinner most nights. Your family are away, and you’re slightly sort of immersed in that story in a way that sort of feels like theater in some senses — much more part of a company. Whereas what can happen when you’re shooting at home and you come home every night. My family were then in New York after the first two weeks, and you’re back at home every night, and you’re spending your life with your family. But there’s something about those first two weeks that was throwing that group of actors together, you get to know them perhaps better than you would if we had started living in our own homes and what that does is create more of an intimacy, I think, that can be very helpful. So that, I suppose, was the major difference. The other thing with this film, and I know it does sound silly given the cast is quite a high-powered crew, and it seems expensive, the movie, but it had accrued so many debts because it had been around for so many years, and so actually I’ve never done a film in which I slightly felt that every day the film might fall apart. It felt more like we were making an indie movie. And that was quite hard to kind of align with the fact that it was produced by Spielberg and written by Aaron Sorkin — and now it feels so relevant. But when we were making it, it kept falling apart because ultimately it’s an expensive film to make, to a certain extent, because of riots that have to be shot. But at the same point, (you wonder) is there an audience for it? I’ll be curious to see how people react. I’m thrilled in some ways it’s coming out on Netflix so as many people as possible can see it.
Charlotte: I understand drawing parallels between the U.S. today and the era depicted in Chicago 7, but having come-of-age in that era, I also see a profound difference. The Chicago 8 were household names, whether you loved or hated or feared them — but there aren’t those kind of grassroots leaders today. What did you learn about them — and Tom Hayden in particular — that would explain their appeal then and their continuing fame a half-century later?
Eddie: That’s a really good question. And I think part of it is an active reaction to that generation, and I believe that the process we’re seeing now across the world is not so much top-down leadership. It’s actively not about figureheads. At the beginning of this film in that opening prologue you see that Martin Luther King was shot, you see that Kennedy was shot, There’s this slight sense that if you take the position of the figureheads, you take responsibility for the whole thing and what in some ways gets more attention is more rhetoric. And you look at Tom Hayden, and he was an amazing speaker. I find it kind of riveting that if you watch him speak — because he’s not extrovert, he actually speaks quite calmly and quietly and almost with a kind of a mellifluous kind of quality to the way he speaks — he draws people in. But I think now with the shift to social media and in relation to protest, I think it’s about spreading far and wide and about grass roots popping across the world. It’s more of the kind of Occupy Wall Street approach rather than great iconic figures. And in some ways, as you say, we can remember Abbie Hoffman, as Tom says in the film, while there was a great seriousness to Abbie, he did damage. So it remains a question, but I feel like the difference in process is an active one.
Charlotte: I liked one of the reviews said you played Hayden with “sly charisma.” And I thought that was a great description it, and that’s what he had. It wasn’t evident, but it was there, and I thought that was terrific.
Eddie: Well, I hoped so. It was quite tricky, and that’s what I felt, because obviously the way he’s presented in this movie, he represents the more buttoned-up version in antithesis or juxtaposed with Abbie. Of course Tom was himself, had much more of an anarchic experience — but I understand the dramaturgical use of that. But it was important to me, and I asked Aaron actually, (for) some little moments to give Tom a bit more humor and a little bit more playfulness and charisma. Otherwise, I thought it was just going to be too — I don’t think the audience would stay with him, actually.
Marci: Tom Hayden was a truly remarkable person, who dedicated his life to speaking out and fighting passionately for what he knew to be right. Is he someone you were very familiar with before you took this role, and did his history make this role especially appealing to you?
Eddie: I didn’t know anything about Tom Hayden. I didn’t know anything about the Chicago 7.
In fact, being totally frank, my knowledge of this moment of American history was pretty blurry. Randomly, Hannah and I had started watching the great seminal documentary on the Vietnam War on Netflix months before I was offered this. And we just had found a complexity of how that war was entered, as with everything historically, rooted so much in the past, we found that kind of riveting. So I didn’t know much about Tom, but the more I read about him from firstly his upbringing, the complexity of having sort of an alcoholic father, but then at an early age being willing to put himself on the line when he was being a journalist and on the Freedom Rides when he was being locked up. One of the things in this film, you think Tom’s scared of going to prison — he’s been to prison. He just wants to get through this trial in order to get on with the serious business. He sees it as a barricade in some ways to what he wants to be doing. By this time his integrity — he is totally extraordinary and someone who’s really willing to live by his beliefs. We all our own moral compass, we all have our own set of beliefs, but we also often all having glaring hypocrisies within that. And I found him a great model of integrity. It’s interesting because there’s something that Jane Fonda said about him: that he understood that progressives had to be prepared to take power and learn to govern, not just to protest. And that was something that she says he talked about, and I found that interesting.
Charlotte: Thank you for doing this. I hope that we all get to do this again. Not in the near future, but whenever you have another project coming to fruition.
Eddie: I hope so, too. It’s so lovely touching base with you all, and again, thank you so much for your support. I imagine we’ll next speak for a Beast movie. Sending lots of love to you.