His work is so meticulous that you do not notice it. However: nothing is random, there is definitely a PLAN at work. He crafts these characters. What is the similarity between Ben in Blue Velvet and Tony in Married to the Mob? Nothing, except it’s the same guy playing him. He is that versatile. His personality is not so known to us that we cannot imagine him in different roles. He has the freedom to slip in and out of completely unpredictable parts. But you don’t see the wheels turning. He’s a great character actor, which is so bizarre, seeing as he was so of stunning he was as a young man, like Warren Beatty stunning. People with that kind of beauty rarely go the character-actor route. Either because they don’t have the acting chops, they’ve just got the beauty, or they never get the opportunity to stretch their acting muscles, or they TRY to stretch their muscles and nobody wants to see it. So Stockwell is rare.
He has grown into one of our most beloved character actors, yet he had movie star good looks as a young man. His type of acting does not call attention to itself, and by that I mean: The more you watch it, the more you see. It’s not all there on the first viewing. If you watch these movies multiple times, as I have been doing – you start to notice just how much detail he has put into these parts. Like the Ace bandage around his hand in Blue Velvet. We don’t know why it’s there, it’s never explained, he doesn’t reference it, the script doesn’t mention it … but it adds a layer to the guy, gives him a past – even if it’s only from yesterday – what was he up to yesterday? He seems so mild and creepily serene … but we know he’s dangerous. We only know it, though, because Frank Booth is scared of him, and in awe of him … and Frank Booth is a psychopath. So if Frank is scared of Ben … wow. What is BEN capable of? No hints are given. But the Ace bandage is there, evidence, perhaps, of his potential for violence that you don’t get in the script. The Ace bandage is a signal, unexplained, and evocative of a whole life lived.
Dean Stockwell’s parts are full of things like that, it’s fun to look out for them. He, as a personality, holds his cards to his chest, even in flamboyant parts. I’m talking about him as a person. I don’t know him, obviously, but you can tell a lot about a person from the parts they choose, how they play them, and how they handle success. He is not interested in being congratulated or admired. (Well, I’m sure he is – we all are – to quote the doppelganger – I was talking to him about my trouble making a living as an actress, and he said stentoriously, annoyed with the entire process, and annoyed that I wasn’t at the Helen Hayes level of success yet, “Look, you’re an actress. You need to be on a goddamn stage with an audience. You can’t act by yourself in a cabin!”) But Stockwell’s acting is the opposite of self-congratulatory. It’s not twitchy, or mannered – and yet at the same time, obviously, he can be HUGELY campy. Like Johnny Depp campy. (Depp is another rare case: a leading man who has chosen the career of a character actor. That almost never happens, and says a lot about who he is.)
Time for an example of Stockwell’s meticulousness, and to show what I mean by the specificity of his work – yet also his lack of interest in having you notice it. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, no love is lost – because the rest of the work and his role in telling the story is solid. But God is in the details, it is so true.
In Married to the Mob, Tony Russo (Stockwell) and his cross-eyed sidekick are in the car, Sidekick driving, and they are headed to Burger World, because Russo says (and you have to see how he says it, it’s the most bizarre line reading ever): “Well, I could use a little snack.” Cross-eyed sidekick calls the guys in the car behind them and tells them they’re gonna make a pitstop at Burger World. As Sidekick is on the phone, our focus (of course) is on him – because he’s talking. It’s not Tony Russo’s moment – it’s Cross-Eyed sidekick’s turn. Stockwell sits next to him, and he’s not pulling focus, or stealing the scene – but he is most definitely still IN the scene, since the shot includes both of them. And he glances down at his hand, as Sidekick speaks, and frowns a bit. He does not like what he sees, obviously. He peers a bit closer, with a troubled look on his face. It’s so subtle you might never catch it, it’s not meant to pull attention away from Sidekick’s scene – it’s just a little Tony Russo private moment – but once I picked up on what he was doing, it was all I could see.
Next scene: a sniper hides out in the bushes and kills the two guys in the car following Tony and Sidekick. The car careens off into the reeds. Tony and Sidekick do not notice, because by now they are happily singing the theme song to Burger World in unison. “The fries are crispy, the shakes are creamy …” etc. It’s completely stupid.
Next scene: Tony and Sidekick pull into the drive-in at Burger World. Sidekick gets ready to shout his order into the takeout window. And what is Tony Russo doing, in the passenger seat? Filing his nails.
Again, this is not a “bit” – it’s a subtle character moment, which adds multiple levels to this guy (his vanity, his scrupulousness) – but also adds continuity, which is SO hard to do in movies, especially because you film out of sequence. The great actors ALWAYS know where they are, and can adjust, even if you film the second half of the final climax scene on the first day of shooting – and then fill in the first half of it 3 weeks later. It’s not easy, and there are people whose job it is to keep an eye on continuity (your hair was parted on this side before, the cup on the table was half full, your tie was almost undone – whatever – If a film has bad continuity, we all know it – there are websites devoted to continuity errors, so it’s a very important job!) But there are SOME things which the continuity person will not be in charge of, it’s up to the actor to be able to match take to take. Was I inhaling on this take? Or exhaling? Cigarette in this hand or that hand? Did I have my legs spread when I was sitting, or crossed? You have GOT to be on top of that stuff, and it’s quite a challenge.
I have no idea if the first part of the scene (Sidekick on phone, Tony noticing a hangnail) was filmed in sequence with the second part – or if they were done on completely different nights. Whichever way it was, the fact remains.
It ADDS to the character to have him NOTICE his hangnail, and then the next time we see him – he’s filing away happily. It would be completely easy for Stockwell to just be filing his nails as they pull into the drive-in lane – but how much better it is to set up that action beforehand.
This is why it feels real.
And that’s hard shit, people. It sounds simple, but stupid crap like that is what separates the men from the boys in this sillly business.
THAT’S an actor. That’s a guy whose technique is so solid that it is invisible, and we are just the lucky beneficiaries of it. We don’t notice an actor acting, we notice a dude with a hangnail, we notice a dude who is not the kind of person who will WAIT to handle said hangnail. He doesn’t NEED to wait, because he carries a nail file ON him, for just such an emergency, and that small detail is key – it’s key to understanding the guy.
And also: NONE of it is in the script. It has nothing to do with plot, or surface, or moving the story along. It all just goes to character building.
And that’s all Stockwell’s doing. Nobody tells you to pay attention to details like that. That’s the actor’s job. Some actors are capable, some are geniuses, some are incompetent, some have their focus in all the wrong places.
Stockwell’s focus is ALWAYS in the right place.
Scene 1. Tony Russo notices the unsightly hangnail.
Two scenes later. The car pulls into view, and Tony is seen filing.