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From the daily routines to their common regrets, the life of a nomad is examined superbly in “Nomadland” – especially in the heartbreaking character Dave, portrayed by veteran actor David Strathairn. His performance is just one of the many small yet bright spots of Chloé Zhao’s gorgeous depiction of a long-ignored group in America that hits every note masterfully.
To prepare for his role, he read the novel by Jessica Bruder, which he called a “wonderful, important, insightful and touching document that was eye-opening.” When it came to filming, he just followed Zhao’s cues and what she needed to build the character’s arc.
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The 72-year-old actor has been generating Oscar buzz for his work in the Searchlight Pictures film that has taken the awards season by storm. The California native is far too humble to acknowledge his own contribution to Zhao’s film and his impact on the industry. “A word on this Oscar thing,” he says. “I don’t know where they get their thinking, but they’re going to put the character of Dave up for that notoriety? All it is, is go over there and sit in that van and say hi when somebody says hi to you.”
Even if he doesn’t acknowledge it, in many ways, Strathairn is the emotional pillar for the film opposite Frances McDormand, who plays Fern. We understand Fern better through their interactions, whether it’s the dropping of dishes, or in a one-scene gut-punch in which he asks her to stay with him and his son’s family.
When I remind him of Beatrice Straight’s Oscar-winning performance in Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” which is the shortest performance ever to win at five minutes and twenty seconds, and Judi Dench’s winning moment in “Shakespeare in Love,” he says, “Look at what they were doing. I’m not on the same page or even the same library as them.”
Strathairn’s career is long and impressive, starting in the early 1980s, spanning the last four decades. He’s worked with an array of filmmakers. Jodie Foster (“Home for the Holidays”), Curtis Hanson (“L.A. Confidential” and “The River Wild”), Penny Marshall (“A League of Their Own”), Mike Nichols (“Silkwood”) and Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln”). His appearance with actors is even wider with the likes of Kathy Bates (“Dolores Claiborne”), Mary McDonnell (“Passion Fish”), River Phoenix (“Sneakers”), Tim Robbins (“Bob Roberts”), Debra Winger (“A Dangerous Woman”) and dozens more. The famous parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” could easily have Strathairn as a synonym.
One of his most significant moments came from working with writer and director George Clooney on his film “Good Night, and Good Luck” in 2005, for which he received his first Oscar nomination in best actor for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow. “Getting to depict that man, a legend in broadcast journalism, was pretty scary,” he recalls. “I have to bow down to George and Grant Heslov for having the audacity to roll the dice on me.” Unsure they were rolling the dice on an actor who, up to that point, had roles in over 65 films. But Strathairn isn’t the traditional Hollywood celebrity, and likely would lovingly roll his eyes if he was referred to as one. He’s content to simply be working.
By age 15, he says he had only seen about 10 movies in his entire life. His place in this industry occurred in what he describes as a “snowball rolling down the side of a hill.” His first screen credit was in John Sayles’s independent classic “Return of the Secaucus 7” in 1979. “It started with a little pebble and John Sayles,” he explains. “Those experiences were fulfilling to each one and appreciating what came after. I would think, ‘how did this happen?’ It was a slow process of crashing the party that I’m grateful for.”
Strathairn’s next outing will be with Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro in his remake of “Nightmare Alley.” “Not only is it going to be beautiful with the production value, but the cast is also just stunning,” he says. “I don’t think that a movie has been made for a long time that has dealt with such a visceral and very heartfelt glimpse into this world. Guillermo del Toro’s creative abilities are really amazing. I think it’s going to be a wonderful experience when it gets out there. I think it’s going to make a lot of noise, as people say. Really beautiful film and very dark. It’s fantastical, but it’s really gritty.”
When asked if he will ever consider jumping into the director’s chair himself, in a quick-witted response, he says, “I don’t think so. I’m still trying to figure out this acting thing.”
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