Martin Landau On Frankenweenie's Mr. Rzykruski And Teaching Jack Nicholson At The Actor's Studio
Hollywood veteran Martin Landau earned an Oscar in his first collaboration with Tim Burton, 1994's Ed Wood, and for Burton's latest and most personal picture, Frankenweenie, the filmmaker cast his erstwhile Bela Lugosi as the eccentric but inspirational Mr. Rzykruski — the science teacher who nurtures young Victor Frankenstein's budding talents and encourages him to forge his own path. It's a fitting role for the 84-year-old Landau, who lit up as he discussed Frankenweenie and his longtime parallel career as an acting coach to the likes of Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston, and many more Hollywood greats under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
Tim Burton cast you as Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s teacher and he’s quite the character: At first imposing and foreboding, he's revealed to be one of Victor's only kindred spirits. What did you make of him at first and how did you find his quirks?
It’s a fun character, and the thing that amazed me is that I saw an arc and if I could play it on camera I’d play it exactly the same. I did [the voice recording] first and the animators animated after. It was just my voice, but Tim sent me pictures of the character and it looked like me years ago, or Vincent Price and me mixed up, a caricature of me with dark hair and such. I saw him as a loving man, but eccentric as hell and passionate! And also, European – but not specifically from a country. It said that; it said it’s a generic accent. It’s not German, it’s not Russian, it’s not Hungarian, but it’s European. [In Mr. Rzykruski’s voice] So I lowered the voice.
The relationship between Victor and Mr. Rzykruski is the best child-adult relationship in the film, and probably the most important one.
He’s the one who inspires the kid, with science and the frog! He’s somewhat outlandish and certainly not a diplomat. If you’re a teacher you don’t call your students’ parents stupid.
It’s a great line, though.
It’s a funny line, and I knew it. But again, the movie is funny, moving, and scary in equal parts and I love that. This is a movie Tim wanted to make three decades ago and couldn’t. He made a short live-action version of it, but the one blessing is that if he had done it then it wouldn’t be in 3-D. But it’s not stuck on 3-D, things coming at you to shock you.
You also happen to be a teacher off-screen, having spent many years with the Actors Studio where so many talents passed through over the decades.
It was a different time. A lot of my contemporaries have passed away, which is sad, but I still run the Actors Studio on the West Coast with Mark Rydell – [Al] Pacino, [Harvey] Keitel and Ellen Burstyn run the New York Actors Studio so we’re in touch with each other all the time. And I work with a lot of young actors and help them.
Why did you first begin teaching?
I started teaching when I was in my 20s because Lee Strasberg asked me to, and he didn’t do that with a lot of people.
Why do you think he did?
At the Actors Studio when I got in, he’d ask for comments and I’d raise my hand and critique the actors succinctly and helpfully, and I think he noticed that. One day he said “I want you to teach – I’ve got a waiting list and I’m going to send some of my people to you.” He sent me off, teaching. Jack Nicholson was my student for three years, and Harry Dean Stanton, Anjelica Huston; a lot of people have studied with me. It’s paying my dues, because as a young actor I benefited from getting in. The year I got into The Actors Studio, Steve McQueen and I were the only two accepted that whole year. Two people, Steve and me. It’s still tough to get in. Lifetime membership.
Who was your favorite student?
That’s hard - they’re all my kids. I’ve got two daughters and it’s impossible for me to say one of them is a favorite.
Fair enough! Was there one actor who surprised you the most over the years?
Nicholson did, but he had some problems. He would kind of surround a moment that he didn’t want to embrace. I found that those things were probably the richest part of his talent, which he was avoiding because it was very hurtful. But I wanted him to know that it wasn’t going to hurt him. You can’t perish because of your own feelings, you have to embrace those things as an actor because it’s part of your palette.