When Kate Winslet is happy to see someone, she's not shy about it. As soon as Leonardo DiCaprio walked through the door, his "Titanic" costar gave him a full-body hug, then jumped up and wrapped her legs around his waist, so that the old buddies looked like a pitcher and catcher who'd just won the World Series. It's been seven years since their film swept the Academy Awards, and now its stars are back in Oscar's sights, along with four other great actors who convened for NEWSWEEK's annual roundtable discussion about life and art.
Paul Giamatti, star of the year's indie sensation, "Sideways," showed up too early, so he left for a while, groaning, "I've got to start building lateness into my schedule." Annette Bening, who plays a stage diva in "Being Julia," arrived precisely on time and without an entourage. Her last nomination was for "American Beauty," the year that Hilary Swank won the Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry." Swank, who's drawing raves for "Million Dollar Baby," noted the coincidence the instant she saw Bening--we weren't going to bring it up--and thanked her for being so kind to her the last time around. Jamie Foxx, who has wowed audiences with his portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," played Ping-Pong with his assistant. Winslet, the unforgettable Clementine in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," stepped outside for a cigarette. DiCaprio, starring as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," joked around with Swank, who's another old friend, doing strange handshakes and calling her "homey." Then, for two hours, the acclaimed group discussed everything from how shoes shape a performance, to why getting fired is a good thing, to what's up with Chris Rock's teeth. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Thank you all for being here. Although we didn't intend this, we've got a little "Titanic" reunion. Kate and Leo, after a huge movie like that, do you feel a special bond, like war veterans?
LEONARDO DICAPRIO: I suppose so, yes.
KATE WINSLET: I know it sounds like a hideous cliche, but if we hadn't been so close, and been able to keep each other going, it would have been really, really tough.
DICAPRIO: It's always been sort of a brother-sister dynamic between us. It's great to see her over the years. She's still the same wonderful person that she's always been.
ANNETTE BENING: How many years ago was it that you made the picture?
WINSLET: Nearly eight.
WINSLET: It was such an incredible experience, and such a formative time for me. I learned so much about my strengths and weaknesses, and how much I could handle. I remember the two of us saying afterward, "My God, it's just never going to be that hard again."
And has it been?
DICAPRIO: Especially coming from the type of movies we had done before, to be thrown into the Goliath that that movie was. But, you know, we survived.
WINSLET: And lived to tell the tale.
And Leo, don't you and Hilary have some past connection?
DICAPRIO: We knew each other when we were 15. We did a TV show together, "Growing Pains."
HILARY SWANK: It was actually my first job. I pulled a bunny out of a hat and went, "Ta-da!"
DICAPRIO: She hasn't changed.
SWANK: It feels like it was yesterday.
Doing press is a big part of your job this time of year, and you've all done a great many interviews over the years. What one question do you never want to be asked again?
SWANK: My most annoying question is, "Hilary, are you ever going to play a pretty girl?"
PAUL GIAMATTI: Yeah, that one always pisses me off.
WINSLET: Here's mine: "Oh, my God, how did you lose all that weight?" [Laughter] The other one, which is really dumb, is, "How do you learn all those lines?"
SWANK: I think they think we memorize the whole script. [Pause] Annette just looked at me like, "Hilary, you don't?!" [Laughter]
JAMIE FOXX: I know it sounds crazy, but I'm telling you, my homeys and my friends, they really want to know simple things like that. I try to think like a fan, you know? I remember coming to L.A. and seeing Denzel Washington walk out of the Roxbury, and I marched up to him--I embarrass myself because when I see somebody I like I march up to them--and I was, like, "Denzeeeeellll! Denzeeeellll!" [Laughter] I remember he put his elbow out, going, "Hold on, hold on."
Does that make you more sympathetic to fans who come up and do that to you?
FOXX: Sometimes, yeah, because I was that person.
Do you get a lot of questions about "Ray"?
FOXX: It's been so much fun answering those questions because people are rediscovering Ray Charles. You think he's the older generation, but he knew 50 Cent. He knew Sean Puffy Combs. He was the first sampler. He took gospel and switched it over.
DICAPRIO: He revolutionized music, absolutely.
GIAMATTI: I get asked, you know, "What's wrong with drinking merlot?" [Laughter] I go, "I don't know, man. I don't know!"
BENING: "I'm an actor, not a wine connoisseur."
Annette, you must get a lot of questions about being married to Warren Beatty.
BENING: Yeah, I've been avoiding bringing that up. [Laughter]
DICAPRIO: The one that comes to my mind is: "What do you have in common with Howard Hughes?" I just got off this huge press junket for "The Aviator," so I got asked that 50 times a day.
BENING: That's a dangerous question, I think. We all have to talk too much about what we do. I guess there's a natural curiosity--what is you and what is the character--but there are certain things you don't want to analyze.
WINSLET: The character reveals itself to you as time goes on. The most exciting thing in the world is when the character almost starts to play itself a little, and so it surprises you each day.
[Suddenly, there's the sound of someone whistling a happy tune]
SWANK: Oh, that's my phone! I'm so sorry! I never have it on. It's [my husband Chad Lowe's] birthday, and I'm throwing him a surprise party--
WINSLET: Are you completely mad? [Laughter]
SWANK: Yes. Well, it's sickeningly about me right now in our family, and he's so wonderful about me being gone all the time, so I'm going to throw him a big party tonight. He has no idea.
FOXX: Where is it?
SWANK: Are you going to show up? You're all invited. It's at the Chateau Marmont, room 64, the one with the big porch.
BENING: That's a great room.
FOXX: I'm gonna be there.
So many of you are playing real people this year, or have recently. Is that harder than playing a fictional person?
DICAPRIO: Most of the time you receive a character and you have to make up his background--where he came from, his neurosis or whatever--and that can be more difficult. Certainly there's a huge responsibility when you're playing somebody who actually lived, but it's great to have a scene where, if you're questioning your character's intentions or how he's feeling, you can pick up a book and read the answer.
SWANK: It does a lot of that homework for you, but there's a big responsibility, because you want to portray that person as close to how they really are as possible.
GIAMATTI: But you can't put too much pressure on yourself, or you won't be able to do it.
DICAPRIO: You have to say, "I'm playing a character named Howard Hughes" or "Ray Charles" or whoever, and own that character.
Paul, when you made "American Splendor," you had the man you were playing, Harvey Pekar, in the movie with you.
GIAMATTI: That actually made it easier in some ways, because it was just kind of like, well, that's what I have to do, right there. [Laughter]
When you're playing some-one well known, like Ray Charles, how do you keep it from becoming just an imitation?
FOXX: You focus on the things the public didn't see--how he answered the phone, how he talked to his kids. I got a chance to videotape him, and when he wasn't being "Ray Charles," he was real subtle. You also get things from his friends, because Ray was very closed up. You'd ask him, "Ray, did you have a lot of women?" He'd go, "No, man, there was one." [Laughter]
Leo, were you able to find a lot of Howard Hughes footage?
DICAPRIO: Not really. He was so closed off from his public persona that any footage I did find was basically of him standing in front of an airplane talking about the motor and the f---ing rudders. [Laughter] The one thing I did get to watch, which was a huge basis of the character, was the footage of the Senate hearings. You have America's first billionaire taking on the United States Senate to stop a corporate monopoly, which is a trip.
Is there always a physical thing that unlocks a character for you all? If you figure out, say, the walk, does everything else fall into place?
BENING: For me, a lot of it is the clothes. Just like in real life, you feel different if you're wearing a tux or if you're in jeans. When you're acting, that feeling is magnified. And shoes! Shoes are huge!
SWANK: It's true. If you change shoes you sit differently, you walk differently.
WINSLET: I start with the bra. If the bra's right, everything falls into place.
GIAMATTI: Me too. [Laughter]
By the way, Paul, do you think your character in "Sideways" is an alcoholic?
GIAMATTI: Yeah, I definitely think the guy's an alcoholic. Sure. [Director Alexander Payne] didn't want to make it the central agony of the movie, though, so I didn't get too obsessed with it.
Annette, you play a stage actress in "Being Julia." Why are actors so often portrayed as divas?
BENING: What I find is that on set, it's very often not the actors who are the divas. Sometimes it's the costume designer, sometimes it's the set photographer, sometimes it's the makeup person who's being flamboyant and throwing fits.
WINSLET: Also, it's easy to assume that actors and actresses are divas, because it seems that's the general attitude that's applied to people who are good at what they do, or who make lots of money or what-ever. But I know, working with Leo, you could not find somebody who likes the limelight less.
FOXX: And I've seen him out, at a club or hanging out, and he's cool with his friends, too.
DICAPRIO: I've been pretty fortunate not to work with diva-type actors. I have no tolerance for it, ultimately, because we're getting to do what we love to do.
SWANK: That's so true. It's not like we all just got jobs because we're talented. It's that we're lucky, too. At one point we were all at home saying, "I'd put up with the paparazzi and all of that if I could just work." I think it's important to reconnect with that when you find yourself complaining about how hard fame is.
You're all successful actors. Do you still have that fear, after each job, that you'll never work again?
WINSLET: I feel like that all the time.
GIAMATTI: I do, too.
WINSLET: Leo doesn't. [Laughter]
SWANK: I was just working with Clint Eastwood. He's 74, and he says he never knows if each job is going to be his last.
BENING: When I was starting out, I thought there must be a point at which that goes away--that successful people didn't have insecurities or demons. What you realize is that, if anything, it gets worse.
GIAMATTI: Every job feels like the first job. I'm always fumbling through it, trying to figure it out and going, "I'm going to get fired. I'm going to get fired."
Have you ever gotten fired, though?
GIAMATTI: Oh, a bunch of times. I got fired from an episode of "Frasier." I wasn't funny. They kept tinkering with the script, and it sucked, and I was having a bad time. I was happy to be shown the door, actually.
SWANK: I got fired off "Beverly Hills, 90210." It was in its last stages, when no one was watching it, and I thought, "If I'm not even good enough for this, I'm never going to make it." So I was coming off this one-hour show, and I was testing for another one-hour show with this very well- known executive--
BENING: Who will go nameless.
SWANK: Very nameless. And he said, "I would hire you, but you're just too 'half hour'." [Laughter] But you have to trust fate, because four months later I got "Boys Don't Cry."
Does the fear of failure ever go away?
WINSLET: Fear is a great thing for an actor, because you have to confront it, you know. There's always the feeling of "I can't do this. They've got the wrong person." This job is so exciting, and most of it is terrifying, but the day I say "That's it, I know how to act" is the day it ceases to be interesting.
BENING: And it's not a question of getting rid of the fear. It's a question of tolerating it. You just say, "Yeah, my heart is pounding, OK." You learn to live with it.
SWANK: Can I tell you how great it is to hear Annette Bening say that?
DICAPRIO: I was thinking that, too.
Annette, you've done a lot of work onstage. Is that scarier?
BENING: There was one play I did for a year, and every morning, the first thing I would think about when I woke up was this particular moment that always terrified me, when I was supposed to burst into tears. During a preview, that moment came in the play when I'm supposed to burst into tears, and it didn't happen. I didn't fake it, I just... oh, it was awful! And afterward the director said to me, "Annette, what happened?"
WINSLET: Oh. God.
BENING: A nightmare.
WINSLET: Oh, God!
BENING: When you're doing a movie and you have a moment like that, you might have to do it for a day or two. But in a play--it makes my heart pound just thinking about it--you've got to find that moment every night.
WINSLET: Jamie, tell us about stage fright doing stand-up.
FOXX: Oh, man, that's horrendous. Doing stand-up in L.A. is like being a gunslinger. But the first time you go on and you get the first laugh... you're good, because you have something to say. The scariest thing that can happen to you at my stage now is fame face.
FOXX: When you become famous, you eat a little more, and your face kind of puffs up. So before, you'd come onstage skinny, hungry, going, "What's up, motherf----r?!" But now, you come on, and go, "I just got the new Range Rover. Anybody?" [Laughter] Years ago, after I'd done "In Living Color," I was kind of in that place. Not doing anything new, just riding the after-burn, you know. I got offstage one night, and I'm talking to this girl outside. The door opens and I hear [the crowd roaring]. I open the door and there's this young skinny kid named Chris Tucker, and he's just cutting their heads off. I knew I had to go back to comedy gym, you know, get my thing back, because I'd gotten that fame face. Here's the end of the story: about a month and a half ago I'm in the Laugh Factory and Chris Tucker gets onstage. He's wearing a suit with a red tie, like he's doing taxes or something, and he goes, "Man, I wonder if women love me for my money or do they love me for me?"
SWANK: Fame face
FOXX: I went to him and I said, "Go get your sword back. Go get it."
SWANK: I love that story
FOXX: And you can tell... it's little things, like Chris Rock and his new set of teeth. Now, people have always told me my teeth are too big--
WINSLET: Don't you dare touch your teeth.
FOXX: But if I change them, I may lose that goofiness.
DICAPRIO: You can't get too comfortable, man. You can never lose that hunger.
FOXX: And you gotta listen to the girls in airport security, because they will lay it out for you: "Jamie, OK, I liked you in 'Ray,' but what was goin' on with 'Bait'?" [Laughter]
Paul, with "Sideways" you've gone from supporting actor to leading man. Supporting actors are almost always shot from a distance. Was it hard to adjust to acting in close-ups?
GIAMATTI: It was a very new thing to have to do. I was just like, "Get that damn camera out of my face! You can't possibly be this interested in my face all the time." [Laughter]
WINSLET: Do you just hate close-ups?
GIAMATTI: I don't love them.
WINSLET: I remember specific instances on "Titanic" when I definitely gave better performances when I was off-camera doing lines for Leo's close-up. I used to look at him doing these great close-ups and say, "How did you just do that, you little s---?" [Laughter]
Leo, you've worked with a lot of powerful people. Who were you most afraid of?
DICAPRIO: My first film ["This Boy's Life"] was with Robert De Niro. I was 16, and I remember walking on set, joking around with the crew and stuff, and then all of a sudden... complete and utter silence. All you could hear was his footsteps. I was like, "Oh, s---!" But to watch him work... I'd never seen an actor take what he did that seriously. It was life-changing.
WINSLET: When I was young, I never even thought about films. Films were something Judy Garland did. I thought I was going to do theater and struggle, and I was definitely going to have to have a solid part-time job. Even when I was 17 and doing "Heavenly Creatures," I never really thought that people were going to see it. [Laughter] I couldn't believe it. I still can't.
GIAMATTI: I just did this big movie, "Cinderella Man," and I'm standing in the middle of this boxing ring with Russell Crowe and he's sweating and I'm rubbing him down, polishing his chest, going, "Get him, kid!" and there's thousands of extras there, and I'm thinking, how the hell did I get here? I'm from New Haven, Connecticut! [Laughter]
Annette, when you take time off to raise kids, do you ever worry that you'll lose the fire to act?
BENING: The first time I got pregnant I was worried about that, and I did lose that hunger for a while. Then it came back and I thought, OK, it's cyclical, and it's very healthy. In fact, after that--I had four kids--the moment of being pregnant was letting yourself float in a pool. Ah, God, I can step away from all of the hoopla of the movie business and just be in that world. The context of the work has completely changed. I'm no less interested in trying to find moments in front of a camera that are entertaining or that might move people, but the whole experience is sweeter now because I have these other responsibilities. If I were only thinking about myself, it wouldn't taste as good.
GIAMATTI: I have a 4-year-old, and before, I was always in my own head. But when you're a parent, the work becomes, beautifully, just a job. It gave me my joy of acting back. On the other hand, you never sleep again.
WINSLET: And when you're a mother of small children, work becomes a holiday. Someone does your hair! Someone does your makeup! It's like a revelation. I've fallen in love with my job all over again after having kids.
FOXX: My daughter's 10 years old, and it changes you, absolutely. You grow up.
How do you all feel about the film industry today? Is it harder to find good roles in studio movies than it used to be?
DICAPRIO: It is, because we see so many regurgitated versions of things that have been done so many times before. In the '70s, the director was God, essentially, and studios financed pictures based on the merit and content of the film. Nowadays, it's a business, and you have these giant corporate empires that have merged.
GIAMATTI: But don't you think they turned out just as much crap in the '70s, and what people remember is the good stuff?
BENING: And people had to work their asses off to get those good movies made. It's easy to look back and think that didn't happen, but it did. They had to fight with the studios. They had to run over budget and tell [the executives] to go away while they made their picture. There have been people who had to fight that fight from the time movies began.
SWANK: Clint took "Mystic River" to every studio, and everyone was, like, no, no, no. And Warner Bros. gave him a pretty small budget on "Million Dollar Baby," too. I mean, he's Clint Eastwood, and still...
So are you all feeling pessimistic about the future of film?
DICAPRIO: No. People talk about the golden era of Hollywood, but we're still in it. This art form is only 100 years old, and I am truly curious to see how the medium is going to change in the next couple hundred years.
SWANK: Are you hoping to be reincarnated? [Laughter]
After last year, how do you all feel about using your celebrity for political purposes?
DICAPRIO: There's this stigma that's put upon actors that we aren't allowed to be citizens as well--that somehow we're detached from everyday life. It's annoying to me. I went out in support of John Kerry, and my objective--I'm an environmentalist--was to attract young people to listen about an issue that wasn't being talked about, really.
There was a lot of talk afterward about voter backlash against "Hollywood liberals."
DICAPRIO: It's as if we're not allowed to have a voice because of some public persona, some label that's been put upon us.
SWANK: It's interesting to me that people care about our opinions when they buy the Enquirer, but when they disagree with us, it's "actors should step down."
FOXX: Why not use your leverage for the good of things, because leverage is used for the evil of things all the time. Stand up.
SWANK: They can say whatever they want about us. Just as long as they don't start blacklisting. [Foxx shoots her a look] What?
FOXX: Nothing. I just knee-jerked when you said "black" list. [Laughter]
Oddly, we haven't talked about the Academy Awards much. Jamie, how important was it that Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won?
FOXX: I remember talking to Denzel after he didn't receive an Oscar for "The Hurricane," and I said, "Dude, you got the Omar." He said, "What's that?" I said, "It means the people in the 'hood and the cool white folks dig you, man." He and Halle, they're like these two great ambassadors. They're just great people who happen to be wrapped in that black skin, so them winning... that was a great day for black people. It made me feel like I've got a chance. I can turn it up a notch. I don't have to think this one way. It gives people hope, you know? It says to those kids in chocolate cities like Chi-Town and south Dallas that things are changing. Things are getting better. I was just in Washington, D.C., screening "Ray" for the Black Caucus, and afterward this young kid stands up--jersey on, with some bling--and he says, "Yo, Foxx, you think you might get a nod?" He's asking about an Oscar nod. That's a beautiful thing.
Most of you have been nominated for Oscars before. Is it still a thrill?
WINSLET: I never cease to be completely overwhelmed, bowled over and amazed to be nominated for anything. And to be in this kind of company... I am just stunned. I remember Whoopi Goldberg presenting the Academy Awards one year when I was younger, and at the end she said, "To all those kids out there who are wondering if, one day, they could be sitting in this room: you can be." So to be here, it proves there is possibility, there is magic. I'm completely stunned, humbled and thrilled.
DICAPRIO: I think Kate just said it for all of us.
SWANK: That pretty much covers it.
DICAPRIO: Aaaaand... scene. [Laughter]
WINSLET: Fade to black.