PASADENA, Calif. — Actor David Strathairn, who’s played everything from Edward R. Murrow to a child abuser, pursues acting because he always learns something from it.
“If I’m fortunate enough to get involved in a project that has some pretty good legs under it, people have given thought to it, you’re going to learn something,” he says, seated in an olive velvet armchair in the lobby of a hotel here.
“In theater I’ve always learned something about the particular world that the play is about — whether it’s 1906 outside of Moscow in a Chekhov play, or an Arthur Miller play. Of course, Shakespeare is extraordinary,” he says.
“I’m always learning about the world I’m in and also the community of artists that are drawn to telling stories. It’s a very special community because of the kind of trust you have to have when you enter a room with strangers that you have to tell a story. And (you) put your hearts and minds together and commit to try to do the best you can. It’s inherently a collaborative effort. It’s also a lot of fun.”
Strathairn has been having fun since he began in 1979 working with independent filmmaker John Sayles, with whom he was to collaborate often.
Shifting between theater, film and later, television, he’s costarred such productions as “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “L.A. Confidential” and “Temple Grandin.” And while Strathairn has reached the status of a major “go-to” guy in Hollywood, it hasn’t been a smooth ride.
“Often I wonder, why am I still doing this?,” he shrugs. “Why don’t I just go back to my garden and chickens and dogs and family and just hunker down? But there are a lot of questions I haven’t answered, and being involved in this discipline keeps me answering them.”
His latest quest is the Syfy series, “Alphas,” premiering July 11. Strathairn says he was intrigued by the challenge. “It’s something I’ve never explored, developing a character that could have mutations anywhere along the road that would be embraced or not. It’s a real wide landscape of character development. Then I really liked what they’re trying to do with the series, which is to explore people who have these neurological anomalies that are very plausible.
“It’s not, by any means, a superhero sci-fi thing. It’s dealing with very day-to-day problems we all have,” says Strathairn, who plays neurologist Dr. Lee Rosen, a scientist overseeing a government project to ferret out people with singular abilities.
In spite of his prestigious body of work, which also includes “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Sopranos,” “A League of Their Own” and “Brother from Another Planet,” Strathairn can still doubt himself.
“To a certain extent each part I approach I think, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ A lot comes with what you’re given the opportunity to do. Sometimes they cast people to get the project financed. I always have that little moment when I think, ‘Am I up to this?’
It’s not so much a lack of daring with him, but the need to excel.
“I tend to think there has to be a baseline of confidence in order to be an actor. Otherwise it’s too scary,” says the San Francisco native, who’s dressed in a pea-green shirt, khakis and a green baseball cap.
“You have to have the confidence that you’ll be able to hit the nail at least three times out of 10. You’ve gotta have that kind of confidence.”
The soft-spoken Strathairn, 62, thinks an actor is like a transmitter. “You’re a medium, a conduit of finding a better way to get to an audience’s subconscious so that you can awaken something special in them. There’s so many ways to do it.
“Now we can do it technologically, music has forever been the best way to do it. But dramatic literature is difficult because how do you get in there? How do you engage somebody’s mental and emotional faculties at the same time? And being a conduit for that is a huge challenge.
“We’re always peeling the onion to try to figure out who we are, why we are what we are and that’s what artists of all disciplines are trying to do.”
Experiencing life’s crises can change your acting, he thinks. “Life informs you constantly. The trick is to stay open to it because you never know when it’s going to come upon you in any moment with any scene, with any character — when you will have those feelings. So they sort of lie there sometimes more dormant than others. But then, pow! There’s a trigger. Something wells up in you. And I think in moments like that, actors should let it happen whether it’s appropriate or inappropriate to the moment. That’s up to the editors or directors or audience to see. But if it’s a true feeling, let it go because it’s going to have some kind of resonance.”
Married with two sons, one a musician and the other an architect, Strathairn reckons having a family took more courage than anything he’s done careerwise. “The fact that you have a family and then balancing that with whatever it is you’re doing. Even if your life is a bed of roses, having a child is a pretty gutsy thing to do. It’s the one thing we don’t have any chance of getting experience doing unless we DO it. I guess you could babysit for a long time, but it’s not the same thing “
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Placido Domingo is starring as the court jester on “Great Performances: Rigoletto at Mantua,” airing July 15 on PBS. “It was a live performance, and you cannot imagine the difficulties,” he says of the filming. “We did the first act on an evening at 8:30, and the second act, it was the next afternoon at 2 o’clock in the palaces, you know, the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. And then in the evening at 11:30, we did the third act. I can guarantee you, it’s a lot more difficult. We are not lip synching. We are singing live with Maestro Zubin Mehta in the theater ... I cannot tell you how difficult it was, and we are very proud of the results.”