Still Goin’: In Conversation With John Voight
September Dawn has been attracting controversy ever since it began shooting last year. The film, directed and co-written by Christopher Cain (Young Guns), tells the story of the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre when, on the morning of September 11, 1857, a wagon train of over 100 Westward-bound Christian settlers were brutally slain by Mormon militia. The incident has continued to be a historical talking point as the Mormons accused of the murders were disguised as Native Americans and have always denied any culpability in the matter. However a wealth of documentation backs up the claims against the Mormons, and Cain used this information as a background for a dramatic narrative about the massacre which features both real-life characters such as Brigham Young, here played by Terence Stamp, and composite creations like Mormon patriarch Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight).
As is often the case with the films he appears in, Jon Voight’s performance is arguably the highlight of September Dawn. Voight began his career as one of the most compelling leading men in Hollywood, and was propelled to instant star status with his Oscar-nominated turn as Joe Buck in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969). In the 1970s, Voight was famously cautious about which projects to take on, but despite him being far from prolific during this period, he gave unforgettable performances in Deliverance (1972), The Champ (1979) and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, for which Voight received the Best Actor Academy Award. In contrast with earlier in his career, for the past decade Voight has been working non-stop as he has transformed himself into a ubiquitous character actor, appearing both in Hollywood studio fare and lower profile, more personal projects. In 2001, he was once again Oscar-nominated for his role as TV sportscaster Howard Cosell in Michael Mann’s biopic, Ali.
A few months ago, during a break from filming National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Voight came to New York to talk to Filmmaker about September Dawn and his thoughts looking back over an illustrious, and ongoing, career.
Voight: Now let me say this: you know me very well and we’ve talked before, so you can be free to ask me whatever you want.
Filmmaker: OK, great.
Voight: There are quotes you get along the beaten path, and some of them are real, some of them are not. Some of them are real but come from a time of a very specific viewpoint that changes. There are moments from the past that are just moments in response to a certain role or activity in one’s life, and are marked by those things. So it’s good to be able to be relaxed and thorough, and also be in a situation where you’re not trying to sell something, whatever it is. You want to unburden yourself of all the other things, and get the real stuff.
Filmmaker: To start off with, how did you get involved with September Dawn, and what were your reasons for doing it?
Voight: Firstly, Chris Cain and I had had a friendly relationship. Whenever I was with him, I always felt he was a good fellow: we had a few laughs and I was intrigued by his personality. I saw and liked a couple of his movies. I liked his way of approaching things, very simple, clear. He’s a no-nonsense kinda guy, with a nice sense of humor. I said at one point, “I think we should work together.” You don’t think when you make that statement that anything would bring you together, but you’re putting yourself out there. Then I got a call from Chris, saying “Jon, I want you to take a look at this.” I said, “OK,” so I took a look at the piece. It was very shocking, it was a page-turner — I couldn’t really put it down. But the question at the end of it was, “Was this real?” Well, it’s a very documented piece of history, a true event, so I looked it up on the web. I read a lot of things because I didn’t want to be irresponsible here, I wanted to be sure I knew what I was talking about and that this piece was representative.
Filmmaker: Did the character you play actually exist?
Voight: He’s an amalgam. The character is an interesting invention that allows you to see some of the history and the psychology that was involved in creating this massacre. So I thought it was a very good artistic invention. Another invention is the love story, which I think is important too because it allows us to care about the characters and see another perspective.
Filmmaker: How much did you personally contribute to the character? What did your research add to the part?
Voight: It was just a sense of confidence that what I was going to do was appropriate. You have to do research with films like this. Then, for me, it was finding that mark within the character, the insecurity and self-doubt of the character, the need for acceptance and importance – the weaknesses of his personality, and his ability because of those weaknesses to do the unthinkable. I think it’s a portrait of the psychology of the Mormon people who were involved in this tragedy.
Filmmaker: A few years ago I interviewed Steve Burum, the D.P. on Mission: Impossible, who said you regularly had suggestions for Brian De Palma.
Voight: Nic [Cage] made a joke about this. I made a suggestion to Nic when we were shooting a scene [in National Treasure 2]. Nic is a very good actor, he’s very smart at telling the story through the character. We don’t say too much to each other, because we’re very delicate about suggesting or asking things of each other, sometimes a little too delicate. We did a couple of takes, and it looked like we were going to take that, but there was a little moment that I thought he could correct. So I suggested it to Nic, and he immediately thought it was the right thing to do. Then he said to the crew, “Wait a minute, Jon Voight has a suggestion to make, which is of course a very unusual occurrence!” and everybody laughed. But the little laugh was interesting to me, because obviously they get the idea that I am making suggestions [laughs], and apparently everybody knows that it’s my m.o. that I’ll participate. My ego is not involved, my thought is, “Is there something that can be improved in this sequence?”
Filmmaker: So you’re there to contribute.
Voight: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I’m always working on the scene right until the last take, and may make an adjustment that, when I look back, I say, “Wow! Thank God I made that adjustment, because that was the whole answer.” When there’s a discomfort, if you address it you can usually come up with something that will illuminate the scene. Sometime it’s just a line that needs to be fixed. Recently it happened: I was working on a scene and I had a line to say that didn’t quite fit. I kept chewing on it until the words just fell right; we’re always working just to make the piece flow. It wasn’t a big thing, but the moment allowed me to enter the doorway of the scene in a graceful and easy way. I keep chewing on things — I’m a worrier. I’ll get an idea, and write it down in the middle of the night and then come back and give it a try and see if some part of it has a value.
Filmmaker: I remember when I saw Ali, I didn’t recognize you when you were playing Howard Cosell. How do you transform yourself like that?
Voight: Well, I’m a character actor: Joe Buck [in Midnight Cowboy] was not me, of course, and yet the character has to be animated by you. Finally, it can’t be acting — that’s the thing. When people ask, “How do you act in a movie?”, I say “Just don’t get caught acting.” Even if you have extreme characters, they have to come right down to being you, you have to be able to converse through that character until there is no difference. I had done Heat with Michael [Mann], and then he comes to Ali, and I thought he would b a good person to do that because of his almost documentary realism that he insists on, and his virility, which I thought would be good for this piece.
Filmmaker: What background knowledge did you have of the film?
Voight: Well, I knew Ali. I had a couple of wonderful experiences just meeting him, we kept in touch and I called his house just before the [George] Foreman fight in Zaire. I called, hoping to get his wife, Belinda, but he answered. I didn’t want to speak to him before the fight, because I didn’t want to give him any of my fear, because I was afraid for him. I said, “Mohammad, it’s Jon Voight.” “Oh Jon, how you doing?” I said, “Good, good. So what about this fight?” I didn’t want to say it, but it came out of my mouth. He said, “Well, I have to win it, don’t I?” To me, it was an amazing statement. What that meant was, for so many reasons, not just for his career but for all the people who were counting on him, he felt the responsibility to fight. It was more than just a fight. He had to win this battle. By the way, Mohammad Ali never wanted to be called “the greatest” — he’s much more humble than that. He’s not a braggart, he’s something else: a showman, who’s playful, trying to do things with his personality. He’s another thing.
Filmmaker: So how did you get the role of Howard Cosell?
Voight: Well, I didn’t see anything for me to do in the film, but I was talking to Michael about the film in a spirit of artistic camaraderie. Then he called me and said, “What do you think about playing Howard Cosell?” I said, “Wow, that’s interesting! Let me think about that one.” The first thing that came into my mind was that it was a very brave choice. It seemed quite far from my own personality, but because there was no fanfare about my playing that role, people went and saw the movie and then they got the role. So as a character actor who changed physically and psychologically with every role — which is what I’ve become known for — it didn’t seem so crazy. When I read the script, the role was not in great depth, but I could see the structure of it. I had been interviewed by Howard Cosell when I was a young actor and I remembered the interview and his sensibilities vividly. He was capable of being hurt; he had some injuries that had left him vulnerable. And I had read his first book, and he was an advocate for many things and very admirable. He was a civil rights guy, and even used his legal training in defense of Ali. He and Ali had a great affection for each other, a genuine friendship, and they were both characters and they were both funny. They came alive when they were with each other: they looked forward to these little verbal battles and challenges, and they both grew in it. So I wanted to portray that aspect, and felt I had a reason to play the role. Then I knew I was as tall as Howard and I could use my height to my advantage, and the leanness of Howard. And I liked his pot belly and round shoulders and his way of talking. I thought it would be a fun character to play, so I said, “Let’s go.” I knew there would be some people who would say it was bad casting, but that also tickled me.
Filmmaker: And you were then Oscar-nominated for that role, which was a great vindication.
Voight: An Oscar nomination is always to be appreciated. If you’re fortunate enough to be one of those five, you should be grateful, and I was.
Filmmaker: During the seventies you were very cautious about taking on the right roles, and were not prolific then as a result.
Voight: Yes, I was very concerned that I do the right thing with my career, and I’m a worrier so I go through the process of going over and over things in my mind. But I know once I’ve made a decision, I’m fully committed. I do a lot of research, and really give myself over to the project.
Filmmaker: One of the films you did during that period was All-American Boy, which was supposed to be a big film for you but had a lot of problems.
Voight: Well, that was a tough one. We all worked hard on that. Charles [Eastman] was a first-time director, but he had a perfectionist mentality. It was not commercially successful, but still has very great literary qualities. I felt responsible, because it was a vehicle for me, and I felt bad that I couldn’t pull it off.
Filmmaker: You felt it was your fault?
Voight: I feel responsible for every film I do, especially if I have the lead role. I want to do my best for me.
Filmmaker: How did you feel before you made Coming Home, for which you won an Oscar, because none of the films you did in the five-year period prior to that had really taken off?
Voight: Conrack and The Odessa File were the two films that were made in between Deliverance and Coming Home. They were both films that I cared about, and both by directors of some note, Marty Ritt and Ronnie Neame. Those films remain films that I care about now, they’re responsible and decent films, good films. They have touched many hearts, so they have done their work, but Hollywood lives by the commercial value of the pieces. If you don’t make money on the initial release, it becomes difficult to get your next piece made.
Filmmaker: What emotional or psychological effect did that lack of success have on you?
Voight: To go over this, it distorts. When I look over my career, I’ve been tremendously blessed and I don’t want to dwell on the difficulties. You’re always looking for that good piece and the expectations run very high always. In every film, there’s something that I cared about, so that’s a big thing to say. When I look back, I haven’t done too badly, and I have nothing that I have to be ashamed of. They’re all my children, and I like them all. Each one of them has a value, and the value that I perceived going into them still remains. And they still have an effect on people too. For instance, my daughter says Conrack is her favorite film of mine. That’s an interesting thing that makes it valuable right there. And my mother loved that film.
Filmmaker: Which film are you most proud of?
Voight: I’d have to say the body of work is what I’m proud of. Each individual film that I’ve made, I can look back and see why I enlisted. I can’t say one above the others, but if I had to choose one, I’d have to say Midnight Cowboy. First of all, it had very important themes, but the atmosphere of work was really focused on the piece, because of [the producer] Jerry Hellman, who protected the piece, because of John Schlesinger’s energy. John was like Kazan was on A Streetcar Named Desire — he invested himself in the acting. And I had a great role and a great cast, you know, Dusty [Hoffman]. Dusty and I just hit this magic: we were both young actors who wanted to express ourselves to the detail of the work as we saw it. We were filled with enthusiasm for doing the work, and helping each other. It was a rare occurrence — we weren’t in the commercial [mindset] at all, it was a time when we were protected from it. It was the first piece that I could identify with, but there are many others, and there still are that I really care about. I’m still goin’.