'Godfather' actor James Caan discusses technology, his movie career and how NYC influenced his work
by Joe Neumaier
At 71, James Caan is as straight-shooting and tell-it-like-it-is as ever. Sit with him for a bit and the quotables fly: "I'm a moron! That's why I'm an actor!" "Growing up in Queens, we were punks, but when we went to the theater, we wore a shirt and tie!"
The N.Y. native currently co-stars with Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga in "Henry's Crime," a caper about an ex-con (Reeves) and a career criminal (Caan) planning to rob a Buffalo bank. Farmiga plays an actress who falls for Reeves.
Lounging on couches at the Crosby Street Hotel last week, Caan, born in the Bronx and raised in Sunnyside, is happy to hold court. "The Godfather's" Sonny Corleone is as much of a firebrand as ever. Even his co-stars are in awe — and they’re no industry newbies. Reeves, 46 — mellow as always — has confirmed that a third "Bill and Ted" film is in the works, and has enough of a handle on his image to know that revisiting his time-traveling dude in middle age might be fun. Farmiga, 37, is on screens in "Source Code" and will see her directorial debut, "Higher Ground," released this year.
The way we see movies is changing so fast. Does knowing your work could be seen on media players the size of your wallet ever alter how you play a scene?
James Caan: I'm really [against] all this technology, even texting. And we'll get to how it relates to the movies in a minute. But if you want to talk to me, talk to me! [Holds up his cellphone] I don't answer this sonofabitch! It takes me a half-hour to text, "Hi-how-are-you." We're losing the personal touch. Saving a letter from an old friend doesn't exist anymore. Everything is texted or emailed!
Keanu Reeves: I texted you on your birthday, I feel terrible! I should've called! I didn't want to bother you.
Cann: No, that was fine, you were far away.
Keanu: I was in Budapest.
Caan: That was nice. Though you could have called from Budapest. ... But it's getting to the point where we almost don't need theaters anymore. We have the ability now to push a button and see a first-run movie in your house.
Vera Farmiga: I don't experience films as potently as I do in an audience, where I vibe off of other people's reactions. It's not the same looking at an electronic device or watching a film at home.
Caan: That's what I'm talkin' about! Live theater is still alive because people are there. I remember at 16 years old, growing up in Queens, we were punks, but hey, when we went to the theater, we wore a shirt and tie! Similarly, I believe that to keep movie theaters in existence, they're gonna have to make 'em an event, have a couch, a table and drinks or something. Otherwise, there's no reason to get out of your bed!
Does it matter if the film is big or small? Can it be personal no matter what?
Farmiga: From my viewpoint, if a script genuinely touches me, it might just touch somebody else. If I'm delighted by a script, I know it will delight someone else. That's how I choose projects.
Caan: I joke, but when I'm not making movies, my wife literally goes, "Go get a job!" And I say "Doing what? Making f—in' shoes? Start bakin' cakes? I'm a moron! That's why I'm an actor!"
Do you still have a hunger to do new things in your work?
Caan: I'm at an age now where I literally told my agent, "If I'm the last person on the list for a role, that's the role I want." There was a time where if there weren't 12 people dead by page 20 of a script, I wouldn't get the freakin' thing. Hopefully, I get a chance to do new things.
Farmiga: When you spearhead something — as Keanu did by developing "Henry's Crime," and as I did with "Higher Ground" — you can forge your own path.
Reeves: Those things, those spearheading-project things, I've mostly failed at. Really! A couple of times I've tried to get a film of "Macbeth" off the ground. Never could. In terms of searching for different things, you [often] have to get out the begging bowl. Like [in an "Oliver"-like accent] "Please, sir, may I play this role?" There's a version of that bowl everywhere.
Farmiga: It doesn't matter how many accolades, critical acclaim or awards you've gotten —
Reeves: You always have to get out the bowl!
Caan: I got involved with a website called openfilm.com — we give money to the winners of contests. I don't make a dime out of it, but if I meet one or two good directors or writers, it's worth it. It's selfish, too, because I have the begging bowl out, as you said. I'm looking. Just let me read something! I had No. 1 box office [hits], then messed up my career completely. It came back, but I took that s— for granted. It's not that easy anymore. Hasn't been for a while.
Did you learn anything from it?
Caan: Yeah, but by then, you know, it's a little too late. It's like looking up a dead horse's a—. Too late, the horse is dead!
Reeves: No, c'mon.
Caan: It's true! I took six years off, never worked, I did drugs, all that s—. I coached acting and turned everything down. Because I got into this thing about, 'If passion isn't involved, I don't want to do it.' Unless I love something or hate it, I don't want to deal with it. It's the same when I go to the movies. I either love something or hate it. I don't want to say "It's OK." So passion, I still have a lot of it.
Is that from growing up in New York?
Caan: I really believe that you grow up a certain way in New York. There's a New York morality, a sense of loyalty. You know how to win and lose. There's a thousand kids outside, you know who to push and who not to push. There's a sixth sense you develop just because it's New York. I think being from here, you can shake someone's hand and can tell immediately if you're gonna like them or not. It's the way of the jungle.