‘Frankenweenie’ Co-Star Martin Landau Talks About Tim Burton’s Playground, Tackling Roles That ‘Scare’ Him

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Although the main character in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is a 10-year-old amateur inventor named Victor, the most important role in the film may be played by Martin Landau.

As Mr. Ryzkruski, a caustic but passionate teacher who inspires the young man to try the experiment that brings his late dog back to life, Landau channels his Ed Wood character Bela Lugosi while sending a hilariously well-timed message about the value of education.

Celebuzz spoke to Landau in Austin, TX, at Fantastic Fest, where the iconic actor appeared at a premiere screening of Frankenweenie alongside Burton and co-star Winona Ryder.

What legendary director did Landau say ‘no’ to after being hand-picked for a part?

In addition to discussing his character in the film – and his oddball, abrasive disposition – Landau reflected on the famous filmmakers he’s worked with, and revealed what sorts of challenges he still hopes to face.

Celebuzz: Having now worked with Tim Burton a few times, are there any other filmmakers or films that you’ve been in that inspire the kind of fandom that his do?

Martin Landau: This is the third time I worked with Tim because I did Sleepy Hollow -- it was after the film was finished, literally finished, and he felt the character was talked about and needed to be seen. So my head goes flying off and stuff -- I went and shot for a couple of days with Tim in Yonkers, New York in a factory where we could shoot day for night with a stage coach and stuff and my head flying off. But a good director creates a playground for actors, and Tim is like that, but so is Francis Ford Coppola, and so is Woody Allen who doesn't direct at all. You're on your own; he doesn’t like what you're doing, he fires you. I mean, literally. I won't even tell you the actors he's fired. But he says, “I don't know how to talk to actors. I hire them and I expect they know what they're doing and if they don't I got another actor.” That's pretty callous but it's how he works. And he doesn't direct, so those performances in Woody Allen's movies happen out of the actors and out of the environment – which is Tim's great gift. We have a kind of a connection; I can't explain it other than he doesn't have to finish a sentence and I know what he wants. And it's just we have a good time and it's creative and he doesn't have to use a lot of language with me and I don't have to talk a great deal about my character either. I can just do it.

But my whole thinking is I commit with stuff. I see the arc, I take it – so this character [in Frankenweenie] comes from a particular environment. As a result, and because of his physiology has a certain kind of an emotional range and problems and predilections and pet peeves, and each one is different. This character was described as a European teacher, but not specifically German, not Russian, not Hungarian, but European -- the script basically says that. So I created a sort of generic European accent that's not quite from any one place. And I also saw him as a zealot who loves what he does, eccentric as hell, passionate, and not diplomatic. You’re not going to keep your job as a teacher in a school if you insult the parents and call them stupid. I mean, Henry Kissinger wouldn't do that. But the thing that's interesting about it is you do the voice before the animation, but if I had been on camera, I would have played it exactly as that animation. It looks a little like me in the old days – when I had black hair and there's something about it's almost like a character me and Vincent mixed up, but I saw it behaviorally and when I saw the film I said, "Jesus, that's exactly as I would have done it." I was actually pleased because it's like, wow, behaviorally it's exactly the way I envisioned it when I did the voice, which is odd.

CB: Having worked with so many iconic filmmakers, do you see an essential quality in the people whom we think of as these auteurs, from Hitchcock to Tim Burton, that they share in common?

ML: The essential quality is the fact that they like actors, trust actors, trust [their] imagination and create a playground – cast the right actor and them play. All an audience wants to believe is what's going on up there is happening for the first time ever. That's what good theater is about; that's what acting is about. You don't want to see the rehearsals, you don't want to see the glumness and the slickness. There are a lot of movie stars who will remain nameless who are terrible actors -- and predictable. You know the end of the scene before it happens. You know where it's going. Very few people, even in the film business, know anything about acting. The public certainly doesn't. So [my character’s] impatience is something I can understand in my own terms. I mean, I do humanize every character and make him mine so that I can play an outlandish character who's idiosyncratic as hell. I mean, but I understand it. For Christ sake, they don't know about acting. Do you know what I'm saying? I mean, but he's also very gentle and kind -- and he feels a parent should know more than they do. They've got kids and they've got a responsibility and he blatantly says it. He's going to be fired for every job he ever has if he continues this, and I like that about him.

CB: At this point, having taken on so many different acting opportunities, is there anything that you feel like that you have not really tackled that you’d still like to – not even necessarily a specific role but some sort of challenge?

ML: Specific role it wouldn't be, but Martin Scorsese has wanted me a couple times for roles that I turned down. They're not roles. And I said, “Ask me to do something that scares me.” In Casino, one of the club owners – Don Rickles played it beautifully, but I passed on it. It's not about roles, it's about a role I don't know where to start. That I love. Where do I begin, because it makes me do my work very diligently? So I don't know what it is that I would love to do unless I could read it and say, ah, this is going to be tough for me. That's what I want to do. There's a lot of scripts where I'm an old guy sitting at a table and grunting these days, who is the brunt of a lot of ridicule from the younger people. I won't do that part. I turned that part down and I've seen that part too many times. I won't do that.

CB: Well, how tough then is it to find roles that scare you or is there a certain amount of responsibility placed on you? Say you get a role in a Martin Scorsese movie that you see, you want to work with him badly enough and the role's maybe not that interesting. Is there a way that you can bring to it your own creativity to make it interesting?

ML: If it's not that interesting, I could phone it in. I played that role. I don't want to do that -- and I told him.

 

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