Martin Landau interview: Frankenweenie, Sleepy Hollow and more

With Frankenweenie out in the UK today, we met with the legendary Martin Landau to talk about his voice acting on the film…

Martin Landau’s body of work is little short of awe-inspiring. In a career which began with a brief appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest in 1959, the actor has starred in such classic TV shows as Mission: Impossible, Space: 1999 and Columbo. In the movies, his work for Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker, and Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors earned him Oscar nominations.

It was his performance as Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood which finally earned him the awards attention he deserved, with his perfectly-judged performance as the Hungarian horror actor earning him Best Supporting Actor at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.

Having made a cameo appearance in 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, Landau reunited with Burton again for this year’s Frankenweenie, for which he provides the voice of the anarchic teacher, Mr Rzykruski.

It was our pleasure to sit with Mr Landau – who’s tall, charismatic and disarmingly funny – to talk about his work on Frankenweenie and his extraordinary career.

Ad – content continues below

Fantastic work on Frankenweenie, first of all.

Oh, thank you. I enjoyed doing it. It was just Tim [Burton] and me in a recording studio. I love working with Tim. He sent me the script and a picture of the character two years ago, and he said, “He’s European. But he’s not from Germany, and he’s not from Hungary.”

It listed all the places he wasn’t from, but he’s European. So unlike Lugosi, who had to be Romanian, Transylvanian. So I created a European sound that’s from, in my mind’s eye, Slobovia, where the Slobs come from. [Adopts deep voice] So I lower the voice to here, but I think he’s a very good teacher. Not very diplomatic, but good teacher.

The crazy thing is, when I saw the movie… behaviour’s so important when you’re doing a movie. But you let go of your behaviour when you do an animated film – your voice goes out and the animators create the behaviour. But when I saw it, I said, “God, if I was on camera, I’d have played it in exactly the same way!” I was agape, actually, because it looks a little like me years ago, and Vincent Price.

Vincent wouldn’t have played it that way, because it’s different. But it was amazing, really, that response I had. I just saw him – it was exactly as I pictured him. Tim was hands-on on this picture, and it could have been different. The picture you have in your head may not coincide with anyone else’s, so this was eye-opening for me, because I literally would have played it as Mr Rzykruski plays it.

I also thought, he only works for two months in any school, because you’re not going to last for long if you call the kids’ parents stupid! It’s not the wisest thing for longevity. I liked him though, because he cared. He didn’t suffer fools easily.

Ad – content continues below

So you’ve got quite a close working relationship with Tim Burton, after Ed Wood.

Well, I knew Tim. I also did a little cameo in Sleepy Hollow. The film was finished when he called, because the character’s talked a lot in the movie, but you never saw him. But Tim had finished the picture, and I was doing a movie in Los Angeles with Matthew Modine, and he said, can you come in for a couple of days.

He sent me the storyboards and stuff, and I remember Connie Hall – he couldn’t get the cinematographer who shot the film in England, so Conrad did the first five minutes of the movie. And I said I didn’t want to be billed, because I’m really not in the movie. But we worked in an old Ford factory in Yonkers, and we had stagecoaches and horses all around it so we could shoot all day. There was a cornfield in the middle. 

My head is the first to go, so I had to have a ghastly expression and a head made. They did all that very quickly. So I went into town and they screened the picture for me, so I could get the texture for it, and Connie Hall, too. I did The Outer Limits with Conrad years ago. Just before he died, he won some awards – American Beauty, he won Best Cinematography. Road To Perdition. He won two Oscars – bing, bing – before he passed away.

So Danny Elfman came on the last day of shooting in New York, and was writing music, literally, on the set. Four weeks after we finished that extra shooting, with my head flying off and all of that, and Tim and Danny had been to London to score it, the movie was in 2500 theatres. In four weeks, which is kind of amazing in this day and age.

Does your approach to acting change when it comes to a Tim Burton film?

Ad – content continues below

It doesn’t really, but Tim’s stuff is slightly extended. There’s a theatricality and a special kind of thing to Tim’s work. If you were standing near is while we’re working, it’s almost monosyllabic. I mean, we don’t finish a sentence, exactly. You might say, these guys aren’t really talking! He’ll say, “rehearse?” and I’ll say, “yeah.” Then we’ll rehearse it. 

Then he’ll come up and say, “You know…” and I’ll say, “yeah, yeah.” I know what’s missing for him. Intrinsically, I’ll know what we didn’t have that needed to be there. “Let’s go again.” Then he’ll come up again and say, “Exactly” and I’ll say, “Sure.”

So there’s a kindred thing going on there, where I understand what he wants. But a good director creates a playground for the actor. I haven’t been directed by anyone in 30 years. I come along with things, and if they don’t like them, they’ll tell me. They don’t tell me, so I do them.

Again, I’ve never two people who are exactly alike. Similar, but not alike. I create each character as an individual, coming from a certain place, sounding a certain way, having been introduced to things a certain way. You know, Irish guys talk like this [adopts uncannily accurate accent]. You look at Jimmy Cagney or Charlie Derning or Karen O’Connor, they’re all New York Irish guys. They got this sound.

Whereas the Italian guys are all [adopts a deeper accent] “Come here, I wanna ask you something. Do yourself a favour. You’ve got two good legs. You wanna keep ‘em? Behave yourself.” [Laughs]

It’s like music. Mr Rzykruski [adopts the character’s European accent], his name is like an eye chart. It needs more vowels. So I lower the voice. But, he’s passionate!

Ad – content continues below

I just like the guy. He can’t restrain himself. What comes out of his mouth comes out of his mouth. And his analogies – “Being hit by lightning – it’s not like being hit with a cabbage.” I liked him, I can’t say it any other way.

Teachers are important in this world. I studied with Strasberg, Elia Kazan. They raised the bar. They weren’t easy to please, and they made you achieve the best you could do. That’s what a teacher does, he infuses you with passion for something.

These things [motions to Dictaphone] are wonderful. They tie your shoes, they comb your hair. They do all kinds of things. But when I was a kid, when I wanted to do research on something, I had to walk to the library, sometimes a mile away. I’d get there, and the book wasn’t there. “Come back Wednesday or Thursday, it might be here. Or try the next library – it’s not that far. Two miles.”

If you wanted something, you had to work to get it. Today, what I see… I run an actor’s studio on the West Coast. For my generation of actors, it was about the theatre. Television didn’t exist. Coaxial cable didn’t exist. A live show could only go as far as Chicago. The West Coast got it a week later on Kinescope. It was a way of making a couple of extra dollars in America. Black and white, little screens. In film, being in New York, was 3,000 miles away. And back then, there being no jets, it took 11 or 12 hours to fly to California.

You had to assert yourself, and really know what you wanted. I find, a lot of the kids today, they don’t have that passion. Things are too accessible and easy, and they don’t put the time in in the same way. And they don’t spend a lot of time with other people. We had to talk to people.

Those who audition for the actor’s studio are a bit like we were back then. In that they’re serious about their work. [PR person comes into the room] Wait, it can’t be over! He asked me one question, and I went on like a dial tone!

Ad – content continues below