Quentin Tarantino was interested in talking to me about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because he knew I worked in Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s and had done a lot of Westerns. I didn’t know what this movie was about, but he talked to me about Gunsmoke and Dirty Sally – all the Westerns I had done. We still hadn’t spoken about whether I was going to be in the movie or not, but the next day he called me up and asked, “Would you like to play the role [of Sam Wanamaker]?”
My research for the movie was just watching everything I could on Sam. I watched the films he acted in and directed, read articles about him and spoke to people who had worked with him. He was a very exuberant, larger-than-life, hugely enthusiastic kind of man. That’s what Quentin wanted brought to the character.
I think Quentin would consider himself an old-school director in the sense that he has such admiration for classic Hollywood films and directors, such as Howard Hawks and John Ford. And yet he brings his own unique passion to it. Quentin invests 110% in everything he does and gets that out of every single person who works for him as well.
There’s a spirt of joy, but also unbelievable commitment, on a Quentin Tarantino set. No electronic devices are allowed: no cell phones, no laptops, no iPads. Everybody has got to be there watching with their eyes the work being done. There’s an amazing difference it makes to the energy on set.
When you make a film, you often don’t cross paths with people who are not in the scenes you’re in, so you don’t meet them until the party at the end of the shoot. But Leonardo [DiCaprio] and I worked together every day, and I have enormous respect for him. He’s a perfect example of someone who has reached a level of fame and yet does not let it disrupt his focus when it comes to the work itself. It was a joy working with him, and I hugely admire his commitment to environmental causes. He’s a very fine human being – as is his mother, I might add, who came to the set several times!
The best memory for me of old Hollywood was making The Sound of Music. That was the quintessential old Hollywood movie, and it was kind of the last of those big musicals made at 20th Century Fox, when the studio was still the great old studio that had made all the Marilyn Monroe movies, the Shirley Temple movies, all the classic films.
I was completely [immersed] in that world. They had a school on the lot where all the children who were working on movies sat in the same school room, and my desk had Shirley Temple’s name carved into it. There was a sense of history and tradition, and you were made to feel that it was your job to carry on that tradition.
I don’t think you ever really know whether any role you do will be successful. Everyone says to me, “Well, you must have known when you did The Sound of Music it was going to be the biggest movie musical ever.” But we had no idea. It was the same when I was asked to create the role of Peter Parker [in the show The Amazing Spider-Man]. At that point, there really hadn’t been a primetime television series about a superhero, so we [couldn’t have predicted that] it would spawn this whole franchise.
In those days on American TV, you only had four channels, and if you had a primetime show on one of those channels, that was about as high as you could get in television. So, when I was offered my own series, I wasn’t going to say no.
We live in a world right now where there are so many shades of grey and so much compromise. There’s a certain security that comes from a sense that there are some people who are genuinely good and trying to do good in the world. Superheroes represent that.
What gives me a sense of satisfaction is when someone comes up to me on the street and says, “I saw you in this project and it affected me; it gave me happiness at a time when I was feeling sad or hope at a time I didn’t have any hope.” It’s a wonderful feeling, because then you’ve done something more than just make a piece of entertainment.
You always want to give 100% and if you ever go home at the end of the day and think: “Well, I tried my best, but I really only got 80%” then it’s disappointing. Very often, the public can’t tell the difference, but you can. You must never lower your standards, ever. You have to always try to be the best you can be, every single day.
I went to Australia to do a mini television series and then I was asked to do a few more. I was very impressed by the crews and actors there. At that point I had been in Hollywood for 25 years and I thought: “This might be a nice change!” and so I just decided to make Australia a place to live and to commute to wherever the work was, and it’s what I still do. I like it as a country – it reminds me very much of what America used to be when I was a boy. It’s got a simplicity to it and it’s a smaller population, yet the standards are still very high.
Cynicism is the death of creativity, and it’s incredibly important to avoid it at all costs. If you work in the arts, you’re going to block yourself if you allow self-judgment, self-criticism and cynicism to get in the way. I think the most important lesson I’ve learnt is to do everything you can to keep that same inner child and joy you used to have when you were little. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most important.
I want to work with Martin Scorsese very much. I worked with Steven Spielberg many years ago – when I was a contract player at Universal Studios and he was directing television – but I would definitely like to work with him again. There are a couple of European directors I’d love to work with as well, namely Giuseppe Tornatore who directed a film called Cinema Paradiso. There are some wonderful Asian directors I’d love to work with as well, such as Ang Lee. That would be sort of a dream.
I was thrilled to be invited to the Oscars this year. Award ceremonies are like school reunions. You’re seeing people you might have worked with 15 years ago or maybe have never worked with before, but you’ve always admired their work and there they are standing at the bar having a beer next to you. It’s fabulous, so I loved it.
I love going to Paris. I lived there when I was a little boy. My father was working there, and I speak French so I feel a real connection with the place. If you walk down the Champs-Élysées, you feel like you’re at the centre of Western civilisation, because of the architecture, the magnificence of those buildings and the history. I find it very inspiring. I’d also love to go to Copenhagen, where I’ve never been, and Rome.
Now that I’ve been to Singapore, I want to come back and really see the country. It’s astonishing – very different from the way I thought it was going to be. In my own Western naiveté, when Singapore is mentioned, what people like me associate it with is commerce and success. But there’s also the sheer physical beauty of the gardens and the fact that there are flowers and greenery everywhere. Even on the drive from the airport, I started thinking what this place would have looked like 200 years ago, when it was an extraordinary tropical paradise, and it’s just great that so much of that is still here.
For me, it’s important to go into your own little zone when you’re onboard a plane. I like to create a cocoon for myself by having very good ear plugs, a good mask and comfortable socks so my feet are warm. My advice would be to just try to enjoy it and not think about the time. It’s an opportunity to read a book or see a movie I’ve never seen before, to doze or to meditate and have some absolute quiet time. I try to look at it as a little sanctuary that is apart from my day-to-day life. If you approach it that way, then you’re going on board the plane looking forward to something that is going to be an experience, rather than something to endure.
Frankly I don’t take very much with me when I travel. I travel incredibly lightly – I usually only bring a carry-on, even if I go to Europe for two weeks. You really can get by with far less than you think you need, and I’ve gotten it down to that.
Being in a film nominated for 10 Academy Awards is a privilege I’ve only had twice, once with The Sound of Music when I was a child and now with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was very special to be invited to the Oscars this year and flying to Hollywood from Singapore became part of the magic because I got to be onboard Singapore Airlines in their beautiful Business Class. From the SilverKris lounge at Singapore Changi Airport to the greeting by name on board and the privacy and comfort of each passenger’s personal space, I felt like the “red carpet” started before even leaving the ground. I knew I had a hectic few days of interviews, gala events and business meetings in Los Angeles, so rest was important as well, and the quiet comfort of the bed after a delicious meal gave me the sleep I needed to hit the ground running. For anyone in Singapore wanting to have that movie star experience on their way to Los Angeles, this is the way to go.
I’ve had some really memorable experiences on Singapore Airlines (SIA) flights. I actually flew once on Christmas Day from Paris through Singapore on my way back to Sydney. I thought, “Oh, it’s a bit of a shame to have to fly on Christmas,” but my wife and I now say that it’s probably the best Christmas we’ve ever had. They had decked out the whole suite section with holly and bells and Christmas decorations. They served the most delicious Christmas dinner, and the best thing was you didn’t have to cook it yourself, or clean up afterwards! And it was just joyous. So I love SIA. It would be my first choice – always!