HSDFF Q&A: Austin Pendleton – “The Most Famous Actor You Have Never Heard Of”

Austin Pendleton is a true character actor, who has appeared in hundreds of films and plays. While his face is most likely recognizable to audiences, his name may not be quite as familiar.

In fact, “the most famous actor you’ve never heard of” is the tagline of the film about him that’s coming to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and Pendleton will be there to answer audience questions.

Some of Pendleton’s best-known film credits include “Catch-22,” “What’s Up, Doc,” “My Cousin Vinny,” “Amistad” and “A Beautiful Mind.” He’s also had an impressive career as an actor and director on Broadway and in other theatrical productions. In 2012, he directed “A Loss of Roses” at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

“Starring Austin Pendleton,” a 20-minute short documentary directed by Gene Gallerano and David H. Holmes, features interviews with many of the actors who have worked with Pendleton over the years, including Meryl Streep, Olympia Dukakis, Natalie Portman and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film screening and Q&A is at 12:10 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8 at HSDFF.

We spoke to Pendleton from New York City about the documentary, his fame and much more.

How would you describe “Starring Austin Pendleton”?

It’s a documentary about me, and they interview a bunch of actors and people that I’ve worked with. It’s a 20-minute film. The material in it was accumulated over a few years. [The filmmakers] have two hours of material, enough material to make a two-hour film, and perhaps one day they want to have it in that form.

In the meantime, it’s a short, and it’s getting a lot of exposure at the festivals. It’s about me, but it’s also — and this is the thing I like the most about it — some of the actors in it are talking about their relationship to the business and what it’s like to be an actor in the business today. All that, I think, is really fascinating. It’s about me but that becomes a springboard to it being about a lot else.

When you were approached about doing the film, why did you want to participate?

They came to me about it. The two guys who made the film — Gene Gallerano and David Holmes — were both students in my class at HB Studio. And, they had met me in a play I directed — they were in it. They wanted to tape some of the classes and put that together as like a video. But, the primary teacher in that school was the actress Uta Hagen, who was one of the great acting teachers of the 20th century. I was a student of hers and of her husband’s — Herbert Berghof, who began the studio.

Some people had done that with Uta Hagen’s classes. They had put out a video of some of her classes and her teaching method. I thought if Uta Hagen has a video for teaching, it feels a little pretentious of me to have one because she was one the great acting teachers. So I said why don’t we not do the classes, and so they evolved it into what it is now.

I didn’t have anything to do with it other than being interviewed for it. And, I would let them into the rehearsal hall when I was directing. But, I didn’t ever see any of the film.

I thought I’ve got to leave them alone as they put the film together because I couldn’t have an objective opinion at all. I would probably try to protect myself, which would be useless when they’re tying to make an honest film. So I didn’t see it until I saw it at the Tribeca Film Festival with an audience in the spring.

What did you think when you saw it?

It’s a good movie. I was flattered; I was challenged. I had all kinds of responses. It’s a lovely tribute. But, it’s honest. There are things in it that, had I had my hand in it, I would have asked them to take out, but I would have been wrong.

I was moved by — even though it’s only 20 minutes long — how comprehensive it was.

The tagline for the move is “the most famous actor you’ve never heard of.” What do you think about that?

I don’t know if it’s really true. But, I am famous in that way because people come up to me on the street a lot and say, “You’re that guy,” which is kind of the way I would like it. I don’t like to be known in any more specific way than that.

You’re participating in a Q&A after the screening at HSDFF. What do you enjoy about talking to audiences?

The thing I like about a Q&A is that you never know what you’re going to be asked. In fact, when people say they’re going to provide me upfront with a list of questions, I say no. I’ll start to calculate an answer. Whereas, if I don’t know what the questions are, I have to deal with it in the moment, which slightly increases the chances that my answer will be truthful.

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