Monday, February 8, 2016

'Dr. Chandra, I presume?'

Painter Chuck Close once famously said 'Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work.' Many actors have the same down-to-Earth aire about them; their effortless authority seems natural, as if they were foreordained for their craft.

Bob Balaban was more or less destined for a career in show business.

Bob's grandfather, Israel Balaban, was born in Odessa, Russia. Moving from Russia and settling in Chicago, the Balabans quickly made a name for themselves in the entertainment industry. In fact the entire extended family was involved in the performing arts, in one way or the other.

His uncle A.J. Balaban started the first cinema theater in Chicago in 1908. Not content with only one such venue, the Balaban and Katz Corporation was founded in 1916, almost a hundred years ago. Bob's maternal grandfather was vice president at MGM, and his father as well as his uncles either owned their own theaters, or managed entire theater circuits.

Thus, when Chicago-born actor-director Bob Balaban was 10 years old, he visited the MGM Studios in Hollywood - where his grandfather Sam Katz was head of production - for the first time. You can say he never left; you can even say that he was in fact always there, that his future was written for him since before he was born.

Robert Elmer Balaban never had a chance.

Even his name is memorable - and he has always been Bob, never Robert. In his younger years he sometimes considered reverting to using his given name, but ditched the idea. "Bob went well with Balaban," he says, "all those B's. When I was an apprentice in summer stock, Ann B. Davis said she thought Bob Balaban was a great stage name, so I left it."

When he was eighteen years old and just beginning his acting career, an actress in his native Chicago told him, "As long as there are parts for people who look smart, you're going to get work." It turned out to be true.

Bob Balaban in Midnight Cowboy.

Even though his career is in the movies, he still feels he has somewhat broken the family tradition. "I feel like I'm the black sheep of the family," he says. "I am the only one on the other side of the line, the only actor."

His first movie role was in Midnight Cowboy, and he has been a mainstay in American cinema ever since.

Contrive and Consider

Fast forward 15 years from Midnight Cowboy and Bob Balaban was cast in the role of 2010's Doctor Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai, more colloquially known as Dr. Chandra. The movie was the sequel to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which coincidentally was released the same year as Midnight Cowboy.

Kubrick's movie became a watershed colossus, creating a before and after movie industry. The sequel 2010 may not have been equally momentous but it was MGM's biggest production of 1984, and everyone involved had stories to tell.

Bob Balaban remembers the shooting of 2010 in his own idiosyncratic way.

"My first thought," he says, "after reading the script was, 'Great! I get to have a relationship with one of the most famous inanimate objects in history.'"

Balaban's reaction is understandable. After all, he played a computer scientist in the film. Programmers might not appear the most animated of people, so to get under the skin of the character he was to play he had to dig a bit deeper. "I find it important to like my character," he said, "even if he's an ax murderer."

Thus in preparation for the movie he studied actual, real-life, flesh-and-blood scientists. "I wanted to see if they were really people," he says. "I found them all to be three-dimensional."

The scientists had some surprises up their sleeves for the actor. "I met one nuclear physicist with a degree in composing. That was surprising to me because I grew up thinking people were either math or English. And I wasn't math."

His portrayal of Dr. Chandra was one of the highlights of the movie. To Balaban that was a blessing in disguise. "Now I'll probably be a scientist for four years," he lamented at the time, "just as I was a lawyer for four years in movies."

I'm amazed that anything can
happen under such circumstances.

He thinks of 2010 as one of the "Big Set" movies he has appeared in. Not only were the "Big Set" films obviously big productions; in Balaban's mind there is something else that links them, too.

"I was in three," he says. "I lump them all together because they were all supernatural."

Balaban had previously acted in Steven Spielberg's 1977 blockbuster about first contact with extra-terrestrials, so 2010 was not exactly unfamiliar territory. One thing separated the movies, however. Ticket sales.

"They weren't as successful as Close Encounters. I was in Altered States, which took nine months, and I was in 2010, the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey; it was another nine-month event."

Science fiction movie production has progressed in leaps and bounds since the late '70s and early '80s. While some purists lament the disappearance of hand-crafted SFX, most producers are still breathing a sigh of relief 25 years later, mostly due to CGI slashing production times with a factor of ten. The movies Balaban remembers, however, were not done in the CGI era.

Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban) troubleshooting HAL-9000.

"All of them were very, very slow," he remembers, "because there were all these special effects. You'd look at a page or two of the script, and that could be three weeks of work."

One thing the stupendous amount of downtime brought with it, however, was the ability for networking and that, in turn, opened up the arena of asserting oneself.

"I actually started sort of thinking about becoming a producer during that movie," he says, "because I was sitting at MGM a lot and having meetings and trying to be aggressive."
The slow and ponderous tempo of the shooting was the catalyst that changed the way he thought about his craft, but there was another thing about the long downtime, too; it started playing tricks on the thoughtful actor.

"The soundtrack of HAL's dialogue was prerecorded [by Canadian actor Douglas Rain]," he remembers, "but I thought after 20 takes that he had changed his performance."

Mind Changer

He is still somewhat astounded he was able to create a believable role, and that he was able to sustain the momentum of the character with all the seemingly endless waiting.

If you have bad habits,
they're multiplied a billion times.

"Day after day I had to sit on a dusty soundstage in front of a blue screen," he recalls. "I'm amazed that anything can happen under such circumstances."

The circumstances, as they were, really drove home both the difficulties, and the dangers of his chosen craft.

"That's the secret of the whole thing," Balaban says, "and I don't know that there's any one good answer. Some people are much better at it than others."

Balaban states that it is not the notorious parties that Hollywood is famed for that creates so much difficulties for so many actors. It is the idiosyncrasy of the job itself, the nature of the beast.

"If you have any tendency to do drugs and drink," he says, "there's nothing like hanging around for 15 hours and working for three minutes. If you have bad habits, they're multiplied a billion times. You're being paid, they're bringing you free things, you don't have any responsibilities. Then you go home, and you have a real life. It's very tricky for a lot of people."

Dr. Chandra (Bob Balaban), Dr. Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider),
and Walter Curnow (John Lithgow) pondering what to do next.

He considers himself lucky not to be in such a position, however.

"Not me," he says, "because mostly I don't work for 10 months on a movie. But I did a bunch of times, and it's tricky."

During the long periods of hanging around the set and anticipating the soon-to-come short burst of activity, the actors had time to talk and reflect. Balaban has nothing but praise for his fellow craftsmen and -women.

"I just love Helen Mirren. She's brilliant, wonderful, and a fabulous person. We were in 2010 together. She was a Russian cosmonaut, and I was the inventor of HAL, the computer, and we spent a lot of time working together. At one point, evidently, I gave her some advice. The idea that I would give someone that talented advice they would actually listen to is shocking. But I had been used to it, because I had already done Close Encounters and Altered States. She was saying, 'How do you do all that blue-screen acting? How do you sustain it? Do you have any advice?' And I said, 'I think ultimately the only advice is: Do it, and then never think about it afterward. You can eat yourself alive looking back at what you did yesterday on your blue-screen, because it’s just so easy to overthink it. You just can’t think about it. Just do it as it comes up, do your best, then totally let go of it.' Which is not exactly a revolutionary thing to say."

None the less, even after all the waiting and the blue screens, Balaban remembers the film with satisfaction.

"Oh, I had a good time," he says with a smile. "I enjoyed my part."

Images copyright©1984 MGM.

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