Critically regarded for his ongoing association with indie writer/director John Sayles (they've collaborated on eight films) and for two decades of work on the New York stage (he most recently co-starred with Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in The Dance of Death), Strathairn is currently on screen supporting Andie MacDowell in Harrison's Flowers. This time, he plays a husband and photojournalist missing in action on assignment in war-torn Croatia, and she's the intrepid wife determined to bring him home alive.
Filmed more than two years ago (with Prague substituting for both battle-scarred Croatia and affluent upstate New York), that Harrison's Flowers is just now being released -- in the wake of the tragic murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl -- is "admittedly unsettling," as Strathairn puts it. "On the one hand, even making the comparison at all sort of trivializes the very real tragedy of Daniel Pearl's death, because this is just a movie, after all," he says. "It's essentially a love story as opposed to an in-depth examination of photojournalism, but if it can offer a little bit of insight into what these journalists are up against, and how they're putting themselves in the line of fire for such an honorable pursuit, then I think that's great."
Creative Loafing: Is it true you went to Ringling Bros. Clown College?
David Strathairn: It is. It was one of those early '70s sorts of adventures, traveling down to Florida with a friend of mine who'd been accepted in the college. It seems bizarre to call it a college, though. It was more like a seven-week college course, compared to the way the Russian clowns do it, training for six or seven years. Anyway, I figured as long as I was there hanging out with this friend, I might as well throw my hat in the ring. So I did. I took the course, and I got a year-long stint with the circus after graduation.
How did your collaboration with John Sayles begin?
We'd met at school [Williams College], and we both got jobs at the same theater up in New Hampshire one summer. I guess it was a case of my being in the right place at the right time when he got around to making his first film [1980's The Return of the Secaucus 7], and to my extreme good fortune, he's been keeping me involved with his work ever since.
You've always maintained a balance between your film and theater work.
I happen to prefer theater. I like the immediacy of it and the opportunity of portraying the arc of a character from point A to point B every night. What's nice about the movies is you sometimes get to travel to some pretty amazing places. Going to Alaska for Limbo was really special, and it was wonderful making Harrison's Flowers in Prague, too. Now, if we could've taken Dance of Death on that kind of a road tour, that would've been just about my ideal.
Which of your performances mean the most to you?
It's hard to say, because I'm not a very objective judge of my own work. I mean, for me, if I managed to depict somebody in [Eight Men Out] who could throw a convincing 80-mile-per-hour knuckleball, then that's a great performance.