Cotter Smith was born in Washington DC, the son of a federal judge. He is an actor with a stage and screen presence spanning over 40 years. Most recently he can be seen on our screens as Unit Chief Shepard in David Fincher’s Mindhunter and as the Deputy Attorney General in The Americans but his on-screen career stretches back to Hill Street Blues (1982) and Blood Feud (1983) when he played Robert F. Kennedy. I was recently very privileged to talk with Cotter about his life and career in both acting and teaching, working with David Fincher and Steven Spielberg and much, much more.
DB: So where are you at the moment?
CS: I’m in Pittsburgh. It’s where we film Mindhunter. My wife and I have actually moved to Pittsburgh.
DB: Was that principally because of the show?
CS: No. It’s because we fell in love with Pittsburgh. We were, honestly, a little burned out by New York City and when David Fincher called we arrived here and just fell in love with the city and decided we were going to stay no matter what – and it’s great.
DB: How long have you been there now?
CS: It was two years ago we started the first season and we were here just temporarily for the first season and then we moved and we’ve been here a year now, permanently.
DB: So what is it about Pittsburgh that you like?
CS: It has everything that we wanted and we need. It’s a small city, it’s very green, and we have a yard and a porch and trees. I also teach and when I left New York the hardest part about leaving, for me, was that I was, at that point, the Head of the MFA Acting Program at the New School for Drama – so that was a loss, to leave that position. But I arrived in Pittsburgh where there’s Carnegie Mellon University and Point Park University, and I’ve been able to teach workshops at both of those places now, and I am also doing theatre, and I’m shooting a film here this summer – and it’s just perfect.
DB: A different pace of life?
CS: Very different. Radical. New York is mad.
DB: And the theatre in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania is quite strong anyhow, isn’t it?
CS: There is a really thriving small theatre scene, yes. I like it.
DB: You were born in Washington DC.
CS: I was.
DB: What do you recall of that? Because you went off to boarding school didn’t you?
CS: I did.
DB: At what age did you go there?
CS: I was fourteen. I went for 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th grade.
DB: Prior to that, what are your memories of living in DC?
CS: I grew up right in DC. My father was a federal judge: a very rigid and strict man. Irish Catholic family. Five kids. A sort of wild, romping family. We had a kind of ‘normal’ childhood with all the chaos that goes with five kids in a family. I left at 14 to go to boarding school, which was great for me – I don’t know why, but it just suited me. I loved being on my own; I loved the community (it was an all-boys school at that point); and I really enjoyed it. It was a great, close-knit community: we all lived in small houses together – small groups – and we made a lot of great friends. I was there from ’64 to ’68.
DB: Was it run along British public school lines with houses and a housemaster?
CS: Yes, very much like a British public school. A house family: a housemaster, his wife and kids.
DB: Before that, in DC, what did you do? Did you stay within the city all the time or did you go on family holidays?
CS: We went on holidays every summer to a beach house in Delaware – so we had the freedom of running on the beach for three months every summer, which was great.
DB: No summer camp?
CS: I did summer camp for a few years but we always had the summer at our Delaware place as well.
DB: Boarding school obviously really suited you: what sort of subjects did you study at school?
CS: It’s where I fell in love with Literature. I had great teachers. I really became, I think, at a pretty early age guided toward Literature, which I ended up majoring in at college. And that was going to be my path: I intended to go on and teach in college and teach Literature. In high school I did, accidentally, two plays which were fun – I didn’t think much of it other than they were fun. Then I got to college, majoring in Literature and ended up doing a play, and it was that play– and so many actors have this ‘moment’ – and I remember I had to have a direct address with the audience, and I had the feeling of being ‘home’ in a way that I hadn’t felt ever in my life, that I was communicating in a way that I never had, that my voice was being heard in a way that it never was and that something about that experience was important, and moving, to me.
I continued to do theatre in college and I continued to think that I would go on and be a teacher. I did a lot of theatre in college. Many of my teachers said that I should think about going on with this and I very easily said [to myself]: ‘No. That doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t understand what that would even be: the life of an actor.’ I mean, I grew up in a family where it was all lawyers: my brother, my sister, my grandfather – everybody – it was just the law. I did not want to do law! I was not drawn to the law. I think I was actually, oddly enough, turned away from the law by growing up with it. I think that I felt, at an early age, that it was very difficult for any of us to have a conversation, because it was always an argument and someone always had to win – and I disliked that very much and I realised that ‘that’s the law’ and it didn’t interest me. I realise now that what I felt with the theatre was the exact opposite. They’re very connected, I think. My father always tried to attract me to the law by saying, ‘It is the drama of the courtroom that you would be so good at.’ But it’s very different. I really like taking on a personality or a soul and pleading that case in a way that is empathetic.
So I taught. I taught in a high school but I quickly felt that it wasn’t for me. I remember feeling that it had been a burning desire to teach and I very quickly felt that too great a percentage of the students in the classroom didn’t want to be there. And that didn’t interest me. I didn’t have that kind of mind, as a teacher. I prefer… now I teach acting where everybody wants to be there – that I love! It was hard being in a room where people would just rather be somewhere else. I realised that: ‘I don’t think I could have a career at this because it’s too depressing. I don’t have that kind of a calling. I like teaching but I don’t want to drag everybody across the finish line.’ So I went to Europe, and I travelled around Europe for a while, and I did a lot of other things. I came back and just one day remembered, ‘You know, that one time I thought about acting, maybe I need to try it.’ Coming from a family that’s very rigid and strict, and having my father’s work ethic, I said, ‘I will give myself a three-year self-styled apprenticeship, in Washington DC. I will work as an actor for three years here and if I think I can do it I will move to New York and I’ll give myself three years in New York and then, if I don’t think it’s working, I’ll stop.’ So I worked in DC for three years, and it went great. I moved to New York (knowing no one) in 1978.
DB: How old would you have been then?
CS: I was 28. I thought about graduate school but I didn’t want to go at that age, so I just self-styled graduate school: I studied with Stella Adler for several years; I then got into The Actors’ Studio when Lee Strasberg was there. I was studying with the great teachers, on my own and slowly doing plays; I did Off-Off-Broadway and then I got an Off-Broadway play. My first Off-Broadway play was a two-character play with Danny Glover (before Danny Glover was ‘Danny Glover’ he was just a young actor). After that play, I ended up doing a play called A Soldier’s Play, which took me to Edinburgh: it was with the Negro Ensemble Company. That was the play that changed my career! It won the Pulitzer Prize, it took me to Los Angeles, where Mike Newell (the great British director) saw me, and he cast me in a miniseries playing Bobby Kennedy which, all of a sudden, put me ‘in another club’ where I was doing television and film work for the first time. We went to Edinburgh to do the festival, which was fabulous! That play – that new, little, Off-Broadway play – became this huge turning point in my life. That play had a young Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson in it – again, just young actors in New York, kicking around – and we all went to LA, Edinburgh and now we’ve all gone to other places. That’s the life of an actor and you have to have a lot of luck and a lot of that is just keeping going, stamina, loving it enough to keep going when it’s dreary and bad, and loving the art form enough to get through those times. Then I started teaching, which is a wonderful, parallel career. I had a good time in LA, but eventually missed New York went back to return to the theatre. I was doing Broadway and Off-Broadway and teaching, and then David Fincher called and, out of nowhere, we moved to Pittsburgh. Luckily I’m married to an adventurous woman who loves the… I say it’s permanent job insecurity, but if you’re lucky enough (and I have been for 40-some-years) you know that you’re going to work.
DB: Many of the people I have interviewed say: work begets work.
CS: Yes. If you play it right, yes. I talk, when I teach, a lot about attitude and ethics and always being part of the solution not part of the problem and facing your demons. Actors are a gnarly bunch. And for those actors that cause a scene on the set, or end up getting into drugs or drinking, it’s a dicey career.
DB: Also, I guess, because of the way in which you are opening yourself up so much.
CS: Yes, you have to find a way to come back.
DB: I was interested in the stage production about the Rosenbergs.
CS: It was a benefit celebration. I had a friendly and familial connection with the Rosenbergs and the Meeropols.I’d also worked with Eve [Ensler] so she and I played the Rosenbergs, and we read their letters (very moving letters) and it’s their Children’s Foundation that we were supporting – quite an extraordinary night. Angela Davis was one of the MCs. It really is a great organization.
DB: I watched it on YouTube and it was very moving, especially with the two ‘boys’ on stage as well.
CS: Yes, very moving and what lovely men they are, really quite wonderful.
DB: Then also being in the play with Jack (Erdie, who plays Richard Speck in Mindhunter) The Rule of Seconds. I gather that you weren’t a very nice character in that.
CS: No, a very nasty man.
DB: What was it like, doing that play?
CS: It’s quite a beautiful brand new play, set in 1855, about that period of time when men – it’s so hard for me to believe this was even true – used to challenge each other to duels. With guns! Get in an argument and say, ‘Let’s go shoot at each other!’ It’s incomprehensible to me, the male brain. So it’s a very funny, dark play about men’s confusing psychology and it’s really quite a strong play. It’s a bloody, bawdy, beautiful play.
DB: When you actually got the call from David Fincher: how did that come about?
CS: It was a call from my agent, initially, saying, ‘There’s interest. Would you be willing to read for David Fincher, for this series?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I’m a big fan.’ They said, ‘Well first of all let me tell you, it’s a guaranteed ten episodes already ordered for Netflix, but it would be a required eight months, in Pittsburgh.’ So I said, ‘Well I have one phone call to make and I will call you right back. I will call my wife.’ So I called my wife and said, ‘So here’s the deal, there’s this possibility, it’s not an offer but they’re interested in me, to come in and audition and we would be eight months in Pittsburgh.’ And she said, ‘Cotter, go get it, and get me out of here!’ (Laughs)
DB: She was packing her bags!
CS: She was so keen to leave New York. (Both laugh) So I auditioned. The first audition was three pages, and I did it, and then the agent called the next day and said, ‘He wants you to come back, for a callback.’ And I got about 20 pages of text to come back with – which is quite a lot. I asked if there were any notes and he said, ‘No, no notes. Just come back.’ So I went back and I did those and then I got another call saying, ‘He wants you to come back again.’ Again 20 pages and I said, ‘Any notes?’ And he said, ‘No notes, just be sure you’re completely off book this time.’ So I went back. Then the wonderful casting agent, Julie Schubert, who was so helpful to me – she is really lovely, a casting agent who really loves actors and believes in the whole process – we had prepared, I think it was, these three or four scenes (I never met David) it was all on tape, that third one went off to him. She said, ‘You know, he takes a very long time to cast, so just relax. Everything he does he takes a very, very long time: from casting to shooting.’ So I said, ‘Okay,’ and week later my agent called and said, ‘You got the job.’ I said, ‘What?’, ‘Yeah, you got the job!’ That was the first time it was ‘real’. I didn’t honestly believe I was going to get the job: I knew many, many, many people would want this job and, as an actor you do these auditions and you don’t actually put much on them because it’s too heartbreaking if you don’t get them. I was so thrilled, and stunned. It’s exactly the kind of work that I want to do, with a kind of director that I want to work with: I love serious drama; he’s a master, master filmmaker. Just knowing he had cast me made me realize: ‘He knows what he’s doing, so this is going to be good.’ And it was. He’s so fun to work with. He’s challenging. He’s tough. He’s fast. He’s improvisational and you’ve really got to come with your A-game – which I like. He does endless takes: 30, 40, 50. My record was 64 takes on one scene. Endless shooting: we took eight months to shoot ten episodes. That’s a long time! Usually a director will be given eight days for an episode so that’ll be three months – he had eight months. But he’s David Fincher.
DB: And aiming as near to perfection as you can get?
CS: He’s a perfectionist. When you look at his work the proof is in the pudding.
DB: What about marks for the camerawork, are they really rigid?
CS: They’re necessarily rigid, at times, but it changes. On the spot he will change things, change intention, change everything. It was fun.
DB: So you got a chance to mix it up a bit.
DB: You don’t have to smoke as a character, do you?
CS: Thank God no! They sent out notices and said: ‘It’s the ‘70s, so who among you would be willing to smoke?’ And I just wrote back and said: ‘Absolutely no.’ And poor Holt McCallany said ‘yes’ and I think he regrets it to this day. This season he’s going to taper off. He really smokes.
DB: So how did you get into the character of Shepard?
CS: So this goes along with some of your other questions actually. I, as is often the case with actors, the industry, the ‘business’, decides who you are and tends to cast you in a certain way again and again (it may, or may not, be who you are but who they think you are). My first role on film was Bobby Kennedy, so it was a tough, ‘suit’, political, aggressive guy, that’s how I sort of came on the scene, so that was my template and since then that’s sort of the way I’m seen. So I’m often (as you mentioned) I’m the Governor, the Mayor, the President, the Vice-President, the Attorney General, the Secretary of State. I’m often placed in a position of authority. I generally am the ‘old school’ tough guy – which is who Shepard is. Oddly enough, my father – who did not want me to be an actor, he really did not want me to be an actor, he had laid out my career for me. I could have walked into any law firm in the city of Washington and had a career, but decided that wasn’t for me and he did not understand that, and it was not a pleasant parting, although by the end when I was successful, as my brother put it, ‘You would have thought it was all his idea’ – he was thrilled by it,because I played the men he always wanted me to be. I was playing the lawyer he wanted me to be. I was always ‘that guy’. So I actually, ironically, owe my career to my father because I’m not that guy. I’m not that guy! I am so far from an authoritative, tough, old school, gruff guy but I can channel them, because I grew up with them. I know them very well: my brother was one, my father was one. They are in my DNA. I grew up in a courtroom. I used to sit in my father’s chambers and sit and watch trials, that was my playground when I was young, to hang out at the court. So I studied these guys, although I didn’t know I was doing it then.
DB: And I suppose there is a link, as your father said, because it is still a performance.
CS: Yeah. Definitely! I used to watch my brother give jury summations and they were some of the best performances I have ever seen! I’m just about to start a film where I’m playing a lead prosecutor, a senator prosecuting a case.
DB: So again you’re going to be a man in a suit.
CS: Yep, but it’s in 1912 so it’s a suit with very high collars. It’s a 1912 Senate investigation into the sinking of the Titanic.
DB: You’ve been in loads of shows, over the years. Looking back, it’s Hill Street Blues…
CS: That was my first! And that was only because of A Soldier’s Play.
DB: For you, what’s the innate difference between performing on stage with a theatrical company as distinct from performing on TV and being in film?
CS: I love going back and forth because they are totally different. I was just going through my script for the film and it’s all shot out of order, out of sequence, which is very complicated, so you have to lay it out and figure out when you go in on a day, where are you, in terms of your character’s development over the months, or years. So it’s very technical on the set, you will often wait two or three hours while they get the lights set, you might spend an hour or two acting during a day and fourteen hours waiting for the technical part. It is mind-numbingly boring, at times. One of the old pros once said to me that ‘film making and Medieval cathedral building move at about the same pace,’ and it’s true: it’s a very slow process. The theatre is, to me, so exciting because you tell the story from beginning to end: the lights go down; the audience is hushed; you are ‘sitting around the fire’ and you tell the story in real time; and you can hear them breathing, and responding – and there’s nothing like that.
DB: And each time it’s different.
CS: Every time. It’s a live performance: you don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s a lovely unsettling, which you don’t have in a film because you know it’s all going to be fine because they made sure it was before they let you see it. It’s like a sporting event: things can go wrong, or you might see a moment of magic that’s never happened before. It’s absolutely lovely and there’s nothing like it.
DB: Earlier we touched on the similarities between acting and the legal profession. To you do they have aspects in common?
CS: Yeah. I honestly believe every time you take a role you are pleading that character’s case. As evil as that character may be, you’re finding something about them to show an audience why this character… For example: Rules of Seconds, despicable character, so I had to find a way that the audience didn’t just dismiss him – there was a reason to watch him, a reason to figure out what was wrong with him, and why. And if you can get that, that’s what I love, that challenge.
DB: I watched an episode or two of Person of Interest which you were in, which was a little bit different.
CS: Yes! They strung me from the ceiling! That was one of the hardest days on a set that I have ever had. Physically. I was really hung from the ceiling, that wasn’t fake. To the point where I had to say, ‘You have to cut me down. I have to take a break. I can’t. I can’t. Stop!’ They’d be: ‘No we need one more take.’ ‘No! Cut me down!’ I’m too old for this!
DB: It was also such a surprise because obviously I had watched quite a lot of other things you had been, and you are the ‘suit’, you are the General, and that was different and it really came out of the blue.
CS: Right! It was violent. The fist fight, I remember was just…
DB: Can you remember how long that took to film?
CS: That scene was three days. It was very hard work. Usually I let them decide when the breaks are but I said, ‘I’m deciding where the breaks are in this scene.’
DB: Well I think, to be fair, if you’re actually being hung from the ceiling, it should be your call! (Both laugh)
DB: Thinking of The Americans (of which I’m a big fan)…
CS: That was a great show.
DB: One scene that particularly stood out for me was the one with Peter Jacobson and Lev Gorn, where Arkady (Lev) gets his letter to leave the country: what was that like, filming, with the three of you?
CS: They are such great people. All of them. They are really just good folks, all around. Noah Emmerich – most of my stuff was with Noah – he’s a beautiful man. And Richard Thomas. As you know, I came in so seldom, I was like every third episode I would have a scene or two: I was the guy who just appeared occasionally like a dolphin and said, ‘Have you caught them yet?’ (Both laugh)
I would come and go so much that I wasn’t really part of the ongoing thing, but they really took me in as a member of the family, which was nice.
DB: Lovely. And Noah is like a thread that runs all the way through it really, his character.
CS: He’s wonderful. Great character.
DB: I thought it was really good in that the Russians really speak Russian and then have it translated. It makes a change from people just having accents.
CS: Yes, they are real Russians. That’s one of the great shows.
DB: But you’re right, you’re like a dolphin who would come in…
CS: Yeah ‘there he is.’
DB: … cause consternation, and then drift out again. (Both laugh)
CS: He’ll be back.
DB: You were also in The Post weren’t you.
CS: That was a last minute thing where my agent called and said, ‘You may not want to do this but Steven Spielberg called…’ and I said, ‘Stop! I want to do it.’ (Both laugh) ‘That’s all you need to say!’ And he said, ‘No wait, wait. It’s at the end of the movie, it’s on the last day of shooting, it’s a tiny scene, it’s a piece of the puzzle he realizes he’s missing, it’s a Secretary of State (of course), just a quick testimony on the other side saying they can’t print those papers. It’ll be one day.’ And I said, ‘Fine. I’ll do it. Why would I not do that?’ ‘Well, you know, it’s one day,’ and I said, ‘Yeah. And it’s Steven Spielberg! And I’d be happy to do this.’ So I went. Steven Spielberg (when I arrived) said, ‘Thank you so much.’ I said, ‘Please, I’m very, very happy to be here. I’m at your service, whatever I can do.’ It was one day. He was lovely. He’s kind and gentle, and so smart and funny. We had a lovely moment. We did it, I think, in five takes and he said, ‘Thank you so much, you know we did that so fast.’ And I said, ‘No thank you, because I’m working with David Fincher right now!’ (Both laugh) And he laughed! He said, ‘Oh my God! He’s crazy!’ I said, ‘Yes!’ Then he said, ‘I love David! I love David Fincher! Please tell David how much I love his work and what a big fan I am.’ And I thought, ‘Well great, so now I’m an emissary to David from Steven, which is great.’ I said, ‘Seriously, if this was David, we’d be here for like three days doing this scene. You know that. So I’m very happy.’ So I went back to David and I wrote him an email and said: ‘Just so you know, I was just a day on Spielberg’s set and he said to please be sure to tell you that he is such a huge fan of your work. He absolutely loves your work.’ And he sent back an email that said: ‘Thank you so much. I’ll be vibrating for the foreseeable future.’ So it was a very nice thing.
DB: And, like you said, being the emissary between…
CS: Yeah, a little note between these masters from doing one little scene.
DB: As if you had ever thought you’d be doing that.
CS: I know. That’s why I did the picture. When my agent said, ‘Maybe it’s too small for you.’ First of all: nothing is too small for me – I’m not one of ‘those’ actors. I asked my agent, ‘Are you worried about my ego? Is that what your problem is?’ And they said, ‘Well…’ and I said, ‘Please. I’m good. It’s not a problem. I can take care of myself. I’m a big boy.’ I was so happy to be a part of that. I loved the film. I thought it was like an old-fashioned film that we needed. It felt like, when the Supreme Court ruling came down, it was so sad, because I realized: when is the next time we will ever have a 6 to 3 ruling from the Supreme Court? Those days are gone.
DB: It’s not a film with whizzes and bangs.
CS: No, it’s a slow, old-fashioned, American movie. It’s a Hollywood movie. But that’s Steven.
DB: And why would you say ‘No, I’m not going to work with him? (Both laugh)
CS: Yeah really. Really? If he asked me to come and get the coffee, fine, I can do that! Where do I sign up? (Both laugh)
DB: Are there any directors that you’ve not worked with that you would love to be able to get an opportunity to work with?
CS: There are. I am quite fond of Steven Soderburgh and the Coen brothers are another pair I’d like to work with.
DB: A bit of Fargo.
CS: We’ve been watching the series, the series which they’re executive producers of, which is fantastic. I was resistant but my kids said: ‘You must watch it!’ I said, ‘Well… I love the film. I don’t think I can.’ And they said: ‘Trust us.’ It’s really fun. Very smart. The writing, the acting, the directing. It’s just wonderful.
DB: And each season is so different from the one before but with tiny lines of continuity that run through.
CS: I just wish it wasn’t such a long wait for the next season.
DB: And as a Brit I can say that I love the accent, it’s such a bizarre mix.
CS: And then you throw in the wonderful, genius, brilliant David Thewlis, who I just think is staggering.
DB: With the teeth.
CS: With the teeth. Oh my God! He’s amazing.
DB: I thought Zahn McClarnon was really strong in season 2 as well, but they were all really good, weren’t they.
CS: Yes, they all were. It’s surprising. Carrie Coon, all of them.
DB: Do you watch yourself on screen?
CS: I do. I don’t enjoy it. I think more of an exercise in what, maybe, I can fix and I do it from a distance. The problem with watching yourself is: it’s never what you think it is, so it’s never going to be pleasing, in any way – which is fine, I understand that. It’s like looking at photos of yourself or listening to your voice on tape, it’s just not really the ‘you’ you think you are. (Laughs) I remember, when I did the Bobby Kennedy part, and I asked Mike Newell if I could look at dailies early on. I said, ‘ I think it will help me,’ and he said, ‘Absolutely not!’ I asked why and he said, ‘Because you will look at it and you won’t see Bobby Kennedy, you’ll see you and that will upset you. You have to trust me and just keep going because there’s no way you’ll look at it and see Bobby Kennedy and I don’t want you thinking that way. You have to think that you are Bobby Kennedy.’
DB: I guess he was thinking that it would just cripple you in the role.
CS: Yes. It would make you conscious of your face and then, you’re stuck.
DB: How did you find your relationship with Literature changed once you studied it?
CS: I just had such great teachers. I really owe it to my teachers. I had teachers who taught me how to read and how to love Literature and what it meant. It was such a gift!
CS: And have you found that’s a real asset for your acting?
CS: Of course. Text analysis, being able to read a play. My agent sent me a play to read and I just ‘got it’ and I loved it and I wrote back and said, ‘I loved it and want to do it.’ And he said, ‘You know people are reading this play and they’re not ‘getting it’.’ And I realised: I know how to read a play; I know my way around a text. That was just a brilliant play by a Brit, Mike Bartlett (he did King Charles lll). I did a play of his called Cock – I did the American premiere which was at the Royal Court and then came to America – very brilliant writer, love him. That was the play. It’s a very differently written play that I just understood right away.
DB: When you do teach acting, do you only teach Method, or do you teach a mixture?
CS: My teaching has recently changed. I used to teach a medley of everything: I studied with Stella, I studied with Strasberg, I’m very eclectic in my own style – I don’t have one method – I pick and choose from many, many teachers and I’ve got my own little ‘bag of tricks’. But I’ve recently begun… It’s a very long story, so I’ll make it short. At the end of Stanislavsky’s life he began to teach something called ‘Active Analysis’, which is a late-term Stanislavsky method, which we are only just finding out about now because of many, many different reasons: Stalin shut it down, did not allow it to be published; it was an underground thing that was done. It’s now the ‘gold standard’ training in Russia and Eastern Europe but none of the books have been translated yet. A mentor that I met travelled to Russia to study it and he was teaching it at Yale. He was the first person to teach it in the United States, and he agred to mentor me. I then started teaching it at the New School for Drama (he’s now teaching my course at New School for Drama while I’m here); and I’ve recently taught it at Carnegie Mellon; it’s being taught in California by someone else – it’s very slowly coming abroad.
It’s a lovely process, that I’m now teaching almost exclusively which, in a nutshell, is about learning a scene and learning a text counterintuitively, by stepping away from the text and not learning the lines – not first learning the lines. First learning whatever the energetic exchange between the characters is, within a scene. So you explore the scene only improvisationally, initially silently and then using only key words and phrases, and you only get to the text later. His theory, which is brilliant, is that language should be the final physical action, not the first, because we don’t know what we’re saying – yet. The important thing to focus on is not what you are trying to say but what you are trying to do with a scene. So if you work on an energetic improvisation, silently, about a scene you’ve read and you understand but without a script in your hand, what are you actively trying to do to your partner in that scene? Don’t worry about what you’re trying to say – if you get that first, you will understand a scene in a totally different way. That’s a very short version of a very complicated process but that’s what I’m teaching now: Active Analysis. So physicality: out of your head and into your body.
DB: I guess that’s because, when we are very young, that’s how we learn anything.
CS: Exactly right. If you watch small children playing in a playground that’s that. They just ‘go’. They don’t think about it. I’m teaching at Point Park University this Fall and I taught a workshop last year at Carnegie Mellon and I have private workshops. It’s a lovely process. It’s very empowering for the actor, very freeing – which is a common burden of the actor, that we’re all locked up in our heads. It’s changed me as a teacher. It’s very good.
DB: Has that had a knock on effect for yourself, when you are acting yourself?
CS: Really! It’s changed me as a teacher. It’s changed me as an actor. It’s changed me as a partner, as a father, as a friend. I mean it actually changed me. It’s a very ‘Zen’ sort of process. Acting is really about life. It’s just about telling the truth.
DB: Do you reckon that’s why a lot of actors (not all but many) are very empathetic people?
CS: Yeah, you have to be. It’s a strange gift, a strange quality and it’s funny when you realize at first – I mentioned that moment at college when I realized I had it, I don’t know why I have it, I don’t know where it came from but I have this ability to empathetically take on a character and send it back. I don’t know where I got that. It’s like a musical ability or a math ability, it’s an empathetic facility.
DB: So you find that you are constantly adding to your ‘tool box’?
CS: Oh yeah. Well now that I’m a teacher (many teachers will tell you this) I am learning so much, teaching. I think I learn more than I teach.
DB: Does it make you more self-reflective?
CS: Uh huh. You have to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk. You catch yourself thinking: ‘I would not let one of my students get away with what I just did!’ (Both laugh)
DB: What would your advice be to anyone considering acting as a career?
CS: Oh, that’s a very hard question. I do say to my students that, quite honestly – not being facetious in any way – if you think there is something else you can do and be happy, you should probably do that, because it’s a very, very hard profession. It is permanent job insecurity. It is very tough. You have to have a love for it and a drive for it and an inner peace about it that will keep you going at times when you will have nothing coming back. And some people just can’t do that, and I understand – I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t going to be one of them, which is why I said, ‘I’m going to give myself three years and if I think I can do this, I’ll keep going.’ Then I went to New York and set it up for three years and: ‘If I think I can do it I’ll keep going.’ If at the end of those three years I had said, ‘You know what? Can I do this at age 50? I don’t think so.’ I would have stopped. Now I’m older than that and I still love it more than I ever have.
DB: So would you like to carry on as long as you possibly can with your acting?
CS: Oh yeah. I don’t see me retiring. One of the great parts of being an actor: it’s great country for old men. There are a lot of great roles. I worked with Hal Holbrook, I think he was in his ‘80s when we worked together, and he was so youthful and still on fire. I remember when I worked with him, we did a Broadway show (Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter) and he had just come from doing Death of a Salesman (I think in Atlanta, in a regional theatre) and I asked him, ‘How did it go?’ And he said, ‘Well it’s the second time I’ve done it, and I think the next time I’m going to get it right.’ And I thought: ‘That’s my guy!’ (Both laugh)
DB: Have you got any particular hobbies or pastimes when you are not acting or teaching?
CS: You know what? Between the acting and the teaching my life is so busy that my free time is all spent (I wouldn’t call it a ‘hobby’) but my favourite pastime is my wife and kids, spending time with my wife and kids; travelling to see my kids, being with my wife. She and I travel: we always take trips whenever we can. But I don’t collect anything or anything like that. You know really my hobby is my work. One of the most beautiful lines I ever heard – and I think very few people can say this – ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And I feel that way.
DB: If your work is your passion it’s not ‘work’, is it. Apart from, maybe, on a film set, when you’ve been there 13 hours and you still haven’t actually… Just going back to that: how do you occupy yourself during that time?
CS: I go prepared with things to do. I have so many projects that I’m doing that I always have something to do. I can’t read a book, because it takes me too far away but I can work on planning my classes or a project I’m thinking of doing.
DB: Are you then able to straight away get to where you need to be once you’re going to be on camera?
CS: So long as I know, roughly, from the Assistant Director how long it’s going to be: if it’s only going to be half-an-hour, I just hang but if it’s three hours I’ll walk away.
DB: You mentioned travelling: have you got any favourite places that you’ve been to?
CS: Many. England, Ireland was our honeymoon which was just fantastic, I, by virtue of my work, have had some great travel adventures: South Africa was a fantastic one, Australia. My wife and I are planning our next big trip, which will hopefully be down the Danube.
DB: Have you got anywhere else that you’ve not been that you would like to go to?
CS: Greece. Greece, for some reason, is in the back of my mind – the islands of Greece are something that interest me.
DB: Back to your parents: what did your mum do?
CS: She was a Washington wife; she had five kids; she was married to a very prominent man – that’s a full-time job.
DB: What legacies do you think your parents gave you?
CS: I was very lucky in that they gave me exactly opposite things, both of which I needed. My mother said to me, when I was early teens – I think she sensed that I was not going to be a lawyer – and she said to me, so clearly one day, ‘You’re going to do something different and I don’t have any idea what that is, but do that.’ I remember her saying it but I didn’t really hear it until I decided to be an actor and then I remembered her saying that and realized she had given me that license: to follow something that I was going to do, that was very different. My father gave me a work ethic that’s very important for an actor because it such an easy… Actors are the laziest of the artists, by nature: you wouldn’t find a guitarist or a dancer who didn’t work out, do bars and practise ever day of their life – actors sit by the phone and wait for it to ring! I believe in class; I was always studying; I was a teacher; I made sure I did at least three things every day toward my career; I had my file cards. I was very organized and committed and driven, to do whatever I could do to move myself forward.
DB: And it is an important ethic to have.
CS: Yeah, because nobody is going to give it to you. It’s very difficult to learn, emotionally and psychologically, to deal with the rejection – the constant rejection – and it just, for some reason, doesn’t bother me because I don’t take it as rejection: I just wasn’t right for that job, who cares, move on. You have to realize that 90% of your attempts to get something are just not going to work out, that’s the way it is. That’s why you have to really put a lot of irons in the fire.
DB: To hope that some strike.
CS: Yeah. I always think it’s like a baseball player: a really good batting average in American baseball is .300 (if you’re batting .300 you’re doing really well, which means you are missing 7 out of 10 times, that’s a good average. Actors need to remember that and keep going. Wait for the next ‘pitch’. Let it go.
DB: And in the same way, it’s not meant personally. If you miss that pitch it’s not a judgment on you as a person.
CS: It is absolutely not personal but so many actors take it personally. A lot of time I spend teaching this: every time you walk in the room, they want you to be ‘the one’; they would love it if you could stop the search for them. So it’s not personal, in any way, you’re just not right for the part, that’s all. They are looking for something specific that wasn’t you… so what! And I think that’s why David Fincher has you audition so many times: he gets to know you by looking at the tapes.
DB: The casting for Mindhunter is fabulous!
CS: It is. He’s very good. And Holt and Jonathan, they’re just a perfect Abbott and Costello of the thing, they add humour that it desperately needs and Holt is just heartbreakingly beautiful, I think. They are perfectly cast.
DB: So what’s it like when you are actually working with them?
CS: We have a really good time. We’re a funny trio: we’re all so different but we really get along.
DB: You have some scenes with Anna (Torv) and Joe (Tuttle): what are they like?
CS: Anna is wonderful! Joe’s really good. He’s lovely. They’re a good group.
DB: It must make it easier on set.
CS: Oh. That ‘one bad apple’ rule is so true. It takes one personality to destroy the thing.
DB: How many kids have you got?
CS: Four. Two boys, two girls.
DB: What do you feel is your legacy to them? Are any of them into acting or are they all doing different stuff?
CS: They’re all doing different stuff. Only one into acting. My legacy… I don’t know… I think I’m a great father, a great step-father. My wife and I, we have four kids between us: I have one daughter and she has three [children] but we’ve been together 18 years so it’s really all one family. I have individual close connections with each of them and group connections with all of them, but we’re very tight. I feel very happy about my father-side. I had a father who, for everything he gave me… You know, he was an only child in an alcoholic family, he was distant and a bit removed, and I made a decision not to do that. So I’m the opposite: I’m quite physical and loving and warm.
DB: What was the first single, or album, you ever bought?
CS: I was 11 years old when The Beatles arrived so we in the 6th grade were all buying The Beatles. It was the very first single “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”.
DB: Is there a song, or songs, that take you back to a particular time in your life?
CS: Oh sure, so many. Van Morrison is a particular favourite of mine, through different periods of my life. Actually my wife and I used his “In the Garden” for our wedding song. But I’m so old now that I will hear songs that take me back, and I love that about music. It takes me to specific periods of my life, different concerts that I saw, everything that I listened to at college. I was in college from ‘68 to ’72, that was music ‘heaven’ at that point. I saw Joni Mitchell live and The Band, The Stones, Springsteen and Cream. We don’t do concerts now so much but my wife and I just bought tickets to Fleetwood Mac, they are coming to Pittsburgh. The most amazing concert I ever saw was unexpected: I was invited to a very small venue in New York, about 80 people, for an acoustic concert with Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt and they were just there with keyboard and guitars. Brilliant!
Three questions we ask everyone:
DB: What is your favourite word?
DB: How would you describe your perfect day?
CS: A day with absolutely nothing I have to do, with my wife, where we could do anything we felt like doing. Nothing planned. Just go.
DB: What could you not possibly live without?
DB: That’s the perfect little bookend with ‘the perfect day’ and love either side.
[Update: Since our interview Cotter has appeared in The Code as Asa Turnbull and S2 of Mindhunter]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.