Following our recent blog post, Resident David Strathairn Expert Lyle Sweppenheiser had more to say about the actor's accolades, artistry, and cult classics:

David Strathairn has one of the great IMDB pages. We shouldn’t consider IMDB a barometer of achievement, but it can provide a sense of what type of career someone has had. Good Night, and Good Luck is an indie drama from first-time director George Clooney, and Strathairn received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Edward R. Murrow. Lincoln is one of several historical epics from Steven Spielberg, and it should give you sense of what an impression Strathairn can leave on an audience. To be known for a role where you share the screen with Daniel Day Lewis is quite a feat. Godzilla is a 2014 blockbuster that grossed over 500 million dollars. LA Confidential is most likely a film that your dad loves, and watched half of it the last time it was on cable.

Strathairn has created many unique characters, and he seems to always be working with a large ensemble of other great actors. He’s got a face that when it pops on screen, you are likely to think, “that guy, I know that guy!” It can be difficult to single out one performance from an actor who has played roles ranging from aliens (The Brother from Another Planet), villains (Dolores Claiborne), farmers (A Map of the World), carnies (Nightmare Alley), cops (Matewan), criminals (The Firm), and the aforementioned historical figures (Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck and William Seward in Lincoln). He’s an actor who always seems to know exactly what the world of the story is and what his role is in it. There’s always something familiar about his screen presence, but the small choices he makes always keep his performances exciting. He is like a chef in a kitchen who loves one ingredient but can make a variety of dishes.

His first on-screen role was in Return of the Secaucus 7, which also was the beginning of his creative partnership with John Sayles, who he would go on to make six films with (Return of the Secaucus 7, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, Passion Fish, Limbo). Return of the Secaucus 7 is a very low-budget film that not many people saw upon its release, but has had a huge influence over time. Strathairn’s character Ron is not one of the main characters, but he makes a huge impact with little screen time as a mechanic who never left town. Many of the characters in the film feel bad for him because of this, but the audience never does because of Strathairn’s moves throughout the film.

“He speaks like a song. He sounds Southern to southerners, and Western to westerners.”

-Nightmare Alley, (Toni Collette’s character describing David Strathairn’s)

In one of his more recent performances, Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, he plays a similarly small but essential role in the film's ensemble as an aging mentalist. Through his performance as a once great showman who has succumbed to drink, we are able to see what is so attractive about life in show business, but also the devastating consequences. The film simply doesn’t work if Strathairn doesn’t toe the line in this role, because Bradley Cooper’s character has to be allured by the craft but also think that he can do better. Although Strathairn leaves halfway through the film, several of his lines echo up until the final act.

Strathairn has also been in several historical dramas that resonate deeply today. Silkwood, directed by Mike Nichols and written by Nora Ephron, instantly comes to mind. Strathairn has a small role, but he creates images that have stuck with me for a long time. The film is about an exploited worker at a plutonium factory who becomes part of a larger conspiracy. When we are introduced to the factory, we see Strathairn openly chewing gum on the factory floor. It’s horrifying to see, and I can’t think of a better face to portray the blissful ignorance of the factory workers who didn’t know what they were exposing to their bodies.

Speaking of workers in horrifying conditions, Matewan is about a coal mine town in 1920s West Virginia, where the local miners struggle to form a union, leading to an all-out war in the town. This is also the same area the famous Hatfields and McCoys are from, and it is a very specific world that Strathairn fits right into as the local sheriff. He is like a pit bull who is ready to protect his own, and anyone from the outside needs to prove to him their intentions are true.

This performance is all about his eyes, when you first see his character, you might think he’s evil. It’s a very deliberate and calculated character who waits and thinks before he speaks, and it’s not just because of chewing tobacco. If you have read this far and haven’t seen Matewan I hope you will seek it out. The film goes to extraordinary lengths to authentically illustrate the struggle to establish workers' rights in this country. It not only features a great performance from Strathairn and an ensemble featuring Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, and Kevin Tighe, but the cinematography was done by Haskell Wexler. It’s a beautiful film that shows an underexposed, but vital time in our history. Also, this film is in the Criterion Collection, Spine #999, so you know it’s art.

Want to see David Strathairn perform in person? Catch him onstage here in Malvern in Off By One, a strictly limited run through July 7.