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James Caan, Photo by Joanne Lee

James Caan, Photo by Joanne Lee

James Caan Holds Intimate Chat with Students

Some 30 students had the opportunity for an up-close conversation with actor James Caan, known for his nearly 100 roles in film and television that range from Sonny in The Godfather to Buddy’s dad in the comedy Elf. The Q&A was moderated by Knight Ridder/San Jose Mercury News Endowed Professor Michael Whalen.

In addition to regaling the audience with behind-the-scenes stories about the casting of The Godfather – which came together around a table in San Francisco for the price of four pastrami sandwiches, even though the studio executives insisted on spending an additional $450,000 for screen tests to confirm what Francis Ford Coppola already knew to be magic – Caan shared his hard-won wisdom about how to succeed in the business of filmmaking.

His first rule for show business is to prepare yourself so that you will be ready when your good luck arrives. Caan himself created luck early in his career by finagling his way into New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, despite having missed the application deadline.

Caan also spoke to the importance of trusting your instincts, saying that the first time you read a script brings out the most "real you" that will ever come through. He recalled an audition early in his career where he performed the scene raw and got the role. But then he made the mistake of studying his lines to death so that he, as a performer, had become unrecognizable to the director who hired him.

In order to be able to trust your instincts, Caan says it’s imperative to have an “inner life.” You have to make constant choices in how you live that make you interesting—more interesting than the other people auditioning for the same role.

Other advice he shared was the importance of having conflict in every single scene you create. He said this means that if you don’t find it in the script, you must create it yourself. “Writers don’t like this, but the words become unimportant, secondary. Your instincts are what matter,” Caan explained.

Caan also reflected on Marlon Brando as one the best actors he has worked with, citing the quality of “availability” as the reason why. He said that no one could throw Brando off because he was always deeply immersed in the moment. Caan advises young actors to never practice in front of the mirror, as this is the quickest path to losing the quality of availability. Instead, you must truly listen and respond to the people in front of you—not focus on your next line. Proving that he is just as committed as Brando was to being available in his acting, Caan reflected, “My favorite feeling is forgetting how I did a scene, because it means I was ‘in’ it.”

Another nugget of wisdom Caan acquired from his first 55 years as an actor is the realization that the most talented people in the business are the nicest. “The yellers and screamers are using diversionary tactics to distract you from their lack of talent,” he said. Real talent doesn’t need to resort to that.

Despite his confession of some arrogant early years in acting, it is clear that James Caan doesn’t need to resort to anything. And it isn’t that he’s quiet – quite the contrary – but his words come forth with wisdom, humor, humility, and a lingering echo of resonance that make you understand why he has staying power in an industry that doesn’t always want people to stay.