by David Sepulveda
It’s not every day you run into people on the streets of New Haven that can say they have just finished filming a movie with Meryl Streep, or George Clooney - but Bruce Altman can.
The busy, but approachable supporting actor lives in Westville with his wife Darcy McGraw and daughter Anna. Mr. Altman defies the stereotypical persona of some actors who shun public interaction once they have made it to the big screen. Between acting jobs, you may occasionally see Altman riding his bicycle, bundled up and braced against the cold, or walking his friendly Standard Poodle, Jack.
On Dec. 12, Altman spoke at the Congregation B’nai Jacob’s monthly Lunch and Learn lecture series, on the topic of “The Actor’s Life.” As some shielded their eyes from rays of tinted light pouring through the stained glass windows, Altman delighted the audience with anecdotes about the incredible actors he has worked with and answered specific questions about the craft of acting.
He began his talk by turning the tables on audience members, asking them for a definition of acting. There was no shortage of those volunteering answers: “Brando said acting is being a good liar,” offered one person to a burst of laughter. Another suggested that acting requires becoming the person one is trying to portray—a technique used by some method actors.
According to Altman, acting is more about being truthful than anything else. “The camera can see into your soul,” he said, and certain actors like Meryl Streep can go immediately to that truthful place when the camera starts rolling. “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances” he added, quoting words of the famed acting teacher, Sanford Meisner; a definition that seemed to resonate with the audience.
The Bronx, New York native knows something about acting. His stage and screen acting credits include over 60 stage productions and over 35 films—many with some of the most recognizable actors of our time. In his 1991 screen debut, “Regarding Henry,” he played Harrison Ford’s best friend, and in 1996 he played the friend of the Peter Gallagher’s character in “To Gillian On Her 37th Birthday,” a role for which Altman was lauded by film critic and syndicated radio talk show host Michael Medved as an Oscar-worthy performance. “I don’t agree with his politics—but I think the man’s a genius,” joked Altman in answer to a question about which critics he reads. In 2003 Altman played Nicholas Cage’s psychiatrist in the Ridley Scott comedy “Matchstick Men.” Other movies have included “Glengary Glen Ross,” “Rookie of the Year,” “Mr. Wonderful,” Ron Howard’s “The Paper” and Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” to name a few.
Altman has also appeared in several HBO offerings, including The Sopranos fourth season series finale and in the award winning HBO film “Recount,” starring Kevin Spacey and a large ensemble cast. He was hired for that acting job by the film’s original director, the late Sydney Pollack, who had to withdraw due to a serious illness. Director Jay Roach assumed duties, guiding the film to many Emmy nominations and awards, while capturing both Golden Globe and SAG awards.
Over his career, Altman has worked with many well-known directors including most recently, Anton Corbijn who directed “The American” starring George Clooney; scheduled for release on September 1, 2010. Other notable directors have included Mike Nichols, Antony Minghella, Robert Redford, and Ron Howard.
Asked about his interactions with famous actors and whether he is treated as an equal, Altman reflected on the nature of some of the relationships. “When I first acted with Robert DeNiro, I wanted to jump into his arms and suck my thumb” he said, acknowledging that he sometimes places people on pedestals. “I tend to get tongue-tied before and after, but during the filming,” said Altman, “we are all equal.” Altman cited a list of leading actors - the late Jack Lemon, Robert Duvall, Robert DeNiro, Harrison Ford, Glen Close, Claire Danes and others that he said “could not be nicer… there is always a strong sense of camaraderie among actors when filming.”
While many will recognize Mr. Altman from his roles in high profile movies, some may recognize him through his recurring appearances on the ubiquitous television series Law & Order. “I play guys with ties” he said referring to the doctor, lawyer, and professorial roles that seem to be tailor made for him. In answer to a question about how he chooses his roles, Altman answered with a rhetorical question: “You know how the Jewish people are said to be the Chosen People by some…. I’m usually chosen,” he quipped, adding that directors are generally familiar with his work, and call upon him to play particular characters, but like all actors, he does have to audition—sometimes in an unsuccessful effort.
Before his success in film, Altman was a stage actor, having acted in numerous off-off Broadway plays. He said that when playing stage roles “there is an incredible interaction and feeling of love with the audience, it’s an incredible experience.” When asked what stage role he would most like to play in the future, Altman referred to the Willy Loman character in Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer and Tony award winning 1949 play, “Death of a Salesman”—a long way from the Snoopy character he played in one of his early stage roles in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
The final question of the Lunch and Learn engagement involved Altman’s decision to live in New Haven away from the film industry epicenters of New York and Los Angeles. “The answer is simple: I love New Haven. I had a transformational experience here” he said, referring to an epiphany about acting while studying at the Yale School of Drama where he earned an MFA. “Additionally, my wife was a lawyer here, and while we initially considered moving back to New York after drama school, it was [easier] to stay - I didn’t know my work was going to take off. I can’t believe it has been twenty-two years” he mused.
On Christmas day 2009, Altman appears briefly in the new release “It’s Complicated” directed by Nancy Meyers. The romantic comedy stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.