It’s a cool Saturday morning when I am introduced to Charles Matthau in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. He is here to participate on a project set up by Paris-based fashion photographer Camilo Him. As expected, I get only a few minutes of Matthau’s precious time, during which he reveals himself to be a thoughtful, funny, modest character who is as equally interested in the people around him as they are in him.
Connections To The Past
I start off with the typical “have you ever been to Ukraine” question, and get “no, this is my first time” in response. Matthau says he loves what he’s seen so far, and here for a couple of weeks, goes into a little bit of history as to why the long visit. “I’m half Ukrainian. My mother’s mother was born in Odesa and my father’s mother was born in Kyiv. I’d love to just see all the sights and maybe where my grandmother might have walked.”
Thinking perhaps I might be from Ukraine, he asks if I have ever been to Los Angeles. I answer yes, at which point we get into a detailed discussion about my background, why I came to Ukraine and what keeps me here. He seems shocked that I would choose this post-Soviet space over a different life I might have had back in my home country of Canada.
But it’s a reaction, I believe, which stems from an answer his grandmother gave him about Ukraine when he was a little boy: “She told me she left because she was bored and there wasn’t that much to do. And they told her that in New York City the streets were made of gold, so she went there and started a new life and learned English and made everything possible for my father and for me.”
The Turn Around
Though Matthau did quite a bit of acting in his childhood, he claims to be quite shy, which is why he feels more comfortable behind the camera rather than in front of it. “I’ve learned to not show feelings and to act cool and calm and collected even if inside I am a mess. This makes for boring acting because the actors we are most drawn to are the ones who show their vulnerability. And this is not something I am good at.”
Now that I’ve turned the tables and got him talking, I ask him what it is about this work that he enjoys so much. He thinks about it for a moment, and says, “Well, I like storytelling.” According to Matthau, he loved being with his father on set and always thought the director had the most interesting job. “I used to borrow my father’s Super 8 movie camera and make little films. Then when I was eight I got my own camera as a birthday present, and I was really hooked on it. I always thought the director had the most interesting job. And my father got to work with some really wonderful directors, so I would follow them around and try and learn from them and be like them. Then I went to film school at USC for a number of years. Unfortunately it’s the only thing I know how to do (laughs).”
I wonder at the inclusion of “unfortunately” in his last statement, and call him on it. He counters with the claim that making movies is a very difficult business, but acknowledges that he’s been lucky. “My father wanted me to be a doctor. He used to say that his stand on abortion was that he considers it a foetus until it graduates from med school.”
When I ask him why he chose Hollywood over medicine, he smiles and says, “I was too dumb to listen to him. I think it is good though, because I make a lot of mistakes and the worst thing I can do is make a bad movie – I won’t kill anybody!”
“I Like To Make People Laugh”
So far, Matthau’s major directorial projects have included The Glass Harp (1995) from a novella by Truman Capote, romantic comedy Her Minor Thing (2005), and Freaky Deaky (2012) which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York this year. I wonder what’s next. “We have a movie that we’re doing next year called The Sugar Shack,” he says. “It’s kind of like the movie Anchorman, set in a male stripclub in Racine, Wisconsin. So it’s a very crazy comedy.”
“That seems to be your genre – comedy,” I say, and he agrees. “I like comedy the best. It’s the most difficult, but I like it the best because I feel that when I’m working on a comedy I’m contributing the most. And it’s also the most fun – I like to make people laugh. But it is the most difficult, because when you are screening and something is supposed to be funny and nobody’s laughing, you know you’ve messed up.”
Many of Matthau’s movies have seen his father included in the cast, which he says was a great education. “It was fun also because we were best friends, and we could complete each other’s sentences. So that gave us a nice shortcut in working together. But also, he was so good, it was like working with Mozart or Ella Fitzgerald, somebody that is just so good at what they do.”
Until recently, the work I knew of Walter Matthau was limited to what he did in the last decade of his career – Grumpy Old Men, Dennis the Menace, The Odd Couple II. He was a true icon on the silver screen throughout the 20th century, however, bringing characters to life in The Kentuckian opposite Burt Lancaster, working with Audrey Hepburn in Charade, and with Jack Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie, to name a few.
Working with such an experienced actor, the younger Matthau says it was such an honour. “I would make a suggestion of how to do a scene when I was directing,” says Matthau, “and he would do it, and he would do it 10 times more brilliantly than I could even conceive of. I would ask him how did he do that.”
Matthau says his dad didn’t really like to talk about it. “Not because he was keeping it a secret, but I realise now that I think that if he intellectualised what he was doing, which he was doing because of his natural gift, that he knew he’d become self conscious about it.”
A Charmed Life
Our time is coming to a close, but I slip in one last question before the young Matthau is taken off to a press conference to speak about the project he’s involved in. Having worked so closely with his father on numerous films, I’m curious as to whether there is a difference on set without him. His answer comes as no surprise: “Not just on set, but also in life,” he says. “He was my best friend and one of my heroes.
“I remember one time when I was a little boy, going to a brand new school where they had just built a new basketball court. They were having an opening ceremony, and my father, who was the guest of honour, was standing at the back of the court with a basketball. He took some ridiculous shot he had no business taking, and it went right through. And I remember thinking at the time, of course it did, because that was the way he always did everything. He was a wonderful man, a great person, a kind heart and a genius and he lived a charmed life.”
by Lana Nicole