Actor par excellence Robert Forster discusses The Descendants

by Mark Burger

Top: From left, Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Barbara L. Southern and Robert Forster in The Descendants. Middle: Forster at the at the New York Film Fest in 2011. Bottom: The Descendants cast photo. (courtesy photos)

One of the year’s best films, The Descendants, stars George Clooney as Matt King, a Hawaiian businessman trying desperately to balance an impending, potentially lucrative land deal, with the knowledge that his wife (Patricia Hastie), is languishing in an irreversible coma after a boating mishap.

Matt attempts to bond with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while trying to make sense of the hand that fate has dealt him, one replete with unexpected revelations about his wife, his daughters and seemingly every aspect of his life. He’s a man at a crossroads, uncertain where to turn but determined to do right.

Under the assured direction of director/ screenwriter Alexander Payne, The Descendants boasts a peerless, perfect ensemble cast that includes Beau Bridges, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Michael Ontkean and Judy Greer. And then there’s Robert Forster, in a memorable turn as Matt’s father-in-law, Scott Thorson.

Not only is Scott’s daughter in a coma, but his wife (Barbara L. Southern) is descending into dementia. “He’s dealing with death on two fronts,” the actor observed, “and things are no longer in his control. He’s angry, frustrated….”

A devoted father and grandfather in real life, Forster could easily identify with his character’s dilemma. When Scott visits his daughter in the hospital for the last time, it is both heartbreaking and real. “This is a guy who’s always had the answers, or thought he did, but now those answers don’t apply.”

An earlier, lighter scene — and one of the film’s biggest laughs — sees Scott delivering a message to his granddaughter’s dopey boyfriend (Krause). “I’m going to hit you,” Scott says. Then he does.

“That kid [Krause] is terrific,” Forster laughed, “and he’s not dumb. He’s very smart, and a very good actor.”

Forster has nothing but the highest praise for his fellow actors and his director, and shooting in Hawaii was no chore, either. “It was surely the best location ever,” he said.

Originally, he was to have had only one scene, but upon arrival Forster learned that his character would now have two scenes, so he’d be required to remain in Hawaii longer than anticipated. “I did not complain,” he deadpanned.

For the veteran actor, his participation in The Descendants began in the usual way: “I got a call one afternoon, and so began the adventure.”

Forster was asked if he knew Payne’s work.

Absolutely he did. “Sideways and Election are two of my favorite films in recent years,” Forster said. “I told ’em: ‘Anything that Alexander Payne wants to talk to me about….’” Of the script, written by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel, “it read as a drama,” Forster said. “The comedy is the product of Alexander Payne. He’s very smart. He fashions together little pieces of shots to make you laugh. He knows how to find those moments. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s terrific. It’s written on the curve of a cycle that never goes to one side or the other.”

As for Clooney, his onscreen son-in-law, “I am proud of this guy,” said Forster. “He plays a real man in this film. He’s a special man, our friend George Clooney. He is wonderful to work with. The entire cast was. Everybody has a turn.”

Forster made his screen debut in the 1967 adaptation of Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, directed by John Huston and co-starring Hollywood heavyweights Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. Since then, he’s appeared in films both big and small, good and bad. Some of the highlights include Haskell Wexler’s seminal Medium Cool (1969), the big-budget Disney sci-fi extravaganza The Black Hole (1979), the cult classic Alligator (1980) and the private-eye send-up Hollywood Harry (1986), which he directed. Throughout his career, Forster has delivered consistently good work, even in lesser projects. He’s always adopted an upbeat philosophy, holding to the ethic that hard work pays off. (He also happens to be one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, one of the coolest “celebrities” this writer has ever encountered.)

Fortune smiled on Forster in 1997 with acclaimed performances in Paul Chart’s American Perfekt and Quentin Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, retitled Jackie Brown. For his role as bail bondsman Max Cherry in that film, Forster earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Robin Williams took home the Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but Hollywood loves a comeback — and Forster had done just that. His career firmly back on track, he appeared in the TV remake of Rear Window (1998), co-starring and directed by Christopher Reeve; David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (1999), which earned Lynch a Best Director nomination; the 2000 adaptation of David Mamet’s Lakeboat; as Jim Carrey’s boss in the Farrelly Brothers’ Me, Myself & Irene (2001); and more.

“Sooner or later, you get up again,” Forster said. “Quentin got me to the top of the ninthinning, and maybe this is going to get me to the tenth.”

Looking back over a career that spans nearly 50 years, Forster noted that despite his many films, he has yet to appear a Best Picture nominee. “It would be the first,” he mused.

Given the critical acclaim heaped upon The Descendants as it heads into the heated Oscar season, that first looks to be within reach.

“It’s wonderful to be in something this good.”