Robert Forster has only two scenes in The Descendants, but they’re powerful, heartbreaking, and pivotal — and Forster nails them.
The film, co-written and directed by Alexander Payne and due for limited release on Nov. 18, stars George Clooney as Matt, a man struggling to connect with his daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) after his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), is critically injured in a boating accident and left comatose. Forster plays Elizabeth’s father, an old, angry man who has never liked Matt.
“I appreciated this story,” Forster says. “A tragedy gives Matt an opportunity to rediscover his family, to become a real father, to learn how to handle tragedy. Matt’s a human being, but he’s under pressure. He gets to know his girls and he shows humanity to his father-in-law, even if the father-in-law doesn’t know it, and he shows strength in not forcing everybody into being as sad as they might be.
“Matt tells Elizabeth’s lover [Matthew Lillard] what’s happening,” the actor continues. “Does he really care about this jerk who’s [sleeping with] his wife? No, but he wants the guy to be able to say good-bye. Maybe the guy loves her. Maybe he’s pining somewhere and needs the closure. So Matt is very human, and he’s a good guy.
“My character has an awful lot of his own painful stuff going on,” Forster says. “His wife is leaving him, and pretty much has already, because of Alzheimer’s. His daughter is leaving him. He’s mad at his son and he’s mad at his son-in-law, who he thinks failed his daughter. Everyone’s not doing their job or is evaporating on him. And he’s getting older — life is failing him too.
“So there’s plenty of stuff for this guy to be [ticked] off about. And yet, at the last moments, he’s still trying to give his wife the best of it and he’s very, very sorry that his daughter has not gotten a full life.”
Some actors, knowing that they only will have two scenes in which to make an impression, will amp up a performance so as not to be overlooked. The 70-year-old Forster isn’t one of them.
“That’s really not the way I work,” he says, speaking by telephone from a New York hotel. “Also, this was well-written stuff. You don’t have to do anything more than what was written. The actor doesn’t go in there and invent it, or not on something like this. I’m sure there are little moments that the actor does invent, and I’ve found some of those over the length of a career. It’s great for an actor when he finds stuff to put in there, but this picture didn’t need any of that.
“This was well written and the arc for my character was in there. He’s [ticked] off at everybody and then he smacks his granddaughter’s boyfriend [Nick Krause], and I knew there was a laugh there. So you go from being angry to giving the audience a laugh. And there’s an emotional arc too with the wife and a similar one with the daughter, and you feel sympathy for everybody involved: the wife, the daughter, the grandfather, the son-in-law and the son, who has nothing to do but sit there and be patient with his father.
“I only have the two scenes, but they’re great scenes.”
To hear Forster tell it, he does what he can with whatever he’s given, whenever he’s given it, which has been often since Quentin Tarantino handed him a career-resurrecting role in Jackie Brown (1997). In the past five years alone, Forster has acted in 31 films and television shows.
“Well, you know, I had a five-year rising first act to my career,” he says, “and then I had a 27-year banging, bounding [fall] to the bottom. I can’t tell you how many drops there were, where I was thinking, ‘Oh, God, if there’s no more of a drop, I can handle this.’ And then it would drop some more.
“Pretty soon I was well underwater — and I have ex-wives and four kids. So I got used to taking any job of any kind. I passed up a few, but if there was a job I said, ‘Let’s go do it. Let’s deliver the goods and let’s see if we can’t keep going, Bob. You’re not dead yet.’ I figured, if some young kid who liked me growing up turns into a moviemaker, maybe I’ll get a great job. And eventually that happened.”
Tarantino handed him that great job — and out of left field too: At the time Forster had no agent, no lawyer, no manager, “no nothing,” as he puts it. He was “just picking up scraps at that point, doing anything at all I could get,” when he ran into Tarantino in a restaurant. The filmmaker, hot off of Pulp Fiction (1994), recognized him from his 1970s action movies, and a conversation led to a seven-hour audition for Jackie Brown and, ultimately, Forster being cast as hangdog bail bondsman Max Cherry. The role earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor and turned his career around.
Things are going much better nowadays, but Forster hasn’t abandoned the work ethic that saw him through the tough times. He makes no apologies for taking small jobs, even ones that might seem beneath the notice of a former Oscar nominee.
“When someone asks you to do something, oh, what a thrill,” he says. “Even during the years when I wasn’t working much, I never, ever got a job by reading for it. I may have auditioned for things, over my career, maybe 600 or 800 times. The only job I ever got auditioning was my first job, on Broadway. Everything else I never, never, ever got reading for it. If they liked me, they hired me, and if they didn’t like me, they made me come in and read and then didn’t hire me.
“I’ve done some things I love that will never see the screen or that are little or didn’t last very long. Karen Sisco [2003-2004] got short shrift. Diamond Men  is a movie I did 10 years ago, that no one saw, but that’s in my category of pictures I loved.
“But you can’t worry about the things that were yesterday. You can only worry about the things that are right now. This is the only moment you have to be creative in, the only moment you have to give your best to, and whatever is going on right now is what I care about.
“So I’ve only got so much time and, if somebody wants me to do something and I can do it, the answer is always ‘Yes.’?”