For a man who has given orders to the likes of Paul Newman and Tom Hanks, Sam Mendes hardly cuts an imposing figure. The soft-spoken, moon-faced Englishman who directed Road to Perdition and American Beauty, which won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, is more Cambridge humanities lecturer than drill sergeant: he pays attention to his actors' needs. "Tom is freer in front of the camera, wants to improvise more," Mendes explains. "Paul needs to be more precise, to know exactly what you want." Neither man seems a natural choice for the hard-boiled '30s gangsters they play in Perdition, but Mendes relished finding the inner Mafioso in both stars: "With Paul's best performances, in Cool Hand Luke or The Hustler, there's a good deal of mystery and darkness. As with Tom in Philadelphia and Punchline, these are angry men. There's a lot of rage in there somewhere."
Mendes, 36, has been coaxing performances out of actors for years, but usually in the cozier, lower-stakes world of his native British theater. Although he produced disastrously bad footage his first two days on American Beauty, he's since taken easily to movies. "The joy for a director of theater going into film," he says, "is you only have to achieve something once." He still directs plays back home, but he's become a convert to film, enchanted with the ability of movie vets like Hanks and Newman to stay in character through rain, sleet or snow: "It could be 5 a.m., pissing down rain and minus 30 degrees--they've still got their fingers on the triggers. They are able to fire whenever required."
Mendes waxes even more poetic about the U.S.--it's no coincidence both of his films revolve around American archetypes like gangsters and suburban teenagers. "This is the country of myth in the 20th century," he says. "There are very few others that can bear the weight of a big story. It's one of the reasons The Godfather, the closest we've come to Shakespeare in the 20th century, wouldn't work in any other country in the world." The America of his films may be troubled, but Mendes talks like an immigrant for whom Hollywood--so far--has turned out to be the promised land. --By Benjamin Nugent