It seems we’re living in a Paul Newman renaissance. In July, a docuseries directed by Ethan Hawke called “The Last Movie Stars” hit HBO Max, chronicling the life, love, and careers of Newman and Joanne Woodward, his wife and an accomplished actress in her own right.
The docuseries focuses on a set of interview transcripts. In 1986, Newman asked his friend – screenwrite Stewart Stern, who wrote “Rebel Without a Cause” – to conduct a series of interviews with friends, family members, colleagues, Newman’s first wife, Woodward, and then finally Newman himself. The interviews were for a memoir that Newman planned to write, but after five years of interviews, he apparently abandoned the project.
Decades later, a memoir has finally been released. “The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man: A Memoir” comes out Oct. 18, and offers a raw, honest look at the movie star’s life and career. Whether it be Newman’s traumatic childhood, his insecurities, or his long-lasting relationship with Woodward, no stone is left unturned.
Clea Newman Soderlund, one of Woodward and Newman’s daughters, helped put the book together and wrote its afterword. She will also be featured at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta’s upcoming book festival. The event is on Nov. 15 at 7:30. Tickets are available online.
Reporter Newspapers spoke with Soderlund about the process of creating the memoir, and what it meant to look back on her father’s life all these years later.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Reporter Newspapers: This book is coming out a few months after the documentary that was released about your parents, “The Last Movie Stars.” Did both of these endeavors come from finding these transcripts?
Clea Newman Soderlund: Yeah. I mean, the book came from dad’s transcripts, primarily. Ethan [Hawke] used a lot of other information for the docuseries.
RN: How long have you been working on putting this book together?
CN: It started when we actually found the transcripts – the other interviews. Not my father’s interviews, but the other interviews. It was either 2019 or right before COVID. It’s so hard, because I feel like COVID skews everything in my mind [Laughs].
Dad’s interviews we found – I want to say it was like, right in the beginning of 2020. The docuseries, actually, we had been working on for years before. So the docuseries had started way before, just compiling information. We didn’t bring Ethan on until, I think it was maybe the fall of 2019. But we had been just compiling information, footage, and like, tens of thousands of photographs. It’s just a lot of information.
RN: So you found those transcripts towards the end of the documentary process?
CN: Right towards the end. That was how we got the book – that’s really where the book idea came from.
RN: How did it feel discovering those transcripts and all of that information?
CN: Well, it’s interesting. There’s so much more, even, than what is in the book. It was a little overwhelming, I would say. It was hard to hear what Dad had been through as a child and how complex his childhood was. You know, there were some very raw details of things that happened to him that I think was – I can’t say hard. I think it was just very revealing. It just gave me a different perspective, an even more sympathetic perspective as to some of the struggles he went through. And also how hard he worked to – I mean, make amends is the wrong word.
That period of time from 1986 to 1991 was such a pivotal time for him. I think the fact that he took all the information that he gained from all of those interviews, and friends being so honest about you know, the good and the bad. I mean, listen, that’s normal, right? Everyone has both sides. The fact that he took all of that information so intensely and actually used all of that information that he gained from his friends and perspectives and actually did something with it. He took it so to heart and tried to make some real changes in his life. And, you know, he wasn’t a young man when that happened. So I give him a lot of credit. In the last roughly 20 years of his life or, you know, 17 years of his life, he was an even better version of himself.
RN: I thought about that a lot – the process of talking to people who in a lot of cases you might have wronged, or whatever it might be. I think that’s a pretty brave thing to do.
CN: And when you think about the fact that he was at the height of his career, right? And he actually wanted to move forward with this. I mean, he spent five years doing interviews with Stewart [Stern]. I think that’s pretty impressive, the fact that he wanted to dig that deep and be so revealing.
RN: Do you ever think about what it would have been like if he went through with putting it all out there at the time?
CN: You know, it’s interesting. I can imagine that the process was so exhausting, and after five years of it he probably wanted a break from it. I also think that once he got engaged in all of the other things that really were feeding his soul, whether it was, you know, racing, or spending time with his grandchildren, or traveling around with mom, and creating the camps [Newman founded the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a camp specifically for children with serious illnesses] – once he found all these other things that kind of brought out the best in him, I think in his heart of hearts, he was like, wow, that process was really hard, but it gave me the strength and the direction to go and do these other things. You know what I mean?
RN: I think so. Like you get to the end of the process and you’re like, well maybe I don’t need to put it all out there, I’ve done the work myself.
CN: Yeah. I mean, he kind of went through that process and he felt like, wow that was awesome therapy. [Laughs].
The other thing that I think is interesting about it is that he kept all the transcripts. And it’s very specifically in there that he wanted it to come out. Because it was a little bit of a – I mean, when we found dad’s transcripts, it was a complicated decision to decide if we were going to do something with them or not. But it’s very specific in there.
RN: You wrote the afterword for this book, and you’ve sort of mentioned this already, but in the afterword you talk about how putting the book together was something of an education. I wanted to ask if there was anything you learned about your father, or your mother, or even yourself that surprised you?
CN: I guess I realized how hard they worked. Staying together isn’t really the way that it should be worded. It was more that their ups and downs that they had, there was so much pulling them together that although there were a lot of rocky times, I give them such extraordinary credit that they worked so hard to not just stay together, but to create this family unit. It was hard in Hollywood, you know? That wasn’t the norm. The fact that they worked really hard on bringing us with them and trying to keep the family together and doing all those things – it’s very inspirational. I learned so much about how to have a better relationship, even through the hard times. You know, you kind of aspire to work that hard in your marriage.
RN: Something else you said in the afterword also struck me. “It was often a blessing – and sometimes a bit of a curse – to have a father so revered by so many …” He talks about that a bit too in the book, this idea of having so many people in the world who think they have some idea of you. I wanted to know what it’s been like for you meeting people who have such a strong connection to someone that you actually knew so well, and if that’s ever difficult?
CN: Ultimately, I enjoy it. There’s something really nice – especially after my father passed away – that I would meet people and they’d say, I remember the first time I saw your dad, or I watched his movie. Sometimes, it can feel a little exhausting, especially right after my father passed away. Just because, you know, I was really suffering, as were my sisters, and I think it’s really hard to comfort other people because of my father’s passing. It was a little difficult, but for the most part, it really just made me feel good. It made me feel like people were connected to him and they cared about him.
I think when I was younger, it was much more difficult. You know, you want your dad to be your dad. And I think it was just hard for me to share him with other people, and my mother. I think it’s a good lesson to learn, that what they were doing in their life’s work – whether it was their acting or whatever politically – that was very much outside the family, right? That was their job, and that’s what they did. The things that they were passionate about within their family life … that was a different thing. I learned how to separate that, and I think that was helpful to me.
It was hard growing up. I think it’s so hard now, with social media. I mean, people’s privacy is pretty much – I can’t even imagine having famous parents right now. But I think what was harder in those days was that because the only way to gain publicity was so one-on-one – like, in your face – that it was very difficult for us because the press was always right here. So if you were trying to have a family dinner, it wasn’t like somebody taking a picture over there.
RN: It was right in your face.
CN: It was right in your face. So it made having, you know, kind of intimate family time very difficult.
RN: There’s a lot in this book that I found very relatable.
CN: I’m so glad you say that!
RN: Well, sometimes it’s nice to learn that people who you find really talented have some of the same insecurities that you do. He seemed to struggle with insecurity a lot, and I wondered if that was something that you were aware of growing up, or if it came as more of a surprise?
CN: It was definitely a surprise, I would say. Mostly because of his insecurity – I guess his insecurity didn’t surprise me that much, as much as how hard he was on himself. I think that was what was difficult for me. That surprised me more than anything is just how hard. He was always kind of reserved. I mean, he could be goofy and funny, but he always kind of held his cards close to his chest a little bit.
RN: Some of it’s kind of tough to read – some of the criticisms that he had of himself.
CN: I know. That’s what I mean. I think that was a little difficult for me. Mostly because that’s not how I perceived him as a father. I guess most kids don’t, but you know, I didn’t see him that way.
RN: What do you hope that people take away from this book?
CN: I’m not 100% sure. I hope that they’re as inspired by the story as I was. It’s pretty impressive that he continued to do great work until the very end of his life, and that he was continuing to grow as an actor, as a person, as a humanitarian. He was engaged in everything – politically, the environment, giving back, creating the camps, being a phenomenal grandfather, a phenomenal husband, a better parent. He just continued to be a better version of himself until the day he died. Most people kind of, under his circumstances, you would think they would have just kind of coasted towards the end. And he didn’t.
RN: I’m glad you brought that up. I do think people tend to get stuck in their ways when they’re older, but it seems like he didn’t want to do that. Which I find pretty inspiring.
CN: Yeah, I know. And the fact that he and my mom had an extraordinarily romantic – I mean, could be crazy sometimes – relationship until the very end.
RN: Yeah, the book can kind of get hot and heavy sometimes.
CN: It’s very funny, actually. I remember going to dinner at our house. I was living with my roommate … and we were coming over to dinner. My parents, we were all there, making burgers and just doing our usual outside by the pool. When we got in the car and we left, she looked at me and she said, are you parents always like that? I said, what do you mean? Always like what? And she’s like, always holding hands, or always kissing – I mean, doesn’t that get weird for you? And I said, no. They’ve always been like this.
RN: That’s lovely.
CN: They never didn’t hold hands. We’ve all been in relationships, that’s not – it’s not easy to carry that for 50 years. It’s not that everything was perfect, it wasn’t. There were some really fiery times. But man, the way that they brought it around was pretty incredible.