It's intimidating to be in a room with Alan Arkin. The man's history precedes him: his time at Second City in Chicago, his performances in everything from The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter to The In-Laws to Glengarry Glen Ross. He's a legend, but his unassuming screen presence leads people to take him for granted.
In Ben Affleck's political thriller Argo, Arkin plays a different sort of legend - a middling Hollywood producer enlisted by the CIA to come up with a convincing movie project that will serve as a cover story to extract six Americans from 1980 Tehran. The day after the red-carpet premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, I sat down with Arkin to talk about the movie and his conflicted relationship with Hollywood.
Did you base your Argo character on any actual Hollywood producers?
About 50. I wish I could say it was a very difficult, very painful part to play, but it was relatively easy. It was not unfamiliar territory.
I was going to say something about this guy being unlike any of your other characters, but then I realized you've never been much for repeating yourself. It would drive me crazy. I would just be bored to death. I did one series once [100 Centre Street, on A&E], but that was because I got a chance to work with Sidney Lumet, and I couldn't turn it down because I'd idolized him for decades. But the idea of doing the same character for seven years? I might have lost my mind. I'm grateful to say it only ran two, and I breathed a sigh of relief afterwards. I want to feel like I'm doing something creative, and trying different things, putting different hats on, and playing. I don't know what's the point otherwise; otherwise it's just a job. You punch a time clock.
When you won the Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine and your visibility shot back up, you managed to avoid that weird mercenary trap that happens to some actors, where they suddenly turn up in everything and oversaturate the market.
Well, there have been times when I've been broke and a job came along and I've said, "Yeah! Let's do it!" But I will never do something without having a feeling of knowing how to play it. I've been in projects that I felt terrible about afterwards, but I've always had something that sparked me while I was doing it.
In Argo, you're really only working with John Goodman and Ben Affleck. There's such a sense of play in your scenes.
I hope so. That's the way I've been trained - I'm a product of Second City as much as anything else, and if you're not collaborative there, you're dead. It would have been hopeless.
How did you find Affleck as a director?
He started out an old pro with his first film [Gone Baby Gone]. It's like the work of somebody who's been doing it for 30 years already. He had a very clear, strong idea, scene by scene, of the tonality and where it should go. He's not afraid of directing anybody; there were nuances that he felt very strongly about, and he was not embarrassed about talking about them.
It's sort of perverse that anyone would cast you as a Hollywood lifer when you've made a point of separating yourself from that culture.
I don't live in L.A. on purpose, because I don't wanna be immersed in that. I have to have a real life, with real people, in order to inform what I'm doing; otherwise it just becomes the snake eating its own tail. Vampirism.
Did you have this perspective back when you were getting started?
Yeah. I didn't want to be involved in it 24 hours a day. I felt it would be a living death - that it would be spiritual suicide. I realized it years ago. I said, "What are the film capitals of the world? Moscow, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo. They're also the cultural capitals of those countries. And in the United States, it's Los Angeles." And Los Angeles is not the cultural capital of anything. In those other cultures, I feel like the films get informed by the rest of the culture, by the rest of the arts, and in L.A. they don't. They just feed on film.