Q&A: Alan Arkin On ‘Argo’

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of AwardsLine.

With a best actor Oscar nomination for his very first film, the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and a second one for the drama The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter just two years later, Alan Arkin got off on the right foot early in his career. It would be 38 years later before he got a third nomination, and it turned out the third time was the charm when he won best supporting actor for Little Miss Sunshine. But don’t think the long wait to get to Oscar’s stage mattered much to Arkin. He has a tough time dealing with the whole idea of competition between actors and is happy just letting his work speak for itself. This versatile actor, who is now 78 years old, is still going strong all these years after getting his start as a founding member of The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago. Memorable performances in films as varied as Catch-22, Wait Until Dark, The In-Laws, Glengarry Glen Ross, Edward Scissorhands, and so many others have marked a long career that seemed to win a second life after the Oscar. His fourth nomination is for Argo, in which he plays the ultimate insider Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel, who is called upon to use his expertise in a very different and important way. In typical fashion, Arkin hits it out of the park, and also in typical fashion, he’s not bragging about it.

AWARDSLINE: Argo has passed $100 million at the boxoffice domestically. Did you have any idea that this movie would be that kind of hit it when you got involved?

ALAN ARKIN: I never think about it. I don’t spend a lot of time concerning myself about the grosses. I thought it might be possible—I get a bump in my salary then I start caring. (Laughs). Otherwise, it’s not something I care about. It’s just something I want to do or not.

AWARDSLINE: So what attracted you to playing Lester Siegel?

ARKIN: I felt like I knew the guy. I felt he was wonderfully humorous, completely real. I mean, it was a lot of funny material, but I felt it served the entire piece. Stylistically, it’s the way movies used to be. You (would have) a serious movie and have no problem with having comedic elements in it. For some reason, that seemed to change over time, and this film brings it back to where you can have a serious moment and pull out some humor. I love that idea.

AWARDSLINE: Why do you think it changed? Argo does seem to be embraced by people in the industry, because it is something that feels different now.

ARKIN: (The business is) more corporate and more formulaic and less experiential.

AWARDSLINE: What makes you say yes to a project these days?

ARKIN: It’s a combination of things, like a graph. It depends how high something goes on the graph: It could be the director, the script, the part—it could be any one of those things alone if I feel strongly about it. There are times when I like the character and not the director, or the other way. Usually it has to be a combination of the three.

AWARDSLINE: There’s Oscar buzz this year for you in Argo. Does that mean something to you at this point in your career?

ARKIN: It’s a euphemism for people telling you they like your work. I had a hard time treating my field as if it’s horse racing, putting actors in competition against each other. I see how the industry and the studios feel it’s important, but I don’t really have a feeling for being in competition. I want to feel sympathetic and close to others, not opposed to them. Every physicist knows that things connect with each other. To isolate things is not the way the universe works—winning best actor is arbitrary.

AWARDSLINE: But you are one of the rare actors to get an Academy Award nomination for best actor on your first feature film, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

ARKIN: It was one of the many times in my life where I disappeared. Somebody was in my body and answered for me. I went away and didn’t come back until the awards were over with. Somebody was there, I have a vague impression of it, but I just ran away.

AWARDSLINE: I was at a recent screening of the film, and it still holds up.

ARKIN: It’s a sweet film; I love it. My main memories of that were that (director Norman Jewison) ruined me for the next 10 people I worked with. He was so extraordinary to work with. It was like a dream come true. It was a totally embracing experience in every way. Norman got the entire town involved in shooting; everybody in the town was an extra. Everybody was invited every day, to the point that they had to ask people to keep their children home and doors closed because we couldn’t hear the sound guy. It was to me what I always hoped movies were going to be. But it didn’t happen again very frequently.

AWARDSLINE: That nomination led to a lot of great movies for you, including Wait Until Dark with Audrey Hepburn.

ARKIN: She was a dream, she was everything you had hoped for. I was a little bit tongue-tied around her. She was very accessible, very hardworking, great sense of humor—but regal.

AWARDSLINE: You really terrified her, and she was playing a blind woman.

ARKIN: I had a miserable time because I liked her so much. I couldn’t stand what I was doing to her—very unhappy about it.

AWARDSLINE: Do you like doing theater? You were so successful on stage; you won Tonys.

ARKIN: I would rather die than do a play—10 years in solitary instead. Here’s how much I want to do it: If you told me I could rehearse this play for two days and perform it for one night with the book in my hand, you said you’d pay me $10 million, and not only that but (we’d have) world peace for the next 50 years, I’d have to think about it for six months. And then I’d say no. The repetition of it drove me crazy—nothing creative about it for me. I need to be inventing and playing, and not doing the same thing over and over again.

AWARDSLINE: But you did spend a good amount of time on stage as a founding member of The Second City…

ARKIN: Once I got to Second City, I found the kind of acting I enjoyed. We’d do a show for three months, then the next show would be based on improvisations that worked on the show before that. (It was a) constantly rotating series of set improvisations.

AWARDSLINE: How did you initially get involved in it?

ARKIN: A friend of mine married a guy named David Shepherd who was one of the founders of Campus Theater, and we did a thing in St. Louis in the summer—improvisational theater. Paul Sills, who no one had ever heard of, came down and told me if I ever wanted a job a Chicago to give him call. I said, “Fat chance. I’m going to have a big career in New York, so I’m not going to bury myself in Chicago.” After starving for six months in New York, I called him, and I thought I’d be there for the rest of my life earning $800 a week. Six months later, it got national attention, (and) it was the beginning for me.

AWARDSLINE: Do you still love the business?

ARKIN: I don’t love the business. I never wanted to be a part of it. I don’t think any actor does. Most of the time, I’ve been really fortunate to work with people who are really fun to work with. It doesn’t mean we don’t take it seriously, but no one is under the delusion (that we’re) bringing world peace for the next 100 years. If anybody told me 40 years ago what would be happening, I’d think they were crazy.

Supporting Actor Category Full Of Scene-Stealers

Pete Hammond is Deadline’s awards columnist. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.

In a year when the leading actor race is full of major heavyweight contenders—many going for their second or third Oscars—the supporting actor category is no less competitive and also chockful of major names in the hunt for another Oscar. With certified leading men like Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, Ewan McGregor, and Matthew McConaughey in the mix, the supporting contest is easily one of the most fascinating to watch. And it begs the question: What really is a supporting role? Is it playing a major title role in The Master or could it be just one 5-minute scene as a cancer patient in Flight? Is it a collective award for a trio of scene-stealing roles in one year, such as John Goodman’s 2012 résumé indicates, or will it honor a return to critical acclaim for a legend like Robert De Niro who hasn’t been Oscar-nominated since 1991? Whatever the case, this is the starriest group of contenders we have seen jockeying for best supporting actor in many years. Here’s a rundown of the major players.

ROBERT DE NIRO |SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

As Pat Sr., the obsessive-compulsive father and Philadelphia Eagles fan, two-time winner De Niro wowed critics and immediately elicited strong Oscar buzz for the first time in a couple of decades. He hasn’t been nominated since 1991’s Cape Fear and hasn’t won since 1980’s Raging Bull. Now he’s back in the supporting category where he first triumphed in 1974 for The Godfather Part II. Will history repeat itself? He’s a hot contender to do just that.

Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.
Tommy Lee Jones plays abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln.

TOMMY LEE JONES | LINCOLN

As the spirited and scene-stealing political powerhouse Thaddeus Stevens, Jones livens up the film with a rip-roaring turn that puts this leading actor squarely in the hunt for a second statuette in the supporting category. He won for 1993’s The Fugitive and was last nominated five years for the first time in the best actor category for In the Valley of Elah. His acclaimed turn opposite Meryl Streep in the summer release Hope Springs further enhances his chances of scoring another Oscar for his mantel.

John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.
John Goodman, left, and Alan Arkin play Hollywood insiders who collaborate with the CIA in Argo.

ALAN ARKIN |ARGO

Playing the veteran Hollywood movie producer called upon to create a fake film in order to help some hostages out of Iran, Arkin drolly nails the role and gets the laughs in Ben Affleck’s otherwise serious thriller set against the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. The veteran star finally won an Oscar in this category six years ago for Little Miss Sunshine after being AWOL from the Oscar competition for a record 38 years. But he’s back with a vengeance, and somehow one Oscar just doesn’t seem enough for this beloved actor.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the charismatic leader of a cult in The Master.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN |THE MASTER

As Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cult-like religion in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1950s drama, Hoffman is riveting and every bit the match for Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddy. But in order to avoid Hoffman and Phoenix competing for votes in the same category, the Weinstein Company is campaigning Hoffman in supporting, which gives him a meaty opportunity to swamp the competition. Polarized reaction to the film among some voters could hurt his overall chances, but a nomination seems like a no-brainer.

EWAN McGREGOR |THE IMPOSSIBLE

McGregor is another leading man going for his first dance with Oscar as the real-life father and husband who searches desperately for his wife and oldest son when their family is divided after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. With one highly emotional scene to boost his chances, McGregor strongly delivers in a role to which any father will relate. And there’s a lot of them in the Academy.

JOHN GOODMAN |ARGO & FLIGHT

Goodman has had an embarrassment of riches this year with scene-stealing roles. He was particularly well-received in Argo as the real-life Hollywood makeup man who helps the CIA pull off a daring plan to rescue six Americans in 1979-Tehran and as alcoholic/addict Denzel Washington’s enabler in Flight. Unfortunately, both roles are being campaigned by their respective studios, and he’s in danger of cancelling himself out. Every actor should have this kind of problem.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO |Django Unchained

DiCaprio, a three-time Oscar nominee and certified superstar could compete for supporting honors as the deliciously villainous slave owner Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s wild ride of a western. The Weinstein Company recently moved costar Christoph Waltz up to lead actor, where he will square off with star Jamie Foxx, leaving the supporting field in the film largely to DiCaprio (though Samuel L. Jackson could also be a small fly in that ointment once the film is more widely seen by voters).

MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY |MAGIC MIKE

Leaving behind a string of romantic-comedy roles, McConaughey completely reinvented his career with a series of strong, offbeat performances in 2012, including the murderous hitman in Killer Joe, the Texas prosecutor in Bernie,and a pair of well-received performances in movies that debuted in competition at Cannes, The Paperboy and the upcoming 2013 release Mud. But it’s his flashy strip-club veteran Dallas in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike that has put him in the supporting actor conversation.

JAVIER BARDEM |SKYFALL

He already has one supporting Oscar for playing evil in No Country for Old Men, but could Bardem be the first Bond villain ever to win an Oscar nomination? As the sexually ambiguous Silva, a wicked mastermind of all things bad, Bardem brings real dimension to what could have been a comic-book portrayal in lesser hands. In doing so, he lifts everyone’s game in the most successful James Bond film yet.

RUSSELL CROWE |LES MISÉRABLES

Oscar-winning leading actor Crowe gets to once again show his dramatic chops as Javert, the singularly focused policeman who hunts down Hugh Jackman’s Valjean in the musical Les Misérables. What might really make voters stand up and take notice is Crowe’s singing ability here, and that can be a real plus for Academy voters, who love to see their Oscar winners stretch.

Also in the mix…

BRYAN CRANSTON |ARGO

With costars Alan Arkin and John Goodman already standing in line, Cranston’s equally terrific turn as a CIA boss might get lost in the crowd.

DWIGHT HENRY |BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

A baker in his native Louisiana, Henry is a non-pro who knocks it out of the park as the suffering dad of young Hushpuppy stuck in the middle of a crisis on the bayou. Against stiff marquee competition, he probably has a better shot at success at the Independent Spirit Awards.

ALBERT BROOKS |THIS IS 40

After being robbed last year for going evil in Drive, Brooks is back in familiar territory as Paul Rudd’s needy father in this terrific adult comedy. He nails it, as usual.

HAL HOLBROOK |PROMISED LAND

Holbrook has a couple of strong scenes, including a heartfelt monologue, but he might not have enough screen time, though the same problem didn’t seem to hurt when he was nominated for Into the Wild a few years back. His few moments in Lincoln and veteran statusalso bolster his case.

MICHAEL PENA |END OF WATCH

Playing a good cop on patrol in Southeast L.A., Pena is every bit the equal of costar and partner Jake Gyllenhaal, but the distributor doesn’t want them competing in the lead category. Having Pena in supporting might confuse actors who could want to put him in the upper category with Jake because of the size of the role.

EZRA MILLER |THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

Miller was evil personified in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin,but he’s truly a revelation here in a complex turn in this fine drama about real teens. In a year with less competition, he would make the cut.

BILLY CONNOLLY |QUARTET

Connolly is vibrant as part of the ensemble of great actors in Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, and voters could single him out, but it’s a longshot.

WILLIAM H. MACY |THE SESSIONS

As the priest confidante of the horny but physically challenged Mark O’Brien, Macy gets the laughs, but the film really belongs to his costars.

NATE PARKER |ARBITRAGE

As a street-smart kid who helps star Richard Gere out of a jam, Parker gives the role three dimensions, but his chances for a surprise nomination are slim with this killer group of contenders.

JAMES GANDOLFINI |NOT FADE AWAY

As a 1960s Jersey dad trying to discourage his son from musical ambitions, Gandofini is once again working with David Chase and back in the home territory of Tony Soprano but showing a completely different side of his talent. Getting the film seen could be a problem.

IRRFAN KHAN |LIFE OF PI

As the older Pi telling his story in flashbacks, this acclaimed Indian star is effective and low-key, but most of the emotional stuff is left to his younger self, played by Suraj Sharma.

GARRETT HEDLUND |ON THE ROAD

Hedlund shows off real star power, along with other things, as the mystical Dean Moriarty in the Jack Kerouac adaptation. He’s a breakout, but Oscar will likely have to wait for another year.

JAMES BADGE DALE |FLIGHT

With just a single scene as a cancer patient, James Badge Dale makes an indelible impression that has fellow actors singing his praises. But at five minutes’ screen time, it’s the longest of longshots.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN |SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

Walken’s dog-napper of a con steals the show from his costars, and the Oscar winner is always respected by fellow actors. Don’t discount his ability to break through, but CBS Films will really have to campaign him.

JOHN TRAVOLTA |SAVAGES

Oliver Stone’s Savages seems to be on the sidelines this awards season, but attention must be paid to Travolta’s corrupt and deliciously slippery DEA agent, his best work in years.

ANDY SERKIS |THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY

With another performance-capture turn as Gollum, has this actor’s Oscar time finally come? Judging from past Academy voting habits, don’t bet the farm on it.

Behind The Scenes On Argo

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

With more than 120 speaking parts and a key scene that required 2,500 Persian extras, Argo couldn’t have struck the right note of realness without showing faces that lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and that meant heading somewhere in the Middle East to shoot. Several locations were on the short list, including Jordan and Bulgaria, but ultimately Turkey won out for having the right Persian look. (Director and star Ben Affleck jokes that Turkey having a posh Four Seasons Hotel is what really clinched the deal.)

“In truth, it really was very similar architecture, and it was next to Iran, so I felt like we’d be able to get a lot of Farsi-speaking extras,” Affleck says. “As it turned out, that was a false assumption; most Iranians were afraid to be in the movie because of reprisal against their family, which kind of brought home the seriousness of the real story.”

Alan Arkin and director Ben Affleck on the set of Argo.

In fact, because the production had so much trouble finding extras in Turkey, some of the scenes had to be moved to Los Angeles, which has its own eager population of Farsi speakers. The pivotal airport scene moved to the City of Angels, and Affleck says he was overwhelmed by the passion of the Persian extras, many of whom had lived through the revolution and talked about family members still living in Iran.

“For them, it was like someone was telling their story. The whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles. People in the crew were really, really moved,” Affleck explains.

The production team’s commitment to veracity—with the requisite dose of dramatic license—in telling Argo’s story of how the CIA and Hollywood teamed up for the top-secret rescue of six American diplomats caught up in the 1979 Iranian Revolution paid off with a warm welcome that has continued since the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut in September. Oscar pundits immediately bestowed best picture status on the film, and audiences have also shown their support, with Argo set to hit $80 million at the domestic boxoffice at press time. And during awards season, it doesn’t hurt that the film has an accolade-heavy cast that includes Affleck, who plays CIA agent and plot mastermind Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston, who plays the Washington, D.C.-based agent running the logistics, Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin, who plays veteran (and fictional) producer Lester Siegel, charged with finding the right script to fool the Iranians into accepting Argo as a real film; and John Goodman, who plays Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers.

The film’s production path started about five years ago, when Smokehouse Pictures’ Grant Heslov and George Clooney optioned Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” a tightly written, little-known story about how the CIA worked with Hollywood insiders to devise a fake production company, set up a fake film, and turn six trapped diplomats into a fake film crew as a way to smuggle them out of Iran. After the project was set up with the studio, then-Smokehouse development exec Nina Wolarsky suggested screenwriter Chris Terrio, who pitched Smokehouse and got to work.

Although the mission to Iran wasn’t declassified until the mid-1980s, Terrio says he had no shortage of material to consult when researching the political climate and top-secret event. In fact, the Wired article was the start of a months-long process of devouring everything he could find about the details of the mission.

“The article was really the beginning of a long trail,” says Terrio, whose script also incorporated details from The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, a book from plot mastermind Tony Mendez. “Then, of course, eventually you just have to sit down and write. You circle and circle, and convince yourself you can’t possibly write until you read one more book. Finally, you think, OK, I’m going to get fired if I don’t (start writing).”

Terrio successfully condensed his extensive research into a script that Heslov has called the best first draft he’s ever seen. Nevertheless, Argo would have to wait.

“We knew we had a script that we loved,” Heslov explains, “but we didn’t really have time to make it at that point because either we were making a film or George was acting in a film or I was producing a film. It was one of those (situations) where you know you’re going to make it (eventually). “

The script sat at Warner Bros. for a while before it landed in the hands of Affleck, who was looking for a followup to 2010’s The Town.

“Ben read it, and he actually called George and me,” says Heslov, who was working with Clooney on Ides of March at the time. “Basically, he pitched us on why he should direct the film. We were both huge fans of his previous films, and the way that he saw the film was right in line with the way George and I saw it.”

When it came to casting, Affleck didn’t have much trouble figuring out who would play the lead of CIA agent Mendez in the film.

“That part of me that will always be looking for the good role said, ‘I’d be good for this.’ The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part,” Affleck says. He was so eager to take on the film that Heslov says the director started prepping before the Smokehouse team finished Ides.

“Ben was like a pony at the gate, ready to go,” Heslov recalls. “The day that we wrapped the Ides of March, George and I jumped right in to producing Argo.”

Three separate locations—Turkey, L.A., and Washington, D.C.—helped bring the story to life, but along the way, the fact that the film was dealing with traumatic historical events was never lost on cast and crew, and the filmmakers carefully balance humor and drama. Though that balance was always a part of the script, according to Terrio, Affleck says seeing it through was thanks to the actors, notably the charming and all-too-accurate Hollywood-types Goodman and Arkin play in the film.

“All the performances were I felt very real, very honest—even the ones that had the most potential to be over the top felt very real,” Affleck says. “Reality being funny doesn’t feel different from reality being tense and dramatic. What would have picked away at the fabric of the reality that we were trying to construct would have been if the comedy had been arch.”

For Cranston, the real story behind what motivated Mendez and his fellow agents, as well as how the Hollywood component fit in, was the appeal from the moment he first read the script.

“These are guys that feel that they’re doing the right thing, with the knowledge that they (might) never have public praise for their work,” Cranston says. “There was no way of knowing that this file would have been declassified. And the Hollywood component—there was no financial gain to be had. No recognition. So why would they do it? Because they’re patriots.”