Argo: a round table encounter with Alan Arkin, Bryan Cranston and John Goodman
Posted on Sunday March 3, 2013, 13:49 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
The "round table interview", a mini-press conference of sorts, is the bane of every professional journalist's life, made worse when the powers that be decide to "pair up the talent", usually putting the tacturn superstar with the garrulous little-known director – a tactic that inevitably works to nobody's advantage. When I heard that the promotional duties for Argo at last year's Toronto International Film Festival would involve a group interview with the film's supporting cast of John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston – who are never all on screen together, as I recall – my heart sank. What on earth would we do with it? As it turned out, the half-hour spent in their company was pretty entertaining. So, to coincide with the film's (UK) release on DVD, I thought I'd share it…
*Warning! Contains minor spoilers…*
Argo round table with John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston
8 September 2012, Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto.
John Goodman: (to Alan Arkin) Want some water?
Alan Arkin: No, no.
John Goodman: (Dryly): It's delicious
Alan Arkin: I've had water, for God's sake.
John Goodman: Bryan?
Bryan Cranston: Sure! Thank you, sir!
John Goodman: OK, where we were?
Alan Arkin: What were we talking about?
We've just been speaking to Ben Affleck. He told us that he didn't have to do anything as a director. He just hired you guys and you did the rest. Is that true?
Alan Arkin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know that…
Bryan Cranston: …jive.
Alan Arkin: We all know better.
What kind of a director is he?
John Goodman: Very tall. Very tall.
Alan Arkin: He's absolutely in total command of his craft. He's got an authority that's way beyond the amount of movies he's been making movies. He's got the assurance of someone who's been directing for 20, 25 years.
Bryan Cranston: Yeah, I felt that too. He commands the set. You know he's in charge, and yet he didn't make anyone feel that they were subordinate to him. It was a very relaxed, comfortable set, and that's the best environment for actors to be in to be able feel that that they can try some things. They don't feel that anything they do is gonna be wrong. He'll maybe guide you into a different area, do another take. But, basically, what he said is true: you hire the people you think are right for the role – and let them do it.
Did you know about the real mission to free the American hostages in 1979?
Alan Arkin: I had some vague familiarity with it, but not any great degree.
Alan, how satisfying is it for an actor to play a producer?
Alan Arkin: How satisfying is it? It depends on the actor, it depends on the producer! I was playing a person, I wasn't playing a label. “Producer” is a label. I was just playing that guy. He happened to be a producer.
Did you enjoy making fun of Hollywood?
Alan Arkin: I wasn't making fun of Hollywood! I was playing a character who had a life. Making fun of Hollywood is the work of a satirist, and I'm just an actor. I play a character – hopefully – with the reality the character needs.
John, did you know anything…
John Goodman: Do I know anything?
…About the real John Chambers?
John Goodman: I'd heard of him. It seemed to me that there was kind of a make-up explosion that really came into its own in the late 60s, and he was the pioneer of a lot of that. I'd forgotten until last night that he was the creator of the Planet Of The Apes make-up and the Spock ears. A lot of stuff. I guess a lot of the guys learned from him – like Dick Smith, who did The Godfather make-up and used prosthetics more effectively – but he was the progenitor of all that stuff. That's a big word: progenitor.
Alan Arkin: "Progenitor"!?! Woah-ho-ho…!
John Goodman: Thanks.
Did you improvise a lot?
Alan Arkin: I usually improvise a lot, but I don't think I improvised a word on this.
Bryan Cranston: When you start with a script that's so well written, it's actually easier for actors. The hardest work I've ever had to has been on scripts that were sub-par, where the guideposts are vague and flimsy and you have to do a lot of work in creating an honest character. But Chris Terrio wrote a beautiful script, and to me it was just a case of following the signs he put in there.
Alan Arkin: When you have bad writing, you have to do a lot of pausing. (Pauses) To make the transitions work.
Bryan Cranston: And in between those pauses you're going, “Oh, why am I doing this? WHY AM I DOING THIS?”
Alan Arkin: And then you start overacting…
Bryan Cranston: …to cover up.
Alan Arkin: (Apropos of nothing) Did you ever see a movie called Abandon Ship?
Bryan Cranston: No.
Alan Arkin. It's the only movie I've ever seen where you can see the actors dying. And they try to overact for a while, to cover up how bad this is, and then they just give up. (Laughs) Forty minutes in, you see the eyes just go dead. And they're just there.
Bryan Cranston: What an appropriate title!
Do you like to see yourself acting on screen?
John Goodman: I, personally, don't like watching myself. But I was so caught up in this one that I got out of my own way. I was watching everybody else.
Bryan Cranston: There's a certain part of you that sort of reviews your work, but when the story is so well told, it helps you become more objective about it. You do get outta your way. And I just took a tack a while ago: whatever happens, I forgive myself. If I see a moment where I'm pushing, or faking, or acting, I go, “Aw, shit…” And then I just say, OK…
Alan Arkin: You forgive?
Bryan Cranston: Yeah, I forgive myself.
Alan Arkin: Can you do that in life too?
Bryan Cranston: Yeah. I forgive myself.
Alan Arkin: I always think it's more interesting when I'm doing it than when I watch it. It doesn't bother me, but…
Bryan Cranston: I think that's largely true, because you're not looking at it, you're in it. You're thinking about the character, and then you're asked to step outside of that and look at yourself. And basically you're judging, even though you try not to.
Alan Arkin: I did a movie with Peter Falk a long, long time ago, and he got to see the first cut of it before I did. I said, How does it look? And he said, (gruff Columbo voice), “Well, in this scene I was doing this, and that scene was pretty good.” He went on for about 25 minutes, and I said, “What about me? Was I OK?” He said, “You? I didn't even see you the first three times I saw the movie!”
Bryan Cranston: That's true! It's like when you have your picture taken with a group of people. If they say, “Do you like the picture?” you always look at yourself. “No, that's horrible.” It could be a great picture of everybody else, but we go right to ourselves. I guess that's human nature.
How do you get into character?
John Goodman: There's just so many things. It's like making a stew. Or a soup. There are so many things that go into it. I don't know any more. It's… basically… what… what… I don't know.
Alan Arkin: That's very sad!!!
John Goodman: (Sighs) I've had it. It's time to go back into professional wrestling.
Did the period detail help? It seemed very authentic…
Bryan Cranston: Yes. Well, the joke was, and the prop guys were supposed to give me a copy of this, but there was a file folder in the CIA bullpen that we worked in, talking about the Central Intelligence Agency, and “Intelligence” was misspelled. And not on purpose! But, for me, the more information I have the better. If the script is well written, it feeds you. If you are playing a character you know very well, it comes easy, but if it's a character that's somewhat outside of you then it requires to ask and read and get some information to make you feel grounded. And when you know a character, you feel more comfortable when you walk on set. What I think is so brilliant about John and Alan's section of the movie – and I would say this without them being here – not only do they handle their scenes fantastically, but their humour is not a joke. That is, they're not making fun of Hollywood, it's within their characters to have this kind of repartee. And that does two things. Structurally, it gives the movie a break. So with all the trauma and suspense that's going on, you cut back to them and they lighten the mood. They lighten it up and we have a laugh. But at the same time it solidifies the foundation of that part of the story, so one wasn't sacrificed for the other. And that's really brilliant writing. Which goes back to what I said about the script. It was just exceptional.
Alan Arkin: Yeah. A couple of the reviews said – stooopidly, I think – that our characters are caricatures. That's crap. Our characters are not caricatures. If anything, they're smaller than most of the producers I've worked with.
John Goodman: Oh God, yeah.
Alan Arkin: And the fact that the tone of the movie shifts dramatically... What Bryan said – I think it's a masterpiece of writing. It's the way movies used to be made all the time in Hollywood. I don't know what happened, but about 20-25 years, someone decided, “If it's serious, it's serious; if it's a comedy, it's a comedy.” There's no sense of the contrasts that go on in human life all the time! And if movies are supposed to be a representation of human life, you wanna see some contrasts! You see a thriller now – BAM! It's serious for an hour and 47 minutes. God forbid there should be a laugh! But that's what we've gotten used to, and it's crap! It's just crap! It's not the way life is, and movies should reflect human life. And I think one of the brilliant things about this movie is that it has this kind of wonderful, emotional contrast to it. There's a lot of brilliant things about it. One of the things that most excites me – I've only seen it twice now – and to me it's a sign of extraordinary maturity, is Ben's restraint. There's an extraordinary restraint that you almost don't see in American films any more. For example, the music. In most American films the music takes you by the neck and shows you where the next scene is gonna go. In most American movies now, you're in close-up, you're in close-up, you're in close-up, until there's a wide shot and you say, “Oh, somebody's coming into the room…” See, everything's predictable. In this movie, the music never tells you where it's going. And number two, the most dramatic, poignant, emotionally exciting moment in the movie is done in almost absolute silence. It's when the stewardess says, “The bar is now open.” You know? It's an extraordinarily powerful, potent moment. There's no music, nobody screams and yells. Nobody even mentions what is going on. But six lives have just been saved – with the line “The bar is now open”.
Bryan Cranston: I know it's saved my life!
John Goodman: Damn near ended mine!
Were the three of you surprised by this story? Do you think it could happen today?
Alan Arkin: Well, who knew then? In those days they didn't think they could do it either. They didn't think it was gonna work. Nobody thought it was gonna work.
John Goodman: It was the best bad idea they had.
Alan Arkin: Yeah. There's a wonderful book, written by, I forget who, but it was about a similar kind of situation. I forget where I read it and when. There was a mock war situation in which one side had all the most highly advanced technical equipment, the other side was using techniques from 100 years ago – and they came out ahead. Because they were constantly under the radar. Using tricks that had nothing to do with the sophistication of the material. And that is kind of a version of this.
Bryan Cranston: In a way, I was not surprised. I remember, I was about 24 years old when this happened and getting very interested in politics. Of course, the show Nightline was created because of the hostage situation, and I would watch Ted Koppel every night.
John Goodman: “America Held Hostage…”
Bryan Cranston: “America Held Hostage,” yeah!
John Goodman: “…Day 18!”
Bryan Cranston: Day whatever, yeah. And it held our attention. And I remember seeing that broadcast, of the silver lining of this situation. There were placards saying, “Thank you, Canada,” in the hometowns of the six hostages. That's all I remember, that some good news came of it. And then at the end of the Clinton administration he declassified the file and we found out what really happened. And when you think about it, it's not that surprising. It really isn't, this clandestine operation. What makes it a good movie is the humanity of it – the absurdity of it, almost.
Alan Arkin; Amen. And the best thing about the film to me, among all the wonderful things about it, is that the fact that it shows how an extraordinary, explosive, dangerous situation can be solved without anybody getting hurt. Without a gun raised in retaliation. No armies coming in and invading. It was done just by the use of invention and intelligence.
John Goodman: And Hollllllywooooood!
Iran is all over the news these days. Do you feel this is the right time…
Alan Arkin: …For the movie to come out? Well, they should have stopped the problems in Iran so that the movie could have come out at a better time.
Bryan Cranston: I thought it was brilliant of the Warner Bros marketing team to have the Canadian prime minister close the Embassy in Tehran.
John Goodman: That cost a pretty penny!
Bryan Cranston: But capital well spent, I thought. But, no, I thought it was pretty ironic that, on the day we premiered at the Toronto film festival, the order went out to close the Canadian embassy there. It just goes to show that things change and things don't change. I don't know if there's any perfect time. This is entertainment, but it also has a message. And hopefully people will still wanna go see this movie.
Alan Arkin: In spite of the fact that it's so good, you mean?
Bryan Cranston: Well, when you think about it. There's no scantily clad women in it, there's not a lot of young kids in it, so I don't know what the prospects are. But I know it's good.
Alan, you say you've read some reviews of the movie. We're always told by actors that they don't read reviews…
Alan Arkin: I try not to but then I... Why? You wanna know if people love you or hate you! You're like, “Don't tell me, don't tell me, don't tell me, don't tell me... Well, just tell me a little bit. Just tell me the good, don't tell me the bad!”
Do you remember what you were doing in 1979, when the movie takes place?
Alan Arkin: Me? I don't remember what I was doing yesterday. And proud of it! (Pause) Oh, I went to the premiere yesterday.
Bryan Cranston: Well, 1979 is when I got my SAG card and I started as a professional actor. I do remember very well. It was a great, exciting time. I was with my practise wife at the time, and everything was new and exciting.
Alan Arkin: Your practise wife?!
John Goodman: Lotta practisin' goin' on!
Bryan Cranston: Yeah, I had a practise wife before I found the one I should be with.
Alan Arkin: I got a friend a friend that used to say, “I'd like you to meet my present wife.”
Bryan Cranston: My wife's name is Robin, so sometimes I would introduce her as my sidekick. My ward! I'd say, “Meet my trusty sidekick Robin!” Which she didn't appreciate!
Alan Arkin: Do you still call her that?
Bryan Cranston: No, God no! I've learned.
How did you all get involved in this film? Did Ben contact you directly?
Bryan Cranston: For me, yes. I was asked to look at this role. It wasn't a straight offer, but… There's a misnomer in Hollywood. You get to a certain place and they say, “It's not an audition, you're just going to meet with them.” And we laugh, because it's always an audition. You don't just go in and go, “Yeah, I think it's OK...” If you want the role you have to talk about it. And I wanted the role. So I went in, said a few things, lauded the writing of it and said I'd really love to do it. And by the time the meeting was over, he said, “We'd love to have you do it.” I was thrilled.
John Goodman: I had to do a comic monologue from Midsummer Night's Dream. Then I did a piece from Streetcar Named Desire. And a Noel Coward song.
Bryan Cranston: And still they said they'd get back to you?
John Goodman: Yeah.
Alan Arkin: They didn't ask to see your make-up skills?
John Goodman: No, but they asked if I had a driver's licence.
Alan Arkin: My agent told me that Ben was gonna call me. I said, “Fine.” He said he wanted to talk to me about a part in the movie. A week went by, and… I have no memory any more, so I forgot all about it. Then this guy calls up and says, “Alan?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Hi, it's Ben.” There was a long pause... And I said, “Forgive me, I know a lot of Bens – do you wanna give me your last name?” He said, “Affleck,” and `I was like, “Ohhh yeahhh!!!” And then I forgot that too! It's amazing I even remember this story.
Bryan Cranston: Did you read the script prior to that conversation?
Alan Arkin: I don't know!!! I think I had read it. But don't hold me to that. (Pause) Oh, we have fun.
What projects are you working on?
Alan Arkin: For the first time in my life I have two movies in the can?
Bryan Cranston: You mean they're crappy movies? They're in the can???
Alan Arkin: No. I have one coming out next month with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken [Stand Up Guys]. That's going to be in the Chicago Film Festival.
Bryan Cranston: Very nice.
Alan Arkin: I'll give you my card if you're in the area.
John Goodman: Ohhh, Chicago's nice! Me and the wife went up there for a convention one time.
Bryan Cranston: You did?
John Goodman: Yahh. They got the tallest buildings! You got one, if you spit off it... Well, they'll throw you outta the building, but you could… (Pause) I'm sorry.
Alan Arkin: Then I did a film with Steve Carell, the third one I've done with him, which is coming out in June next year, called The Amazing Burt Wonderstone. In which he plays Burt Wonderstone and I play The Amazing.
John Goodman: Chicago's nice.
You've seen the film with an audience now. How was the reaction?
John Goodman: Well, it was great. I listen for coughs. And I didn't hear a cough last night. Huge theatre. The lack of coughing was the gauge for me, the fact that the screening was dead silent.
Bryan Cranston: There was someone who screamed something out at the end there…
John Goodman: It was, “Go Leafs!” [Toronto's ice hockey team.] It sounded like an extremist threat or something. There was silence, then all of a sudden, “Wooaaaauurghh!!!” It turned out he was saying, “Go Leafs!”
Alan Arkin: Screaming in the theatre. The last time I heard real screaming in the theatre was when I went to see a movie I did years ago, called Wait Until Dark. Now, my mother was the least emotional person on the planet, but when I got killed in the movie, she stood up and screamed, “THAT'S MY SON!!!” At Radio City Music Hall in New York!
John Goodman: You're so great!
Bryan Cranston: You're a legend!
Alan Arkin; You're pretty goddamn good yourself, John.
That's all we have time for, sadly...
Bryan Cranston: Thank you.
Alan Arkin: Thank you.
John Goodman: Thank you. Now go back to your respective countries and write. WRITE LIKE THE WIND…!!!