Five years ago Alan Arkin won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in “Little Miss Sunshine,” an award many thought would end up going to “Dreamgirls” star Eddie Murphy. He’s back knocking on the door of another tip of the Academy’s hat with his work as a cranky, seen-it-all film producer in Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” But he probably couldn’t care less.
“To me that’s a euphemism for saying, ‘I liked your work,'” he says of awards speculation by telephone. “I’m just as happy with people saying that.”
Nevertheless, as short-answered and moderately cantankerous as Arkin can be in an interview situation, there’s something lovable there. He’s not the sort who has to work the circuit hard to get kudos because, after all, we’re talking about someone whose first nomination was 45 years ago (for “The Russians are Coming the Russians are Coming”). He’s been there. Done that. So the terse replies to queries become a bit of a warm blanket that lets you admit, yes, this is all rather silly.
What sold him on the script? “I didn’t need any selling,” he says. “My agent sent me the script and I said, ‘Yes.’ That was the amount of selling I needed.”
Was there any particular element that jumped out at him and made him want to do the project? “Everything,” he says. “Equally.”
Did he pull his quirky producer from any of those he’s met throughout his distinguished career? “A few of them,” he says. “Not all of them.”
And that’s fine. Arkin is an old pro. He gets in and out, doesn’t say anything he doesn’t have to say, sells the movie and his collaborators succinctly.
For instance, working with John Goodman, with whom he shares a good amount of screen time in the film? “He and I had never met before we started shooting,” he says, “but within 10 minutes I felt like I had met an old friend. I get the impression he feels the same way about me. I hope so because I loved working with him.”
Ben Affleck behind the camera? “He’s as good as they get,” he says. “He’s gonna be considered a major, major director, and deservedly. They don’t get any better.”
Bringing anything new to the script? “I didn’t change any of the dialogue,” he says. “I’m used to changing a lot of the dialogue. But if I feel like the script is working I don’t want to mess with it. And this script was working. It didn’t need any textual embellishments from me so I was happy to do what was on the page.”
Knowledge of the events depicted in the film prior to being made aware of the project? “I didn’t know anything about it,” he says. “And as much as I liked the script when I read it, it didn’t hold a candle to what I ended up seeing on the screen with what Ben did to it. It’s just his handling of it was so meticulous and very courageous, and with great subtlety.”
And don’t worry about dolling the thing up too much. Arkin isn’t having it. Like, for instance, “Argo” as a project the film industry is likely to take to because it’s very much a story about Hollywood saving the day. “I don’t think in those terms,” he says. “Those are kind of headline ways of looking at something.”
“I look at it in the terms of the emotional effect that the piece has on me.”
Oh, maybe we’re getting somewhere.
“To me it talked about people cooperating in a peaceful way, in an inventive and courageous way that could have turned into a world conflagration in somebody else’s hands. It was done with invention and without anybody getting hurt.”
The answers are getting a little bit longer. An opportunity is surfacing. So maybe I’ll try this: Affleck, an actor, working as a director. How did that strike Arkin? Did he seem more sensitive to an actor’s plight? Was it obvious that an actor was directing the film, in a sense? “Well, yeah, because he would periodically stop directing and start acting.”
But, again, it’s fine. Arkin is well on his way to being a strong contender in the Best Supporting Actor race this year for his work in the film. It’s a scene-stealing role, the one that gets all the laughs. And in a film that is nail-biting for its tension, the release that Arkin’s producer provides is welcome and memorable.
So you can stuff your think-piece questions. Sometimes it’s just the movie, stupid.
“Argo” opens nationwide October 12.