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The Contenders: Alan Arkin on 'Argo' and awards

November 08, 2012|By Glenn Whipp, Los Angeles Times
  • Alan Arkin adds a little comic relief in the hostage rescue drama "Argo."
Alan Arkin adds a little comic relief in the hostage rescue drama "Argo." (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

When Ben Affleck began casting his acclaimed political-thriller "Argo," the first number he dialed was Alan Arkin's. And the moment Arkin comes on screen as Lester Siegel, the past-his-prime schlock movie producer asked by the CIA to set up a fake movie project to help extract six Americans from Iran, you see why he topped Affleck's wish list. Arkin plays the showbiz satire straight, which makes the one-liners all the funnier, and he imbues his Hollywood has-been with the bone-deep knowledge that, in this town, appearances are everything. (Lester drives a gold Rolls Royce!)

At the Toronto International Film Festival's gala premiere, Affleck introduced Arkin as the "sweetest guy in the world even though he's always playing the cranky guy with the heart of gold." Sitting down with the 78-year-old Oscar winner not long after the screening, we learn quickly that Arkin can ramp up the cantankerousness with ease. Don't get him started, say, on the recent poll that named "Vertigo" as the greatest film of all time. "It's not even in the top 500," Arkin grouses. "It's not even Hitchcock's best! What has happened? What has happened to us?!?"

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But he can be a pussycat too, getting choked up at one point when talking about the familial aspects of "Argo" and the way it depicts an inventive, nonviolent solution to a perilous situation.

You've probably seen a number of guys like this producer you play in "Argo."

I've seen a hundred of them. All I had to do was change the costume.

You and John Goodman work as comic relief, but these guys feel real, not like caricatures. You sell it.

You knew from reading the script that it couldn't be done as just jokes. It had to be real crazy people.

And, like you said, you've seen a hundred of these crazies.

How we talk in the movie is how they talk. Everyone makes jokes about Hollywood. The more entrenched you are in the business, the more jokes you make about it.

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Justifiably so, right?

Absolutely. Hollywood is a ridiculous place!

Reminds me of the line in "Argo" about the movie business: "You come home, you can't wash it off."

My wife and I work very hard to have our souls not be owned by this industry, which is so easy. And I've seen seeds of it in myself over the years. You get sucked in. You see people chewed up. Nobody understands it.

When we first meet Lester, he's heading out to receive a lifetime achievement award, though he notes he'd "rather stay home and count the wrinkles on my dog's ...." You ever been so honored?

I live in Santa Fe [N.M.], and I got one there a couple of years ago. It was the last award of the evening, and people were giving half-hour speeches. So by the time I got up to say anything, it was 11:45 and everybody just wanted to go home, including me.

If memory serves, you held to that conviction when you won the Oscar for "Little Miss Sunshine."

I hadn't planned anything out. I didn't think I had a chance. And the night before, I woke up in the middle of the night and said, "Jesus! It's vaguely conceivable I might win. I better have something prepared."

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Why were you so pessimistic about your chances? People loved that movie.

You know why? It's about a bunch of people … that don't get along that in the end pull together because of an 8-year-old child. And the thing that makes it so potent is that it's not stated. It's the same with "Argo." There's something deeply loving about it. With all the aroma and bookends of violence, there's something deeply comforting and loving about the relationships between all of the principals. Again, it's subtle, but very present.

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

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