No matter how well we might prepare for an interview with an actor or filmmaker, no matter how thoughtful we think the questions are that we've assembled, there's always a possibility that all of that work will go out the window, simply because the interviewee does his or her job rather than thinks about it. Notwithstanding the possibility that there are some creative types who manage not to think much about anything, film critics and journalists (at least one of them) have a tendency to overthink the artistic process that their subjects intuitively embrace. As a result, the interview process becomes a push-pull of thoughts versus feelings, deconstruction versus submission, and all of that careful planning ends up being for nothing, if not doing more harm than good.
Alan Arkin has worked for over 50 years in Hollywood, with so many of the industry's greatest performers, and has played a range of roles that would seem to require a discipline and analysis that, well, only maybe a film critic or journalist would apply. As Cinematical recently discovered, however, Arkin is nothing if not an intuitive performer, tackling our questions with charm and cantankerousness as we drilled him about the finer point of playing Herb Lee, the husband-father figure for the title character in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. In addition to letting us know that we probably think too much about the acting process, he pointed out the needs and demands of acting for performers who know what they're doing, and reflected on a few of the films that he felt were most rewarding for him.
Cinematical: Pippa is initially and primarily defined as "the wife of an artist."
Alan Arkin: Well, he's a publisher. He'd like to think of himself as an artist, but he's not.
Cinematical: That's how Mike Binder's character describes her. Because she's seen and defined so much from the perspective of the other characters, what kind of work did you do to define yours?
Arkin: I don't remember (laughs). I don't remember where it started. But I don't agree with what you're saying though. She doesn't define herself. I think she looks for definition from other people who have a better view of her than she does, initially, and then I think it's very subliminal, it's never stated verbally, but I think it's pretty clear that at the end of the movie she's got a better opinion of herself than she's been allowing herself to have for many, many years. She's embarking on finding herself really I think for the very first time – who the inner Pippa Lee is.
Cinematical: Her character takes comfort in other people's perception of her. How does that work as a dynamic when you're on set together?
Arkin: Well, that's her business! That has nothing to do with me. It's like if you played the oboe in a symphony and a guy has some specific to do on the clarinet; that's his business. You've got to play your part. Her psychology has nothing to do with what my character is doing unless he's interested in her psychology, which he's not.
Cinematical: There's sort of a tenuous balance between your character and hers that's both husband and wife and more paternalistic. How did you balance that or did you think about it at all in terms of the way he relates to her?
Arkin: He likes to think of himself as being her mentor, that he's superior, that he has the wisdom that she looks for. I think his ego is weak enough that that's a source of enjoyment for him, being the mastermind and the wise one in the filmy. I think for a long time it worked, and then she probably got sick of it, and he probably got sick of it too.
Cinematical: There's a long history of older men mentoring younger women. Was there a conscious sense for you of trying to avoid or embrace a clichéd depiction of that?
Arkin: I wasn't doing either. I was just trying to play that character in that situation. I don't go around hamstringing myself by saying "I can't do this because someone else has done it before." I just tried to find out the truth of that guy in that specific situation. I don't know how else to answer it.
Cinematical: Well, how would you describe your approach to taking on roles?
Arkin: You're making this a very cerebral series of- very little of the acting that I do anymore is cerebral, or cerebral choices. It has to do with my intuition, my instincts, and my feelings. It's not something I go around thinking "I've got to do it this way because blah blah blah, somebody did a movie in 1943 and I don't want to copy him" or something. It's all intuitive and instinct by now, and feeling states. It's not an intellectual process for me. It's an intellectual process when it's not working. When it stops working, then I have to think a little bit, but if it's working, I just stay with my instincts or my feelings.
Cinematical: Well what then were your instincts when relating to two actresses playing the same character? Does the fact that they're at different ages or places in the character's life free you?
Arkin: I didn't have to consider it at all. There was certain dialogue that was in the script and I had certain people I was confronted with right in front of me. I had Blake who was confronting me and I had Robin who was confronting me; those were the two realities I was dealing with. It's simpler than what I'm hearing. I don't make an intellectual graph.
Cinematical: Of course. It's a film critic's nature to intellectualize the process. But do you think that because of your ability to work intuitively, that the work is as challenging or satisfying as it always was?
Arkin: Moreso because I have to nag myself less. I'm very happy to be done with all of the nagging that used to go on when I was first starting out, when I was studying and doing more intellectualizing. But it's like Louis Armstrong said. They asked him what is jazz, and he said, "if you have to ask the question, then you'll never find out."
Cinematical: How do you find roles? Or do they typically find you?
Arkin: Yeah. I don't go pounding the pavements anymore. My agent and manager send me scripts that they think have value for me, and I turn them down (laughs). And once in a while they browbeat me into taking something that I had misgivings about, but with their help I try to find a way of making them more exciting for myself than I initially saw- things like that.
Cinematical: What initially appealed to you about this character or this film?
Arkin: I just liked the world. I liked the world she presented. I thought it was a very intelligent world, albeit as screwed up as any other world out there, but in a much more intellectual way. I thought mostly along with that, the portrait of Pippa was really very rich and textured and unusual and subtle and very clear without being stated, ever – without being verbalized.
Cinematical: You've been able to play a really broad range of characters, especially in the last few years. Are those roles or is that variety easy to come by? Or are there roles now that are as interesting as the ones you played earlier in your career?
Arkin: Oh yeah. I never had a better role than I had in Little Miss Sunshine. That was one of my favorite roles ever. I feel like this is a very good role – a rich, textured guy with a lot of fear that he doesn't really state. Most of him was under the surface. Yeah, I have a film coming up in February that's a very complicated character that I love a lot that I can't really talk about yet because I haven't signed, but it's coming up. Uh, yeah – I feel very good about what's been going on.
Cinematical: Does the scale of the movies that you do matter? If someone contacted you and said "I want you to play John Cusack's dad in 2012" -
Arkin: If who wanted me to play what?
Cinematical: If someone wanted you to play John Cusack's father in the film 2012-
Arkin: I've worked with John Cusack so that would be appealing to me. I would like to work with him again. I don't know the movie.
Cinematical: I just mean working on a massive blockbuster as opposed to more intimate, character-driven stories.
Arkin: Sounds good to me! Throw it my way.
Cinematical: You've often contributed really interesting supporting roles. Do you feel like you've had as many chance to play a leading man as you'd like?
Arkin: It doesn't make any difference to me. If the character is interesting, it's interesting. I don't care how many scenes I have, it really doesn't matter. In a lot of ways I'm happy not to have to carry a movie. I makes me feel a lot freer; I feel like I have somewhat less responsibility on my end than if I had to carry a movie.
Cinematical: Do you find as you get older that the filmmaking gets more technical?
Arkin: Not in the films I've been doing. I mean, certainly this one is not – there's no special effects, it was very simply done. Little Miss Sunshine was certainly the same way. I have a piece in Andy Garcia's new movie, called City Island, which is also the same thing, which is people in their lives and done very simply. Everything has its own interests and its own challenges; I like big films and I like small ones too, for different reasons.
Cinematical: One of my favorite movies that you were in is Freebie and the Bean, which came out on DVD this year.
Arkin: For the first time?
Cinematical: Yeah. Do you have any particular memories of that?
Arkin: Mostly nightmares. Well, Jimmy [Caan] and I had a good time together, but we didn't have a good time with the director. I think at the end of the first week, we said, "don't talk to us anymore." He put us in a couple of really hairy, dangerous situations, and we stopped trusting him after awhile. But we hung to each other very closely. And I loved working with Valerie Harper in that; a lot of my favorite stuff from that was with Valerie, the two scenes that we had together. That remains very high on my list of favorite times I've had with an actor.
Cinematical: The scene where you slowly discover she's not cheating on you is just wonderful.
Arkin: I wish more had happened with her. She did some wonderful work. She was very gifted.
Cinematical: Other than Little Miss Sunshine do you have any particular favorite experiences or films?
Arkin: I love that kind of character, the character I play in Little Miss Sunshine. I have a real soft spot in my heart for him. I played a character like him in a movie called Joshua: Then and Now, which was another one of my favorite characters. If that was a slot, that was a slot I like a lot – really stupid people who pontificate a lot (laughs). I don't know why but I love people like that. I don't like being with them but I love playing them.