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Jewish Journal

Alan Arkin—not just another kid From Brooklyn

by Pat Sierchio

February 15, 2007 | 7:00 pm

"I can say what I want. I still got Nazi bullets in my ass!"

Such acerbic rants by Grandpa Hoover pretty much sum up the foul-mouthed, drug-sniffing, sex-crazed curmudgeon Alan Arkin plays in the Oscar-nominated film, "Little Miss Sunshine." Alan Arkin

The performance is one that Arkin has been widely lauded for, and the actor admits to identifying closely with the character. "I think he was a musician. I think he left his family very early on to travel around the country. He liked the ladies, and he liked to have a good time and avoid responsibilities," Arkin said.

Arkin is no more a stranger to playing curmudgeons than he is to receiving award nominations. Aside from his Academy Award nod for best supporting actor, Arkin's performance in "Little Miss Sunshine" has garnered nominations that include the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), BAFTA and the Independent Spirit Awards.

While the "Little Miss Sunshine" cast won SAG's ensemble prize on Jan. 28 and Arkin took BAFTA's best supporting actor on Feb. 11, it's the work, not the awards, that interests him.

"I'm not crazy about the idea of competition; I don't think it's healthy," he told The Journal.

Healthy or not, Arkin earned his first Academy Award nomination in 1966 for his feature film debut in the commie comedy, "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming." Oscar recognized him again two years later as best actor for his touching dramatic portrayal of a deaf-mute in "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Although he is rarely cast in a leading role, Arkin consistently stands out in an ensemble cast, even among a cast of outstanding actors like Jack Lemmon and Al Pacino, with whom he co-starred in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Over his 40-year career, the consummate character actor has played a variety of ethnic roles, including several Jewish characters in films such as "The In-Laws" (1979), "Joshua Then and Now" (1985) and "The Slums of Beverly Hills" (1998). As actor and director, Arkin also racked up numerous accolades for his extensive work in theater and television, found time to write and perform popular music, as well as author a few children's books. Alan Arkin may have started out as just another Jewish kid from Brooklyn, but the cultural influences that fertilized his impressionable young psyche cultivated a modern renaissance man.

Jewish Journal: As an accomplished actor, director, author, musician and composer, do you consider yourself compulsively creative?

Alan Arkin: (laughs) Not anymore, but I guess I used to be.

JJ: Is it true that you began studying acting when you where 10 years old?

AA: Yes, but I wanted to be an actor since I was 5.

JJ: What influenced you at that age?

AA: I spent a lot of time with my father, who took me to the Thalia movie theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I practically learned how to read watching foreign films. I watched Russian, German and Italian films, and it became clear to me to me at a very early age that we're basically all the same. There are cultural differences, but the similarities between people were much more important to me than the things that separated us.

JJ: And it's that realization that drew you to acting?

AA: That and seeing that my father was enormously affected by the movies we'd see. He was so affected, he used to yell in the movies. I think one of my deepest desires was to have an affect on him.

JJ: And did you?

AA: Not that I was aware of, but he lived long enough to see my success.

JJ: Did your parents emigrate here from Europe?

AA: My parents were born here. My mother's father came from Odessa and settled in New York, in Brooklyn. I lived there with my parents till I was 11, then we moved to Los Angeles.

JJ: Where did your musical influences come from?

AA: There was music in our house all the time. My mother played the piano and my uncle was a pretty well-known composer. There were people coming over to our house all the time; they played guitars, piano and sang. Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson were all at the house. I met all these people. Music was part of our everyday life.

JJ: It doesn't seem like you were raised in a traditional Jewish household.

AA: No I didn't have a traditional Jewish upbringing. There was no emphasis on religion. My grandfather used to read Sholom Aleichem a lot. There was no running away from the fact that we were Jewish, but no big emphasis on being Jewish. We had people of all races and all religions at the house at all times. I was aware of myself as being Jewish, but also aware of myself being part of a larger worldwide community. I grew up being part of a kind of international family.

JJ: Did that help in your ability to play a diversity of ethnic characters?

AA: I suppose growing up with all kinds of people I knew with the help of my parents, my focus was on the things that we all have in common, other than the things that separated us. I focused on the things we had in common with everybody everywhere.

JJ: Did you purposely seek out ethnic or Jewish roles?

AA: I haven't purposely sought out anything. I suppose I received roles that were Jewish. I take the most interesting parts to come along. I look for good directors, if I can find them. I care more about being in a piece that has integrity, a sense of something that makes a positive statement more than I care about anything else. I like films that can't be easily categorized.

JJ: Like "Little Miss Sunshine?" AA: Yes.

JJ: Is there a character that you've played that you strongly identify with?

AA: I identify very much with this guy, Mr. Hoover from "Little Miss Sunshine."

JJ: You identify with the patriarch of a dysfunctional family?

AA: That's an easy word that people throw around a lot. Every family's a dysfunctional family. There's a great old Chinese saying that says, "No one can put a plaque over their front door that says, 'There are no problems here."'

JJ: You were somewhat of a nomad as a young man.

AA: I moved around a lot, that's what actors do until we get a career that roots us somewhere. I got a scholarship to a college in Vermont, left to play folk music, got a job in St. Louis at the Compass Theatre for a while and then went to Chicago 'cause I got a job there with Second City.

JJ: Do you think the comedic improvisation you studied at Second City helped you hone your craft?

AA: I was with Second City for two years, but it felt like 30. It was incredibly dense and compacted, like a whole lifetime of study. Improvisation is very much a part of my work. I think people recognize that when they hire me. That's part of the way I work, and nobody seems to be afraid of it. I don't like to improvise on camera, but I like to use it as kind of a rehearsal technique, helping to sometimes get the dialogue a little richer.

JJ: I understand that you don't place a lot of importance on awards?

AA: Only when I lose. [laughs] There's no such thing as the best performance; it's arbitrary. What makes something the best performance? When you get 100 people who say this is the best performance, and they're all kind of titillated by that performance, and there's another performance that changed 15 people's lives, what's the gauge? Because 500 people like something, does that make it better than something that three people like?

JJ: I've read that you have a great affection for films from the 1930s and 1940s. Do you feel they made better films then?

AA: Part of the reason is that there was a greater community then. When they talk about "Little Miss Sunshine," they talk about the great ensemble work. Well, that comes to me as a shock. I feel like every film should be great ensemble work. I have no interest in a film where one or two people are featured and everyone else is kind of a wash, you can put anybody in it and it doesn't make much difference. The films of the '30s and '40s, and particularly people like Frank Capra, were at the forefront of this. There could be 100 characters and you remember every one of them. The minute they come on the film, they have something definitive and memorable to contribute. I was a huge, huge admirer of [Jean] Renoir, who epitomized this sense of community. You want to jump up on the screen and be a part of what's going on. It was so rich and loving, such an extraordinary rich tapestry of life. I think all films should be like that.

Pat Sierchio is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, West. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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