Alan Arkin is not an actor who seeks individual glory. But that hasn’t prevented the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from singling him out several times. This year, Arkin has again been nominated for an Oscar, this time as best supporting actor for his work in the critically acclaimed “Argo.” It is the 78-year-old actor’s fourth Oscar nod; his first was for his feature-film acting debut, starring in the 1966 Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.” Arkin won his only Oscar for his supporting role in the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” which also won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This year, the cast of “Argo” received that same award, which was particularly rewarding for him, as it is his work as part of an ensemble that the actor finds most satisfying.
Currently on location in New Orleans filming “Grudge Match,” alongside Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, Arkin spoke by phone about his role in “Argo” as well as the importance of being able to gel well with his fellow cast members when selecting a project.
“If I’m going to be working closely with an actor, it’s very important that it’s somebody that I can be congenial with, that I can have a rapport with and not feel like that if my character has to touch them that they’re going to be antsy about it,” Arkin said. “Or if I can jump on their lines, or they can jump on my lines, yes, it’s very important to me. Maybe ultimately the most important thing about a project to me is how comfortable and flexible I can be with the people I’m working with.”
Arkin said he finds the idea of a solo performance being singled out as “the best,” and competition in general, unappealing. “The winning and the losing is all isolating and it’s nonsense,” he said. “I don’t know who’s got the right to say this is better than that. You can say that in a horse race. You can look at a horse and say, ‘This horse came in first, and this one came in second,’ but I don’t know how you have a right to do that with performances. One person’s meat is another person’s fish.”
Arkin’s long and diverse career began in the 1950s, not as an actor at first, but as a musician. Although he became intrigued with acting when he was only 5, it was music legends such as Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson who influenced his musical ambitions. Arkin’s parents, David and Beatrice, who were of Russian and German decent, often hosted famous figures from the folk music world at their home, which inspired Arkin to form a calypso combo called the Tarriers in the mid-’50s.
A few years later, Arkin moved to Chicago and joined the famous Second City troupe, where he honed his skills in improvisation and comedy. Although he has received critical acclaim for his dramatic roles in films such as “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and “Wait Until Dark,” the consummate character actor is often most attracted to films with a comedic disposition. “My favorite films are serious comedies,” Arkin said. “If I had to pick one genre, it would be comedies with something serious to say, like “The Russians Are Coming” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” But the older I get, the more I like to work in comedy.”
“Argo” would fit in to that category, although it was much more than the film’s comedic element that appealed to him. “Everything worked,” Arkin said. “The character, the script, the director, and it was a story that worked. It was the entire package. It was exciting and interesting. My favorite thing about a project is when everything works together, and you can’t pull it apart.”
“Argo” is based on the actual events and people surrounding the CIA’s rescue of six American embassy workers from Iran during the midst of that country’s 1979 revolution, by having them pose as a production crew scouting locations for a phony Canadian film project.
Alan Arkin in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” his first film. Photo © 1966, United Artists
One of the controversies surrounding this year’s Oscar race is the omission of Ben Affleck on the list of best director nominees for his work on “Argo.” It’s a snub that has become even more puzzling since Affleck’s win for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild, as Arkin pointed out.
“I haven’t got a clue what it means or what it comes out of. He’s won every award in the universe. It’s a complete mystery to me, as it is to everybody else. I don’t believe in it anyway, to tell you the truth,” he added. “I think the nomination, to me, is the really exciting part, because it puts you in a group with people who you admire, and it turns it into a shared communal experience.”
In “Argo,” Arkin plays the role of film producer Lester Siegel, who helps the CIA operative, played by Affleck, pull off the charade. Although Siegel’s character is a fictional composite, Arkin revealed that he based his performance on two real-life filmmakers — director/producer Sydney Pollack and legendary studio chief Jack L. Warner.
“I just relish a good character,” he said of his process of delving into any role. “I don’t care what his profession is particularly. If the character is alive, then he’s alive. It’s my job to make the character alive, no matter if he’s a dentist or a street cleaner or the president of a company. To me, it’s the internal life of the character that’s important, not what the job is. I have fun with a well-written character.”
Writer Chris Terrio’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Argo” is littered with memorable one-liners, many of them delivered by Arkin. But while great dialogue is always attractive to an actor, the ensemble-loving Arkin returned again to the importance for him of how characters he plays are integrated into the production, as a whole.
“I don’t need to have the best lines in the movie. I need to have lines that define a character, that help give me the picture of what his role is in the entire event. But I don’t need to be the best thing in something. That’s not what I look for.”