The Stars of Argo

Ben AffleckThere’s already Oscar chatter swirling around Ben Affleck’s Iran Crisis story Argo, a tale so strange not even Hollywood could make it up.

Directed by and starring Affleck as CIA extractor Tony Mendez, Argo is the story of a CIA operation to create a fake movie as a front to get six US embassy workers out of Tehran after the political scene shifts in 1979 and makes Iran a very dangerous place to be.

Aided by his boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston), Mendez enlists the help of grouchy, sarcastic Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) [Chambers, who won acclaim for his work on 1968’s Planet of The Apes, actually did donate his skills to the CIA several times].

Setting up what looks to the outside world like a real movie allows Mendez to fly into Tehran, issue fake credentials and identities to the six Americans in hiding, and pose as a film crew scouting locations before hopefully leaving the country undiscovered.

Arkin, Goodman and Cranston talked about working with Affleck, each other and real versus fake fakery in Hollywood in Los Angeles.

You seem to have a talent for selecting great scripts. How do you choose what you’re going to do next?

John Goodman: This is a really good script, I’m very lucky.

What drew you to it?

How good it was. It was that good I just wanted to be part of it.

Your scenes about Hollywood are funny, but how true were they?

Alan Arkin: It’s what goes on in any business, it’s not particular to Hollywood. It’s not even comic relief. We’re a section of the film where the same story is being told but we’re under less pressure than everybody else, that’s the only difference, our lives are not are stake.

This is an ensemble piece. Are we entering a new era in filmmaking where you don’t need big stars to sell a movie?

John Goodman: In 1968 they said the same thing, so it’s cyclical. Dustin Hoffman did The Graduate and everybody said ‘the day of the movie star is dead’. It’ll happen again.

That raises the point of how much experience you both have and how much things have changed.

Alan Arkin: When I got into the business everything was up for grabs, it was like they shot off a shotgun and anything that fell down to the earth got directed in the early 70s.

Everybody was trying to imitate European films and they didn’t know how because they didn’t have the specific points of view of directors like Godard. It worked some of the time but not always.

Then the country became corporate and that’s what happened with the film industry, even independent films have been taken over by the studios to a large extent.

John Goodman: There’s more media coverage of the industry than there ever has been, to a suffocating degree.

Alan Arkin: Also nobody ever knew or cared about the box office either, now it’s the first thing you hear about. The only thing that really makes any difference is if you’re affected by a movie or not. Did it move you or not move you? That’s the only thing that matters.

You’re also working with far less experienced collaborators at this stage in both your careers.

Alan Arkin: Makes no difference. When I did Little Miss Sunshine I was working with an 8-year-old girl who was as consummate a pro and anyone I’ve worked with.

How did you agree on the tone and how funny to make the Hollywood scenes?

Alan Arkin: Ben and I had a phone conversation and he wanted to know how I felt about the humour in the film. I said it can’t be winking at the audience, the humour has to come from the characters and the situation. Nobody’s making jokes, just real people in a real situation. That’s what he needed and he was right.

How does the Oscar buzz affect you?

John Goodman: I got no stake. I’d love to see them do well but that’s so far out of my realm and control I don’t know anything about it. I’ll have fun watching it in my pyjamas.

Bryan, you took a long time to ‘arrive’ as an actor, now you’re everywhere. What changed?

Bryan Cranston: No career in this business – whether you’re an actor, writer or director – can ever happen without a healthy dose of luck.

Ten years ago I was on an episode of X Files, and that’s where I met Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad creator], and Breaking Bad’s the reason I’m sitting in this chair. But when I got the X Files part I was writing and directing my own personal little movie out in the desert of California called Last Chance. I kept pushing it out longer and longer and I was only in LA for three days when I got a call from my agent saying ‘I know you’re busy but do you want to do an episode of the X Files?’

I got the job. I met Vince. He remembered the character I played from that episode and thought it would be perfect for Breaking Bad. I could’ve easily still been out of town and some other actor would’ve done that, then got Breaking Bad and then got this role. It was a lesson in fate.

What do you think people love about Breaking Bad?

Historically, television has always been about staying the same. When you tune into a TV show you can count on that character being the same guy every week – handling different issues, but the same guy.

Vince had this idea, what if we make people uncomfortable? Will they still watch? It was an experiment. We didn’t know, but we thought if we stay honest and true and watched a man dissolve from a good person to a bad person and making hasty, desperate and bad but honest decisions, the audience would stay with him all the way to hell because that’s where I’m dragging them to.

How did Argo come to you?

Ben and Grant [Heslov, co-producer with George Clooney] said they’d like to see me, which translates to ‘audition’. Even though you’re not actually reading dialogue, it’s an audition. Even if an agents tell you, ‘Oh no, it’s not an audition, it’s just a meeting,’ it’s always an audition.

And just like Breaking Bad I just went in and pitched the hell out of Jack O’Donnell. I said he’s this, this, and this. He should weigh this much. He should have this silly moustache and do this.

Since Breaking Bad you’ve done everything from comedy musicals [Rock Of Ages] to hard-hitting drama. How easy is it to switch?

It’s part of being a chameleon, that’s what I consider myself. I love to act so I like the idea of being able to hide out in a character.

What do you make of the Oscar buzz?

You can have a great story and it still might not resonate with people. It’s so delicate. It’s a soufflé. You might have all the right ingredients and everything, good cast, the script is good and there was support and it just falls flat. We don’t know why.

That’s what’s great about art, it’s so subjective. Ultimately it’s the judgment of the people that will say whether or not something’s good. So I can sit here and say I love Argo, I think it has a lot to say and it’s very effective, but my opinion on that isn’t really important. The opinions that counts will be the people who either go to see it or don’t.