Alan Arkin Gets Smart
by Paul Fischer
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Alan Arkin has been making us laugh for close to four decades in many a seminal classic from the likes of The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming to Freebie and the Bean and The In Laws. Yet his career has enjoyed something of a remarkable rejuvenation with his Oscar-winning turn in the surprise hit, Little Miss Sunshine. At a very youthful 74, the actor is in full career mode and as busy as ever, such as his role of the Chief, that legendary boss of one Maxwell Smart, in the new Get Smart movie. But as he explained to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview, he still has certain criteria as to his movie choices these days.
Paul Fischer: Was there a degree of reticence on your part to take on such an iconic character?
Alan Arkin: No. None whatsoever.
AA: Yeah. I didn’t know he was an iconic character. I’d never seen the show, and I’d never heard much about it. So I wasn’t that daunted.
PF: What was the appeal, then, for you to do this?
AA: The script, and working with Steve again.
PF: And this is a very different kettle of fish from Sunshine.
AA: Oh, yeah. Very, very.
PF: Were you more encouraged to improv on this?
AA: We didn’t—no. We weren’t encouraged, and we didn’t need to. Every once in a while it just happened spontaneously, but not very often. We had a really good script, and we were happy to stay with it. I mean, I love improv, and I’ve used it in a lot of movies, but if something’s working, why play with it?
PF: Was Mel Brooks ever on set when you were working?
PF: So you never heard from him?
AA: They had a special screening for him a couple weeks ago, and he apparently liked it a lot.
PF: What is the secret of doing a movie like this? It’s part satire, and part, I guess, action.
AA: It’s a very difficult—it’s a tightrope walk.
PF: So what’s the success for you, in doing a comedy like this? Is it playing it completely straight and believable?
AA: Oh, I feel like that’s the answer to everything. I mean, you’ve got to do everything that way, unless it’s Jim Carrey, you can get away from doing something completely different. But I think almost invariably, you’ve got to be absolutely true to the character, and the reality and the seriousness of the thing you’re doing.
PF: Little Miss Sunshine was a huge turning point in your career. You wanted to do the role from the beginning?
AA: The minute I read it, I flipped out for it.
PF: Did you think that it would be the kind of thing that it ended up?
AA: Well, I never do. I never know what’s going to happen. I mean, if I had a crystal ball, I’d be the head of a studio and pulling my hair out.
PF: Are you surprised that your career has kind of—not that it’s ever been particularly lax at all, but it seems to have undergone this extraordinary rejuvenation. Do you feel that?
AA: I’m working—I am—I feel I’m working a little more. But I’ve always worked, so I don’t. I don’t know how to answer it.
PF: What do you look for in a script that you maybe didn’t look for 30 years ago?
AA: I look for a script that doesn’t have long, long speeches. [laughs] I look for a script that there’s no night shooting. And I look for a script that I don’t have to talk in any foreign language any more. That’s what I look for in a script.
PF: Are these easy to come by?
AA: Yeah. [laughs] Fairly, yeah.
PF: Do you ever look back at your early work and see the young Alan Arkin, and your own evolution as an actor? Are you aware of your own evolution?
AA: Am I a historian of my own career?
PF: Of your own career, yeah.
AA: No. No.
PF: Why? And what do you see when you—when Russians is on television, or any of those classic movies?
AA: I sort of—I love that film. When I see it—I watch it once every 30 years or so, but I don’t spend a lot of time digging into my own archives.
PF: Do you think the industry’s changed dramatically since you started?
AA: It feels—I mean, I can’t say for sure, because I don’t watch it. But from being in the stuff I’m in, I feel like there’s a lot less sense of community than there was, than there started out being. The early films I made, there was a sense of—more of a sense of everybody working together and having fun together. And that doesn’t seem as prevalent today.
PF: Do you think that Hollywood has become far to corporate-ized?
AA: The whole culture is. See, people talk about Hollywood as if it’s an entity unto itself. What goes on in Hollywood is a microcosm of what’s going on in the whole rest of the country. So, it is not an industry unto itself. It’s following what all the other industries in the country are doing. The same thing. It’s more and more run by numbers, and not about people.
PF: But you still enjoy the process of acting now.
AA: I enjoy it, if it’s with people who want to play and have a good time.
PF: I’m wondering how difficult it is to find that sense of enjoyment now. I mean, do you find it difficult to find a group of people who are willing to do that?
AA: More—it’s harder than it was 40 years ago, but you can still find it.
PF: You obviously had that with Get Smart.
PF: You also get to do some physical stuff in this movie.
AA: I do!
PF: Did you enjoy being able to kick some butt for a change?
AA: Oh, yeah. I liked beating up the Vice President. Who wouldn’t like to do that?
PF: What are your aspirations at this point? Are you planning on to do some writing, for example?
AA: My main aspiration is to get a really good remote control that can control all the devices in my house simultaneously.
PF: [laughs] Are you going to write your autobiography?
AA: My autobiography? No.
PF: Why? Have you been asked?
AA: I’m not that interested. I mean, I did all that stuff. I know it, and I don’t want to rehash it.
PF: What are you working on next?
AA: I don’t have anything.
PF: You’re taking a break?
AA: Yeah. I have four movies in the can. I just gotta lie down.
PF: What’s the next one that’s coming out, you think?
AA: My guess is that the next one is a movie called Sunshine Cleaning, with Emily Blunt and Amy Adams.
PF: Who do you play in that?
AA: I play their father. They play sisters, and I play their father.
PF: And are you signed up for a Get Smart sequel?
AA: Yes. If there is one, hopefully I’ll be in it.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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