Oliver Platt vs. Richard Nixon
by Paul Fischer
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Oliver Platt is as comfortable playing a comic buffoon as well as savvy political analyst. The veteran 48-year old has appeared in close to 50 films, from the early likes of Working Girl and The Three Musketeers to Casanova, Pieces of April and his acclaimed work on the TV series’ The West Wing and Huff. Never out of work, the actor will next be seen as Bob Zelnick in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, co-stars in the as yet untitled Nicole Holofcener project, plays a High Priest opposite Jack Black in The Year One and is also in next summer’s disaster movie 2012. If that’s not enough, Platt is excited about his return to the stage as the star of the new Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, all of which the actor discussed with Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: This is a supporting role. Were you attracted to the overall piece?
Oliver Platt: Yeah, totally. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? I thought it was a great piece of writing. I read it in one sitting. That doesn’t happen a lot, And not just because I’m such a quote-unquote “busy guy.” I mean it’s not often you sit down and read a script cover to cover. Even if it’s really good, usually it’s a couple sittings. And I was just fascinated by it. I think Peter Morgan’s on to something. It’s like, I had the same feeling when I sat down to watch The Queen. It was like, “Oh my God, what a fascinating idea.” Like, “Why didn’t I think of this, what a brilliant idea for a story.” I think he has an amazing nose for a story and especially in this kind of political milieu that he does. I mean, come on, to construct a nail-biter, basically, out of an interview between two people, a series of interviews that happens between two people 30 years ago? I think that’s pretty remarkable.
PF: How much did you know about Zelnick before you took this on?
OP: About Zelnick? Very little. I remembered his name, from the evening news, but I didn’t know a lot about him.
PF: Was it easy to do the research for this, then?
OP: Well, I went to meet Bob, talked to him on the phone a few times, and I drove up to Boston to have a lunch. He’s a lovely guy and very helpful, but Ron and I decided that it’s crazy to waste a lot of energy kind of doing Zelnick. He’s not a known—he wasn’t, nor did he aspire to be some sort of personality journalist. There would have been a lot of wasted effort. So really, what was really fun was to kind of immerse yourself in the kind of research that they’d immersed themselves in. And not because I’m any sort of method actor, but because that was what the job called for. Also, Ron wanted to do a certain amount of improvised footage, and so we had to really have our bags packed, in terms of understanding the situation, and if we’re having a brainstorming session about what questions come up with, you’d need to know what to say. By the way, it was really fun to do. It’s always fun to dig down into a topic like that, that—you always thought you knew so much about, but you really didn’t.
PF: There’s not a lot of comedy in this, and you provide some of that through your impersonation of Nixon. Did you do any kind of studying of Nixon?
OP: No, because I wanted to make sure—it was not supposed to be a good impression. There’s enough Nixon floating around, especially if you grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, but Bob Zelnick’s not an actor. I think the point is, is that it wasn’t a very good impression.
PF: Do you remember that whole period?
OP: Well, I tell you, I do—there are moments that I remember. I mean, the truth is, is that I wasn’t old enough to be obsessed by it, but my parents certainly were. And I remember images of, like, sweaty John Dean—during the hearings. And, obviously remember when he resigned. Or—the image of the helicopter and not just because we’ve seen them so much, but the thing that I unequivocally remember—because I was actually living in Japan at the time, when he resigned. We were driving to Mount Fuji to do a sightseeing—Mount Fuji was our tourist destination. I was living in Tokyo at the time, because, my dad was a career diplomat. My mom and dad pulled the car over and when the news came over, to listen, they said to us, I was in the backseat with my two brothers. And they said, “You really want to pay attention, because this just doesn’t happen that often.” Of course, we already were paying attention, because they pulled the car over.
PF: One of the things that struck me in this movie is that it’s not—it doesn’t need to be particularly cinematic. It is very much about the characters, and about the situation. How do you define Ron as a director, particularly on something like this?
OP: I’ve always wanted to work with Ron, because I think he’s so good at so many different things and I admire tremendously how he kind of liked to take on different genres. I think Ron took the thing incredibly seriously, yet understood that he wanted to make it an entertainment, knew that we were constructing an entertainment, yet wanted to be very true to the people, especially the two protagonists. It’s a pretty ballsy thing, to take a very successful play and turn it into a movie. I mean, there’s a lot of room for error there. And like a lot of my favorite directors, his really great work is the work that you don’t see in it. It’s the stuff he chose not to do.
PF: Given what’s happened to this country in the last four to six years, under this current administration, and given Ron’s own obvious political leanings—do you think much has changed since this period?
OP: Well, I’m sorry to say no, but I think it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the lack of transparency in this administration that’s in its final months, and the one that Nixon presided over. It’s impossible not to miss that. I think it gives this movie a lot of resonance.
PF: Do you think it’s timely for that reason, then?
OP: I do, but I think it’s just a resonance. I think that this movie stands on its own, because it’s just such a fascinating story about these two—and that, to me, is very interesting. Like, I’d be very interested to see, how would this thing stand alone? I’d like to think it would. But not being objective, I can’t answer the question. Like, two kids in their 20s would watch this thing who didn’t grow up with Nixon. What would they think? I mean, like I say, it’s a freaking page-turner.
PF: Did Frank insist on you calling him Mr. President while he was on the set?
OP: Certainly did. Certainly did.
QUESTION. Did that kind of surprise you, and did it help you?
OP: Well, it’s not for me, it’s for him. I mean, the thing is, Ron very much—it really didn’t end up having a lot of bearing on us, because Ron kept the two camps very much apart on the set. He really didn’t want us to mingle. I mean, I’m surprised he didn’t have, like, separate craft services and makeup trailers for us, But he really encouraged—he said, “I really don’t want you guys to hang out together.” The people on the Frost team and on the Nixon team. And so we rarely—we actually rarely saw them, And it’s tough, because Kevin Bacon’s an old buddy of mine. Every now and then, he’d kind of play hooky and come and talk to us, but we had to keep it on the down low.
PF: You’ve obviously continued to be incredibly busy. Are you selective in what you do, or — do you try to be selective in what you take on?
OP: I try to be selective and I like to think I’m somewhat selective. I mean, I need to be interested on some level by what I do, And so, yes, I like to think that I’m selective. But, I don’t want to be laughed at. Listen, I have—I like to work on all different kinds of stuff…
PF: And I can see that that’s been going on with you. I mean, your—
OP: Totally. I mean, right now, I’m still working on a Roland Emmerich movie.
PF: I can’t see that! I mean, that seems like a very odd combo. This is—is that 2012?
OP: Yes, 2012.
PF: Who do you play in that?
OP: I’m the White House Chief of Staff.
PF: Wow. You’re the go-to now for political movies, for politicians.
OP: There you go. See? It’s not that hard to imagine. [laughs]
PF: Is it a disaster movie of sorts?
OP: Oh, that’s the understatement, pal. That’s the understatement of the year. No, 2012 is the final year in the Mayan calendar. The world ends in 2012, according to the Mayan prophecy. It’s really interesting. And if you on the Internet and you Google 2012, you get, like, 200 hits before you even get to our movie. It’s amazing how many people that I talk to—they know—I tell ‘em I’m working on a movie called 2012, and they go, “Oh my God. You mean about the Mayan prophecy?” I’m like—I had no idea about the damn Mayan prophecy. It’s kind of unsettling, actually. Paul, I’ve met two different people—and I’m not joking—who are planning to have parties on top of pyramids. On 2012. On—whatever it is, 12-12-2012. I’m like, “Well, you call me after, all right?”
PF: Is this a tentpole movie? Is it, like, a really big film?
OP: Oh, it better be. It’s huge. It’s a huge movie, yeah.
PF: Do you enjoy that experience? Is it like being a kid in a candy store?
OP: Well, I mean, the truth is, it’s very easy to make these kind of dismissive statements. The few people working on this movie are incredibly smart. And there’s a tremendous amount of rigor applied to every scene, and they’re very inclusive about listening to what we think. It’s just—put it this way, it’s really fun to work on, And—I mean, my only regret is that I don’t get to do more silly blue-screen acting. I’ve always wanted to do, like, running from flaming boulders. And because I’m in the White House, I don’t get to do that crap.
PF: You’re on physical sets, I take it.
OP: Which I’m upset about. Oh, I’m totally physically fit. I just—that’s—beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the point is, it’s not in the script for me. I’m kind of running things behind the scenes. I don’t get to do any fantastic, like, flaming dinosaurs crawling up my bottom, or anything.
PF: I take it that the Nicole Holofcener movie is another big tent pole, special effects movie.
OP: Yeah, exactly. No, but I mean, that was—again, that’s why I’m a lucky guy, though. I get to do—that was really fun to do. Come on. Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall?
PF: Do you have a romantic leading lady in this? Are you a romantic? Are you involved in one of the romantic subplots?
OP: You know what? I don’t want to give it away. It’s kind of a surprise. Just watch the movie. Then we’ll talk about it later, after you’ve seen it.
PF: Her films tend to go to Sundance. Do you think this movie will be ready in time?
OP: fingers crossed. That obviously is a natural match, and she’s had a lot of success there.
PF: And then you’ve got this very tragic Shakespearean drama called The Year One.
OP: Exactly. Well, check it out. I literally figured this out yesterday. I was telling somebody—somebody asked me what I’d been doing. And I went, “Hold on. I’ve got a movie in the same year about the beginning of the world, and the end of the world. Year One and 2012.” And I started shooting Year One in February. And I’ve been shooting 2012 for three months, and it took me this long to figure it out. But, Paul, you know what is far and away the most exciting thing that I got coming up? Is I’m going to go Guys and Dolls on Broadway. That might not be so exciting to you. And the timing is perfect, because I wrap 2012, like, December sixth. And then we start rehearsals December 15th.
PF: Who are you in Guys and Dolls?
OP: I’m Nathan Detroit.
QUESTION: You’re the star of the show.
OP: Well, there’s a bunch of us figures. But it’s fun to be one of ‘em.
PF: Who else is in it with you?
OP: Lauren Graham is gonna be Adelaide, and that’s all I know.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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