Little Miss Sunshine costar Alan Arkin was feted last night (12.19) by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Fox Searchlight, and it’s probably safe to say that everyone there realized (or was reminded of) the same two things. One, Arkin’s comic personality is undiminished — he’s still harboring the confessional, neurotic, New York Jewish worry-wart aspects — and two, keeping in touch with this side of himself has made his acting vital and alive and, when he feels like turning on the spigots, funny as hell.
At Tuesday night’s Alan Arkin tribute at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theatre (l. to r.): Little Miss Sunshine costars Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Arkin; Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice
I was there and recorded his on-stage chat with associate director of programming Kent Jones. I didn’t think to start recording until about 10 minutes in, but there’s plenty of good stuff here. (Jones’ question at the very beginning sounds a little faint, so here it is: “What was it like to make the transition from theatre to film?”)
The event, of course, was about reminding everyone that Arkin is both touching and a riot as Sunshine‘s ornery, heroin-snorting grandfather. His performance feels like a near-lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, or so it seems to me. I was just as enamored of Steve Carell and Paul Dano‘s work in Sunshine, but Arkin delivers the heart and the biggest laughs. Plus he’s long overdue — he was nominated for Best Actor in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (’66) and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (’68) but lost both times.
Asked to define the difference between comedy and tragedy, he quoted an old Mel Brooks line: “A tragedy is I’m walking down a street and I fall into a manhole. A comedy is you’re walking down a street and you fall into a manhole.”
He talked about Catch 22, in which he starred as Joseph Heller‘s reluctant bom- bardier Yoassarian, in mostly disparaging terms. He hasn’t seen it in years but remembers it as a muddled effort that he didn’t much care for. Photography, lighting and production design concerns took forever to set up, he said (it took almost an entire week for a shot of him walking up an outdoor staircase in Rome), he felt off-balance about how to play his part, and director Mike Nichols had an “imperious” air about him.
Arkin’s biggest regret, financially speaking, was getting cast by director Steven Soderbergh in Ocean’s 11, and then getting sick and regretfully backing out. The role was filled by Carl Reiner, who benefitted big-time because of the hefty salary times three.’
He said that his next film, which will roll film in Alberquerque in Feburary, is Sunshine Cleaning, a comedy about a dad who runs a crime-scene cleaning business and his two daughters, to be played by Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and Amy Adams (Junebug). Christine Jeffs (Rain, Sylvia) will direct from a script by Megan Holley. Peter Saraf (Little Miss Sunshine) is producing. Arkin called it “a sweet little script — no blue screen, no franchise.”
Working with director Norman Jewison on The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming “was so wonderful [that it] ruined me for the next bunch of films,” Arkin said.
Asked by an audience member to name his three favorite characters, the 72 year- old actor said, “I can hardly name three characters I played any more. I can’t remember anything and I’m proud of it. I can’t hear anything and I can’t remember anything…and it’s fun! I used to be the most comfortable with foreigners and outsiders because I felt like an outsider myself. Now I feel most comfortable playing morons who spout philosophy. The character in Little Miss Sunshine, I could play him for the rest of my life — a foul-mouthed moron who has answers to everything.
“I used to suffer with my characters. I used to pace the room and live with them 24 hours a day. Now I just want to have a good time. Jean Renoir once said, I used to have great messages to send to the world. Now I just want to send the world my love. Anything else is just dumping on people.”
“Paying people to be your therapist doesn’t work because at the end of the day you’re standing in the same mode. This crazy profession is nuts…the emotional life of the character [you’re playing] has to affect you in some way. Andy Garcia once told me I can’t become a peaceful person…if I do, how can I play the darker colors? Yeats said the same thing — going into analysis would hurt his raw material too much.”
After the interview ended and Little Miss Sunshine began to screen, Fox Searchlight publicists herded everyone (Arkin and his family, Jones, Sunshine costar Abigail Breslin and her parents, Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice, Saraf, myself, director-writer James Toback) over to Shun Lee for a big delicious dinner that lasted a couple of hours. A great evening all around.