‘Argo's’ Alan Arkin Is Only in It for Fun

Alan Arkin on "Argo," moviemaking in the '70s and why the best thing about an Oscar nomination is the soap and shampoo

Alan Arkin has been acting since he was 10, which gives him 68 years in his current profession — though to be fair, he's only been appearing in films for the last 50 of those years. First nominated for an Oscar in 1966 for "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," he didn't take home the statuette until four decades later, when he won for "Little Miss Sunshine."

He's back in the awards conversation this year for Ben Affleck's "Argo," in which he and John Goodman come close to stealing the show as the producer and makeup artist who worked with the CIA to concoct a fake film ("Argo") that was used as a cover story to smuggle six American embassy workers out of Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.

Also read: 'Argo' Review: Ben Affleck Nail Biter Is a Smart Thrill Ride

Jason Merritt/Getty ImagesMost of the film is serious and tense, but Arkin and Goodman give it a shot of humor, and deliver many of the showbiz-centric lines liable to score heavily with Oscar voters and industry insiders. Wry and soft-spoken, the veteran actor spoke to TheWrap five days after our interview was originally scheduled to take place – days in which he'd been doing nonstop press and nightly Q&As on behalf of the film.

"You'll hear exactly the same information as you would have a week ago," he said with a sigh, "but with a little less energy."

Were you familiar with the story of the Canadian rescue?
No, no.

So what appealed to you about it?
Everything about it worked. It was a brilliant script, brilliant director and terrific part. That's what appealed to me.

Were you playing a real producer?
There was a real producer with the same name, but my character was actually a composite of about three different guys. And if you think it's easy playing three different guys at the same time, you're wrong. 

Also read: Ben Affleck: For the Real Story of 'Argo,' Watch for the DVD

You must have known lots of different producers from that era.
Yeah.

Were you thinking of specific people when you constructed the character?
As much as anybody, it was based on Jack Warner, who I knew a little bit. He was very much of that ilk – more of that ilk than anybody I'd ever met. Tough, brash, opinionated, positive guy. That's not typical of the producers I've worked with.

You were making movies back in this era. Was there a different feel in Hollywood back then, in the late '70s and early '80s?
The '70s was nuts. The '70s was crazy. In the '70s, they hired anybody and everybody to direct. The less you'd directed, the better the odds of getting a job to direct a movie. There were a lot of attempts at imitations of European films, most of which failed. It was a big free-for-all. It was crazy, but it was fun. They even let me direct a movie. [In fact, Arkin directed two features in the '70s, "Little Murders" and "Fire Sale."]

John Goodman and Alan ArkinYour scenes with John Goodman are very funny, but the movie overall is dealing with a very serious subject. Was that a concern?
It was very much a concern. It was important to me that Ben knew before we started shooting, in our first talk, that although there were funny lines in the script, they were character lines and had to do with the reality of the situation. It couldn't turn into a farce or "Caddyshack." I wouldn't have played it any other way.

Did you make many changes to the dialogue or the character?
We didn't change anything. In two out of three projects, I guess, I do a lot of changing. But in this, nothing was necessary. Maybe a word or two, or half a sentence every once in a while. But in this case, I would say 95 percent was on the page.

At this point in your career, how important is it to you to keep working?
I love working if it's with people who are capable of having a good time. People with a little bit of enjoyment of what they do. If it's enormous pressure and people feel that their lives are at stake, then it's agony. So I try to pick projects where I feel like I'm going to avoid those traps.

I'm very happy to do anything that ensures having a good time, and in the past 10 years I've been pretty lucky. I've been on a bunch of projects that have been pleasant to be connected with.

Did the attention you got for "Little Miss Sunshine," including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, have much impact on your career?
If it did, I haven't seen any. I have a title. They don't say "Alan Arkin," they say "Oscar-winning Alan Arkin." That's the only change I'm aware of.

The best thing that happened is that you get invited to a lot of events in which they give you gift baskets with soap and shampoo. And about a year and a half ago, I said, "I've gotta find something that's gonna get me a nomination, because we're running out of soap and shampoo."

So I hope that if anything comes out of this, I get some more gift baskets with soap and shampoo, to keep us going for another two or three years.