Alan Arkin is a creative treasure whose career has spanned over 50 years, beginning as the lead singer and guitarist in “The Tarriers.” He co-wrote the hit song “The Banana Boat Song” popularized by Harry Belafonte. Arkin made his Broadway debut in “From the Second City,” for which he wrote lyrics and skits. He won a Tony Award for his performance in “Enter Laughing” and made his off-Broadway directorial debut in “Eh,” starring a young actor named Dustin Hoffman. His direction of “Little Murders” earned him a Drama Desk Award as did “The White House Murder Case.” His film career is quite illustrious having starred in the seminal “Catch 22” as well as “The Russians Are Coming,” “Wait Until Dark,” “The Seven-Percent Solution,” “Grosse Point,” “Slums of Beverly Hills,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Greg Kinnear began his career as a journalist and talk show host. An actor with a magnetic on-screen presence, his film career is sterling having starred in such films as “Sabrina,” “As Good As It Get,” for which he received an Oscar nomination, “Dear God,” “You’ve Got Mail,” “Nurse Betty,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Auto Focus,” “Fast Food Nation,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Green Zone.” He also starred in the History Channel’s controversial, Emmy-winning “The Kennedys.”
Arkin and Kinnear recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss, among a variety of topics, their latest film, “Thin Ice.” The following interview has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
How was it working together again after “Little Miss Sunshine?”
Kinnear: Alan loves me (laughter). He has said repeatedly that other actors are interesting in their own way, but, and I’m paraphrasing, no one aspires to the artistic greatness of Greg and I’m through searching for it. (To Arkin) Was it something like that?
Arkin: I did say it, but I don’t think it was about you (laughter).
Kinnear: Oh, that’s right. It was Steve Carell! (laughter). Seriously, Alan was good enough to send me the “Thin Ice” script. He said that this is an interesting piece and the guy I would play is somewhat despicable. I don’t know what Alan sees in me that conjured me up for the role, but I was quite taken with it. I thought it was a fun, interesting story, and a chance for us to work together again.
Do you have a short hand in working with each other?
Arkin: I think it takes more time than just two movies. My idea of heaven is working with people again. You get through the first arc of an experience and then you start to know somebody so that you can take more liberties with each other. The first time you work with somebody, you have your hat in your hand and say ‘do you mind if we try this or are you comfortable with this?’ With Greg, and with other people I’ve worked with the second or third time, you can say ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we bla bla bla?’ In other words, you can take more liberties.
What did you learn about each other that you didn’t know before?
Arkin: I learned the extent of the punishment that Greg could take without complaining. I had an inkling of it with “Little Miss Sunshine” because sometimes we would be locked in that damn bus six hours at a time in 110 degrees heat without air conditioning. It was rough, but nobody ever complained. On this film, I saw Greg come out of two night’s work where he was working in twenty degrees below with no thermal underwear, just a thin suit, and never complained. I knew he was dedicated but man he’s more dedicated than I thought.
Kinnear: I had thermal underwear on, just so you know. It’s just is a rumor that I didn’t (laughter).
In addition to acting awards, you’ve won two awards for directing. How is it different for you when you work as an actor?
Arkin: I made a rule for myself that I’m going to present the most difficult, arbitrary side of myself before we start shooting so that the rules are laid out and I know what the director is going for. For example, I’ll ask what is the style of this movie? What do you want this movie to be like? The director might say ‘We want it to be real.’ I hear that from every director and that’s crap because everybody wants to be real, but everybody’s version of reality is different. If I don’t understand the exact tone of movie, I’ll ask the director to tell me a movie that you want this to be like. No director likes to answer that because they want to think that their movie is unique – that it will be like no other movie, which is nonsense. I need to know the style so I have an idea of what I’m trying to fit myself into and then I want to get specific about what direction I want for the character.
How do you go about developing a character?
Arkin: When I read a script for the first time, I either know who the character is or I don’t. I can’t usually work on it to find out who the character is. If it comes, I want to make sure the director wants what I’m seeing and if he doesn’t, I want to find out before we start shooting and not a week into the shooting, which becomes a disaster. So that’s why I like to be as arbitrary and specific beforehand so that when you get on the set there are no huge surprises. Even with that there are always surprises and variables and changes you have to make.
You graduated as journalism major and were a late-night TV host. Did you ever take formal acting classes and did your television work help you in your acting career?
Kinnear: No formal acting classes other than college stuff. I spent quite a few years hosting a TV show so most of my experience was looking directly at the camera and talking right to it. That gave me comfortability with the camera. Acting is a continuing learning process and I just basically steal acting ideas from great actors like Alan and load them up in a leather satchel and bring them with me to the next project.
You just did a Modern Family episode. How did that come about and will you be doing more episodes?
Kinnear: The way it came about is that I met some of the actors at a dinner for the Emmy awards and told them I was a fan of the show and thinks it’s funny. Then next thing I knew they asked me if I would do an episode and I said yes. As far as future episodes, I think they’re pretty much done with me now. They took all my best stuff and said, listen kid, good luck to you (laughter).
After what your father went through (victim of McCarthyism), do you think celebrities should speak out politically?
Arkin: I think it’s up to the individual. I don’t know why an actor knows any more about politics than the politicians. I think most politicians now don’t know anything about politics either so why shouldn’t an actor talk. I don’t have any rules on what people should or shouldn’t do. They have to do what they think they can get away with until they get stopped.
You have both won an assortment of awards honoring your fine work. What is the most fun of the nomination process and what part isn’t so much fun?
Kinnear: Don’t tell me Alan. Your fun part was winning (laughter). When you do movies and you find one of them percolating where they get noticed and talked about, it’s fun and rewarding. The great thing is it turns into one big party with all these people you’ve worked with. Usually when you finish a movie, it’s like ‘see ya’ and that’s the end of that. Being nominated does kind of keep the group together through that process. What’s bad about? You gain weight (laughter). How many dinners can you eat? I’ll take the beef chops please (laughter). What’s that? Pie alamode first? It’s free? I’ll take two (laughter).
Arkin: I thought about this three years ago. I asked myself what of this has really been enjoyable? Maybe it’s trite, and maybe you won’t believe me, but I swear it’s true. The only real joy I’ve ever gotten out of any of it was the moment of nomination. That’s a moment of sheer delight and surprise and feeling like your part of something and part of a group of people, most of whom you admire. The rest, I think, is nonsense. If you win, you think you’re special and that will last for about 10 minutes.
Kinnear: You were unbearable for the 10 minutes (laughter).
Arkin: And, if you lose, you think you’re a failure, which is madness so the moment of nomination is really…No, that’s not true. Also the phone calls I got from people afterwards – people I hadn’t spoken with some times in years. It’s my own issue, but I have a hard time accepting people caring about me. It’s something that I tend to carry. But, I could not avoid recognizing that people cared that I had won. It was such a barrage that I was very moved for a long time. That was the high for me.
What are you thoughts on the turmoil and controversy around “The Kennedys,” which ultimately received critical acclaim.
Kinnear: When I was making “Thin Ice,” I was having lunch with Alan in this cold cafeteria and I was telling him about this Kennedy project and he nicely offered some sage advice – which was to RUN (laughter). He actually said that it sounded interesting, but I was struggling with whether or not to do it as taking on a role like that overwhelmed me. Ultimately I was glad I did take the part because it was a great experience. I was shocked by what happened and was a little disheartened. (A&E Television Network yanked the show saying it was not a good fit for the History Channel.) I keep waiting for the quintessential article to come out to explain what happened. People magazine said it was the second biggest television story of last year, and yet nobody has done the story of exactly what happened and why a show of that size lost its channel space.
Greg, you were the son of diplomat and moved around a lot as a youngster. How did it affect your life?
Kinnear: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. It was a great card to be dealt. To be able to grow up overseas is an extraordinary experience and I’d love to be able to do that for my own kids. It’s great exposure to the world. I’m not sure how it reflects in my life or how it’s affecting what I do. I still have a lot of friends that I stay in close touch with who were over there at the same time and had the same experience. I just did this movie with Julianne Moore who had a similar background. She grew up in Germany and other places because her father was in the military. We talked about our childhoods and how we moved around. Most people, when they finish a movie, hug each other and say that they should keep in touch. For us, when it’s done, it’s ‘see you later – thanks’ (laughter). We’re both working on that to the point where she gave me a book called “TCK- Third Culture Kids.” (He hugs Alan) See. I’m already making progress (laughter).