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Premieres & Events

"I Can Die Now": Arkin Celebrated at Lincoln Center

The irrepressible Alan Arkin teaches history Tuesday at the Walter Reade Theater (Photos: Christopher Campbell)

The Film Society of Lincoln Center paid tribute to Alan Arkin Tuesday nightwith a special screening of Little Miss Sunshine. The film isn't the actor's most recent (I guess they wouldn't show The Santa Clause 3) nor is it his best (or second- or even third-best when you consider The Russians are Coming The Russians Are Coming, Glengarry Glen Ross or 13 Conversations About One Thing), but it is no doubt anchored by Arkin's wonderful performance in the role of the heroin-snorting Grandpa.

"I could play him for the rest of my life," Arkin said of that character, "a foul-mouthed moron who has an answer to everything. It used to be I was most comfortable with [playing] foreigners of any kind, and I finally realized that was because that's what I felt like. I felt like a foreigner wherever I was. And whatever situation it was, I felt like I didn't belong there. So I felt most comfortable with people who were outsiders. Now, I feel most comfortable with morons who spout philosophy. I hope that's not too revealing."

Arkin revealed a lot about his craft during a pre-screening Q&A at the Walter Reade Theater, including his extreme distaste with the making of Catch-22 ("I was very unhappy with my work"), his aversion to method acting and his thoughts on quitting the business.

"I knew that [acting] was what I wanted to do from the time I was 5 until fairly recently," he said. "Acting used to be the reason for my life, and at this point it's an expression of my life and the way I make my living, but I don't need it anymore. It kind of shocks me to even say that because at the age of 30 or 40 I couldn't imagine a person who would even say a thing like that."

Arkin's retirement is not likely to happen right away, though, and he mentioned that he will be going back to work on a new film (the dramedy Sunshine Cleaning) with Little Miss Sunshine producer Peter Saraf. But he also expressed an interest in acting less -- or at least in taking easier roles.

"People think film acting is [fun and easy]," he said, "because you hear stories about George Clooney and everybody on Ocean's 11 having a good time. Sure they can have a good time, because they aren't doing anything. Except making $10 million a movie. You show up and you put on a suit and get your $10 million so you can have a good time. We independent film makers, we work for a living."

Arkin had been offered a role in the first Ocean's film, so the jab at the production was partially in jest and partially with regret ("Carl Reiner got my three-picture franchise!"). There was likely also some kidding involved in his continued claims to want less difficult parts.

"I don't want to work anymore," he said. "I want to be in front of a blue screen. I want to be looking over my shoulder and I want to say, 'Look out for the thing ... it's coming!' I'm an old guy. I want to take it easy."

After the jump, Arkin has plenty else to say about his film debut, languishing in Mexico on the doomed set of Catch 22 and why doing Mamet is harder than doing Shakespeare. -- Christopher Campbell

On his film debut, The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming: "It was a dream come true. It was what I desperately wanted all my life. My interest in acting was film acting from the time that I was five. I was panic stricken. My dream was, 'Please God, let me good enough so I get another job some day.' And I was so animated at that point that Norman Jewison made me stand in an orange crate all the time so I wouldn't move around so much. I was driving the camera operator crazy. For most of the film I stood in orange crates. I didn't understand marks and staying still. I was used to the stage and walking around and being my own director.

"It was the opposite of any auteur theory I've ever had. It was not only a family with the cast, but he made the entire town part of the experience of making the film. The entire town was invited to dailies. And every couple weeks he would have to stand up and make a speech and say, 'People, please leave your dogs and babies at home because we can't hear the dialogue track.' But it was an extraordinary experience. It was a continuation of the community feeling I felt at college and then Second City and then on Broadway.

On his subsequent films: [Jewison] ruined me for the next bunch of films. After that I found directors who knew the camera very well but didn't have a clue how to make a family, or even wanted to. And it started becoming kinda lonely. And it's gotten more and more like that. People go to their trailers. They do a shot and then they look at their watch and they go back to their trailers. And nobody knows each other. I see it in the movies, and I don't know if you see it too, that sense that the actors are acting for themselves; the directors are making the movie in order to do it later, to fix it in the editing room. So there's no sense of urgency of experience while making the film."

On Catch-22: "The actors did nothing. At 8 o'clock in the morning there was nowhere to go, nothing to do and nothing to shoot. I was in Italy once and I had to walk up a flight of stairs. I come in on a Monday morning at 8 o'clock ... : 'The stairs aren't ready; go home. Come back Wednesday.' I come back Wednesday and my shot is to go up a flight of stairs. Not ready yet. It took a week for them to figure out how they wanted to shoot going up the stairs. That's what making the movie was like. We shot in Guaymas, Mexico -- eight months to shoot -- and at that point there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Literally. Every once in awhile we'd say, 'Oh, hey, we're going to make a movie for a minute here? Oh, OK.' That's what it was like.

On The In-Laws: "It was so wild that we could just cut loose and let go. A fascinating thing is that people come up to me over the years and they'll talk about a particular movie – a lot of times it's The In-Laws -- and they say, 'God, it looked like you were having a wonderful time making that film. And they always know the ones that were a wonderful time. And for years I said, 'Why does anybody give a damn? Why does anybody care whether I had a good time making the film?' But it's crucial. It's not only interesting but it's crucial that they feel that way. It's a crucial aspect of the group art forms that people know that the people involved had a good time."

On directing Little Murders: "That was a great experience. It's just something that couldn't happen anymore. The studio gave me carte blanche. I did whatever I wanted to do, within a very tight budgetary consideration. I got everything I wanted in that film. Final cut. I doubt that will ever happen again."

On Edward Scissorhands: "Tim Burton is great to work with. He can't speak a human language. He's basically a graphic guy and he speaks like a lot of graphic people do, in images and a kind of musical imagery kind of language. You don't know what the hell he's talking about, but the minute you see his graphics then it becomes very clear what he's trying to do. It was an enormously generous and cohesive experience."

On Glengarry Glen Ross: "Fun like doing brain surgery would be fun. Great, great experience -- wouldn't change it for anything in the world -- but hard, hard work. Rewarding. [Doing Mamet is] impossible. It's harder than doing Shakespeare. And I did Shakespeare -- when I was 16."

On getting old: "I can't hear anything. I can't remember anything and I can't hear anything. And it's fun."

On receiving a tribute and looking at a clip reel of his films: "I can die now."

Posted at December 21, 2006 10:14 AM

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