As the slow-burning 2012 award season heats up, studios are bringing out the big guns for their hopeful contenders. Ben Affleck's Argo has all the trappings of a sure-fire hit - an incredible ensemble cast (Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Kyle Chandler, Chris Messina, Tate Donovan, Titus Welliver, Clea DuVall, Victor Garber), its own sense of humor, and a fascinating story that just so happens to be true.
Marking Affleck's third turn as director, the critically acclaimed Argo is now a frontrunner for the Oscar race after just one weekend. Hot off the film's instant success, Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier met with Affleck, Cranston, Arkin and Goodman to find out what it's like playing real life heroes, the draw of a good story, and the film's relevancy in modern Iran.
Emmanuel Itier: It’s safe to say that you are one of the major reasons that Argo’s story is being told. What drives your fascination with this particular subject matter, and what specifically drew you to tell this story?
Ben Affleck: Well, I was drawn to what, on the surface, was an incredible thriller, a really funny comedy, an action movie, a CIA story, a Hollywood satire—and all those things together were true. It was this true story that melded all these outrageous elements and that, on the page, succeeded in all these various ways. I thought if I can manage these tones and pull off all these different elements, it would be exciting, directorially.
In terms of the way that it's relevant, you know, it's kind of amazing. When I was making the movie, I knew the Green Revolution and the Arab Spring, and there are things about this movie that may resonate. As things went on, I thought, "Gosh, this really has strong correlations." The unintended consequence of a revolution; the way that when governments get their hands in the life of other governments, they are trying to create one thing—ostensibly with the best interests at heart—but oftentimes, unexpected things happen. That's what we started seeing.
I was in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria now, Libya, and I thought, "Gosh, this is really going to be relevant." It was tragically relevant when we had—it's really a movie about what U.S. diplomats do overseas and that it can be dangerous sometimes. We saw people actually give their lives. I wish this was a completely irrelevant movie but, unfortunately, it's not.
EI: In your extensive research, what was it like to meet Tony Mendez, the man whose experiences inspired the film? Is it daunting to both play and direct the story of a real person?
BA: He's a very interesting guy, very quiet, inscrutable. He doesn't talk too much. He doesn't say anything unnecessary, but he was really helpful nonetheless in giving me all the details of what happened in his life, what happened at the CIA, and this story. When I met him, because he was so quiet and withdrawn, I thought, "Got to be interesting to play the protagonist in a movie that was quiet, inward, and not charging forward and making a show of himself"; that that would be kind of unexpected, maybe—and I really liked that. I tried that idea in the performance, you know, a man of few words.
In terms of Tony, I wanted to keep the story close to true to what Tony went through, and the performance honest and real. I thought that would do justice to him, his life, and his story.
In terms of directing myself, I find that it's most helpful to not worry about anything while I'm doing it; just believe in my instincts, do a lot of takes until I'm really relaxed and I feel like I've tried everything, and then go direct myself in the editing room. That's where I can pick and choose, throw things out, and modulate things.
EI: You also worked behind-the-scenes with George Clooney and Grant Hesloy, who are both heavily involved in politics. How did your collaboration with them enhance the movie-making experience?
BA: They had developed this script, and they had been trying to get this movie made, and I felt that it was becoming part of a great team that I was excited to be involved with, because they were really smart and they're filmmakers. Usually, you have a producer who comes from a different background. These guys are not just filmmakers but they've made really good films. They've made smart, political films, smart adult films. They're philanthropists. I share a lot of interests with those guys, so it felt really—I felt welcomed and lucky to be able to work with them and to be able to use a piece of material that they had spent a lot of time and energy developing.
EI: Is there any particular message or theme that you’d like Argo to ultimately convey?
BA: Rather than a kind of message, I hope to communicate the same sort of humanism that was present in—one of my favorite director, Renoir's, films; the sense that we're connected—all of us—as people. The observation that we use storytelling to connect with one another and that, oftentimes, that has enormous power, both as political theater, as the theater of the absurd with the space movie and so on, and with the way we connect with our family and our loved ones. You see Tony sharing the storyboard with his son and the little action figures. I think there's something beautiful about that.
Emmanuel Itier: This film has such an incredible cast. What initially drew you to this fantastic ensemble?
Bryan Cranston: What attracted me to the movie is the story. The story is fantastic in every sense of the word. As far as the adventure, the journey is a fantastical voyage, and it's captivating. I read it from cover to cover. It took me away and I was in and on the ride, and I just loved it. The fact that it's based on a true story made it even more incredible, so I wanted to do it.
I met with Ben and we talked about the character, we talked about the story, what my character would fulfill, and the conversation was positive and it worked out.
EI: Argo is also based on a true story. Were you able to meet Tony Mendez and his team?
BC: We met some of them, but my character—I didn't meet Tony until we were already shooting. He wasn't available before that. Of course, Ben did. Ben knew Tony. My character is an amalgam of a variety of characters who would have been at the CIA at the time. I think the producers felt it was more important to have a single vision; when you go back to the CIA portion of it, that there's one person representing that. That's why they did what they did with that.
EI: In your research for the role, did you meet with acting CIA operatives? What did you learn about the process through speaking with the men who actually lived through this story?
BC: As far as a mission, they take it on a case-by-case basis, include all the elements, and really think, "What is important here? What gives us the best odds of making this a safe and effective mission?" It's an interesting culture. Spies are a very interesting people. We have a fantasy about who spies are—007 and all that—but in reality, they could be walking the halls and we would never know it.
Tony Mendez's wife, Jonna, is a CIA officer—retired—and together they would go off and assume new identities, aid in political influence, and whatnot. It's really interesting how a lot of them marry within each other—that's a very common thing—because they simply understand. They understand each other's position.
EI: Ben Affleck has steadily been gaining respect for his work as a director, on top of his steallar acting record. What was your experience like working with Ben as a director and a costar?
BC: Ben is remarkably talented as a director. He has a terrific command of the material, knowledge of the time, a desire and passion for filmmaking, and a lovely guy. He sets a wonderful tone, a very relaxed, easy tone on the set, which allows cast and crew to feel comfortable and to be able to do your best work. He's an important director now. He's proven himself—this is his third movie that has succeeded—and I couldn't be happy for him.
What surprised me is his level of intelligence, I think. You hear about his rambunctious youth, and all that, but it's age-appropriate behavior. Now he's 40, is married, beautiful wife, a stable condition, and three children. He's got his home and his family, and his work—which reminds me of me. That's a good thing to have. It's a nice balance to have those two things, and he sure found it.
EI: Lastly, what do you think this film says about the state of affairs today? What is Argo’s relevance to the situation is modern-day Iran?
BC: I think the relevancy is palpable, because you see how things change and things stay the same—relationships, the inter-country trust or distrust. Right now, relationships between the United States and Iran haven't changed. Really haven't changed at all very much.
I think what the movie reviews is how successful things can be with cooperation. When people and countries think and work toward a goal that is bigger than themselves as an entity and as simplistic as another human being. This was a story about saving the lives of six human beings, pure and simple, so it went beyond any personal game or personal notoriety. Fortunately, it was successful without anyone being hurt or killed. That's a good message.
John Goodman & Alan Arkin
EI: You two are big catches for a movie like this. What would you say specifically drew you to Argo?
Alan Arkin: It's obvious. What can you say? What attracts you to a great script? It's a great script.
John Goodman: They told me I would have a chance to meet Matt Damon.
AA: Did you? Did you get to meet him?
JG: No, it never happened. I don't want to say he was lying, but it was like a come-on like a conman would use to bring you into something.
AA: They told me I'd get a chance to meet Ben Affleck.
JG: How did that go for you?
AA: Well, he only said a few words to me—
JG: Was it when he was mouthing your lines during his directing?
AA: Doing his imitations of me.
EI: What do you think the movie is about, and how is it relevant in today’s political climate?
AA: Well, it's about Iran. The movie's all about Iran and what went on 30 years ago—which is almost exactly the same as what's going on now, except that the Shah is dead.
JG: It's about consequences of what happens and the people that have to go in and fix things.
EI: Do you find it tricky to portray people who are not only real people, but still alive?
AA: Well, it's only tricky if people know them. If they don't know them, then you're on safe ground, you can do anything. Unless it was George Washington; you know, they had a specific kind of wig on, and you've got to have that wig; otherwise, people say—
JG: You got to pretend like your mouth hurts all the time.
AA: That's right. He had that wooden tooth.
EI: What was your experience like working with Ben Affleck, both as an actor and a director? What surprised you about him?
JG: I was surprised at how very intelligent he is. I didn't know him at all.
AA: You were surprised?
JG: Not in a good way, not in a bad way. Not in a good or a bad way.
AA: You said initially, "Not in a good way."
JG: That must be what I meant though. I was surprised at how very well prepared he was.
AA: Yeah, he knows every aspect of filmmaking. He's got it all down.
JG: Yeah, and he has a great, encyclopedic knowledge of film history.
EI: Were you able to meet the real Tony Mendez?
AA: Yeah, we both met him.
EI: What surprised you about him?
AA: What surprised us about him? I was surprised at how short he was. He's very short.
JG: Nothing surprised me. I had no expectations. He did grow a beard, because he never had one before until Ben grew a beard for the role.
AA: Is that true?
JG: Yeah, so he grew a beard for Toronto.
AA: So that Ben could say he was being authentic.
JG: Yeah, that was damn nice of him.
EI: What did you take away from the experience of making Argo? What do you think will stick with you?
AA: For me, it's that there's not a flaw in the movie. I think it's a perfect film. You don't get a chance to work in a perfect film very often.
JG: It's the satisfaction of working on something that's very good.
'Argo' was released on Friday, October 12th, 2012 and is currently playing in theaters nationwide.