As it should be, Alan Arkin gets off the best line in the Argo trailer: “If I’m gonna make a fake movie, I’m gonna make a fake hit!” As an old-school Hollywood producer, Lester Siegel, enlisted to pretend to make a sci-fi movie that needs to be shot in Iran in order to help the CIA sneak six American embassy workers out of the country during the hostage crisis, the 78-year-old is the anchor and heart of the most absurd part of an incredibly hard-to-believe true story. And in a huge ensemble (mostly in amazing late-seventies wigs and mustaches), his is the one role showy enough to be meriting Oscar talk — while Ben Affleck is rightly getting major attention for his directing. Vulture spoke to Arkin, who lives in Santa Fe, by phone about bad movies, Affleck, and Canadians. Picture him saying everything with long, gravely pauses, bemusement, and a Brooklyn accent.
Is your character based on a real person?
Well, when I was making the movie I thought it was, and I did some research on him and found that what was written in the script had very little to do with what I was reading about the character, who was real. And then I found out after the film that he was actually based on a composite of two or three different people, which would have been hard to play. It’s hard to play composites.
So, there is no Lester Siegel?
Well, there was a Lester Siegel. There was a real producer named Lester Siegel, and he apparently did some work with the OSS in World War II, and he’s a lot of what the guy’s based on, but there were other people thrown in.
You did this research after you shot the movie, so in your head, were you basing the character on producers you’d met in real life?
Yeah, I was basing him on [Warner Bros. founder] Jack Warner, who I met briefly at a party once in Hollywood a long, long time ago.
What was it about Jack that fit?
His extraordinary confidence and brashness.
What was it like meeting him at the party?
Well, it was a party, I think, for Wait Until Dark. A lot of people and this little man — he looked like he was about three-feet-one — came over to me with a big smile on his face, and he says, “Hi! I’m the man that owns this building.” And I said, “Oh,” and that was about it. He just went on for about five minutes exalting in his ownership of his studio, very affable and aggressive and comfortable with himself.
All while being three-feet-one.
Well, no, he was bigger than that. I’m an actor. I exaggerate.
It’s sort of like what your character does when he goes super-confidentially into a meeting and lies through his teeth. Do you often do that yourself?
No, as a matter of fact, I never do it.
Not in your nature?
I guess it’s not in my nature.
Do people often go into meetings and lie to you?
It’s been known to happen.
You have a pretty great Hollywood mansion in the movie.
Yeah, that was Zsa Zsa Gabor’s actual house.
Wait, I don’t think I know that name.
You don’t know Zsa Zsa Gabor? What are you, 23?
Oh! I thought you were saying “Josh.”
No, I was saying Zzzssssa Zzzssssa.
Did you discover any interesting remnants of Zsa Zsa there?
Um, no. Not my taste.
What was it that you liked most about movie and the character?
Well, first of all, and most importantly, I think Ben did an extraordinary job. I think he’s a major American director. And I love the fact that [the movie] changes tone throughout in three different ways, from the Hollywood stuff to the Washington stuff to the Iranian stuff, but still retaining the integrity of the main story. And I think [Ben] did a brilliant, brilliant job with that. What was the question? [Laughs.]
Why you took the part.
It was just a good part in a beautifully written script with a terrific director. You don’t say no to that, unless you’re retiring.
Which you’re not planning on doing.
Have you ever been in any films like the fake film in Argo?
Uh, no. [Laughs.] Except that every movie’s a fake film.
Were you ever tempted by bad science fiction at some point in your career?
Well, I’ve never been offered a science-fiction movie, so I’ve never done one.
Does that feel like a missed opportunity?
No, it wasn’t an opportunity because I wasn’t offered anything! [Laughs.] No, I mean, I love watching science fiction, because I feel like when it’s done well, it’s not just monsters, but philosophy. Really good science fiction like, 2001, for example, or the first Matrix. But it takes someone who’s got a brain and thinks in order to do really good science fiction.
Have you ever gone through a point where you felt like you had to make a crappy movie because that was your only option?
Oh, oh, absolutely. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t.
When was that for you?
That was right after Catch-22. Catch-22 was a huge failure, and it rubbed off on everybody connected to it. I had a bunch of lean years where I had to do things, a lot of which I wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about.
Any in particular?
Yeah, but I’m writing a section of a book about it at the moment. So I’ll let you read the book.
What’s it called?
I’m not gonna tell you the name yet because somebody will steal it from me. It’s a great title.
What did you think of the Canadian uproar, when Argo came out in Toronto?
Canadians getting upset, saying the movie didn’t give proper credit to the Canadian ambassador who was hiding the fugitive Americans.
Well, I think “uproar” is a little bit dramatic. I don’t think it was anything remotely like an uproar. I think a few quarters felt like he hadn’t been given enough credit. Well, I think that since his life was put on the line, he was given a lot of credit! But simultaneously, Ben did something about changing the statement about the ambassador in the end, and apparently it appeased the people that were unhappy about it.
What can you tell me about your upcoming movies?
Well, I did a movie with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken that’s opening the Chicago Film Festival next month.
Stand Up Guys? What’s that about?
It’s In Bruges, in America.
It’s a remake of In Bruges?
No, it’s not. My guess is that the people that wrote it weren’t even aware of it, but it’s a similar idea. And then I did a movie with Steve Carell and Jim Carey that’s coming out I guess next summer.
What’s it like working with Carell again?
Carell, I think we have a special relationship, he and I. We’ve worked together three times now. Little Miss Sunshine, Get Smart, and now this, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
What makes the relationship so special?
Well, for one thing, he’s just a very special person. He’s a lovely, dear, unassuming, hardworking, sweet person. And second, we come from a common background. We both come from Second City, so we know a lot of people from the old days.
Do you feel like you’re getting better roles than you did when you were younger?
Yeah! I’m having a good run this year. But for everybody, the tide comes in, the tide goes out, if you’re an actor, particularly.
Which role are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about … going home. [Laughs.]