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Bill Hunter and “Newsfront”

Bill Hunter (1940-2011), a character-acting mainstay of Australian cinema, died May 21. A household name in his native land, he appeared in more than a hundred films and TV episodes, starting with an unbilled bit in the 1957 The Shiralee. He had a twinkle both wry and weary, and a hardpan voice that seemed ordained to pronounce the word kookaburra, though I can’t recall that I ever heard him say that. Key roles? Toni Collette’s father (Bill Heslop!) in Muriel’s Wedding, the Major in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, the preposterous Barry Fife in Strictly Ballroom, the gallant escort and longtime worshipper of Terence Stamp’s Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and the dentist in Finding Nemo. But above all these, he was Len Maguire, the dogged newsreel journalist in Phillip Noyce’s Newsfront (1978)—the first international hit of the Australian New Wave and the occasion of Hunter’s winning the Aussie equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actor. I loved the movie and I loved Len Maguire. And only part of that was because Hunter—and Len Maguire too—uncannily reminded me of my father as he looked in Len Maguire’s time; Dad had died several years before Newsfront came out. I suppose it was the father connection that led me to assume Bill Hunter was “old,” as a line in the accompanying Newsfront appreciation gives away. Actually, he was only four years my senior. —RTJ

[Originally written as a program note for a University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies film series on New Australian Cinema]

Bill Hunter as Len Maguire (1977)

Likableness is, I suppose, a dubious aesthetic category to propose, but I can’t see any way around proposing it here. Newsfront is one of the most sheerly likable movies I’ve ever encountered, and to ignore that, or somehow scant it, seems shortsighted and also notably unfair to the film. Likableness is not so common—in movies, in people, in general—that we can afford to take it casually. And particularly in movies, with so much technology to keep under control, so much second- and third-guessing going on, so much calculation and selfconsciousness and sweaty deliberation, a sense of unforced geniality is devilishly difficult to come by. Who among contemporary American filmmakers can manage it? The only name that comes to mind immediately is Jonathan Demme, who gave us the supremely sweetnatured and wise-but-not-wised-up Melvin and Howard (which, like Newsfront during its Seattle engagement, went largely unseen). Steven Spielberg sometimes, as in the at-home scenes in Jaws and the little-people scenes in Close Encounters; maybe Paul Mazursky, though he can get pretty icky and shticky. Anyway, it’s a talent, probably a gift, and it’s all too rare.

It’s more, too, than just “being nice.” It involves being tolerant of human foibles, but not to the point of sappiness. It means having an eye for the sharp behavioral detail of the moment, and also an instinct for the rhythms that wrap around all the moments—the comings and goings, learning and growing, living and dying that adds up to the history of a community, a social class, a nation; a chapter in the biography of our species. And just as important as having that instinct for long-term biorhythms is being able to devise their analogues in cinematic terms—to make a movie move in such a way that, once you’ve seen it, you feel you’ve shared much more time with the characters than two hours, and that you’ve done almost as much growing and perspective-acquiring as they have. Yes, that’s it: you have to be invited into the film there to live with those folks for a while. And the filmmaker who won’t give you that privileged time robs you of something, and robs his medium of one of its most glorious opportunities.

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Me and Maggie the Cat – A very personal appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

“I’ve been through it all, baby. I’m Mother Courage.”

“What’s the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just stayin’ on it, I guess.”

In 2007, my blood boiled as “Entertainment Tonight” gushed ghoulishly over the possibility that 75-year-old Elizabeth Taylor had a “new boyfriend” — referring to the gay black gentleman who escorted the actress to an AIDS benefit. The interviewer had to kneel to get right in the face of the wheelchair-bound movie star, resplendent in jewels of her own design and a sequined gown just slipping off her shoulder. “Are you ready to be a bride for the ninth time? Would you accept a proposal of marriage?,” baited the blond ditz.

“Marriage?!” shrieked Taylor, her face a mask of mock horror. And then the diva threw back her head and howled like a banshee.

Viewers, of course, were being invited to enjoy the spectacle — and sound — of a blowsy old dame, veteran of so many soap-opera scandals, acting dotty. What could be funnier than pretending the sedentary septuagenarian might be up for connubial hanky-panky?

There was a time when the star of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) would have cut the belittling ditz off at the knees. Her character, Maggie the Cat, would have narrowed her great violet eyes, thinned those lush lips and, wasp-voiced, nailed her victim as a “no-neck monster.” Still, I loved that unabashed banshee howl.

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“The Man I Love,” “Road House” and Ida Lupino: The Noir Heroine

If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen B of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.

It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.

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Acting for Oscar

Matt Damon

Toward the end of last year, a friend and I were e-mailing about Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Released in mid-October, the film, a meditative journey along the boundary between life and death, had already done a fast fade as a commercial prospect (death is such a downer) and subject for awards speculation. My friend disdains Eastwood’s filmmaking as much as I mostly esteem it, but he agreed with me about one thing: he was “blown away” by Matt Damon’s performance. I said I thought it was the best of the year but feared it would be ignored come Oscar season. Not only was Damon’s character one among several focal figures in a film with several story threads—”He doesn’t speak with a British accent, and he doesn’t stammer.”

OK, that was glib. But also on point and, as a prediction, accurate. Damon wasn’t among the Academy Award nominees announced the morning of January 25. He rarely has been (Good Will Hunting, 1997; Invictus, 2009). Yet Matt Damon may be the best actor in movies these days, even if that superlative usually cues people to envision such worthies as Javier Bardem or Jeff Bridges or Johnny Depp. Damon has long since earned a place in their company, but neither he nor his work insists on it—as he doesn’t insist on his stardom. He’s mingled stellar turns in the likes of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Departed, and the Bourne franchise with supporting and ensemble roles: Saving Private Ryan, Dogma, Syriana, the Ocean’s pictures, Invictus. That’s better than being the best actor. He’s the exemplary actor.

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Elisha Cook

Elisha Cook Jr. in "The Maltese Falcon": an indespensible man
Elisha Cook Jr. in “The Maltese Falcon”: an indispensable man

I posted the piece on The Maltese Falcon last week. Today I rewatched a few minutes of They Won’t Forget and thought, let’s have a little remembrance for an indispensable man. This was written as an obit fifteen years ago.

If they gave career Oscars to character actors, nobody would have had a better claim to one than Elisha Cook Jr. Character actors were the life-blood of the classical American cinema, and there were dozens of redoubtable players whom audiences never knew by name but still took pleasure in reencountering – “There’s that guy again, he’s always good” – as they filled up the sides and backgrounds of scenes, the spaces between the stars, contributing a vital, credibility-enhancing texture that contemporary films largely lack. Cook was one of the few members of the breed that moviegoers learned to greet by name. And the “he’s always good” definitely applied.

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“Directing doesn’t start on the floor”: Claude Goretta and Isabelle Huppert Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Lacemaker (La Dentellière) was shown in the 1977 New York Film Festival. Claude Goretta, the director, and Isabelle Huppert, who costarred with Yves Beneyton, were interviewed before the film had opened commercially. The Lacemaker is the story of a young girl, employed at a beauty parlor, who falls in love with a student very different from her in aspirations and in intellect. The affair fails and the girl is left suffering from a kind of nervous breakdown.

Judith M. Kass: In the films of yours that have played here, The Invitation and The Wonderful Crook (Pas si méchant que ça…), events give the appearance of going along well and then something happens to disrupt the order. Does the idea of change causing social and personal disruption interest you particularly?

Isabelle Hupper in The Lacemaker
Isabelle Huppert in "The Lacemaker"

Claude Goretta: What interests me is the idea of common lives which can show us that people are deep inside a situation in which they can express something else, something the others don’t see. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t always have the means of expressing their sensibility. In The Invitation the people show the others very little of themselves. They have a richness inside that others don’t notice. And the problem for me as the director is to show the audience that the people on the screen are much more interesting than what they show to the others. It’s the problem of “the lacemaker.” She’s a girl without culture and she’s naturally silent. And people today, facing this sort of character, take the silence as a denial and not as a way of accepting the world. They think the silence is something against them. The problem of the student is that he has a theoretical idea of life and no experience at all. He can’t have a fundamental communication with the girl because he lacks experience of life. He’s not a bad boy; he’s not worse than the others. But this experience is a flop for him because of his youth. For me, the students are caught in a sort of closed world. Their generosity, all the high ideals of life, are theoretical. When they are confronted with real life, it’s quite different. I think in our lives we always have been either somebody’s lacemaker or somebody’s François [the student]. But we are always responsible for somebody else, but we don’t know it sometimes—that we are responsible for the other.

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The Man Behind Walter Bishop: “Fringe” star John Noble interviewed

Australian thespian John Noble was best know to American audiences as King Denethor in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films before he became Walter Bishop in Fringe. The character is a tortured genius who spent 17 years in a mental facility, treated with heavy doses of pharmaceuticals and receiving no visitors, until he was released into the custody of FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Walter’s estranged son, Peter (Joshua Jackson), whose resentments smooth out to affection over the course the show. On the one hand, Walter is an entertaining eccentric with limited social skills and a childlike delight in the smallest things. On the other, he’s a broken soul whose earlier experiments sacrificed people in the name of science and now, as he rediscovers his humanity in the social world, has to face the human cost of his actions. His compassion and responsibility is returning and it’s painful.

John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"
John Noble as Walter Bishop on "Fringe"

Noble’s resonant voice takes on a continental quality for the role, vaguely but indistinctly American. “When I first approached the character, I was looking for something that was unique,” he explained about the accent. “We could have done standard American, but looking for something a bit more Trans-Atlantic, because my experience with academics, they do have a slightly different way of talking. They mix with people from all over the world. So I guess what I settled on was something which could have been like a Boston accent but with English adaptations, and that was the Trans-Atlantic one.” When he drops character, however, his Australian heritage comes through loud and clear.

The road to this interview was unusually complicated. His tentative availability during an abbreviated set visit was scotched due to production shifts. A scheduled conference call became an exercise in frustration when I couldn’t get a question through, thanks to a connection glitch. Finally a direct phone interview was arranged via a temperamental cell phone, and despite the drop-outs and fuzz I was able to get in a questions in a brief ten minute discussion. The following interview, conducted by phone on March 29, features our discussion plus a few comments from the earlier conference call.

Spoiler alert: The conversation reveals elements of the episode “Peter” (which aired Thursday, April 1). The rest of the season is discussed in more vague terms.

Fringe is about a lot of things, but the most interesting story to me is the human story of Walter Bishop rediscovering his conscience and his humanity as he reconnects with his son and starts to care for the people he works with, and starts to see the damage of his experiments on the people that he loves and on people he’s just now meeting.

The retreat into insanity was a defense mechanism based on the theory you’re taking, which I do agree with. He became aware that he effected basically the whole stability of society. So whether he retreated into society to survive that or it’s a defense mechanism, which is also possible, I think it’s a very good point. However, coming out of it, he’s having to face all that again and it’s tragic. It’s bloody awful, isn’t it.

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“I had to risk not being liked in that scene” – Michael Murphy Interviewed

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

May 9, 1978 New York City

Judith M. Kass: Vincent Canby of The New York Times called your acting in An Unmarried Woman “an exceptionally complex performance as the husband whose emotional problems set in motion the events that make possible the Clayburgh character’s eventual liberation.” I’m specifically interested in the crying scene. Was that intended to get her sympathy or was that Martin’s genuine reaction to the situation?

Michael Murphy: I think that was a very complex scene. There were a lot of things going on there. I think he feels very badly about what he’s doing, but at the same time I think, yes, it is aimed at her. He feels so bad, he wants her to feel as badly for him as he feels for himself. I think her reaction to him when she gets mad is something he doesn’t expect. And so it had a sort of little twist to it. But people take it lots of different ways. I always felt that the scene needed to be sort of self-serving. I don’t mean that he was literally faking it; it was a very emotional moment, but at the same time it had that sort of semi-shallow feeling. I had to risk not being liked in that scene.

And in the whole film, because when he comes back to her and says ‘Take me back”

But there were ways to play that scene. I could have gotten more tearful and it would have been more sympathy-provoking. Paul [Mazursky] and I talked about it a lot. And you have the sense of the guy having kind of a seizure more than a tearful, sad quality.

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Interview – David Carradine

David Carradine died Wednesday in Bangkok at the age of 72. I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 2004, while he was promoting Kill Bill Vol. 2. This interview was originally published on GreenCine in April 2004.

David Carradine as Bill
David Carradine

The son of John Carradine and elder half-brother to Keith and Robert, David’s career began in the early 1960s, mostly playing heavies and punks, though he also took on the role of Shane in the short-lived TV series spin-off of the film. His career took off when, in 1972, he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, Boxcar Bertha, and created the role of half-caste Chinese-American Kwai Chang Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the 19th century American West in search of his American relatives, in the hit TV series Kung Fu. His subsequent career bounced between prestigious projects with Hal Ashby (Bound For Glory), Ingmar Bergman (The Serpent’s Egg), and Walter Hill (The Long Riders), TV-roles, and dozens of B-movies, and he can count such cult classics as Death Race 2000, Sonny Boy (where he plays a woman!) and Q (directed by old Army buddy Larry Cohen) to his credit. In between he’s helmed his own personal projects, among them the films You and Me and Americana. Carradine got his star on the Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame in 1997.

When Warren Beatty bowed out of Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating revenge epic Kill Bill, Tarantino brought in the then 66-year-old Carradine and completely rewrote the role for his new star and the man who was Woody Guthrie, Death Race 2000’s Frankenstein, and wandering Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine received a career revival men half his age would kill Bill for.

No April Fool’s joke, Carradine came to Seattle on April 1, 2004, his second stop in a two month publicity junket for Kill Bill, Vol. 2. His weatherbeaten face showed his age, and his long salt-and-pepper gray hair, hanging loose down about his shoulders, and his serene smile and easy-going willingness to talk about any subject showed a man comfortable with his year. Dressed casually in a brown leather jacket and a loose-fitting white shirt, open to his chest to reveal a small silver dagger hanging from a chain, and running shoes with no socks, he calmly chain-smoked one cigarette after another while he weighed questions and offered insights with a nonchalant confidence and modesty.

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Under the Radar: Brian Cox in “Red” (2008)

This is the first entry in an ongoing series by Parallax View contributor Jeff Shannon, written in appreciation of lesser-known films, performances, film-related achievements or other newsworthy items that haven’t received the attention they deserve.

Don’t get me wrong: Red is a not great movie, or even a very good one. But if you’re looking for a minor gem that won’t waste your time, you might find (as I did) that Red will grab and hold your attention, and that’s a lot more than you can say about the mostly-redundant, higher-profile crap coming out of Hollywood these days.

red-poster2
Tagline: "They Should Have Told the Truth"

More to the point, Red is a worthy showcase for an exceptional actor who’s earned plenty of critical praise but relatively little public appreciation. Brian Cox first came to American critical attention for originating the role of Hannibal Lecter (then spelled “Lecktor”) in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), by which time the burly Scot (b. Brian Denis Cox, Dundee, Scotland, June 1, 1946) had been working in U.K. television and movies for over two decades. His career boosted by his cleverly sinister performance as Lecter, Cox has been in demand ever since: Among his 141 acting credits currently listed on IMDb, my personal favorites include his memorably villainous turn in Rob Roy (he also appeared in Braveheart the same year, 1995); his complex and enigmatic portrayal of pederast “Big John” Harrigan in Michael Cuesta’s risky-but-rewarding L.I.E. (2001); and, more recently, his flamboyant yet melancholy turn as traveling showman Jack Langrishe in the third (and sadly final) season of HBO’s Deadwood (2006).

Those were all serious roles, each blessed with the subtle humor that informs many of Cox’s performances. Occasionally that humor is delightfully less than subtle: Cox is one of the better reasons to watch Super Troopers (2001); he scored an Emmy nomination for an appearance on TV’s Frasier (1993); and his line deliveries in The Ringer (2005) are pee-your-pants hilarious.

Now we can add Red to the roster of Cox’s finest work to date; it’s “under the radar” because it’s been little-seen beyond its Sundance premiere in January 2008. (I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t happened upon the film’s one-night preview on HDNet Movies, on the eve of its brief U.S. theatrical release in a handful of east-coast cinemas.)
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“A rough, jagged, jarring, shaking-you-up kind of movie” – Janet Leigh on “Touch of Evil”

In 1998, as Universal was preparing the theatrical release of the revised Touch of Evil, I was offered the opportunity to talk with star Janet Leigh about the film in a phone interview. I had yet to see the new version, so my questions were formed around my research and my familiarity with the previous versions of the film. The interview was never published. What follows is an edited version of the transcript focused specifically on her experiences during the original production of Touch of Evil and her thoughts on Welles, on the original film and on the revision, which she generously supported and promoted in interviews and personal appearances.

I wanted to talk to you about what it was like to work with Orson Welles on the shooting of the film.

Right. This new reediting is not a new shooting, it’s just the proper assemblage of what we shot, which hadn’t been done the way he [Welles] had hoped. Well, you know the story. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s like another picture or something. I mean I don’t think we’d match if we shot scenes today (laughs), so it’s really just what we shot then, as you know.

Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston
Posed publicity shot: Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston

Were you involved in any way with this revision?

With this revision? No, only in, now that it’s coming out, in telling people about it. But I didn’t have anything to do with the revision.

I understand it doesnt make a lot of narrative changes but it does make a lot of stylistic changes.

Exactly. Plus the pacing. At that time in Hollywood the level of our movies were sort of, everything had to be kind of tied up with a little pretty ribbon, each scene rounded off, and Touch of Evil was never meant to be that kind of picture. It was way ahead of its time, as Orson was. It was meant to be a rough, jagged, jarring, shaking-you-up kind of movie, and the studio just didn’t understand that. They couldn’t understand the rough edges. When I saw it this way it was so exciting because you went back to the way it had felt on the set. In mean this was the kind of picture we made and now that’s what we’re seeing on the screen. I mean, the editing has pace to it and suspense and much more of the mounting kind of horror and the mounting kind of “My god, when is he going to look for his wife?” It just mounts to a frenzy.

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“Actors loved him” – Charlton Heston on Orson Welles and “Touch of Evil”

In 1998 I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Charlton Heston for the release of the Walter Murch-supervised “restoration” of Touch of Evil (1958). It was supposed to be the center of a essay on the film, but the article was canceled and the interview unpublished until earlier this year on my website. I republish it here as part of a collection of interviews on Touch of Evil and the 1998 revision of the film.

Charlton Heston in a posed studio still for "Touch of Evil"
Charlton Heston in a posed studio still for "Touch of Evil"

Ive been doing some research and Ive read your journals and autobiography where you go into magnificent detail on the making of Touch of Evil.

Well thank you.

So I wanted to talk about some other things that I havent heard you talk about in interviews or read about in your books. One thing that struck me as I read your piece was that it seems like you had quite a rapport with Orson Welles.

Yes, that’s true. I had never known him before but of course I had see Citizen Kane and for that matter I’d seen Othello. And his reputation then as a filmmaker then was remarkable. I was amazed that the studio, when I suggested he direct the picture, they acted as though I’d suggested directing the picture but his work on the film was extraordinary, I thought.

When did you actually meet Orson Welles for the first time?

Oh, we didn’t meet until I came back from Michigan, where I’d discussed on the phone using him as a director, and that may prove to be one of my significant contributions to motion pictures, that I bullied Universal Studios into giving Orson Welles the last picture he made as a director in America. And then I came back to Los Angeles and he had by then rewritten the script entirely and we discussed it and discussed various elements in the story and then of course went on to shoot it.

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Tim Robbins – The Lucky One

When I got on the phone with Tim Robbins, who was doing a day of interviews to publicize his new film, The Lucky Ones, he began with all the energy of a guy doing just another job, giving out answers that had the feeling of a familiar response practiced over numerous interviews. I have to take some of that blame myself – you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same answers – but it also felt like the outspoken Robbins was holding his own political view in check so as not to distract from the film, in which he plays an Iraq veteran trying to get home after his tour of duty and ending up on a road trip with a pair of younger soldiers on 30-day leave. I was supposed to get ten minutes and was hoping to get at least a couple of interesting comments from the Oscar-winning actor (for Mystic River) and Oscar-nominated director (for Dead Man Walking). And sure enough, once we got beyond The Lucky Ones and into other areas, such as his work in the theater, he seemed to come alive. Strangely enough, I never got around to talking about either Mystic River or Dead Man Walking, or his talent for playing closely-guarded characters, but we get started on Cradle Will Rock, his last film as a director, before he was called off for another interview. Some of the interview ended up in the short “A Moment With Tim Robbins” mini-feature for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rest of it is here.

The character Colee, played by Rachel McAdams, calls your group “The Lucky Ones” because you survived battle. How lucky can they be if their definition of luck is simply survival?

I don’t know if that’s what the title means. It could be that they’ve found each other. One of the things that I responded to immediately with the script was that this story was very human feel to it and had compassion for the struggle and the challenge for returning home to the country after serving overseas. That’s a story that I think is important to tell, it’s a story that involves opening a door to something that not a lot of us have to think about. My main concern with it was, I wanted to make a film that veterans could see and appreciate.

Michal Pena, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins are "The Lucky Ones"
Micheal Pena, Rachel McAdams and Tim Robbins are "The Lucky Ones"

What kind of research did you do for the role?

I’ve been talking to veterans and people in the armed services and family members of people in the armed services for a long time, since I did Top Gun, so I’ve come to know quite a few people in the military, everyone from gung-ho Republicans to people that were Republicans and are now against the war to Democrats to liberals to activists. There’s a wide spectrum of people in the military, they don’t all think the same way, and I have a deep respect who make that kind of sacrifice. I think it’s import that we understand that part of support for the troops is advocacy when they return, not only when also they’re there but when they return, and there’s an awful lot of challenges facing people coming home and this comes from my conversations with veterans and family members. I would hope the film perhaps makes people more sensitive to some of the needs of our veterans.

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Steve Coogan: “Can we get away with this?”

I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows (aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song – but of course – and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)

I just want you to like me... and watch my show
Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge: I just want you to like me... and watch my show

I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.

You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy. There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.

With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.

In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?

It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.

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Is that Downey? Okey DoQui

Is it just me, or does Robert Downey, Jr., seem to be channeling the the great character actor Robert DoQui (of Nashville and Robocop fame) in Tropic Thunder? Mind you, I haven’t seen the film yet, but I do know that he plays a method actor in the movie who goes to extreme measures to play an African American (in the movie within the movie), apparently drawing his examples from American exploitation cinema of the seventies. But all I saw in the previews was an uncanny resemblance to Robert DoQui, who passed away in February of 2008.

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