Alan Arkin, ‘Argo’ Star, On Hollywood, ‘The Muppets’

Fun fact: Alan Arkin is set to star in a movie called “Arigo.” This is not to be confused with “Argo,” a ’70s spy thriller that also features the Oscar-winning actor. Oddly enough, Arkin just happens to be involved with two different films that have almost identical names. Granted, one — “Argo” — is about the true story of a CIA operative who looks to smuggle six stranded Americans out of Iran (during the middle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, no less) using a bogus sci-fi movie, the other — “Arigo” — is about a man named Ze Arigo, a self-proclaimed supernatural surgeon.

Either way, this could become a bit of a predicament for Arkin if “Arigo” (which he also wrote and is set to direct) ever gets made. Why? Because it’s going to have a lot to live up to against its similarly titled predecessor. Since its premiere at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, “Argo” has been showered with critical acclaim and Oscar buzz. Here, Arkin plays hotshot movie producer Lester Siegel, who assists the CIA with its Hollywood-inspired rescue mission.

Arkin recently rang up Moviefone to talk about “Argo,” why it was so difficult playing his character, the hardest role he’s ever done in his career and his cameos on “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.”

So I saw the movie in Toronto. It seemed to get a pretty good reaction up there.
Yes. It did very well.

Ben Affleck, John Goodman and Bryan Cranston’s characters are all based on real people. Is yours based on someone in particular?
I thought it was for awhile and then I found out it was a composite of about three or four different people, which made it very, very hard to play. Playing four people at the same time is not an easy job.

Which four people?
I wasn’t even told.

So how did you go about creating the character then?
I just used my imagination.

It seems like a pretty good role too, because you get to poke a bit of fun at the more absurd parts of Hollywood.
Well, the people involved with it don’t find it absurd. I was just reading it as business as usual. That’s the way things are. [Hollywood’s] crazy, but I don’t think any crazier than what goes on in politics or a lot of other businesses.

For me, there was one feeling that kept popping up while I was watching this movie: I can’t believe this actually happened in real life. Did you have that reaction at all when you first found out about this story?
Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. But it’s like what Mark Twain said: “The difference between fact and fiction is that fiction has to be believable.” Meaning that it’s hard to believe what goes on in life a lot of time.

Do you have any specific memories of the Iranian Hostage Crisis and what was going on at the time?
I have no memory of it at all. I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, so it’s not surprising.

Are you surprised that Hollywood and our government were able to pull off the “Argo” mission?
That they were able to do it successfully? Yeah. To me, that’s the most exciting part of the film. The fact that something that could’ve been an international conflagration — it could have been responsible for World War III — was handled by imagination and creativity without a shot being fired and nobody being hurt was miraculous and beautiful.

Do you think Hollywood could pull something off like this today?
I wouldn’t be surprised if they have. Who knows what’s going on. We didn’t know that [the Argo mission] was going on then. Who knows what’s going on now?

Is it helpful having a director who is also a co-star, in Ben Affleck?
It depends on the person. In the case of Ben, it was very easy and comfortable.

This film is already starting to get a lot of Oscar buzz. Is it hard not to pay attention to that? Or are you able to just drown it out?
It’s a euphemism for “We like the work.” People turn it into generalizations. I’d be a lot happier if people just said “I like the movie a lot.”

This is random, but I saw that you worked on a movie called “Arigo.”
I wrote a screenplay, and I was going to direct it but we haven’t gotten the money together for it. The title is one letter difference from [“Argo”] but they have nothing to do with each other.

I am curious, if you get “Arigo” made, do you think you’ll have to change the title at all?
We’re not in the stage now where it would be too much of an issue. After we get the money and put it together, we’ll worry about that.

So you have the “Stand Up Guys” coming out, with Christopher Walken and Al Pacino. Being familiar with all three of your careers, it feels like this cast makes sense together.
Well the producer certainly seemed to think so. It was very comfortable with the two of them. I had worked with Al before but I had never worked with Christopher. I worked with Al on “Glengarry Glen Ross. Christopher I had never met before but I was very taken with him.

The 20th anniversary of “Glengarry Glen Ross” was just this past week.
It was the hardest film anybody has ever worked on. We rehearsed it for a month, and when we weren’t on screen and run over to our trailers in groups of two or three and run lines. It was incredibly hard. It was the hardest role I ever worked on.

What made it so hard?
The dialogue was murderously difficult. [Screenwriter David] Mamet is harder than Shakespeare, by far.

I wanted to ask you about your cameo in “The Muppets,” which I thought was hysterical. You had done the old “Muppet Show” before, right?
Yeah, I had done a week with them. For this film, it was a great cameo — two or three lines. They just asked me to do it and I just jumped at the chance, because the memories of doing the show were just wonderful. I had a great time in London doing the show for a week.

I think it’s great that you did both “The Muppets” and “Sesame Street.”
Well, I love doing kids shows and I love working with kids. I’ve done a lot of it. A lot of people don’t like working with children, but I love it.

What about it do you like? Is it more fun?
I like the fact that once you get them out of a rote — they usually rehearse too much — they breathe a sigh of relief and start playing. They don’t take it as seriously as an adult would take it. A kid doesn’t think their career is at stake, so they can play it a little more easily than an adult.

Do you have any plans on doing “Sesame Street” again?
They are still making that show? I had no idea. I’d jump at it if they asked me.

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