Ben Affleck is in tears.
The director-star of “Argo” is seated in the restaurant of a Beverly Hills hotel with Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin, two of the actors from his much-buzzed-about ensemble film. Cranston has offhandedly mentioned he appeared in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the film that won Arkin an Oscar—which comes as news to Arkin. “You did?” Arkin says. “Get out of here—I had no idea!”
Cranston proceeds to tell a story about following Arkin on a talk show around the time of the film’s release. “So the host said, ‘By the way, Alan, we have one of your co-stars from “Little Miss Sunshine” who’s going to follow you. Bryan Cranston.’ ” At this point Cranston slips into a perfect Arkin impersonation, shouting, “ ‘I don’t know a Bryan Cranston! I don’t know who you’re talking about!’ ‘He’s in the movie with you.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ And I’m hearing all this and dying in the green room.” Affleck and Cranston continue to lovingly tease Arkin for a few more moments before the actor finally sighs and says, “I’m very old. I haven’t got time to be charming.”
The three are gathered to discuss “Argo,” a film based on unlikely but true events. In the movie, Cranston plays a CIA operative who supports agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) in his plan to rescue six individuals who escaped during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, while Arkin plays a legendary producer who agrees to back the phony film that Mendez has concocted as a cover story for the rescue. Also included in the who’s who cast are John Goodman, Victor Garber, Scoot McNairy, and Chris Messina.
How did you go about assembling this amazing cast?
Ben Affleck: I went around and took cracks at the people I really wanted, and I got lucky. I believed the material would speak for itself and hoped they would go along with me as a director. Some people were automatic first choices, like these two here. John Goodman was another guy—not only is he a great actor, he looks identical to John Chambers, the guy he’s playing. He looks just like him.
Bryan Cranston: I remember getting the script and how terrific it was. And that’s the thing—you can have a terrific story but if your script doesn’t completely capture that, at any given point a story can break down and dissolve. This held up so well. I was so pleased to go in and talk to Ben about it.
Alan Arkin: I didn’t have to audition, because he saw that I had played this part 75 times before already.
Affleck: [Laughing.] Even still, I was worried.
Arkin: I wish I could say there was something unusual about it, but my agent called me and said, “I’ve got a script I’m nuts about.” Ben and I had a brief conversation, and the rest is history. Or geography.
You’ve all played real-life people before; is it easier to play a real person because you have more material to draw on? Or is it difficult because you feel a responsibility to the person?
Affleck: For me, there’s a tradeoff. With a fictional character, you can create things and imagine them and be the author of it, by and large. With a real person you have some responsibility to the truth of who they are. I played George Reeves in “Hollywoodland,” and I felt he’d gotten a raw deal and I wanted to portray him in a way that was honest and befitting to who he really was. With Tony, I felt a huge responsibility to not do an impersonation or a sketch version of him but to show the full man.
Cranston: I felt the same way. I played Buzz Aldrin in “From the Earth to the Moon.” Buzz is an interesting person, and there were some things in the miniseries that weren’t completely favorable toward him as a person. I figured if his reaction was that’s fair and honest, that’s as much as you can hope for.
Affleck: How did Buzz like it?
Cranston: When I saw him he said, “Well, all right, I have some issues with that, but by and large, it was pretty good.”
Did you get to meet your “Argo” counterparts?
Affleck: Absolutely. For me, Tony was a huge part of the research. I sat down with him beforehand; I talked to him during shooting—he even has a cameo in the movie.
Cranston: My guy is a composite character.
Affleck: These two guys are the characters that were the most manipulated and compressed into one character.
Arkin: It’s hard to play a composite; you’re playing four people at the same time.
Affleck: The guys Alan’s character is based on weren’t as legendary as we imply. But if you have Alan Arkin in your film, he’s got to be a legend. You can’t put Alan Arkin in a part that’s not legendary.
Arkin: Listen to the man.
We joked about Alan auditioning, but do you find you still have to audition at this point in your career?
Cranston: Even when agents say, “It’s not an audition; you’re just going to meet with them,” it’s always an audition. And if you really want to be a part of something, you’ll do what it takes.
Affleck: There was one movie where I auditioned for a well-known actor who was directing a movie. I read the script, and it was strange and ambiguous, and people were shooting each other, and there were ships, and I couldn’t grasp it. So I asked the director, “So, is this a sci-fi movie in space?” And the guy looked at me and said, “What? This is a Western, man! Young actors don’t do their homework!” But I had read it, and it was so horrendous it wasn’t clear to me it wasn’t a science fiction film!
Cranston: The whole point is to take some chances. I remember auditioning for “Happy Days”; they wanted a young guy to come in and be this cocky, laconic guy who doesn’t give a shit about anybody. So I come in and the guy offers his hand, and I just scoffed at it. I dragged a chair close to his desk; I sit down; I put my feet with my boots on his desk and cross my arms. He looks at me and says, “Get your shoes off my desk.” At that point, I can’t back down. So I just scoffed again. He goes, “Get. Your. Shoes. Off. My. Desk.” At that moment, I realized it was over. And I sat up and said, “Wouldn’t really matter if I read now, would it?” He goes, “No.”
Arkin: That’s terrible. Anybody worth their salt would have found that courageous.