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Alan Arkin basks in ‘Sunshine’s’ success

Veteran actor is receiving high marks for his role as Grandpa in indie film, but will that translate to an Oscar nomination?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Alan Arkin’s role as Grandpa in the indie smash “Little Miss Sunshine” may be a supporting role, but there was nothing minimal about his approach to the character.

Arkin fleshed out a considerable back-story for Grandpa, envisioning him as a second-rate saxophone player who deserted his family by performing in strip joints where he picked up a drug habit and a fondness for the ladies — until the life caught up with him.

“It’s not enough for me to just be a personality and go up there and say lines nicely,” he says in his unmistakable voice that by its very tone suggests a total impatience for pretense. “I want to tell a story with a character.”

There are hardly any references to Grandpa’s history in “Little Miss Sunshine,” but that attention to detail is nothing new for Arkin, who long ago honed the art of the character actor. For over four decades, the 72-year-old actor has been richly populating the peripheries of films.

After joining Chicago improv comedy troupe Second City in its infancy, Arkin burst into film with an Oscar nomination in his first performance: 1966’s “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming.”

Since, he has appeared in films as varied as “The In-Laws,” “Catch-22,” “The Lonely Hunter,” “Wait Until Dark,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Edward Scissorhands.” Lately, his career has flourished with independent fare like 1998’s underrated “Slums of Beverly Hills,” 2001’s “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” and the Steven Soderbergh-directed section of 2004’s “Eros.”

“Little Miss Sunshine” — an unabashedly bright, fun movie that was first a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival — slowly became one of the most beloved films of 2006, and now finds itself a dark horse contender for the Oscars. It was recently released on DVD.

Acting alongside Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell, Arkin has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best supporting actor. He was also honored last month by the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a career of presenting “the idiosyncrasies and oddities of his characters, for bringing them to life with all their anxieties and quirks.”

The part of Grandpa — which Arkin was flattered to have originally been turned down for because the studio said he was too “virile” — has lead to some Oscar buzz for the actor, who has twice been nominated. In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Arkin said indifferently: “Whatever happens, happens.”

AP: You were born in New York. It’s hard to imagine your voice coming from anywhere but Brooklyn.

ARKIN: Hey! (in a Brooklyn accent) We moved to L.A. when I was about 11, but it never rubbed off. I never felt comfortable there. I understand it [in New York] more. There’s anger in both places, but it feels much more lethal in L.A. than it does here.

AP: What do you like about living in Santa Fe, N.M.?

ARKIN: It’s a small town. I go to restaurants there and I know everybody in the restaurant. I know all the artists who are waiting on us.

AP: Community or camaraderie with actors is also important to you. It’s something you stress in the acting workshops you teach.

ARKIN: The supportive aspect of it frees you to do better work than you ordinarily would. A lot of people I’ve known in film protect their own turf, but I don’t think it really does the work any good.

AP: How is that camaraderie between a cast built on a set?

ARKIN: Smaller, less comfortable trailers and a significant rehearsal period. We had that on “Little Miss Sunshine.” I can remember vividly the movies that had it and I feel like it shows. You often have little more than a cursory ‘Hello, how are you’ relationship with the people you’re having intimate scenes with — which is nuts. You can’t do it. It’s phony.

AP: But you gelled with the cast of “Little Miss Sunshine”?

ARKIN: It felt very, very much like we were all on the same page. After a couple of days, that became very clear. It’s a very specific tone that everybody’s got in the film — even the people that have small parts.

AP: Do you find yourself losing faith in films these days?

ARKIN: Oh, I lost faith in them a long time ago. And I’m deeply grateful for having lost faith in them. Now I can just do it as it’s my work that I take very seriously — but that’s not where my faith is located.

AP: Does a movie like this restore your optimism a little bit?

ARKIN: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been with a bunch of terrific projects in the past seven or eight years. I have no complaints. I don’t know why, it just happens. The tide comes in and the tide goes out. I’m riding a wave at the moment — I’m happy about it — but it’s going to go out again.

AP: What do you look for in a part?

ARKIN: There’s a lot of things I’m NOT looking for. I’m not looking for any long speeches any more. I don’t want to learn any more foreign languages — I’ve done enough of that. I’m not looking for any night shooting. I’m not looking for any directors that are going to save the world with this particular movie. I just basically want to enjoy myself and not knock myself out. I don’t feel like there are any more mountains I particularly want to climb.

AP: Do you find you’re enjoying the character-actor roles more?

ARKIN: Well, I’ve always been a character actor. I’ve never been a leading man. It gave me an opportunity not to have to take my clothes off all the time.

AP: Do you see any similarities between the roles when you look back?

ARKIN: I used to think that my stuff had a lot of variety. But I realized that for the first 20 years or so, most of the characters I played were outsiders, strangers to their environment, foreigners in one way or another. ... As I started to get more and more comfortable with myself, that started to shift. I got one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten from someone a few days ago. They said that they thought my characters were very often the heart, the moral center of a film. I didn’t particularly understand it, but I liked it; it made me happy.