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Interview: Bob Balaban

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 8, 2008 9:17PM

2008_2balaban.jpg A native Chicagoan, it's no wonder that Bob Balaban was bitten early on by the movie bug, since his family is the Balaban of the Balaban & Katz movie threater chain. What's more surprising is how many hats he's worn. He's a character actor royale, appearing in films by everyone from Woody Allen and Christopher Guest to Terry Zwigoff and Robert Altman. (But he's probably best known for playing the NBC exec who's obsessed with Elaine in five episodes of "Seinfeld"). He's also a children's book author and a filmmaker.

Since his feature directorial debut, the jet black cannibalism comedy Parents, he's also directed episodes of TV shows like "Strangers with Candy" and "Oz." His newest film Bernard and Doris premieres tomorrow on HBO. It's an imaginary portrait of billionaire Doris Duke, whose will left her entire fortune to her Irish butler Bernard. A touching and quietly moving love story of sorts, it gives Susan Sarandon one of her best roles in years; and Ralph Fiennes is every bit her match as the troubled and devoted servant. The interplay between the two actors is fascinating, with both stars wringing every ounce of nuance between the lines of their dialog.

We got a chance to chat with Balaban on Monday, the day after the Siskel held an advance screening of the film.

CHICAGOIST: So last night was the screening at the Siskel. How did it go?

BOB BALABAN: Well people seemed to enjoy the movie a lot and I was amazed by the number of people who showed up, given the Super Bowl last night. It may be that fans of movies don't necessarily like the Super Bowl. [laughs] I'm kidding about that.

C: Well, the Siskel is really popular and there are a lot of film fans that will come out for that.

BOB: A lot of diehards, yeah.

C: Was it shown on film or was it shown via projection?

BOB: We have a print of the movie that we show on these occasions and so it was on film.

C: Wow, it must have looked fantastic.

BOB: Yeah, it looks nice. It's nice for me to see it big since I spent a lot of time looking at it small.

C: I was looking at your biography and you were born here in Chicago, correct?

BOB: I was born here in Chicago and my dad was the youngest of seven brothers who had a wonderful chain of old picture palace movie theaters, called Balaban & Katz. They started a long time ago.

C: So what early memories do you have of Chicago?

BOB: My early memories were of getting into movies for free. And my friends and my dates were very impressed with the fact that my name was on the theater somewhere. Because they did have a lot of great theaters. The Chicago, the Stateway, a lot of the big downtown theaters, the Uptown—they were kind of all over the place. And I did spend a lot more time than your average kid in Chicago thinking about the movies. But I was kind of infected anyway I think.

C: Did you have a favorite theater that you liked to go to?

BOB: Well I happened to love the Esquire Theater, which my dad built in 1937. I was an usher there when I was a kid. And I always loved it there. I thought it was beautiful. It's actually in the process of being torn now, but I thought it was wonderful. It showed a lot of movies I was fond of.

C: Yeah, you know they're making it into condos now.

BOB: Well, maybe they'll see some good movies in their condos.

C: But I think they are keeping the marquee.

BOB: Maybe it'll be the Esquire Condos then.

C: What favorite places in Chicago did you like to hang out at?

BOB: Well, when I was a kid we went to a coffeehouse called the Fickle Pickle. I loved hanging out there. The Happy Medium was a place I loved going ... And now I'm a great fan of Millennium Park and I love Fritzel's Restaurant and I hear it may start up again.

C: I guess I don't really have to ask you how you became involved with movies, seeing as how you were sort of born into it.

BOB: Well, I kind of was, but most of my family of this generation anyway weren't particularly interested in joining the movie business. But it is true, I kind of always was. Maybe I got it on both sides. My mother had been an actress in New York as a young woman before she married my dad and gave up the whole thing. But she was interested too. So maybe it's getting it from both sides.

C: And what led you towards acting?

BOB: I don't know. I always liked it. I was a puppeteer as a kid. I always loved being in theaters. It was always something I kind of responded to. I probably was on my way to trying to be a writer when I started getting some jobs in New York. In my junior year of college I was in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I was the original Linus in that play. I went on to do a Broadway show that Mike Nichols directed and then was in Midnight Cowboy and Catch-22, which Mike Nichols directed, which were my first two movies when I was a senior in college.

C: I was going to ask you about Midnight Cowboy and how you got the role in that.

BOB: I had an agent, I was going in for things and casting directors were coming around. And I was lucky. It was a good movie, it won Best Picture and was very controversial; it had an X rating when it opened but that went away when it won Best Picture. And so I began acting, even though I had assumed that I would probably be a writer, I would probably never be an actor. But you never know how these things are going to turn out.

C: And then later you started directing.

BOB: I did. I directed a successful pilot for a series called “Tales from the Darkside” that ran for a number of years. And then I directed a black comedy called Parents, which is on a few people's lists for those classic cult horror films. And a couple other movies and a million TV shows. And now Bernard and Doris for HBO which premieres this coming Saturday.

C: I'll ask you about that in just a minute. First I wanted to ask you about the sort of “character actor” niche that you've created.

BOB: [laughs] I wouldn't say I created it. But you do sort of fall into whatever category is easiest to fit you in because movies do tend to cast you as what you appear to be. Even though I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a therapist, I do tend to get cast in these brainiac roles with some regularity. I can't claim that there's any real reason for it except that that's how I seem to people. So I do have a bit of a niche there, whatever you call that niche. Sort of the intellectual/professional role.

C: My friend wanted me to ask you the following question: “You've played a lot of bastards over the years. What's that like?”

BOB: Well I sort of veer between bastards, who are sort of evil, nasty, frightening people, and ineffective nerds. It's an odd niche. [laughs] I don't see much of a relationship there, but I do veer back and forth. It's fun being a bad guy because you get more attention. I like it. It's good. I like when it happens, but it doesn't happen that much. But I don't mind it. I've always found it interesting when rather pleasant people were cast as really, really bad people. There's a nice tension going on there. I'd like to think that by nature I'm really not that evil. So it's interesting that I get to be this bad guy when I'm thoroughly innocuous and pleasant at heart, I think, rather well-behaved.

C: And you're also sort of part of the Christopher Guest rep company.

BOB: Yeah, I've been in four of them so far.

C: How did that come about?

BOB: I acted with Christopher Guest. We were both in this movie about 25 years ago called Girlfriends. We were the two boyfriends of the two girlfriends in the movie. And we had a really nice time working together. I think when it came time to look for a repertory company to put together for these movies that he was setting out to make—of course there was only one in the beginning—I guess Christopher must have remembered that we had a nice working experience. And he knew my work a little bit. He called me and he described to me the improvisational nature of the movie. Waiting for Guffman, which was the first movie. I had no idea what the movie would be like. I had no idea it would turn into such an amazing, fantastic thing. It just seemed like something we could have a really good time doing. And so I signed on immediately. Some of my favorite experiences have been on those four movies. Christopher is quite inspiring to be around and work next to. And you're also surrounded by a bunch of other actors that you can only try not to—you just want to try not to be too awestruck by the quality of the other people you're surrounded with because it's a great bunch.

C: And you get to do a lot of improvisation?

BOB: Yes. These movies are improvised movies. There's no dialog in particular written for them. There's an outline and a structure. And you know more or less what's happening and you act accordingly. A lot of it gets cut. In a movie like these—Chistopher probably ends up using 10-20% of what you say and do.

C: The good stuff.

BOB: He gets to find what he wants and structures the movie according to the needs of the movie. There's always a lot to choose from, from everybody.

C: Bernard and Doris seems like such a different piece from these character bits you've been doing. And even your first movie, Parents, seems like such a different kind of story.

BOB: I guess as a director I'm attracted to unusual things. And I can't say there's a throughline to any of the things I've directed. I did direct a movie called The Last Good Time which was basically a character piece between a man and a woman, so in that sense it was probably a little like Bernard and Doris. I was also lucky enough to work with some great actors in that movie: Lionel Stander, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Maureen Stapleton. But yeah, I would say there's no throughline in the things I've been lucky enough to direct. Except for the fact that I like them all, and they're all fairly different.

C: Among other things, Bernard and Doris seems to me to be partially about how people use wealth to insulate themselves from the world, or maybe about how wealth itself inherently insulates people. Is that a theme you were trying to communicate?

BOB: I do think it's inherent in the lives of these two characters. I mean, granted, this is not a biopic. This is essentially an imagined relationship between two people who were real and did have a relationship, but basically we imagined this relationship. It's not based on a book or anything especially factual. But it did seem to be a theme in Doris Duke's life, and in people like that. If you're that wealthy it's fairly hard not to be separated from the rest of the world because you're so different. And everybody needs something from you and it's very difficult to figure out who wants you for yourself. I think that's kind of a traditional problem among the uberwealthy. And it certainly is with the Susan Sarandon/Doris Duke that we portray in our movie. It's been a problem for all of her life. She comes upon this ne'er-do-well butler guy played by Ralph Finnes. And what attracted me to the movie in the first place was that the script portrayed the way these two people eventually fulfill a very real need in each other's lives. And yet they were extraordinarily different and really you would not have imagined that either would have paid attention to the other one for a minute. In our movie they attain a deep emotional attraction to each other, which may or many not have happened. But in our movie that's the way we have portrayed it.

C: How concerned were you with the authenticity of the environment and the details, things like that?

BOB: We were very concerned with the authenticity as it pertained to our story. We were very aware that this was not in any way going to be an accurate depiction of the last six years of the real Doris Duke's life. But we did want to observe as many realities as we could, to a certain extent. The movie begins in 1987. Bernard Lafferty did come to Doris Duke at this point in time. He was there for six years. And at the end of it we do know that will existed, which we read verbatim at the end of the movie. But we really didn't know what happened between these two people that caused this will to be written. So we imagined the scenario whereby this could have happened, and the attachment that Doris might have felt for this Bernard character and vice-versa. Given that possible scenario we were terribly concerned to try to build a realistic relationship. Whether or not it was their relationship we couldn't possibly imagine. But we could imagine a potential way that this might have happened between the two of them. If that makes any sense. It was important to us that this character appear to be very wealthy. It was important for us to observe certain things so that if you had never heard of Doris Duke this might still be an interesting movie for you to see. Because it's an interesting relationship that develops between two people. Who happen to be played by two of my favorite actors. [laughs]

C: I think one of the things I liked most about the movie was the very gradual, kind of matter-of-fact way that you reveal that Bernard is gay. There's not some big “coming out” scene or anything like that. It's just another bit of his character that you come to learn.

BOB: We came to be fond of this aspect of our imagined creation of Doris Duke, the Sarandon Duke character. She's pretty accepting of people as whatever they are as long as they're true to themselves in some way. So it seemed only natural that that would be her attitude, and so therefore our attitude as filmmakers about this sexual fact in his life. And it didn't seem to have affected our Doris in any particular way. In some ways it probably made him a little more interesting to her.

C: There's a beautiful moment at the end of the film where Bernard leans Doris forward and adjusts her pillow for her. And there are so many wonderful moments like that where they interact in this completely nonverbal way that's on a whole different level than the dialog.

BOB: I'm so glad you were aware of this. It's pretty subtle, and yet it's one of the things in the movie that interests me a lot—what the actors were able to bring to it between the lines. And I'm glad you noticed it. When Susan started to get involved with the movie we were both talking about this as a love story. Nonsexual, unrealized, unfulfilled story perhaps. But what you noticed at the end of the movie is really a kind of last embrace between two characters who were sort of tragically mismatched and yet very powerfully matched together.

C: Did you have much time for rehearsal or did these sort of things coming out during filming?

BOB: Most of it came out during the filming. We spent about a week together before we started, really talking through it, trying to decide what the most important parts of this relationship were. So that as we were working we were always aware that there were certain things that we were very much trying to emphasize. The way they connected. How it happened. It was very important that they maintain a connection, even when Bernard was a quiet servant in the room. One of my favorite scenes is a scene where Doris is in the bed with her boyfriend. It's near the beginning of the movie. And Bernard is packing to leave, with the maid, but you can tell by the way they look at each other—there's nothing scripted there but you can tell that both Doris and Bernard are beginning to connect to each other. There's a real visceral connection between the two of them. Just because of the way they enjoy each other. You can see their whole attitude towards each other even though they don't say a word to each other. We were always looking for moments like that. And Susan and Ralph were always looking for moments. Which is a fun way to approach a movie. It keeps you awake to always look for the thing that will help bring two characters together, even if it's not visible on the page.

C: I also loved the use of Peggy Lee on the soundtrack.

BOB: Thank you. That seemed to be a nice theme to carry through, seeing as how that was what brought the two of them together. In a funny way there was something about Peggy Lee that was a little bit similar to Susan/Doris. That creation.

C: So what is your next project?

BOB: I'm an actor in a new HBO movie that's coming out in a few months called Recount. A wonderful movie about the Gore/Bush recount debacle in Florida starring many wonderful people including Kevin Spacey, Dennis Leary, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson and many other wonderful people. I'm happy to be in that. I play Ben Ginsburg, lead counsel to Bush/Cheney. I'm embarking on the final putting together of a project I've been working on for years, based on an Anthony Trollope novel called The Eustace Diamonds, which I hope to be shooting in Europe by the summer. As director.

C: Is Recount going to be a comedy or a tragedy?

BOB: I would call Recount a sort of docudrama. Whatever genre All The President's Men was, I would say this is in that genre. Very, very accurate. It's quite dramatic, but not because anything was invented. It's just a really well-told version of a very nail-biting, exciting story.

C: I have to ask you about a film that you were in a couple years ago, the adaptation of Marie and Bruce. Which is one of my favorite plays. I guess it played on the festival circuit for awhile and then it kind of vanished. I was wondering if you knew what happened to it.

BOB: Yeah, I don't know what happened to it. I keep hearing that it's being re-released. I loved it. I think Matthew Broderick is great and Julianne Moore is always wonderful, as she is in this. I guess it's kind of a rarefied movie and there's just less and less room for these odd little independent movies. It's such a crowded and expensive marketplace to swim in. I must say that it's one of the reasons I'm pleased that Bernard and Doris is on HBO, where a large number of people will get to see it if they tune in. And they seem to be interested to do that. And these quirkier, little independent movies do sometimes get lost in the movie theaters. So I'm very, very happy that we get our lovely platform on HBO, where they're so good at getting movies out there and finding an audience for them.

image via Opera Chic