“Grudge Match” pits two movie boxing kings — Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone — against eachother, as aging pugilists nursing an unresolved, decades-old grievance. On the sidelines is another legend: Alan Arkin, who plays longtime friend to and trainer of Stallone’s character. For Arkin, who finally won his Oscar for a heroin-injecting, charmingly nihilistic gramps in 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” playing old wasn’t the attraction.
“Every friggin’ thing I do now is about aging. So now it’s not of great interest to me,” he explains. One of the rare exception is “Argo,” in which he played a commanding film producer. “It was one of the few where I wasn’t in an old folk’s home, coming in or going out.”
His character here is different from other recent, similar roles, including his stint in the aging gangster comedy “The Stand Up Guys,” with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken. “This guy’s got a sense of humor,” he explains. “Also the closeness between [he and Stallone]. There was obviously a close, old relationship, which I don’t often get a chance to play.”
In fact, it wasn’t anything obvious that drew him to the project. “What interested me, basically, if I had to pick out one thing, was the longevity of this stupid rivalry,” he says. “It was like, ‘Get over it, Jesus.’”
Arkin has been acting in — and sometimes even directing — movies since the mid-1960s. But he never even met any of his other major co-stars, also including Kim Basinger. Acting like he’s lifelong friends with a total stranger isn’t getting easier.
“Films get made faster and faster now. There used to be days of rehearsal. Now you find out in the first scene or two what it’s going to be like to work with somebody. If someone starts rolling their eyes you, for me it’s going to be a problem,” he explains. “I consider myself a team player and I know that the event is going to be shared with comrades and not just people grandstanding or acting like they’re curing significant diseases.”
Stallone is definitely not one of those, he says. “I’ve never worked with anybody who worked harder. I never worked with anyone more flexible. He’s game to try anything,” Arkin says. “He’s a guy who has very successfully acted, written, directed and produced, and there was never a sense of being in competition with the director or pushing his position on anybody. He was a team player and flexible and terrific.”
Throughout his career, Arkin has switched between comedy and drama. Right after his debut, “The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!” netted him his first Oscar nomination, he popped up as a hipster villain terrorizing a blind Audrey Hepburn in “Wait Until Dark.” But even his “Russians” role he treated with seriousness. “I wanted the audience to really love that guy. I wanted them to see a Russian that was a nice, decent, good human being. The comedy aspect of it was built in, and it’s what I had been doing for a few years before, so it was relatively easy. But my main concern was that he be cared about.”
Even now, he’s not looking to be Mr. Theater. “I don’t have a secret desire to do ‘King Lear’ or ‘Hamlet.’ It doesn’t matter to me,” he says. He used to direct both theater and film, including the delightfully absurdist and dark 1971 film of Jules Feiffer’s play “Little Murders,” starring Elliott Gould and featuring Donald Sutherland and himself in one-scene roles. “I love directing. I did love directing. These days, I don’t want to do anything,” he says, laughing. “I just want to take it easy and have fun. I don’t want to knock my brains out doing anything. The idea of directing a play is anathema to me, because I don’t want to sit in a room without windows for four weeks. And I don’t want to tell people what to do.”
Instead he writes books, including 2011’s “An Improvised Life,” which is less a memoir than a reflection on doing improvised theater and how it affects one’s life. “I can sit down and look out a window while I’m writing a book, or write outside,” he says. “And if a good script comes along, I’m thrilled.”
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