Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman, the stars of The Interpreter, dish with director
Sydney Pollack about chemistry, humor and a made-up language called Ku.
Sydney Pollack is known for directing intelligent thrillers (The Firm) and intelligent actors (Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep). His newest film, The Interpreter, pairs Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the first movie ever shot inside the U.N.’s New York City headquarters. Time’s Josh Tyrangiel sat down with Kidman, Penn and Pollack to discuss Kofi Annan, Chris Rock and Princess Leia—and to hear Penn dispense a surprising number of droll one-liners.
Alfred Hitchcock was famously denied permission to shoot North By Northewest in the U.N. What powers of persuasion do you have that he didn't?
Sydney Pollack: I’m sure if Hitchcock were alive today, he’d be shooting at the U.N. It was time, honestly, more than anything else. We came at a moment when they were interested in opening up, and we came with good credentials, two terrific actors whose politics were known to the U.N. They were comfortable that we weren’t going to make a picture where people were getting it on on the floor of the General Assembly.
Sean Penn: You cut that?
Pollack: I was desperate to get the building—the movie would have been a fiasco without it—but also desperate not to be a used-car salesman. I met with Kofi Annan and said, “I wish I could tell you we’re going to make this great message movie for the U.N., but we’re not. It’s a thriller. It’s sympathetic to the U.N.’s goals, but it’s not a preaching piece about politics.”
Penn: We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the U.N. came strictly because Nicole was in the picture, and they wanted to meet her.
Pollack: We did hear a lot of that.
Penn: But whether or not Sydney was doing a dog-and-pony show at the U.N., I guarantee you he was relentless. It drives you crazy, but he gets what he wants.
Nicole Kidman: Yes, and that’s a good thing for a director. You prefer someone who’ll tell you what he wants and get in your face rather than sit back and be on the cell phone between takes.
Do other directors talk on cell phones between takes?
Kidman: [Laughs] Maybe.
Sydney, you've worked with a number of iconic actors-Redford, Newman, Streep, Jane Fonda. Did you know early on whom you wanted for this movie?
Pollack: I had Nicole first, and I was trying very hard to find the actor who would disturb her—I mean, disturb the character. The movie takes place over five days, and there are five major scenes between these two characters, and each one is kind of a one-act play. They have to disturb each other in an attractive way. We didn’t have a finished script until deep into the shooting, but I thought, O.K., I know Nic a little bit, I can be embarrassed by asking her to do a picture I don’t have a script for. But I didn’t know Sean that well. Am I going to fly up there like an a__hole and say do this thing for me without a script? In the end, I just admitted it. When I met him, I said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t do this.”
Penn: There wasn’t a finished script, but you had a lot of good things. There was her, and, you know, you’ve already made 152 great movies. What is that, about a movie a year?
Kidman: I’m actually used to working this way. On Moulin Rouge! we didn’t have a script. We had a picture book. That’s what Baz [Luhrmann] presents to you, and then he writes and rewrites, and every weekend is choreographing something. Birth was like that too. I’d get the pages in the morning and shoot in the afternoon.
When you're thrown together with another actor, is it possible to know beforehand if you'll have chemistry?
Penn: This is a myth of people who write about film—who has chemistry together, who doesn’t. It’s just a function of timing and circumstance, nothing more.
Kidman: I knew that Sean was fascinating, and that’s an important thing with me. If I’m bored with the person I’m working with, that will probably come across. I need to be fascinated.
Penn: I want examples of the nonfascinating ones.
Kidman: No, no, no.
Is it easier or harder to be fascinated when you're acting opposite your spouse?
Kidman: That could get me into some dangerous territory. When you’re working with your spouse, with your husband, you bring so much baggage to a film. It can work, but not if the characters are meant to be yearning for each other and never get together. Then you’re up against something insurmountable.
When did you two first meet?
Penn: I sent you that note first ’cause I thought you were so great in that movie Buck Henry wrote [To Die For].
Kidman: That’s right. You sent me a telegram, actually. But we met at a party. Whose party was it?
Penn: It was Princess Leia’s [Carrie Fisher’s] party, wasn’t it?
Kidman: After To Die For, he sent me a lovely telegram, and to get that kind of encouragement early on in your career gives you much more confidence to do things that are unusual or a little bold or offbeat. The thing about Sean is that he has an incredibly generous spirit in terms of other people’s work, particularly actors.
You defended Jude Law's honor when Chris Rock made fun of him at the Oscars...
Kidman: Another perfect example.
Does it bother you that you often come across as humorless in public?
Penn: No, I tell you what bothers me. I saw that part on television from my hotel room before I got there, and the problem was that this f__ing punk town that we work in, nobody in that f__ing place booed the dumb joke. Chris Rock’s really funny and talented, and in a three-hour set you’re allowed to make bad jokes, but the audience should respond. Instead, it’s just a bunch of schadenfreude-ists sitting there wanting Jude’s parts and looks.
But you didn't exactly respond with humor.
Penn: I don’t think you lack a sense of humor when you don’t laugh at something that’s not funny. The whole premise of the thing, it seems to me—and I’m gonna analyze it for a second because I’m having fun—is almost like, What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? What’s so funny about pursuing excellence? Why is it that on the show that aspires to celebrate excellence, a fantastic actor has to be used as a punch line? Everybody was uncomfortable with the thing, and [exhales in mock seriousness] I guess it’s my position, when I do come down here [to Los Angeles], to be completely devoid of humor. [All laugh] God knows, somebody’s got to do it. But bottom line: I didn’t think it was funny.
Kidman: Neither did I. I laughed at other things Chris Rock said. Just not that.
Nicole, in this movie you speak a made-up language called Ku. How does speaking a fictional language compare with learning a real accent?
Kidman: Accents you can at least practice with real words. Learning a language that doesn’t exist is just learning sounds, and that’s a very hard thing to do, as I found out. I would drill it over and over again, but it’s very hard to do without any reference. It’s not like you can go, “This is the word for table.” But then you couldn’t speak gibberish either and say, “Ku! I just spoke some Ku!” because there were other actors speaking it, so it had to have a sound that was recognizable. It was not easy.
Sean, you got to go to secret-service school to prep for your role. Whad did you learn?
Pollack: Oh, he was like a kid.
Penn: It wasn’t that they were teaching me so much as I was there to see what they get taught. They’re very impressive guys. You never know how these things affect a performance. You just try to have it at your service when you need it, if things come up when you’re shooting.
Could you protect the President? Would you?
Penn: [Laughs] Uh, I would protect the Constitution.
Did you feel vindicated after no WMD were found in Iraq?
Penn: Well, we’re talking about something that in the end is just really sad. So, no, not vindicated. It should just be pointed out that the information to avoid a war was there—and, by the way, that’s because the U.N. people were exactly right. Anybody who was willing to pay attention could have seen it was very unlikely that weapons of mass destruction were still in that country.
You made two trips to Iraq before the war, and when you were in your 20s, you vacationed in Belfast in the midst of the troubles. Might it be said that you enjoy conflict?
Penn: No. It can be said that actors are interested in people, and you will find the warmest, strongest people in places going through conflict. Any war zone—Belfast, Baghdad, anywhere—these are places that can get you over yourself pretty good. And I need a dose of that. I’m probably drawn to it for that reason.
Critical Opinion: Is She Target or Assassin?
Nicole Kidman is the go-to actress for a certain kind of grownup movie, and she keeps proving why she gets those juicy roles. It’s because she can do almost anything. She has a unique knack for letting a wide range of characters live inside her; they radiate through that translucent skin.
This time she’s Silvia, a U.N. interpreter with a murky agenda and half the goons of an African country on her slim tail. Sean Penn is Keller, the federal agent assigned to figure out what she’s hiding. Is she simply a victim? Or is grief driving her to assassination?
Grieving is the appropriate mode in this middling Sydney Pollack effort; the leads’ backstories are littered with the corpses of loved ones. Keller has just lost his wife in a car crash, Silvia most of her family back home in Africa, under the bloody rule of the man who is about to deliver an address to the General Assembly. Add Keller’s private anguish to her political rage, throw in the ticking time bomb of the international-intrigue plot, and there’s enough narrative for three fine films.
But not enough for The Interpreter. The thriller pieces feel assembled rather than organic: this from The Manchurian Candidate, that from Pollack’s own Three Days of the Condor, the rest from the Robert Ludlum oeuvre. And the issue of whether a genocidal dictator will be killed doesn’t have much emotional weight. Nor does the moral question—Can a person do good by killing a bad man?—mean a lot when a star is pointing a gun at a defenseless supporting player.
Once you scuttle hopes of Hitchcock-level espionage, you can enjoy the suspense of half a dozen people with murderous intent squeezed onto a Brooklyn bus; the geometry of stares, whispered messages and sudden shifts of body weight is wellcalibrated. Penn keeps you wondering whether he’s going to im- or explode. Catherine Keener shines in support as Penn’s sidekick and just about the only sensible person in the movie.
Then there’s Kidman, who, when she’s not being upstaged by restless strands of her long hair, effortlessly commands an audience’s eyes, suspicion and fascination.
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