Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Armando Iannucci's "LOOP" is more like a noose; Q&A with "new" star Mimi Kennedy

It's funny, all right. Boy, is it funny. And I don't mean the kind of laughter that catches in your throat. Armando Iannucci's new comedy IN THE LOOP -- with its cast-to-die-for and smart, snappy dialog that races by so fast you'll have difficulty keeping up -- is genuinely hilarious. It's only after the fact, perhaps as soon as mid-credit roll, that depression begins to set in. This is due to the fact that what we've just viewed is probably the best imagined creation of the sort of political garbage, on both sides of the Atlantic, that gifted us with the Iraq War and its "Downing Street memo."

TrustMovies has never seen Mr. Iannucci's famed labors for British television, although he is familiar with some of the work of the crack actors that this highly intelligent and attuned co-writer/
director uses. Iannucci (shown above) has assembled some of them here (Steve Coogan and Peter Capaldi (shown three photos below) with the addition of other well-known Brits (Tom Hollander and Gina McKee) and a most interesting and disparate array of American thespians -- starting with James Gandolfini, and moving on to the likes of Anna Chlumsky (shown two photos below: remember My Girl?), David Rasche (from theater, film and TV) and Mimi Kennedy (seen just below). The latter actress has a name with which I was vaguely familiar, though I could not remember any of her specific work. That has now changed. Ms Kennedy not only holds her own with the rest of the amazing cast but gives a performance that is as (maybe more) memorable as those of her remarkable peers.

Beginning with a chance moment in which a sweet but silly British politician (Mr. Hollander) offers the media his not-so-considered opinion about the possibility of war in the middle east, the movie takes off into a no-holds-barred demonstration of the practice of power politics, proving rather conclusively that those who wield it with maximum threat, nastiness and volume will win the day. While I do not for a moment believe that most politicians (or military men, even press attaches and the rest) are anywhere near this clever and well-spoken, the movie is a comedy, after all. It means to entertain us, and it does. Yet its points about who finally won the battle to go to war -- and why -- make perfect, sad sense.

Both the USA and Britain now have different leaders with different agenda and tactics. But In the Loop will remain, I think, a kind of primer on how things got done in the Bush and Blair admin-
istrations. When I say in my headline that the "loop" is more like a noose, I simply mean that the film is so entertaining and amusing -- the rope so soft and pleasant around your neck -- that you wont feel it tightening till it's too late.

How Iannucci achieves his feat is mostly a matter of bringing to life a parallel universe in which all his cast is on the same strange but believable page. Via performances, writing, direction -- and especially, I suspect, editing -- he creates an imagined-but-truthful environment that is not simply political and personal but all-encom-
passing. This movie is something to experience; I hope audiences rise to the occasion.

IFC Films is distributing In the Loop, which begins its US theatrical run this Friday, July 24, and will be available On-Demand starting July 29. So there's no excuse not to see it. (And with On-Demand, should you miss some of that great dialog, you've got 22-1/2 hours left to watch it again.)


With a cast as starry and talented as that of In the Loop, how do you choose just one actor to interview? Considering Mimi Kennedy’s landmark performance in the film, this seemed to me a no-brainer. I caught up with the actress, shown below in a scene with James Gandolfini, by phone during a break between “takes” in a TV movie she’s currently shooting -- she in Los Angeles and I in NYC. We spent a half hour chatting easily (she’s a great interview). Below are the highlights:

TrustMovies: Let me begin by saying that, going into this interview, I wasn’t completely sure who Mimi Kennedy actually was. I knew I had heard of her, but….

Mimi Kennedy: You’re not alone there, believe me.

You’ve done a lot of television in your career, right?

Exactly. I'm newer to film.

And because I don’t watch that much TV, I’ve missed out. But, having said that, let me also say that you are so, so good in In the Loop, that if this role doesn’t put you on the map (not that you're not on it already), I will be really surprised.

I am so glad to hear this because I rather hoped it would do that, too. In the Loop, this kind of movie experience….. Oh, boy. I had pretty much given up imagining that this sort of movie would ever be on my agenda. And our director and co-writer Armando Iannucci is a genius, so it is a real badge of honor to be in his film. He has a sensibility that is so fine, as both a director and writer, and just as a human being.

He must be pretty special – because every single actor is so good in his film.

The experience was about as high as you can get, as far as acting is concerned. Nobody is tweaking you, this way and that. Instead, Armando just let us really go at it. It's the kind of acting I learned in New York at Ensemble Studio Theater: listen and react. They taught it for serious drama, but it's great for comedy. Because if the situation is insane and you're acting serious, it's probably going to be funny.

I really laughed and laughed and laughed throughout the movie. It was so funny, moment to moment. And then at the end, while the credits rolled, I sat there, growing more and more depressed. It seemed like he and all of you had shown us just about everything --in terms of human behavior, motive, covering our asses -- regarding why and how we got into the Iraq War.

That last shot where everybody is in the office, doing business-as-usual -- which is now a war -- and the credits roll and the lights are about to come back in the theater, that's when we go, “Oh shit, we killed, like, 750,000 people for...?” This is what Shakespeare did in his plays – for his audience. Instead of directly criticizing powerful people, he did relationship comedies and dug up all those history plays as a way to show the English people their own culture and relate it to the present.

How did this role come to you?

By audition. The way it is supposed to happen. No sitting around at Schwab’s lunch counter here!

How many times did you go back before you got the part?

Just twice. But I did lay down something on videotape. Then I met the director. I remember saying to my agent, How can it be that this role is really open? That it’s not going to Meryl Streep or Glenn Close or Christine Lahti or Joan Allen -- or whomever? Maybe it was a budget thing…. So thank god for smaller budgets.

After my first audition, when Armando came back and we improvised a little, and he laughed, I thought, Oh, maybe….! And we talked about seeing politics the same way. He told me about being in DC and seeing staffers go gaga over an actor who was on The West Wing. I'd seen the same thing, as an activist on Capitol Hill - people star-struck over celebrities who merely played someone powerful!

It was a fun-house mirror. Because the people in Washington are the ones who are doing powerful things. But the staffers feel like they are laboring in anonymity all the time, so when there's someone who portrays them in the limelight, it's exciting. But Armando said – in fact we both felt that we wanted to say this to the congressional staffers -- you should not go all shivery about being around these people. You have the true power to change things. These actors can only pretend to be you!

One of my friends who has been a staffer in various administrations says that Armando got it absolutely right -- the milieu, the behavior -- he nailed it. Regardless of whose policy you’re following, when you are behaving as an ambitious, self-serving, greedy human being -- and we all do sometimes -- it’s really best not to be making a decision to kill half a million innocent people. That’s what I believe this movie states so brilliantly.

Let’s get back to you and your performance. It is so real and rich and odd and specific and bizarre and amazing. As good as everyone else in the movie is – and they really are – it’s your performance that I came away remembering the most. And I’ve also gotta say: Your absolute lack of vanity is something to see. Your bleeding-gums scene: Oy…!

It’s just wonderful to hear you say those things. Armando did tell me when we met in rehearsal right after I’d been hired, that he was so pleased that I was doing the role. He told me he was in despair previously because he had not found his Karen.

And I love your saying that stuff about the lack of vanity because I think, in a way, as a younger actress, I sort of avoided film because it made me so self-conscious. But I think Armando created a reality for his actors that was so all-encompassing that there was simply no room to worry about the camera. The camera does not establish the reality for Armando. He himself establishes it. The cameras move around what he's set for us to do -- scripted then improvised -- and captures relationships. I can tell you one other thing, too: the gums bleeding and all of that -- it's a perfect metaphor for the things that women have to deal with when they are in power. Amando physicalized it via the tooth pain. Actually, it is my theory that once everyone has access to good dentistry we might have world peace.

The idea of tooth pain being the thing that stood between this woman and her ability to have complete control of her office and herself -- she's distracted by some very fierce tooth pain - - was really funny to me. Years ago I happened to read some of the book Balkan Ghosts, and there's an early scene where the author's on a bus ride and all the people smiling at him have no teeth, or very bad teeth. And I thought, oh God, what must that be like, to lose all your teeth, to have everyone you know be in the same constant pain with rotting teeth, and no dental care? I'd want to kill someone too. Maybe have a war to distract from the dull daily agony. Anyway, fifteen years later, to play someone whose tooth pain figures in the balance of war and peace reminded me. I still think it's a worthy theory.

How did Armando get all the actors to be so… well, so consistently on the same page? Everyone seems so real and right, it’s like you’ve created your own little universe of reality.

Well, first of all, he has some of his crew of actors on his TV show, so this helps. Several of the actors in the film are part of his crew. The other thing is that he rehearsed us. He came to NYC and by the end of one week of improvising with all the actors, it was so much fun and it gave us this real comfort level with each other. However -- and this is interesting -- as Armando tells the story, every single one of the actors, at some point along the way, went to him individually, and said, “Everyone else is so brilliant at the improvisation. But I am horrible, and I am so sorry.” What a brilliant way to build esprit de corps - let us know we admired one another and were equally insecure.

I can believe that: Actors have the most tender egos in the world, right? Well, maybe after politicians. When I was watching the movie, I wish I could have been quicker in deciphering the British accents. I’m afraid I missed some really good dialog early on, before my ear got properly attuned to the accents.

Yes. But that might be a good thing. Maybe people will want to see this movie more than once -- just so they can catch up on what they missed. (Editor's note: I think she's right. I intend to see this one again -- and soon.)

When we went to Britain to film, I had to ask several times about every single thing that was said to me because I kept missing it. And Armando said he had the same problem here in America. He would just smile at people and pretend to have understood.

One thing the movie seems to prove is that if you just scream the loudest and threaten the hardest and act the nastiest, you’ll win.

Yep. I like to think that things went particularly bad during this time of the “special” war. It was never part of the Pentagon budget, it was all extra, "supplemental." Peter Capaldi pointed out that he drew inspiration from another culture, a certain kind of agent prevalent in Hollywood awhile back. I remember -- they were called "screamers." It was during the cocaine times. It was a particularly ugly time for human relationships in Hollywood.

Isn’t it always that way in Hollywood?

Yes, but I think things do change. I believe that tactics have -- or will -- change a little in both England and America. What Armando understood and captured was the real sense of privilege and domination -- "Whether you like it or not!" This was the culture of the time.

Anything else you’d like to say?

No. But I’m glad I got to talk about dentistry and The Balkans and pain!

It makes me realize that's the difference we face: between inflicting pain on people or helping them out of pain. Maybe there's a fundamental shift. Maybe the movie is showing us that first kind of culture. And because we laugh at it as insane, maybe that culture is now passing from the corridors of power.

Well, things seem to come and go in cycles.

Yes, things do. But things like this kind of behavior, the kind that seems to win the day In the Loop absolutely does not have to be elevated as honorable -- or rewarded with power.

What’s next on your agenda?

I am actually writing a play about a 19th century suffragist named Matilda Joslyn Gage. I’ll be doing a reading of the play in October in Fayetteville, NY, the upstate city that Matilda was from.

Any new films in the offing?

No new movies at the moment. I am sort of waiting to exhale, in terms of my career just now. I am going to enjoy peoples’ enjoyment of this film -- and of me in it. It’s enough for me to hold on to that for now.

What was it you were working on today – and taking a break from when we talked?

It's a Hallmark Channel TV movie - The Christmas Gift. About adopting three older kids. Very Western-themed (a former stunt man, Dave Cass, is directing, and ohh! his stories!) so I'm liking that. I always wanted to grow up to be Dale Evans and my character isn't that far from Dale, since she's a very devout woman (Dale: check) who was cowgirl-feisty (Dale personified) who runs an orphanage (I think Dale and Roy had a few adopted kids!)

I've learned that TV movies for children extend one's career by a decade each time you make one -- if the script is okay. Children remember.

(All photos above courtesy of OutNow! Image Gallery.)

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