Arthur Set Visit Interview: Russell Brand Leans On Improv And Innocence
Last September I had the opportunity to visit the set of Arthur, a remake of the Oscar-nominated 1980 comedy due in theaters April 8th, to see stars Russell Brand and Greta Gerwig as they shot a scene in Central Park.
The original Arthur was not only a great comedy, but also a truly fantastic New York love story. Whether or not Brand and Gerwig are able to fill Dudley Moore and Liza Minelli’s extremely talented shoes remains to be seen, but as a fan of the original, I’m pleased that New York is reprising its role as the backdrop for this charming modern fairytale about a wealthy bachelor who falls for a working class girl.
The scene I saw them film took place on the southeast side of Central Park, not far from the Plaza Hotel. Since it was set up outside shooting had to be postponed until later in the evening due to the weather, but when the rain finally let up we were able to watch the scene play out from behind the cameras. In the scene, the rich playboy Arthur (Brand) and working-class Linda (Gerwig) descended a set of stairs on their way into the park and discussed Arthur’s lifestyle philosophy, which is to “just have fun”. From the way Arthur and Linda were talking to one another it seemed like they were just starting to get to know each other. Arthur made a joke about the park being his backyard, which was charming but also came off a little bit like he was trying to downplay his wealth, or make light of it anyway. He also offered Linda his jacket, which he said he inherited when she noted the name on the tag. The scene ended as they continued into the park.
They did around ten takes, between which Brand and Gerwig seemed casual and comfortable with one another, chatting, joking and if I’m remembering correctly, doing a bit of singing while the crew reset for the next take. Brand not only seemed at ease with his co-star but also comfortable with changing things up as director Jason Winer tweaked the scene, adjusting the dialogue slightly to get it to play right. Beyond the blocked off area just outside the park, a small cluster of curious New Yorkers hung back and watched, while extras waited for their cue to walk by Brand and Gerwig once the cameras started rolling again.
Brand seems to be going with a similar approach to Moore in the role as Arthur, with an easygoing attitude and a light heart. What I liked about what I saw of Gerwig in this brief scene was that she doesn’t seem to be trying to do an impersonation of Liza Minelli or model her performance of the role after Minelli’s. I think this version of Linda will be a bit different. Maybe not better or worse but updated and more fitting to Gerwig’s style and mannerisms.
Later on that night, we were given the opportunity to sit down with Russell Brand to talk to him about the film. Brand has quick sense of humor that doesn’t go away when the cameras stop rolling but he’s also courteous and professional with the press and, as we witnessed, with a few fans who passed by and asked for an autograph. The scene I watched being filmed was only a small glimpse of Brand’s portrayal of Arthur, but meeting him in person, I got the impression that he’s a man who truly loves to make people laugh. There’s a charm to him that I suspect will serve him well in this role.
Brand had some interesting and amusing things to tell us about the film, working with Helen Mirren, Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Garner, and reprising a role played by the great Dudley Moore. For more on the remake you can also check out our interview with director Jason Winer here.
Yes, I’m a fan of the films. I love Dudley Moore. I’m from Grays and Essex, Dudley was from Dagenham. I adored the original Arthur. Watched it loads. My dad loves it and used to quote stuff from it. My mom loves Dudley Moore. I love Dudley Moore independently of this because of his stuff with Peter Cook -- Not Only… But Also, and all that.
Jason [Winer, the director] said that you’re the perfect person to reinvent this role. And also, you brought a lot of humor, talking about your own life with addiction and everything else. When you get a script like this, or even Get Him To The Greek, even though it’s comedy, there are certain things that are true to life and other things you think are obviously a script-writer’s invention, do you try to find a way to finesse it, and say well this is funny but I want to try to find a way to make this… you know, not making fun of it…
I think awareness of addiction is a particularly contemporaneous issue and being someone that suffers from it -– with it, I do have personal obligations in that area, but to tell you the truth, I interfere with the script regardless of whether or not I know anything about it. So if it was about ancient Muslim ceramics, I’d probably still express an opinion and expect to be heard.
Was there anything with this script that you wanted changed?
I changed the script all the time. I improvised all the time. It’s one of the things that I think helps me to enjoy what I do for a living, to keep spontaneity. Not that Peter Baynham isn’t a wonderful writer. And being British, it’s particular privilege to work with him, being so fond of his work on things like Alan Partridge and Borat and his work with Chris Morris… some geniuses of great comedy, currently. Still, improvisation is integral to what I do and it’s something that I’m fortunate to have embarked on a career with Judd Apatow in terms of films and stuff, so that’s something I plan to carry with me.
Even, in fact, when I worked on The Tempest, which I did with Julie Taymor and Helen Mirren, Julie said, “You can improvise if you want.” And I said, “But it’s Shakespeare…” And she said, “That’s alright! Improvise.” She said that the clown parts would have been improvised. I did improvise a few bits, but I did respect the bars as I would Peter Baynham.
Did you see any similarities between Aldous Snow and Arthur aside from the hard living?
No, none actually. Playing two characters that have so-called substance abuse issues is really no more significant than playing two characters that… have a hat. Arthur is a benevolent, whimsical, childlike, prince. Aldous Snow is dark, malevolent, twisted sort of macabre, purple brush stroke of contemporary celebrity. In terms of approaching it like an actor, they’re completely distinct and they’re redundant. I suppose from my perspective, being someone who’s… like with alcohol and addiction issues, now having taken on two roles where that theme is touched upon or central, it becomes… particularly in Britain it becomes “Oh, yeah, enough” but for me they’re really, really different. I see them as incredibly distinct.
Many attitudes have changed towards drinking necessarily, the disease is all the more apparent as awareness of it grows. In the original, Arthur drunk allows for a lot of bloody good physical comedy. And that’s what it does for this. I’m playing a character that plays in a way that socially, someone wouldn’t unless they’re a child, mentally ill or drunk. The same as all of us… we behave in a way… say things, do things… For me, that’s been incredibly liberating. There wasn’t much of that in The Greek. It was more about wildness and hedonism, which was lovely in a way, but this is about Arthur’s drunkenness is merely a utensil for Arthur to be sometimes a little blundering, sometimes a little clumsy, or clowny. Real, traditional beautiful comedy. Stuff that I adore.
It’s not Andy Capp?
No, it’s not a dark portrait of alcoholism and spousal abuse.
You would say, at his core, Arthur’s innocent?
Yes, precisely. It’s very much a part that’s built for Dudley Moore. Hence, there’s a scene where he uses his excellence as a pianist… sort of building this beautiful, mellifluous, peculiar laugh. Now, with the assistance of the brilliant director Jason Winer and wonderful writer Baynham tailored it for me, so there’s more linguistic, loquacious, articulate stuff.
The thing it reminds me most of in cinema is Big. That’s what the character’s like. Other than Dudley Moore’s original, it reminds me of Tom Hanks in Big. He’s someone that just doesn’t understand the rules of contemporary life. He doesn’t understand how to socialize correctly or how to behave.
I really loved the original… (he pauses to do a spot-on Dudley Moore impersonation). When I do the stuff, like the scenes when he’s more drunk, that’s where I feel more Dudley Moore. It’s a vocal thing, I think. Certainly. (does another impersonation). It’s from the esophagus. Something in the sinuses.
What was your impression of Greta before you guys met, and what have you noticed about her as an actress?
I saw Greenberg anyway. I like Ben Stiller and I liked Squid and the Whale, so I went to see Greenberg and I thought she was gorgeous. Such a lovely and unusual performance and she was so sweet. I think she’s delightful. She’s got a very, very quick mind and a beautiful sensibility, and an aesthetic that’s very in keeping with this film, which retains some of the romance of the original, whilst incorporating a more contemporary aesthetic and cinematic style. Greta exemplifies that in her sort of naturalistic, low-key Mumblecore stuff. She’s perfect for it. I think she’s delightful and beautiful and funny and smart and the very kind of woman you’d give up a billion dollars for.
Is Jennifer Garner the same way?
She’s elegant and charming and sweet and thoughtful. I’d say 100% different from Greta, not that they don’t mutually share charming qualities, but Jennifer is more what one would associate with a romantic comedy of this nature. She is more in keeping of this style of romantic comedy while Greta represents more of an independent edge. They’ve both been an absolute joy to work with… and be near and touch on the mouth. Touch them both right on the mouth with my mouth.
It’s pretend, you can do what you want. You can say it in that context, that this is pretend. It makes me think I could invent various different contexts within which I can do what I want, which I always thought was possible as a child. I always thought, perhaps you could invent new paradigms within which morality would become redundant. Discuss.
It’s nice to see a dark and villainous side to Jennifer Garner. It’s interesting. She’s obviously a very sweet-natured woman…
Are there any scenes that you can talk about that you found particularly…
Sure… enjoyable… memorable…
I loved working with Helen Mirren because she’s so exquisitely elegant.
Any specific moments…
[We don’t know if he was joking here or not…] Yeah, I got in bed with her. Reading me bedtime stories and one time she read a dirty version of it… Expecting it to be one of those Frog and Toad stories, those sweet stories and she’s like… (does an exaggerated Helen Mirren impersonation)… “Toad took frog and mounted him from behind and entered him deeply and smoothly with rhythmic strokes.” I’m like, (said in a scolding tone), “Helen, this is being filmed, as part of a film with a broad appeal, one would hope. So, she’s special, Helen Mirren.
That’s for the Rated-R version? That’s for the DVD?
For the DVD.
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