It was a thrill to get a chance to talk to Ed Asner — best known as Lou Grant on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spin-off and having a very big year as the voice star of one of the biggest critical and box office successes of 2009, “Up” from Pixar and Disney. Asner is a talented actor with a wide range who has played everything from Santa Claus (in “Elf”) to real-life mobster Meyer Lansky (“Donzi: The Legend”) and Franklin Roosevelt (on stage). But his best-remembered roles have him playing tough, sometimes irascible, forceful characters who may, somewhere, have some hidden tenderness. That quality links his roles as the powerful industrialist estranged from his family in The Gathering and the grumpy widower in Up. Mr. Asner spoke to me by phone from his office.
NM: I am so happy that The Gathering is available on DVD! It is one of my favorite holiday films. What led you to accept the role?
EA: I had a choice between two Christmas films, one about a rich family and one about a poor family. I liked this script better and it had nothing to do with riches, it was the story and the characters. So I opted for this one and came to Chagrin Falls in Hudson, Ohio and it was a stellar cast.
NM: You got to work with one of the truly great actresses, Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton, who played your ex-wife. What was it like working with her?
EA: She was a doll. She gained a little weight during the show so towards the end of the filming we had to pin the wardrobe together but I loved working with her. She was a tough broad but sweet as she could be. And she gave me the nicest compliment in the world. She said that working with me as as good or better as she hoped it would be.
NM: She was famously a method actor. Did your styles as performers work well together?
EA: I am not a method actor, though I studied for a year with Lee Strasburg. But our styles had no conflict; we meshed as actors. We did not need to work out a whole history about what drove our characters apart. I didn’t know it the time but since have realized that people can get bored with each other unless they have the most profound belief in each other. As a powerful executive he may have wanted to play around or whatever and finally discovers that he is going to die. So he makes the plans — that was the most outspoken scene between us, when she realizes what I’m hiding, it was a delicious moment.
NM: I know it was a long time ago, but what do you remember about working on “The Gathering?”
EA: I loved getting to Chagrin Falls, being by the falls, what a cute place it is. I loved working with all the people I had to work with, and the story — the dissensions and dislikes but also the rapprochement when people are willing to open up to each other. The script had good highs and lows. Everything else is all cushioned by his wealth, so all that is left is the person to person contact and the person to person love. And the cast was outstanding: John Randolph, Laurence Pressman, Veronica Hamel, Bruce Davison, Gregory Harrison, Rebecca Balding. And I was delighted at the reception it got. A friend of mine, an award-winning journalist, led a vigilante group to bludgeon the network to put it on every year. And she succeeded most of the time!
NM: I have to ask you about “Up.”
EA: It was a lovely experience for me. The directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, are unbelievably talented. They created a menacing phalanx to have to survive under in the story and we had a marvelous time just making it — the genius is all theirs!
Like its winning hero, this movie wears its heart right on its sleeve. It lays it out for us right at the beginning, making it clear that “this is not a love story.” Oh, and it is a work of fiction. The usual disclaimer from the closing credits appears up front, letting us know that none of the characters should be confused with anyone in real life. Especially one named young woman in particular. Who is then described with an epithet often heard in a kennel.
It’s wrong about one thing; it is a love story. But that does not make it a happy love story. This is, as the narrator obligingly informs us, the story of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who believes in love and believes that he will find true love and it will make him happy, and Summer (Zooey Deschanel), who does not believe in love and thinks that her 20’s should be about having fun. A match made in heaven? In the movies, maybe, but not this one.
It has been a long time, perhaps since “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” since a movie evoked the joys and pains of first love with such art and delicacy. We know from the title that the romance will last 500 days. The movie shows us that period thematically rather than chronologically so that we go from a day near the end of their relationship to a day near the beginning that explains what the later one was about. By the time we see those first, early moments of heady connection, we realize how the sweetness of those initial feelings will become almost unbearably poignant. In one encounter late in their relationship, when he comes to a party she is hosting, we see a split screen, one marked “expectation” and the other “reality.” The differences between them are subtle, but telling.
Director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber think very cinematically, using the unique attributes of film to evoke the feelings and experiences of the characters. And Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are two of the most appealing and talented young performers in Hollywood and they create characters who are vibrant and real. We may not know whether they will stay in love with each other, but the audience will fall in love with them.
This is the smartest alien movie in quite a while. But then movies about creatures from other planets are never about the aliens; they’re about the humans, and about what being human really means.
It has cool and creepy giant insect-looking aliens and there are very cool sci-fi weapons and shoot-outs and chases and space ships and a super-cool giant insect-robot thing, and it is very exciting and scary and sometimes extremely gross (but in a cool, sci-fi way). But, like all great science fiction, it is in aid of speculative allegory. The interactions between humans and aliens all the more powerful for being understated, taken for granted, and filmed in an intimate, low-key fashion that makes it feel like a documentary. Instead of running around and shrieking, this story posits an even more believable human reaction to an alien invasion — a bureaucratic one.
Humanity’s history sometimes seems to come down to the lines we draw, metaphorically and literally. Boundaries establish real estate ownership, communities, and countries, and battles over those boundaries have continued, in some cases, over millennia. We draw lines to distinguish ourselves from others and we draw lines to separate others from ourselves. This movie is not about an invasion from outer space. It is about life twenty years after an invasion. At first, the huge spaceship just hovered over Johannesburg. There was no attack, no communication of any kind. Finally, the South Africans went up to the ship and broke in to find the creatures badly malnourished and ill.
Two decades later, as this movie begins, the humans and aliens exist in uneasy proximity, assigned to “District 9,” fatuously assigned generic human names like “Christopher Johnson” and provided the flimsiest of “rights.” In the name of “humanitarianism,” they are living in the title area, little more than a junkyard. The government has outsourced the supervision responsibility to a contractor. The creatures are exploited by crooks, and called by derogatory epithets like “prawns” (the South African term for shrimp), based on their physical resemblance.
The alien population has grown and so the entire community is about to be “relocated” (evicted) to a new facility, a slum even more remote and meager than the current one, with tents instead of corrugated huts. Wikus Van De Merwe (brilliant newcomer Sharlto Copley) is selected by his boss, who is also his father-in-law, to oversee the “relocation.” This involves, for some absurd reason, going hut to hut with clipboards eliciting some form of “consent.” Copley, much of whose dialog is reportedly improvised, is terrific as the well-meaning but hopelessly overmatched bureaucrat, who has no idea of how offensive he is or how much he is missing as he talks to the company’s camera recording what he thinks will be his triumphant moment. When he unexpectedly inhales an alien substance, he is at first more worried about looking like he knows what he is doing on film than about any possible harm. But soon he is feeling sick. And then things really get out of, uh, hand.
This is where Copley really takes off as Wilkus has to draw on depths of courage, skepticism, analytic ability, and trust he never anticipated. He goes through external and internal changes raising questions about who and what is truly human and he shifts loyalties more than once. The movie shifts, too, combining the documentary footage with news accounts and other perspectives to show us what Wilkus is seeing but to get a glimpse of what lies ahead of him — or is chasing him.
Its setting in Johannesburg immediately suggests the metaphor of apartheid (and some critics have objected to it as a superficial or slanted portrayal — see links below). The film is more clever and ambitious than that. Just as the classic original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is claimed by both the right and the left as representing their side, this is a movie that is designed to be discussed and argued over. It is those conversations about Its meaning in light of the way that struggles with the notion of “the other” can inspire both the best and the worst of what it means to be human.