Brand is Arthur, a rich, charismatic alcoholic who has his inheritance threatened if he doesn't stop lazing about and commits to growing up and marrying the woman his parents decide is his perfect match. Mirren is his nanny, Hobson, a woman who's closer to him than his own family and who has been his companion since he was a baby.
Screenwriter Peter Baynham (Borat) says part of the appeal of doing a new version of Arthur was the fact the story has so many layers to explore. "What I like about Arthur is its many facets," stated Baynham. "It goes beyond the boy-meets-girl romantic comedy structure with an equally engaging connection between Arthur and Hobson; it's a coming-of-age story as well as a romance."
Together for a press conference in LA in support of the April 8, 2011 release of the PG-13 rated comedy, Russell Brand and Helen Mirren discussed the appeal of the project, their working relationship, the film's portrayal of alcoholism, and why the story of a rich guy with money to burn can still connect with audiences.
Helen Mirren and Russell Brand Arthur Press Conference
Helen, what was it like to play nanny to Russell Brand?
Helen Mirren: "Well, it was an education for me, as much as for the education I was trying to give to the character. Mostly, I was the one who was learning stuff. I learned so many things. I’ve never done a film that is called a comedy before. It was one of the reasons I really wanted to do the film, and I was very lucky that I was working with such brilliantly experienced people in the world of comedy, like [director] Jason [Winer], Russell, and [screenwriter] Peter [Baynham]. It was my education."
Russell, how did your past history with addiction help inform your portrayal of Arthur?
Russell Brand: "I am such a thorough actor that I did two decades of research into alcoholism, just to make sure it was 100% right. The difference, of course, is that Arthur is a fictional alcoholic and has much more latitude for clowning and fun, and often his adventures don’t lead to broken glass and howling women - although he is arrested at the beginning of the film. It was very important that we established a context where the alcoholism was humorous and good fun, but was not irresponsibly portrayed. This is 2011, and it’s important to see a resolution to the problem of Arthur’s alcoholism. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I was particularly happy with how that was rendered."
Russell, when you get caught between the moon and New York City, what is the best that you can do?
Russell Brand: "The best thing you can do is fall in love. That’s why this film resonated so strongly with me, and why I’m so happy with it. My life has been changed by falling in love. I know that whilst that is a romantic idea and, in this case, fictional, it’s something that’s happened to me. That’s why I’m so enamored of this story. I love the original movie. Dudley Moore is a great hero of mine. To be able to recreate that film, with such a talented ensemble of people, was an incredible gift, as it was to work with the Oscar-winning, wonderful actress Helen Mirren, a brilliant director like Jason Winer – for whom this is the first of what will become a great career of excellent movies – who accommodated my improvisation but told the story so wonderfully well, visually. It’s almost a trite cliche to hear, 'We used the city as another character in the movie,' but if you watch this film, the city is truly present. It makes Manhattan seem like a magical fairy story."
"Greta [Gerwig] wonderfully brought to life a different aspect of the character’s trajectory, with her experience in independent films. She gave a more naturalistic and gentle performance that spoke to the child in Arthur. And, Peter Baynham is as much a comedic hero to me as Dudley Moore. He’s one of the great comedy writers of the last 30 years, with Alan Partridge, Bruno and Borat. It was a great honor to work on this film."
Helen, what did it feel like to punch Russell Brand?
Helen Mirren: "Punching Russell was great, but the best thing was being taught how to punch by Evander Holyfield who was my personal trainer on the set. He’s such a gentleman, but he is the champ and he is a big guy, and quite scary. He was very quiet, and he was on the set in the corner. But, I went up to him and said, 'Evander, I’ve got to punch Russell. Would you show me how to do it, please?' He said, 'Sure,' and he gave me a little training. One of the highlights of the shoot for me was being taught how to punch by Evander Holyfield."
Helen, what’s your secret for looking so amazing?
Helen Mirren: "Many virgins have died in my pursuit of youth."Russell Brand: "And mine! You realize that question can never be successfully answered. No one will ever go, 'There’s a fountain somewhere.'”
Russell, what did you do as executive producer on this film?
Russell Brand: "Nothing! Executive producers don’t have to do anything, nor do any kind of producers. They just sit around on deck chairs, watching stuff, and if it gets cold, they leave. There’s no kind of contribution. No. As a producer, you’ve got to be involved in helping out with solving problems."
"Warner Bros. brought me this idea, very, very early on. They said, 'Would you be interested in remaking Arthur?' And I said, 'Yeah,' because I really, really love Dudley Moore. But then I thought, 'Is this ever really going to happen?' I didn’t really imagine it would. They asked, 'Who would you like to write it?' I said, 'Peter Baynham because he’s a great hero of mine.' And then we talked about directors and I was already a fan of Jason’s show, Modern Family. I thought, 'My god, because of his visual style and his understanding of comedy, he will be able to make this relevant and pertinent whilst maintaining the traditional aesthetic of the storyline.' That was exciting. Then, when Peter had the idea of making Hobson female and we immediately thought of Helen Mirren, for me, that was the idea that made the film feasible. That was the idea that meant, 'Oh, this will actually happen.' And I’m so grateful that it did because I had a wonderful opportunity to work with such incredible people."
Russell, what was the audition with Greta Gerwig like?
Russell Brand: "We saw loads and loads of different actresses, which was all right, but I was already on the way to getting married then so I couldn’t enjoy it like in the good old days, where auditions had a more primal quality. We did the audition with Greta and afterwards I was sitting quietly. It was the last casting of the day and I was quiet and Jason said, 'What’s the matter?' I said, 'I feel sad, now that she’s gone.' It was because I had enjoyed playing with her so much. She has such a brilliant imagination, she’s a great improviser, she has a wonderful understanding of comedy, she has a wide range of ideas and peculiar choices, and she’s a very, very beautiful person. It’s a good peculiar, in a magical way that’s a strange mutation, like only nature can produce. Also, it was important that it was someone that existed outside of the paradigm of Arthur’s normal world of privilege and luxury, and someone for whom it was conceivable that you would give up a billion dollars for. And Greta had this naivete and innocence, and a sense of fun and wonder that made that notion feasible."
Russell, like Arthur in the film, your own life changed when you fell in love. How did things change for you?
Russell Brand: "Like in Arthur, love has an incredibly transformative quality. The first thing you do when you fall in love is that you recognize that you’re not the most important person in the world, and your focus becomes another person. The reason the film resonated with me, in the way that it does, is because Arthur is a person without direction until he falls in love."
Russell, what was it like to shoot in the Grand Central Terminal with just you and Greta and no one else in there?
Russell Brand: "They took us on a special tour and showed us places where you’re not meant to go. There are secret tunnels under Grand Central. We went on a secret staircase underneath the clock. The man did make Greta remove her top, as part of the entry procedure, and she was very generous. Greta doesn’t mind nudity, if it will unveil new tourism for people."
Were you cool with running around in your underwear?
Russell Brand: "I felt very shy and embarrassed about it, as a matter of fact. But, they were such lovely underpants. They were custom made."
After you got a nice Hollywood paycheck, what was the most indulgent, extravagant and Arthur-like purchase you’ve made?
Helen Mirren: "My husband and I bought a castle in Pulia."
Russell Brand: "But people are starving!"
Helen Mirren: "It’s like turning on the taps to full and having money just pour out into the desert. It will be beautiful, but it’s not finished."
Where is Pulia?
Helen Mirren: "It’s in the bottom of the heel of the boot of Italy. It’s not really a castle. It’s actually a farmhouse. It’s got a little bit where you can pour boiling oil out of it. They used to do that because Pulia was being invaded all the time. It had endless invasions, so even the farmhouses are fortified. It’s a fortified farmhouse."
Russell Brand: "A fortified farmhouse? That’s a castle!"
Was there any thought given to convincing people to part with $18 to go see a movie about people whose problems are worrying about which car to take out, when they can’t pay the mortgage?
Russell Brand: "I’m very glad you asked that question. It’s an important and brilliant question. Arthur has everything. He has all the money in the world, and yet he is lonely and unhappy. I grew up poor. I didn’t have no money, and now I have some money. The greatest poverty one can have is to be poor in one’s heart. After falling in love, Arthur is truly happy. He discovers purpose."
"All of us know that money is transient and it's pleasures are illusory. The happiest moments in our lives are not, 'Oh, I got a new hat, or a wonderful, silvery object, or some glistening bauble.' It’s when you connect with another human being. If you can find the $18 in your pocket, you are purchasing dreams with that money! Plus, you can watch our movie, and then sneak in and watch another one - but pay for our movie."
Helen Mirren: "It’s a fantasy that we all have about, 'What would we do if we had a billion dollars?' That’s why when the lottery gets really big and it’s up to $40 million or $50 million, I go out and buy a ticket. It’s, 'Maybe I’ll win.'"
Russell Brand: "So that you can buy another castle?"
Helen Mirren: "No. You fantasize about what it would be like to have millions and millions and millions of dollars. We all do that. Here, we can see what happens when you have millions and millions and millions of dollars. I think it’s a fantasy that we all carry within us, especially anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket."
Russell, what was it like to actually get to wear George Clooney’s Batman suit and ride in the Batmobile?
Russell Brand: "The actual car is not as interesting in the interior. It’s like a reverse metaphor for the nature of the human soul. The inside is boring. And, it was a bit scruffy in there. I was in there with Luis Guzman, who is a brilliant actor, but he says unusual stuff. I would be in that Batmobile with him and he’d say, 'Imagine if, when the roof of the Batmobile opens, we’re not on the set anymore and we’ve gone back to caveman days,' and then I’d hear, 'Action!,' and I’d be like, 'Huh?! What?!' It would be like ideological farts in the car, and bizarre notions for me to contend with. But, I enjoyed wearing the suit because it had Clooney musk in it. It had the pheromones of George Clooney, and I like to think that I may have absorbed them. I’m certainly feeling a lot more altruistic. If anybody needs any help with anything, I’m prepared to help."
Russell and Helen, how did you enjoy working together?
Helen Mirren: "He was in his trailer all the time. He never came out of his trailer. When he came out, he was always surrounded by minders and he wouldn’t speak to anyone."
Russell Brand: "People will write that now, you vicious Queen! I’m going to go down to Hollywood Blvd. and fill your handprints in."
Helen Mirren: "It is completely untrue. Actually, I don’t know because I was drunk all the time."
Russell Brand: "I’ve been brilliantly schooled by publicists and minders. I don’t say anything that controversial. I say a couple of swear words. Helen says mad stuff that you’re not supposed to say in front of the press. That’s crazy! We had a wonderful relationship, is the truth of it. I’m a bit in love with Helen. I was very excited about the possibility of working with her."
Helen Mirren: "It was a very loving and funny environment."
Helen, what made you want to choose this role?
Helen Mirren: "I did it because I met Russell. I sat on a sofa opposite him for a couple of hours and he just blew me away. I had kind of worked with him in The Tempest. We’d wearily said hi to each other, respectfully, but we hadn’t really spent time together. We bumped into each other and Russell told me about this film, and just totally seduced me - the way he does. I defy male, female or age-appropriate child to spend two hours with Russell and not be completely charmed, and just say, 'Yeah, fine. I’ll do whatever you want.'"
Helen, what do you think about getting the honor of having your handprints and footprints at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood?
Helen Mirren: "Gosh, I’m so really, really honored. When I first came to Hollywood many years ago, the first place you want to go to is Hollywood Blvd. where Grauman’s Chinese is. That’s the place you go to, as a tourist. It’s the first thing you want to see. It’s the only thing that you know about, as far as Los Angeles is concerned. So, you go and look at Joan Crawford’s hands and feet, and the whole history of American filmmaking is capsulated in that one little area on that one street. That street, to me, has always been the street of dreams. Personally, I’m thrilled that the Oscars are back on Hollywood Blvd. I think that’s where they should be. And to find out that, so many years later, my hands and feet are going to be there, I’m absolutely blown away by it. Becoming a dame was fantastic. Winning an Oscar was amazing. Getting my hands and feet there is incredible."