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John Goodman and Missi Pyle Talk About 'The Artist'

By Fred Topel

John Goodman as Al Zimmer in Michel Hazanavicius's film 'The Artist'

John Goodman as Al Zimmer in Michel Hazanavicius's film 'The Artist'

Photo by The Weinstein Company

In The Artist, one of the most buzzed about movies of the awards season, John Goodman and Missi Pyle star as a 1920s movie mogul and an actress upstaged by a matinee idol. The nearly silent movie that pays tribute to the silent film era is set during that transitional period when talkies were ready to take over for silent films. And at the LA junket for The Weinstein Company release, Goodman and Pyle discussed what attracted them to such an unusual project and tackling characters in a film with very limited dialogue.

John Goodman and Missi Pyle The Artist Interview

Missi, your face is so expressive. When did you know this was a talent of yours and do you have any ambition to play a character who doesn’t require that much contortion?

Missi Pyle: "I found out when I was too tall to play any other leading roles that I had to kind of do something else. I grew up in Middle America and I don’t think my family was very funny, but I watched The Princess Bride. I always wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never seen any plays or anything and I watched that movie over and over and over again. I was just like, 'Oh!'"

"I didn’t have an extensive film background or anything like that. I think it was just out of necessity because I couldn’t really…I always wanted to be funny like that. There was a male sketch group in my college. I was like, 'Why isn’t there a female sketch group?' So then I started doing sketch comedy and all that stuff. It just happened. I don’t know. Sometimes it’s too much."

Both of these characters are in one sense comedic but you still have to play them with a certain straightness and reality and no dialogue. How did you wrap your head around what you wanted to do coming into this movie?

John Goodman: "You don’t. You don’t worry about whether it’s comedic. You don’t worry about whether it’s funny or not funny. You have a pretty good root of a character and you’re just expressing the truth to the person you’re sitting across from and a camera just happens to be running. In this case, there’s no printed dialogue so we made up our own. According to the scenario, certain things have to happen. It’s just basic storytelling. That’s all. The other stuff is for guys like you to worry about."

Did you ever dream in your career that you’d be able to do a silent film?

John Goodman: "I never gave it much thought. I never thought the electricity would turn off or anything like that. But, it’s great. It’s a nice change."

Missi Pyle: "I never really know what’s going to happen."

John Goodman: "That’s for sure."

Missi Pyle: "It's like we’re just professional temps constantly going out and doing what someone puts in front of you."

Did either of you watch some silent films for inspiration?

Missi Pyle: "Not right beforehand. I think I flipped on Turner Classic for a little bit. Again, obviously in this movie, so much of this movie, if this movie weren’t truthful, if the acting weren’t truthful, if it were like some…obviously the film within a film is a different story, but if it weren’t truthful, you wouldn’t have fallen in love with it the way you did. So, that’s what’s the most important thing, even though these particular characters are larger than life in that sense that John’s a big guy who runs a studio."

John Goodman: "You’re not going into it with the thought that you’re doing a silent movie. You’re just doing a film."

Missi Pyle: "It’s just so much more…"

John Goodman: "There’s no mics."

Missi Pyle: "And you don’t have any dialogue other than at the time that you know the intention, you know what’s supposed to happen, and I find it’s so much more liberating. You’re able to be more present because you’re not worried about what’s my next line. And in film and television, you don’t usually have as much time to learn them so, on some level, unless you have a photographic memory, it’s harder for me to remember. So sometimes that becomes a part of it. The process is trying to remember and in this one you didn’t have to do that. You’re just able to be more present."

Do either of you have a special affinity or interest in the history of Hollywood and everything that’s gone before?

John Goodman: "I do. The older I get, the more I appreciate what came before. I’m fascinated by these guys who started everything. I just read a biography of Cecil B. DeMille. He was a two-bit starving actor who couldn’t make it; he just happened to know some people. He directed some things. They were going to Flagstaff, Arizona. It was raining so they wound up here."

Missi Pyle: "That’s what happened to me too!"

John Goodman: "They had Squaw Man. They had to fight people off with guns. They had people shooting at them while they were shooting a film. But guys like these that invented the industry, they were just making it up as they went along. They were incredibly tough old bastards but they had to have an ear and an eye for what the audience wanted. So they had to keep their minds open."

Missi Pyle: "It was such a new time as well. Storytelling has obviously been around forever and just the idea that this was so new, the idea that these films were made and these theaters were put in different… It had to be brand new and all over the country. They used some of the old theatrical studios. It was just this whole new [thing] and look how little it’s changed."

How crazy is that sensation of shooting a scene in a part of L.A. or Hollywood that looks like it looked back in 1929?

Missi Pyle: "It’s incredible. There are so many places that are still the same."

John Goodman: "Yeah. That’s what’s cool about it. It really helps you out. It’s like putting on a period costume and greasing your hair down. It all helps."

How receptive to the pitch of a silent movie were you? Did you read the script first and say yes right away?

Missi Pyle: "I think we had different experiences. (to John) Did you read it before your meeting?"

John Goodman: "Yeah, I got a scenario. It just sounded so different. I was intrigued, and then after the meeting I was more than willing to jump on because it was different. And what the hell, I didn’t have to learn lines. 'I’m your boy. Sign me up.'"

Missi Pyle: "I just thought, 'What is this? Okay, that sounds interesting.' I actually auditioned for Penelope Ann Miller’s role and I knew when I walked in that it was a special role and I was excited when I got the call to come and play the role because that’s what I went to set thinking, that I was playing the wife and nobody told me that I wasn’t. I don’t think anybody knew until I was sitting in the make-up chair. She was like, 'So you’re playing the actress,' and I was like, 'Ahhh.' And then it ended up being even more improvisational and more thinking on your feet."

In the course of making this film, what did both of you discover while playing people who lived during the 1920s period? How was it different from us now?

John Goodman: "Pretty much what I already knew. I took away an appreciation for the craft of making a film and Michel’s passion for the period and love of cinema. A lot of that rubbed off on me."

Missi Pyle: "I think too just being a part of it, like when you’re acting in it, obviously you get a feel for actually being there, being what it’s like and to me I think just that everything is so fast now and I think back then everything was just a little bit more solid and real and everything felt like it had more weight. And then, of course, you think about as people are getting ready, the things that they wear underneath. And you think about simple things that we have now like indoor plumbing and thinking about what those people did in order to just get ready in the morning. Hot showers? No, not so much. It was like an appreciation for all of that.

You have such an interesting career. It seems at least to me that you work quite a bit but you don’t necessarily have paparazzi peaking over your fences and that kind of stuff. What’s it like to be in that zone in Hollywood where you are in demand but you don’t have that intrusive part of the success?

Missi Pyle: Well, I would like to be able to get a table easier. I don’t mind it at all. I really love being a character actor. I don’t know. I have to say I wish it were a little easier. There are still a lot of things that I don’t get, like I do wish I had more of my own…I’ve done so many television pilots. I’ve done 11 I think and I’ve never had one get picked up. There was never one that I was a guest star on. It’s just kind of fascinating, but I don’t think it would be fun to be recognized all the time. I remember I walked through Central Park and I saw you (referring to John Goodman) sitting on a park bench before I knew you."

John Goodman: (joking) "Laying on a park bench?"

Missi Pyle: (laughs) "With a bottle. I was like, 'That’s John Goodman!' And now, here you are with me."

* * * * *

The Artist hits theaters on November 25, 2011.

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