When a project comes to you, do you look at it first as an actor or as a director?
I ask myself some basic questions — do I think it’s good? Does it affect me somehow? Do I feel something when I’m reading it? Am I interested? Does it surprise me? If I get answers to all these questions then I give thumbs up to a movie. Argo was a nail-biting thriller, a comedy and an incredible CIA spy story, all rolled into one. The fact that it was true completely blew me away. So, as soon as I read it, I looked it up on the Internet. I wanted to know whether all this stuff really happened. And then I thought, ‘I’ve got to do this movie.’
Did it come to you also as an actor or did you decide I want to cast myself?
It came to me as a director. When I found a script this good, I thought well, I’ve got to give myself a job.
Are there any unique challenges when you’re working as an actor and director in the same film?
It’s always hard trying to make a good movie. I’ve never been in a situation where I felt that it was easy. It’s the whole process that matters. It’s what you invest into it. If you go into it knowing that it’s going to be difficult, you just have to work as hard as you possibly can, and you’re still very likely to fail. You can kind of be at peace with it. Fortunately, Argo just turned out to be the best movie I’ve ever been involved with.
Since Argo is based on real people, how much did you have to do to make the movie a complete viewing experience?
All of those characters are completely real. It’s absolutely true that these people, with these names, were working at the US Embassy when it got taken over. They hid out with the Canadians. And one of them was Kent Taylor. Then Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers and CIA agent Tony Mendez came up with an idea to rescue them using the cover of a movie story location scout. We had to do tertiary kind of stuff to give the movie a three-act structure.
Did you think of Alan Arkin immediately when you read the Lester Siegel role?
Not only did I think of Arkin immediately when I read the role, but I was genuinely concerned who we would get if he didn’t do it. I thought we were going to have to go to some old producer living up in Bel Air because I don’t know who in the world we could possibly get.
Argo is set in 1979. In the movie, you’ve changed everything, even the Warner Brothers’ logo at the beginning, to reflect that time period. What process did you go through to create this reality?
There’s no real footage in the movie except some news footage. We used special effects to change things to Farsi letters or take off the new McDonald’s logo off something and make everything period, but not obvious and not funny.