Category Archives: Celebrity Interviews

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY on ‘PRIDE AND PREJUDICE’

“I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.”
– Jane Austen

Almost two centuries after its publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice remains one of the world’s best loved books, primarily because its heroine, the young, feisty Elizabeth Bennett, is such good company; were she still alive, it’s doubtful that Austen would have her tolerance tested by many people. Keira Knightley certainly isn’t one of them.

“I think she’s one of the best roles in literature,” Knightley says, speaking to Leeds Guide from the suitably grandiose surroundings of London’s Dorchester Hotel, “so there’s a huge pressure. It’s terrifying because when you read Pride and Prejudice, you feel like you own her. I know I did. Everybody has a very clear idea of who Elizabeth Bennett is. It’s terrifying but a really exciting challenge.”

A challenge Knightley brilliantly squared up to – her Elizabeth Bennett is perhaps her strongest performance to date. Whether exhibiting defiant independence or melancholic heartbreak, she perfectly captures Austen’s heroine. Except in one regard: Elizabeth is supposed to be rather average-looking – her sister Jane is the real beauty – and Knightley, well… Just look at her.

It doesn’t detract from the film, however, especially as Jane is played by Rosamund Pike, former Bond Girl to Pierce Brosnan, an English Rose whose beauty does outshine Knightley’s. We don’t get into that here, of course, and Knightley gives the impression that, far from being rivals, the two actresses were as close in real life as they appear on screen.

“Jane Austen’s own critique of her book was that she felt it was too light-hearted,” says Knightley. “She felt the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth wasn’t realistic enough. We took heed of her comments and tried to bring some realism to the movie, bringing out the idea that these sisters are two girls who have lived with each other and slept in the same bed for so many years now. They have annoyances and such, but they love each other.”

“Yes, we’re both in the Johnny Depp club.
I’m a bit jealous of Rosamund because
she got to kiss him and I didn’t.”

The only fly in the ointment of sisterly affection is Johnny Depp. Both actresses have worked with him, Pike on 2004’s The Libertine and Knightley on the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

“Yes, we’re both in the Johnny Depp club,” coos Knightley, before admitting, “I’m a bit jealous of Rosamund because she got to kiss him and I didn’t.”

Knightley might have missed out on locking lips with Depp but, as Elizabeth, she was required – eventually – to get amorous with the dashing Mr Darcy, played by Matthew MacFadyen. While he doesn’t quite manage to banish the wet-shirted spectre of Colin Firth, MacFadyen is undeniably a handsome chap. Knightley very obviously approves.

“Matthew’s sexy in the mode of Richard Burton, with a bit of Alan Rickman,” she gushes. “You need to see that kind of rugged beauty in Darcy, knowing that here is a man who walks across fields, climbs trees and manages his own estate. With Matthew, you can see that etched across his face, yet he’s also got this extraordinary vulnerability.”

Knightley’s admiration isn’t limited to Mac Fadyen’s looks. He is, as anyone who’s caught him on TV’s Spooks, a terrific actor.

“When I went in to read with Matthew, I was so blown away that I virtually couldn’t get my lines out,” Knightley confides. “I just kept staring at him thinking, ‘What the hell happened between you walking in as Matthew and you starting to read?’ Because he actually did turn into Darcy. On the page, Darcy reads as being very cold, but Matthew is so vulnerable through his big manliness that he gives Darcy extra qualities.”

The other man in Elizabeth Bennett’s life is her elderly father. Although a small part, Mr Bennett’s cantankerous but loving personality permeates the story, requiring an actor blessed with incredible presence. With Donald Sutherland, the production got that in spades.

“He was completely amazing and such a sweetheart,” says Knightley. “I think he loved having six women fussing over him all the time. We went out to a party and he wore a mask because he hates smoking.”

Knightley evidently loved every moment of making Pride and Prejudice – even the costumes were less onerous than in other period pieces she’s starred in.

“The Bennett girls are supposed to be quite active,” explains Knightley. “It’s really important that you get a sense that they could run around and walk for miles in their clothes. The corset I wore was very mild compared to the thing I wear on Pirates of the Caribbean.” She pulls a face, recalling the discomfort. “It comes all the way down and pulls in the stomach and everything and you can’t breathe at all.”

The costumes also helped Knightley and her co-stars get into character, particularly when it came to reacting to the opposite sex.

“When the men in the cast stood around in their normal clothes, we Bennett girls could chat away to them,” Knightley says. “As soon as they wore their costumes, the sisters, myself included, were suddenly faced with these sexy creatures and we turned into giggling idiots. They were so well-costumed!”

Period costumes have been a feature of Knightley’s career, with many critics – conveniently ignoring films such as Love, Actually, Bend It Like Beckham and forthcoming bounty-hunter actioner Domino – accusing her of becoming typecast. Knightley brushes such accusations aside.

“What excites me about acting is changing as much as possible from character to character,” she enthuses. “I don’t want to become typecast but, if I read a script that has a fantastic story, a fantastic character and a fantastic director, not do it just because it’s set 200 years ago would be foolish.”

There was, basically, no way Knightley could or would turn down Pride and Prejudice.

“It’s a book that I’ve been obsessed with since I was seven years old,” she confesses, “so the opportunity to play Elisabeth Bennett was a dream come true. I just pounced on it.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2005.

WALTER HILL — DIRECTOR’S CUT

The Warriors (1979)

“We made it on the shoestring, shooting almost entirely on location during New York’s wettest summer in 75 years. And we were in some very rough neighbourhoods. It was controversial when it came out in ’79 but, looking at it now, with all these kids running around wearing masks, you’ve got to wonder where the national peril is. But the main problem was that the film didn’t critique gangs. For my protagonists, the gang is a positive, protective force. I think that upset a lot of people.”

“John Candy… A terrific guy. I miss him.
He was a friend.”

Brewster’s Millions (1985)

“Richard Pryor wasn’t a terribly happy guy at that point but I liked working with him. I think he was in a horrible dilemma – he felt that if he didn’t use drugs he wasn’t funny, and if he did use drugs, he would die. That’s a hell of position to find yourself in. I thought this was one of his finest performances. John Candy was a great talent, too. A terrific guy. I miss him. He was a friend.”

 

 

48 Hours (1982)

“I originally wanted Richard [Pryor] but that never happened and then we tried to get Greg Hines but he couldn’t get out of another project. Eddie Murphy had a very clever agent, who later became my wife, who knew of our dilemma. She sent me a bunch of tapes of Eddie on Saturday Night Live and I thought he was terrific.”

“Was [Southern Comfort] written as a Vietnam allegory? No. But did we understand that it would inevitably be perceived that way, and in some ways was? Sure.” 

Southern Comfort (1981)

“Was it written as a Vietnam allegory? No. But did we understand that it would inevitably be perceived that way, and in some ways was? Sure. I said to the cast when we started shooting that I didn’t think we should mention Vietnam. Our job was to tell the story within our characters, within our time, within our premise. I’m proud of the film and I think Ry Cooder’s score is fabulous. I thought he’d respond to the surroundings and the unique atmosphere, and he did.”

 

“Other than when [Arnold
Schwarzenegger]  played the
robot, I would say Red
Heat was his best
performance.”

Red Heat (1988)

“Working with Arnold [Schwarzenegger], I certainly didn’t imagine he’d become our governor. He’s almost a mythic figure to audiences. Other than when he played the robot, I would say Red Heat was his best performance. I think the best part of the film is the first 15 minutes. If I had to do it over – I thought this while I was doing it but by then it was too late – I’d send the American cop over to Russia. That would have been a more interesting film. The stuff over there had a freshness to it that perhaps the rest of the film didn’t have.”

 

 Crossroads (1986)

“It was kind of messy. The movie was supposed to be about a black kid reaching for his roots but the studio wanted to do it with Ralph [Macchio]. He’s a fine actor but he was too identifiable as the Karate Kid. I think it was a mistake not to do the film with a young, black actor. It’s a domino effect. You do something wrong and it all goes wrong. The film has some nice moments but I think it’s a miss.”

This article first appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: TERRY GILLIAM on ‘THE BROTHERS GRIMM’

“I was always drawn to the Grimms for the primal nature of their stories,” says Terry Gilliam, adding with a grin. “I like the darkness.”

No kidding. The latest movie from the maverick director, a fantastical account of how the Brothers Grimm (played by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger) came to know so much about fairytales, is full of supremely dark moments. A horse swallows a child, a scary wolfman goes on the rampage, a cute kitten gets liquidised and a young girl has her eyes, nose and mouth erased by a mud monster…

“I was always drawn to the Grimms for the primal nature of their stories.I like the darkness.”

“It would have been nice if we could’ve got a PG in the States,” says Gilliam. And he’s not joking; he’s genuinely puzzled that adults deem the film too scary for children. And he’s got a point. Yes, the film is macabre but, as is often the case with Gilliam’s work, it’s tempered by a warm-hearted sense of ludicrous. It’s frightening in the same way that, well, the best fairytales are.

“I got a lot of notes saying that it’s too rough for children,” Gilliam recounts. “That’s false. The movie plays brilliantly for kids. Somehow people think fairytales are things with tinkly music and lots of people in pink but Grimm’s fairytales were dark so that was really important for me  – not to do some modern, PC, bland version of what fairytales were about. Fairytales scared the shit out of me when I was a kid. They also gave me immense pleasure because you go to dark places but, at the end, you come out alive.”

With its unique combination of nightmare, whimsy and dark humour, The Brothers Grimm is unmistakably a Terry Gilliam film, bringing to mind his other ‘family’ oriented movies such as Time Bandits (1981) or 1977’s medieval romp, Jabberwocky. This will be joyous news to his fans, but those who prefer him in more conventional mode (Twelve Monkeys, The Fisher King) may well be perplexed and frustrated as they were by the love-it-or-loathe-it excesses of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988).

Of course, the root of Gilliam’s aesthetic can be summed up by a certain dread adjective: “Pythonesque.” As the only American member of legendary comic troupe Monty Python, Gilliam was initially brought on board by John Cleese to provide the TV show’s inimitable cartoon inserts. Still friends with the surviving Pythons, Gilliam is sanguine about his inability to shake off his roots.

“According to some of the reviews of Grimms I obviously haven’t,” he admits. “It’s always going to be there because I’ve got that same sense of comedy. I love it. I love over the top performances.”

And The Brothers Grimm has them in spades. Not only does Peter Stormare (seen recently as Satan in Constantine), chew the scenery as an idiotic Italian mercenary, but Gilliam is once again reunited with Jonathan Pryce. Having starred as a beleaguered bureaucrat in Brazil, here he pops up as a general in Napoleon’s army, complete with silly French accent, in many ways reprising his role as Baron Munchausen’s unimaginative bean-counting nemesis to. This triumph of the fantastical over rationalism is another key theme of Gilliam’s films.

“We’ve let that side take over to much,” Gilliam opines. “Everything has to be explained and understood as opposed to allowing for the mystery wonder that’s possible in life. The Grimms are connected to this because it’s important to remember that they didn’t write the fairytales, they collected them. With the Enlightenment sweeping in and putting pressure on the old prejudices and superstitions, they were afraid that Germany’s old traditions were disappearing.”

By setting the Brothers Grimm in a historically accurate setting of Napoleonic Europe, Gilliam is able to explore this theme, albeit with full-on fantasy elements. An added bonus for the director, if his mischievous cackle is anything to go by, seems to be that he gets to mock the French.

“It opens with a caption saying ‘French occupied Germany’,” he laughs. “I love being able to say that because it’s wonderful and it’s historically accurate. It’s good to remind us that the Germans have not always been the aggressors. The perverseness of showing the French as the bad guys was too good to not deal with.”

Evil witches and enchanted forests notwithstanding, The Brothers Grimm is a gritty, bloody and muddily authentic version of history, typical of Gilliam. This extends to some gruesome scenes in which Angelicka the hunter, played by Huddersfield-born Lena Heady, is seen skinning and gutting a rabbit. Not only did this contribute to the film’s PG-13 certificate, but it caused Heady, a strict vegetarian, much consternation. Predictably, this is a source of great amusement to Gilliam.

“We booked Lena Heady a week with hunters to train her how to skin a rabbit. They only got to show her once. But she saved a rabbit’s life. I was preparing little bunny for the shoot and she ran off with it and kept it.”

“We booked her a week with hunters to train her how to skin a rabbit,” he chortles. “They only got to show her once. But she saved a rabbit’s life. I was preparing little bunny for the shoot and she ran off with it and kept it. In the film it’s a plastic rabbit with lots of condoms full of blood and guts, but it was really hard for her to do that, even with the plastic one.”

Bemused disapproval of Heady’s principles aside, Gilliam is full of praise for the Yorkshire actress.

“She’s a good actress,” he says, “and she worked very hard because she’s not normally a horse-riding, bow shooting kinda gal. She just got into it and I think the end result is fantastic.

“We did terrible things to her, though,”  he continues. “Like putting her into a room with no light to get her used to living in a cave so could escape from being a modern girl and become a kind of feral creature.”

The thought of Gilliam bundling Heady into a dank cell brings to mind his turn as the feeble-minded gaoler in Life of Brian (most quotable line: “We’ve got lumps round the back”) which, of course, brings us back to Monty Python.

“It’s very bizarre,” he says of the show that launched him. “We’ve each done a personal best that’s coming out on DVD soon and looking at the episodes today it’s shocking how bad it is. It’s so cheesy, it’s so cheap and yet it’s still really funny. Nothing’s come along and matched it. I don’t know why. The League of Gentleman I loved because I thought they captured a similar grotesqueness. But that ‘ex-Python’ thing will always be there. It’ll be on the gravestone, depending on what I do next. Maybe,” he chuckles, “it will say ex-Bond Girl…”

Now that really would be a dark fairytale.

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2005.

INTERVIEW: RACHEL WEISZ on ‘THE CONSTANT GARDENER’

“I loved being pregnant,” says Rachel Weisz.

This wouldn’t be an astounding statement if it wasn’t for the fact that Rachel Weisz has never actually given birth. She’s talking about Tessa, her character in her latest movie, The Constant Gardener, who spends large portions of the movie sporting an enormous belly. A mixture of prosthetics and computer-generated imagery, it’s so convincing that many people have asked Weisz if she likes motherhood.

If she has had a baby, then it certainly doesn’t show. Now 34, the London-born actress is still one of the most beautiful actresses in the world. She’s fiercely intelligent, too, and her plummy but alluring accent betrays the fact that she attended Cambridge University.

“It was made by Christine Blundell,” says Weisz of her prosthetic belly. “She’s a top chick who works with Mike Leigh a lot and won an Oscar for Topsy Turvy. She’s brilliant at making things look utterly real although she did get annoyed with Fernando [Meirelles, director]. He told her that I’d only been seen from the front but, because we improvised so much, we ended up seeing me from all angles. That had to be sorted out with CGI in post-production.”

The improvisation is clearly something Weisz relished. The film begins with Justin, a British diplomat in Kenya played by Ralph Fiennes, being told that Tessa has been killed. As he investigates her death, their life together unfolds in flashback. It is in these moments that Meirelles, best known for his superb debut, City Of God, encouraged the ‘lovers’ to improvise.

“Some actors don’t like it,” she says, “but Ralph and I both like to experiment – we both share that desire to play around. Fernando likes to work with complete freedom and spontaneity. Obviously it’s a thriller so there were plot elements we had to retain. But Fernando allowed us to have freedom in some scenes. Like when Ralph’s in the bathroom pretending to be Jacques Cousteau – that wasn’t in the script. That was just him having fun.”

Ralph Fiennes, as with women the world over, evidently made an impression on Weisz.

“I love that the love story and the thriller are completely dependent on one another… it’s about two people who are complete opposites. She likes to rock the boat and he’s a diplomat who’s more reserved. As Justin investigates Tessa’s death, so he falls more deeply in love with his wife.”

“I’ve wanted to work with him since the beginning of my career,” she confesses. “And, having worked with him on [1999’s] Sunshine, I was very privileged to work with him again. He’s an incredible actor. Really, he’s a complete joy to work with. I loved every moment of it.” She finishes gushing then adds, laughing, “And he’s the best husband!”

The love affair feels thoroughly believable, a fact Weisz is extremely proud of.

“I love that the love story and the thriller are completely dependent on one another, “ she says. “It’s very original because it’s about two people who are complete opposites. She likes to rock the boat and he’s a diplomat who’s more reserved. As Justin investigates Tessa’s death, so he falls more deeply in love with his wife.”

The love story, enjoyable though it is, is only a small part of Constant Gardener’s rich tapestry. While in Africa, Tessa becomes obsessed with the nefarious machinations of a multinational pharmaceutical corporations and it is her crusading that ultimately leads to her murder. Weisz experienced many real life parallels while shooting in the shantytowns of Kenya. The plot of Constant Gardener may be fiction but it is based on depressingly real corporate exploitation.

“I hope it raises debate,” says Weisz. “I mean, it’s just a film but if it means you articles in newspapers about what these pharmaceutical companies are doing then that’s great.”

The production has had a more direct impact on the area used for shooting.

“Every single member of the crew was deeply affected,” Weisz explains, “but emotion doesn’t really help the people so Simon [producer, Channing-Williams] has created this trust for the area and I’ve recorded a commercial for the World Food Program that will be released with the film. They’re an incredible organisation. The food drops you see in the movie are them.”

Such altruism is admirable but does she worry that any attention the film draws to Kenya’s plight will be short-lived? She’s philosophical.

“Media attention may surge and fall but there will always be individuals out in Africa like Tessa. Whether they’re efforts are publicised or not, these incredible people will continue to devote their lives to others.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2005.

INTERVIEW: ROBERT DOWNEY JNR and VAL KILMER on ‘KISS KISS BANG BANG’

As you’d expect from Shane Black, the man who created Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is a buddy movie. This time, though, it isn’t tough-guy cops but a gay movie producer and a petty criminal, thrust together in a complex comedy-noir set in present-day Hollywood. Black, who also makes his directorial debut, has penned possibly his finest script ever but it’s the chemistry between the buddies – Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jnr – that makes the film.

Both stars were something of a gamble for the production, Downey Jnr because of his epic battle with drugs and drink, Kilmer because of his reputation for being an egomaniacal tosspot. City Life meets both men on the same day in different rooms of London’s Claridges Hotel. For the record, Kilmer is genuinely charming and Downey Jnr, though overly effusive and hyperactive, is, simply, a lovely guy.

“There are a lot of mean, twisted, tortured people in our business but Robert didn’t do any bad things to other people, he did them to himself. He always had a lot of love and support in the community and Hollywood does so love a comeback.”

“He’s just so happy he didn’t die,” is how Kilmer affectionately describes his co-star. “Doing this was just so much fun because it’s a wonderful thing to see someone as loveable as him make it back. There are a lot of mean, twisted, tortured people in our business but Robert didn’t do any bad things to other people, he did them to himself. He always had a lot of love and support in the community and Hollywood does so love a comeback.”

Downey Jnr himself isn’t keen to talk about his addictions, mainly because “it’s all I seem to talk about sometimes” but he does wax lyrical about the two things that have helped keep him straight: kung fu and marriage.

“I’m about halfway to black belt,” he says shyly, “but I know nothing. I can defend myself against practically anybody but, in terms of hurting somebody… Well, I wouldn’t want to. The headlines! ‘His hands were registered as lethal weapons!’ I don’t want a martial art that’s aggressive. I’m angry enough as it is. I want to be like Neo at the end of The Matrix.”

His wife, Susan Levin, is a film producer and it was through her that Downey Jnr first heard about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

“She’s reading this script and laughing,” says Downey Jnr, “and that’s unusual so I ask her what’s so funny and she’s, like, ‘Oh, nothing, just this Johnny Knoxville project.’ She keeps reading and laughing and she tells me, ‘The just had his severed finger that he had on ice stolen by a dog.’ ‘What was his finger doing in an ice bowl?’ ‘His girlfriend cut it off.’ ‘Why didn’t he go to hospital?’ ‘He did but it got pulled off again by these two bad guys called Mr Frying Pan and Mr Fire.’ When I heard that I just had to be in this movie.”

While Downey Jnr landed his first lead in years, for Kilmer the film was a chance for him to remind the world that, despite Alexander and Batman Returns, he is a fantastic actor.

“It’s a finicky business,” says Kilmer philosophically. “There are rules in Hollywood. You have to do certain things, even if you’ve just made a billion dollars. But, despite making some wrong choices, I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that I’m still working. I’m like Robert in that respect.”

That the two men obviously like one another translates into some crackling on-screen chemistry and some inspired improvisation.

“He’s Val goddamn Kilmer,” says Downey Jnr. “He’s amazing. The stuff he came up with on the spot was great. Like when he’s supposed to tell me to put my cigarette out and I ask him where and he just deadpans, ‘Throw it in that clump of dry bushes, you moron.’”

“Having Robert playing a dumb guy was really fun,” laughs Kilmer, “because he’s actually very smart but because he’s acting dumb he can’t say anything back to me.”

Though they evidently loved riffing, both men are keen to reiterate the importance of Black’s script, even if they sometimes forgot that on set.

“Improvisation is something he encourages,” says Downey Jnr, “but sometimes he’d get pissed. ‘Guys! Before you improvise all over my dialogue can you at least learn it!’” Downey Jnr breaks into a cheeky grin. “He did have a point.”

This article was first published in CityLife magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: AMELIA WARNER ON ‘ALPHA MALE’

“Please don’t mention her ex…” is the gentle warning from Amelia Warner’s people. This being Hotdog and not some scurrilous tab, that’s no hardship; besides, there’s much more to the talented Ms Warner than her four-month marriage to Colin Farrell.

“What’s expected of you is just bizarre,” she says of the Hollywood treadmill. “To sell a film you’re expected to do whatever the film company tells you. I think some actors” – and here, it’s impossible not to think of her ex – “give up their lives to it. For me, it’s not worth that kind of sacrifice.”

Today Warner, 24, is promoting Alpha Male, a film about a wealthy family coping with the death of its patriarch (Danny Huston). As reclusive teenager Elyssa, Warner is outstanding.

“She’s eight when her dad dies,” she says. “My mum’s dad died, actually, when she was that age. She said the script really captures it. When something that traumatic happens to a child they get frozen in that time. So Elyssa, at 19, she’s very child like. But I didn’t have to draw on anything from my own life – I had a really clear idea of who she was from the brilliant script.”

First time writer-director Dan Wilde seems to have been a hit with Warner.

“Oh yes,” she admits. “He’s amazing. And lovely. And he’s very smart, very clever – he’s got a degree in philosophy.”

Warner herself recently graduated with a degree in Art History (she has a penchant for German Expressionism), although she sounds rather despondent when asked if she’s pursuing anything connected with it.

“No, but I go to galleries and stuff. I’m always at the Tate Modern.”

Along with Alpha Male, in the bag she’s also got psychological thriller, Gone – a claustrophobic three-hander that takes place entirely within a campervan in the Australian Outback.

“It was a fantastic opportunity as an actor,” she says. “It felt like the three of us were going a bit mad. And it’s beautifully shot. I’m really excited about it coming out.”

As for the future, Warner cheerfully announces that she’s got nothing on her slate.

“I’m just being really lazy,” she laughs. “Last year I didn’t work all year until I did Alpha Male, but the longer you leave it, the more precious you get about what you do next. And I only want to do something good.”

This interview was first published in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

INTERVIEW: GEORGE CLOONEY, ALEXANDER SIDDIG and STEPHEN GAGHAN ON ‘SYRIANA’

For George Clooney, 2005 was a hell of a year. And not just in a good way. Yes, he’s been nominated for three Oscars (Best Supporting actor for Syriana, Best Director and Best Screenwriter for Good Night, And Good Luck), but he also got to see what his own spinal fluid looked like. When it was coming out of his nose. On top of that, the USA’s rightwing continued to use him as a punchbag.

“You have to take your hits,” he says laconically in his deep, rumbling (some might say dreamy), Kentuckian drawl. “I can’t demand freedom of speech and then say, ‘But don’t say bad things about me.’”

Hits he most certainly did take. For his anti-Iraq War stance he was “pigeonholed as a traitor” by rightwingers.

“This made me mad,” he chuckles. “So I made these two films.”

While Good Night, And Good Luck, a superb reconstruction of Ed Murrow, the broadcaster who went head-to-head with Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, was very much Clooney’s baby – he wrote, directed and produced – the man behind Syriana was Stephen Gaghan.

Born in 1965, five years after fellow Kentuckian Clooney, he’s a slim-built, good-looking guy with blue eyes and blonde hair. Having won an Emmy for writing NYPD Blue and an Oscar for Traffic, he’s one of Hollywood’s most respected scribes. He’s incredibly serious, although his speech is peppered with mordant quips.

“I got the name Syriana from an overheard conversation when I was at the Pentagon, researching the film,” he says. “It was early ‘02 in Washington. These people had taken over the White House in 2000 and they had big plans for the Middle East. It was a heady day of Empire and they were talking about their policy in the Middle East. It wasn’t about Iraq, it was about Iran, Syria and the possibility of re-drawing the map, yet again. They were talking about making a new county and said it could be called Syriana.”

He laughs, adding:

“It’s funny that on the poster George has got Syriana written right across his forehead; it means ‘asshole’ in Japanese.”

A highly complex film, following the trail of corruption and money that oil spreads around the world. Characters include energy company CEOs, middle men, lawyers, disillusioned oil field workers seduced by Islamic fundamentalism and Clooney’s washed-up CIA agent. Opposite him is Prince Nasir, first in line to the throne of a fictional oil-rich country. A moderate Muslim and progressive thinker, he’s dismayed at the way in which none of the money generated by oil has filtered down to the people. He is determined to steer his country towards democracy and a less rampant form of capitalism. This doesn’t go down well with the US government.

“In a way,” says Alexander Siddig who plays Nasir, “my character isn’t just for the West to see, it’s for the Arab people to go, ‘Oh no, wait, you don’t have to be a crazy screaming guy to be intellectual’. Sadly I don’t think many Arabs will see it but may eventually get the DVD. In fact, they’ve probably already got it.”

While both Siddig and Clooney have their take on their own character, as the man responsible for every aspect of Syriana, it’s Gaghan who wraps his head around the big picture. Just how big the subject of oil is as it relates to America’s military-industrial complex came to him when he was at the Pentagon.

“I went to see the deputy secretary of defence who was running the bureau of counter-narcotics,” he remarks, matter-of-factly. “It’s so big in there it’s like it’s hallucinogenic. The hallways are so long – you’ve never been in a hallway like this before. You can’t make out the end of it. Jesus, I thought, the American military is a large operation. And I went to this room and the sign on the door said ‘Bureau of counter-narcotics and counter-terror’. After the fall of communism, the system was just trying to find another reason to exist, so it finds the War on Drugs – a war against brain chemistry – and then the War on Terror. Both wars on abstractions. When the World Trade Centre came down, I knew then that George Bush was going to turn it into a giant war, not just a police action.”

As neither Gaghan nor Clooney are fans of Dubya, it’s a little surprising to find that Syriana was bank-rolled by Warner Bros., a company that, as part of AOL-Time-Warner, back Bush’s Republican party to the hilt.

“I was surprised Warner Bros. stepped up,” admits Clooney. “It was green-lit two years ago and back then the climate in America was very dark. It was like McCarthy in a sense. People would come to me and whisper, ‘I agree with you’ and I’d go, ‘Why are you whispering?’ Everyone turned into chickenshits.”

For Gaghan, it wasn’t just that Warner Bros. financed the project that amazed him.

“I was surprised they let me do it,” confesses Gaghan. “Two hundred twenty locations, four continents, five languages, 400 speaking parts. The scale of it for a second time director was, on paper, impossible. But that’s not the way it works out. With a movie it doesn’t matter what size it is, the problem is just the same: what the fuck is this scene about?”

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the ongoing folly in Iraq, Clooney is happy to report that the situation is a lot better. “Bush has a 38 percent approval rating,” he beams.

But, as a quick online search reveals, George’s popularity isn’t that high with people for whom ‘liberal’ is a dirty word.

“What the hell’s wrong with ‘liberal’?” he spits. “We’ve got blacks being allowed to sit in the front of the bus, we thought McCarthy was a schmuck, we thought Vietnam was wrong, we thought women should be allowed to vote… when have we been on the wrong side of a social issue? And yet they’ve demonised the word ‘liberal’.”

Siddig, well known to Star Trek fans as Deep Space Nine’s Dr Julian Bashir, has a much more global perspective on the issues raised. Born in Sudan, the nephew of the then Prime Minister, he was forced to flee aged just eight after a military coup.

“I was literally bundled on a plane and sent off to England where my mother already was,” he recalls. “At Heathrow airport I stayed with this British Airways stewardess for eight hours while they tracked down who I was from my passport. But Sudan has all the elements of Islam in one place – there are fundamentalists living alongside a more accessible, moderate version of Islam. And there’s a lot of oil there, too.”

While Gaghan “could care less” about right-wing critics, Clooney’s higher profile means he’s still a target. None of this has made his tough year any easier. In fact, if the majority of Clooney’s detractors weren’t rabid Christians, one might suspect they’d targeted him via voodoo. On the last day of shooting Syriana, he fell victim to a freak accident. Those with weak stomachs might want to look away now.

“In the torture scene,” he explains, “I threw myself over the back of a chair I was taped to. I hit the back of my head and damaged the wrap around the spine that holds it together. I was losing spinal fluid, which doesn’t hurt your back but makes your head feel like you’ve eaten ice cream too fast. That’s because what holds your brain up is spinal fluid, and if you haven’t got enough your brain sinks and the spinal fluid comes out – out though the nose.”

That must have put paid to his legendary partying.

“I go to bed at nine o’clock every night now,” he says. “It’s called positional: the longer you’re up, the more your brain sinks so as the day goes on your head hurts. It’s hopefully getting better but I still have to do blood patches – they take 30cc of blood and they shoot it into my spine. And that hurts.”

He’s half relishing telling the story for the look of horror on my face. But afterwards, he slumps a little and looks tired.

“It’s been a very difficult year,” he says. “Everybody has that year when they age ten, and this was that year for me.”

Here’s hoping he at least gets one Oscar for his trouble. Even without the injury, he deserves it.

This article was first published on the FilmFour website in 2005.

INTERVIEW: MICHAEL CATON-JONES and CLAIRE HOPE-ASHITEY on ‘SHOOTING DOGS’

Most people in the West hadn’t heard of Rwanda prior to April 1994, when a million Tutsis were murdered by the Hutus. It was the worst case of state-sponsored genocide since the Nazis but the Western powers, then half-heartedly intervening in the former-Yugoslavia, didn’t lift a finger.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” admits Michael Caton-Jones, director of Shooting Dogs, a film depicting the massacre of 2,500 people at Kigali’s Ecole Technique Officielle. “And I felt that if I, as a relatively smart person, don’t know about it then I’m damn sure a lot of other people don’t.”

Long established as a Hollywood director (Memphis Belle, The Jackal, Rob Roy and the forthcoming Basic Instinct 2), Caton-Jones seems an unlikely candidate for a gritty ‘issues’ movie. But, as the Scottish-born director explains in his Connery-esque rumble, he was looking for a change of pace. He got it. As well as spending five months in Africa, dealing with BBC Films proved a culture shock.

“Compared to Hollywood, the BBC feels really amateur. They’re essentially a TV company. You have good technicians, good directors, good actors but they’re poorly served by the executives.”

Caton-Jones’ first obstacle was persuading said executives that the film should be shot in Rwanda and not, like last year’s Hotel Rwanda, in South Africa.

“There’s a tax deal if you film in South Africa,” he says, “but within five minutes of landing in Rwanda I knew we had to film there, not least because of the intangible benefit of being amongst the Rwandans. Because, not wanting to paint myself as a saint, I realised this wasn’t about me, it was about them.”

And so it was that the film’s cast and crew came to be comprised of people who had survived the genocide. Which made the job of Claire Hope-Ashitey, the 17-year old London-born actress brought in to star as a Rwandan schoolgirl, somewhat daunting.

“I felt really inadequate to begin with,” she admits. “I felt like I was intruding. But everybody was so welcoming.”

As Marie, a track-and-field prodigy, Ashitey’s running tops and tails the film. She laughs, confessing to having, ahem, “exaggerated” her athletic skills to Caton-Jones.

“I thought it would be fine but the first few days I was there, that’s all I had to do – run up and down. I’ve never ached so much in my life.”

Both as athlete and Rwandan, Ashitey convinces utterly, an achievement made all the more astounding upon discovering that, although she will soon be seen alongside Clive Owen and Michael Caine in the Alfonso Cuarón-directed sci-fi Children Of Men, Shooting Dogs was her feature film debut.

If Ashitey’s time sounds challenging, for Caton-Jones and his production team it was a logistical nightmare. Not only did virtually every scene require the marshalling of hundreds of extras, but the shoot was filmed at the Ecole Technique Officielle itself. Although a vital component of the film’s dusty, sweaty and, inevitably, bloody realism, it created some disturbing problems.

“The school was still in use while we were filming,” says Caton-Jones says. “There was one instance where we had the actors playing the Hutu mob outside chanting the songs that would have been heard at the time. Some of the teenage pupils, who had survived the massacre as young kids, just completely melted down and went into traumatised shock. Some of them had to be hospitalised.”

Although regret is evident in Caton-Jones’ voice, he has no time for commentators who feel that, by telling the story through two admirably brave white characters (John Hurt and Hugh Dancy), Shooting Dogs is side-stepping colonial guilt.

“Ask a Rwandan if they’re offended,” he instructs Hotdog, sharply. “They didn’t care that it was two white men taking you into this story – they understand it’s because I didn’t make it for them. They know what happened and I made it with their blessing.”

Ashitey concurs:

They were so happy that someone was trying to tell their story. People came up to me all the time and said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”

“It’s a fatuous argument,” Caton-Jones continues. “It’s the sort of thing people come out with at a dinner party in someone’s luxurious Western home. Accusations of racism tell you a lot more about the person throwing them out. Some things are more important than the colour of your skin. To me it’s, like, give yourself an award for missing the point.”

First published in Hotdog Magazine in 2005.

INTERVIEW: JENA MALONE ON ‘CONTAINER’

“He wanted me to speak in a totally flat monotone,” says Jena Malone. Breezy and upbeat, her speech, like many young Californians, liberally peppered with “dude”, “man” and “awesome”, it’s hard to imagine the 21-year old doing a Rainman. But, for Lukas Moodysson’s difficult, dark and arty montage piece, Container, that’s exactly what she does. For 70 minutes.

“I do the voice-over for the main character,” Malone explains, “who’s this fat man who’s autistic and, in his head, a woman. So I had to create a very soft interior rhythm, like that voice inside of you where you can’t define the difference between something that’s your own thought and a thought that’s just born inside of you without you consciously creating it.”

To achieve this, Moodysson had Malone fly over to Stockholm from LA and, after only a brief nap, locked her in a customised recording booth.

“There was a mattress on the ground and they’d rigged it up so I had to lie down and give this sort of monotone whisper for three hours. It was actually much more technically demanding than I could ever have imagined.”

Just to up the weirdness factor, Moodysson didn’t let her see the film she was narrating because “he didn’t want the voice-over to sync with the image.”

Although she’s a well-established screen actor, winning plaudits in Donnie Darko, Saved and Pride & Prejudice, her next gig is another voice-over.

“Yeah, man, it’s weird,” she says. “It’s Into The Wild, with Sean Penn directing. I’m in the film a little bit but mostly it’s narration. It’s really intense and beautiful and I can’t wait to get into a dark room with Mr Penn and explore it.”

First published in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.

INTERVIEW: KEN LOACH ON ‘THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY’

“Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead…” growls Ken Loach. “It’s always good to throw a snowball at those bloody imperialists.”

The public perception of Ken Loach is that he’s spiky, probably dour, most definitely from The North and unashamedly leftwing. Only the last of these is true. In reality, he’s affable, self-deprecating, witty, and was born in Nuneaton (which is in the Midlands – we looked it up).

Loach’s reputation stems from his work. Having cut his teeth in theatre and BBC television, he first came to public notice for Cathy Come Home in 1966, a TV play about homelessness so powerful that it directly resulted British law being rewritten. Firmly rooted in reality, politically radical and emotionally moving, it formed the template for his career. His latest, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, tells the story of two brothers who join the IRA and fight together during the Irish War of Independence of 1920-1922, only to take different sides in the ensuing Civil War.

“I think what happened in Ireland is one of those stories of permanent interest,” he says. “Like the Spanish Civil War [the subject of his 1995 film, Land And Freedom], it was a pivotal moment. It reveals how the struggle for independence was thwarted at the moment of its success by a colonial power.”

No, Loach really isn’t a fan of the British Empire. He famously refused an OBE in the 1970s, saying, “It’s not a club you want to join. It’s all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest.”

Considering his views, it’s unsurprising that the film’s central protagonist is a highly principled, unbending socialist, played by rising star Cillian Murphy. For Loach’s detractors, this is another example of his politically biased filmmaking. Loach is unapologetic.

“The IRA was a volunteer army. You read the stories that existed at the time, and people were incredibly principled. Your starting point for telling a story is trying to find a group of characters who contain contradictions that unravel. In the unravelling you say everything about the situation that you want to say.”

The story was also dictated by budget. Because Loach and his team didn’t have the cash to reconstruct the war’s bigger clashes, they chose to focus on the guerrilla warfare of the IRA’s Flying Columns.

“They were men who did their ordinary job during the day and then got up every now and then to carry out an action,” Loach explains. “That was appealing, to have a group of farm labourers who kick out the world’s most powerful country.”

But Loach, despite what his critics might say, wasn’t interested in presenting freedom fighters united in solidarity.

“It wasn’t like that,” he says. “It’s a pattern you see time and again – how different interests unite to face a common oppressor and then, ultimately, how those contradictions inevitably work their way out.”

In Ireland, the defining, dividing moment, was the treaty of 1922 which gave Ireland partial independence and, of course, left the North as part of the UK.

“People who seemed the most straightforward backed the treaty. I mean, Michael Collins was a perfect case – you couldn’t have a stronger fighter for independence but when it came down to it he was all for taking the treaty, probably for some good reasons.”

Loach is in no doubt who was responsible for Ireland’s civil war:

“Churchill, Lloyd George, Birkenhead. When it wasn’t in their best interests to keep denying independence, they sought to divide the country by giving support to those in the independence movement who were prepared to allow economic power to stay in the same hands.”

With such an inflammatory message at its heart, not to mention a sympathetic attitude towards the IRA, Loach is bracing himself for an outraged barrage from the rightwing press, as endured by Jim Sheridan’s In The Name Of The Father and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins.

“I’m expecting some hostility,” he admits, cheerfully. “The War on Terror is the current cliché and this is a film about people who, at the time, were considered terrorists.” He laughs, adding cheekily, “That just might be contentious.”

This interview first appeared in Hotdog Magazine in 2006.