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The Actor: Since emerging from the theater world, gifted character actor Oliver Platt has segued effortlessly between supporting and lead roles in film and television. He’s currently taking a starring turn in Nicole Holofcener’s wry, beautifully observed Please Give, playing a husband and father who lurches into an affair with spa employee Amanda Peet largely out of boredom. Television audiences know Platt best for his Emmy-nominated work as a straight-shooting White House counsel on The West Wing and as Hank Azaria’s hedonistic friend on Huff. On the big screen, Platt scored juicy supporting turns in movies like Bulworth, Casanova, Ice Harvest, Lake Placid, and Ready To Rumble and illustrated his gift for physical comedy playing a hapless actor opposite Stanley Tucci in The Impostors and an aspiring funnyman opposite Jerry Lewis in Funny Bones.
Please Give (2010) — “Alex”
Oliver Platt: Nicole [Holofcener] claims to have written the role for me. I’m not sure if I believe her, but it’s always the optimum scenario. So no complaints about that one. It was really fun to shoot.
AVC: Your character gets a massage from Amanda Peet, and in Year One your character gets a massage from Michael Cera. Do you have a clause in your contract dictating that you receive an on-camera massage in every film you make?
OP: Amanda Peet—definitely a better masseuse. Nothing against Michael—he’s a charming and delightful person and actor—but Amanda Peet is definitely a better masseuse. I think Mr. Cera would be okay with that.
AVC: The whole idea of Year One seemed to be to make you the most repulsive creature imaginable. Weren’t you covered in grease?
OP: I was covered in hair and grease. That’s for others to judge; I felt extremely sexy. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think that’s why Michael Cera would be totally okay with not being a good masseuse. Who’s going to be a good masseuse in that situation? Except, I guess, another massive, hairy, greasy guy.
Bulworth (1998) — “Dennis Murphy”
OP: That was a lot of fun. It was kind of a moviemaking highlight for me, because Mr. [Warren] Beatty invited me into his process in a very personal way. He was Warren Beatty, you know what I mean? I grew up watching his movies. It was a thrill. It was a lot of late nights and craziness, but I’m very glad to be in the movie. I love the role, and I love the movie.
AVC: Beatty is so non-prolific; you have very few chances to work with him.
OP: Exactly. He’s made so few movies, and his track record is so good in terms of what he’s actually written and directed. The really great gift is that he so de-glamorized—in a really positive way—filmmaking for me.
AVC: How so?
OP: Like the writing process, in terms of reworking scenes and stuff like that. Sometimes we worked on the scenes over weekends, and it would be arguing about mundane things under fluorescent lights with old sandwiches. I went, “Oh my god, this is how people make movies.” Not like this idea that you stand there with a quill writing this beautiful screenplay that came out fully formed in your little cabin by the sea with the light coming in at 45 degrees.
AVC: It’s a messy business.
OP: It’s a messy, piecemeal business, but I also think Bulworth is an incredibly gutsy film.
Funny Bones (1995) — “Tommy Fawkes”
OP: Jerry was fantastic. I played his unfunny son, so we got along great. [Laughs.] What I love about the movie, and him in it, was that we already knew that he could act from King Of Comedy, which I think is much darker, but he gives a real actor’s performance. But I think the great thing about Funny Bones is that you see both. You see the great Jerry Lewis out there playing the character that he was. He played this superstar old-school Vegas comedian in the movie, so you would see him doing that, but then you would also see him playing these scenes of real subtlety, like when he came backstage right before my big break and basically decimated me unconsciously. Or not unconsciously, but it was that classic, narcissistic show-biz dad who wants you to be good but doesn’t want you to be better than them. So he came backstage and reminded me that even though this was my big break, he completely set it up, and he had been there before. He says, “Oh, look: new mirrors.” In other words, “Don’t forget, you punk, I’ve been here before you, and I made this happen for you.” “Extraordinary subtlety” is something that we don’t always connect his comic work with.
The Impostors (1998) — “Maurice”
AVC: Speaking of physical comedy, in 1998, you starred opposite Stanley Tucci in The Impostors.
OP: This is like This Is Your Life. “In 1998, Mr. Platt, the location, Greece, you appeared in a little movie.” Did you watch This Is Your Life when you were a kid? You’re not that old.
AVC: I caught a couple of them.
OP: Oh, man. They’re so awesome, because the guy would set it up so dramatically. But again, another of my absolute favorite working experiences, with [writer/director/co-star] Stanley [Tucci] being one of my closest friends. There were a lot of the people in that movie, and we were all buddies. Stanley and I came up with those characters, actually, when we met, which was during a play at the Yale Rep. We would warm up with these retarded characters, these incredibly serious out-of-work actors who were so serious about the most mundane, ridiculous aspects of their craft that they basically could never get hired, because they took it all too seriously. Then Stanley went off and wrote the fantastic script. We used to do the warm-ups in the movie, those idiotic exercises like the emotion game. We’d do that to warm up for the John Guare play, Moon Over Miami, that we did at the Yale Rep together.
AVC: So it was a matter of transferring those characters to film?
OP: Yeah. Stanley wrote the story, but the seeds for those characters were born backstage at the Yale Rep years before.
AVC: I thought one of the interesting things about The Impostors is that you and Stanley Tucci—and I’m sure this was very deliberate and very conscious—had an Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy thing going on.
OP: Well, there you go. We would hear more about Laurel and Hardy. I don’t want to sound naïve, but we weren’t thinking about that at all. But obviously it’s so there. Stanley and I, our relationship, was essentially founded on making each other laugh and finding each other’s completely moronic behavior deeply entertaining. We took such delight in each other’s moronic tendencies so early in our relationship, that it wasn’t, “Oh, let’s be Abbott and Costello.” We were already being us.
AVC: It seems that if you wanted to pursue it, you could be a comedy duo. You had that kind of chemistry.
OP: We consider ourselves the historic comedy duo. It’s just that nobody is in general agreement about that yet. In our own minds, we absolutely are.
AVC: Woody Allen was in that film as well.
OP: I know. It’s amazing, right? That’s a hell of a cameo.
AVC: How were you able to attract such a phenomenal cast for what, I would imagine, was a fairly low-budget film?
OP: I think that Woody must have seen Big Night, which was Stanley’s first movie that I was also a producer on. He had to be a fan, wouldn’t you think? I don’t know. I didn’t do it. Stan did it. He must have been some kind of admirer of Big Night. Of Stanley’s.
AVC: It seems that, as an actor, Stanley Tucci would be particularly gifted in directing other actors, and that other actors would appreciate that.
OP: Totally. Especially because all of the actors in the movie were his friends. You kind of never knew when he was directing you or just messing around. There were a lot of blurred lines. We were all having a good time all the time. You were never quite sure when the camera was on or not, and you didn’t really care.
Ready To Rumble (2000) — “Jimmy King”
OP: Ready To Rumble. [Laughs.] Believe it or not, I loved that movie. For us, the experience of making the movie, for better or worse, is the first thing in your mind. How it actually turns out, believe it or not—don’t get me wrong, I’m not an idiot; how movies turn out is crucial going forward—that’s something that’s very much out of your control. I think that movie, on its own level, works really well. Dude, the most scared I’ve ever been in public, as a result of the work that I do, is when I stepped on a subway car at 96th Street in Manhattan right after school had gotten out, and this must have been right after the movie came out on video. It was a loud subway car. There’s all the Manhattan school kids going nuts at 2:30 in the afternoon or whatever it was, and then I stepped into the car—I was minding my own business—and all the sudden the car became quiet. It’s quiet. I turn around, and everybody was looking at me. Somebody yelled, “It’s The King! Crown him! Crown him!” They weren’t really going to attack me, but I thought it was very, very fortunate that it was a really short way to the next stop. Fortunately the doors opened, and I was able to just step out and take an unplanned exit at the next stop.
AVC: That sounds very awkward.
OP: I had a ball with that. It was so much fun. The great miscalculation with that movie is that it’s kind of a charming movie about pro wrestling, and we took the pro wrestling audience for granted, because they’re not remotely interested in charm. They’re interested in dwarf midgets doing a lap dance between fights. The reality—in those days, anyway—of that stuff is that it was rougher than the movie we made.
AVC: I’m looking at IMDb, and it says that the Japanese title for it was Head Lock Go! Go! Professional Wrestling.
OP: [Laughs.] It’s called Go! Go! Professional Wrestling?
AVC: It says Head Lock Go! Go! Professional Wrestling.
OP: Head Lock Go! Go! Professional Wrestling. I love it. I love it.
AVC: I think maybe the best title of any…
OP: Of any movie ever.
Postcards From The Edge (1990) — “Neil Bleene”
OP: One of my favorite lines ever: “At least you didn’t fart over all the dialogue.” I have great story about that movie. I was courting my wife at the time I was making that movie, so I was only interested in being with her. So I flew in extremely late. I took the last plane to L.A. from New York. I was up all night, and I didn’t know my lines that well. Because the first time I’d worked with Mike [Nichols, on Working Girl] he was into me improvising, so I thought, “Oh, I’ll just wing it.” I didn’t think about stuff like Carrie Fisher being on the set, who had actually written it. I wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff, so I showed up not really as prepared as I could have been. Because, like I said, I was a little more interested in the courtship I was having with my wife, and I wasn’t really on my game the first few takes. They finally got the master shot but it was a torturous experience, because I realized all of a sudden that I have to say all of the words right. The first time I worked with Mike he wasn’t interested in that at all. So I went and, while they were moving the camera for the close-up or something, I went and hid behind a piece of scenery and sat on an apple box, trying to collect my thoughts. I skulked off while they were moving the camera. I’m sitting there, and all of a sudden I feel these two hands massaging my shoulders.
I’m not the kind of guy who usually—I hate the involuntary massage. It’s not my thing. But at that point, for whatever reason, it was so frickin’ welcome. I didn’t know who the hell it was. Then I heard this familiar voice say, “You know what the great thing about movies is? If you don’t like the way you do it the first time, you just do it again and keep on doing it until you get it right. It’s so easy.” And it was Meryl freaking Streep who had come and found me. I was like a little imp. But the kindness of this woman and the professionalism to recognize some kid who was sucking air, and she took the time to come and find me and give me a little backrub and the pearls of wisdom—I never forgot that. Isn’t that an awesome story? It’s certainly an awesome story from the young actor’s perspective. She didn’t have to do that.
The Ice Harvest (2005) — “Pete Van Heuten”
OP: That is one of my favorite characters that I’ve ever played in, of course, a typically completely under-watched movie. I was deeply in love with that character, this kind of lost, bumbling soul. I think the guy in Please Give is a higher-functioning relative of his.
AVC: In what respect?
OP: I think it’s a different sort of unconscious bumbling. I don’t think Alex could tell you why he had an affair or that he really knew what he was doing. I think Alex is having some sort of midlife crisis, and, for me, one of the hallmarks of the midlife crisis is that you don’t know you’re unhappy. But, anyway, I loved Pete Van Heuten. He’s in so much pain. He realizes he’s in a terrible marriage, and he’s just escaping his family on Christmas Eve.
AVC: There’s one school of thought that actors playing drunks should try to act sober, since drunks generally don’t go around broadcasting their inebriation. Your character is drunk the entire film.
OP: It’s amazing. He starts plastered, and then he goes from plastered to hammered to inebriated to utterly clueless. He starts really drunk and gets drunker throughout the movie. I think there is some truth to the whole idea of trying to not act drunk. But that really works in the earlier stages. Eventually you have to let it all hang out. But I love working with Harold [Ramis], and I had a ball with [John] Cusack. The writing was great. That was a beautiful script. It was a beautifully written part. Robert Benton and Richard Russo wrote it.
AVC: That’s a pretty impressive combination.
OP: It’s a pretty impressive pedigree. The ones that you end up being happy with, on some level it’s like rolling off a log. In the case of The Ice Harvest, literally. A lot of that stuff was shot at two or three in the morning, because there were so many night shoots. Harold always encourages a certain amount of improvising, which is a lot of fun.
AVC: I think it works, too, because there’s this sense of exhaustion hanging over the entire film, as if all these characters are at the end of their tether.
OP: Exactly. Physical, moral, and spiritual fatigue.
AVC: Your character embodies that.
OP: I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, but that fantastic last speech he has, where he begs, just begs Cusack to get him out of there, it’s definitely a highlight.
Casanova (2005) — “Paprizzio”
OP: 2005 was a great year for me for fantastic roles that nobody saw. [Laughs.] But then, that’s the good thing about the old video market, isn’t it? Eventually people find out about these little films. That was so much fun. That was the kind of situation where another wonderful director, Lasse freaking Hallström… The directors that I end up having a really good time with are the ones that understand the fluidity of the medium and are interested in catching lightning in a bottle. In this case, we had this amazing script that Lasse would allow us sometimes to depart from. That was just a great part. He was like the anti-Casanova. He was the alternative Casanova, the loser that everybody laughed at and made fun of and played pranks on, who ultimately got this amazing prize in the lovely Lena Olin.
AVC: Your character was competing romantically with Heath Ledger’s character?
OP: Well, I wasn’t really, though, was I? I had never met Sienna Miller’s character. That was the whole idea. We never met, and when I finally heave into view in Venice, I become utterly terrified, because of how obese I am. They actually had to put a fat suit on me, if you can believe that. I freak out. Once Heath realizes that I’ve never met her, he takes advantage of that. Casanova takes advantage of that. The truth is I’m not meant for Sienna; I’m meant for her mother.
The Ten (2007) — “Marc Jacobson”
OP: As an [in an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice] Arnold impersonator. I worked on that movie for a day. But I think that those guys are geniuses. I think that David Wain has a really interesting comic sensibility.
AVC: It’s a very strange role, the Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator/instant father.
OP: The whole thing is completely perverse, you know? It’s funny, I’ve never been in a movie that divided people so much. I think that anybody under 30 thought that that movie was pure genius, and anybody over 30 didn’t get it at all. That’s a wild generalization, but, literally, I’ve never had such a polarized reaction to a movie.
The West Wing (2001-2005) — “White House Counsel Oliver Babish”
OP: What was interesting about that is that I’d just had my own TV series, the first one I ever tried to do, unceremoniously completely ripped off the air. That would be Deadline. So I was up in Vancouver making a movie and nursing my wounds. I get a call from my manager saying Aaron—Aaron Sorkin actually wrote the first draft of Bulworth.
That’s how I knew him. So I knew Aaron from Bulworth, and he was asking me to do it. He was personally asking me to do it. I was like, “TV? Are you kidding me?” It was the same network, NBC. I was like, “Screw you.” Then I said, well, I’ve got to read it, right? I’ve got a lot of respect for Aaron. I loved Aaron. It wasn’t against him. I was having this very wounded, immature reaction to being asked to be on television again. So I figured I’d better read it, because I’ve got to call Aaron and pass. It would be way too rude to not read it. But I had absolutely no intention of doing it. Then I read it, and that kind of actor’s instinct takes over. [Laughs.] You go, “Well, shit man. I’m not going to let somebody else do this.” It was just so good. The writing was just so good. I had been a fan of the show, but the show was very young then. It reminded me of how good the show was.
But I give myself credit for being smart enough to realize, in the culture of that show, what a great part it was. The thing about that show is that it’s this wonderful, worthy learned man surrounded by all these wonderful, worthy learned people who kind of worship him and are very protective of him. It’s the way we all want the White House to be in a very Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington kind of way. The thing about that character is that he didn’t baby the president. He was very direct; it was tough love. He was very loyal to him, but he was extremely direct and not cowed. It was also so damn well written. His stuff is so smart. Those scenes with Stockard [Channing] about the MS and all that. They were just great.
AVC: It’s one of those things, too, where it’s all on the page. You don’t wonder, “What will this be like when it’s filmed,” because…
OP: Yeah. It’s totally on the page. You mess around with that stuff at your peril. I learned that the hard way.
The Big C (2010)
AVC: You’ve been doing a lot of television since then. You’re in The Big C, which people are very excited about. What can you tell me about that?
OP: Not that much. We’ve only shot the pilot. I haven’t actually seen it. I’m obviously a huge fan of Laura [Linney]’s, a big fan of the writing. Bill Condon directed the pilot. It was a wonderful experience. The first time I’d actually worked with Bill and Laura was on Kinsey, a movie that Laura was in. That’s where we all met. But I’m very excited about it. We’re shooting it here on the East Coast, so I love that. Don’t have to get on a plane. We start shooting the actual series in about three weeks.
AVC: Who’s your character on the show?
OP: I’m her husband.
AVC: What’s the general premise of it?
OP: Oh, the general premise is that she’s someone who’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. And I know you’re going, “That’s a comedy? Ha ha.” But the truth is, that’s what the skill of the writing is. It actually is very funny, but it’s still completely respectful of the disease. It’s more about the absurdity. People start to act very unusually when they find out that they’re dying, that they don’t have that many years left. It’s not so much a show about blood tests and hospitals and mammograms. It’s about how somebody’s attitudes change when they know that they’re going to die.
AVC: On pay cable you have more freedom to play with dark ideas.
OP: Absolutely. The best thing about the show is that it has an extremely healthy sense of the absurd and irony. The trick of it is that it’s not disrespectful of people who are dying of cancer. But I don’t know any great comedy that’s not shot through with desperation, panic, and fear.
AVC: I’ve read that you were slated to play the lead in Action when it was still an HBO project.
OP: You’ve done excellent research. I can’t remember why it didn’t work out. I think [that incarnation of] the show never happened. This is what happened: I was making a deal, but HBO couldn’t make a licensing deal with the writer. I think that’s what happened. But I was all systems go for that one. I think it would have ultimately done much, much better on pay [cable]. It ended up being on ABC.
AVC: I think Fox, actually.
OP: Fox, that’s right. I think that that would have worked better as a cable show.
The Bronx Is Burning (2007) — “George Steinbrenner”
OP: I had a ball there. That was a little scarier. It’s scarier playing a real person.
AVC: You’ve played real people before, though.
AVC: In Frost/Nixon, was your character a composite or was that an actual person?
OP: That’s right. That’s a real person. But there wasn’t the kind of pressure to be just because, God bless him, the guy that I played was a really distinguished journalist, but not a household name. Everybody knows how George Steinbrenner looks and acts. I had to do that thing where you’ve got to capture the essence without doing an impersonation. I had fun. It was interesting material.
AVC: Did you spend any time with George Steinbrenner?
OP: I didn’t want to, and I didn’t have to, because there’s so much video. I’m sure Mr. Steinbrenner wouldn’t have wanted to spend any time with me, either, but I didn’t ask to, only because the last thing you want is to become—he’s this incredibly charming man. What if he started to give me Yankees tickets and buy me cashmere coats? You want to do a warts-and-all thing. I will tell you this: You do need to develop an affection for the character, or else you’re screwed as an actor. I gained a tremendous amount of respect for him. I was, at that point in my life, a die-hard Red Sox fan. So he was somebody who was very easy for me to dislike, but in the course of researching him, I did gain a huge amount of respect for him.
Tall Tale (1995) — “Paul Bunyan”
OP: I had a lot of costumes doing a lot of the work for me. Or, I don’t know, maybe not. History will be the judge of all of these. Or not. History probably doesn’t care about a lot of them. That was fun, because I grew up on that stuff, those tall tales. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry. It was fun to do it and fun to go, “Well, how do you humanize this guy?” But the script kind of did that for us. I was very fond of the script. Robert Rodat—who wrote Saving Private Ryan—wrote that script, and I think he wasn’t so happy with how they took it away from him and changed it. So the bones of it were really good. The movie, as I recall, suffered from some budget cuts before we were shooting. But I don’t know. I can’t have a sparkling anecdote for every one of these.
CinderElmo (1999) — “Frank The Fairy Godperson”
OP: Dude, I’m constantly getting the little Oscars from the 4-year-olds of the world for my portrayal of Frank The Fairy Godperson. I got to work with the Muppets, man. How many people get to say they worked with Elmo? Totally a career highlight. They really shoot stuff out of continuity. Because of the technical demands of how you have to shoot puppets, I just remember them really chopping the scenes up. Normally for a script, you can expect to shoot the movie backwards. These guys literally shoot the scenes backwards. We would shoot the end of the scene first, the last couple of lines of the scene. It was very disorienting that way. It was also fascinating to see, because they put it together so seamlessly.
AVC: Do you lose yourself in the moment and lose track of the fact that there’s somebody controlling all of these characters?
OP: Totally. That’s our job, to make it look as if we are. Also, that material was delightful. It was a delightful take on the Cinderella story. I had young kids at the time, so it was really fun to be doing something that I knew they could watch. My little tiny kids were not going to see Ready To Rumble or Dangerous Beauty.
The Three Musketeers (1993) — “Porthos”
OP: That was a really fun shoot. We were in Vienna and all over Europe in these glamorous locations, and you were getting to be in The Three Musketeers. Riding around on horses with pipes and going wenching—I got nothing bad to say.