Wed. Nov 13th, 2019

Interview: Award-winning legend Alan Alda on ‘Marriage Story,’ Adam Driver and the secret to a lasting relationship

Alan Alda on the red carpet for the premiere of MARRIAGE STORY at the 57th New York Film Festival (Photo: Shutterstock/1522774997)

What more can you say about a film and television living legend other than that they’re a legend?

Well, this is AwardsWatch, so let’s start by the numbers. Alda has earned 34 Emmy nominations and six wins and is the only person in Emmy history to win for directing, writing and acting (all for the seminal 1970s series M*A*S*H). He’s earned six Golden Globe Awards from 16 nominations, two BAFTA nominations, two Tony Award nominations, three Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards (from four nominations), four Writers Guild of America (WGA) nominations and one win, four Screen Actors Guild Award nominations (plus a Life Achievement Award), a Grammy nomination, five People’s Choice Awards, and an Academy Award nomination for 2004’s The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Alda began his career in the 1950s doing improvisational comedy, moving onto the Cleveland Play House in the late 50s. But before that he was a member of the ROTC, served a year at Fort Benning and a six month tour in Korea as a part of the United States Army Reserve, a role that would come in handy later in his career and forge a kinship with his current co-star. In the 1960s he thrived on the stage, earning his first Tony nomination in 1966 for the musical The Apple Tree.

But it was a lucky audition in 1972 that changed Alda’s life. It was for a show called M*A*S*H, the television adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1970 film. Set during the Korean War but happening right in the middle of the Vietnam War, it was at the time and remains one of the most revolutionary television programs of all time. The show ran for 11 seasons and the 1983 series finale remains the most watched episode of American television ever (106 million viewers) and Alda himself appeared in all 256 episodes of the show.

Flash to 2019 and Alda is starring in the new film from Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story, earning Oscar attention and giving the 83-year old actor/director/writer/producer one of the best experiences of his full and storied career. But this isn’t the end for Alda, it’s just a new beginning.

I had the honor and joy of speaking with him this week. He’s expectedly funny, dry as a bone and deadpan in delivery and it was an absolute treat.

AW: You’re quite the multi-hyphenate in this business. Is there an element of theater, television or film that you prefer over other parts?

AA: Well, I’ve always felt more comfortable on the stage than any place else but I’m so used to all of it now.

AW: Do you ever find yourself as an actor on a set, putting your director hat on and wondering ‘maybe it should be like this instead’?

AA: Never. It always makes me happy when I’m on the set and somebody else has to figure out where to put the camera.

Wherever I could get work, I worked… I thought I would be a stage actor. It never occurred to me that I’d have some big success on television.”

AW: Last year you received the Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild, but that hasn’t been a career capper for you. You don’t seem to be slowing down your work schedule.

AA: No, but it’s funny you say career capper. I’m working harder than I ever did. I think in some ways I’m working harder than when I was on M*A*S*H, writing and directing and producing a whole series. Oh, you reminded me of the SAGs; they give this award to octogenarian and they give them this statue that’s heavier than any of the other statutes that give the young actors. I said on the way off stage to Tom Hanks, “Hey, you take half of it, let’s carry it off together.” I said it as a joke but it’s really weird they give you something that’s so hard to lift!

AW: I’ve noticed that, that it appears quite heavy. Maybe it should be more like a tchotchke.

AA: Or at least give it to you in a little trolley or something.

AW: There you go. You mentioned M*A*S*H, which is probably your most famous piece of work. I’m always amazed that the M*A*S*H finale was seen by 106 million people. You think a show like that would be able to exist in the current landscape?

AA: I don’t think any show could exist outside the time that it took place. It could exist, but it would be very different. First of all, it wouldn’t be on a network. It would be some streaming service, probably, to avoid any kind of censorship. They [CBS] didn’t want us to show blood in the original pilot [for M*A*S*H]. They said ‘Don’t got in the operating room, don’t show blood.’ You have to go in the operating room. That’s the, that’s the story. So we put a red light. I didn’t do it, bhe producers had red light shining in the operating and you couldn’t tell what was blood and what wasn’t.

AW: Wow.

AA: That was just for the pilot. And then it was interesting, as the show got more popular there was an inverse proportion of that. The more popular we got, the less censorship we got. Sort of a cynical way of looking at protecting America’s children.

Alan Alda as Bert Spitz in MARRIAGE STORY (Photo: YouTube)

AW: Let’s talk a little bit about your new film, Marriage Story. What drew you to the script? How did you knew that you had to do it?

AA: The script is beautifully written in my opinion, and it solves some really interesting problems. Like do how you write a story about a divorce that, while it gives you emotional feelings, isn’t devastating. And even though it’s about divorce it remains a love story right up to the last shot. That’s a wonderful accomplishment. It’s not quite the conventional happy ending, which is fine. Mostly it’s that these people grow up enough to learn how to adjust to a life apart better than they could adjust to a life together.

AW: Your character, Bert Spitz, which is honestly one of the greatest names I’ve ever heard, might be one of the most affable divorce lawyers I’ve ever seen on screen. How do you see Bert? How do you describe him?

AA: I’m not good at that and don’t really like to talk about the characters that I play because I don’t like the intellectualizing. Like a real person, I hope the character is more complicated than you can say in a few sentences and I try to discover who that is and what I hope is to communicate something about the character that can’t be put into words. I find the character in some clues that are dropped in by the script and by the director and by the close wearing the clothes wearing, by the set I’m on. There’s a lot that I found out about Bert by the crappy office he’s in.

AW: What was your experience working with Noah Baumbach for the first time?

AA: It was great. He’s thoughtful and considerate; he’s empathic and very collaborative about discovering the scene together, figuring out what’s really happening, how to make what happens. I really enjoyed working with Noah, he’s very likable on set as well, which is always a pleasure.

AW: How was working closely with Adam Driver?

AA: Oh, it was wonderful. Most of my scenes are with Adam and I found we became friends right away, he’s a very ingenuous person. Very, very modest, very direct, very plainspoken; a thoughtful person. I find it very insightful that he feels his working in the military as a Marine was very helpful to him becoming an actor, and you don’t usually think of those two things in the same way. The idea of being part of a team, accomplishing something together, having a task, having that goal and committing yourself to it. Those are all things you have to do as an actor and he’s therefore very disciplined and at the same time very free.

AW: Oh, that’s wonderful. In 2018, you revealed your diagnosis of Parkinson’s. What’s changed the most for you since that?

AA: Well, what changed the most from that is buttoning my shirt. But other than that I really wanted to make sure that I had it. I had a known symptom that I wanted the scans to make sure. If I had it I wanted to start an exercise program that would hold off progress of the disease and that’s what I’ve been doing. Now I have a very full exercise program and I’m in surprisingly good shape.

AW: My grandmother has a similar condition but non-Parkinson’s and she immediately went and began a yoga class at 90, so I understand that.

AA: Did she hold it off for a while?

AW: Yeah. She works at a senior center and is extremely active. It’s great to have examples of people that you know that have Parkinson’s and it’s not a life-ending diagnosis.

AA: The world doesn’t come to an end. In almost all cases there’s plenty you can do if you catch it early. It’s progressive so all you’re really able to do is hold off the progress and that can give you a lot of extra time.

AW: That, that seems to tie right in with from comments and interviews that I’ve read with you. You say you don’t like to plan ahead, you’re just kind of doing whatever you’re doing right now.

AA: Yeah. I love the improvisation and my wife is likes improvisation. The thing is, most of our lives are improvisation. Sometimes we don’t like to admit it. We think we can plan ahead when things will turn out the way we plan.

AW: You mentioned your wife [Arlene], which I’m glad you did. You’ve been married for 61 years. And on the theme of Marriage Story, what is the secrets to having a long term, successful marriage in this industry?

AA: My wife’s a way of handling that is saying the secret to a long marriage is a short memory.

It’s funny that that people keep bringing up my marriage because the theme of the movie is divorce and somebody said me, ‘Have you ever considered divorce yourself?’ and I said ‘No, but my wife has considered murder.’

AW: That’s…amazing. Alan, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. I have to say, I’ve seen Marriage Story three times now and it gets better every time. It’s just full of nuance and funny and beautiful and sad and it’s really everything.

AA: Thank you, I enjoyed talking with you. I appreciate it. You know, I had that same impression. I’m going to see it tonight for the third time and I’m sure I’m going to see things that I missed the last time. There is just so much good stuff. Have a wonderful day. Thank you.

Marriage Story is currently in select theaters from Netflix and will debut on the streamer December 6th.

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