Exclusive Interview : Jim Piddock


The star of “For Your Consideration”

Acclaimed actor Jim Piddock – still fondly remembered for his role as Paul and Jamie’s hoity British neighbour, Hal Conway, on TVs “Mad About You” – has been reunited with his “Best in Show” and “A Mighty Wind” writer/director Christopher Guest for “For Your Consideration”, a new comedy about three actors that learn their respective performances in the film “Home for Purim,” a drama set in the mid-1940s American South, are generating award-season buzz. CLINT MORRIS talks to the actor about the new film, his writing, and getting snubbed by Warner Bros.

Just saw you in “The Prestige” – albeit briefly – tell us how that came about?
That was a strange one. I ended up taking that part for two reasons: 1.) I wanted to do a scene with Michael Caine, who has been one of my idols since I was a young kid, and 2.) I’m a very big fan of the director, Chris Nolan. I think he’s one of the best directors in the world right now. On both accounts, I wasn’t disappointed. Michael was delightful and Chris made a terrific film. However, for the privilege, or should I say the prestige, of working on it, I got paid less than I did for my first movie nearly 20 years ago. Which is almost acceptable, if you get treated well. Everyone was certainly nice enough when we shot it, but I was very surprised not to get invited to any kind of wrap party, cast and crew screening, or the premiere. Not even the usual cast and crew tee shirt/jacket/tatty memorabilia from the studio. I think if you’re making a $40 million film and you ask an actor to do role a lot smaller than they’re used to, for considerably less money than they normally get, you have a certain responsibility to thank them somehow. That left a rather sour taste in the mouth, which is a pity because, as I say, I think it’s a wonderful film.

Would you consider your roles in the ‘Chris Guest’ movies the crème-d-le-crème of your acting career, though?
I’d consider the Guest movies to be consistently the most fun I have as an actor. I enjoy being part of an exclusive repertory company and playing vastly different parts in each film, but I’m not sure the best film role I’ve ever done is among them. I’m more proud of the range and truthfulness of the spectrum of characters I’ve created in Chris’s films, rather than any single particular part. There’s no question that the best single acting roles I’ve ever had were all on Broadway or on some other theatre stage. In terms of film, probably my favourite single part was in a movie called “See This Movie”, produced by Chris and Paul Weitz. I played a chain-smoking, alcoholic, bi-sexual film schoolteacher, who sleeps with all the other main characters in the movie. It did very well on the Festival circuit and is a popular DVD rental. I highly recommend it.

Tell us about your character in “For Your Consideration”.
Simon Whitset is the director of photography, or cinematographer if you will, of the film-within-the-film, called “Home For Purim”. He’s probably the only person connected with that production who has any discernable idea what he’s doing, but that isn’t saying a lot. He clearly thinks he should be directing it and is way above everyone and everything. But he isn’t, so he’s just doing what he has to in order to get through the day. We meet him near the end of the shoot and he’s pretty much given up on the film and is basically just looking for his next gig. Simon’s pretentiousness comes across in “For Your Consideration”, but his womanising and hard living didn’t really get a chance to manifest itself given the necessity to stay on plot.

Now, is this a totally improvised script – again? Do you have an outline to follow?
Yeah, Chris and Eugene [Levy] always give you a detailed outline, only with no specific dialogue. Except in this instance, there were some scripted lines. The whole of “Home For Purim” was scripted, but the rest was improvised as usual.

The cast must really get along… knowing each other so well… have you made some great friends out of working on the Guest films?
Well, I knew Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, and Don Lake before I ever did “Best In Show”. Catherine, in particular, was a very good friend. Our families still often spend major holidays together. And I knew Jane Lynch in passing because we have the same voice-over agent. But, now, everyone who’s done two or more of the films is like family. It’s not like we see each other socially the whole time, but when we do get together there’s a comfortable familiarity. Actually, it’s more than that. There’s an incredible respect for each other, I think, that you certainly don’t always get in families. Recently, about a dozen of us flew up to Toronto on a private jet for the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and it was a wonderful experience. Doing the films is always a bit like a high school reunion, but to be able to get together and not even have to worry about doing any work was a lot of fun. I sat with at a table Michael McKean and Larry Miller on the flight up there and I don’t think I’ve laughed so much for ages. Those guys are very smart too. I’m no dummy, but sometimes it’s hard to keep up. And let me just go on the record as saying that if I ever make so much money I can have pretty much what I want, the first thing I’d get is a private jet. Not having to deal with long lines, ticketing, security, cranky stewardesses, immigration, shitty food, and fat people oozing onto your seat is worth more than any mansion, yacht, or priceless piece of art.

Is your character based on or inspired by anyone?
Not really. At least, not consciously. As with every part, I did a fair amount of research, but I think I just did a subconscious amalgam of dozens of people I’ve worked with. When we started shooting, I was actually a bit concerned that I’d created a D.P. who doesn’t really exist because Simon Whitset didn’t resemble anyone I could think of, or had worked with. But, fortunately, loads of the crew came up to me and said I completely nailed such-and-such cinematographer or someone else they’d worked with, so I must have tapped into something that rang a bell.

Because he is such a chameleon in his on-screen roles, it’s hard to get a handle on just ‘who’ Chris Guest is. What’s he really like? How is he to work with?
He’s a complete monster, the man should be locked up…No, he’s an incredibly respectful and quietly generous director. He doesn’t waste words and he trusts his actors implicitly, while carefully and subtly steering them in the direction he wants them to go. As far as his acting goes, I believe unequivocally that he’s among the most talented “true” character actors in the country. Seriously, I’d put him right up there with the Sean Penns and Gary Oldmans of this world. As a person, the words that spring to mind about Chris are: smart, sardonic, and self-effacing. Is that alliterative enough, for you?

Where was the movie filmed?
All in L.A. A lot of it at Culver Studios, in the studio where I did “Mad About You” coincidentally, a few years ago.

You’re also a writer. If you had the choice, would you prefer to just write/ or do you like the juggle? Tell us about the films you’re currently working on.
I do like juggling…acting, writing, and producing. It creates a nice balance. The truth is I like being around people, but I also like to disappear into my own head for a while. So, while being a writer and an actor is sometimes difficult to do simultaneously, which happens most weeks, it’s also very rewarding. As far as what I’m doing now, I’m currently developing a TV show and also executive producing a big, high-concept family film at Fox, which Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the great deans of comedy screenwriting in Hollywood, are writing based on a story that I wrote. I’ve also just finished a screenplay about the Clay Shaw trial. Shaw was the only man ever to be charged with the murder of President Kennedy. It was a complete travesty. He was so obviously the victim of the messianic, megalomaniacal District Attorney Jim Garrison and yet, if it hadn’t been for the diligent and relentless work of a journalist called Hugh Aynesworth, and a couple of others, Shaw would have been convicted. The film is a 180% away from the entertaining, but entirely fictional piece of nonsense that Oliver Stone made called “JFK”. As Aynesworth said to me: “Well, at least Stone got two things right about Kennedy’s death: the time and the date.” Needless to say, this one isn’t a comedy, but it’s a script I’m very proud of and passionate about. I know films like this aren’t easy to get made, but the parallels of the story to today, in terms of the abuse of power after a national tragedy and the manipulation of the public by powerful but unscrupulous and corrupt men, is too hard to ignore. It’s also an eternal and very universal human story.

You’re on the set of “Who’s Your Caddy?” at the moment. What’s that about?
It’s definitely at the other end of the movie spectrum! It’s a comedy about a wealthy black hip-hop star trying to join a white country club. Sort of a black “Caddyshack”. I’m playing the manager of this exclusive golf and polo club, who is caught in the middle of the conflict. On the one hand, I don’t want to alienate my boss (Jeffrey Jones), but on the other hand I’d really like to do the right thing and let the rapper (Big Boi from “Outkast”) into the club. A dilemma, of course that, in comparison. makes “Sophie’s Choice” look like a decision of what to choose on a dinner menu.