In Monuments Men, a film filled with talented multi-hyphenates, one actor manages to carve out the most endearing and unsurprising performance of all. Bob Balaban’s performance as Preston Savitz, a character based on Lincoln Kirstein, who co-founded the School of American Ballet and the company that would become the New York City Ballet and who joined the war effort to help recover priceless art works from the Third Reich, is brilliantly deadpan and excellent fodder for a rich relationship between him and his scene partner, Bill “Fucking” Murray. Mr. Balaban took the time to speak with me at the Monuments Men press day, where we spoke of the film, playing therapist, and the small circle of actors he gets confused for:
Nerdist: You have a wonderful career. You are very multi-faceted.
Bob Balaban: I’m glad you think so.
N: You’ve been in everything. I loved your films, but it’s also very strange to see somebody with such a career have this kind of a breakthrough role. There are a lot of people that I feel are probably going to see you differently after this.
BB: I don’t know. I have no concept. I have no great way of assessing me or what I do, or anything like that. If you think so, and that’s a good thing, then I hope you’re right. I really hope so. I’m very happy to be in the movie.
N: You’re very good in it. One of the things I loved about the film is your character is very much the character that best encapsulates, I’m sure, what a lot of people were feeling at that time of the frustration of not being involved, of not being able to do anything, and that really comes through. Was that something that you actively thought about? What was the process like working with George Clooney and coming up with that kind of a voice?
BB: Well, I didn’t go into it with a lot of preconceived notions exactly. I learned a bit more about World War II and the kinds of things that the Monuments Men were doing. I read the Monuments Men book that Robert Edsel wrote, so I had more of an idea of the machinery of the whole thing.
I did not do any great research into my character, although I knew who he was and read somewhat about him. I didn’t want to portray that person because we were really in the mouth of, you know, different characters all of whom were very knowledgeable about art and cared deeply about art. Many of them I guess were actually artists. I mean, at least in the movie we have a sculptor and the architect. I’m a theater artist of various sorts.
N: It was a little bit of an “A-Team of the arts” as the movie began, showing people in their lives. I thought it was very fun.
Bob: It’s interesting because that’s really who they got. If you thought about it, we really had no skills whatsoever to be in dangerous situations. I guess we’re coming in at the end of the war so it wasn’t exactly like we were … We didn’t participate in any battles. I go, let’s throw these guys in. They’ll go in the front line because if they get killed, who cares?
We weren’t exactly that, but it was the least likely people you would think could be functioning in these situations, but they needed people. They needed people who could do two things, know enough about art to smell it and see it and be aware of it, know enough about people to be able to work with people, to get some access to the things they needed to have access to. They needed to care enough about it so they would be not only willing to risk their lives, but from the stuff I read about it, they wanted to risk their lives. It was really important to them to participating in getting this artifact because that’s the whole philosophy of the movie is that art is not just a pretty thing that you hang on the wall. It’s a whole culture. It’s the whole thumbprint of a population of civilization. It’s hard to talk about it. It’s hard to describe it but you get I think a nice feeling from the movie from it in enough different ways, why does it matter that we should risk our lives over this, along with all the other terrible things they were doing? This has its own way of being terrible. It’s different. It is different from a human life, but it is a record of the human life in a way that an autobiography isn’t. It’s somewhat intangible and yet terribly important.
Nerdist: This is another performance that you’ve been teamed with Bill Murray.
Bob: We were concierges in Wes Anderson’s new movie, [The Grand Budapest Hotel]. Although, we have little mini-cameos, so we’re not really doing anything.
Nerdist: You were wonderful as The Narrator in Moonrise Kingdom.
Bob: Thank you. I love being the narrator, and again, I didn’t exactly work with anybody in the movie but at least I got to show up on the same pier of the dock when Bill was having his fight with Bruce Willis. I did show up, but it’s sort of debatable whether I was really there. I mean I knew I was personally, actually, really there but whether the narrator was really there or was just a convention of the narrator somewhat appearing with his people.
Nerdist: I thought it was interesting in this film. Your dynamic with Bill was interesting. He is always funny, but this time it’s a different sense of humor to a certain degree. Where normally you would think, “Oh, great Bob’s going to be the foil for Bill Murray to be funny the whole time,” that’s not really what ends up happening. It’s almost like he becomes the excuse to see you becoming very humorous and you become great partners. What kind of dynamic was that like?
Bob: Well, I don’t know actually. I do know that we did get to know each other a lot better during the movie and spent a lot of time doing things that people do when they’re in the Black Forest. I mean, we weren’t literally in the Black Forest, but it was kind of like being in the Black Forest.
We went to see witches together on Halloween. We actually went to a big Walpurgisnacht thing that we anticipated would be one thing. We thought it was going to be like “Oh my God, all these amazing scary, naked witches dancing around in this weird and evil and fun and out-of-control thing.” It turned out it was just like a county fair. A lot of little kids eating popcorn and candy and like they even had a carousel. That was the thing. It was so hard to get to. We went on a complete adventure. It took hours to get there. We had to have special permission. We had to call the city and see if we could get in, and then it was like a little fair.
We did. We hung around a lot together and it was all you can’t say oh we took this and did that or anything, but I do think it made it easier for us to have any form of an actual relationship, which is, I think, all that the script demanded was that we actually seem like we know and care about each other in some way.
Nerdist: One of the most interesting aspects of both the casting of the film and the film itself is I noticed you have these Renaissance men, these men that are very cultured and intelligent. Then the cast is all not just actors, but these are all actors who are multi-hyphenates; these are all producers, directors, writers.
Bob: I never thought about it that way. Certainly Matt is and George is.
Nerdist: Yeah. You are.
Bob: Bill is too, actually Bill has written.
Nerdist: John [Goodman] has written.
Bob: And is a musician. I guess that’s true. You might find that most actors kind of do many things. Yes, it’s an interesting hypothesis.
Nerdist: I kind of wonder, is that drew maybe you to the role? I know you can’t speak for others, but is that something …
Bob: I can only tell you that as soon as I knew that this was what it was about, and I liked it when I read it, and I thought why wouldn’t I want to be in this thing and with these people in this story that’s a really interesting and worthwhile story, taking a half a year of your life more or less and checking out of your family. I did come home from time to time but it immediately passed the test of things worth doing to me.
Nerdist: This is more a question just about you and your career. Have you had any problems with how many times you’ve played a therapist or a doctor where people will see you or maybe you’re talking with somebody and they just start treating you as such?
Bob: No, I don’t think so, but when I was 17 and had one of my first professional jobs in a play somewhere, I was still going to college and about to go to college. An older woman of 39 years old, you know I was like 17 or 18, said, “Bob, I think you’re going to work a lot.” I said, “I can’t imagine, but thank you.” She said, “Whenever they need to cast somebody who appears to be intelligent, you’ll have a good chance of getting the part.” She put it that way it wasn’t like I was really was necessarily intelligent, but I do seem to project in some way some stereotype of brains or something.
Nerdist: Could I ask you, and I hope this isn’t out of line, but do you run into people thinking you are Ron Rifkin or Joel Grey a lot?
Bob: Yes, I do. Do you know? I mean all the time people think, I mean we’re relatively all of us not exactly the most famous people in the world; although, Joel did win an Academy Award. It is uncanny. It’s mostly Ron and Bob, and we know each other. I see him all the time and he’s really nice and I like him. He gets it as much as I do. How is it that we look more like somebody else than we do ourselves because he much more frequently gets “Are you Bob?” than he does “Are you Ron?” I much more frequently get “Are you Ron?” Not “Are you Bob?” We might as well just change.
Nerdist: You sign Alias autographs. He signs Gosford Park autographs?
Bob: I never anymore tell people that I’m not Ron. I just don’t bother and it’s like, “Fine, thank you.”
Nerdist: Well, as long as you trade notes later, the message got to who it got to.
Bob: As long as I don’t do illegal or immoral things and then let them think that I’m really Ron. Other than that, it’s harmless.
You can see Bob Balaban do a lot more than be harmless in The Monuments Men in theaters tomorrow.