Argo: Characters and Actors

Bryan Cranston

Before he can exercise his Hollywood option, Mendez needs approval from the powers that be, including his direct superior, the assistant deputy director of the CIA, Jack O’Donnell, played by Bryan Cranston. “Tony Mendez answers to Jack O’Donnell, so Jack feels responsible for him and for the mission,” Cranston offers. “In my research about the CIA, one of the things that stood out to me was the credo that they don’t leave anyone behind. You go to any lengths possible to get them out of harm’s way, and that applied to the six trapped Americans who were there because they were working for the government. That really helped inform my character.”

“Jack O’Donnell was a hard role to cast,” says Affleck. “At first glance, you might think there’d be a whole range of people who would be right for it, but you don’t want to let the character become generic. You need an actor with the gravitas that Bryan was able to bring to it.”

Cranston says that, once he read the script, he had no hesitation in taking the part. “There are things that you respond to immediately, viscerally, and ‘Argo’ was definitely one of those. It was tense and dramatic and engrossing, and every time I read it, I got charged up again. Opportunities to be a part of something like this don’t come along often, so I’m very glad I am.”

Mendez might never have come up with the fake movie plan if he did not have a real movie contact in renowned makeup artist John Chambers, who had been awarded an Honorary Oscar® for his masks for the original “Planet of the Apes.” Clandestinely, however, Chambers has been also applying his skills to the more serious pursuits of the government’s Intelligence operations.

John Goodman

John Goodman, who portrays the makeup pioneer, remarks, “He loves his craft and is also keen on using it to help the CIA; he enjoys serving his country in that way. So when Tony comes to him and says he needs help putting a movie together, Chambers is intrigued. I was very attracted to the whole double life aspect of the character, but, first and foremost, it’s just a plain great, gripping story.

“I also wanted to work with Ben Affleck because he’s a terrific actor and already has a great track record as a director,” Goodman continues. “It was interesting to watch him go back and forth between the two. He knew exactly what he wanted, but he was flexible and a very generous collaborator, too. He came up with ideas for my character I didn’t think of. It was wonderful working with him.”

The feeling is mutual. Affleck attests, “John is such a good actor. Just look at the breadth and scope of the roles he’s done; he can be purely comedic or someone you take very seriously, and he also has a tremendous gift for subtlety and nuance. I respect him so much.”

Although the movie is only a charade, it has to be a believable one, so Mendez and Chambers need a bona fide producer. Affleck explains, “When you look at it from the point of view of building a cover, well the cover had better be strong, so they had to have a presence. We wanted someone who would be emblematic of Old Hollywood, somebody who knows everybody, the kind of guy you would go to if you needed to make your fake movie look legit.”

Enter Lester Siegel, who, Chris Terrio reveals, “is actually a composite of people, ranging from actual producers I’ve met to some legendary moguls who came to Hollywood and used their street smarts to make it big. I loved the idea that what is likely to be Lester’s last hurrah is going to be a movie that doesn’t really exist but could save six lives.”

Alan Arkin

To play this industry icon, the filmmakers cast an industry icon: Alan Arkin. Affleck affirms, “Alan has been revered in our business for decades. He is, himself, a legendary figure, so bringing that stature to his character was a no-brainer.”

“Lester is a tough, smart film producer who knows the business inside and out,” Arkin describes. “He’s skeptical at first about the possibility of this plan working at all, but as he gets more involved, the challenge of it energizes him…the fact that it did seem impossible. To me, one of the most potent aspects of the film is that they were confronted with an untenable situation and found a creative solution that did not involve any violence whatsoever.”

Despite Lester’s edict that if he’s going to produce a fake movie “it’s going to be a fake hit,” Arkin admits, “They’re making the cheesiest conceivable film; it’s just dreadful. The only reason they chose it was because it can be used as a blind to get into Iran, not because it has any merit whatsoever as a film,” he laughs. “There is a quote from Mark Twain that I love that goes, ‘The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible.’ So they go to great pains to make it look like a genuine production. They have trade ads, casting calls, a script reading for the press, costumes… It’s imperative, because any mistake could have resulted in them being found out.”

Heslov states, “What impressed me most about Alan is that he can be outrageously funny one minute, and then he has a scene with Ben where their characters are talking about their kids and he’s just so real. That’s why he’s been one of our greatest actors for all these years.”

The film company fronting Mendez’s cinematic ruse is dubbed Studio Six Productions, a subtle wink to the mission behind the movie: the rescue of the six Americans who have now spent more than two months in hiding in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, played by Victor Garber.

Victor Garber

Garber expounds, “Ken Taylor and his wife, Pat, take in the Americans, which is a very courageous thing to do. It puts them at great peril, not just diplomatically but personally, because if their houseguests were caught, it would be extremely bad for them as well. I was so impressed by what this man did and felt a great responsibility in playing him, because what he did was heroic and remains so.”

Terrio relates, “This operation was publicly known as the ‘Canadian Caper,’ which is fitting because when other countries refused to help the six escapees, Canada, without hesitation, took them in and kept them protected. As is seen, the Taylors clearly knew their lives would be at stake, but they bravely harbored the Americans anyway and were instrumental in giving cover to the rescue mission.”

“Victor was perfect for the role of Ken Taylor, beginning with the fact that he happens to be Canadian,” Affleck states. “He also perfectly embodies the quiet heroism of this man who stepped up and did what was right because it was the moral thing to do. But mostly, Victor is a spectacular guy and wonderfully talented, and I was just thrilled to have him on the set.”

In casting the six Americans, Affleck reveals, “I had photos of the real people up in my office because I was trying to stay in the zone of how they actually looked. But more importantly, I wanted good actors who were willing to take risks, willing to improvise, and were able to deliver the kind of realism I was looking for.”

The Houseguests

Making up the ensemble of houseguests were: Tate Donovan as the de facto leader of the group, Bob Anders; Scoot McNairy as Joe Stafford, the only one of the six who is fluent in Farsi; Kerry Bishé as Joe’s wife, Kathy; Christopher Denham and Clea DuVall as the other married couple, Mark and Cora Lijek; and Rory Cochrane as Lee Schatz.

While the houseguests are enjoying the relative physical comforts offered by the ambassador’s hospitality, they are shut in and cut off and living in a constant state of fear that overshadows their day-to-day existence.

Kerry Bishé comments, “There’s a contradictory feeling to what their life is like. They have dinner parties and drink and play games, and yet it’s terrifying. I also imagine there’s a sense of guilt; the fact that their other colleagues are truly in captivity must weigh on them.”

“When we pick up with them,” Clea DuVall says, “it’s about ten weeks into their being behind closed doors. They are starting to feel a little edgy and claustrophobic and there’s always the underlying threat of being found. It’s at the point where everybody knows it is time for them to get out.”

Affleck wanted the six actors to not just play their parts but to experience, on a deeper level, what the circumstances would be like for their characters. So, prior to the start of principal photography, he sequestered them for a week in the home that would later double as the ambassador’s residence. The house was dressed in the style of the period as were the actors, who wore their costumes during that week. To immerse them fully in the time, the director cut them off from the rest of the world, not allowing any computers, cell phones, or anything that started with an “i.”

The director details, “We took away everything contemporary and gave them music, games, books, magazines and newspapers from that period. They didn’t have the internet and couldn’t watch outside TV. Without those things to fall back, they had to actually talk to each other. I wanted them to get comfortable with one another in a way that felt natural. It’s much harder to ‘act’ familiarity. It’s more of a chemical thing; your body relaxes and you adopt a certain posture and talk to people differently. That’s the kind of connection I wanted to see, and it definitely paid off in cementing the vibe of the group mentality.”

The actors playing the houseguests agree, noting that Affleck’s method achieved everything he’d hoped to gain and more.

“I’m really glad we did that,” says Rory Cochrane. “It was amazing how quickly we formed a rapport. It definitely aided my preparation.”

Scoot McNairy attests, “We became a very tight-knit unit. Everybody got along and all the egos went out the door. Just the fact that we got to know each other so well allowed for us to improvise and play off one another better.”

“It created a unique camaraderie among the group,” Christopher Denham notes. “We had to let our guards down and, as a result, we became fast friends. And I believe those intangibles will show up onscreen.”

Tate Donovan concedes that he was reluctant, at first, to be confined for an entire week, especially without the tether to any modern-day devices. “I was pretty bummed,” he nods. “So I went into it like, ‘All right, I’ll play along.’ But I have to say, I became a total convert. We had a lot of fun…we chatted and played games and developed into a team. And when it came time to shoot, we already had a shorthand. Ben fostered a safe place for us to work out things about our characters, and that was such a benefit.”

The cast of “Argo” also includes a number of actors playing the people, Stateside, who were invested in efforts to rescue the six Americans, including: Kyle Chandler as White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan; Chris Messina as Mario Malinov; Željko Ivanek as Robert Pender; Titus Welliver as Jon Bates; Keith Szarabajka as Adam Engell; and Bob Gunton as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. In addition, Page Leong plays Dr. Pat Taylor, the wife of Ambassador Taylor, and Richard Kind appears as Max Klein, a screenwriter who mistakenly tries to play hardball with Lester Siegel.

“We had so many noteworthy actors who wanted to be a part of this, and I think that reflects on the quality of the script, as well as the remarkable story,” Affleck says.