James and Mimi as General Miller and Karen Clarke
Armando Iannucci's brand of satire makes the jump from the small to the large screen this week when In The Loop opens in cinemas across the UK (before hopping the Pond to screen at the Tribeca Film Festival). The film sees Peter Capaldi reprise his role as foul-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It. This time he is thrust into a trans-Atlantic web of spin, as politicians in the US and Britain spar for and against an unamed war in the Middle East. James Gandolfini and Mimi Kennedy star as a Stateside General and Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy, who are desperate to prevent a war at all costs. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the same week that Barack Obama was inaugurated... and Eye For Film caught up with them to talk spin and satire.
Were you aware of Armando's work before?
Mimi: No, I got a 269-page script and was told that I was auditioning. I called my agent and said, 'This says lead role and BBC, is that Bupkiss Nothing Corporation or is that the BBC?' They said: it is the BBC, it is a large role in the film and sometimes we get these gems crossing our desk.' So I thought it was a miracle and I went in and had a series of auditions, found out Armando was a genius and heard James was going to be in the film and I couldn't believe it and I got the role and it was fabulous.
James: I think they sent me the script and I said: "This is great". He's an incredibly intelligent man, whose also incredibly funny, which is a great combination. He asked me to play the General which is very different from something I'd done before and I was very flattered. I thought this is going to be great. A lot scripts you read have a similarity and you know where they're going. This is very different.
You got to improvise in certain scenes. Did you find that a change from normal?
James: I'm a guy who loves writers and I've been lucky enough to work with good writers, especially recently, and the script was very good. So I don't want to say that we were improvising all over the place. You would do as much of the script as you could - because there was a lot of it and a lot of changes - and then you got a chance to riff a little bit, but it was all from Armando and the direction he wanted to go and the point that he wanted to make. I'm a person who thinks that six actors in a room improvising could add real damage to a film. I think there needs to be a very good guiding hand and he certainly was that.
Mimi: I feel the same way. In fact, I remember around the second day, saying to Armando: "I want to do your script more." Because I was watching our British colleagues do this improv based on their knowledge of each other's work styles and everything else, for years. So I was trying to do that to, but I wanted stick to the script because that was the really funny stuff. Then after sticking to the script, then the improvisation sort of naturally took on the shape, as Jim says, of Armando's tone and focus.
So you did look at The Thick Of It episodes?
James: That drew me into it. I mean, after The Sopranos it was to really make me cringe, but...
Mimi: It's a mark of literacy to be able to swear creatively and surprisingly.
You're a kind of 'dove' in the movie, James, and that's against your usual type - was it interesting to play that type of character?
James: Yes, it was interesting but I don't necessarily agree that he was a dove. He was just a guy who was saying: "What are you doing? We don't have enough troops." This isn't about Iraq. It's fictitious. It could be about any office anywhere and it could be any relations anywhere, it's just that the war was the result. I think he was almost the voice of reason in his own mind, saying: "We can't do this." I think if we had a million more troops he would have said well we'll do it in a way.
What research did you do for the roles?
James: I went to the Pentagon and talked to a lot of generals. I was very flattered that they would take some time [to do that], I'm sure they're slightly busy. I learned a little bit, but I don't think I based a lot on their characters. It was a incredible experience to go there. I'm not sure how much of it I used for this.
Mimi: I had actually had some experience of organising and holding positions of authority, both successfully - feeling this is good strategy, we're following through, everyone's working together - and being frustrated - where things couldn't work. So I took my own experience for Karen. I've seen legislators and stuff. I'm old enough to know a lot of powerful women, because there is nobody older than we are... and we are few. So I just was able to put myself in that role. I was grateful because I think that earlier in my career I wouldn't have had that sense of myself.
And now Armando is working with your production company on something, James, for HBO?
James: Yes, it's a possibility. When I find an intelligent guy like him, I'm going to clam on to him as much as possible and see what I can get from it, basically.
It's a little bit damning about the way we run our Government with everybody running about trying to please their big boss, like the middle tier of a company - do you see the American political system running in the same way?
Mimi: I think what we've learnt is that there's competence and incompetence in absolutely any human endeavour and I don't know how you get a critical mass of incompetence but sometimes you do.
James: We're the ones that led - again, it's fictitious. One of the things I learnt that I didn't know is that 25-year-olds are writing the position papers because the senators can't possibly read these volumes on one country, so you have to have the younger kids doing this and they say: "This is what we should do." And this is what the senators read, apparently, and have to base their decisions on. Which is interesting when you consider where it's coming from.
Mimi: My family watched Fawlty Towers. When our kids were little we would watch British comedy to really, really laugh.
James: I think people are ready to laugh at any time. I don't think anything is off-limits if it is funny.
Mimi: The tragedies continue but I always say that it's when you've survived the crash that, if someone tells a joke about it, you can look back and laugh. There are those who didn't survive the crash and you don't ever laugh about them, but that's why this movie is fiction.
Do you think an American audience might find Peter Capaldi's quick Glasgow delivery a bit difficult?
Mimi: It'll probably just enhance the charm.
Did you watch the Presidential inauguration?
James: I didn't, actually.
Mimi: I was at home watching, weeping, cheering, carrying on like a maniac.
What are your thoughts on the whole situation at the moment?
Mimi: There is a God. People are engaged, that's another wonderful thing about our film, people are willing to be engaged.
In The Loop opens in UK cinemas on April 17. It will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27 and May 1 and 2.