A Brit who’s been successfully playing Americans for decades and a charmingly laid back Canadian with a definite air of California dude-ism about him, actors Minnie Driver and Scott Speedman might seem like a somewhat random pairing. Even in the new film version of the late novelist Mordecai Richler’s tragicomic swan song, “Barney’s Version,” their characters make for some pretty strange bedfellows. On the other hand “Driver and Speedman” does sound like the title of a late seventies cop show.
Ms. Driver portrays the second Mrs. Panofsky, an otherwise unnamed Jewish Canadian princess who marries the very flawed Montreal TV producer Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti, who picked up a Golden Globe for the part Sunday night), only to find her new husband oddly distant, starting on the very day of their wedding. That’s because that’s also the day Barney meets – and goes completely nutso over – the woman who will eventually become Mrs. Panofsky #3 (Rosamund Pike). In Mrs. Panofsky’s corner: her outspoken ex-crooked policeman father-in-law (Dustin Hoffman), who speaks approvingly of her “nice rack.”
Speedman, for his part, is Barney’s multiple drug using novelist pal, Boogie. Best known for handsome-guy roles in the “Underworld” films opposite Kate Beckinsale and as the male lead in “Felicity” opposite Keri Russell, Speedman’s Bernard “Boogie” Moscovitch is a frequently charming rascal/jerkwad who both fails and assists his best friend in rather spectacular fashion, eventually starting a chain of events that may or may not lead to his murder by Barney.
Speedman entered the room first in typically low-key fashion, acting every bit the likable thirty-something surfer dude or ski-bum he could easily be cast as. Ms. Driver followed along, making a flirtatious joke about Speedman’s good looks and generally providing jovial company for a room full of entertainment writers one Beverly Hills winter’s day.
The first question was the ever-popular opening about what motivated the actors to join the cast.
In Speedman’s case, motivation was necessary. “I just read the script and liked it,” he said. “They didn’t want to see me for the audition, really. I had to convince [producer Robert Lantos]. I just responded to the character and wanted to work with Paul.”
So how exactly did Speedman fight his way in? “I think they just did it out of kindness, really,” he said, getting some laughs. “I flew myself to New York and read with Paul. I was lucky enough to get it.”
Then, turning to Minnie Driver, Speedman asked. “What about you? Did you believe in me?”
“I did believe in you,” Driver responded. “I find it hard to believe that that was…”
“I just worked with Robert on another movie. I was a very different, very reserved, character,” Speedman answered as he and Driver agreed that the character was a departure for him, but which he said “felt very natural.” Indeed, Speedman’s affable demeanor in real life seems to be essentially a much healthier version of Boogie. He definitely seems to find the dysfunctionally fun-loving character more to his liking than some of his other parts.
“Enough already with these brooding dudes,” said Speedman.
“You’re a much better drug addict,” quipped Driver.
“It’s like a documentary, really,” joked Speedman.
But what drove Driver to take the part?
“Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman,” she said. “I wanted to work with them and I felt that [the 2nd Mrs. Panofsky] was just hilarious. Brilliant. I get to play people who are hard to like and you have to somehow make them likable in some aspect. It’s a big character and [I needed] to make it truthful. Those seemed like good challenges. Michael Konyes did, I think, a brilliant job adapting a massive tome into a script.”
Regarding being hard to like, most actors try not to judge their characters. How did Driver approach this often humorously irritating character?
“I love her, but she’s abrasive and it’s in ‘The Heartbreak Kid’ territory,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking of. She doesn’t mean to be annoying. She just can’t help it. That’s interesting and it’s very funny to play. She should cross the line. I don’t think you should like everybody, always. You don’t like Paul. He’s a bugger in this, but you feel his humanity. You feel he’s struggling because he’s a flawed character. I think that’s where the interesting stuff lies. It doesn’t lie in being pretty, boring, and nice…She doesn’t shut up. She just sort of sucks the oxygen out of a room. I love the scenes where you hear her voice but [the camera] is just on Paul.”
Since they both admitted to not having read the entire book up to now, did either actor plan to read the book eventually?
“I’ll say ‘yes,’ and then I won’t,” said Speedman, smiling. “No, I would actually like to, at some point, go back and read it. It’s funny. I got the part and started reading the book and sort of had to put it down.”
“There’s so much. It’s dense,” Driver said, not incorrectly.
The next question was about Driver’s character’s accent — but not only her accent, her voice, and vocal pitch.
“I rang the Jewish community center in Montreal,” she admitted. “It sounds a bit awful, but I just said [going into a generic North American accent] ‘I’m thinking of moving to Montreal and I wondered if you could…’ I just got someone engaged in a conversation about what was going on. I talked to one woman a couple of times who was amazing. I asked someone else if I could record them; I just fessed up. She said [doing a nasal Montreal-Jewish accent and voice] ‘absolutely, go ahead.’ [My dialect coach and I] recorded her and transcribed. She explained poaching an egg for five minutes. My whole character is based on that. It was all about buttering the ramekin. [Then, in a perfect Montreal Jewish Canadian Princess voice] ‘Butter it!,” she said getting a big laugh.
Then we got to the standard question with the inevitably upbeat answer about how the actors felt about working with the director, Richard J. Lewis.
“I really liked him,” said Speedman. “There was a lot of pressure right at the beginning. Like anything, you just find your way. Once we got a language with each other, it was great. He did such a great job but he had a lot of pressure right at the beginning. Shooting in Italy on its own was tough.”
That led me to ask about locations. After we all agreed that Montreal is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, I tried to get them to be a little specific by playing the culinary card. I asked the actors if either had tried a smoked meat sandwich, Montreal’s famed answer to the American pastrami-on-rye.
Being weight and health-conscious actors and rather busy, of course, neither of them had partaken of the fatty, sodium laden treat. However, Minnie Driver did highly recommend a place called Joe Beef.
Getting another chance to ask a question, I noted that Speedman’s character of Boogie does at least two horrible things to Barney Panofsky’s character during the course of the film. I wondered if maybe one aspect of the character’s drug use was about forgetting those kind of unpleasant realities — or if Boogie is just a straight up, conscious-free borderline sociopath of some sort?
“I think actually he’s quite a loyal friend but, like a lot of people, I think he lets life get away from him and he starts making horrible decisions along the way. I think in his most conscious state he’s a really, really loyal friend. Is he a sociopath? I don’t think so. He’s a bit of a wild guy that doesn’t like to think about the next day.”
After another question or two went nowhere, I jumped in again to discuss accents some more. I confessed that I spent part of the late nineties believing Minnie Driver was an American because of her seamless U.S. accents in both “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Good Will Hunting.” It was so convinced that, when I saw her playing one of the female leads in Oliver Parker’s 1998 version of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband,” I thought to myself that she did a very nice English accent. That prompted two questions. First, did Driver have any thoughts on why British actors playing Americans has become so common over the last twenty years or so? Second, did Speedman think he could handle doing an English accent?
“I was born in London. I have this great passport, and I can’t really do the accent,” Speedman said.
“I bet you could,” Driver said.
“With some training,” he said.
“With some training and some wine,” she added.
Getting back to the first part of my question, Driver confessed to not really knowing why it was that she was part of a wave of British actors doing extremely convincing American accents, but she did have some thoughts on the craft of it. “I think you should do it very well if you’re gonna do it. I think it’s awful if you do it badly because it will take you out of the film,” she said, and then turned to reverse phenomenon of American actors attempting to do British accents, with often very mixed results.
“A [professor of linguistics] once told me that…just mechanically, where the Germanic-English sounds begins, it’s much flatter and more neutral. When you speak in an American accent, everything tenses a lot more and your tongue becomes tighter. It’s harder to relax than it is to [become more tense].”
After some joking about the tense tongues of Americans, someone asked if certain regional American accents were harder than the more generic U.S. accent.
“The Rhode Island accent was the hardest I’ve worked on it,” Driver said.
Speedman asked which movie she did that accent in.
“In ‘Conviction.’ This film is out right now, Scott. Sorry you didn’t see it,” Driver said, generating some chuckles around the table.
Driver got back to how hard her “Conviction” accent was. “It was really hard. It was very specific to this one area. Regional stuff is difficult because it’s very specific and it changes from town to town, even.”
Can doing accents become so hard that it’s easy to get lost thinking about it, rather than the story and the character?
“Yeah, it is. But you have to get that out of the way really early on and you’re sort of paratrooping. You have to give yourself three weeks to lose everything else and just be listening to that and then sort of come back to it. You can’t be thinking about [the accent] when you’re shooting. You really can’t.”
Did having regional crew help on a film like “Conviction” with tough accents? The answer turned out to be “maybe,” but the legal drama was actually made and set in Michigan.
After that, the subject became movie budgets. “Barney’s Version” is in some ways an odd duck these days, in that’s in not a giant Hollywood blockbuster by any means, but neither is it a very low-to-“zero” budget indie film.
“What used to be sort of my wheelhouse of budget doesn’t exist anymore. They’re either $3 million movies or $200 million movies. That place somewhere in between, it just doesn’t exist. You can find an independent movie — “Conviction” is that way, this is that way — that live in that place between $10 and $20 million. it’s very rare. The studios are just not making those films.”
But would they participate in films with very low budgets, if the right people were involved?
“You’re not showing up onto a $1 million movie going [in a crotchety U.S. accent] ‘Where’s my trailer?! Jesus!’ ‘You’re in that cupboard over there, love.’ “What?!’ You just do what you can,” Driver said, getting laughs. “You can’t complain about it once you’re there. I once made this film with Philip Seymour Hoffman and I would make it again tomorrow. Five people saw it.” [The low-budget movie in question was the very good gambling-centric drama, “Owning Mahoney.” I was one of the five.]
That prompted me to bring up the little seen but entirely brilliant, very Canadian low-key tearjerker, “My Life Without Me,” in which Speedman costarred with a pre-“Dawn of the Dead” Sarah Polley.
“That was very low-budget,” Speedman said. “That was like a million dollars. I’ve done stuff for $300,000, too. I’ve also done stuff where they say it’s $3 million or something and half-way through, you know there’s just no way [they even have that much].”
Did either actor have a favorite scene to work on in the film?
“I did like the honeymoon scene. It’s actually the first scene we shot in the whole film. I just loved Paul, sitting on a bed, traumatized because he’d married this woman whose just poncing around in her undies.”