In the comedy Arthur, Russell Brand reinvents the role of loveable billionaire Arthur Bach, originally brought to life by actor Dudley Moore in the 1981 original. Arthur is an irresponsible charmer who uses his fortune to surround himself with people and amusements that leave him feeling rather hollow. It is only the good sense of his lifelong nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) that keeps him out of even more trouble than he already gets himself into. When Arthur falls for a spontaneous New York City tour guide named Naomi (Greta Gerwig), and he must then choose between her and the predictable corporate exec Susan (Jennifer Garner), it is Hobson that helps him follow his heart.
At the film’s press day, co-stars Russell Brand and Helen Mirren talked about why they enjoy working together so much, how love changes you, their most extravagant Arthur-like purchases, and why people should go see their movie. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
RUSSELL BRAND: I am such a thorough actor that I did two decades of research into alcoholism, just to make sure it was 100% right. The difference, of course, is that Arthur is a fictional alcoholic and has much more latitude for clowning and fun, and often his adventures don’t lead to broken glass and howling women, although he is arrested, at the beginning of the film. It was very important that we established a context where the alcoholism was humorous and good fun, but was not irresponsibly portrayed. This is 2011, and it’s important to see a resolution to the problem of Arthur’s alcoholism. As a recovering alcoholic myself, I was particularly happy with how that was rendered.
Like Arthur in the film, your own life changed when you fell in love. How has love changed things for you?
BRAND: Like in Arthur, love has an incredibly transformative quality. The first thing you do when you fall in love is that you recognize that you’re not the most important person in the world, and your focus becomes another person. The reason the film resonated with me, in the way that it does, is because Arthur is a person without direction, until he falls in love.
Helen, what made you want to choose this role?
HELEN MIRREN: I did it because I met Russell. I sat on a sofa opposite him for a couple of hours and he just blew me away. I had kind of worked with him in The Tempest. We’d wearily said hi to each other, respectfully, but we hadn’t really spent time together. We bumped into each other and Russell told me about this film, and just totally seduced me, the way he does. I defy male, female or age-appropriate child to spend two hours with Russell and not be completely charmed, and just say, “Yeah, fine. I’ll do whatever you want.”
MIRREN: He was in his trailer all the time. He never came out of his trailer. When he came out, he was always surrounded by minders and he wouldn’t speak to anyone.
BRAND: People will write that now, you vicious Queen! I’m going to go down to Hollywood Blvd. and fill your handprints in.
MIRREN: It is completely untrue. Actually, I don’t know because I was drunk all the time.
BRAND: I’ve been brilliantly schooled by publicists and minders. I don’t say anything that controversial. I say a couple of swear words. Helen says mad stuff that you’re not supposed to say in front of the press. That’s crazy! We had a wonderful relationship, is the truth of it. I’m a bit in love with Helen. I was very excited about the possibility of working with her.
MIRREN: It was a very loving and funny environment.
Helen, what was it like to play nanny to Russell Brand?
MIRREN: Well, it was an education for me, as much as for the education I was trying to give to the character. Mostly, I was the one who was learning stuff. I learned so many things. I’ve never done a film that is called a comedy before. It was one of the reasons I really wanted to do the film, and I was very lucky that I was working with such brilliantly experienced people in the world of comedy, like (director) Jason [Winer], Russell [Brand] and (screenwriter) Peter [Baynham]. It was my education.
Was it fun to get to punch Russell?
MIRREN: Punching Russell was great, but the best thing was being taught how to punch by Evander Holyfield, who was my personal trainer on the set. He’s such a gentleman, but he is the champ and he is a big guy, and quite scary. He was very quiet, and he was on the set in the corner. But, I went up to him and said, “Evander, I’ve got to punch Russell. Would you show me how to do it, please?” He said, “Sure,” and he gave me a little training. One of the highlights of the shoot for me was being taught how to punch by Evander Holyfield.
BRAND: The actual car is not as interesting in the interior. It’s like a reverse metaphor for the nature of the human soul. The inside is boring. And, it was a bit scruffy in there. I was in there with Luis Guzman, who is a brilliant actor, but he says unusual stuff. I would be in that Batmobile with him and he’d say, “Imagine if, when the roof of the Batmobile opens, we’re not on the set anymore and we’ve gone back to caveman days,” and then I’d hear, “Action!,” and I’d be like, “Huh?! What?!” It would be like ideological farts in the car, and bizarre notions for me to contend with. But, I enjoyed wearing the suit because it had Clooney musk in it. It had the pheromones of George Clooney, and I like to think that I may have absorbed them. I’m certainly feeling a lot more altruistic. If anybody needs any help with anything, I’m prepared to help.
What was the audition with Greta Gerwig like? How did you know that she was the right actress for the role of Naomi?
BRAND: We saw loads and loads of different actresses, which was all right, but I was already on the way to getting married then, so I couldn’t enjoy it, like in the good old days, where auditions had a more primal quality. We did the audition with Greta and, afterwards, I was sitting quietly. It was the last casting of the day and I was quiet and (director) Jason [Winer] said, “What’s the matter?” I said, “I feel sad, now that she’s gone.” It was because I had enjoyed playing with her so much. She has such a brilliant imagination, she’s a great improviser, she has a wonderful understanding of comedy, she has a wide range of ideas and peculiar choices, and she’s a very, very beautiful person. It’s a good peculiar, in a magical way that’s a strange mutation, like only nature can produce. Also, it was important that it was someone that existed outside of the paradigm of Arthur’s normal world of privilege and luxury, and someone for whom it was conceivable that you would give up a billion dollars for. And, Greta had this naivete and innocence, and a sense of fun and wonder that made that notion feasible.
How was it to shoot in the Grand Central Terminal, with just you and Greta and no one else in there?
BRAND: They took us on a special tour and showed us places where you’re not meant to go. There are secret tunnels under Grand Central. We went on a secret staircase underneath the clock. The man did make Greta remove her top, as part of the entry procedure, and she was very generous. Greta doesn’t mind nudity, if it will unveil new tourism for people.
Were you cool with running around in your underwear?
BRAND: I felt very shy and embarrassed about it, as a matter of fact. But, they were such lovely underpants. They were custom made.
BRAND: Nothing! Executive producers don’t have to do anything, nor do any kind of producers. They just sit around on deck chairs, watching stuff, and if it gets cold, they leave. There’s no kind of contribution. No. As a producer, you’ve got to be involved in helping out with solving problems. Warner Bros. brought me this idea, very, very early on. They said, “Would you be interested in remaking Arthur?” And I said, “Yeah,” because I really, really love Dudley Moore. But then, I thought, “Is this ever really going to happen?” I didn’t really imagine it would. They asked, “Who would you like to write it?” I said, “Peter Baynham because he’s a great hero of mine.” And then, we talked about directors and I was already a fan of Jason’s show, Modern Family. I thought, “My god, because of his visual style and his understanding of comedy, he will be able to make this relevant and pertinent whilst maintaining the traditional aesthetic of the storyline.” That was exciting. Then, when Peter had the idea of making Hobson female and we immediately thought of Helen Mirren, for me, that was the idea that made the film feasible. That was the idea that meant, “Oh, this will actually happen.” And, I’m so grateful that it did because I had a wonderful opportunity to work with such incredible people.
When you get caught between the moon and New York City, what is the best that you can do?
BRAND: The best thing you can do is fall in love. That’s why this film resonated so strongly with me, and why I’m so happy with it. My life has been changed by falling in love. I know that, whilst that is a romantic idea and, in this case, fictional, it’s something that’s happened to me. That’s why I’m so enamored of this story. I love the original movie. Dudley Moore is a great hero of mine. To be able to recreate that film, with such a talented ensemble of people, was an incredible gift, as it was to work with the Oscar-winning, wonderful actress Helen Mirren, a brilliant director like Jason Winer – for whom this is the first of what will become a great career of excellent movies – who accommodated my improvisation, but told the story so wonderfully well, visually. It’s almost a trite cliche to hear, “We used the city as another character in the movie,” but if you watch this film, the city is truly present. It makes Manhattan seem like a magical fairy story. Greta [Gerwig] wonderfully brought to life a different aspect of the character’s trajectory, with her experience in independent films. She gave a more naturalistic and gentle performance that spoke to the child in Arthur. And, Peter Baynham is as much a comedic hero to me as Dudley Moore. He’s one of the great comedy writers of the last 30 years, with Alan Partridge, Bruno and Borat. It was a great honor to work on this film.
MIRREN: Many virgins have died in my pursuit of youth.
BRAND: And mine! You realize that question can never be successfully answered. No one will ever go, “There’s a fountain somewhere.”
After you got a nice Hollywood paycheck, what was the most indulgent, extravagant and Arthur-like purchase you’ve made?
MIRREN: My husband and I bought a castle in Pulia.
BRAND: But, people are starving!
MIRREN: It’s like turning on the taps to full and having money just pour out into the desert. It will be beautiful, but it’s not finished.
Where is Pulia?
MIRREN: It’s in the bottom of the heel of the boot of Italy. It’s not really a castle. It’s actually a farmhouse. It’s got a little bit where you can pour boiling oil out of it. They used to do that because Pulia was being invaded, all the time. It had endless invasions, so even the farmhouses are fortified. It’s a fortified farmhouse.
BRAND: A fortified farmhouse? That’s a castle!
BRAND: I’m very glad you asked that question. It’s an important and brilliant question. Arthur has everything. He has all the money in the world, and yet he is lonely and unhappy. I grew up poor. I didn’t have no money, and now I have some money. The greatest poverty one can have is to be poor in one’s heart. After falling in love, Arthur is truly happy. He discovers purpose. All of us know that money is transient and its pleasures are illusory. The happiest moments in our lives are not, “Oh, I got a new hat, or a wonderful, silvery object, or some glistening bauble.” It’s when you connect with another human being. If you can find the $18 in your pocket, you are purchasing dreams with that money! Plus, you can watch our movie, and then sneak in and watch another one, but pay for our movie.
MIRREN: It’s a fantasy that we all have about, “What would we do, if we had a billion dollars?” That’s why, when the lottery gets really big and it’s up to $40 million or $50 million, I go out and buy a ticket. It’s, “Maybe I’ll win.”
BRAND: So that you can buy another castle?
MIRREN: No. You fantasize about what it would be like to have millions and millions and millions of dollars. We all do that. Here, we can see what happens when you have millions and millions and millions of dollars. I think it’s a fantasy that we all carry within us, especially anyone who has ever bought a lottery ticket.