Look, movie junkets are stressful. Not particularly because it’s strenuous — there’s coffee, food, and, in the case of Argylle, you’re flown out to London to speak to celebrities in a swanky hotel suite just across the Thames from the London Eye.
But try having a real, thoughtful conversation with a movie star in less minutes than fingers on your hand. You don’t want to be too frivolous, too silly, too off-topic, or say something that the actors haven’t been asked a million times already. After all, at a junket, you’re one of a gaggle of global journalists who have gathered for this one-day interview blitz. You want to stand out.
On the surface, Argylle is a semi-camp, fully metafictional movie about Elly Conway, an uber successful spy novelist who suddenly finds herself in the center of a real-life espionage plot that is eerily similar to the events of her books. The movie is cheeky with moments of good fun, but also has as many twists and turns as London’s roads. Those very twists got me wondering about good versus evil, and it’s those deeper thoughts that prompted Cranston and Howard to investigate the essence of what makes a Hollywood hero — and what makes a villain.
“The hero is really someone who rises above their acceptability of what they think of themselves,” Cranston, who plays the director of evil spy organization The Division, tells me. “It's not someone who fancies themselves as a heroic person already, like a warrior or a gladiator. It's someone who, despite fears and caution and concerns, rises above to meet a moment in time that is needed. And that's really when someone ascends to become a hero.”
As for being a villain?
“There’s some villainy in all of us really, if we're honest,” Cranston says. “If we really opened up and said, ‘Well, I’ve felt these certain feelings at certain times, and I've done wrong. I've wronged people at times.’ The villain is the person who never corrects the wrong, who allows him or herself to continue to be that person.”
Context also matters, adds Howard, who plays Elly. Whatever legal, moral, or ethical standards dictate the norm in any given society sets the tone for how people interpret actions. A villainous action in one culture might be considered heroic in another. In the film, spy agent Aidan (Sam Rockwell) kills a bunch of assassins, but it’s for the purpose of protecting Elly, who’s more important than she initially seems. So is that really so bad?
What if you’re manipulated into doing a terrible action? Even if you didn’t intend to hurt, does that make you a villain? “The villain is the one who doesn't take responsibility for the end result, for the things that do go wrong, for the cost of life,” Howard says. “We always need to kind of examine ourselves and our actions because people won't necessarily check us, and that's a scary thing and that's how villainy expands.”
Actors often say villains are more fun and complex to play because they get to take on motivations that are taboo in real life and explore the dark sides to a person’s character that they wouldn’t necessarily carry out in their own lives. The same goes for us in the audience. There's a reason why we're drawn to villains. It’s “delicious,” as Howard says, to escape into a villain, which is why so often the bad guys are the scenestealers.
“The villain is just really a mischievous child who’s allowed to expand on that [mischievousness],” Cranston says. “In our version of adult play, we're encouraged to be as bad as possible, which is the opposite of what our parents were trying to sculpt and mold. ‘No, no, share your toys. No, don't say that about someone.’ Now, you can let it go. Everything that your parents told [you], you just do the opposite, and there's your villain.”
When the line between hero and villain is, in the world of Argylle, as blurry as the line between reality and imagination, it’s important to define how we distinguish the good guys from the bad, what the rules are, who’s playing by them and who’s not. Whether we realize it or not, we carry what we see in the theater into the real world to help us make sense of our own moral compasses. Art informs life just as life informs art, and there are deep lessons to be had — even if from a movie that, at first glance, is pitched to simply be a good cinematic time.
Not bad for a 10-minute chat.
Argylle is in theaters now.