Max, an England native who now lives in New York City, dropped out of high school at 17 to start acting, a choice that began to pay off when he got his first large role, as the lead in Terry Zwigoff’s 2006 satire Art School Confidential. Minghella’s been quite discerning in the characters he’s taken on since — he was also busy attending Columbia University — the most recognizable being his role as one of the three guys (the non-Winklevoss twin) who sues Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network.
Now comes his supporting role in George Clooney’s The Ides of March, in which he plays the assistant to Ryan Gosling’s troubled, political consultant protagonist. Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, much of Ides was shot on location in the Cincinnati area earlier this year (Minghella calls Cincinnati a “classy” town). (Read Scott Renshaw's review of The Ides of March here.)
CityBeat recently phone Minghella to discuss everything from his initial fear of Gosling to the experience of working with Clooney.
CityBeat: As a political junkie, I found that Ides is another snapshot of our current political climate being in a perilous, highly cynical state. On the other hand, the film deals with themes that go back to Shakespeare and Machiavelli. It’s also, by the end, much more of a straight-up thriller than I was expecting.
Max Minghella: I hope it’s more complicated than being just about one thing. I kind of love that it’s a film about politics that genuinely isn’t about politics. I think that’s an amazing thing to pull off. I just saw Moneyball recently, and I thought that film achieved the same thing — a really magnificent piece of filmmaking that doesn’t rely on the audience being familiar with or having any affection for the sport. It’s just a universal story, and I think Ides accomplishes the same thing. Politics is just a really fun playground for the story.
CB: I know you were a fan of Beau Willimon’s original stage version. How does the film version differ from the play?
MM: The film feels to me like a Chinese whisper of the play. There are dramatic turns that are different from the play that are necessary. One of the biggest fears as a fan of the play was that it would feel like a play on film, and it doesn’t in any way.
George found a way to sort of re-imagine the story on a cinematic scale. The language was really fun in the play, and although it’s different language in the film, I think it has the same character to it. These are people who are incredibly smart and language is their game. It’s what they specialize in, so you want the characters to have a certain kind of eloquence, which I think they do in the movie.
CB: How was it working with the cast? If I remember correctly — I saw Ides at 8:30 in the morning amid twentysomething films at the Toronto Film Festival — almost all of your scenes are with Ryan (Gosling) and Phil (Seymour Hoffman).
MM: Phil I’ve known since I was a kid (he starred in Minghella's dad’s The Talented Mr. Ripley), so it was really nice just to have a familiar face there. I think he’s and amazing person. It’s very comforting to be around him. And on top of that he’s an extraordinary actor who I feel like I learn from every time he opens his mouth. He’s just incredible.
Ryan I didn’t really know before I started shooting, and I was kind of wary of him. I was a little nervous that he was going to be a tricky person. I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe because he’s so good at what he does, I assumed he couldn’t be a nice person as well. I thought that he might be very method-y or serious or something. I couldn’t have been any more wrong in my estimation of his personality. He’s really the friendliest person, a total teddy bear and so fucking warm to me and just generous and nice. He totally sort of won me over immediately. He’s a great soul and a real friend.
CB: How was it working with Clooney? Was there anything unique in his approach as a director?
MM: He manages a very delicate balance in that he’s acting in the film and he’s a writer on the film and he’s producing the film and he’s directing the film, often in front of thousands of strangers, because we had extras every day — a lot of them. That’s a very careful line to walk, and I thought he did it very elegantly. He’s just full of class as a human being, and that’s very evident in the way he handles himself on set. He’s got to manage a massive amount of people as well as managing his own performance and managing his own role as a responsible producer. He’s the best. He’s been doing this stuff for a long time, and having been around so many amazing filmmakers, he’s just always on his A game.
CB: How does Clooney's approach differ from that of someone like David Fincher?
MM: They’re sort of almost opposite in their approach. George doesn’t do takes, and David does a lot of takes. They’re both interesting in the ways of working, but they just have different philosophies. They’re both unbelievably nice people who love actors, and that’s one of the things they have in common. One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the more talented people are, or the better or more experienced they are, the nicer they are because they seem to be more secure. So I’ve been very lucky with those experiences.
CB: I know you were also on the sets of your dad’s films. Did you learn anything that you use today as an actor?
MM: When I started acting I didn’t really know anything. The perspective when I was on sets is very different. Being a director is very different — your day-to-day life is so different than an actor’s, and so I didn’t really know anything about the routine of an actor. It was all new to me when I started. The most useful thing about being on sets growing up, when on my dad’s or anybody else’s, was being around really good and generous actors who end up being role models.
I think there are some amazing people who are actors. There are also some very strange personalities. I was blessed to be around some of the really good ones and people who handle themselves in a really amazing way. And that was really important to my dad — how an actor behaves, and especially a lead actor, that they were his partner, that they were a leader for the rest of the crew, that they set a standard in terms of their behavior and their professionalism. So that’s always been important to me and is always something I’ve tried to emulate.
CB: How was your experience working in Cincinnati?
MM: It’s a great town. It’s very rare that we get to shoot in a real location and get a sense of the city. It was a very important character in this film. Cincinnati is a massive character in the film. For all of the actors it was useful to be in the real place and get a sense of the people.
Everyone was really nice there, as you know as somebody who lives there. It’s a really classy town: great food, great things to do. We stayed at the Cincinnatian, which is a beautiful hotel. So we were very spoiled there. Obviously being with George everyone treats us very well. He’s kind of a big deal I guess.
THE IDES OF MARCH opens wide Oct. 7.