Allen Altman's chameleon-like face has enabled him to play a melting pot of characters, from Russians to East Indians. But in Denis Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated drama Incendies, the Montreal-raised actor took on what he describes as his biggest challenge to date - a French notary whose ancestry is Lebanese.
Altman spent hours with a dialect coach to perfect a French-Arab accent before heading to Montreal for auditions. The effort paid off, and Altman, who now lives in Toronto, got a supporting role in the film, which was shot in Montreal and Jordan early last year. Altman plays a notary hired by the twins' lawyer to dig into their mother's past in Lebanon.
Working with Villeneuve (who also directed Polytechnique), Altman says, was a privilege he hopes he will enjoy again. But for now, he says he's just grateful to have been part of an unflinching, Canadian-made drama about family love set against the backdrop of civil war that will soon vie for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.
The film is about twins, Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), whose recently deceased mother sends them on a quest to Lebanon to find a father they thought dead, and a brother they never knew existed. It could have played out like a Greek tragedy, but ends with hope. How is that?
From the first moment I read the script, I was blown away by how powerful the words were. But the emotions behind this film are universal. And despite the violent, war-torn background, the main essence of this film is about family and what family can do to a human being. We all carry baggage and bring it into a large society. It's about being a grown-up and having the humanity to love the rest of the world. Not deal with it in hate and anger.
Do you find the message in this film, adapted from Wajdi Mouawad's Governor-General's Award-winning play, prescient given the current uprisings in the Middle East?
The film's themes are telling in light of what's going on today. It just reinstates the pitiful fact that so many people are faced with situations like this. Look what's going on in Egypt and elsewhere. It's an indication of Denis's intuitiveness and his foresight into the fact that history just keeps repeating itself. And it's just so exhausting. You try to understand it from the outside, but it's so sad. So many people need help while others insist on arguing about nothing.
In addition to the Academy Award nomination, Incendies has 10 Genie Award nods. What is it about the film that speaks to audiences?
I believe this film touched the Academy as much as it did because it speaks to a very simple message: It's about time for the whole world to stop fighting and find a way to live together. The essence of the story is about letting go of your anger, and that humanity transcends everything.
You are hardly a novice actor. You've been in such films as Head in the Clouds with Penelope Cruz and Charlize Theron, and on TV shows such as HBO Canada's Living in Your Car. But you say you were "scared" of this role. Where did that come from?
I guess I just wanted to come across as credible. Denis was finding it a challenge to fill this role. I play a guy who has to deliver intense, life-changing information to these twins, but he wanted it done with a light touch, with a bit of humour - which was a challenge in itself.
What was your reaction the first time you screened Incendies?
I was at a cast viewing in Montreal. The first person I saw when I walked outside was Denis, and I just burst into tears. It was just such an intelligent way to deal with the script. And it's a smart movie, but it's not intellectual, which I also loved.
A re you going to the Oscars ceremony at the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 27?
I hope so, but I don't know. I am going to Los Angeles to attend the embassy party [the Canadian consul-general's reception to congratulate Canadian nominees] I've also been invited to the Vanity Fair party. But even if I don't get an invite to the Oscars, everything that's happened is all surplus. I just feel so lucky to have been part of it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.