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Rob Reiner shares the secrets behind his cinematic legacy

Actor, director, and activist Rob Reiner.

RACHEL IDZERDA/The Globe and Mail

In And So It Goes (out later this month), filmmaker Rob Reiner explores romance for the silver-haired set. The rom-com – co-starring Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton – is the latest addition to a cinematic legacy that has made us laugh, cry and question the authenticity of female orgasms. Here, the well-known actor, director and activist shares some of the secrets to his success

Direct what you know

I tend to pick projects that I can find my way into … Is there a particular character or set of circumstances that I can relate to in some way? With 2007's The Bucket List, I had just turned 60 and was starting to contemplate the finiteness of life. The idea for And So It Goes came out of the experience when we were promoting The Bucket List. Every journalist would ask, "What's on your bucket list?" and Jack [Nicholson] would always answer, "One more great romance." I heard that, and knew it was the basis for a really great movie. Misery [1990] is another example. Yes it's a thriller, but it's also the story of a writer who has become trapped by his own success. He wants to write something different and his fans, represented by Annie Wilkes, won't let him. After [the TV series] All In the Family, I got a lot of offers to continue doing the same character [Meathead] with Sally Struthers. I was feeling really typecast, like I couldn't make the move to directing movies, which is what I really wanted to do. I know what it feels like to be a creative person and to feel trapped by your own success, so I could really understand what the Paul Sheldon character was going through in Misery.

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Acting is more fun on other people's sets

Being an actor definitely helps you as a director. Some of the great filmmakers were actors – Orson Wells, Sydney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Ron Howard. It's because you know what an actor goes through and you know what it feels like to be in a scene. That said, I don't actually love acting in the movies that I direct. I didn't want to be in And So It Goes. I wanted Marc Shaiman, who does the composing for all of my movies, to play the piano player, but he wasn't available. Basically I looked around and asked, "Who will work for scale?" and the only person I found was myself. It can be a challenge because your focus gets split. When I'm in someone else's movie, that's when I have a lot of fun. Doing The Wolf of Wall Street [2013] was such a great experience because [director] Marty Scorsese is the one who has to do all of the worrying and be on top of everything. I just got to have a great time.

Take any good idea you can get

Being on All In the Family was like getting a master's degree in filmmaking. We filmed 200 shows in front of a live audience, so I learned a lot about what audiences like and don't like, how stories are best structured, where the cameras are best used. Carrol O'Connor [who played Archie Bunker] was a mentor. Basically what he told me about acting is that you have to make sure that the script is working and the story is working. If you can do that, you don't really have to do a lot as an actor. When the story is working, you don't have to do handsprings or make faces. I definitely welcome my actors to share their thoughts about a script. If it's not working for them then it's not going to work when we shoot it. I'm not one of those directors who needs everything to be done my way. I'll have an idea about what a scene should be like, but if someone has a better idea, I'm always open to it – an actor, a cameraman, even a key grip. I'll let anybody in if the idea is good.

Magical moments in beer guzzling

The first movie I made, This Is Spinal Tap [1984], was totally improvised. I was raised on improv theatre, so I'm really comfortable in that realm and I love how you get these moments that you would have never expected. In The Sure Thing [1985], we were shooting this scene where John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga are going to share a beer and then he's going to try to kiss her. Right before, John asks me if I've ever heard of shotgunning a beer? I said no, and then we just started filming that scene where he explains the whole process and eventually shotguns the beer. It was entirely improvised and that is the scene that went into the movie.

Give back what you can

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I don't know if I feel that it's my duty as a celebrity to give back, but certainly as an individual I feel obliged to put something good back into the world. That was introduced to me early on in my family. My father [actor/director Carl Reiner] was against the Vietnam War, my mother was part of Another Mother for Peace. We talked about civil rights around the dinner table … One of the best things about having a public profile is that it gives you an opportunity to support causes that matter to you. I was recently involved in making the new HBO documentary The Case Against 8, which is about California's Proposition 8 and marriage equality in the United States, and which is just such a beautiful movie about such an important topic. I do feel that if you have an opportunity to use your celebrity to effectuate change, then you should do it, but you have to be willing to steep yourself in a particular issue and really understand it. Otherwise, who cares what a celebrity thinks?

This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.

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