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Too Big to Fail – Actor William Hurt and director Curtis Hanson on making economic policy entertaining

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Too Big to Fail - Topher Grace and William Hurt
Jim Wilkinson (Topher Grace) and Henry Paulson (William Hurt) © 2011 HBO

Director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential) and actor William Hurt (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Broadcast News) have joined forces for the HBO movie Too Big to Fail, which tells the story of the 2008 financial crisis, which continues today.

Hurt portrays Treasury Secretary Henry ‘Hank’ Paulson, a free-market advocate and former Goldman Sachs chairman/CEO working for President Bush.

Economic policy isn’t the sexiest subject, how do you make it entertaining?

Curtis Hanson: It’s not so much about the subject of economic policy, what always interests me in the work that I do are the people, the characters. And there’s great emotion in this story. And most of the pictures I’ve done have been about people in difficult circumstances trying to figure out their way out, how to be the better version of themselves, if you will. And this is very much that kind of story.

You have an incredible cast, including Ed Asner as Warren Buffett, can you talk about that?

Curtis: We had the good fortune to put together an extraordinary group of actors, starting off with William here. Once the word gets out, people want to be part of something they think is going to be good. And [we got] actors like Ed Asner, Bill Pullman and Paul Giamatti. William is somebody whose work I have admired back to The Big Chill and Body Heat.

William, can you talk a little about Henry Paulson?

Too Big to Fail - William Hurt
Henry Paulson (William Hurt) © 2011 HBO

William Hurt: As a person and an actor, I was nothing but interested in Paulson. And I spent a lot of time with him because he was very generous with his time, for a lot of reasons. So that was utterly fascinating for me. And he was open, I think. So that was a thrill. And to be able to ask some very pointed questions and get some very direct answers about those questions was thrilling, just wonderful for me. You can’t play another human being. You can use books or meetings or information as character references and inspiration. You’re interpreting something, so you hope you get it right.

I got to play a guy who crosses the line from the private sector to the public sector. And they’re different jobs. You do different things in different contexts. So the most interesting part for me was [how] Paulson, who is a street fighter, a guy who is not used to hearing no in the street, [turned into] a guy who is working now for the American people. And what do you do in relationship to that responsibility?

Did you try to get the actors to look like their counterparts?

Too Big to Fail - Paul Giamatt and William Hurt
Ben Bernanke (Paul Giamatti) and Henry Paulson (William Hurt) © 2011 HBO

Curtis: We didn’t want to do impersonations. We wanted the actors, in their performance, to try to capture the essence of the person they were playing and tap into it with the essence of themselves.

But we did what we could to help them resemble the person. So, for example, Paul has a white beard on, and his head is shaved like Ben Bernake’s. Matthew Modine is wearing a hairpiece to look more like John Thain. So we did things like that.

I assume when this all happened, you had your own feelings about it. How much do your personal, political opinions factor into what we’ll be seeing on screen?

William: Well, I’m on screen. It’s a problem for an actor doing a docudrama. I try to stay away from that, and I try to stay away from playing living people. But what made this project so fascinating and imperative to me was that the events affect the life of everybody on the planet and will continue to. So that raised the level of interest and the applicability of the subject to an acceptable artistic level. But it’s a depiction at the same time, and you struggle with that.

When actors do technical dramas, they talk about learning the language – was it difficult for you to handle the language of finance and make it sound easy coming out of your mouth?

Too Big to Fail - William Hurt
Henry Paulson (William Hurt) © 2011 HBO

William: I’d been reading about the issues for as long as it’s been going on. My friends and I talk about it. I studied economics in college, so it’s not that alien to me as a person. And we did have a couple of weeks up front to try to absorb the language. And one of the things we did was develop a glossary of terms, a list of characters’ personae, and a history of events. And we started playing with that. It’s pretty normal operating procedure for an actor.

Do you watch the financial news now with a different perspective, now that you’ve got the glossary down?

William: It’s worse. I had one friend who recommended MSNBC and all the rest of the [financial channels] and yes, you do look at it a little differently, but it hasn’t changed my own personal point-of-view very much.

Have you used news footage in any way in the film to depict President Bush or any of the real-life people that are portrayed?

Curtis: There’s a montage at the beginning of the movie and also at the end of what happened after. And throughout the movie, there are a few little montages here and there that remind us of what was going on in the country, part of which was the presidential campaign of Obama and McCain and Sarah Palin. And Bush is seen a few times.

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