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Alan Arkin: “When did I finally come to peace with myself? About a week ago”

Catch-22 actor Alan Arkin on his youthful activism, discovering the power of meditation, and how we made his hero Jean Ronoir cry

I thought I’d be discovered by the time I was 12. My family moved to LA and I thought my life would be perfect. But nothing happened to me whatsoever. I joined organisations that hired children. I did a little theatre. I studied in school. It was my whole life. But I couldn’t get any kind of professional acknowledgement whatsoever. Failure rarely spoils a lot of kids; [if successful] they get used to having people kowtow to them and be a little bit two-faced. I think it kept my feet on the ground.

At school I did nothing but cut classes and look out the window. I just lived in my head, in my imagination. Sometimes it’s wonderful to live there. I was just pretending I was acting a lot. I’d draw and I’d be writing stories. Making up songs. All kinds of different things.

I would have done anything in the world to get away from who I was when I was younger. I didn’t like myself. I don’t think I was a bad kid but I just didn’t get any attention from anybody. I thought, as a result of that, that nobody thought much of me, so I ended up thinking not very much of myself. But not now. I have no interest in running away from myself.

Politically I stood up for a lot of the things that were dangerous

I didn’t realise it at the time but looking back, I think I had a lot of courage. Politically I stood up for a lot of the things that were dangerous. Experiencing the sharp end of McCarthyism in the 1950s sours your view of the American Dream. My father was a victim of the McCarthy period. He was a great believer in the American Constitution. He worked in the Los Angeles school system and they wanted everybody to sign a loyalty oath. He refused. He said he wouldn’t because he felt they had no right to ask him. It was none of their business. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He was not a criminal. He got fired and couldn’t get a job for 15 years. We were all kind of anxious as we had to be careful about what we said and to whom. I stuck my neck out at the risk of never working again. It felt like it was something I had to do and I was very proud of that.

I had a hit with The Banana Boat Song as part of The Tarriers in the 1950s. I thought it was a nice stopgap and it gave me enough money to coast for a few years. I thought it would help with my acting career but it didn’t do anything of the sort. So I finally quit and became an unemployed actor again.

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My big break into acting was giving up any hope of a big career in New York and moving to Chicago with a tiny improvisational group. I thought that no one was ever going to hear from me again so I’d just join this little group in Chicago and at least make a living. I did that for two years. It allowed me to ply my craft for the first time in my life. In six months, this little tiny group became nationally famous. Instead of being a stopgap it became the most important I ever did in my life.

I thought my career would solve all my problems. I would have tried very, very hard to make myself understand that the only problems that the career would solve would be the career problems. If you don’t like yourself to begin with, you’re not going to like yourself any better with money. You can only buy yourself distractions.

I had, for a couple of years, been working as a professional actor but hadn’t got an enormous amount of attention. We were playing in New York and an important critic at the time wrote a review of the show and said: “Mr Arkin is playing a different game.” He went on to describe my work in glowing terms and it was the first moment in my life where I felt I might have something really to offer. It gave me a sense that I was maybe in the right profession.

To start to appreciate myself it took a lot of therapy, a lot of meditating and a lot of working on myself. It was very, very hard. Until I was able to think I wasn’t such a bad person. When did I finally come to peace with myself? About a week ago! I didn’t discover meditating until I was in my middle 30s. I would have encouraged myself to begin that practice much, much earlier.

If you meet your heroes, don’t be afraid to make them cry. I met [director] Jean Renoir and I basically threw myself at his feet and told him how much his work meant to me and that he was a genius. I went on and on so much that he started crying. It was one of the most interesting and vivid moments of my whole life. I would have swept floors for that man.

I had a group of five friends in high school that stayed friends through college and one of them is still alive and we are still friends 65 years later. We have respected each other’s differences. That is very difficult to do sometimes. We were very politically active in those days, the two of us. My friend stayed very politically active and I have become increasingly more interested in Eastern philosophy. I am not as interested in his politics and he is not as interested in my interest in Eastern philosophy but we are still interested in each other.

I’d not change a single thing about my life. I think I am a pretty happy person. I have my wife and I have a good career. If things worked out different, I don’t know if things would be as good as they are now. So I think I’d leave everything alone. Everything has worked out pretty well. I have no complaints.

Going in Style is in cinemas from April 7

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