In the arid corridors of the United Nations, the Spanish ambassador, Inocencio Arias, is known for his bow ties, quick wit and tendency to ham it up. So it’s not surprising that he wants in on the latest spectacle unfolding at Turtle Bay: the first movie ever filmed on location at the U.N., The Interpreter , which Sydney Pollack is currently directing.
The $80 million film stars Nicole Kidman as an interpreter-from a fictitious African nation, no less!-and that up-and-coming diplomat Sean Penn as the Secret Service agent who investigates when she thinks she’s overheard an assassination plot. Mr. Arias, who is a member of the Security Council, has been in touch with the film’s producers about a role, but was told that union regulations and his lack of a work permit might cause problems, said a spokesman, Faustino Diaz Fortuny.
“He told them he was not to charge anything for his appearance,” said Mr. Fortuny. Mr. Arias, a career diplomat, is also a former executive of the soccer team Real Madrid, and has had small roles in a handful of Spanish films, Mr. Fortuny said. “Maybe they are no more interested in him.”
At a press conference at the United Nations earlier this month, Mr. Pollack said he “hoped very much” to include some real live diplomats in the film, and was discussing it with the U.N.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from the various diplomats,” Mr. Pollack said. “Not only is that better for us, more authentic, but in each case they’ll be playing who they are, so I don’t have to worry about directing actors.” At the moment, the U.N.’s office of legal affairs is looking into the possibility of diplomats doubling as actors.
How Mr. Pollack managed to convince the United Nations to allow him to film there-even Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t crack the U.N. for North by Northwest -has a lot to do with the movie’s positive portrayal of the much-derided international organization, a stance that happens to dovetail nicely with the U.N.’s desperate desire for good publicity.
At first, the U.N. turned down the request to have The Interpreter filmed onsite. But that changed when Shashi Tharoor, the U.N.’s undersecretary general of communications and public information, intervened. Mr. Tharoor also happens to have written a 1992 book on Bollywood, Show Business , and he is a regular on the Charlie Rose show, a writer of policy articles in Foreign Affairs and a speaker of perfectly formed sentences uttered in clipped British English. As part of Secretary General Kofi Annan’s inner circle, Mr. Tharoor read the script and convinced the U.N. to green-light filming.
“The story seems in so many ways to be consistent with values the U.N. stands for,” Mr. Tharoor told The Observer . He said the movie was in line with Mr. Annan’s attempts at “trying to demystify” the organization and “make it more accessible to ordinary people around the world.” Mr. Pollack, he added, is “making a thriller, and in the process he’s telling a story that will bring an awful lot of people to movie theaters around the world who might not otherwise see a movie about the U.N.”
But don’t think for a minute that The Interpreter is agitprop. Never mind that the United Nations has everything short of script control.
“Even though I’m very pro the U.N., I don’t want to make a film that looks like I’m making a propaganda film,” Mr. Pollack said at the press conference. Instead, he said, the film was “synchronous with the values of the U.N.” It would be, he said, “a film that’s very much anti the use of violence as a way of settling problems between countries.” Still, he added, “I’m sure that the U.N. would never have let me do it if I was making a film that was against the U.N.”
Which raises the thorny question, just how much control will the U.N. have?
“I promised Shashi that I will show him everything, and I want him to be happy about it,” Mr. Pollack told reporters. “I want the U.N. to be happy with it. I don’t know if that literally means veto power, or whether it means influence, or whether it means script control.” Then he corrected himself: “We can’t sign away script control-it would violate too many contracts. I have script control, the actors have approval of their parts-there’s too many people to please. But I made a promise I would not do anything that would make them unhappy.”
Mr. Tharoor piped in: “We obviously have no interest in having a film that shows the U.N. in an inaccurate or unflattering light. At the same time, we have no interest in telling Sydney how to do his thriller. So it’s more a question of there being an opportunity for the U.N. to be aware of watching the script.
“Obviously,” he continued, “if there was something so troubling that I felt we would be forced to pull the plug …. ” He paused. “But I don’t think either of us would have embarked on this expensive and complicated operation if we weren’t reasonably satisfied that both sides are approaching this in a constructive spirit and in good faith.”
The U.N. reportedly turned down the producers of A Perfect Murder , the 1998 remake of Dial M for Murder , in which Michael Douglas plays a man who arranges the murder of his wife-a U.N. interpreter played by another tall blonde, Gwyneth Paltrow.
While the producers aren’t paying to use the U.N., Mr. Pollack said they’d make a contribution to a U.N. humanitarian organization.
“I’ve made it very clear the U.N. is not for hire. I don’t want to give the impression we’re available for anybody with the right price,” Mr. Tharoor said.
Filming is taking place on nights and weekends, and the United Nations is a perfect set: Wallpaper magazine meets the C.I.A. On a recent afternoon, interracial couples canoodled over heavily subsidized food in the cafeteria as the East River and Queens beckoned through the windows. A white woman walked past wearing a turquoise sari and hiking boots. In the Delegates Lounge, staffers were gathered on low-slung mid-century modern chairs and couches arranged in conversational clusters beneath a green-hued tapestry of the Great Wall of China. Pale winter sun shone through floor-to-ceiling windows. (Mr. Pollack said they had filmed there and had had “beautiful light.”) In the bar at the end of the room, everyone was smoking beneath the no-smoking signs. After all, they have diplomatic immunity.
Abdallah Baali, the Algerian ambassador to the U.N., sat down. As the African representative to the Security Council, what did he think about Ms. Kidman playing an African?
“Oh, absolutely-she’s very African!” Mr. Baali said jokingly. In his black double-breasted suit, plum-colored shirt, shiny dark red tie and black shoes with buckles, he looked like an extra from Guys and Dolls. Perhaps he would want to appear in the movie?
“Maybe if there’s a scene between Nicole Kidman and I, then I might!” Mr. Baali said, smiling. “But I didn’t think we’re supposed to. It raises legal problems.” Arye Mekel, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, strolled past, dressed like an untenured economics professor in a rumpled shirt and forgettable tie. Would he want a role? “I don’t do cameos,” he said.
Mr. Tharoor-or “Bollywood Shashi Tharoor,” as some members of the international press are calling him behind his back-seemed enthralled by the glitter of Hollywood. Perhaps he’d be making an appearance in the film?
“No, ma’am!” Mr. Tharoor said. “My acting days are all in fact behind me.” He said he had done “an awful lot of theater” when he was at university in India. “Amusingly enough, the lady who played Cleopatra to my Antony was Mira Nair,” Mr. Tharoor said, referring to the Indian film director. “I have no desire whatsoever to confuse my role as undersecretary general of communications and public information and any thespian inclinations.” Though he didn’t have strong feelings about others appearing: “Any ambassador who wants to play a part, speaking or otherwise-that’s between him and his government and the moviemakers.
“There’s a certain amount of buzz around this movie, which is perfectly normal,” Mr. Tharoor added. “I don’t think U.N. officials and diplomats are any more immune to the attractions of Hollywood than anyone else.”
Well, some seem to be. Diana Liao, the chief of the interpretation services, said she’d turned down a role in the film.
“I thanked them profusely,” Ms. Liao said quietly. She oversees 119 interpreters and showed Ms. Kidman the ropes the other week. The actress wanted to know “what interpreters do, how do they come in, how do they dress, when they’re tired, what do we do?” Ms. Liao said. Ms. Kidman is “certainly a very popular attraction,” she added.
At the information desk, past a wall of portraits of past secretaries general woven into brown rugs, a security guard said that Ms. Kidman had to go through the metal detectors just like everyone else.
“She looks kind of like an alien,” he said. “With a tiny, thin body and a big head.”
Another guard, working outside, said that he had had his picture taken with Ms. Kidman. “That Tom Cruise is a lucky guy!” he said.
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