TIME INTERVIEW: Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, and Sydney Pollack

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New York – Sydney Pollack is known for directing intelligent thrillers (The Firm) and intelligent actors (Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep). His newest film, The Interpreter, pairs Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn in the first movie ever shot inside the U.N.’s New York City headquarters. TIME’s Josh Tyrangiel sat down with Kidman, Penn and Pollack to discuss Kofi Annan, Chris Rock and Princess Leia—and to hear Penn dispense a surprising number of Borscht-Belt-or-better-quality one-liners. Excerps from the interview are below.

TIME: ALFRED HITCHCOCK WAS FAMOUSLY DENIED PERMISSION TO SHOOT NORTH BY NORTHWEST IN THE U.N. WHAT POWERS OF PERSUASION DO YOU HAVE THAT HE DIDN’T?

SYDNEY POLLACK: I’m sure if Hitchcock were alive today, he’d be shooting at the U.N. It was time, honestly, more than anything else. We came at a moment when they were interested in opening up, and we came with good credentials, two terrific actors whose politics were known to the U.N. They were comfortable that we weren’t going to make a picture where people were getting it on on the floor of the General Assembly.

I was desperate to get the building—the movie would have been a fiasco without it—but also desperate not to be a used-car salesman. I met with Kofi Annan and said, “I wish I could tell you we’re going to make this great message movie for the U.N., but we’re not. It’s a thriller. It’s sympathetic to the U.N.’s goals, but it’s not a preaching piece about politics.”

PENN: We shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that the U.N. came strictly because Nicole was in the picture, and they wanted to meet her.

POLLACK: We did hear a lot of that.

PENN: But whether or not Sydney was doing a dog-and-pony show at the U.N., I guarantee you he was relentless. It drives you crazy, but he gets what he wants.

NICOLE KIDMAN: Yes, and that’s a good thing for a director. You prefer someone who’ll tell you what he wants and get in your face rather than sit back and be on the cell phone between takes.

TIME: WHEN YOU’RE THROWN TOGETHER WITH ANOTHER ACTOR, IS IT POSSIBLE TO KNOW BEFOREHAND IF YOU’LL HAVE CHEMISTRY?

PENN: This is a myth of people who write about film—who has chemistry together, who doesn’t. It’s just a function of timing and circumstance, nothing more.

KIDMAN: I knew that Sean was fascinating, and that’s an important thing with me. If I’m bored with the person I’m working with, that will probably come across. I need to be fascinated. PENN: I want examples of the nonfascinating ones.

KIDMAN: No, no, no.

TIME: IS IT EASIER OR HARDER TO BE FASCINATED WHEN YOU’RE ACTING OPPOSITE YOUR SPOUSE?

KIDMAN: That could get me into some dangerous territory. When you’re working with your spouse, with your husband, you bring so much baggage to a film. It can work, but not if the characters are meant to be yearning for each other and never get together. Then you’re up against something insurmountable.

TIME: WHEN DID YOU TWO FIRST MEET?

PENN: I sent you that note first ’cause I thought you were so great in that movie Buck Henry wrote (To Die For).

KIDMAN: That’s right. You sent me a telegram, actually. But we met at a party. Whose party was it?

PENN: It was Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher’s) party, wasn’t it?

KIDMAN: After To Die For, he sent me a lovely telegram, and to get that kind of encouragement early on in your career gives you much more confidence to do things that are unusual or a little bold or offbeat. The thing about Sean is that he has an incredibly generous spirit in terms of other people’s work, particularly actors.

TIME: YOU DEFENDED JUDE LAW’S HONOR WHEN CHRIS ROCK MADE FUN OF HIM AT THE OSCARS ...

KIDMAN: Another perfect example.

TIME: DOES IT BOTHER YOU THAT YOU OFTEN COME ACROSS AS HUMORLESS IN PUBLIC?

PENN: No, I tell you what bothers me. I saw that part on television from my hotel room before I got there, and the problem was that this f__ing punk town that we work in, nobody in that f__ing place booed the dumb joke. Chris Rock’s really funny and talented, and in a three-hour set you’re allowed to make bad jokes, but the audience should respond. Instead, it’s just a bunch of schadenfreude-ists sitting there wanting Jude’s parts and looks.

TIME: BUT YOU DIDN’T EXACTLY RESPOND WITH HUMOR.

PENN: I don’t think you lack a sense of humor when you don’t laugh at something that’s not funny. The whole premise of the thing, it seems to me—and I’m gonna analyze it for a second because I’m having fun—is almost like, What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? What’s so funny about pursuing excellence? Why is it that on the show that aspires to celebrate excellence, a fantastic actor has to be used as a punch line? Everybody was uncomfortable with the thing, and (exhales in mock seriousness) I guess it’s my position, when I do come down here (to Los Angeles), to be completely devoid of humor. (All laugh) God knows, somebody’s got to do it. But bottom line: I didn’t think it was funny.

KIDMAN: Neither did I. I laughed at other things Chris Rock said. Just not that.

TIME: SEAN, YOU GOT TO GO TO SECRET-SERVICE SCHOOL TO PREP FOR YOUR ROLE. WHAT DID YOU LEARN?

POLLACK: Oh, he was like a kid.

PENN: It wasn’t that they were teaching me so much as I was there to see what they get taught. They’re very impressive guys. You never know how these things affect a performance. You just try to have it at your service when you need it, if things come up when you’re shooting.

TIME: COULD YOU PROTECT THE PRESIDENT? WOULD YOU?

PENN: (Laughs) Uh, I would protect the Constitution.

TIME: DID YOU FEEL VINDICATED AFTER NO WMD WERE FOUND IN IRAQ?

PENN: Well, we’re talking about something that in the end is just really sad. So, no, not vindicated. It should just be pointed out that the information to avoid a war was there—and, by the way, that’s because the U.N. people were exactly right. Anybody who was willing to pay attention could have seen it was very unlikely that weapons of mass destruction were still in that country.

TIME: YOU MADE TWO TRIPS TO IRAQ BEFORE THE WAR, AND WHEN YOU WERE IN YOUR 20s, YOU VACATIONED IN BELFAST IN THE MIDST OF THE TROUBLES. MIGHT IT BE SAID THAT YOU ENJOY CONFLICT?

PENN: No. It can be said that actors are interested in people, and you will find the warmest, strongest people in places going through conflict. Any war zone—Belfast, Baghdad, anywhere—these are places that can get you over yourself pretty good. And I need a dose of that. I’m probably drawn to it for that reason.

The full story will appear on TIME.com Sunday at 6pm EST.

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