“Omaha, Nebraska is a long way from Athens so we can sit at the same table,” Alexander Payne quips when he appears on my computer screen for an interview that had originally been planned when he was in Athens over the Easter holidays to visit his daughter but had to be postponed as work called him back to the US.
The Greek-American filmmaker is speaking from his hometown, where he still lives and works, and is brimming with plans for new projects, not to mention pride after finally becoming a Greek citizen earlier this year. With roots in Aigio in the Peloponnese, Syros in the Cyclades and Livadia in central Greece, I would have imagined that getting citizenship would have been easy for this second-generation Greek American, Oscar-winning scriptwriter and acclaimed director, who has worked with the likes of Jack Nicholson and George Clooney.
It appears that was not the case though. “There’s a lot of red tape involved for the descendants of Greeks to become Greek themselves,” says Payne, 61.
“Both my grandfathers were born in Greece, but to prove this I had to track down their municipal registration forms, their baptism and wedding certificates, and all sorts of other papers. My father’s father was from a small village near Aigio, Krokova, and we couldn’t find anything there, probably because all the registries were destroyed by the Germans during the occupation. So we went to Livadia, where my mother’s father came from, and made some headway there. Anyway, all’s well that ends well,” he adds, thanking Greece’s Consul General in Boston Stratos Efthymiou for helping make it happen.
“I wanted to get citizenship for a long time. I thought to myself: It would be cool to be Greek, officially, with papers. But there’s another reason now, a professional one. I want to make more films in Europe; I see my future less in America and more in different countries on the Continent, including Greece, of course. So a Greek passport is not just a matter of pride, it’s also a tool for work. I love the country of my forefathers, though in a different way to you, of course. I’ve been traveling a lot more often recently and spending more time there recently,” says Payne, whose daughter lives in Greece.
How do the Greeks seem to him now that he’s getting to know them better? “It’s in my character and my job to observe the world around me, so let’s just say that I enjoy feeling like a journalist, a travel writer, when I’m in Greece,” says Payne, who has a master’s in fine art from the University of California and studied history and Spanish literature at Stanford.
“But I have to confess that the first time I came back after I was naturalized, I felt differently somehow. I’d walk down the street and think: ‘F**k you, man, I’m Greek!’ All of us born in the diaspora and raised in the US, Canada, Germany or Australia create a hybrid identity. The important thing to me, though, is that by growing up as a Greek American I always keep my eyes open, I like to observe everything, and this has definitely influenced me as a director,” says the filmmaker, whose surname is a more inventive variation of the usual Pappas most Greeks named Papadopoulos – like his paternal grandfather – went for during anglicization.
‘If there is one thing that is true of all Greek Americans, it is that you’re not regarded as having made it professionally unless you are very widely known in America’
“It’s no surprise that most of the filmmakers who left their mark on the golden age of Hollywood were Germans, Austrians, Jews, French, Italians etc. If you manage to hang on to this sense of diversity in this patchwork called America, then you’ll have a lot to offer. To me this means being an American living in America, but still having elements that make you stand out from others. I know [former president Donald] Trump wouldn’t like this. But if there is one thing that is true of all Greek Americans it is that you’re not regarded as having made it professionally unless you are very widely known in America. Only then are they really proud of you and your success,” says Payne, whose work has reaped two Oscars (best adapted screenplay for “The Descendants” and “Sideways”) and six Golden Globes (best actor for George Clooney and best picture drama for “The Descendants,” best motion picture and best screenplay for “Sideways,” and best actor for Jack Nicholson and best screenplay for “About Schmidt”).
Payne’s first feature was the 1996 black comedy “Citizen Ruth” and an offbeat sense of humor is something that runs through all his work – not to mention his conversation.
“My mom’s side of the family had it. My two older brothers too. I was surrounded by it growing up. But laughter most certainly springs from pain, from the absence of something, Charlie Chaplin made everyone laugh by playing a homeless person,” he says.
Another motif that runs through Payne’s work is the middle-aged male screw-up, men in the grips of a midlife crisis, lonely men who are unable to communicate with the people around them.
“When I’m reading or writing a script all I tell myself is, ‘This is a good story,’ without really analyzing the characters. I am fascinated by how people overcome obstacles in life, which appear external at first but are actually internal. It’s an infernal battle. I am also interested in describing the massive difference between our dreams and our ambitions and the reality that we ultimately end up with at a mature age,” he says.
“You can’t say you’ve lived unless you’ve experienced pain,” he says enigmatically when I ask whether there’s a piece of him in these characters.
The Greeks are great fans of Payne’s work and his films invariably do well at the box office here, also because of the social issues he addresses. One of these, in “Citizen Ruth,” was the thorny subject of abortion, which has coming roaring back to the fore recently following a leaked US Supreme Court decision to restrict the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
“This story with abortions in America makes me think that it’s such a stupid country on so many issues. There are so many problems with the system, such as that a small minority can ultimately control Congress and the legislative process. My mother is nearly 100 years old and I believe that she is kept alive by her hatred of Trump and anyone who voted for him. She lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Greek Civil War, McCarthyism, Vietnam, Watergate and the fall of communism, and she still says, ‘I do not want to die with this bastard in the White House!’ She knows he’s not president anymore, but also that his ideas still resonate with American society,” says Payne.
The filmmaker rejects the label of being “political.”
“I am often told that all my films are political, but I see them as human comedies that converse with the public sphere. I like looking back to the films made in the 1970s, where even the most personal stories had a certain political element. I am certainly no Costa-Gavras, but I’m not Steven Spielberg either,” he says.
As for the future, Payne is editing his next film right now and has “three or four scripts in mind,” but has not settled on which to work.