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“Deterrence”: Kevin Pollak Interview

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 10, 2000 — Being serious is nothing new for former stand-up comedian Kevin Pollak. After all, he sneered at Keyser Söze in “The Usual Suspects” and shouted down Demi Moore in “A Few Good Men.”

But after a career filled with funny sidekicks (“End of Days”) and sweet relatives (“She’s All That,” “Grumpy Old Men,”) Pollak will take the lead in Rod Lurie’s political thriller “Deterrence.” And there’s no bigger lead than the president of the United States.

Set in 2008, Pollak plays the inexperienced Walter Emerson, serving as president after his predecessor dies in office. During a re-election campaign, Emerson and his staff are stranded in a snowstorm and take shelter in a roadside diner. An Iraqi dictator stages a surprise invasion of Kuwait and stands poised to launch missiles on Israel, Greece and Turkey. But with nearly all U.S. troops amassed in Asia working to avoid warfare between North and South Korea, Emerson must decide a course of action — and fast.

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Using only the diner’s meager capabilities, Emerson and staff set up a communication link. He goes on television to announce that if Iraq does not withdraw from Kuwait and remove its missiles, the United States will order a nuclear bomb dropped on Baghdad. The announcement shocks everyone, particularly his staff, which includes the national security adviser (Sheryl Lee Ralph) and chief of staff (Timothy Hutton).

“I think what he does is unthinkable,” Pollak says of his character. “He crosses the line of what is plausible, what is unthinkable, what is explainable. To tell that story, you have to get evil with those who disagree with him. You have to let both sides of the debate rage on afterwards.”

And debate they do, everything from Emerson’s motives (he’s Jewish, which could spin the threat into a holy war) to his credibility (he’s only been in office four months). The military, the staff, the citizens in the diner and even Emerson’s wife doubt his decisions.

“The only way you’d know he was president is he has the presidential seal on his jacket and everyone calls him the president,” Pollak says. “Otherwise, he’s just a putz in a jacket.”

Playing a flawed president is nothing new in Hollywood — or Washington D.C, for that matter — but Pollak didn’t look to any past or present commander-in-chiefs to find his character.

“I’m not real good on the research,” he says. “The story that I have to tell is in the script. If I’m portraying a policeman, I don’t need to drive around with a policeman. … If I have anything to offer as an actor, it’s only my ability to make the person real. … But you get the sense that that’s a real guy, not an actor pretending. I don’t ever want to get caught acting. To me research suggests there’s acting later.”

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But stepping into the presidential shoes is still a “rite of passage” for American actors, says director Lurie, who also wrote the film. “I think when most actors are offered the role of the presidents, they immediately say yes, then maybe say no after,” Lurie says.

In this case, Pollak agreeing to play the president was the reason Lurie, a former film critic, got “Deterrence,” his first feature film, off the ground.

“I put this film together backwards. I went to the financier and asked if they would finance a film with Kevin in it,” Lurie says. “Then I knew that I had a movie. I just had to get Kevin to say yes. I wasn’t gonna put Kevin in an ensemble or make him somebody’s brother or father or sidekick.”

Filling the lead role took Pollak’s approval ratings to a new high, at least in the eyes of his director. “I think that Kevin’s greatest achievement in this film is becoming presidential before our eyes. He begins as somebody you look at and say ‘not a chance’ and by the end of the film, he’s made presidential decisions. He’s made them with credibility. And I personally think the best job of acting that Kevin’s ever done in his life is the speech he gives at the end of the film. It’s very, very real.”

So real that the commander-in-chief character translates off-screen?

“No,” Pollak replies. “[At home,] my wife is the president and the first lady. I’m like the secretary of the exterior.”

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“Deterrence,” released by Paramount Classics, opens March 10.

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