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Royal relevance 

The stars of All the King’s Men discuss the pertinence of their new drama. Tara Thorne listens.

The formidable cast of this year’s first major Oscar grab, All the King’s Men, stretches across a platform on the fourth floor of Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel. The line begins with Patricia Clarkson and ends with legendary producer Mike Medavoy. In between are Mark Ruffalo, Kate Winslet, writer-director Steven Zaillian, James Gandolfini and Sean Penn, who will smoke two cigarettes in 25 minutes.

In the middle is James Carville, a producer here and campaign manager to Bill Clinton. Wearing a shirt that says, “This is what a feminist looks like,” the bespectacled, balding Southerner gives better quotes than any actor near him.

“Thank God we’ve got corruption in our politicians,” he says. “The governor of Connecticut just got out of jail and the governor of Illinois is getting ready to go. I will say this in defence of my home state—we have had some crooked politicians, but at least they had the good grace to entertain us while they were stealing from us.”

Carville hails from Louisiana, where All the King’s Men’s tale of corruption is unfurled. Set in the ’50s and based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren, it follows the ascension and decline of Willie Stark (Penn), a rural Louisiana man who becomes governor of the state and soon finds his morals and ethics disappearing in the face of power. Jude Law plays newspaper reporter Jack Burden, who ends up working for Stark, as do Gandolfini and Clarkson.

Robert Rossen directed an Oscar-winning version of Warren’s novel in 1949. Zaillian (A Civil Action) has not seen it.

“I encouraged the prop people and the makeup people and everyone else on the film not to see it—I don’t like the idea of doing remakes, especially of films that are good,” says Zaillian. “I just felt this one was as relevant to today—in the 60 years since it was made, I don’t think there are a lot of people running out to see it, and I think it should be seen. And there might be some expectations or comparisons to the original film but my introduction to it and inspiration in terms of the way it looks and feels is from the original original, which is the book.”

Winslet and Ruffalo play siblings who grew up with Law and end up having their own lives touched—and ruined—by Stark.

“I truly believe that what Robert Penn Warren sets up so brilliantly in the book is absolutely true, which is that she was sort of in love with Willie,” says Winslet of her character, Anne. “I really believe that she found him utterly compelling, completely believed in everything he was saying. And also this was a woman who had her heart broken and never recovered, ever. And so she was looking to find that love again—it had been taken away from her, and she never found it and was searching everywhere. And I think she found some small part of that in having this moment with Willie Stark. The great tragedy is of her brother, who sadly believed she only did it to get him a job.”

Ruffalo’s Adam, hired by Stark to front a fake hospital operation, appears in only a handful of scenes, but his character brings the story to its climax. (We’ll give you a light spoiler alert, but it’s been out in the world for decades.)

“Here’s a guy who’s the last remnant of an aristocracy that was created in the south from having a slave culture,” he says. “And he’s part of a political legacy that is entirely bound up in his self-worth and his image of himself. And so everything about that guy has to do with the past. He’s a shadow character. I feel like they’re so anachronistic, these two”—he points to himself and Winslet—“they’re really these two lonely people from another time that’s passed them by. And Willie Stark is what the modern movement of politics and civil liberties and what would soon become American politics all over America. I had an enormous challenge to show how much it means to him that he can kill a man—this character is a man who saves people. He’s a physician. His whole life is given to saving people, and in the end I have to get to that point where I kill him.”

All the King’s Men is in theatres now.

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