Henry's Crime, which opens this Friday in New York and next week in L.A., is part crime caper, part buddy movie, part romantic comedy. And part a film about theater. To gain access to a bank vault he plans to rob, Henry (Keanu Reeves) takes the part of Lopakhin in a production of The Cherry Orchard that's being staged in the theater next door to the bank. He falls in love with Julie (Vera Farmiga), the actress playing the lead role of Madame Ranevsky. Henry plans the bank heist with Max (James Caan), who was his cellmate during the one year Henry spent in prison for a bank robbery he didn't commit and has just been paroled after 23 years. They also enlist Joe (Danny Hoch), one of the robbers who framed Henry the first time around, then romanced (and impregnated) Henry's wife while he was locked up.
Not unlike the workshop process in theater, Henry's Crime went through nearly five years of development, with Reeves helping his producer friend Stephen Hamel flesh out his initial idea and staying closely involved as Hamel and screenwriter Sacha Gervasi (The Terminal) worked on the screenplay. In a description that sounds similar to the workshopping a new play goes through, Gervasi has said, "We worked in a really unique way where you're actually working on the script with the actor while he's experimenting." Hamel has also described the creation of Henry's Crime as "deeply collaborative."
At a press conference in New York earlier this week, the three stars of Henry's Crime and their director discussed making the film and portraying actors in it. "It was really liberating to play a diva and to really bitch about things," Farmiga says about her character. "I'm just grateful—it's so rare to even get the chance to do what I do in the capacity I do and be fulfilled by it. I don't have the same frustrations that she does as an actress."
Other than a college role as Nina in The Seagull, Farmiga had not acted Chekhov prior to the play-within-a-movie of Henry's Crime. "It's a tough bugger to get right, because it's about the futility and the loneliness and the frustrations of life, and that's not fun to watch," she says, noting that she was not necessarily playing a good Chekhovian actress. "My character starts off as an artist with some level of mediocrity, and as her heart opens up, she becomes more open as an artist. So there is some negotiation with the role and how adept she was at Chekhov, and hopefully there's an arc to her performance—it's more tolerable at the end."
Though his character Max is not in the Cherry Orchard cast in the film, Caan also reflected on actors at the press conference. "The one thing in my career that I've come to realize, and I'm sure of, is the most talented people are invariably the nicest," he says. "It's the people who don't have that much to give who are pains in the ass. They talk about their hair, their makeup, their trailers—it's a diversionary tactic, because they really have nothing to offer." And he gave a shout-out to one of his Godfather costars: "Robert Duvall is a guy who showed me a lot of stuff," says Caan. "He's the most giving actor off camera that I've met."
Henry's Crime takes place in Buffalo, and many exteriors were filmed there. The bank shown in the film is the actual Buffalo Savings Bank. The theater, however, is the historic Tarrytown Music Hall in Westchester County, right outside New York City. And the opening scene of Reeves at his pre-prison toll-collecting job was also shot in the NYC area—at the same toll plaza on Long Island, in fact, where Caan's famous death scene in The Godfather was filmed. Henry's Crime took Caan back to Buffalo, where his only film as a director, 1980's Hide in Plain Sight, was shot.
Asked why he hasn't helmed another movie, Caan replied, "The reason I haven't directed again is I really couldn't afford it...with four wives and five kids," says Caan, who filed for divorce from his latest wife in 2009. He then went off on a tangent: "I'm trying to pass this through Congress—you only can get married twice, then you lose your license." Caan referenced his marital turmoil at another point in the press conference when he was asked about getting into character as a longtime prison inmate. "From my point of view, we're all prisoners in some way or another. Mine is currently marriage," he quipped.
Back on the topic of Henry's Crime, Caan talked about developing his rapport with Reeves. "The good thing...is we weren't friends [before making the movie]," he says, "so everything was real and new from the beginning. I learned about him every day, he learned a little more about me every day." As for how he shaped his character, Caan explained: "When I first read it, it was more like a Woody Allen kind of character. I thought it would be more interesting if he was not that pedantic, if he was a con artist. The fun of that was, whatever baloney he told him, somehow it worked. It seemed more fun, and Malcolm was very open to it."