Space Love

Shandling's "What Planet Are You From?" navigates human relationships

by Alicia Potter

Shandling plays an alien from an all-male planet.

In "What Planet Are You From?", which opens next Friday, comedian Garry Shandling plays Harold, an inhabitant of an all-male planet who's shuttled to Phoenix, Arizona, to impregnate a woman. He's given two days. But the mission turns to mayhem when women flee from this alien.

Shandling's pet project—the flounder-lipped comedian also wrote and produced the film—works to orbit some decidedly earthbound territory: the me-Mars, you-Venus take on the mating game. He struck upon the idea of the outré E.T. while starring in The Larry Sanders Show, his long-running, unabashedly autobiographical series on HBO.

"I wanted to play a different kind of character than Larry Sanders and what jumped into my head was an alien from another planet," he says. "The irony, of course, was the more I got into it, the more I realized we're all aliens."

Musing about Relationships

It's an observation that got the film's cast and crew musing freely about their own relationships. Academy Award-nominee Annette Bening, who plays Harold's mate of choice and who is now, ironically enough, eight months' pregnant with her and husband Warren Beatty's fourth child, revealed, "I know in my life, in the relationships I've had, the longer I'm with someone the more I realize how different we are."

Annette Bening as Shandling's earthly love interest.

"But," Bening continued, "if you share the same desire in terms of life, that's really the determining factor. It isn't a question of becoming more alike that makes for a loving, satisfying relationship; it's about being able to tolerate and celebrate the other person's differences."

Director Mike Nichols, who helmed 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1967's The Graduate and 1971's Carnal Knowledge— also proffered an example from his own life (he's married to TV journalist Diane Sawyer). "The thing I always say about my wife and me is that if you wake me up in the middle of the night I'll say, 'Who the hell is it? What do you want?'" he explained. "But if you wake my wife up in the middle of the night she'll say, 'Are you all right?"

Stuck Between the Script and a Hard Place

But never mind men and women: Early reports from the set hinted at divorce-worthy tension between the opinionated director and his famously neurotic star. Shandling, who appeared in last year's film adaptation of Hurlyburly, admits he had some lessons to learn.

"We had to sort out the way I was used to working, which was improvisational, and the way he was used to working, which was to stick to the script and to the emotional arc," he says. "But after the first couple of weeks until the end, we were laughing very hard together ... I think he was right to hold me to a line, and I think it helped my work."

It was another story altogether for long-time friends Bening and Shandling. "I told her we should start practicing the love scenes years before we'd ever shoot it," the comic deadpanned. "She said okay. Warren wasn't too happy about that but we're professionals. We convinced him of that."

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