Back Stage West

April 18, 2005

Not Just for Laughs

Funnyman Robin Williams expounds on playing it serious, getting the good scripts, and the two things he'll never do.

By Jenelle Riley

There are actors who are critical darlings, who are beloved even in bad films. Then there are actors who take regular lashings from the media but are adored by the public. Occasionally an actor gets lucky and achieves critical and mainstream success with a project. Robin Williams has been all three of these actors at various stages of his working life, sometimes simultaneously. It makes sense that the performer known for his schizophrenic comedy--a typical riff can veer into imitations of Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, and SpongeBob SquarePants--would have such a varied career.

There's no questioning his range: Williams has gone from standup comedian to sitcom star to filmdom's king of comedy to "serious" leading man over the course of four decades in show business. At times he has seemed invincible, with several blockbuster hits in a row. Then there are times when he can't get a break; blink-and-you'll-miss-it films such as Jakob the Liar and last year's The Final Cut came and went with little fanfare. Worse yet were the misfires such as Bicentennial Man, What Dreams May Come, and the reviled Death to Smoochy, a big-budget spectacle that earned less than $10 million at the domestic box office. Williams, so lauded for his Oscar-winning work in 1997's Good Will Hunting, became an easy target for choices viewed as pandering or sentimental. To this day he still fields criticism for films such as 1998's Patch Adams. "The thing with Patch Adams is that it was almost like a tissue rejection with some people," he says good-naturedly. "There is one critic who attacks other movies and uses it to keep coming after Patch Adams. She'll say things like, 'These people should be put on the same island with the people who made Patch Adams.'" He sounds a little amazed. "Wow," he continues. "I think a clown hurt her as a child. She was stepped on by a big shoe or something." When Back Stage West informs him that a week earlier critic Lisa Schwarzbaum took a swipe at the film in Entertainment Weekly's "Ask the Critic" column, he sighs. "What did it say?" he asks, before adding, "No, never mind."

If Williams can take the slings and arrows in stride, it might be because he's laughing all the way to the bank: Patch Adams was a runaway smash, grossing more than $100 million at the American box office. "Sometimes [press reaction] doesn't matter, if the movie does well. Your revenge is, people see it," he says. "It's hard if it's a small movie, and they're relying on reviews to get it out there." But even if a film isn't a critical or box office success, he insists he doesn't love it any less: "Oh, no. You've made films the critics have liked that made you go, 'Ohhhh....' You kind of win the lottery, and sometimes you don't."

House Party

Williams knows he's entering tricky territory with his latest film, the low-budget coming-of-age story House of D. Written and directed by David Duchovny, who also makes a brief appearance in the film, House of D tells the story of a young boy (played by Anton Yelchin) growing up in the 1970s who has to deal with the death of his father, his mother's deteriorating mental health, and his first love. He frequently seeks advice from an inmate at the Women's House of Detention, played by pop star Erykah Badu, and spends his days with his best friend, a mentally handicapped janitor named Pappass, played by Williams. With a number of movie cliches firmly in place, one can almost hear Schwarzbaum sharpening her poison pencil in anticipation, but he claims he didn't hesitate to take the role. "I'm always fascinated by these roles, because there's a lot of great personality and character to them," he says. "Plus, a lot of people haven't seen too many characters like that, with a high-functioning handicap." To play Pappass, the actor immersed himself in research, and says there was plenty of material at his disposal. In addition, he worked with Duchovny and makeup artist Cheri Minns to achieve Pappass' look. "I had fake teeth and my ears pushed forward to transform the face," he says. "There's a certain disorder where people look very elf-like, and we went with that one."

Also appearing in House of D is Williams' 15-year-old daughter, Zelda, as the love interest of Yelchin. He neither encouraged nor discouraged his daughter from going after the role. "She read and auditioned and did the whole process," he recalls. "We only discourage directors from doing it as a favor. We say, 'Only use her if you really think she fits the part.'" Zelda came across the script after he had already signed on, but he insists she is more tuned into casting calls than he is. "She keeps track of all the projects that are out there," he says. "She's online going, 'You know what they're making?' She's very much aware of all that." Although Zelda previously made a fleeting appearance as a toddler in Nine Months, House of D is her first role in a motion picture, and she delivers a sweetly natural performance. "She's really good," he says. Asked if he's concerned she'll steal the spotlight from her father, he quickly says, "Not at all. That would be great; then I could retire."

Small Wonders

Williams became involved with House of D after reading the script and being drawn to the coming-of-age story. According to the actor, it's always the written word that draws him to a project. "Always. Especially with this; it's not the money," he says. If it seems like he's been picking smaller projects lately, it's because those are the scripts that speak to him, "just because they're well-written, and there haven't been any larger movies coming through that were worth doing for me," he says. "They wanted me to do a remake of Harvey, and I went, 'I don't want to do that, no, thank you.' I don't want Jimmy Stewart coming to me in my dreams." At this point, he shifts into a perfect impersonation of the late actor. "'Wh-why'd you do it, Rob?'"

Williams also insists, over objections, that he doesn't necessarily get his first choice of scripts. "Those were the days, my child," he says, with a sigh. "Sometimes you get a script that says, 'cc: the following names.' I haven't seen a really good one in a while." And, even with his impressive résumé, he still has to audition from time to time. "It's actually good because then it's not an arranged marriage," he says.

If Williams sounds surprisingly calm, it's because he's come to accept the business side of acting. "It happens, you know," he says. "You get good [scripts], but it's also an industry geared to people in their 30s." He mentions an adaptation of Don Quixote that he and Roxanne director Fred Schepisi tried to get made. "It had John Cleese and myself, and we fought like crazy to get people to make it, and we couldn't find backing," he shares. "It was tough. It was somehow frightening to them. But they'll make Scooby-Doo 3."

Even if Williams is seen onscreen less, he's still being heard worldwide. He recently lent his voice to the animated hit Robots, an experience he enjoyed immensely. "I saw the design drawings, and I said, 'Oh, man, I've gotta do this,'" he recalls. "It's a lot of fun. It kicks brass, we should say." Unlike his manic genie in Aladdin, his robot doppelganger wasn't modeled on him, though the actor and his creation shared spiritual qualities. He says, "They just knew he'd be kind of this 'skid robot,' and that he was falling apart, which, at the age of 53, I can relate to."

Funny Business

Video stores are filled with disastrous movies in which comedians attempted to cross over into dramatic roles. It took Williams several attempts, including the underrated dramadies Moscow on the Hudson and The World According to Garp, before he found the perfect blend of comedy and drama--with 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, earning the actor his first Oscar nomination

Having won a scholarship to Juilliard, Williams was drawn to dramatic roles in school. Rumor has it that John Houseman was an early teacher who encouraged him to get into standup comedy. "Actually, he was the headmaster; he ran the school," he says, before affecting a wonderfully pompous Houseman voice. "Years later he said, 'I have to pimp old ladies for money.'" And although Houseman never encouraged him to do standup, according to Williams, the headmaster was thrilled when the young actor found an outlet for his talent. The reason Williams left Juilliard was not to do comedy; rather, it was to pursue a girl. And how did that work out? "Not very well," he replies. "Then I pursued standup as kind of a survival mechanism, because I couldn't find theatrical work. There was an improv theatre workshop and a standup comedy theatre in a small, Presbyterian coffee house. So I started working."

Williams says it wasn't until college that he discovered improvisational theatre and access to create comedy in the moment that he began to realize he had a gift for making people laugh. "I think I was closet funny," he says. "I think it was waiting, kind of gestating. Better latent than never." He began taking any opportunity to try out his brand of unfiltered, spur-of-the-moment comedy. "I had a friend who said he used to go to AA for stage time. We were all just looking for a place to perform."

An appearance on Happy Days led Williams to land his own series, Mork & Mindy, in 1978. His portrayal of a man-child alien with no apparent "off" button would become a signature role, furthering and haunting the rest of his career. In making the transition to film, he made plenty of mediocre comedies: Popeye, The Best of Times, and Club Paradise among them. But he was also savvy enough to know that a lengthy career would require him to challenge himself, and he set upon finding quirkier, more dramatic fare almost immediately. His second film was The World According to Garp, an adaptation of the slightly surreal John Irving novel that has grown into a modern classic. At the time, however, people weren't quite sure what to make of it. The same could be said of his other foray into early drama, Moscow on the Hudson. Audiences might have expected to see the actor playing a crazy Russian defector finding his way in America and instead were treated to a sweet and emotional tale of love and friendship. Even though the films weren't runaway successes, he was building up an impressive resume of directors, including Popeye's Robert Altman. "I worked with people like [Garp director] George Roy Hill and [Moscow director] Paul Mazursky," he says. "That gives you a really great running start on being able to do a lot of different things."

Dark Victories

Following the success of Good Morning, Vietnam, Williams expertly navigated comedic and dramatic roles. He followed the beloved Dead Poet's Society with the goofy Cadillac Man and then delivered perhaps the best performance of his career as a lonely doctor in Awakenings. In 1996 alone, he veered from the outrageous comedy of The Birdcage and the broad physicality of Jack to nothing short of Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

In 1997, Williams signed on for a supporting role in what was supposed to be a small independent film from two writer-actors, Good Will Hunting. The movie became a smash hit, and the role of an empathic psychiatrist was an achievement for the actor, not just because of the accolades but because it was a rare opportunity for him to completely immerse himself into a character without winking at the audience. Even in a well-crafted film such as Dead Poet's Society, there are moments in which he can't quite seem to control himself, and a bit of the standup sneaks in. His best roles are those that either allow his raging id and improv skills to take over–The Fisher King, Good Morning, Vietnam, even Mrs. Doubtfire--or those that completely restrain it and force him to become another character, as he did in Awakenings and Good Will Hunting. After four nominations, he finally won the Oscar--for his role in Good Will Hunting.

Following his victory, Williams began to explore even darker characters in less-mainstream fare. He played his first full-fledged villains, such as the obsessed photo shop employee in One Hour Photo and a serial killer in Insomnia, with chilling accuracy. He enjoyed visiting his dark side, calling it fun. "It's the only way you can do that without doing time," he says. "You can explore the darkest face of human behavior. Everyone says, 'Oh, I could kill that guy.'"

To get into the mindset of such fractured characters, Williams did an immense amount of research, reading about serial killers and watching videos. "You watch and see many times how they respond to people," he recalls. "There are the really scary ones who are blatantly, like, 'I'll kill you all!' Then there are the other ones who are so quiet. I saw an interview with an English boy who was a cannibal, kind of like the English version of Jeffrey Dahmer, and he said, 'In the movies they portray us as being very powerful, but the truth is, we're only powerful when we're doing that.' For that brief moment, they're powerful, and overcoming that sense of, 'I can't do anything but this.'"

Williams was so good at immersing himself into roles, erasing any remaining traces of his usual antics, one has to worry if he ever had trouble getting out of character. "No," he says simply. "In One Hour Photo, I would leave it behind at the end of a take, just because I don't want to be that withdrawn. It's weird, because if you stay in it, you can sometimes get almost anal in that way and too withdrawn. I would come out and riff and play a little and then come back in and be energized. I don't play Method Man. I can't do that to people. Call me by my name."

According to Williams, the secret to playing such characters is finding out what made them. For example, in Insomnia, the audience comes to feel almost sorry for the lonely, awkward writer who murders a woman after she mocks his virility. The character seems so pathetic that there's a twinge of sympathy for him. "A lot of people have said that-- and that at first they thought he didn't do it," he agrees. "Then you realize, that's kind of a sociopath and a psychopath's modus operandi: to make you [doubt]."

Williams says he doesn't set out to make villains sympathetic; he just tries to understand them. "It's just giving them a certain humanity when you see anybody," he says. "Robert Klein used to do a line saying, 'Even Hitler loved puppies. He was good with animals.' You find out what are those things. Rod Steiger said he found out about Napoleon that he wore glasses. Here's this great man; what's his weakness? His weakness was that he wore glasses, and maybe that's what his hand is holding inside the jacket."

Parting Shots

One has to wonder if there's anything else Williams wants to try after such an accomplished, varied career. He knows the two things he never wants to do: "I have no desire to direct, no desire to host the Oscars," he says. Asked why not, he replies, "Why wouldn't you want to hang-glide over the Grand Canyon? I don't know. It's a tough gig, hard to win. You push it, they say, 'He's too edgy.' You make fun of Jude Law, they go, 'Ohhh!' In a roomful of egos, there isn't a lot of room to move."

For now, he's more than content to be an actor, a profession he loves for several reasons. "The best thing is the chance to work with extraordinary people: directors, actors, and crew. You meet a lot of amazing people," he says. "And to be in locations, like shooting Good Morning, Vietnam in Thailand. All the places I've gotten to go and create different characters and personas, to come in contact with scripts like One Hour Photo and Good Will Hunting, to do animation. Having a passport to go into those places, it's really nice."

The only thing he doesn't seem to like about being an actor is the craft services. "It's all food designed to keep you jacked up," he says. "Why not just have a coke vendor? It's hard not to gain 10 pounds; it's just there whispering to you. It's like putting an M&M dispenser in a kindergarten and going, 'Why don't the kids ever take a nap?'"

Williams would caution future actors to seriously consider why they are entering such a difficult career. "I think the love of doing it has to keep you going," he says. "If you're thinking, 'I'm going to be famous'--that's always a scary thing, because that can be 10 years from now, or 20, or never. I think it's finding those things that give you joy. As a standup, there was more access for me to perform than there was in acting. There were always clubs, and even then it was still hard, because you had to get through the food chain of opening, getting a time spot, and all of that stuff."

Although he jokes about letting his daughter carry on the family business, Williams says he has never seriously considered quitting performing. "I didn't really have skills to do other things," he says. "At a certain point you realize, what can you do? I told my father I wanted to be an actor, [and] he said, 'That's great. Just have a backup profession, like welding.'" BSW