CHUDINTERVIEW: ROBIN WILLIAMS
(HOUSE OF D)
By Devin Faraci
Robin Williams stars in the directorial debut from David Duchovny, a film called House of D about a 13 year old in Greenwich Village in the 1970s whose best friend is Pappas, a retarded man, and who gets love advice from an inmate at the Women's House of Detention (a once-famous building now quite gone). Frankly the whole thing sounded like crap, especially with Robin Williams playing the retarded best friend. I skipped the movie at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.
Now I wish I hadn't. It's a sweet and lyrical little movie filled with dozens of tiny truths that reminded me of my own New York City childhood. And Williams gives a restrained but not saccharine performance.
So that's one misconception down the tubes. The other one was that Williams would be impossible to interview. If you read Fred's interview with him at the Robots junket in LA, you would know that a lot of it comes across as nonsense - Williams' humor is very much predicated on voices and intonations. I didn't expect that the twenty minutes we spent with Williams at the House of D press day would be worth much more than some laughs. I was wrong! Williams was funny, sure, but he was also thoughtful and had a lot to say about the movie and his career.
Also, on the way up to the interview I rode in an elevator with Williams. I make a point out of not bugging the talent when they're not in the room with us - I'll have twenty minutes to annoy them to my heart's content. But he noticed that I was holding a copy of Watership Down, and after the interview he asked me if I liked it (I had read it before). That doesn't sound like a lot, but many stars of Robin Williams' level don't bother to take the time to notice other people at these junkets, which they tend to despise. To me this cinched that Williams is a good, reasonable guy - who just sometimes happens to be uncontrollably manic.
Q: How long did it take to create the Pappas character?
Williams: I just did the research about a high functioning mentally handicapped, or like he said [in the movie], "mentally challenged," or from those days: "Well, you're a tard." But there's a certain physical look. We went to that. Socially adept but intellectually and emotionally not that adept in certain situations. Intellectually about a ten or eleven year old. And physically it was like that - capable of doing manual labor and stuff. That's why I'm the brawn and Anton's [Yelchin, who plays the 13 year old main character] the brain. He's literally my mentor in certain ways.
Q: Once you were hired, was the script changed at all for you?
Williams: Not at all. Not at all. It's not a character who's going to be riffing, number one. [slowly] "And now I'd like to try a really long riff." [laughter] No. "I want to do a down riff."
Q: The scene on the balcony seemed like it was improvised.
Williams: Some, but it was more - that was all written. That was all written. "I shaved my ass once." I did it that day. I said, "Screw method acting!" "Why did you shave your ass off, Robin?" [in Pappas voice] "Becuz, it was the character and I wanted to be uncomfortable ..." No, it was lines that he [Duchovny] had written. They're all there.
Q: How did you get your daughter involved?
Williams: We were rehearsing and going through the script at the house. He still hadn't cast that part. Zelda said, "Can I read for him?" I went, "Sure." She read for him and she was so natural that he went, "I'm gonna look at other people, but I think she can do this. I'm serious." Because I was not like, "You either hire her or I'm gone." She got it on her own. She did great. The first day she was really into character. There was no moment of like, nerves. She was so relaxed. It took me years to learn what she knew the first day. So maybe genetically or whatever, she was just generally like she knew what she wanted to do. The other part was she was nice to people. There was no La Diva Loca. She was treated people with decency. Everyone said, "Your daughter's really a good actress but she's also very kind." I went, "That's a great compliment to her."
Q: Are you comfortable having your kids in the industry?
Williams: Ah! So far! Yeah. There's been no Paris Hilton videos. So far she's been - she wants to continue. We also want her to continue school. We keep saying things like, "Natalie Portman - remember that! Jodie Foster - degree!"
Q: There was kissing ...
Williams: There was kissing.
Q: Were you on set?
Williams: No, I'm not there going [waves finger] "No! None of that! You're in a meat locker! That's the only meat we'll see, right? No, no, no. Put it away. PUT IT AWAY!" [laughter] No, no, there's none. I'm not going to be there making her any more uncomfortable than it was. It's bad enough having a teamster going, "Do you need anything." I had a scene in Moscow on the Hudson and a guy showed up that day that I'd never even seen on the crew. He was like, [Bronx accent] "That's my brudder! He just wanted to know if youse needed anyt'ing in da tub." No, I would not put any more pressure on her. She did it beautifully. She and Anton both had an uptown and downtown relationship and really a kind of beautiful innocence about them. He's good. He's straight ahead good. That's why David as a director - he picked - picking people that really kind of fit it. Erykah Badu and Anton together. That's a wonderful mentoring relationship. And the House of D existed, for anybody who grew up in New York. A friend said he used to go - he and his friends would go and if you threw a pack of cigarettes up to the girls, they'd show you their tits. He was like, "It was so much cheaper than 42nd Street!" So that was part of the experience of down there, where they had jails and literally people could - there wasn't visiting hours. People just yelled back and forth. And there was a lot of people, on the weekends especially. That's why I glad we got to shoot in New York. You shoot a movie about New York in New York and it's a whole other bag. A lot of movies like this are either made in Toronto or Montreal, because they get such a huge tax break. But now thanks to local government and everybody, everyone's working together to make it happen, even for tiny movies, which is where its get. Thanks to the union and to everybody! God bless you! God bless you in the neighborhoods, too! Thanks to the people in Soho. Thanks for letting us do that, except for the one guy with the dog - fuck you!
Q: How long were you on the set?
Williams: A couple of ... I don't know. I was pretty much there most of the time. There were only a few scenes I wasn't in. It was like - we also shot in Brooklyn, too, which is great. I've never been to Fort Greene. It was good.
Q: How does the challenge of performing this kind of character compare with a straight drama like Insomnia or The Final Cut?
Williams: It's different, because once again the mental boundaries. Mmm, the straight drama ... it's still basically a drama. You give him the same dignity as you would any other - the weird thing is to try and find the humanity of a character in like Insomnia. Even the most twisted psychopath somehow has a self-image and they'll work it through. They see that. To see that's in some way kind of normal behavior coming out of people who have done pretty hideous things. In the worst case, you find a kind of a dignity. Y'know, he has a vision of himself. He has relationships. He obviously has problems with his father and that thing about - later on he's saying - after he's gone there's a positive memory even of his father, who was an alcoholic prick to him even at that time. He treated him badly.
Q: In the last scene, your character seemed to have lost all of his happiness -
Williams: Oh, I don't think he's lost his happiness. I think he's -
Q: When you first see him, before he starts talking to David Duchovny.
Williams: Oh, no. he's in a quiet mode. It's not like he's walking around going, "HI, EVERYBODY!" He's like those guys that, they'll light up when they see people they know. He lit up when he saw him, and then he said - and then he gets very talkative. If they don't see somebody, they'll be, "Getaway from me!" Because you treat him like a New Yorker. "Get out of here! Get a life! Walk away!"
Q: He seems to have lost some of his innocence. I was wondering what happened in-between-
Williams: He's also older. [Laughs] What happened? It was probably about 20 years of living. It probably - like you said, coming through and watching the whole world change. His father died and he's either living in an assisted building or living at home but probably on some sort of stipend. So he's not the same - because his best friend had gone. I think life was different - difficult for him for a while.
Q: You're getting into a lot more drama.
Williams: Because it's the only thing that's come through that's been good.
Q: Are you going to go back to doing more comedy.
Williams: I'm trying to get back into it if there are some funny ones, rather than - if they send something that was funny, I go, oh this is funny! I'd love to do that! Now this movie, the next one is R.V. with Barry Sonnenfeld. That's a comedy. There's one called Parent Wars about the desperate things that parents will do to get their kids into Pre-K. "I had to give blood!" "We're having a blood drive. Your daughter's on the waiting list." "Oh! Add another pint." [laughter] Oh man, the shit that people have done in terms of trying to get their children into any daycare, I mean ... Pre-K. It's not even a K! There are already people analyzing how kids play with blocks. "Your son's a little aggressive with the letters. I didn't really find a psychosexual moment. He keeps correcting things. That's a little Freudian."
Q: You've always come across as a very confident performer, but has doing roles like Insomnia made you any more confident?
Williams: No. I mean, it's more - age makes you more confident when you realize it's time now to do things that - there's not the pressure to perform on some level of expectation. It's more just to explore. You know, maybe that's the confidence. There's no expectation on that level, because you're kind of working outside the radar. When you're doing big blockbuster movie, there's a huge - I mean, you're on the radar constantly. In this way, you're outside and you can come in and - I remember with One Hour Photo I got - you know, there was a great compliment when this hardcore homeboy came up and said, "You scared me, mothafucka!" [Laughter] I hope I didn't! It would be nice to get prison fan-mail. But it is that way. No, it's not more confidence. You're just more relaxed and more - you realize that you're a character actor and it's a whole different bag.
Q: You have to find something different with Pappas, because we've seen so many mentally challenged characters.
Williams: Yeah, that's why I kind of went with a physical look, a whole different look. You know, you had Sean [Penn] doing that one character. You've had a lot of people, and they have also had movies with the real people. This is a very specific film, so you want to try and find a range that you haven't seen in most people. People who know, will go, "I know what that is." And other people who kind of look around and go, "Oh, that's different -" I mean, that's functioning that he's - he's very verbal. But he's ... slow? With certain things. But he's able to understand and pick up what's going on emotionally. But it's an arrested development at a certain stage. About 11, 10 maybe. That's why when he starts to see Anton, it's like a little brother seeing an older brother start to have girlfriends. It's like, "No, that's bad. It's not good. I'll mess it up if I can.">
Q: There's been talk about a Mrs. Doubtfire sequel. Do you know where it's coming from?
Williams: It's coming from a studio somewhere, I think. [Laughter]
Q: Would you do it?
Williams: If it's good, I'll do it. If it isn't good, it's not worth doing.
Q: Because they couldn't do it without you.
Williams: They could, but it would be another man in drag - Mrs. Don'tshoot! [laughter] I don't know. I mean, it has to be good. It isn't worth going back. They talked about doing a Birdcage 2. It's like, No. They did two or three La Cage Aux Folles. Two of them were good, and one was really strange. But if they right a good one, they'll be great. But not in any - there's no financial - maybe that's also it. There's no financial pressure to. "I better put that one out now! We've stashed enough coin, we can relax."
Q: There was a story on the AP wire last week about Oscar hosts. You were on their shortlist.
Williams: I would never do it. Oh man, no. It's like I'm their worst nightmare. They literally had me one year on a seven second delay. That was from the moment I walked in the building! No. There are people who can do it and obviously do it wonderfully, and you know ... it's a tough night, man. The moment you look out - One year I was just presenting and Gregory Peck said [in Gregory Peck voice] "You're not going to grab your penis, are you? I hope you don't. It's a big night." Laurence Olivier was like, "You're not wearing makeup are you?" "No." "You're not dating Danny Kaye are you?" It's a whole other game to host it. Because after the first ten minutes, people get pissed. The number of losers dramatically increases and they do have an open bar, unlike the Golden Globes. I mean, the Golden Globe does have an open bar, but in the Oscars people have to kind of leave. And if you notice this year, it's kind of like a game show. It's kind of like The Price is Right. COME ON DOWN! You, dressed as a Zucchini, you got the Academy Award. Let's make a deal! It's kind of surreal. The best part of that whole show is after all the people who'd lost, you know, they'd brought them all up and one would stay. They were all back stage saying, Email me! Call me! Kind of networking backstage. That was like, put a camera here! This is the future of showbiz. Put an award in the middle of the stage and the first one there who can keep it for more than three seconds - make it like a reality show. Have them crawl across a pit of agents. You have to get through the agents, all of them taking ten percent. No, I would never host. No, no, no. Wrong person. Who else is on that list?
Q: Even if offered?
Williams: No, even if offered. They have offered and I've went "No thank you." They don't pay anyway. It's a tough gig. People who have done it - I know friends, they start preparing three months in advance.
Q: That's what the story is about. They're looking for a host already.
Williams: [Whistles] Already? It's like a new relief pitcher. Even Chris, you come out and fire hard and then you got to get through another three hours of, "And now ... the Irving Thalberg Award." I always wonder if there are people in China going, "Wake up. The Irving Thalberg Award is soon. Fuck actor. I wait for technical award. I want to see Best Sound Editing. All the time I wait for Best Sound Editing. I know who Brad Pitt is. I no need see him!"
Q: How as a director did David Duchovny compare with the others that you've worked with?
Williams: He compares with any of them.
Q: What did he do differently from the rest?
Williams: He talked to himself. [Laughter] I saw it from him. I've only worked with a few people. I've never. I don't think anybody else acted and directed and the same time. No, that was the hardest part. I never saw that before and I saw how hard it is. I'd be in scenes with him and you'd literally see him go, "Did I do that?" or "Did I do that well?" I go, "I'm playing retarded. I can't tell. I think you did okay, but I would look at the playback if I were you." But that was the only hard part. But other than that, I think he's got great potential and first film, first script, he's done a good job. As a writer, I think he's very good. As an actor he's good, too. But as an actor/director, I think there's - it's a hard part.
Q: Is directing anything you've had an interest in?
Wiliams: No, not at all. Because, as Peter Weir once said, he said, "You know, there are people who direct and then he starts seeing all these people who've acted and directed and he said, "I've always wanted to be a director but if there's a plumber, I don't want to be a plumber." I don't know how that fits in with the whole question, but I don't ever want to direct! I realize there are people who do and have made the jump.
Q: Are you surprised by your career?
Williams: Yes, I'm always surprised. I'm surprised I'm still working, because it's been a real interesting ride, but I'm [in the] black where it's at right now because I get to do interesting things and not be - there's no pressure. Maybe that's what, there's no ...
Q: Was there a time when you did feel pressure?
Williams: Oh, there's a pressure. There's some when you're doing big budget movies. And then when you don't, when you start falling off that list, you're in that most powerful 100 and then all of a sudden people are - and then it's like, I'm not even in the forward!
Q: What have you got coming up?
Williams: I have the movie called The Big White that was done up in Alaska. That's wrapped. There's a cartoon I've done with George Miller, it's a computer animation more than a cartoon called Happy Feet, about penguins. I play five or six characters in that. Now it's down to five. One of them sounded too similar. Then there's movie The Night Listener I'm shooting right now, based on a New Yorker piece and then a book that Armistead Maupin wrote. But that's pretty much it for a while.
Q: What's The Big White?
Williams: It's basically about a guy who tries to defraud an insurance company by finding a body and his brother has been missing for four years, and he finds a body. Actually, he kind of happens on it and then he takes it out in the foods and lets the animals maul it and then - it's a nice enough idea on the surface, but they think it's his brother and there's no genetic - they have no ID on his brother, and the insurance company's gonna come out and do this and it's a real scam to try and pull that off, but everything screws up.
Q: What's the first film you can remember seeing that made a big impression on you?
Williams: 2001. My father - I remember seeing it with my parents in the theatre and just being like this [slack-jawed]. In Cinerama. With the Cinerama experience, you don't need acid. It was just like duh-duh-duh. It knocked me out. It was like here it was and like you said, it was this weird - Cinerama was No. 1, but No. 2, it's science fiction, which I'm massively addicted to and I think it's just the idea that it's Kubrick, too. It's so surreal and it's just like, "What was that? What's the baby?"
Q: Do you have any idea what it's about now?
Williams: I do after reading all the books, yeah. I mean, you realize with the books that that was his whole evolutionary step and you read the books and you really go, Oh! Finally! [laughs] You read about that there are creatures that came that were their guardians that looked demons that came and basically gathered up all these children and they form, and suddenly the children break away and they're kind of special children and they break away and they suddenly start to evolve and they become almost like an army, and then they leave as the next developed species. I think that's the end of Childhood's End, the species.
Q: The movie was originally supposed to end with the child destroying the world.
Williams: Wow. Even Kubrick went, "the [test screening] cards aren't good."
Q: Did you see the Mork & Mindy TV movie?
Q: Did that piss you off?
Williams: Piss me off? No. The thing is, you have no control over it. I mean, when they're making a bad movie of your life, you go, Okay, I guess I'll wait and see it on the Cartoon Network. You hear they're doing it. I was in Vancouver for a benefit. They said, "Do you want to go visit the set?" "Not really. Do I want to go see someone play a drunken me? I'm okay with that." They don't ask for legal consent. They know they're off the radar with that. It's pretty much a work of fiction. I remember Pam called and said, "Do you know about this?" I said, [in Edward G. Robinson voice] "Yeah, do you wanna go get them! I'M HERE YOU FUCKERS!" It wasn't like that. [whispers] Pam and I had a great sense of rapport.