Little White Lies Interview ::: Robin Williams

Originally published on September 29, 2010 | Little White Lies | written by Ellen E Jones

The legendary comedian and man of a thousand silly voices talks about his sweet and sensitive new film, World's Greatest Dad.

Robin Williams, Oscar-winning actor and man of a thousand silly voices, has a new film out; the shocking yet sensitive comedy, World's Greatest Dad - and it's his best, most challenging work for decades. LWLies sat down with a very funny and refreshingly candid Williams to find out why he hasn't made more like it.

LWLies: Can you tell us the story of your friendship with [director of World's Greatest Dad] Bobcat?
Williams: It started off 30 years ago, I saw him perform at a little club in San Francisco, he was still doing that character that was in Police Academy [does impression] and I think he thought I was afraid that that's him. I kind of approached him afterwards and said, 'Hey, that was really good.' And I think he thought I was like going, 'You're not going to hurt me are you?' But then I realised that's a character and right off the bat, I went, 'That's a stage persona; this is you.' and he went 'Yeah.' Cos I'd known Andy Kaufman and only once did Andy ever talk to me as Andy. Andy was always [does impression], 'Thank you Robin, nice to see you, good to have you around.' But right off the bat, with Bobcat - I thought he was really funny - but also underneath, even with the stuff he was performing with that character, it was obvious he was a great writer. I could see that the comedy underneath it, was really good.

So you initially read the script just as a friend?
I read it to say, 'Look, let me see if I can help get this made for you.' Because when he did Shakes the Clown, I played Jerry the Mime as a favour, and it was like let me see what I can play... and then I thought, 'No, this is really good.'

What part were you most apprehensive about playing when you read the script?
Dealing with the loss of a child. I can't imagine... so that's kind of difficult to think of. But the script was fearless and we had to go that way. You can't be glib about it. You can't be like, 'Hey, my kid was a prick. He's dead. So what?' You can't go that way.

There are so many different tones in that scene, like when you see him deciding he's going to cover up the death of his kid...
Yeah and clean up after his kid. And try and y'know...even the idea of zipping up his fly and putting away every bit of evidence, it's like, 'Okay, how we gonna deal with this, coach?'

So that must have been kind of difficult...
Brutal. And that weird thing of like, what would you have to do? Like Bob said, the other night his daughter started talking about her sex life and he said it almost triggered a heart attack. And it was like, the idea of having to deal with that part of your son, it's like, I know it exists, but having to deal with it that graphically, is like 'Oh, dude....'

We're big Bobcat Goldthwaite fans.
Oh bless you.

And one of the things we like about him is he's good at turning weird taboo subjects into comedy.
Well look at Sleeping Dogs Lie. Except this is kind of the flipside of that film. Sleeping Dogs Lie is about how truth may not be the best thing. Total disclosure may not be the best thing. That idea in a relationship of 'Tell me everything about yourself,' may not be the best thing for a relationship. In this one, in the end, it's the only thing that's real. The guy is saying I've got to come out and say the honest thing about this one.

As a comedian are there any subjects that you consider taboo, not for comedy?
The moment you say that, someone will come along and do it brilliantly, so I don't know. I mean, because I'm more kind of tentative about it, I'll think, 'Oh, I can't say that,' and then someone will talk about it honestly and, usually because it's something they've been through, they can get away with and talk about it from their perspective. But things I don't talk about... I don't know... my own life? I don't talk about my own life. It's not really personal per se, for me, and there's other people where that's their entire act. I have a friend who's a comic who talks about how dysfunctional his marriage is and his wife is there in the audience every night. I'm like 'How do you do that?!' Yeah, but it's like... yeah there are subjects, and I'm going to have to say for me, it's my own life, I don't talk about that very much.

Were you ever worried, while you were making this film, that there might be some strong, negative reactions to it, because of the content?
I thought that people would be like, 'How dare you talk about auto-erotic asphyxiation and make light of it?' But who's making light of it? He doesn't say it like, 'Hey kids... try this!' Does it happen? Are there kids who die from that? Yeah. Even when my character's motivation, initially, is not, like, making this great statement, he does what he does basically to eulogise his son, like, 'I want him to be remembered like this.' It's interesting territory. People say, 'Why wasn't the movie better received in America?' It's because it's a hard sell. You can't name the movie 'Well-hung Boy'. How do you get around that?

Did anybody tell you not to do it?
No. I think my manager said 'Hmmm, well this is interesting...' and I went, 'Yep!' But he also knew that I hadn't read anything this well-written in a while, that it wasn't coming in. So I said, 'I'm not working right now, let's try it.'

Journalists often describe One Hour Photo as a turning point in your career. Is that how you feel?
No. That wasn't for me a turning point, exactly. It's almost like a wave motion, like a sine wave. There's great ups and great downs. The weird thing is to try and look at it and go, 'Okay...', not to level it out as one way or the other. But with One Hour Photo, all that did was kind of open up the idea of playing... he's not even a villain, but just this dark subject matter combined with a really strange character.

Were you looking for something like that before you found it?
Totally.

And what prompted that search?
The idea of changing people's perceptions of me, but also just as an actor. I'd done it in a very small movie called The Secret Agent, where I played this chemist and to play something that kind of - he really was evil on that level, his thing was the bomb - and to play those characters is very freeing. It's the idea of exploring behaviour you'd ordinarily have to do prison time for.

Can you remember why you were looking for a challenge at that time, though?
Totally, I think I was just thinking, I can't keep playing the same parts, number one. Number two, kind of reinventing yourself is just... because at that time things were starting to feel limiting. You just play nice guys, the kind of man-child character? No. You've got to break out of that, otherwise you're doomed.

When you're looking at scripts and deciding what to make, is the idea of changing people's perception of who Robin Williams is something that enters into your decision making?
The idea is just to keep working. Just to keep working. People say, 'Why did you make Old Dogs?' Because it pays the bills. You're just out of rehab. Good luck. You've got to get out there and it was also a chance to work with John [Travolta], who I admire and we had a good time and it was made to be a family comedy, it was meant to be something to take your kid to and have a good. But the idea of those movies is pay the bills and the there's other movies, like Bob's movies. Do those pay the bills? No. Will it have an audience? God, I hope. But does it change people's perceptions? The few who see it maybe, but that's the idea?

So would you say that something like World's Greatest Dad is the the challenging stuff, and then you return to your comfort zone when you do the family movies and comedies?
It's not even a comfort zone. I'm more comfortable doing this movie with Bob than the other ones, because on those ones there's a pressure. The movie has to do a certain number for it to be okay. And when it came out, it did a certain number and then it didn't so it's like 'Well, that one didn't work.' But the people who saw it had a good time. Then you realise there's this expectation and it's financial. With this movie, it's made for so little that you're freed from that financial expectation, which is nice. It kind of allows you to just do the work. Then you're freed up to think about what you're doing and you're basically making a movie that you want to make versus going 'This is going to do really well, pleeeease.' Bob said 'I have no illusion that this will open the door.' But in a weird way, it has. It's allowed him hopefully to make the next movie. And that's cool.

So you do think about whether things are going to make money when you choose scripts?
Oh you do when you're paid a certain salary and you just hope for the company itself. You're thinking, 'I hope you get your investment back.' With this one, I'm not worried. One Hour Photo which in a weird way did really well, I had no idea that people would go see it, so I just went, 'Hey, good news!'

So this isn't another change of direction for you?
Change of direction! [puts on movie trailer voice] He's going dark! Deeply dark! He's doing crazy! No, I'm just still up for doing all types of movies, a movie like this or if there's another...ostensibly I'm a character actor. The uncle? Play the crazy uncle? Sure, done it. The alcoholic friend? Okay, if you need me. The Boston guy [breaks into Boston accent] sure, done that, right there. A Scorsese movie...

We love a Boston accent.
[continues in accent] Yeah, it's wicked-pisser good. Those guys right there. It's standard in movies now. What you gonna do? Boston film. Who you gonna get? Marky Mark? Yeah, Mark Wahlberg, he came from there. Don't fucking start. Leonardo? Fucking do it. Do it twice, then do the second one. Do Shutter Island, you want to do the Boston accent. Yeah go there again, go one more time.

Can you do impressions of people you meet, just like that?
No, not very well. There's a few, but most of the time they're good friends. A friend of mine did Sean Connery in front of Sean Connery and Sean got really angry like [does Sean Connery impression] 'Stop! Don't do that. I'll fuck you up.'

We heard Sean Connery say 'sausages' once. It was a wonderful moment.
Schoshausages! Or Michael Caine, [breaks into a Michael Caine impression].'Have you met my wife Shakira, Robin? Remember Robin, don't always look into the camera, leave one eye away.'

Perfect. Do you have any unfulfilled career ambitions?
Musicals.

Really!?
No. I've done musicals in cartoons twice, so... no. Films I'd like to make? I don't know. There was this great movie that never got made, I don't know why they didn't make it. It was about Freud and Jung which sounds like a soap opera, but to play Freud... and Freud and Jung's relationship. It was all based around this one woman who was one of their patients that Jung ended up having an affair with and Freud, years later I think, was very bitter about that and they asked him 'What do you think of C G Jung?' 'He's meshuga.' But around unfulfilled fantasies... I get to fulfil a lot of them, especially in animation and now with the CGI stuff being to amazing. To create some incredible CGI character would be cool.

You think of big name actors doing animation as the easy stuff that you just do for the pay cheque...
You do it for the pay cheque, but also you do it if you love animation. Because it's really fun, I mean where else can you play a penguin that dances to Barry White?

Mrs. Doubtfire is still massively popular. How do you feel about that movie now?
It was a sweet movie. She's a great character. That was the weird thing the make up allowed me to...that's kind of wonderful now... the make up has gotten great, but the CGI allows you to do stuff that's just wild.

Any hope of a sequel?
They tried. But at the end of the first movie they revealed the identity, so anytime you tried to make a second move, you end up starting up as Mrs. Doubtfire. How could he carry on playing her? We tried one where they went to the east coast and he became this other kind of Eastern European version of Mrs. Doubtfire. She bcame like this [does Eastern European-meets-Scottish accent] 'I take care of children, but the boys are bad boys.' Y'know. But it never worked, they couldn't pull it off. But we tried.

Do you have any favourite films for kids or films that meant a lot to you.
Besides the Wizard of Oz which meant a lot to me, I didn't see a lot growing up. But the Wizard of Oz meant a lot to me and living in San Francisco it's like a documentary - a girl with a good pair of shoes can go a long way. The weird family movie that I saw, it wasn't even a family movie, but the movie I remember seeing vividly with my father was 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's interesting, I once watched Aladdin, I snuck into the back of a family screening of that and it was kind of like that moment in Sullivan's Travels where I saw parents just laughing with their kids and I though, 'Yeah, that's kind of sweet.' I'm proud of that.

That's the holy grail...
Yeah and recently I was watching How to Train Your Dragon with my girlfriend's son and they were laughing their asses off and I thought. Yeah, that's a good sign.

What was it about 2001 that you liked? I was just struck by, well HAL more than anything. The greatest A.I. ever created. Just the fact that it would be able to talk about things like that [does terrifyingly accurate HAL impression]. And I realised later on when I read about it that Kubrick decided to make the voice sound almost feminine and that became the standard voice for everything. Do you understand, Dave?

You're scaring us now.
[continues in HAL voice] Oh, it is scary. I saw what you were doing, Dave. Do you realise that I saw that? I've come up with a formula to make money off of mortgage debt. Does that seem fair, Dave? It's like total greed. Let's see what happens...

Is it true that it was your idea to go nude in the final scene of World's Greatest Dad?
Yes. It came from a deep-seated desire to be nude. No, initially he was just going to run down the hall and jump into the pool and I thought, well at this point, he's pretty much shedding everything, he's blown his career, all friends and family have gone, 'Well, fuck off.' It's almost the flip side of the break down at the TV station. It's like, 'That's it, I'm free.' Literally. And what's more freeing than that idea of nudity? My favourite scene in...I forget the name of that movie where's he's standing outside of a mental asylum with a birdcage totally naked [King of Hearts]. Alan Bates. But that weird thing of where you talk to people, and they go I'm free and they're totally naked. And then Bob says, 'Okay, let's try it.'

Is this your first nude scene in a movie?
No, there was that one in The Fisher King where I was nude in Central Park but, thank God, it was a cold night. And I had to shave for it, because otherwise people go like, 'What is it? Big foot?' Bob looked at the pool and said, 'We lost a bear in here.'

But it wasn't weird or uncomfortable for you?
It's okay because it was a closed set. Bob even got nude too. He said because it was hot in there, but I don't know...

Out of solidarity?
Yes! My man! Years ago, there was some scene where everyone took off their clothes because there was an actress who was very uncomfortable and everyone took of their clothes and she went 'Fine. Get dressed. I get it and I can do it.'

There's been some comments on the parallels between Lance in World's Greatest Dad and your character in Dead Poet's Society.
No, it would be like the flipside. They're total opposites. Dead Poets' Mr Keating is a really inspirational teacher. Lance is just barely holding his own.

Yeah, but it's an interesting kind of reversal.
Yeah. It's like Dead Penis Society.

But is that something that occurred to you while you were making it?
No, not at all. It was afterwards that it was like, 'Oh'. There's a line in the movie where someone says, 'Y'know not a lot of people are taking the poetry class. Poetry isn't very popular.' He's not very good, but he's trying to inspire and they're all pretty bored and the only time they start showing up is when they're struck by the depth of Kyle's writing.

We thought he was fantastic, Daryl Sabara.
The kid was great. He's reeeally good and he's fearless in terms of playing a prick. And a lot of parents go, 'My boys like that sometimes.' And, as Bob says, sometimes you get a kid that's nasty and people say the parents have failed, but sometimes it's nothing to do with the parents, the kid's just feral. Will he always be like that? You hope not. Will he come out of it? Hopefully. But I think Bob said it best, he said the worst thing about it is if you see a failure of imagination. A kid can be nasty but as long as there's still an imagination there, there's still some hope. But a kid who just consumes and is just like, 'Fuck you!'...

What's the best thing about being Robin Wiliams?
I'd have to say my kids, they're amazing. I'm so proud of them on all levels. They make life worth living

And what's the worst thing.
Again, I'll have to say my kids.

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