Q&A with Robin Williams

The Academy Award-winning actor discusses his role in 'House of D'; acting with his daughter; stand-up comedy, and censorship

Robin Williams as Pappass in David Duchovny’s 'The House of D'
Robin Williams as Pappass in David Duchovny’s ‘The House of D’

Doing a roundtable interview with Robin Williams is akin to a free show in a small comedy club. That’s the best description I can give of my experience this past weekend as I participated in the press day for House of D in Manhattan.

I’ve always been a fan of his comedy, and to stand by and watch him go live was terrific. What’s hilarious about it is not necessarily his comedy, but how he can switch from calm and sedate to wildly animated and vocal. And there’s intelligence to his riffs that give them meaning, and that’s why I think he’s funny.

Now, I’ll have to ask for a bit of understanding when I explain that portions of the interview just couldn’t be included here. Trying to write his jokes would have been pointless, because you have to see it. From the way he manipulates his voice to his physical actions, that’s where all the humor is. Writing it would just make it dull and I’m not even going to try.

But I can’t deny that this was the most fun I’ve had talking with a celebrity at a roundtable. So, here ya go:

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Question: How much convincing did it take to get you to take this film on?

Robin Williams: Not much, I just read it and thought this was interesting. I read it and I thought I’d like to do this. I met with David, and he had written this, so I wasn’t concerned about how he was going to shoot it. And he said they’re going to shoot it in New York, so then I was in. I liked that, because if you’re going to shoot a movie about the Village, it’s kind of nice to shoot in the Village and not be in Toronto. It was great. New York is a character.

Q: Did you go off on riffs much while shooting?

RW: No, I had to stay pretty much to the script because, number one, being mentally handicapped you can’t riff very well. I couldn’t go off too much. There were little things I tried, but he’s a little slower than most. So the idea of just going crazy, no. I mean, there were a few times where I could be playful with Anton [Yelchin], it was fun. But it’s playful as an 11-year-old. Anton is the older brother, and I’m the bigger, stronger brother. It’s not Mice & Men, but it’s like I’m strong and I’m not aware of it.

Q: Did you prepare a lot for the role?

RW: Yeah, there’s things to do. Physically he looks different, so I was trying to find a different way of doing it. There have been a lot of characters on screen who are mentally challenged, so I tried to be unique. You’ve got everything going, and you try to pick one that has a specific look and a specific level of how well they function verbally and mentally. My character had a tough life, but he could still work and work with people.

Q: How did you like working with your daughter?

RW: It was great to watch her. I mean it was also good because being this character, I could sit back and watch. She was so professional and so poised, and very aware and knowing of what she would do and what she wouldn’t do compared to what the character would do. And when people ask, ‘Weren’t you worried?’ I say, not at all. She’s 13, anyone who has a 13-year-old daughter, you know that stage. Sometimes you walk in on them and it’s “Hello Kitty”, and other times its, ‘Get out! Don’t enter the room, get out!’ But when she’s acting she was really concentrating, and very nice, which was the nice thing. She was treating people with respect and decency, which is another part of the business you want her to have.

Q: You move from big budget films to independents a lot. Is that a conscious effort, or do you just pick which script you think is best?

RW: No, it’s not about whether its independent or co-dependent or big studio, it’s about which is the best script. And at this point I’m not driven by financial necessity. They will offer big money, but I say, ‘That’s okay,’ because I’d rather wait for something like [House of D]. You know, take my chances, and hope that things work. But you’re still doing an interesting character and an interesting piece. That’s why I do a small movie like One Hour Photo, or this movie, or The Big White, or the movie I’m doing now, The Night Listener. Everyone’s in that one because they love the piece, everyone’s working for scale. All the way down to the crew members, everyone’s taking a cut because we believe in it. And that’s why I do it. It’s more the quality of the script than anything else.

'House of D'
‘House of D’

Q: What was it like working with Anton when the cameras weren’t rolling?

RW: It was wonderful. Man, he’s so good, I just liked to sit there and watch him. He always liked to call me, Mr. Williams, and I would say, ‘Why thank you young boy!’ I think he had a good time, because he’s a sweet kid. And he’s also Russian, so I can speak Russian with him and his mother all the time. He’s good. It was like seeing the same thing I saw doing Dead Poets, that these guys were so good that you knew they were going to keep going. He’s really bright, and I loved working with him.

Q: Did that make you nervous because of his on screen relationship with your daughter?

RW: No, he was very respectful… and I wish him good luck. (laugh) I know my daughter, and she’s very picky and very intense.

Q: Are you ever going to do stand up again?

RW: I’m doing it all the time. I go down to the Village and perform down there in different clubs, or sometimes uptown. Just for [The Night Listener], the hours are so late I just haven’t had the time. But it’s been good, I just played at the “Comedy Cellar” about two weeks ago. Followed Colin Quinn and a bunch of people. It’s important to try and keep going, because there’s so much to talk about now. Every day, every day there’s something.

Q: What are some of the things you’re talking about?

RW: Oh, you mean like the entire government as we know it now? (laugh) Censorship coming down, and now they’re trying to censor cable television. They wanted to narrow PBS, that’s a given, they want that off the air and they’ve been trying to defund that. But also it’s a lot of bandwidth they can sell. But now with the censorship of cable, you know, cable is not bound like the networks because people pay for it. It’s literally a choice, that’s the operative word. If you don’t like the language, if cocksucker offends you, then you can turn it off. And with regulation, they’re really trying to push that through. There’s a lot to talk about in the world on any given day. Like Wolfowitz being the head of the World Bank? Is that a conflict of interests? Where he’s negotiating with the World Bank for the United States and is also the head of the World Bank. Doesn’t that bother anybody?

Q: Did you watch the Mork and Mindy TV movie?

RW: No, it’s weird. If they’re going to make a bad movie about your life, you’re going to wait until the Cartoon Network. I knew something was up when I kept saying, ‘Can I see a script?’ and they were like, ‘Oh, no, we don’t have that.’

Q: Did you ever watch the X-Files?

RW: Oh, yeah, all the time. It was great. Good and creepy, and living in that paranormal paranoid world.

Q: Is it therapeutic for you to take these things that bother you and make them funny?

RW: To make it funny is one way. And hopefully in the process of making it funny, you make people take notice.

Q: Why wouldn’t you want to write or direct?

RW: First of all, I can’t write on that level of writing for a whole script, because I tend to go off on tangents. Directing also requires that same kind of specificity. Billy [Crystal] has it, he has the ability to do both. That’s why he’s a great host for the Oscars. For me, I can do a great riff. The two or three minutes they give me is about all I’d want to do on a specific subject. Directing requires great discipline, and the great ones I’ve worked with all have that ability. It’s a bit like a small war, and you’re fighting against the odds, and you’re confronted with this situation and they have to make calls on the line. And I know I’m no where near that. I have so much to do as an actor, and I’m happy.

'House of D'
‘House of D’

Q: Is there any director you’d like to work with?

RW: Scorcese, yeah, I’d love to work with him. And there are a lot of great young directors who I’ve been working with who seem to be finding me.

Q: What exactly did ABC tell you at the Oscars? Did they really try to censor you?

RW: Basically, they kept trying to screw with the song and take out so many lines that it was useless to do the song. They wanted to take out seven lines of the song, and the song was only 24 lines.

Q: Could you have just sung it anyway?

RW: You could have, but without musical accompaniment it would have been kind of strange. But Marc [Shaiman] bailed because he just said, ‘This is enough’. This is the same network that has Desperate Housewives, and they’ve got a woman having an affair with a high school kid, and we were singing things like ‘Pinocchio is having his nose done’, and ‘Casper is in the Klu Klux Klan’, and they were like, ‘But that’s not in his character?’ And we said, ‘We know it’s not in his character!’ What they wanted to censor had really nothing to do with the words, but corporate logos. They were worried about the cartoons. And who owns ABC? Disney. It was more about them protecting their cartoons, and I get what they were worried about, but it was all supposed to be a satire about all those people who were talking about SpongeBob. But their reaction is all about people wanting to control things.

Q: What roles would you want to be most remembered for?

RW: Dead Poets SocietyAladdin. Cartoons are pretty wonderful things to be in.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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