RICHMOND - Pass up a chance to talk with Wallace Shawn? Inconceivable!!!
Shawn has appeared in more than 125 movies and TV shows over the last 30 years. He was the face of Indie cinema in the early ’80s with My Dinner with Andre. Teenage girls knows him from The Princess Bride. Children recognize him from various Pixar films. Even geeks have experienced him from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He’s everywhere. Ultimately Shawn is a playwright who acts. Our phone call was in celebration of the release of Marie and Bruce on DVD from Genius Products/The Weinstein Company. He wrote the original play.
Marie and Bruce are a married couple that are hitting a nasty rough spot. Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick are well cast as the pair that are having major communication issues. Most of this crisis comes from their ability to avoid talk to each other yet they say so much. She’s ready for a divorce. He hasn’t a clue. I ponder if these Manhattanites were guinea pigs for MDMA (ecstasy) tests. The scene of Julianne Moore on the sofa at a party looks like she’s rolling hard.
“Of course they’re drinking a lot. Some people have interpreted it as being about drinkers,” Shawn said. “You may be the first to interpret it about people taking a lot of drugs. I don’t really like to tell people how to interpret what I write. In my head if you want to know, that doesn’t matter. I don’t think writers are the biggest experts of what they write.
“If I were even going to venture a comment…people live a great deal inside their own head where fantasy and reality crash into each other. These two are very involved in fantasy. The party is seen through Marie’s eyes. She’s not seeing it the way you would see it. She’s seeing it through her emotional state. In her mind this is a very important day. The party is the very last moment before she’s making this important announcement to Bruce that she’s going to be leaving him. I think she lives in her imagination anyway. Somebody could speculate that neither of these two have found an appropriate outlet for their talents and their intelligence. It’s filtering into their fantasy life too active.”
Had Moore and Broderick performed the play before the filming?
“No,” Shawn said. “But Julianne had read it when she was 18.”
She seems so natural as Marie. Has she become a reverse muse for the role?
“I feel we haven an unspoken shared taste in many ways,” Shawn said. “An unspoken shared feeling about many things. There is some kind of natural compatibility.”
It is hard to imagine any other actress being able to own these lines. Her attitude accents the frustrated and spacey observations.
“It takes unbelievable technique and inspiration to make this unnatural dialogue seem natural. Particularly in the film it must. Film is in general a very realistic medium. Here you have a film in which the chairs and tables are realistic so the dialogue, even though it is not at all realistic, has to somehow seem realistic and believable. That is the wonderful skill that both Julianne and Matthew bring to it. (Some people) can’t cope with the dialogue and they say, ‘This is not like life.’ Actually, the dialogue in most movies is not anything like life. There are certain movie cliches about life that most movies imitate. This one is some other category.”
Shawn is only listed for writing the play and co-writing the screenplay with director Tom Cairns. But he didn’t merely type the words and let everyone else make the movie.
“I was extremely involved in the production. I missed some days of filming, but I was a there for a lot of them. I was totally involved in getting it together before filming. I picked Tom (Cairns). Tom and I have collaborated on many things and have had a wonderful working relationship..”
He could have easily had his name pop up in various parts of the credits. He didn’t even want to give himself a minor role. “I did make a deliberate decision,” Shawn said. “I wanted to be treated as the writer on this project. It would be an in-joke if I’d appeared in the party playing one of the characters. For those who know that I was the writer, it becomes a distraction. For that moment your focus will be in the wrong place.”
Two famous faces that do pop up in the film are Bob Balaban (Seinfeld) and Griffin Dunne (After Hours). Both actors have a history with the work. “They were both in the original production of the play,” Shawn said. “Griffin was the character at the party and Bob Balaban played Bruce.” Now the table has turned for Bob since he plays Roger, Bruce’s friend who knows way too much about public sewage projects. Turns nobody played Roger in the original production.
“That scene didn’t exist in the play. In the play, he says he’s going to meet Roger. She says, “The world’s most fascinating person.” But we never see Roger.”
Was it interesting to revisit the play to create these inbetween scenes? “It was fun. In the play these are long monologues about their respective day between breakfast and dinner. They are alone and both involved in their imagination. It was fun to film those days.”
What makes Marie and Bruce entertaining is that they aren’t a completely dysfunctional couple that arrives on Jerry Springer’s stage. There’s hope.
“There’s potential there that hasn’t been unlocked between them,” Shawn analyzed. “Not sure that if I was a marriage counselor that I’d say, ‘You should get divorced as quickly as possible.’ Freud said people need love and work. These are two people who have not found meaningful work that is important to them. I think that could be very important in them discussing their problems.”
At this point, our conversation turns to his work. Shawn is an extremely busy man. This TV season he’s appeared on Life on Mars, ER, L Word and Gossip Girl. I have to ask about his time on L Word as the wealthy backer of Jenny Schecter’s movie. What is it like to be the focus of Mia Kirshner’s goddess-like eyes?
“She’s an extraordinary person,” Shawn praised. “The French refer to someone’s gaze as ‘regard.’ Hers is very unblinking. Strangely unblinking.”
He sounded kinda disappointed that he was not suspected of killing Jenny. Or that his on-screen relationship with the character was chaste. “There was a clear indication in the scripts that he was in love with her. He hoped for a deeper attachment.”
I bring up the topic of what it’s like to be an in demand character actor in Hollywood. Shawn puts me straight.
“In life we’re all leading men and women,” Shawn declared. “We don’t see ourselves as character actors in life. I don’t think too many actors see themselves as character actors. That’s more something that other people would put on you because they have certain cliched ideas about life. Certainly it’s a phrase that I don’t know anybody has applied to himself. God knows I’ve never said I’m a character actor.
“A character actor is not the main actor. The phrase implies a certain view of life in which there are tall, thin people who are the real people. They are surrounded by a rogues gallery of bizarre people: fat, short, bald. Those people make life interesting for the real people. I don’t see life that way. I don’t see myself that way. In the real world, I don’t occupy a position of being just an amusing sidekick to a guy that lives on the floor below me who happens to be tall. When we meet in the hall, we meet as equals.”
At that moment, I’m stuck with the strange feeling that we’re having this phone conversation as part of a rehearsal for Synecdoche, New York. The image of Shawn meeting the tall man immediately brings up his role of Vizzini in The Princess Bride. What was it like to work with Andre The Giant, the late wrestling legend?
“He was fascinating,” Shawn praised. “I found it quite wonderful to meet him and know him. He was a very talented man who had figured out a way to live the life that he wanted to live despite having an absolutely incredible disability.
“It’s totally remarkable that somebody could walk onto a set and be able to act. That’s very, very rare. I think he’d only been in one movie before that and he had no lines. He was remarkable. He did have incredible ability of hitting his mark. You’re supposed to not just talk but go to right place at the right time. You have little marks on the floor to show where you’re supposed to go. Because the marks are on the floor, you’re not supposed be looking at them. They’re quite hard to follow. I find it quite hard to say dialogue and move and go to the right place at the same time. Particularly to remember that you’re supposed to go over here and then somewhere else and somewhere else. It’s very difficult. He did that effortlessly. He’d do it right on the first take. The rest of us would take several tries to hit it right.”
Currently Shawn’s in rehearsals for a play with Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Tilly that’s taking place in London this May. Directing him will be his longtime pal Andre Gregory. The duo took the cinema by storm with My Dinner with Andre. The movie was about them having dinner. There was no explosions or gunplay. Just conversation between two people. It became an art house sensation.
Shawn has never been approached to host a series of interviews over dinner like IFC’s Dinner for Five. He’s had people begging him to recreate the role, but for the wrong reasons. “I’ve steered clear of a few parodies,” he said.
The good news about the movie is that it is finally coming back to DVD (and hopefully Blu-ray) with a high quality image transfer. “Criterion is bringing it out in the next few months. The results are great.” Shawn and Gregory have been interviewed for the bonus features.
What is the secret of Shawn and Gregory remaining pals and creative partners?
“We’ve been working together since 1970,” Shawn said. “We really do have a congruence of tastes. It’s rare to meet someone who is in your field who understands you and you understand them. You’re motivated to stick with that person and make that relationship work. You’re not going to run into anyone like that for the rest of your life. We don’t do exactly the same thing. I write and act. He directors. He can bring things out of me as an actor that are pretty surprising.”
We talk about a few of the major directors he’s worked with over the years. Perhaps the second most important director in his career is Woody Allen. He’s appeared in half a dozen of Woody’s film. Does he view himself as the nemesis of Woody’s screen proxies? “I was a little bit that it in Manhattan, the first one I did,” Shawn declared. “Otherwise I think I’ve been one of the troupe.” He was hyped as a sexual monster by Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan. Did this role have the ladies rushing up to him to experience his carnal secrets? He laughed. “Most people took it as a movie.”
His work as the voice of Rex the Green Dinosaur in the Toy Story movies does get the kids running towards him.
“I do meet a lot of kids at airports. There are kids who recognize my voice. They hear my voice and go, ‘That guy is dinosaur.’”
He has recorded his dinosaur lines for the upcoming Toy Story 3. He was relived that during the time when Pixar was going to split with Disney that the mouse didn’t follow through with its threat to make Toy Story 3 without John Lasseter and his crew’s involvement. “That would have been absolutely horrible,” Shawn said.
One of Shawn’s earliest role is a brief part in Bob Fosse’s dazzling All That Jazz. What memories does Shawn have of working with the legendary director?
“That was way back there,” Shawn said. “I was only there for like a day. I’m almost incapable of answering that one. It all went by in a couple of hours. It was strange because he was painting a very disturbing portrait of himself. I found it disturbing.”
As a playwright, would he ever create an autobiographical work that intense?
“I’m guided by a muse. I don’t choose a subject,” Shawn said. “I don’t have outlines or notecards. It’s more like a sentence comes to me and maybe a few months later I figure out who said it and why. I don’t pick the subjects. I don’t even know who’s talking. Eventually it’s something. After if it becomes something, I can sort of help it become the essence of what it is.”
My next question was blunt: You were in Southland Tales. What was that about?
“It was probably a lot of things at the same time,” Shawn said. “One of them that you can’t possibly question is that it’s not supposed to be America today. But it provides some amazing portraits of America today. If somebody asks what was it like in those boom years, the crazy years under George W. Bush, you can probably say look at that party on the blimp in Southland Tales. That was what it was like. The scene on the boardwalk is kinda like what was it like back in the day when people were wandering around on the boardwalk.
“If you get into questioning it, you might never find the answers. If you take it for what it is, your minutes were well spent watching it. You have to give yourself to the film. To answer the questions either will never happen or it would take 20 viewings to answer. You don’t have to. If you don’t like it, you can leave after half an hour. But it’s worth a third time to watch it.”
Shawn enjoyed playing a rather glamorous man on the silver screen. “I loved my own character. I’ve never been in a film where I enjoyed my own look more than that. It was amazing,” he said.
E! and Entertainment Tonight always focus on the work out of the stars. How does Wallace Shawn keep in shape? What is his exercise routine?
“I live in a fifth floor walk up so that’s my beauty secret,” Shawn disclosed. “In order to go home, I have to perform an athletic feat.”
I hate Twitter. I won’t use Twitter.. Nothing makes Twitter more uncool is seeing senators ignoring a presidential speech with their bodies hunched over so they can Twitter on their iPhones. Good thing most of the senators are now orphans. If my mom caught me Twittering instead of paying attention to the president, she’d beat me with a plank from my campaign platform. There should be a fourth grade teacher going around the Capitol building and taking those iPhones away. How are we supposed to tell children they need to pay attention at major events when the millionaire politicians look like a pack of teenage girls. Sen. John McCain might as well pound the podium demanding the Jonas Brothers perform at his kids’ birthday parties.
Dear Meghan McCain. I read your blog about how hard it is to find a great guy to date. Sorry to break the news, but I’m married. That means you’ll be settling for second best no matter what. So just go on Craigslist and email Mr. He’ll Do. Of course you can always wait for my upcoming Reality Show: “Mr. Big Love” where numerous women compete to be my really rich mistress.
Pinocchio: 70th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray is a major upgrade from the Golden Collection DVD. Walt Disney’s version of the fairytale about an old man who makes a wooden boy puppet that comes to life. The big problem is that the boy is still made out wood so he’s a bit of a freak. His only hope is to be good enough that the fairy will turn him into a flesh and blood boy. The Blu-ray picture is gorgeous. There’s an impulse to step through the screen to shoot pool at Pleasure Island. This is the standard of how to do an HD transfer of classic animation. The bonus features include “No Strings Attached.” The hour long documentary gets into the details of how Walt put together the film and its legacy. The deleted scenes are storyboards. They even dig up the live action reference footage used by the animators. We finally get to hear the “Honest John” song that was clipped early in production. They include a DVD of the new transfer for people who aren’t sure when they’re going to buy a Blu-ray, but want Pinocchio in the collection so they won’t have to wait for it to be re-released in a decade. Your nose will grow from the excitement of watching this in 1080p.
South Park: The Complete Twelfth Season Blu-ray keeps the caustic comedy coming from America’s favorite elementary schoolers. This is the season that brought back memories of Heavy Metal with “Major Boobage.” Kenny can slip into the fantasy world if he lets a cat fart in his face. Just when I thought smoking banana peels was the hot rage with little kids. “Britney’s New Look” really gets to the heart of TMZ’s round the clock coverage of the meltdown queen. We can laugh at this now that the press has declared that Britney is back. “About Last Night……” joins Obama and McCain in an Ocean’s 11 heist. It’s cute, but not cutting. The big bonus feature is “Six Days to South Park.” We get to follow the production details of an episode. They also show how they worked to give “Boobage” the Heavy Metal look. What’s really amazing is how this semi-primitive animation looks so stunning in Hi-Def. This must be how it looks on Matt & Trey’s megacomputer after its been rendered. The discs include a digital copy that’s only compatible with Windows media. Why no love for us Mac users?
Let The Right One In - Blu-ray is Twilight for grown ups. This Swedish import gives us a real teen romance involving a blood sucker that hasn’t been sanitized for clean living undead creatures. Oskar is a kid who gets extremely bullied at school. He’s a human punching bag. But things get better when he meets Eli. She’s a creepy yet cool girl. Oskar doesn’t quite understand the nature of his new friend. We’re given the horrible fear that she’s going to turn on him. Let’s face the simple fact, a girl has to get a drink from somebody. The blood effects are not for the weak of heart. For anyone who is sick of the Twilight hype, Let the Right One In is the real deal when it comes to fanged entertainment. It’ll spook you. The Blu-ray really sucks you into the chilly environment. You’ll want to break out your Snuggie.
Primal Fear: Hard Evidence Edition - Blu-ray brings back the moment when Ed Norton declared he was an actor you better damn well notice. He elevates what could have been another terminal Richard Gere film. Some people might want to give credit to the director, but what’s Gregory Hoblit done since this movie that you’ll admit to have paid to see? Norton is an altar boy accused of killing a Catholic Archbishop. His only hope is Richard Gere being his lawyer. The courtroom drama allows Norton to just take his character to the hilt. Is he guilty or being set up? He’s not going to let that define his performance. The Blu-ray really lets you get into Norton’s facial detail during telling scenes. The three bonus features discuss the complexity of spinning a courtroom tale with an intricate web of lies.
The Kite Runner - Blu-ray reminds us that are a lot of messed up people in Afghanistan. The first half of the film deals with the friendship between a poor child and a child of privilege. The rich kid’s family escapes the country when the Taliban take control. But his guilt drags him back to save his friend. The images are beautiful yet terrorizing. Watching this is 1080p makes you almost want to visit except when you discover the horrifying truth, you’ll never book passage. This is not a tourism board approved visit to greater Kabul. The big bonus feature is a commentary track with director Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace) and novelist Khaled Hosseini.
A Mighty Heart Blu-ray tells the true story of when Wall Street Journalist Daniel Pear was kidnapped while working on a story in Pakistan. His pregnant wife (played by Angelina Jolie) is in a frantic race against time to free him before the worst can happen. Will he be rescued in time to see his baby’s birth? I won’t give away the ending in case you’ve somehow avoided read a newspaper over the last decade. Director Michael Winterbottom and his crew keep the action gritty. This comes out in the 1080p transfer. You feel the dust kicking up as feet race around. The big bonus feature is a 30 minute behind the scenes documentary. Everyone sticks to the serious nature of the film. There’s even a public service announcement about protecting journalists. Seeking the truth in a warzone is a very dangerous proposal.
Things We Lost in the Fire - Blu-ray is a small film that deserves bigger attention. Halle Berry’s life has been destroyed by an act of violence. Benicio Del Toro (Che) arrives to help her out. However he’s not the most stable of guys. He’s got demons to battle every day. It’s an emotionally raw film with these two Oscar winners pushing each other to the edge. This was Berry’s proof that Monsters Ball wasn’t a fluke. She’s got skills. “A Discussion” gets down to the characters in this behind the scenes view. Seeing it in Blu-ray lets you appreciate the human qualities of these characters.
Andy Richter Controls the Universe: The Complete Series brings together all 19 episodes that were stretched over two seasons including 5 that never aired on Fox. Richter is a writer at a major corporation with an over active imagination. He dreams of wearing a suit of puppies into the office. “Little Andy in Charge” has him finally hook up with a hot woman. The trouble happens when he discovers she’s an anti-Semite. In order to feel good about the sex, he volunteers at a local Jewish center. Can this compromise between his big brain and his package work? Or will it explode in a bad way? The show deserved a longer run, but such is the curse of being non-animated comedy on Fox.
The Fugitive: Season Two, Volume Two keeps the manhunt of Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) going for another 15 episodes.. For those wondering, they’ve kept a majority of the original score. Only a few musical moments have been replaced. “Brass Ring” has Robert Duvall as wheelchair bound guy who runs a merry-go-round with his sister (Angie Dickinson). Kimble helps them out and gets a heaping of Angie. However he’s being set up as a patsy for a nasty crime. “Nicest Fella You’d Ever Want to Meet” proves that Tom Skerritt (Alien) and Dabney Coleman were young. “Fun and Games and Party Favors” gets a thumbs up for the title. “Everybody Gets Hit in the Mouth Sometimes” makes Kimble drive a truck for Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). This paranoid show is still great viewing.
J.A.G.: The Eighth Season opens with an extreme change in a cast member when Bud gets his legs blown off in “Critical Condition.” This is a series that doesn’t mess around. I’ve seen shows swap actors or kill them or have them go off to London for acting school. But to go Lt. Dan on a character? That’s intense military action. The other major highlight of the season is “Ice Queen.” It introduces NCSI to the world. Mark Harmon (Summer School) and David McCullam (Man From U.N.C.L.E.) would become major TV stars once more in this military spin-off. They made 10 seasons of J.A.G. so only two more to go before Catherine Bell gets discharged.
To Catch A Thief: Centennial Collection is Hitchcock bringing the cool to the French Riviera. Cary Grant is a retired jewel thief who finds his old tactics being used by a copycat. Or is he lying to us? He gets tangled up with Grace Kelly in a suave adventure. The second disc has dozens of extra features. “Unacceptable Under the Code” details how the film had to battle the MPAA censors to get away with fireworks. “A Night with the Hitchcocks” has Alfred’s daughter and granddaughter talk about their time with him. There’s a really shocking tale of what happened to the love birds from The Birds. We get a great sense of what went into this production that was mostly shot on location.
The Odd Couple: Centennial Collection brings a fresh transfer to the movie that truly made Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon an iconic couple (Fortune Cookie didn’t break them that much). Matthau is Oscar, a messy sports reporter. Lemmon is his anal pal Felix. He’s been dumped by his wife and about to jump when he’s saved by Oscar. The two become roommates and the clutter clash goes into overdrive. The best part of the film is how it reminds us of the importance of Poker night. The bonus features deal with how the Broadway play was transformed into the hit film. Did you know the set from the film was used in the first season of The Odd Couple TV series? Matthau and Lemmon’s sons contribute the commentary track.
Living With the Wolfman follows Shaun Ellis and Helen Jeffs hanging out with wolves. They do look like sweet doggies, but they can turn fierce fast. The show is graphic when showing how wolves tear apart a deer. You might not want kids who love Bambi to get a gander. The eight part series gives a great sense of what wolves are really like in the wild and semi-contained environments. He feeds them roadkill. Shaun is a rather intense looking guy who could easily end up at a UFC match. Do you think this guy ever saw Lucan as a kid?
Raw Nature is a five part series that brings dangerous lives of animals. There’s no petting zoo footage here. This is about man decided to move into areas once dominated by predator creatures like sharks, rhinos, anacondas and lions. A pack of adventure filmmakers take us into these animal hotzones. It’s like Marlon Perkins to the extreme. No wimpy and cute critters will be exposed on this DVD.
A Woman Called Golda was one of the last projects from Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca). She plays Golda Mier, a young girl from Milwaukee who rose up to help found Israel. Judy Davis (Barton Fink) plays the younger Golda. Robert Loggia (The Sopranos) plays Anwar Sadat. It’s a strange piece of casting only topped by Nigel Hawthrone (The Madness of King George) as King Abdullah.. Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) is properly cast as Morris Meyerson. He really is Jewish. It’s got all the flourishes expected in a TV movie that maintains enough historical accuracy to keep everyone happy.
Sidney Sheldon’s Master of the Game was from the golden mini-series age of the early ’80s. Dyan Cannon is a ruthless woman who won’t hold back. She’s mean as she runs her empire. She steals husbands. Destroys her own son (Harry Hamlin). She wants her granddaughter take over not only her company, but attitude. It’s like reading a trashy beach novel except without the fear of getting a suntan. Cannon would go on to be the most annoying fan at LA Lakers games.
Elmo and Friends: Tales of Adventure gives us three slices of Sesame Street that will thrill small children. Elmo’s Amazing Alphabet Race has the little red wonder going against the clock to get from A to Z. Hopefully he won’t be looking for those lost letters. Golden Triangle of Destiny gives Texas Telly a leading role. He’s wearing his semi-Indiana Jones gear while keeping the education action coming.. He’s looking for certain shapes. The Adventures of Little Big Bird has the big yellow pal get shrunk down to a few inches high. Can he survive life on the street when he’s small enough to fall through society’s crack? This DVD is only available at Target.
Jim Gaffigan: King Baby gives us the uncut special that recently ran on Comedy Central. He’s more than just a pitchman for Sierra Mist. My favorite part of the routine is when he talks to us about bacon. “Yeah bacon.” He knows the secret of bacon and how anything can be improved if wrapped in bacon. “Bacon bits are the fairy dust of food.” Mmmmm bacon. How can you not like a comic who loves bacon? More bacon comedy. The DVD also includes episodes of Pale Force and Our Massive Planet. Get to know Gaffigan, your new bacon buddy.
Secrets of the Furious Five is a thirty minute special featuring the cast of Kung Fu Panda. We learn the secret origins of the other five fighters that backed the Panda in his feature film debut. The Panda has to teach a bunch of little kids and uses his pals’ origins as inspiration that all buttkickers start small. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman return to their character voices.
GIVEAWAY ON THE RUN
CBS DVD is allowing 5 lucky readers to win a copy of The Fugitive: Season Two, Volume Two. All you have to do is answer this simple question: What faceless star of the Fugitive went on to his own Quinn-Martin series? Send your answer along with your name and address to email@example.com. The staff of Party Favors, Richard Diamond and Harrison Ford are not eligible to win.
Genius Entertainment and Sesame Street want 5 other lucky readers to win a copy of Elmo and Friends: Tales of Adventure. All you have to do is tell me what Muppet was featured in my Creepy PA segment of the Party Favors. Send you answer along with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The staff of the Party Favors, Buddy & Jim and Mr. Hopper are not eligible to win. Both contests end March 24. Good luck.
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