Robin Williams Talks to Tim Nasson
If you’re a movie lover you probably already know all there is to know about Robin Williams. His trips to and from rehab. His foul mouth. His right-on impersonations of just about anything and anyone. That he’s an Oscar winner – for…Good Will Hunting.
There’s nothing much new to reveal about Williams this time around, the most recent time I sat with him, in Los Angeles recently where he was promoting his latest comedy, License To Wed.
The first time I sat with Williams, nearly a decade ago, in Los Angeles, when he was promoting the wonderfully, underrated What Dreams May Come, he was going nuts, making up X-rated titles of popular movies, e.g., “Shaving Ryan’s Privates.”
If you’re looking for a good laugh, read the most recent chat with Robin Williams. He has a lot of new X-rated titles up his sleeve, and, also, tells us what he thinks about the current climate in politics – and what he thinks of Catholic priests.
Just pretend you’re in the same room as Robin Williams while you’re reading, as his intonations change every other minute, one going into a Scottish accent, the next talking like a Middle Easterner.
Wild About Movies: Talk about finding your inner reverend for this movie.
Robin Wiliams: Having been a choir boy and I’m not Catholic so that welcomes a certain amount of questions… Just going back to the old days when I was into going to church and remembering that there were – as a protestant which is Catholic light – once again the idea of somebody who could really advise and has something to offer. That’s why I think for that it was just remembering those guys that I kind of grew up with in the Episcopal church which is “There is no purgatory, just spiritual escrow.” That was the beginning of that, remembering that, and then the idea that he’s pretty much hands on as much as you can be without being a priest.
Wild About Movies: Was there somebody that influenced you?
Robin Wiliams: Religious person? Billy Graham. No. Reverend Ernest Ainsley but then he had to go away for going to recreational bars. Reverend Swaggert. No. No religious people. I vaguely remember there was one reverend who was actually very funny and that may be the model but there was no one specific that I… Reverend Haggard. No. Where do you go for gay rehab? That’s what I just want to know. Cock Enders.
Wild About Movies: You have such a unique brand of humor, how hard is it for you to find scripts that accommodate that style?
Robin Wiliams: Oh, very hard. It is hard to find something where you can go off as much as I do in stand-up, but I think stand-up allows me that freedom where you can really go off and have a good time. But within the character, there’s enough room to play. And when you have someone like John Krasinski and Mandy Moore, that’s people who play opposite you and keep going.
Wild About Movies: This film is about early love. Do you remember your first kiss or first crush?
Robin Wiliams: Yes, I do actually. The first kiss was pretty amazing. I went to an all boys school so it was a wrestling match and I won that match just because I creeped him out so much. But you know it was pretty sweet. I remember this girl… They would have dances and they’d bring girls in. It was the slow dances. “You’re hurting me!” And you felt like Quasimodo, “I mean you no harm. You very pretty. Don’t go away. I mean you no harm.” But hence, when I came out to California, it was way beyond the first kiss. It was like “You’ve seen these.” “Wow!” That was one of my teachers. But I remember it being as good as they said.
Wild About Movies: Did you have any concern about having this role with a 10-year-old sidekick?
Robin Wiliams: That’s why he’s a Protestant. If you had a Catholic priest with a small boy, already they’d be going “What’s up?” “What’s the boy?” “For the weekends.” You know it’s been a difficult thing for the Catholic church to deal with after all these years when they have the Divine Witness Protection Program. Find a priest. It’s like three-card priest. “Find the priest, find the pedophile, find the priest. Here we go. Where is he? Right there. Here’s the priest, here’s the pedophile. Whoops! Found him! Move him over to another parish. Okay. Find him!” That’s why a lot of parishes don’t have Little League programs anymore. That’s why they went with a Protestant right away.
It might be something you look at for the Catholic church to think about – maybe losing the whole celibacy thing. It’s a difficult thing when you realize that first of all you have to give up sex and then they say, “Okay. We’re going to put you in a small box and every week people are going to come and go “Bless me father for I have sinned.” “What have you done my son?” “Last night I was with two Philippine twins and it was slip and slide.” “Oh really? Keep going.” And then they’re going to take you from that and then put you next to pubescent children. It’s like getting out of Jenny Craig and saying “Where you gonna work?” “Haagen Dazs.” In the big picture that’s why he’s a Protestant and has been married and has some perspective on sexuality. Because it must be very difficult being a priest and having to talk about sex — kind of like Quasimodo is a chiropractor. I guess it works.
Wild About Movies: As a person who has a successful marriage, what do you think of these two having a long term relationship. What works for you?
Robin Wiliams: I think it’s just honesty. If marriage is the long program, this is the short program, and having been married twice, it’s a bit like that line in Knocked Up where he says, “I’ve been divorced three times. Why are you asking me?” I think what’s working is the idea of being able to talk with someone and realizing this is someone you can really… It’s like that stuff he teaches is valuable – the ability to be honest, the ability to talk, the ability to deal with in-laws, the ability to fight and get over it and get through it. Because like he says, intimacy and the initial lust and all of that which is great at the beginning doesn’t fade as much as it kind of goes in wave motions. It comes back. It’s like the old joke about same sex marriages. It’s always the same sex. Shut up! But it’s the idea that… You know, what are the things that will help you get through in the long run, and that’s the program that he’s teaching and he’s using comedic devices but I think there’s some useful skills there.
Wild About Movies: Have you ever gotten religious counseling?
Robin Wiliams: In rehab you go through a lot of that.
Wild About Movies: So is it all built on religious lessons for that?
Robin Wiliams: You find that. You really do find out that that’s one of the primary… The primary salvation is that when you go through rehab that you come out of there knowing you’re not alone and it gives you a very personal view of God. And many people would say – for the code for those of you who know – a higher power, just the idea of a very deeply… Once you come through that process, you come out of it very much aware that there but for the grace of God, go I.
Wild About Movies: Have you had feedback from any religious groups about any of the religious jokes you’ve done in the past.
Robin Wiliams: Oh yeah, you always do because organized religion, you can’t poke fun at certain religions. Hence, right now [in a Middle Easterner’s voice] if I was to dress you in a full Burka, someone would go, “What are you doing?” I mean it’s difficult because you have to realize that we just made major fun of the Catholic church but hey, they don’t blow you up. The Pope will just excommunicate and you know I haven’t gotten a lot of communications originally from him so… It was interesting though that they went with a German Pope which is great for the Swiss Guard to have artillery.
Wild About Movies: If you were asked to put together a test for typical married couples to go through, what kind of test would it be?
Robin Wiliams: It would be like “Survivor” but without a lot of food. I think it’s be the idea of how do you get together to really solve problems. Yeah, I think it would be this interesting idea of simple problems. You know living together is a really interesting thing. A lot of couples do it now before marriage and by the time they get married, they’re going like, “Hey, we know the drill.” I think the simplest test would be like what do you know about him and what do you know about her other than position 4? What is it about her…what do you like, what do you not like? Even the things that you don’t like but you kind of do like or what are the things that drive you nuts. I remember in Good Will Hunting you talked about all the things that drive you crazy but also the same time you really love about that person.
When you really hang out with someone a long enough time, you really find that you really do. The great thing about marriage is the idea of really getting to know someone. And really getting to know a woman is a life long task. I can’t imagine polygamy. To have two or three women pissed at me would be…and if they’re all going through their period at the same time, [imitating his wife’s voice], “You have to sleep sometime you asshole!” There is that idea of what it is. I mean some cultures do it where they have… If you’re a Samburu tribesman, you have multiple wives and you have as many wives as you have goats and sheep and they live in different houses. And then if you’re a Mormon, you just find a certain town in Utah and the kids all look the same. But it’s the idea of getting to know someone. It really is interesting. And someone who loves you or me, all warts and all. That’s kind of a gift.
Wild About Movies: How long have you been married?
Robin Williams: Eighteen years to my current wife.
Wild About Movies: John Krasinski is in a hot series on television (“The Office”). But this is his first theatrical film. Did he ask you for any advice?
Robin Wiliams: No advice. I can’t give him advice. Once again it’s like a leopard giving a facial. All he has to say is “What’s it about Popeye that you wanted?” I mean he’s doing a series where he’s really funny. He’s got great chops plus he’s also directed his own movie. It’s like the dude is so far ahead of me in terms of what he’s done even now so there’s no advice I can give him, just in many ways learn from him and be open to it. He’s got great physical timing and physical comedy combined with a really wonderful mind. So, besides that, ugly as sin. I think with him I just had a good time. You know you see him on the series and it’s a lot of playing reaction. He gets most of his laughs on the series from reactions which is a great thing.
So it’s not like I’m going, “Oh geez, what’s this going to be like?” He’s got the chops. There’s nothing I could say to him like, “No, it’d be better if you wait a moment.” I’ll soon become like the old Borscht-belt comic, “You should go Z’s and Q’s.” Or “Hold on, wait a moment, look away.” Or be like Michael Caine [in a Michael Caine voice]. “Never give the camera both eyes. Always look with one eye and let the camera try and find the other one. Don’t be afraid to look away and make them find it. And when you ‘re doing nude scenes, never let them see everything. There’s more mystery. I like mine to be small but fierce.”
Wild About Movies: Talk about working with Mandy Moore.
Robin Wiliams: She’s very sweet and really funny in her own way. There’s that whole wholesome thing. We were talking the other day about Mandy isn’t making the papers as much because she’s not playing bumper car with a Bentley. So it’s like she’s got all the same chops. She’s doing all the same stuff and just living her life quietly and happily and seems to be doing well. I don’t know who she’s with today but I imagine they’re happy. I had a good time working with her because she’s funny plus she’s also got this… It’s a weird combination.
Pam Dawber had it – this kind of wholesome sensuality where a lot of guys will come up and say, “You ever do Mindy.” It’s like the Amish girl who knows. She’s got a lot going on and I had a great time just being around her and working with her. She and John, they had most of their scenes together so they have a dynamic that’s believable as a young couple in love, having sex, and yet still being denied sex, and yet still going “Okay. Let’s get married.” And building love which is kind of cool. I think for me it was fun just to watch their scenes because I wasn’t in them. I know that’s a weird thing to say. We’ll talk about that in therapy.
Wild About Movies: What have you learned about relationships over all having been married 18 years?
Robin Wiliams: Be careful. It’s like Custer, never assume. “We’ll be safe up in that valley.” “Don’t go there.” I think what I’ve learned is that I’ve got more to learn. I think that’s what’s kind of exciting is that I have so much that I need to learn as I continue. Because you go through a phase you think, “I know it all.” And then you realize, no, especially as my children get older. I’ve got a son who’s 24 and another who’s 15, a daughter who’s 17 going on 18 going on 30. You know it’s like all these things are like “Oh dude!” They hit you very hard but at the same time they’re great gifts. You know it’s pretty wonderful. The 15 year old, right now it’s like living with Mensa. He’s reading Flaubert. Everything is like oh my God. And he has these debates about totally ridiculous subjects. He brought home a couch that he found on the street and we said, “You can’t, man. It’s full of ..” “No, but it’ll be great.”
“It will be great when all the creatures come out too. It’ll be like Planet Earth but in your bedroom.” Then he said, “We’ll have to fumigate it.” “Oh, like fumigate it. Put it in a bag and just dust the thing with chemicals that could kill things for the rest of the year.” And it was interesting to have this debate and he was just debating because he could, just to piss me off. But that’s his job. And my daughter, she’s acting now and she’s really good, in a way very natural. And my other son is studying acting which I thought, “Why? You have a degree in Linguistics. Why do you want to do that?” Because he can. But he found he wanted to do it and I went, “Okay, dude.” It’s always things that for me are really interesting at this point in my life. For me, it’s great. Much more expensive than sea monkeys but you get to see amazing progress and see them grow and that for me is astonishing. And see them do things that you’re going, “Good luck.” And I try and tell them the traps but they’ll learn them on their own.
Wild About Movies: What was it in particular about this script that made you want to do it? And talk a little bit about the upcoming projects that you have.
Robin Wiliams: What do I have coming up? Well I wanted to do it because I read it and found it to be funny and also when I saw John’s work and Mandy’s work, I thought it would be great to work with them. I thought that the chemistry would be fun, and especially working with John because we have most of our scenes together and it’s a nice, kind of combative relationship. Upcoming projects! there’s this movie August Rush with Freddie Highmore. It’s basically about a child prodigy trying to reconnect with his parents through music. It’s an interesting piece — kind of Amadeus-like. I think the way they did it was really to kind of give you the idea of what it’s like for him to actually create, which is fascinating, and Freddie’s an extraordinary kid, just truly brilliant as a child. When you’re around that, it’s not just the idea of don’t work with children and animals, but be careful working with really brilliant kids. He’s intuitive, plus a brain to back it up. And that makes work very interesting. Other than that, I’m doing a movie with John Travolta in Connecticut called Old Dogs.
Wild About Movies: Is that a sequel to Wild Hogs?
Robin Wiliams: Wild Hogs? Wild Dogs is the porn version. “Hot B****** on a Leash.” That’s the porn movie that comes out with “Good Will Humping,” “Snatch Adams,” all the other ones.
Wild About Movies: What’s it about?
Robin Wiliams: A clown with a dream. Big shoes, big feet, you know. “Hey, come over here. Whoa! It’s Kinky the Clown. Hi boys and girls. Look what I made for you. It’s not a balloon. It’s a giraffe, kind of.” It’s about two old guys basically forced to deal with being in their 50’s and all of a sudden going “What do you want to do now?” One hunts cougars, if you catch my drift. No one knows what those are? Some of the women go “I know, I know.” “What’s a cougar?” “A single woman. Okay, cool.” “See any back there? No?” And basically, one finds out that he has children and then the other one wants to help him with that, but also use the kids as bait…. for cougars.
Wild About Movies: Was Ken Kwapis (director of License To Wed) open to you improvising with the script at all?
Robin Wiliams: He was very close to that. And I found that to be… He was open more to me physically improvising with him. He would have these rehearsals and I would go, “What is this about?” and he’d go “Put on this thong.” And I’d go, “But these are scenes from “Brokeback Mountain.” And he said, “It’s just part of the preparation.” I’d go, “Why are we in a tent?” And I said, “Why are you spitting on your hand?” And he went, “It’s just a prep.” Like the scene they cut from Knocked Up, you kind of go “What about that?” He was open to pretty much anything in terms of improvising, trying stuff, physical, anything because he’s worked with John, he’s done the series. He does the American series of “The Office” so he’s open for it. But I trusted him because he cast a lot of great people in the smallest parts.
Wild About Movies: How would you compare his directing to others you’ve worked with?
Robin Wiliams: Oh, he’s a taller man than Paul Mazursky. I would compare him as being as good as any of the other ones. I think he has a sense of humor. I’ve only worked with a couple of people who didn’t have a sense of humor. Their names shall be forever in my mind. But he’s got the chops. He’s different than Terry Gilliam. He doesn’t use a lot of flying things and the number of nude scenes. Who else? What’s he like? He’s different than the animated directors because he doesn’t want me just to do this voice. But I think on the whole he’s as good as any of them.
Wild About Movies: Given the scene in the film where you explain your marriage to Maria Gonzalez, what’s your personal take on the debate that’s going on about immigration?
Robin Wiliams: Immigration? For me it’s always weird when Arnold was initially talking about dealing with immigration by building a wall. And even the Chinese go, “That will not work.” Because who will build your wall? The people you’re trying to keep out? So I think the immigration debate is… It’s very weird whenever they try and close the borders in America, when you realize that pretty much every one of us here, unless you’re a full-blooded Sioux, is an immigrant. And there is that idea of coming in…And everyone got pissed at the one candidate that actually put flyers up in Spanish. Ask the Canadians. If you go to Canada, they only have one province where all the French are which is a great idea. Just because that way they can all go, ‘I hate being here. It’s crazy, fuck you, I don’t want to be here. I want to break away from the country, but somehow I want to keep the cash.” Much like a college student going “I don’t want to be with your family, but please keep sending us money.”
I mean there’s signs all over Canada in French but it’s like the idea… Even in California, the state is 60% if not more Hispanic and we have an Austrian governor. But he was essentially elected because, “I see his movies.” It’s that guy. With immigration I think there is the idea of how do you have some controls about legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, or the idea of a program of incorporating which is even what Bush is taking a lot of shit for. Oh, can we say Bush? And we mean it in the old sense. The idea of incorporating and a program of assimilation — I think this country lives off of assimilating new energies. It’s like we get the chance to have this injection every so often in waves of immigrants. In the 70s there were a lot of Russian immigrants, Russian-Jewish immigrants, African immigrants. All of us have come here, and the idea of really shutting the borders I think is quite frightening. But the idea that it creates labor problems? As a friend, Will Durst, who’s a comic, said, “If you’re really worried that that guy’s going to take your job selling fruit on the highway.”
Or he said, here’s the other thing, “If you really close off the borders, you’d better invent some self-picking fruit.” But at the same time you’re saying if all these people are working for substandard wages, you have to find a way of dealing with that, too. Hence, many years ago Cesar Chavez going, “You have to take care of this idea that these people…” I know a lot of people go, “We shouldn’t have controls.” Why? Because you get a total labor pool that you can pay substandard. But at the same time, we’re outsourcing — this is an interesting thing while we’re doing a comedy — we’re outsourcing most of the work for a lot of places where they go “There’s a lot of people here that could be doing that work” but a lot of companies outsource. There’s a lot to discuss but it should be discussed openly and not just….But it’s very hard because a lot of people go, “I’ve lived here. C’mon now.” But your dad didn’t, or your grandfather didn’t, and they came here a long time ago. “What?” “Well I was speaking English, but they just didn’t fucking understand me.”
Wild About Movies: Since we’re talking about politics here, have you decided which candidate?
Robin Wiliams: Which candidate? No, I think you’ve got to let it play out. Right now, if you’re in the South and you’re realizing as a Democrat your choices are a black man or a woman, they’re going “Well, I’ll have a beer.” It’s pretty interesting. I think it’s time to get some really interesting candidates going. Everyone’s saying that if Al Gore loses weight, he’s going to run. I just want someone to run who can actually, number one, speak in complete sentences, deal with issues honestly, directly. I mean even the Republican party, I think they should take their own party back. I think that they’ve even felt that they’ve been hijacked. I mean I can’t look at everything and say “Things are going great.” It’s pretty wild how things are and I think there’s a great dissatisfaction. Here’s the thing. As an alcoholic, when I was drinking, there’s something called a blackout, which is more like sleepwalking with activities.
I feel like as a country we’ve been through six years of a blackout where you kind of woke up and go “What did we do? What have we allowed to happen?” And people are kind of coming back and going, “How do we deal with this?” Right now in the Middle East if you’re in Palestine, it’s hit the fan. And every day in Iraq, it’s just insane. And yet you have to find some solution rather than just going, “What did you say?” Politically, I don’t care what party you’re from, offer a point of view and let’s see what happens and really debate the issues rather than use personal attacks. Really talk about it, talk about immigration, talk about education, talk about pollution.
Try going in the ocean right now without getting fecal express. There’s a lot of signs out there and there’s only two Germans in the water going “What’s wrong? This water smells so different. It’s wild how the fish are just brown.” We’re going to have an issue pretty soon, screw gas, water’s going to be really important. In Northern California they get 20 % snowfall versus… and it’s going to come down to, “What’re you gonna drink, smart boy?” You didn’t used to have to pay for it, but hey. Yeah, there’s a lot going on. And the candidates, I don’t see, they’re starting to pan out. But it’s weird that this whole process causes you to have so much… You know you go after each other so much that by the end it’s literally who’s got the cash, and who can do the long game, and who can spend out the other one. And if you’re a Mormon, you could tithe.
Wild About Movies: What are the films and who are the people that make you laugh. And can you watch your own films?
Robin Wiliams: I don’t. I mean I can. You know it’s weird, I went to see a movie and one of the trailers for this was ending and I was like “How’s it doing?” And it played okay. It was fun. It’s weird if you see a trailer and people go “hhhsssss” or talk shit to your movie. It’s rough. Once I was in a movie where there was a trailer for a movie about a seal and I was in San Francisco and people started to do the “hhhsssss” and I’m like, “What the fuck pissed you off?” “It’s about a seal. It’s ugly.” “Damn. Aren’t you wearing a seal skin coat?” “Yes.” What makes me laugh? A lot of stuff. Knocked Up made me laugh. All of a sudden I lost syntax. I laughed at that. I went to see a great Japanese cartoon called “Paprika.” Away From Her, it didn’t make me laugh, it just blew me away. Getting older and when I start to go “Oops, one down.” And a lot of things make me laugh, a lot of comics. I saw a great young guy last night named Dave Hill who is really funny.
He has a site on YouTube. And there’s a lot of good stuff and I just have a good time going and seeing films. It’s fun for me to go just to see a lot of different stuff. It’s weird because as the theaters get smaller and smaller, it’s like the cineplex. It’s a sad thing for me in San Francisco. A lot of the big theaters are gone. They’ve turned into gyms which is weird. “Isn’t this…? Why are we working on a slant.” And then you go to the cineplexes which have the great seats, but they’re still cineplexes. It’s like you end up looking at a screen going, “This is about as big as my TV.” So I’ve been having fun seeing those. And what makes me laugh? Pretty much everything right now. Any press conference, especially if W speaks for more than a minute. He says great things like “A lot of our imports come from other countries.” And the question that is never asked, “Is our children learning?” At that point you just go, “Thank you, Lord.” And the fact that Mel got busted by the only Jewish highway patrolman. I think you have to know there is a God. I saw The Passion. Here’s a little irony.
Wild About Movies: [Most people are] fans of both your dramatic and your comedic work. It’s hard to choose which one you’re better at.
Robin Wiliams: You have to. It’s like “Sophie’s Choice.” Pick a baby.
Wild About Movies: What about you?
Robin Wiliams: What do I choose? The difference for me? I like doing all of it. I like having the idea of doing a movie like this, a comedy with really fun people. I like doing stand-up. For me, it’s like with all the things going on to try and find some perspective on it. And just to find a way that kind of addresses the full gamut of the craziness from both sides. I like both. The dramas for me allow me to explore more behavioral, deeper psychological things. But the comedies obviously allow me to explore the idea of really working off other people. I’m having more fun doing that now. And at the age of 55, I’m a character actor, you know? The idea of an older, furry love interest, unless you’re doing “Gorillas in the Mist: The Musical.” This year we have Transformers: The Movie and then there’s “Lego: The Musical.” But I think it’ll be like, I just want to keep working and all of them are fun for me. Even doing hardcore dramas are fun because you really get to explore something like “One Hour Photo” where I get to explore behavior that normally would get me put in jail. But you get to be slightly sociopathic or psychopathic on weekends. We have one more question. Anybody? How about those with shaved heads?
Wild About Movies: Are there still things that you want to do?
Robin Wiliams: I want to dance on ice. After seeing Blades of Glory, I believe that I could.. or a Musical? I’ve done those in cartoons. I could do a musical. That would be fun. A musical of Freud’s life called “It’s Your Mother.” Line two. “Jung At Heart.” You could do musicals based upon pretty much anything. I don’t know. Pick a subject. You could do a musical on it. “Gandhi: The Musical.” That’d be fun. “The Gandhi Man Can.”