It's quite the year for Oscar-winning genius Robin Williams: A serial killer in Insomnia, a seemingly quiet but obsessive photo developer in the extraordinary One Hour Photo, a disgraced children's TV show host in the unforgettable Death to Smoochy and to cap it off, a return to his roots in stand up comedy. So will the real Robin Williams please stand up? Paul Fischer tried to remove the comic mask in the midst of an unusual locale for Williams: The Sundance Film Festival.
The last place one would expect to find the manic Robin Williams is in the heart of independent film country atop the mountains of Utah: Sundance. He was here to introduce One Hour Photo, a very untypical vehicle for the actor, which opens later in the year. At the top of a Roots store in busy Main Street, Williams is donned thick to the nights in a heavy parker coat and woolen ski cap. After a day of skiing, he announced his arrival by declaring that it "was time to Par-tay."
Interviewing Williams is a challenge but here at Sundance, the irreverent performer was able to focus, breathlessly amidst the cold of the back-alley office in which we met. In this much-discussed era of post-September 11, the time was ripe, says Williams, to hit the country doing what he does with effortless energy: Stand-up. And much of his routine bravely treads those 9/11 waters. ""It's a lot of talking about that," he said. "Wet burka contests. It's a full gamut, what we've been through, the security measures. It's freeing performing stand-up. Comedy in movies is the toughest of all," he admits.
His return to stand-up began as a benefit in Washington, and at that point he knew he needed to return to live comedy. "When we performed that night it was like a great thing to have and the response was huge, actually. Then I started performing in clubs in New York, at a place called The Comedy Cellar. I thought if any place would be a good test, it would be New York. The audience is great, and tough. They were saying I had to talk about this stuff and I went, 'Okay, maybe it's time to go back.'." It hasn't been difficult for Robin to remain comically relevant, as he explains in true Williams fashion. "With George [Bush], it's pretty easy. I mean the fact that he almost died from a pretzel, the fact that we have hundreds of millions of dollars flying air cover over Washington and he dies from a snack food. I mean you can talk about everything. Somebody was on Letterman and he had a great point. He was saying that they can't find Bin Laden, but he's a 6'5" Arab on dialysis. Just look for tracks in the sand."
Williams still lives in San Francisco, a city he loves to poke fun of in these uncertain times. "We have the Golden Gate Bridge; defending it is one hummer - and I'm talking about the car -with two National Guardsmen in complete camouflage. They don't get out of the fucking trucks. They are in complete camouflage but I have one thing to tell them, the bridge is BRIGHT GOLD. It's kind of like from the Elmer Fudd School of Defense. [Fudd's voice] "Be very, very quiet. I'm looking for an Arab. Hahaaaaa." And they'll just sit there. They'll let people go walk across the bridge back and forth and they're thinking that some kid with a backpack is going, "I'm going to take it out." And they won't let bicyclists go across - like somebody is going to have something in pants so tight you can tell what religion you are. It's just insane all this stuff that's going on. Patting down - I have a friend who's daughter is 7 month old and they patted her down like she's got a grenade in her diaper. But as we saw with the man who tried with the mid-Air Jordans, you have to be careful. I mean, the guy trying to light up a shoe: 'It's a no smoking shoe section, sir. Step away, thank you.' "
Williams' rattles off the one-liners with consistent machine-gun like abandon, but when it comes to his upcoming film work, the actor is more focused, knowing that it's his year. First up is Death to Smoochy, which he loudly describes as one "fucking kick-out nasty comedy," portraying a fired host of a children's show who seeks revenge on his replacement, a Barney-like rhino named Smoochy (Ed Norton). This is a dark, comically savage satire on capitalistic bureaucracy directed by Danny DeVito. So where does the bitterness in Williams's sometimes deranged Rainbow Randolph come from? "What the fuck does that mean?" Williams questions with mock anger. "The bitterness comes from my memory of when they cancelled Mork and Mindy. Is it inside? Yes, I have a darker memory of television. Is there a nastiness? Oh sure, that's why I get to perform on stage so that kind of gets it out."
Williams also gets to sing and dance in Smoochy, and he's having a ball talking about this new career move. "I always wanted to do a musical. Because I can't skate, the chances of doing Bicentennial Man on ice are really low," Williams quips. The actor revels in the art of self-mockery, unconcerned about the pratfalls he may have taken with such critical duds as Patch Adams, the aforementioned Bicentennial Man, and the forgettable Jakob the Liar. This year, Williams will turn heads in his trio of dark films. "Why so dark my man? I think because first of all I asked my agent to look for one, but he found three. One Hour Photo was the first one and then Smoochy came through for which I went, 'God, it's Danny and this is nasty funny, and Fosse; I'm in.' Plus enough sequins to make Liberace go, Shut up. Finally Insomnia showed up and that was with Chris Nolan and Pacino and I went, 'Man these are great choices. I knew they are all kind of nasty and dark but hey, what else?' "
One Hour Photo was screened throughout January's Sundance, and the crowd was enthused. Here, he is cast as a Wal-Mart-type photo processing clerk who takes way too much interest in his customers, one family in particular. Williams is a polyester-wearing nebbish who is not quite what he seems. It's possible that performance, possibly his best thus far, may throw his fans. "People won't ask for autographs so much," he said. "That'd be great." Discussing the distinction he drew between playing that character and the irreverent psycho in Smoochy, Williams says that Smoochy "was easier to play because you have access, you can explode and kind of get it out, while One Hour Photo is so retentive. I begin to understand Ashcroft, a man who lost to a dead man if I may say so," he adds laughingly.
If One Hour Photo is dark in a quiet, ethereal way, Williams' other film, the Al Pacino starrer, Insomnia, from Memento's Christopher Nolan, will represent yet another side to the actor's curious persona. Here he plays a psychotic murder suspect tracked by Al Pacino's cop in a small Alaskan town. "Mr. Method Meets Wild Boy," Williams exclaims. But the actor learned a lot from working with Pacino, he says. "I learned to just stay out of his eye-line," he begins laughingly. "I also learned that for the reputation he has of being 'Mr. Method,' he's pretty funny and really has a good time yet he also stays in character and which is a weird thing. He knew that I worked differently because I shuffle to the beat of a different drummer yet working with him is a blast because basically it's a seduction; my character is just talking him through, trying to convince him that what I did was all right."
Now, Williams is on the road again, away from the Hollywood spotlight, and the only one he has to face is himself, minus the cocaine that was once his drug of choice, recalling that "Cocaine is God's way of saying you have too much money." He trained for this latest road trip cycling by day and polishing his routine by night at clubs near his home in San Francisco. "It's a bit like being in Switzerland during a nuclear war," said Williams, who lives with his second wife, Marsha Garces Williams, and their two children. "The business is kind of at a distance. I can make raids, go to L.A. but I'm not surrounded by the constant 'How am I doing?' "
Based on what we're seeing from Williams this year alone, he's going very well thank you.