Robin Williams, Barry Levinson for “Man of the Year”

Universal Pictures new comedy “Man of the Year” has comedian Robin Williams playing a comedian who openly expresses and makes fun of politics on his national talk show. When he decides to run for president on a whim, Dobbs creates quite a following with his grassroots methods and shocks the nation when he wins the election.

Or did he? Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) works for the company that supplied the latest voting software and learns there is a glitch in the system. She tracks down the newly elected President to tell him and Dobbs is faced with a huge moral dilemma. Williams, Linney and Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson sat down to talk about the film recently:

Question: A lot of us were happy to see Tom Dobbs get into the White House. Can you discuss why the film didn’t go all the way there?

Barry Levinson: What you are talking about is that you have to have a sense of integrity. So if you say, “I’m not really the President, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Then you’ve already started down the wrong road. I think in this movie you’re basically saying there has to be some degree of integrity and a place to begin. And ultimately he decides he doesn’t deserve to be the President and ultimately he gives other reasons why he’s best served as being the court jester and not the head of the court. So, it becomes an issue of morality and integrity of where you want to be and how you want to view your life and what you think you really are.

Robin Williams: It’s essentially a moral dilemma too, if you start out on a dishonest foot. That it’s like, even though you may, it’s like Chris’ character – “You can do good!” And if you walk outside there are like 400 Walken impersonators. This is the only town where cab drivers will talk like, “It’s weird. Go to the airport. Why? (something Spanish).” But, the idea that it would be totally dishonest. Like you said, the issue of “I can’t do this.”

Question: Would you be able to make that choice on the high ground?

Robin Williams: On the high ground? I think you are on the high ground if you say no. Even if you have to say that’s the issue for him, it’s not real. I wish that would happen in real life. What happened in Ohio? “I can’t tell ya, heh, heh. The machine had a ‘Can I vote for him?’ day.” The program seems flawed. I’m Stephen Hawkings and I would like to tell you there are more controls on a Vegas slot machine than on a U.S. voting machine. And this is not a message. This is actually me. Thank you. Are you holding an iPod or is that just a? “Nice to see you. (Spanish) Welcome to America! Nice to have you here.”

Question: Have you ever thought of going into politics like Arnold Schwarzeneger?

Robin Williams: Like Arnold? I’m just using my movies.

Question: I like you. I would support you.

Robin Williams: I like you too! It is about politics. I like you, but the idea of running? Oh, not for me. Like my character I believe I serve a better purpose just being able to make fun of everything. In many comics, the moment you chose a side even though people say, “You’re a democrat!” “Yes, I’ve tried for awhile and what’s left of the Democratic Party.” But, I wouldn’t want to run. I mean Arnold ran and has done very well. Right now a lot of Republicans are going, “He’s turning!” And there are people who say he’s actually kind of an anomaly right now – a moderate Republican. He’s a lot like an Omish Tech rep – there aren’t that many. There are not that many moderate Republicans and I think he’s actually using his power to try and maintain somewhat of a stance that there have to be some changes made. And if you live in California, fuel efficiency is sort of realistic. And anyone who grew up in LA in the ’70’s where you actually saw squirrels going (does a voice of someone choking). Literally they will have days where “Don’t go outside.” “Why?” “Because the air is solid.” He is trying to put through some legislation that is controversial and yet still deals with the idea that it’s a democracy and does things that aren’t necessarily popular which is what Dobbs is talking about. Change is not popular. We are creatures of habit as human beings. “I want it to be the way it was.” But if you continue the way it was there will be no ‘is.’

Question: Robin if you did run, what would your slogan be and who would be your running mate?

Robin Williams: Why not? Try me! What could be so bad? It’s a very Jewish campaign. “Why not?” Hello – who would be my Vice President? I would go with Stephen Colbert. His performance at the White House press conference, he deserves the golden spheres awards. I think it’s quite powerful what he did. Someone like that. Or Martha Stewart just to know she’ll have an interesting place to leave. She’s already done time. And as long as she has the ankle bracelet. The idea she could write truly inside living. Truly inside living.

Question: Barry, how do you control this guy?

Robin Williams: Medication.

Barry Levinson: It’s not that difficult. It’s relatively simple. There is a script and as I’ve always said this is what is written, and if we can improve upon something at any given time we’ll do that. A lot of times if I think that I have the take that I need then sometimes we’ll just try something else. Or sometimes I’ll say to him, “Did you ever think about blah, blah?” And then we’ll kick something around and do another take and something else may happen. And if it’s better and if it’s more interesting great. If not, we can just move on. The good thing about Robin is he has enough discipline as an actor to know where the boundaries are. It’s not like he’s just bouncing off the walls and whatever. He does know where we have to get to and what we have to accomplish and if we can improve on those moments we’ll do it. Even though we didn’t have a lot of time for this movie. It was only shot in 42 days and we didn’t have a lot of time and it was only shot for $20 million. So, there wasn’t a lot of time hanging around and doing that. We had to constantly keep moving and still we were able to and Robin was able to find things that would enhance the piece.

Question: Robin Williams is a force of nature, how was it to have a real relationship on screen with him?

Laura Linney: It was wonderful. First off he’s not just a comedian, he’s a Julliard trained actor, and he listens, he really listens and he really works with everybody who he’s working with, he’s not just a geyser of energy and entertainment and razzmatazz, he’s not. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who made so many people so happy. I’ve never seen that before. It was so moving in a way, like everywhere he went there’s a generosity that is really staggering, and very brave. I find him very, very brave. He’s not afraid of people the way that a lot of us can sort shut down or start to protect ourselves because it’s all so overwhelming, he’s not afraid of people, and he’s not afraid of giving. And I used to love to be in a room with him and look at everybody’s faces, and they would just be beaming, beaming. It was really an amazing thing to be around. I just love him. We’re very, very lucky that he’s in our business, we just are.

Question: I’m interested in the tone of political satires, and I’m curious because you are almost relentlessly the serious part of this scenario, I presume you’ve seen the film.

Laura Linney: I have not seen it.

Question: But you know what went into it, so I’m curious what you look for in a political satire or when you’re watching one?

Laura Linney: I think you want freedom, at least I want when I’m watching something, if you’re watching satire you want your mind to be freed up, you want some sort of release of a situation that feels suffocating or feels predictable. You want release; you want freedom from the predictable. It’s the sort of situation, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard opera singers talk about when they’re reaching for a high note they go very deep, when they’re reaching for a low note they go very high. The energy is completely the opposite, there’s the tension between the two, and I think there’s something about that that relates to great drama or great satire or it’s the pitch that you’re going for, the pitch that will break through, the pitch that will allow you to hear something. Not being afraid of going too far in any one direction and then having it all balance, and that’s where Barry is amazing. Working with a director of that talent and experience, and it’s always so interesting for me to see that the younger directors are very easily thrown, the inexperienced directors, they panic. If there’s a problem and it’s not going to go the way they think it’s going to go, they panic. The more experienced directors, they roll with anything that happens. I mean we had a huge snow storm in Toronto in December, that big snow storm, but it wasn’t predicted and we had four days to film outside and it would have ruined – any other director would have panicked and flipped out, and Barry wrote it into the script. He was like, “Okay, we’ll use it.” He wasn’t afraid of anything that came at him, and he knows just to sort of go with things, and it’s that sort of not being afraid of what’s in front of you.

Question: Anything special you wanted to bring to this? A point of view?

Robin Williams: About politics? No, just the system. I just wanted to talk about the whole system. How is it working? Is everyone happy with the way things are. If you’re a Democrat, you’re going, “Gosh, we’re doing well.” If you’re a republican you’re going, “F**k ’em.” But I think it’s the idea that what’s working well right now. Are we as a country doing very well? Are we actually functioning to the best of our abilities? How do we do? If you look at most countries, how do we stand in the world? How do we stand nationally? How come we have not rebuilt New Orleans? How do you do that? How do you function through that and how do you deal with all the different things? And both sides, and not the idea of divisive politics but the idea of united as in U.S. being us and the idea of working together and finding- – and disagreeing and able to work it out. That for me – the system, as a comic, as you see with all these guys like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Colbert, all they’re doing is basically just saying, “Here’s the absurdity.” And people laugh and yet it still goes on. You can look at any given day and go, “That’s insane.” And I think Barry’s pointed out that it’s very easy to be cynical right now because it’s hard to top what’s been going down.

Barry Levinson: That’s why the movie in a sense is – someone said to me about “Wag the Dog” and I said, “Well, ‘Wag the Dog’ was in a more innocent time in a way.” It was in a less cynical time in that regard compared to where we are now. We’re in a much darker period, a much more cynical period, so therefore you have to find a movie that’s going to work in another place because if we’re going to just simply rehash what’s out there, and it’s so crazy and absurdist, you can’t go that way. You can’t top that. So therefore we had to find another place and that’s where this movie falls in a sense is in a different time and place than, say, where “Wag the Dog” was in the ’90s.

Robin Williams: And also if you had a candidate who is up for full disclosure and actually doesn’t care. The fact that he does have a history, the fact that he did inhale, the fact that he’s done all these different things, that he’s a human being. I’d rather have an intelligent human being who has all these different things going on and can deal with you. If you get a certain sense of this is who he is, this is what you get and screw all the other consequences. He hasn’t been spun. And yet it’s hard to have anybody – a lot of these guys you meet, like at the Clinton library, all the ex-presidents were so happy. It was like – even Gore describes himself as a former – it’s almost like he’s been to PA, Politics Anonymous. He says, “I’m a former candidate,” like now he’s freed up to be more himself and can talk about issues he’s adamant about versus when he was running. He couldn’t talk, people might be offended by that. That might lose some votes and you’re going, “You might lose some votes but you may save humanity, but it’s up to you. Your call.” I like breathing. I really like breathing and I don’t like fecal matter in my water. It’s just crazy. I don’t like bathing in my own sh*t. For me it just bothers me, all of a sudden, “What’s that? He’s got brown soap.” But the idea of that’s acceptable. When they start talking about acceptable levels of Strick 9, for those of you doing the math, it’s a poison. It’s not really acceptable over a long period of time and when you deal with mercury. “It can really make your day go badly.” Thank you, people are going, “Oh, don’t do that…”

Question: Was there ever a scene where Robin broke you up?

Laura Linney: I think the dancing scene – dancing with him was just a joy, I could have done that all day. And so moving, he can be so moving, absolutely just – oh God. There’s that section where he came in the ambulance and I’m tied down to the gurney, where they would leave me by the way, they’d walk off and I’d be lying there – like actress in ambulance – I was literally taped down and tied down, and when we’d finished the shot everyone would walk [away] and I’d be left alone in an ambulance, and I’m like, “I don’t want to be here. Someone come rescue the actress.” But there would be scenes where I would look at him and he would just break my heart. There’s a sincerity and a humanity about him that is really just wonderful. Anyway, gush, gush, gush.