It’s quite a busy year for proverbially chatty Robin Williams. Fresh from this year’s success of R.V. But clearly, it’s movies such as The Night Listener, a dark thriller that impassions the Oscar winner. A psychological thriller that revolves around the celebrated writer and popular late-night radio show host, Gabriel Noone, who develops an intense relationship with a young listener named Pete and his adopted mother, just as his own domestic life is undergoing changes. When a troubling question arises regarding the boy’s identity, it causes Gabriel’s ordered existence to spin wildly out of control as he sets out on a harrowing journey to find the truth. Based on the acclaimed novel by close friend Armistead Maupin, Williams talks about this and other projects, to Paul Fischer.
Question: Is there a flip that you switch to be funny or serious?
Williams: Yes. I think that it’s a choice. There is a conscious choice. So, yeah. I can turn it off or on according to need or according to inspiration. If someone says something that seems like a nice opportunity I will go that way. I will attempt to find the comedy in a Spanish maid. So then we have moments like that and then you have moments where you realize it’s okay and you can talk straight if you want.
Question: With all the personas that you can do have you ever fooled anyone about something?
Williams: No. I’ve not fooled friends. I’ve called up as different people. Kevin Spacey will always call as Marlon Brando. Hard to do now. So sometimes I’ll call people and do that or I’ll answer the phone if it’s someone that I don’t want to talk to with a Chinese accent. In San Francisco if you answer the phone with a Chinese accent solicitors go, ‘Sorry to bother you. Sorry to bother you. ‘
Question: Who’s your best impersonation?
Williams: [Jack Nicholson impersonation] I think that I can do Jack for some people. On the phone it’s fun if you call girls and go, ‘Hey, is mommy home?’ That always gets you an interesting response. I think that works well. I mean, there are accents and things that I can do sometimes if necessary to work off of people which is fun.
Question: When was the hardest time for you in your career because most of us know about the really good times which are when we see you?
Williams: After ‘Mork & Mindy’ was cancelled. I didn’t even find out about that in person. I read about it in ‘Variety’ and I was dressed at the time as a three foot frog doing ‘The Frog Prince’ with Eric Idle. It was just this kind of devastating thing of like, ‘Well, the ride’s over. That’s it. Game’s done.’ Then Eric was great because we had a great and funny day of shooting, and I realized, ‘Maybe not.’ It was just this thing of like, ‘Okay, that’s it. Game’s over. I have to go rob a convenience store with a transvestite.’ That was kind of like, ‘Where do we go from here?’ and then you realize that there is a lot of places to go and that was kind of the roughest point.
Question: Did it take you a while to figure out what to do next?
Williams: About an hour because I was actually performing and doing comedy with Eric that day and I said, ‘Lets keep doing this.’ Then I went back into standup and kept going with that and that really helped. It always helped to have the ability to kind of talk about it and still get the kind of feedback and it was literally like a survival mechanism and it also helped to move out of L.A. because you’re not surrounded by the business. I was literally stopped by a cop once and he handed me a script. ‘You were doing forty, but hey, Mr. Williams, it’s just an idea.’ And parking lot attendants knew how your movie did last week. ‘Sorry about last weekends grosses. Too bad you were number three. I thought that you would open big. I thought that the movie had legs, but they were little legs, Robin. It’s bad. The first screening was pretty good, but I felt that it would be better for me, I thought, if it was five to six thousand. Eight hundred is not good.’
Question: When did it occur to you that you could do more drama on a regular basis and was there a tipping point?
Williams: It was probably after ‘Dead Poets’ that I got the chance to do that, and after ‘Insomnia’ it opened up a whole other side with the dark kind of stranger roles. It was like, ‘Oh, good.’ That was a really sort of wonderful access. Like if you play videogames it’s like accessing the next level. ‘You are now welcome to the dark parts. Welcome.’
Question: But you knew that you could them, that you could access that within yourself?
Williams: Oh, I knew that in spades especially during that time with the cancellation of ‘Mork & Mindy’ and from my drinking years you know that. You find that there is a wonderful side of yourself that stays hidden for witness protection reasons [Laughs].
Question: If you had two particularly good scripts with one leaning towards drama and the other comedy which one would you do?
Williams: Which one pays more? I wouldn’t know. Whichever character that I hadn’t either done before or hadn’t done something like it, or the elements of like director and cast. Then it’s a really hard call if they’re both equally good. I wouldn’t know how to pick that. You’d have to give all of the elements some thought because finding a good script is the toughest part of all and one that doesn’t need a lot of work. The scariest thing of all is when they say, ‘We will fix it.’ It’s like before your leaving on the Titanic and they’re going, ‘We will fix it.’ You’re halfway out to sea, looking at it and going, ‘I’m sure it’ll get done.’ Or as I think that Alec Baldwin says you get a movie and they say, ‘We’re shooting in Paris.’ Then the day you get there they go, ‘We’re not shooting in Paris. We’re shooting in Long Island. It’s a lot like Paris.’ Those are the scariest things when you realize that they’re going to fix it in process. It’s too late.
Question: So the character you’re playing in this is your friend Armistead?
Williams: Yeah, but it’s not Armistead, even he would say that. If you give a percentage it’s only like twenty percent. It’s only Armistead in the sense that there’s somewhat of a southern accent. When you hear Armistead speak he’s a very elegant man, a very articulate man and in San Francisco he’s like the mayor, the second mayor. We have our regular mayor and then we have Armistead and it’s like the idea of having him and that kind of persona of Armistead and then being this other guy. But this based on incidents in Armistead’s life. He talked about Terry [Anderson], and I’ve known him and Terry for years. They’re like friends and family to me. I’ve known them for a long time. So I wasn’t doing an impression of Armistead, but just taking a little bit of him and using that as a kind of base. It’s like when I did ‘Awakenings’ it wasn’t fully Oliver Sacks. It’s Oliver, and pretty much every mannerism, but him because if you did full Oliver it might make him very uncomfortable.
Question: Is it just as gratifying for you when something like an ‘RV’ succeeds and something like this?
Williams: Oh yeah. The fact that ‘RV’ survived the initial maelstrom and then kept going is wonderful. And then you get guys coming up to you going, ‘I took my family to that and we laughed our asses off.’ It’s like ‘Sullivan’s Travels.’ It’s like you go, ‘Hey, dude. That’s what it was wonderful, to have a good time.’ It never claimed to be anything else. I wasn’t trying to change your life. What message did you want to take out with this? ‘Have a good time and a little poop. Good luck.’ But with this one, if people go to this and are affected by it that’s what we made it for. If it disturbs you on that level and you kind of examine the nature of connection and storytelling like even Armistead he described him one thing and then the guy told him exactly what it was and it was much more mundane. It’s that idea. Authors will always expand, and even biographies, autobiographies definitely. People will remember incidents or neglect incidents. Lie by default on that level, but maybe to protect certain people or to change things they will omit.
Question: Why did you want to do R.V?
Williams: With the RV’s you do them to pay the bills with the RV’s, that is why you do the RV’s ‘you whore, you do this for money and the other things you do for love?’ But I have trouble with that too, I mean, it’s a blast to work on that but doing a movie like this you take the pay cut because you know, you’re not going to make a lot of money, there’s not going to be a lot of merchandising on the Night Listener; the Night Listener doll, you get the Toni Collette doll, it comes with two sets of clothes and a little fake doll that you can either not want, have or not have according to what, but it’s the idea of doing a movie like this or like I want to do Man of the Year with Barry Levinson. That’s another pay cut or a movie like Licensed to Wed which you’re getting paid, not huge but still getting paid as a supporting actor which is great. It’s great when you do a movie where you get paid.
Question: What about winning Oscars for serious roles – do you wish that comedies would get that sort of attention?
Williams: I would then like to honor all of the guys who didn’t get one, mention all of the names. Go back to the start. Chaplin had to wait until he was pretty much thrown out of America. Chaplin, Keaton, Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, The Marx Brothers – all of those guys. With the comedies it’s like they’re always treated as if, ‘Yes, those are there and sure it pays for the industry and well, sure, that’s how it started, but they’re damaged people. That’s what they do. They’re just this side of mentally challenged. They’re clients really.’
Question: We all wonder why the comedies aren’t more recognized.
Williams: Well, the Golden Globes has a category, but that’s them. Those are old people and their parents. They know that and we’ve talked about this. I mean, you realize how many great comedies there and how many people are affected by them and comedy is a great art when it works. I’ve never seen anything funnier than Eddie Murphy in ‘The Nutty Professor’ in that scene around the dinner table. That alone would get an award if you’re just going for shear funny. They’re always talking about though, ‘Well, is it meaningful?’ I think that it’s meaningful if you had a great laugh and you actually come out of there going, ‘I’m a human being. I laugh. I fart. I grab. I do things. I’m awkward. I don’t know what I do most of the time. I fall down. It didn’t happen to me. I was laughing at him.’ It’s all part of that and now you have a whole generation of new people coming up. And comedies can be dark like ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ He didn’t get an award that year. John Wayne did.
Question: Is it easier to play the serious parts on the Indie film side?
Williams: Oh, yeah, because studios – obviously a lot of these films are made by the independent wing of the studios. Well, they’re not even made by them. They pick them up. They go out looking for them. They don’t option them or make them. They go out and find them. Studios make serious dramas, but they tend to make ones where it’s like, ‘Here is a face, face, face. Here we go.’
Question: Do you think that this film would’ve gotten made without you being in it?
Williams: I think that it would’ve. I think that they would’ve made it just the same.
Question: What’s your dream now?
Williams: Angelina Jolie. No. I think that it’s just to keep working and enjoy life as it’s been going. It’s been going quite wonderfully.
Question: What about doing more standup?
Williams: I’ve been doing that still. I mean, I do that, but that’s part of the dream. That’s later on when I go home this summer and take a little time off and then start again, going back on the road again to some clubs.
Question: Is that a plan?
Williams: It’s kind of a plan. I mean, right now it is. You have to start off and just lay the base. There is a lot to talk about as in everyday.
Question: You’re very busy right now?
Williams: Yeah. I’ve been doing a lot of movies.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about standup? Why do people do it and how does it feel?
Williams: It feels good when it works and when it doesn’t work there is nothing harder and there is nothing worse. But there are times when it doesn’t work and you go, ‘Okay. I learned that.’ But when it works it’s kind of wonderful and if you really find new stuff it’s great.
Question: How young were you when you realized that you had this unique comic voice?
Williams: I haven’t realized that yet, but I realize that it was working pretty well when I was about in my twenties. I was all of a sudden trying to find a sort of unique voice versus a kind of combination of other things. It was kind of interesting. There was a show one night in San Francisco, a big benefit show and I really started to have a good time and I went, ‘Hey, this is me. This isn’t like Jonathan Winters or something.’ Everyone starts off being kind of someone else.
Question: Is weird to you that you think like that and no one else does?
Williams: That’s almost like a Freudian question. It isn’t weird. It’s basically that I realize that’s how I’m wired. That’s what I do. I mean, there is the idea of kind of looking at things from a different perspective, but in that I hope to find things that other people can relate to that aren’t so out there that it’s lost on people.
Question: I know you were friends with Chris Reeves. What’s it been like to see the new ‘Superman’ movie coming out?
Williams: I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve only seen posters and I go, ‘It’s him. It’s Chris [Reeves].’ It’s like he’s back. It’s kind of wonderful and I hear that it’s quite elegant and that the kid is really great and I think that it’s a great kind of tribute to him that number one they made it again, but that it’ll bring back the memory of Chris in that way. It’s a wonderful thing, and they were very supportive of him. Warner Brothers did a great thing before he died. They created this medal which is like a dog tag with the Superman logo for his foundation. It’s kind of wonderful. It’s a great character and he loved doing it. He took great pride in it.
Question: Having worked with Chris Nolan and them talking about having a Joker in the next ‘Batman’ film would you be interested in doing that?
Williams: Oh, God. I would love to do that. If they do ‘Arcane Asylum’ that would be amazing. ‘Arcane Asylum’ is one of the great and nastiest comic books ever. It’s truly the Marquee De Sad on that level. Wonderfully damaged and quite tragic in terms of you realize the creation of these characters – it’s interesting now that they’re doing, they’ve done these films. They’ve kind of realized with all of the adult comic books or graphic novels for those who are trying to upscale themselves that they can make these really interesting pieces, and there is a lot of great, great comic books and graphic novels out there that could make wonderful movies. They’re looking for them and it’s great. I read this one called ‘DMZ’ which was about New York after what’s almost like a civil war. Could it happen? Every time the helicopters fly over my house I’m going, ‘Welcome to Baghdad.’ It’s kind of interesting though because the country is divided and New York is like all of these other cities like Lebanon or Beirut or Baghdad with military zones of control and yet it’s still The Village and still Soho. So it’s a fascinating concept. But that’s what’s good about alternative forms of literature or stuff that you read like this or short stories. There is so much good stuff out there.
Question: Any idea where you would take the Joker if you got a chance to play him? Over the top or maybe darker?
Williams: You could go both. As in madness there is a lot of places you can go. I think that you can really explore how bright and how nasty funny he is which is what I guess Kevin did with Lex Luthor. He made him really funny and yet still damaged and yet still as evil is, accessible and still horrific. And yet jumping back and forth all the time, ‘Kidding. I’m kidding.’
Question: You’ve got ‘Happy Feet’ coming out next. Was that a chance to go wild with your voice?
Williams: Yeah, that’s the best. I do three different characters. One is an Argentinean Penguin who is very powerful, but very small as you will see from The World Cup. One is like a Barry White kind of penguin who has a six pack ring around his neck, but he treats it as his magic love token and then another one is like a big elephant seal named Cletis. He’s big and slow and not that bright. But it was a blast to do because it’s George Miller. It’s basically ‘River Dance’ meets ‘March of the Penguins.’ So it’s these huge musical dance numbers because one group of penguins they sing like the Emperor Penguins sing, and they do that in real life. They’re mating is based on singing. (SP?) Gilly Penguins, the Argentinean penguins, they’re mating is based upon giving pebbles, a little penguin bling. This one penguin character dances. He can’t sing very well, but he can dance. They got (sp?) Savion Glover to do the dance of the penguin and he can hoof. So it’s kind of the idea of this new transition combined with the fact that they’re trying to survive in the Antarctic.
Question: Who are some of the comedians who you think stayed sharp in their later years and really passed on a good legacy, and how do you hope to pull that off?
Williams: I think George Carlin has pulled it off by just having the great Jonathan Swift vitriol. He had a great line the other day. He said, ‘Just because the monkey is off of your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.’ Cosby has pulled off the long program, but Cosby is just a great storyteller and he’s true to the word of never getting obscene. He doesn’t ever get obscene and never uses any blue words. Robert Klein. He’s fun. But you’re talking about people who’ve been around a long time. I think Carlin, Klein, Richard can’t perform anymore.
Question: What about onscreen performances?
Williams: Oh, God. You’ve got Bill Murray. You have a lot of people. I love it when Eddie comes back and anything that Steve Martin. He can do both. I would love to have Steve direct more because he’s such a bright man and has such a great eye and not only being an art collector, but also being a great writer. He has both.
Question: You have a very strong and serious and compassionate side that comes through in all of your performances. Is there ever a situation where you’re ripping on someone where you think you went a little too far?
Williams: Oh, yeah, I have. There’ve been times where I went, ‘Oh, well, yeah. I shouldn’t have talked about the chair.’ But sometimes you do it and they love it. It’s hard to tell. When I was with Chris we would make jokes like, ‘How is the lawn blower tie?’ because he had the respirator. And then I call it the Black & Decker tie. The first time I introduced him and I said, ‘Here’s my friend, Christopher Reeves. He’s on a roll.’ Just sometimes if you walk the edge you’re going to fall and say something that will be offensive on that level, but obviously you can’t stop though. And if you do that and say something that was offensive, afterwards you say, ‘Listen, I’m sorry. I went too far.’
Question: You just did ‘A Night In The Museum.’ What was it like working with Ben Stiller because his generation of comic actors pride themselves on doing a lot of improv?
Williams: Oh, he improvised like crazy because I’m basically playing a wax figure of Teddy Roosevelt and we do a thing where I abuse him most of the time. I say, ‘Come on, boy.’ It’s a bit like Foghorn Leghorn except from New York. ‘What are you doing? Come on, Leonard. You have to bring yourself forward to catch up with me. Bring yourself and deal with that.’ I smack him a lot too. ‘There you are son. Do that! Get the monkey off of your back and start your life.’ It’s really a monkey. It was funny because I would just his eyes light up and go, ‘That’s good.’ He liked that. He was fun to play off of and it’s a pretty wild movie. For me, any time – it’s about the museum of natural history in New York coming to life at night and if you’ve ever been in there you go, ‘I’d like that.’ It’s a pretty amazing place.
Question: You manage to be different every time you make a television appearance. Is it a thing where you prepare for that or is it spontaneous?
Williams: No. There’s no preparation. It’s just talking and trying to respond, having a good time. For me this is fun. It’s not open heart surgery. It’s just a good time. We talk and sometimes it’ll get heated. ‘Do you believe it or not?’ I like the interplay. That’s why I still like to perform and improvise at this small theater here on Franklin. I’ve been having a good time doing that. I don’t want to cocoon myself. I think that the idea is still to wade out among people like you said and still keeping yourself in the game, still hitting the ball or being out among people. The weird thing is that recently, I didn’t know about it and felt like, ‘Where I have been?’ because I found out about My Space. My son looked at me like, ‘You poor troubled man.’ You find out about all sorts of different things – music, books – from all different source that way it expands versus extract.
Question: What’s the hardest part of raising kids and what’s the most fun part about it?
Williams: The most fun part is watching them change and the hardest part is watching them change, and the fact that they’re growing exponentially. I do think that there is that thing where intellectually they’re going quicker than they are emotionally. So they have this intellect. My daughter is sixteen physically and emotionally, and yet intellectually I think that she’s somewhere in her thirties. It’s like she’s dealing in concepts and all of these things, and yet she’s still a little girl and yet looks like a woman and yet has a boyfriend and yet he’s a nice man. Have they done it? I don’t know. Yet, I know that she’s very sweet and kind and this boy seems kind and I’m going, ‘Great.’ My other son is fourteen and he is just like on all cylinders. He’s out and doing all these incredible things. That’s what’s interesting and also frightening. He’s fearless which is great. He’s fearless which is scary.
Question: When do you get to see your family, you seem to be working…
Williams: I get to see them on weekends; it’s like visitation in prison. ‘Are you my Dad?’ ‘Dad’s back, can Uncle Pete come back?’ ‘Who’s Uncle Pete?’ No it’s, I get to see them…
Question: Well now that you’ve accomplished so much in your career, you’re still relatively young, what do you hope to do with the rest of your life?
Williams: Relative to what? At fifty four, yeah right, it’s not like I’m eighty, I’m still content.
Question: I mean you could keep going for another twenty or thirty years.
Williams: I can and I will and with modern technology I’ll have an erection too.
Question: Do you hope you’ll accomplish something.
Williams: Oddly, personally just to keep doing interesting characters and eventually work with Scorsese before he gets an Academy Award.
Question: Is that an ambition?
Williams: It is an ambition, a life time achievement award with him. No I think to work with him at one point or just to do a musical with Nicholson. We’re singing, I think me and Jack is just great.
Question: To do what?
Williams: I don’t know, I would love to work with him just some day, just to see what he’s like when he works.
Question: I think you once mentioned that you wanted to play Einstein.
Williams: Oh because he’s such a complex character and I was watching this thing on the history channel the other night, it was actually the discovery channel talking about this one German female physicist and I forget her name; Meitner and she is literally part of the early foundations of atomic physics and did most of the mathematics for all this incredible thing, there’s a great story there and there’s also a theory that Einstein’s first wife wrote the theory of relativity and then it becomes a theory of relative’s but we’ll talk later…
Question: That’s another interesting idea.
Williams: Very much For Freud who would be a great character, actually there is a great script about Freud and Jung, for the Jung at Heart it’s called, no it’s not but the idea of the two of them, who had a great and fascinating relationship Jung being a great follower of Freud. At this point when you hit fifty, you are the character actors, you’re in Walter Brennan territory.
Question: Who do you play in Night at the Museum?
Williams: I’m Theodore Roosevelt—-
Question: I can see the casting.
Williams: Me too, when you realize that he is the most incredible President I think obviously in the twentieth century but given what we have right now, you realize that Darwin was wrong, and you realize that this man was so articulate and established so many precedents, and spell it correctly George, you have a man who is just the total exact opposite, who is literally a cipher versus a man who is proactive and established the National Park Systems, the Food and Drug Administrations, the Small Business Administration, the idea of really caring about the individual or as he called it the little man, making sure that everyone had access to these things.
Question: Now look who we’ve got.
Williams: Look who we have now.
Question: Are you supporting Hillary now?
Williams: Hillary, no I mean you support anyone who can actually just put it in place, does she have a shot, I don’t know. People say ‘I don’t know, she didn’t stand up, she’s not’ good luck man, just find someone who can actually just come back at him and say ‘do you have a memory?
Question: What have you heard or what do you know about a rumour about a Mork and Mindy movie?
Williams: I’ve heard that rumour and I would kill it right now; I would stab that in its sleep because I would not want to do that. They can do it with someone else; good luck, have fun.
Question: Do you think Mork is ageless…?
Williams: I don’t think, he’s aged. The egg has soured.
Question: What about License to Wed how much of that have you done?
Williams: I’m almost done. That’ll be the next one.
Question: The minister with Mandy Moore?
Williams: Yes a Minster with Mandy Moore, I’m administering Mandy Moore; they said ‘are you a priest?’ I said ‘they had a child, we can’t have a priest’ there’s a choir boy in every scene, so he goes ‘can you be a priest?’ ‘I don’t think so, what’s the boy for, weekends’ ‘no it’s not.’
Question: Which one do you like best; comedy or drama?
Williams: I like them all, it’s kind of, they feed each other really well, the comedy gives you a fearlessness and a really kind of a concentration in order to pull it off and the drama just gives you a sense of detail and kind of exploration.