Crispin Glover for “Willard”

While he’s never been a typical leading man, Crispin Glover has distinguished himself as one of the most intriguing personalities in the movie business. His unusual characters and avant-garde hobbies have inspired a cult-like following that has dubbed him both madman and genius.

The son of actor ‘Bruce Glover’ , Crispin Hellion Glover was born in New York City and raised in Southern California. He picked up his father’s trade while still in elementary school–by age 13, he already had an agent scouting out parts. A lead in a stage production of The Sound of led to guest spots on the TV shows “Happy Days” (1974), “Hill Street Blues” (1981), and “Family Ties” (1982), which in turn led to roles in made-for-TV movies. The adolescent Glover felt “confined” by TV work, however, so he opted to stick to movie parts. He made his big-screen debut as a sex-starved teenager in My Tutor (1983), then followed up with a supporting role in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984).

Glover’s most defining Hollywood moment happened the next year, when he appeared as George McFly (Michael J. Fox’s father) in the instant classic Back to the Future (1985). Shortly after, the actor delivered one of his favourite performances around the same time–playing a small-town kid obsessed with Olivia Newton-John in the independent Orkly Kid (1985). Glover did, however, receive critical praise for his next Indie role, a starring turn as a high-strung murder witness in River’s Edge (1987). Excited by the chance to explore more adventurous projects, he turned down an offer to reprise McFly in Back to the Future Part II (1989). The producers brought the character back to life by splicing together archived footage and new scenes (using an actor in prosthetic makeup). Glover, who hadn’t given permission for his scenes to be recycled, sued Future’s producer, Steven Spielberg, and won. The case prompted the Screen Actors Guild to devise new regulations about the use of actors’ images.

In 1990, Glover teamed up with fellow eccentric David Lynch to play the maniacal Cousin Dell in Wild at Heart (1990). He filled the next decade with similarly quirky, peripheral roles, including a turn as Andy Warhol in The Doors (1991) and a cameo as a train fireman in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and had small but pivotal roles in films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), and People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).

In 1995, Glover began shooting his directorial debut, What Is It? (2000), a surreal film populated entirely by actors with Down’s Syndrome. He later pulled footage from the film into a touring one-man show, “The Big Slide Show,” which also incorporated snippets from his books and albums. The artist in Glover claims to be inspired by “the aesthetic of discomfort,” a theme which has carried over into his public behaviour. During a guest stint on David Letterman’s show in 1987, Glover emerged wearing a wig and platform shoes, then delivered a swift kick toward Letterman’s head that prompted the producers to cut to a commercial. The actor has kept a relatively low profile over the last few years, but fans may have more wacky antics to look forward to as he slips back into the public eye. Late 2000 saw him hitting cinemas with roles in Nurse Betty (2000) and Charlie’s Angels (2000), and now he’s back in the remake of the eerie Willard. Paul Fischer reports.

Question: Do you have a shrunken head collection?

Answer: “No, I don’t have shrunken heads. I had some animal skulls and you’re mixing it up. I never had shrunken heads. That happens to me a lot though. I do have interesting things, but no shrunken heads. I’ll tell you what I had. I had some mice wine which was from China and it had some mice foetus in the wine. It’s still actually popular. See, that does tend to happen to me. Actually, if you think about it, it’s something somebody sent to me from the orient. They sent it to me and that turns into skeletons and shrunken heads. At the same time, I like unusual things, but things can get lost in translation and stuff and it isn’t necessarily accurate. What I do have and have had for many years is a wax replica, wax replicas of some eye disease things. But I almost hesitate to talk about those things and it’s part of why I like to have interviews at my home, because people see what I actually do have as opposed to reading those things and they become talk on top of talk. This is okay. It’s fine. I don’t mind that on the one hand, but there is a certain amount of disinformation.”

Question: How did you hear about the Willard project?

Answer: My agent, I was working on another film, and they said they were interested in me for this film. And I thought it sounded initially like something I’d be interested in. I had never seen Willard, but I knew something about the concept. And it sounded like it would be interested and so I got the script. I read the script and it was a really great part, well written, and I said yes. I was willing to do it immediately. Then, after I started negotiating for it, I watched the [original] film and it was funny, because I already had an image in my head of the character from what I’d read which is different from what the film was.

Question: How much time did you spend alone with the rats?

Answer: Actually, I don’t think I ever spent any time alone with them. The trainers, they’re very careful with the animals. They wanted me to be with the rats, especially with the Socrates rats that I would be working with, for them to get used to me. So, I held them and talked to them or whatever, worked with them a bit. But there are rules and regulations. I don’t know exactly what they are, but they have to be careful that the rats are safe and not injured. Somebody said something before that maybe they would want me to have the rat, and I asked them about that. They said, “No, no, they take care of it.”

Question: Did it ever bite you?

Answer: I don’t think I ever got bitten by any of them, no. If anything, it would be more of a test of anything, but I never got bitten by one. They were very careful, nice creatures, and very well trained. I was enormously impressed with the specific kind of training, because rats scurry for food. I worked with a dog and I worked with a cat in the film, and the dog and cat, they were harder to work with probably than the rats because a dog and cat, they’re just given food no matter what they do, so they don’t have to do specific things to get their food. But rats have to find their food. So, you can teach the patterns so each rat, or six or seven rats, there were two that I worked with more than the rest but they were trained. Some were trained to sit. Some were trained to run down my arm. Some were trained to go into the coffin. It was all very specific and it really helped. I have a lot of emotional scenes with the rats so I was really grateful that they were trained so specifically. They would do it right every time. It was equivalent to an actor. There were not many more takes or anything. Sure, there were things I wasn’t involved in, there was second unit stuff that probably took time to do, but things that were storyboarded out and things having to do with the rats specifically, that was really perfectly done.

Question: What are the tests for the rats?

Answer: They had beepers and they would have food. I just directed a video with the rats as well, because I sang that song, the Ben song. I produced a video. Yesterday and the day before I directed this video. It all happened within a week. It’s actually an expensive production. It was a 1926 kind of Berlin cabaret inspired. We built the set for it and I’m excited about it and we used the rats and trainers and some of the same rats. They use methods where they beep, they put food and then make them run the pattern that they’re going to do right before the takes, and then once they’ve done it once or twice getting the reward, they take the pellet away and then we do the take, but they always reward after we’ve done the take. That’s exactly the method they use.

Question: Was it ever animatronic rats?

Answer: There is some CGI in the film and there’s a very little bit of animatronics. They had them about but I mainly worked with the rats. There were times I was talking off camera and I would just talk to a sitting puppet. Like the scene at the end where I was talking to Ben about how I was scared. Then I was talking to a puppet. I think there might have been some shots with him. No, that was always a puppet.

Question: Would you rather have a cat, dog or rat?

Answer: Well, I don’t have any pets. I have bonsai because I go out of town a lot and I feel bad taking care of animals. I have sprinklers and I just turn them on. I get nervous about having any animals because of that and I have alarm systems, but I like cats. I probably wouldn’t have- – it depends on the situation. There was some property I was interested in buying and it was suggested if I had this property, I should have dogs. I like cats, but I really did like working with the rats. I like them a lot.

Question: What scares you?

Answer: I suppose misunderstanding of thinking. That can be genuinely frightening.

Question: Did you like horror movies?

Answer: That’s not a genre that I’ve ever sought out. There are some horror films that I think are good films, but I’m definitely a cinefile and I’ll see a lot of old movies and all different kinds.

Question: What horror films have you seen?

Answer: Frightening, there aren’t that many films that I actually find frightening. I always liked Repulsion by Roman Polanski. I thought that had a very good – the psychotic element, I thought was well illustrated. That had something genuinely frightening about it.

Question: You were in a Friday the 13th?

Answer: That would be the only one you would call that genre, but River’s Edge has probably a lot more creepy feelings to it than probably Friday the 13th.

Question: How does it feel to be part of that franchise?

Answer: It was funny when I did that film; I knew even at that time that it would be something to look back upon with a sense of humour on some level. So, it’s fine. I don’t regret any films that I’ve done in my career. I’ve always been glad basically to be able to work. I aspire to try to do things that I like, but there are certain films that I really am proud of that I really like, and then certain films that I’m just glad I did it because I was continuing my career.

Question: Back in Charlie’s Angels?

Answer: Mm-hmm. I just finished that in December. I worked a lot last year because the film right before Willard, I worked a couple of weeks simultaneously to that. Then I finished Willard May 30th or something, a Thursday, and then started doing the training for Charlie’s Angels that Tuesday. Then I worked all the way from June until just a couple of weeks before Christmas.

Question: Do you speak this time?

Answer: No, I don’t say anything.

Question: What training?

Answer: Martial arts training, Kung Fu with the Chinese team. The well-known family that did The Matrix and other things.

Question: What was the movie before Willard?

Answer: I did Like Mike just before Willard. I played a school headmaster. I actually haven’t even had time to see it. I was working on Charlie’s Angels and I kind of feel bad about that actually. There are some films I’ve not seen of myself. There are a couple television things I did when I was a teenager that I never saw. I’d like to see them, I just haven’t.

Question: Are you getting to leading man status?

Answer: There are other films that I’m the protagonist in. The difference really is that Willard is the first time I’ve played the protagonist in a studio film. That of course, in terms of release and visibility, it’s a big difference and I’m really excited about that. And the films that I’ve played the protagonist in before, also because they weren’t studio films, but just that it sits in this genre, it’s something they can do that kind of mass release on. And yet it was a really great role, so that’s an exciting prospect for me.

Question: Are you contracted for a sequel?

Answer: No. We shot that [epilogue] just in January. Originally, I died at the end of the film and that’s what happened in the original Willard. I was actually really glad when they said they were going to do that new end because I was thinking, I talked to [director] Glen [Morgan] a little bit when we were working on the film. I liked Glen a lot. I really get along with him. I liked working with him and I think he’s a really good writer, so I was only talking about things in concept as opposed to things should be changed. But at some point or another, I did say conceptually I was confused. I wondered what, because the way it was shot, Ben at the end kills me. And it was a relatively abrupt ending. I felt well, okay I’m the protagonist up to this point, so traditionally in story structure, the protagonist comes back with some kind of reward and they’re back to their normal world ant the audience has a cathartic element with it. I knew it worked financially and people enjoyed the first film, so that worked, but then when New Line brought it up that they were going to do this, I thought it was good. Glen I think was maybe a little upset about it because he said, ‘I like these films from the ’70s like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where he dies at the end.’ But he dies when his head is cut open spiritually, and then when the Indian guy smothers him, that’s actually a freeing of his spirit. So, it’s like a resurrection of his spirit. I even thought of other examples as well and we talked about it and I thought that was good, that not necessarily that I was alive in the film, but there was some kind of resurrection of spirit. Glen made it that I was alive, but I’m really glad. I do think that that’s something that will help audiences feel like there’s a cathartic experience.

Question: Would you come back?

Answer: Yeah, definitely. I really liked making the film and if Glen wrote it and directed it, I would really enjoy that.

Question: How long have you been acting?

Answer: I started when I was 14, so 24 years. Long time. I was in a film when I was 18, so that’s 20 years in film. At 14, I had done Sound of Music at the music centre with Florence Henderson. Then we went to San Francisco to do that, so that’s my first production.