Robin Williams: The roles that move him most

Originally published in 2000 | | written by Barnes & Noble

One of America's most enduringly popular comedic actors, Robin Williams has become something of a comic institution in this country--given his often outrageous outbursts, some might even argue he should be in an institution... For over twenty years now, whether it's playing motormouth disc jockey Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam, the frumpy but aggressive Mrs. Doubtfire, or the antic, free-styling Genie from Aladdin, Williams has never been at a loss for comic inspiration. His dazzling, improvisational gifts make it easy to forget that over the years he's also brought a good deal of depth and dramatic compassion to his performances, most notably in his beautifully restrained, Oscar-winning turn as a psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting. Williams took time out from his hectic schedule to talk with Barnes & about some of his most challenging screen roles.

You spend a good portion of Bicentennial Man in a robot suit. How did that affect your performance?
It's very strange. Everything from where your feet make contact with the ground to the way you move your hands, it's all dictated by the suit. Once they encase you in it, it's a bit like being in heavy makeup--you're kind of freed by it. It defines who you are. Once you realize that, then you try to push the limits of what you can do in it.

A completely different kind of challenge had to be finding the humor in the experience of the Holocaust, which you did in Jakob the Liar.
That was always daunting. From the very first time I read the script, there was a certain amount of fear about how to handle that with respect and, yet, still honor their memory by being as dark and ironic as they were. That was a difficult test.

Which of the films you've done had the greatest personal impact?
As a learning experience, Awakenings was probably the closest thing to expanding into an area I didn't know much about. The opportunity to meet Oliver Sacks, the man who I portray, was extraordinary. I have had a connection with him ever since then. For me, what's most fascinating about his work is the neurology, the study of the brain--it's almost like quantum physics that he treats patients in that way. I've always been fascinated by that, so its probably had the biggest effect on me of anything I've done. And the other one, next to that, is Dead Poets Society, just because I got to work with Peter Weir. He'd say, "Push the envelope. Try to see what you can do that would affect the situation, but also look for something different. Don't keep trying the same thing." That's the kind of passion for creation that's driven me since then, gotten me to take more chances.

Awakenings was the first time you portrayed a doctor. Since then, you've played physicians in Good Will Hunting and Patch Adams. Why do you keep getting cast as MDs?
Because I already have gloves, see? That works! [laughs] Oh, I don't know. I mean, I got lots of letters after Good Will Hunting, from therapists and psychiatrists saying, "Thank you for portraying us in a humane way." Many of them said that they aspire to do therapy like that and actually do run a very personal kind of practice. It was nice to get those letters. But they also said, "And what's the problem with your mother?" [laughs] That's a different story! Maybe that's why I get offered doctor roles versus psychopaths. But I could play a psychopath.

Can we expect to see you in that kind of role in the future?
You know, that's the one thing that's kind of evaded me. People keep asking me, "When are you going to play a really dark character?" I tried it once in a small movie called The Secret Agent, which was a very bleak piece. It doesn't get any more dismal. I later found out that the character I play in that film was actually admired by Theodore Kaczynski. He's not someone you want as a fan, really. It's like, "You got a letter here from Ted."--"I love your work. Please open this package in a small room."

With all of the deep roles you've taken on, are you more confident in your abilities as a serious actor?
Yeah, I can see that I'm getting more comfortable with it. And I'm also getting to work with great people. I mean, I've just put myself out there. You try something like What Dreams May Come, which is an outrageous, thought provoking movie, and that kind of pushes you in one direction dramatically. Then you do something like Jakob the Liar, which is an intense drama of a completely different sort. I try to do all these different things, because it's part of who I am and what I want to explore. They allow me the chance to play a character like I did in Good Will Hunting. Even doing a film like Father's Day, I just wanted to work with Billy [Crystal] so badly. It didn't work out as we hoped, but we'll find something else where we can really kick it out.

Father's Day didn't exactly break the box office. How do you deal with a film that isn't a success?
I have enough friends who are comedians who will come and give me a hard time. When Father's Day opened, I had friends just calling up going, "How's it going?" Click! Lots of different things like that. I mean, when you know comedians, it's a rough friendship. But it's a necessary one where they don't let you take it too seriously.

Director [Chris] Columbus has been more than a friend. He seems to be a key creative presence in your work. A beneficial one. In addition to directing you in Bicentennial Man and Mrs. Doubtfire, he's now doing your next film, The Interpreter. [RWF Note: This movie was never made.] What keeps bringing you two back together?
Besides his great instinct for comedy, there's an incredible literacy to his films. Bicentennial Man had a very human edge to it. It wasn't just about the laughs. That's what was interesting about it. And those are the kind of stories I look for.

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