World's Greatest Dad

Originally published on June 22, 2009 | | written by Rebecca Harper

Hulu: Can you tell me a little about Lance Clayton, your character in World's Greatest Dad?
Robin Williams: [He's] a writer with aspirations of writing a novel. He teaches poetry at a small private high school. I think it's a private high school, or maybe a public school that has uniforms. And he has a very kind of tough son who's fairly rough.

Yes, I saw the trailer and clips. He seems like he's pretty difficult.
Yes, I think "difficult" is a better word. Thank you. He requires tough love and I try and give it, but I don't know if I'm working very well at it. Kind of the opposite of Dead Poets Society.

Speaking of, I was going to ask--this isn't the first time you've played a teacher, for instance, you did Dead Poets Society...
This one might be called "Dead Penis Society."

Was your character already a poetry teacher in the script, or is that something you added?
No, no, he was already an English teacher. He has a poetry class that's somewhat popular, but barely holding on, and they're about to shut it down because of school cutbacks. I guess it's the principal who says, "Your class isn't very popular." And I say, "Neither is poetry." But it's the idea that teaching it is kind of an optional class. He loves it, but not many people are attending.

What draws you to these teacher-type roles?
What drew me to this role was working with Bobcat and the father-son relationship. Teacher roles, this one--he's not exactly the most successful teacher. So that's why it's a view of the other side of the coin. He's an unpublished writer, too, so he's got a lot of you know premise envy going on.

In the film, you and your son butt heads over Bruce Hornsby, so I wanted to ask, do you really like Bruce Hornsby?
Actually I do. I really like his music. It's very sweet. I've been listening to it because I've been putting together a CD with some of his songs. I love a lot of his instrumentals especially. They've got a very Southern gentility about them, which I kind of love. The songs are very sweet and, I don't know, they're kind of melancholy when you listen to them. Maybe that's just my state of mind. But I do, I do like him.

How much of the role was scripted versus what you brought to the character?
It was very well-written. ... There's no percentage. Given the fact that most of the players were friends and family, we're real easy with each other, so we know we can go off on it. Especially the boy playing my son [Daryl Sabara], who's really great at improvising, because we would try stuff and Bob would say, "OK, go a little further," and we did. Which is rare, but when you have a director that you know that well, you feel safe enough to go "Sure, I'll do it. Let's try this."

Do you think Lance is the "World's Greatest Dad?"
Hardly. He's a work in progress. I think he needs a lot of work, but he loves his son dearly and tries to do the best he can. It's nurture versus nature sometimes, and he's trying. Being a single dad, too, he's got a lot going on. But he's a dad, and all that implies. He has flaws, and obviously his son is pretty exacerbating. His son pushes the envelope a lot. [Lance] tries to be loving and kind and supportive, but at the same time going, "You're a prick!"

How long have you known Bobcat?
Oh my god, 30 years, I think.

And what was it like working with him?
Wonderful. He's a really brilliant guy. We have one image of him basically doing that one character he used to do in his standup years. [Makes whining noise.] You know, Bobscratch Goldfarb. But if you've seen his other movie, Sleeping Dogs Lie, you never see him shy away from unusual premises. He's really knowledgeable in film and he's, I think, a very good writer, too. So I think it was a great combination. And also I have total trust in him. Because as a friend, I went, "OK, let's try this." It was one of those movies where it was so simple. It's kind of like working with Gus Van Sant. You don't have to worry about anything, you just do it. We shot in Seattle and that also felt very comfortable because it was supposed to be based in Seattle. We weren't in Vancouver pretending to be L.A.; it's all in Seattle in a sweet, small, strange neighborhood. It felt great to shoot there and be part of this cast of people who, like I said, are mainly friends and family, so it's even more comfortable. It borders on being a documentary that way.

That sounds really nice.
Oh it is, it's really kind of... I don't know. I think Bob is like Cassavetes. He gets together a group of people that know each other and are really comfortable with each other. You can try stuff, especially if you're doing stuff as weird as this--you have to be comfortable and not feel like, "Um, what are we doing here?" You know what you're doing.

You must have had some interesting moments on the set. Do you have any prize moments you'd like to share with us?
There was a strange moment where I'm on this supposed talk show, where all of a sudden this woman starts talking about my son. And it's that weird thing where you're caught in a lie, but at the same time, she's going "He must have been an extraordinary boy." At that point you realize, no actually he wasn't. It's that weird thing about remembering him and missing him, but also laughing at the giant joke of it all, the kind of a cruel joke. And then I find myself weeping and laughing at the same time. It was pretty strange. I think it was like a breakdown, but a strange one. And everyone was going, "Wow, I haven't seen that before." And neither have I. It was kind of interesting as it was going along, and then we finished the first take and Bob starts going, "Do you think you can do that again?" And I say, "Oh, yeah."
The woman who was doing the interview was actually great because she did work on a local morning talk show, so she was perfect. I'm laughing and crying, and she kept going, "This must be very hard for you." I was like, "Yeah, it really is." It was this kind of surreal thing, and the audience gets it, and it's huge. At this point, they kind of realize "You're caught, dude." There's just a lot of that, trying things where it's new. And to be there and do it and go "Yeah, let's try it again," and not be afraid to go again and see what we find. That's kind of great. That's kind of the moment where you're like "Hey, this is why we make movies," to find that moment. I haven't seen that before. And Bob said when he saw that moment, "I haven't seen it in the movies before." I think it's interesting.

It sounds like it was a really great experience for you.
I think it was. It's tough material, but the people... when you work with people that good and that nice, it's worth it. And that's what I want to keep doing.

You've played a whole range of characters through your career, from Mork to, more recently, Teddy Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum movies. What have been some of your favorite roles?
I think it'd be the teacher in Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating. The doctor in Awakenings because it's based on a friend, Oliver Sacks. Parry in The Fisher King. Armand Goldman in Birdcage because it was a great ensemble of people. And Good Will Hunting.

All great roles.
They're all experiences where the making of the movie means just as much as the movie itself. That, to me, is a great thing. And the characters, if you look at them, they're pretty bizarre and quite different. Mrs. Doubtfire just because it's massive. It's like full-body puppeteering. Once you're inside that makeup with the beanbag breasts, it's like "Wait a minute. I'm a Muppet at this point."

Are any of these roles a close reflection of you personally?
I don't know. I don't really know what "me" means, the core. But philosophically, Dead Poets. Psychically, Fisher King. Just because of that idea of being slightly damaged, I think. Awakenings in terms of the curiosity of the human brain and the mind, and the functionings of the human mind. I've been so fascinated by that stuff ever since I did Awakenings. I can't really say one's most like me. I think they all have parts of me. As anyone would say when they're acting, you put a little of yourself in every role.

Robin, I want to thank you so much for your time.
I want to thank Hulu for this. Bob said the trailer has been doing great on Hulu. It's so cool. For a movie this unusual... Hulu is great that way.

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