His career isn't all rubbery faces and childish pratfalls, insists Robin Williams. But, as he tells Tom Huddleston, sometimes it's easy to get stuck in a lucrative MOR rut
Robin Williams is often dismissed as the family-friendly man-child from the likes of 'Patch Adams'. But the last decade has seen a bolder, braver Williams setting out to undercut this cosy persona with films like Mark Romanek's 'One Hour Photo', Christopher Nolan's 'Insomnia' and now his new film, Bobcat Goldthwait's pitch-black comedy 'World's Greatest Dad', in which he plays the long-suffering father of a revolting child. Here, Williams talks frankly about heart surgery, hard work and sucking the Hollywood teat.
Do you get frustrated by the public's perception of you?
'Sometimes. A woman walked up to me in the airport and said, "Be zany!" It's like walking up to a dancer and saying to them, "Dance for me! Come on, tap!" People think I'm that way all the time. I did a talk show and the presenter said, "You're very thoughtful." I can be, yeah! Sometimes they want you to be crazy, other times they want you to be quiet. They ask, "Are you always on?" On what?'
Do you think you spent the '90s stuck on a family movie treadmill?
'That's what they were offering, and it's very hard to convince people to offer you something else. I was paying the bills, and they were offering shitloads of cash. The scariest thing was that people would say, "This is definitely going to be a hit." That's the danger. They dangle big money in front of you and go, "You want to do this?" Yeah! Sure! And you end up driving it into the ground.'
Were you rejecting serious roles?
'I wasn't getting offered those roles! When I got offered them I said right away, "I'll do 'Insomnia', I'll do 'One Hour Photo'." It was so freeing! As Anthony Hopkins said once, playing evil is seductive because you can explore behaviour that in real life you'd do prison time for. Most nasty fuckers are very charming.'
So more recently you set out to challenge people's ideas of you?
'I set out with the idea of doing something different. I knew I had to change, for my sanity, for my career. I had to see if I could do something else, give myself room to move.'
Do you have any advice for actors who may still be stuck in that loop?
'They all want to break away. When you see Adam Sandler in a movie like "Funny People", you know he wants to break out. He makes the other movies for two reasons: because it pays the bills, and because he has a good time. Why not? "Grown Ups" got nasty reviews but he had fun. He's working with his friends, he has a fanbase that loves him and he wants to make movies for them. But the other part of him wants to make movies like "Punch Drunk Love", and he will. He's got the capability.'
So what appealed to you about 'World's Greatest Dad'?
'It's a strange, small piece. I took it initially as a favour to Bobcat, thinking that if I played a small part maybe it'd get financed. Then I read it and went, "Would you mind if I played the main character?" He's a really interesting, awkward, damaged guy, and the subject matter is so powerful. I think the title catches people, they think it's going to be goofy. But if you've seen any of Bobcat's other work, you'll kind of know what to expect. I mean, in his last movie a girl blows a dog.'
Why did you return to stand-up recently?
'It was to pay the bills at first. But at the same time, after eight years of Bush, I felt like there was a lot to talk about. And I was talking about all the things that had happened in my life, the rehab, my heart surgery, which happened halfway through the tour. For the first part of the tour there was no heart surgery, second part of the tour was, "I'm back, I'm alive! It's Me 2.0!" But the good news is I'm doing stand-up rather than rushing off to do a movie that I shouldn't do. But it's hard work, fuck man, 80 cities! Is it a wonderful life? No! It's fucking brutal!'
So does Robin Williams 2.0 feel a greater urge to make a stamp on history?
'No, I'll just keep going. I'm just travelling at the speed of life, not just to smell the roses but to enjoy the simple things like breathing and friends and working with people like Bobcat on films like "World's Greatest Dad". Playing great characters roles in interesting ensemble pieces. It's a gift.'
Is comedy becoming an older man's game?
'There's a wider age range, but there's a whole new wave of young people coming up who are just as scary and good. But you know, for me, whether it's a new kid like Jamie Kilstein or someone like Joan Rivers, the stuff that gets me is the stuff that's honest and fearless. And that's what I'm hoping to do. It's going to take some adjustment. I remember George Carlin at the first Comic Relief. He walks out, he's the first comic on and he says, "Anorexia? Why do I give a shit if some rich cunt won't eat?" And then I come on and go, "Ladies and gentlemen, our phone lines are open!" '