Robin Williams on "House of D"

Originally published on April 18, 2005 | Cinema Confidential | written by Jenny Halper

Before Robin Williams sat down to discuss David Duchovny's directorial debut, "House of D," I was told that I was going to sweat. "He jumps around a lot," said a fellow member of the press. "And he's very hairy."

Well, I didn't sweat. And I didn't notice superfluous hair. I did laugh so hard I had trouble speaking, and when I did muster the courage to ask a question, the words were very jumbled (Williams had to pat me on the back). Fortunately, the actor didn't need much prodding when it came to talking about his latest film.

In "House of D," Williams plays Pappas, a mentally retarded janitor living in 1970s Greenwich Village. When his only friend, thirteen-year-old Tommy (Anton Yelchin) romances a fellow seventh-grader (Williams' daughter, Zelda), Pappas' reaction sets off a tragic chain of events.

David said you didn't know each other before making this movie.
I met him once in Vancouver, he was doing "The X-Files" and I was doing "Jumanji." I wandered down this main street there and said, "Can I meet...?" And they said, "Yeah." And they came up and the crew member said, "Robin Williams wants to meet you." And he went, "Yeah, right, Bullshit." I went, "Hi, Mr. Duchovny. Hi, Fox! You're really groovy. Where's Mulder!" He was--I met him then and then a couple of times afterwards at different fundraisers and stuff.

Are you a fan of "X-Files"?
Oh, big time. Especially the first couple of years, when it was the creepiest. The horror episodes and a lot of the alien possession.

Did David change the script when you were hired?
Not at all. Not at all. It's not a character who's going to be riffing, number one. "And now I'd like to try a really long riff." No. "I want to lie down riff."

The scene on the balcony seemed like it was improvised.
Some, but it was more--that was all written. That was all written. "I shaved my ass once." I did it that day. I said, "Screw method acting!" "Why did you shave your ass off, Robin?" "Becuz, it was the character and I wanted to be uncomfortable..." No, it was lines that he had written. They're all there.

How did you get your daughter involved?
David and I were rehearsing and going through the script at the house. He still hadn't cast that part. Zelda said, "Can I read for him?" I went, "Sure." She read for him and she was so natural that he went, "I'm gonna look at other people, but I think she can do this. I'm serious." Because it was not like, "You either hire her or I'm gone." She got it on her own. She did great. The first day she was really into character. There was no moment of like, nerves. She was so relaxed. It took me years to learn what she knew the first day. So maybe genetically or whatever, she knew what she wanted to do. The other part was she was nice to people. There was no La Diva Loca. She treated people with decency. Everyone said, "Your daughter's a good actress but she's also very kind." I went, "That's a great compliment to her."

Are you comfortable with your kids acting?
Ah! So far! Yeah. There's been no Paris Hilton videos. She wants to continue. We also want her to continue school. We keep saying things like, "Natalie Portman--remember that! Jodie Foster--degree!"

There was kissing...
There was kissing.

Were you on set?
No, I'm not there going [waves finger] "No! None of that! You're in a meat locker! That's the only meat we'll see, right? No, no, no. Put it away. PUT IT AWAY!" No, no, there's none. I'm not going to be there making her any more uncomfortable than it was. It's bad enough having a teamster going, "Do you need anything?" I had a scene in "Moscow on the Hudson" and a guy showed up that day that I'd never even seen on the crew. He was like, "That's my brudder! He just wanted to know if youse needed anyt'ing in da tub." No, I would not put any more pressure on her. She did it beautifully. She and Anton both had an uptown and downtown relationship and really a kind of beautiful innocence about them. He's good. He's straight ahead good. That's why David is a director--he picked people that really kind of fit it. Erykah Badu and Anton together. That's a wonderful mentoring relationship. And the "House of D" existed, for anybody who grew up in New York. A friend said he used to go--he and his friends would go and if you threw a pack of cigarettes up to the girls, they'd show you their tits. He was like, "It was so much cheaper than 42nd Street!" So that was part of the experience of down there, where they had jails and there wasn't visiting hours. People just yelled back and forth. And there was a lot of people, on the weekends especially. That's why I'm glad we got to shoot in New York. You shoot a movie about New York in New York and it's a whole other bag. A lot of movies like this are either made in Toronto or Montreal, because they get such a huge tax break. But now thanks to local government and everybody, everyone's working together to make it happen, even for tiny movies, which is where it's at. Thanks to the union and to everybody! God bless you! God bless you in the neighborhoods, too! Thanks to the people in Soho. Thanks for letting us do that, except for the one guy with the dog--fuck!

How long were you on the set?
I was pretty much there most of the time. There were only a few scenes I wasn't in. We shot in Brooklyn, too, which is great. I've never been to Fort Greene. It was good.

How do you prepare for a role like Pappass?
You just do the research about a high functioning mentally handicapped, or like you said, "mentally challenged," or from those days: "Well, you're a tard." But there's a certain physical look. We went to that. Socially adept but intellectually and emotionally not that adept in certain situations. Intellectually about a ten or eleven year old. And physically it was like that--capable of doing manual labor and stuff. That's why I'm the brawn and Anton's the brain. He's literally my mentor in certain ways.

How does the challenge of performing this kind of character compare with a straight drama like "Insomnia" or "The Final Cut"?
It's different, because once again the mental boundaries. Mmm, the straight drama... it's still basically a drama. You give him the same dignity as you would any other--the weird thing is to try and find the humanity of a character in, like, "Insomnia." Even the most twisted psychopath somehow has a self-image and they'll work it through. They see that. To see that's in some way kind of normal behavior coming out of people who have done pretty hideous things. In the worst case, you find a kind of a dignity. Y'know, he has a vision of himself. He has relationships. He obviously has problems with his father and that thing about--later on he's saying--after he's gone there's a positive memory even of his father, who was an alcoholic prick to him even at that time. He treated him badly.

In the last scene, your character seemed to have lost his sense of joy, his innocence--
Oh, no. He's in a quiet mode. It's not like he's walking around going, "HI, EVERYBODY!" He's like those guys that, they'll light up when they see people they know. He lit up when he saw him, and then he said--and then he gets very talkative--"This is why, these are the things..." And he'll go through a whole litany of stuff that--because if it's somebody they know. If they don't see somebody, they'll be, "Get away from me!" Because you treat him like a New Yorker. "Get out of here! Get a life! Walk away!"

What do you think happened in the years Tommy was gone?
He's also older. What happened? It was probably about 20 years of living. It probably--like you said, coming through and watching the whole world change. His father died and he's either living in an assisted building or living at home but probably on some sort of stipend. So he's not the same--because his best friend had gone. I think life was different--difficult for him for a while.

You're getting into a lot more drama...
Because it's the only thing that's come through that's been good.

Are you going to go back to doing more comedy?
I'm trying to get back into it if there are some funny ones, rather than--if they send something that was funny, I go, oh this is funny! I'd love to do that! Now this movie, the next one is "R.V." with Barry Sonnenfeld. That's a comedy. There's one called "Parent Wars" about the desperate things that parents will do to get their kids into Pre-K. It's all right, it's over now! "I had to give blood!" "We're having a blood drive. Your daughter's on the waiting list." "Oh! Add another pint." Oh man, the shit that people have done in terms of trying to get their children into any daycare, I mean... Pre-K. It's not even a K! There are already people analyzing how kids play with blocks. "Your son's a little aggressive with the letters. I didn't really find a psychosexual moment. He keeps erecting things. That's a little Freudian."

Has doing roles like "Insomnia" made you any more confident?
No. I mean, it's more--age makes you more confident when you realize it's time now to do things that--there's not the pressure to perform on some level of expectation. It's more just to explore. You know, maybe that's the confidence. There's no expectation on that level, because you're kind of working outside the radar. When you're doing big blockbuster movie, there's a huge--I mean, you're on the radar constantly. In this way, you're outside and you can come in and--I remember with "One Hour Photo" I got--you know, there was a great compliment when this hardcore homeboy came up and said, "You scared me, motherfucker!" [Laughter] I hope I didn't! It would be nice to get prison fan-mail. But it is that way. No, it's not more confidence. You're just more relaxed and more--you realize that you're a character actor and it's a whole different bag.

You have to find something different...
Yeah, that's why I kind of went with a physical look, a whole different look. You know, you had Sean Penn doing that one character (in "I Am Sam"). You've had a lot of people, and they have also had movies with the real people. This is a very specific film, so you want to try and find a range that you haven't seen in most people. People who know, who go, "I know what that is." And other people who kind of look around and go, "Oh, that's different--" I mean, that's functioning that he's--he's very verbal. But he's... slow? With certain things. But he's able to understand and pick up what's going on emotionally. But it's an arrested development at a certain stage. About 11. 10 maybe. That's why when he starts to see Anton, it's like a little brother seeing an older brother start to have girlfriends. It's like, "No, that's bad. It's not good. I'll mess it up if I can."

There's been talk about a "Mrs. Doubtfire" sequel. Would you do it?
If it's good, I'll do it. If it isn't good, it's not worth doing.

Because they couldn't do it without you?
They could, but it would be another man in drag--"Mrs. Don't shoot!" I don't know. I mean, it has to be good. It isn't worth going back. They talked about doing a Birdcage 2. It's like, No. They did two or three "La Cage Aux Folles." Two of them were good, and one was really strange. But if they write a good one, they'll be great. But not in any--there's no financial--maybe that's also it. There's no financial pressure to. "I better put that one out now! We've stashed enough coin, we can relax."

There was a story on the AP wire last week about Oscar hosts. You were on their shortlist.
I would never do it. Oh man, no. There are people who can do it and obviously do it wonderfully, and you know... it's a tough night, man. The moment you look out--One year I was just presenting and Gregory Peck said "You're not going to grab your penis, are you? I hope you don't. It's a big night." Laurence Olivier was like, "You're not wearing makeup are you?" "No." "You're not dating Danny Kaye are you?" It's a whole other game to host it. Because after the first ten minutes, people get pissed. The number of losers dramatically increases and they do have an open bar, unlike the Golden Globes. I mean, the Golden Globe does have an open bar, but in the Oscars people have to kind of leave. And if you notice this year, it's kind of like a game show. It's kind of like The Price is Right. COME ON DOWN! You, dressed as a Zucchini, you got the Academy Award. Let's make a deal! It's kind of surreal. The best part of that whole show is after all the people who'd lost, you know, they'd brought them all up and one would stay. They were all back stage saying, "Email me! Call me!" Kind of networking backstage. That was like, put a camera here! This is the future of showbiz. Like I said, put an award in the middle of the stage and the first one there who can keep it for more than three seconds--make it like a reality show. I'd like to crawl across a pit of agents. You have to get through the agents, all of them taking ten percent. No, I would never host. No, no, no. Wrong person. Who else is on that list?

Have they offered?
They have offered and I've went "Thank you." They don't pay anyway. It's a tough gig. People who have done it--I know friends, they start preparing three months in advance.

That's what the story is about. They're looking for a host already.
Already? It's like a new relief pitcher. Even Chris [Rock], you come out and fire hard and then you got to get through another three hours of, "And now... the Irving Thalberg Award." I always wonder if there are people in China going, "Wake up. The Irving Thalberg Award is soon. Fuck actor. I wait for technical award. I want to see Best Sound Editing. All the time I wait for Best Sound Editing. I know Brad Pitt is. I no see him."

How did David Duchovny compare with other directors that you've worked with?
He compares with any of them.

What did he do differently from the rest?
He talked to himself. (laughs) I don't think anybody else acted and directed at the same time. No, that was the hardest part. I never saw that before and I saw how hard it is. I'd be in scenes with him and you'd literally see him go, "Did I do that?" or "Did I do that well?" I go, "I'm playing retarded. I can't tell. I think you did okay, but I would look at the playback if I were you." But that was the only hard part. But other than that, I think he's got great potential and first film, first script, he's done a good job. As a writer, I think he's very good. As an actor he's good, too.

Is directing anything you've had an interest in?
No, not at all. Because, as Peter Weir once said, he said, "You know, there are people who direct and then he starts seeing all these people who've acted and directed and he said, "I've always wanted to be a director but if there's a plumber, I don't want to be a plumber." I don't know how that fits in with the whole question, but I don't ever want to direct! I realize there are people who do and have made the jump.

Are you surprised by your career?
Yes, I'm always surprised. I'm surprised I'm still working, because it's been a real interesting ride, but I'm back where it's at right now because I get to do interesting things and not be--there's no pressure.

Was there a time when you did feel pressure?
Oh, there's a pressure. There's some when you're doing big budget movies. And then when you don't, when you start falling off that list, you're in that most powerful 100 and then all of a sudden people are--and then it's like, I'm not even in "The Forward."

What have you got coming up?
I have the movie called "The Big White" that was done up in Alaska. That's wrapped. There's a cartoon I've done with George Miller, it's a computer animation more than a cartoon called "Happy Feet" about penguins. I play five or six characters in that. Now it's down to five. One of them sounded too similar. Then there's a movie, "The Night Listener," I'm shooting right now, based on a New Yorker piece and then a book that Armistead Maupin wrote. But that's pretty much it for a while.

What's "The Big White?"
It's basically about a guy who tries to defraud an insurance company; his brother has been missing for four years, and he finds a body. Actually, he kind of happens on it and then he takes it out in the woods and lets the animals maul it and then--it's a nice enough idea on the surface, but they think it's his brother and there's no genetic--they have no ID on his brother, and the insurance company's gonna come out and do this and it's a real scam to try and pull that off, but everything screws up.

And you're the anchor?
Yes, I'm the travel--a guy who has a Caribbean travel agency in a small town in Alaska. Business isn't good.

What's the first film you can remember seeing that made a big impression on you?
"2001." My father--I remember seeing it with my parents in the theatre and just being in Cinerama. With the Cinerama experience, you don't need acid. It was just like duh-duh-duh. It knocked me out. It was like here it was and like you said, it was this weird--Cinerama was No. 1, but No. 2, it's science fiction, which I'm massively addicted to and I think it's just the idea that it's Kubrick, too. It's so surreal and it's just like, "What was that? What's the baby?"

Do you have any idea what it's about now?
I do after reading all the books, yeah. I mean, you realize with the books that that was his whole evolutionary step and you read the books and you really go, Oh! Finally! [laughs] You read about that there are creatures that came that were their guardians that looked like demons that came and basically gathered up all these children and they form, and suddenly the children break away and they're kind of special children and they break away and they suddenly start to evolve and they become almost like an army, and then they leave as the next developed species. I think that's the end of Childhood's End, the species.

The movie was originally supposed to end with the child destroying the world.
Wow. Even Kubrick went, "cars aren't good."

Did you see the "Mork & Mindy" movie?

Did that piss you off?
Piss you off? No. The thing is, you have no control over it. I mean, when they're making a bad movie of your life, you go, Okay, I guess I'll wait and see it on the Cartoon Network. You hear they're doing it. I was in Vancouver for a benefit. They said, "Do you want to go visit the set?" "Not really. Do I want to go see someone play a drunken me? I'm okay with that." They don't ask for legal consent. They know they're off the radar with that. It's pretty much a work of fiction. I remember Pam called and said, "Do you know about this?" I said, "Yeah, do you wanna go get them! I'M HERE YOU FUCKERS!" It wasn't like that. Pam and I had a great sense of rapport.

Wall of Tributes >