Robin Williams on "House of D"

Originally published on April 13, 2005 | | written by Edward Douglas

When actor David Duchovny decided to direct his first feature film, House of D, he returned to the place he spent his youth, New York City's Greenwich Village, to tell a coming-of-age story about a teenager named Tommy who is dealing with the death of his father, the grief of his mother and the jealousy of his older mentally retarded friend Pappass when he finds first love. When he has nowhere else to turn to, he gets advice from a convict at the local women's house of detention (the "D" of the title), who yells it down to him from her cell window high above the street.

Besides playing Tommy in the modern day, Duchovny assembled an impressive cast including Anton Yelchin (Hearts of Atlantis) as Tommy, his wife Téa Leoni as Tommy's mother, and comic actor Robin Williams as the mentally challenged Pappass. Williams' daughter Zelda debuts as Tommy's love interest Melissa and singer Eryka Badu plays Bernadette, the woman at the house of detention who has such a pivotal role in Tommy's coming of age.

Although most of them live in California these days, Duchovny brought the cast of his film back to New York to talk about the movie, so conducted a bit of a round robin interview with them, starting with Duchovny.

What made you want to tell this particular kind of story as your first film? Were you in a situation like the Thomas character was at the beginning of the movie?
David Duchovny: Maybe, but not consciously. I didn't choose this to be my first film; it just happened to be the first one that I wrote that got produced. I didn't choose to write the movie either. If I'm lucky enough to have an idea--and I don't have that many of them--I just write it, and I get through it as best I can. I felt like the idea chose me at that time, and I went after the idea. When I made the film, it was really about a kid becoming a man. What do you have to do to become a man? You rebel. You isolate. You move away from your family. You reject those things and people that want you to stay a kid. That's what I felt the movie was about, along with a guy kind of unlocking the key to his past, the mystery of that. Then, I realized that the guy coming back is the opposite movement of what the kid does. At the age of 40, it seemed to me that to become a man you actually rejoin in some way. You know that this guy had isolated himself too much, even from his own family, for reasons that we see, but then he's got to join his own family to become a man again.

How much of Tommy was taken from your own youth and your own memories of New York at the time?
Duchovny: Certain activities like stick-ball or that kind of school, and I had a meat delivery job. But the three main characters are completely fictional. My mom is not at all like that mom, and I didn't have a friend like Pappass. I'd never spoken to anyone outside the woman's House of D. It just happened to be in my neighborhood. The actual movie is fictional, but I dressed it in things that I remember, and I thought that if I make it specific enough, in the end, it'll actually be universal. I think that if you can be authentic in the way that you describe things or portray things, instead of barring people from them, it's my idea that people actually get more into it. Because they go, "Oh, it's true. It feels right."

How did you find Anton?
Duchovny: I was looking for a kid, and I'd heard his name a couple times from my acting coach, a guy named Larry Moss, who's great, then from my casting director. He was thirteen when I first heard about him and fourteen the next time. I didn't want to work with a kid that young, because they can only work six or seven hours a day, and they've got to go to school. I was looking for a young looking sixteen or eighteen year old, though that might be a little weird. I didn't find anybody like that and finally I said, "bring me that kid," and he walks in and it was like love at first sight in actor/director way. I basically chased him out of the audition and cornered him and his mom and said, "just tell me what you need for me to make this happen. I'm scared that Spielberg's gonna call, and offer you money, and I'll never see you again."

Anton, how much do you think Tommy is the young David?
Anton Yelchin: Tommy definitely has David's current sense of humor. David grew up in the Village and he'd tell me about it, which was great, because I grew up in L.A., which has no Village. I was kind of nervous in rehearsals, I didn't sleep that well, but I wanted to make sure that everything was right. I kept asking David if he was happy.

Since you're essentially playing a younger version of David's character, did you look at any of his characteristics and try to bring that to the role?
Yelchin: The weird thing is that when you watch [the movie], we kind of look the same, which is odd. I have curly hair, so I straightened it. David does this crunching jaw thing, which I somehow picked up. It's really weird. I don't want to sound biased or anything, because I'm quite critical and I wouldn't say it if I didn't think it, but we kind of look alike.

And David, were you friends with Robin before you made the film?
David Duchovny: I didn't know Robin. I'd met him; it's not like we were unfriendly. I would say hello to him, and he would say hello to me.

Robin Williams: 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 the crew member said, "Robin Williams wants to meet you." And he went, "Yeah, right, Bullsh*t." I went [in fannish boy's voice] "Hi, Fox! You're really groovy. Where's Mulder?" I met him a couple of times afterwards at different fundraisers and stuff, but it wasn't until now that we worked together.

And are you two friends now?
David Duchovny: We're better friends. I don't think he's had as long a career as he's had by doing movies for friends. He does movies because he likes them or because he gets paid a lot of money, and he didn't get paid a lot of money for this one, he responded to the script. He said, "This is like an urban fairy tale, I've never done an urban fairy tale," and you know, I thought Fisher King, but I didn't want to bring that up. He wanted to do it, and he was very loyal the whole time; he didn't care who else I cast, he just wanted it shot in New York.

How did you come up with the Pappass character?
Robin Williams: I just did the research about a high functioning mentally handicapped. 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. In certain ways, he's literally my mentor. I kind of went with a different physical look, because you had Sean [Penn] doing that one character. 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, he's very verbal, but he's slow with certain things. He's able to understand and pick up what's going on emotionally, but it's an arrested development at a certain stage, maybe about 10 or 11. That's why when he starts to see Anton start to have girlfriends, it's like a little brother seeing an older brother, and it's like, "No, that's bad. It's not good. I'll mess it up if I can."

Once you were hired, was the script changed at all for you or did you improvise some stuff?
Robin Williams: Not at all. It's not a character who's going to be riffing. [slowly] "And now I'd like to try a really long riff." [laughter]

How does the challenge of playing this kind of character compare with a straight drama like "Insomnia" or "The Final Cut"?
Robin Williams: It's different, because of the mental boundaries. The straight drama is 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 something 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. [Pappass] has a vision of himself. He has relationships. He obviously has problems with his father, but later on, after he's gone, there's even a positive memory of his father, who was an alcoholic prick to him and treated him badly.

And how did you get your daughter involved with the movie?
Robin Wiliams: We were rehearsing and going through the script at the house. [David] still hadn't cast that part, and Zelda said, "Can I read for him?" She was so natural that he went, "I'm gonna look at other people, but I think she can do this." 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.

Zelda, this being your first movie, was it strange seeing yourself on screen for the first time?
Zelda Williams: It's not ever going to be any easier to see yourself. It's like watching home videos. You can't help thinking that there's something you could've done better, but it's not your decision, it's theirs. When you see it on a big screen it's even harder. You're blown up to an extreme size. You're always your biggest critic, and I'm actually a kind of pessimistic, self-deprecating person, so when I see myself up there I pick myself to pieces. I can't say that it's an easy experience or that it's going to get any easier.

And are you comfortable having your kids in a movie?
Robin Williams: So far, yeah. There's been no Paris Hilton videos. [laughter] She wants to continue, but we also want her to continue school. We keep saying things like, "Natalie Portman--remember that! Jodie Foster--degree!"

Were you on set for her kissing scene?
Robin Williams: No, I'm not there going "No, none of that! You're in a meat locker! That's the only meat we'll see, right? Put it away!" [laughter] I'm not going to be there making her any more uncomfortable than it was. I would not put any more pressure on her. She and Anton both had an uptown and downtown relationship and really a kind of beautiful innocence about them.

Zelda, we have to ask this. Is your father always this "on" when he's at home?
Zelda Williams: I've been saying this a lot, but it's not like there's a microphone on in our living room or a stage in our house. I think people expect him to be more active, and I think that would be very, very hard to deal with. I think we would all be a little more nuts than we already are, but I can't say it's a normal household. I can't honestly say that there aren't moments of craziness.

Anton, can you talk about working opposite such well known actors as Robin or Anthony Hopkins?
Anton Yelchin: I'm very lucky, obviously. It was quite an honor, and I was just very happy to find out that they were both such great people, and the respect they have for the crew, which for me is the second most important thing about making a movie. Making it is first of all before anything. I was honored to do something I love so much with those who are the greatest at it.

Would you consider Robin a generous actor?
Anton Yelchin: I think he does what the scene calls for. There are times when there's no reason not to draw attention to yourself, because it's a funny scene, you do whatever you want. And there are times when you don't need to do more than what's in the scene.

Last and most certainly not least... Téa, what was it about this role that made you want to be in your husband's movie?
Téa Leoni: Well, I certainly didn't want to be in the first movie that he was going to direct, but then I read it, and I was really taken by this part. There was this awkward position because I'm sleeping with him, so I'm going to get it, but I didn't really want to put him in that awkward position. Finally, on the day that he was ready to make another offer to another, quite frankly, better actress, I thought I better do it now. I just said "You know, I really want to play this part" and then truthfully, I don't know what happened after that. I can't remember his reaction. Being very politically correct, he says that he was looking for somebody older, and he said that he didn't want to ask me because he felt it put me in the awkward position of accepting.

What was it about this part that made you work so hard to get the part?
Téa Leoni: It was very specific in that this was a woman grieving, but then in one scene, where she plays Nerf basketball with her son in the apartment, you would see that respite. Life gets you in the middle of your worst grief, where unconsciously it leads you to where you have joy or some semblance of the life you had before. I thought this was a secondary role but it made it pivotal. It told you everything about what life had been like for this child before this great grief. I think David was making a statement about grief, that it can be that powerful. Some people don't get over it, and all they ever get are maybe a couple of 15 minutes and maybe it's on the day they get that it's all they ever get. [David] has had a relationship to grief in different times in his life, as we all have. I just thought it was pitch perfect, so I was willing to risk going out there and screwing up my husband's first film. It's just a dashing exercise in narcissism.

Are you worried about becoming typecast as the overbearing Mom after playing the role here and in "Spanglish"?
Téa Leoni: Yes, I did have that concern when there were a couple projects that came up for me to play that were really whacked out mothers. I have to say that maybe the whacked out mother is my new favorite role, but I don't want to just do it and become Nurse Ratchett. I want to be able to do other things. They're also not as sexy, and it's kind of fun to be sexy. I think a lot of actresses in Hollywood dread the mother roles because it means now you're THE MOTHER. But mothers have so much more going on. I mean, we have our own survival and two or three others survivals we're concerned about. All this dichotomy and this conflict, about being the Madonna-whore. Honestly, it's all part of this huge arena. "Single white chick" is not that interesting... and I've done that.

House of D opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday with plans to expand elsewhere in the upcoming month.

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