Robin Williams: Mr. Insomnia

Originally published on July 12, 2002 | Film Threat | written by David Grove

"Now that I'm playing villains, I guess not as many people will be asking me for autographs," says Williams, who in just a year has transformed his comic image into that of a darker, more complex actor with edgy, villainous roles in such films as Death to Smoochy, Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Robin Williams isn't a nice guy anymore; he's a bad guy, and he wants everyone to know it.

"I guess some critics thought 'Patch Adams' was a horror movie," jokes Williams, who has actually played darker roles before, most notably his Academy Award winning turn in "Good Will Hunting," not to mention his serious, thoughtful portrayals in "Awakenings" and "Jakob the Liar." Genre fans will also recall Williams' dark cameo as a disgraced analyst turned meat cutter who offers Kenneth Branagh sinister advice on killing his girlfriend in the 1991 noir thriller "Dead Again." Departing from his trademark comedic image is one thing, but playing a serial killer in Insomnia, a deranged photo developer in One Hour Photo, a sleazy children's television host in Death to Smoochy? Williams explains that playing darker characters was just a case of challenging himself as an actor. "I've been looking for challenges, roles that really turned me on," says Williams. "Too many of my movies were similar; you have to exercise as an actor or you go flabby. With Death to Smoochy it was kind of a nasty satirical character, which I loved. Very Bob Fosse. Then in One Hour Photo, I got to be quiet and dark. Then when Insomnia came along, it was Chris Nolan and Al Pacino and I just couldn't pass up working with those two. Playing villains wasn't a conscious thing on my part; these guys are great filmmakers, period."

In Insomnia, Williams plays his most villainous role, that of Walter Finch, a writer and serial killer who frames and taunts Al Pacino's homicide detective character until he becomes as crazy as Finch is. Williams' character doesn't show up until the midway part of the film.

"He's a horror writer, this Walter Finch, and the girl he murders, she idolized him," says Williams. "So he's doing research in a way, for a book, and then Al Pacino comes along and becomes his partner in writing the book in a sick way. It was an accident. Will (Pacino) kills his own partner and I witness it and blackmail him. I liked the premise. What if I turn Will into a killer? You think he can just kill my character but I've made it so the facts of the investigation are murky and Pacino starts to frame another suspect, so it doesn't look like I'm the killer, but it's a small town in Alaska, the pressure is on Will to arrest the killer, but he can't because he's so guilty himself."

For Williams, playing villains has allowed him to tap the dark psychological aspects of the human character that he's never explored before on film.

"Most bad guys don't think they're bad, but these characters I'm playing, especially Walter, they know they're bad," says Williams. "Walter writes books on it, it's a game to him. It's like he's using Pacino's character for research, which is kind of sick. As far as playing a character like that, I can use the same quiet voice I use when I'm doing drama because it's more scarier when the bad guy talks real nice and quiet." Working with talents like Pacino and Nolan was another big draw for Williams. "I thought Pacino was this big method actor, really intense," says Williams with a laugh. "I just stayed out of his way. No, I'm joking. He's a very funny man and he has a good time on the set, even though all the time he's in character, which is really weird, especially in this movie, since his character is turning into a zombie."

In order to prepare for the role, Williams sought out some unusual sources, namely real life serial killers. Williams watched tapes of real life serial killers talking about their crimes.

"I watched some tapes of Bundy, Manson, mostly Jeffrey Dahmer, sick boy," Williams says with a laugh. "Obviously I'm not a fan of these guys but I watched just to try and get the conversational tone down. Dahmer was so calm when he spoke, which I found really creepy. What's scary about my character in Insomnia is that he's so nice seeming and seductive. He's a seducer of victims and he's starting to enjoy killing more and more; the prospect of getting away with it, the trap he's put Pacino in, it drives him crazy with excitement. My character kind of talks through Will in the film, and what's really scary is that he tries to convince you that he's a good guy and that what he's doing is okay."

In One Hour Photo, Williams plays Sy Parrish, a creepy, lonely photo-shop clerk who becomes obsessed with a family whose pictures he's been developing for years. One Hour Photo is filmed in the stylish, eerily lit tradition of horror movies, with every dark corner of the shop representing some dark figment of Williams' twisted brain.

"I had to push a bit to get the role," says Williams of the Mark Romanek directed film. "I think when I first spoke to Mark Romanek, he thought I might've been joking or something, but everyone in the industry knew I was looking for something darker. I got to be this small, bland, nondescript man, you know? There's no Robin Williams. I like how One Hour Photo messes with your expectations. People hear the premise and they expect to see this freak looking at nude pictures of people and stuff like that, but it's much more ethereal. Sy adopts this family as his own family; just because he's been developing their pictures, he's made all of these assumptions of who they are and he thinks they're the perfect family. As it turns out, his interest is much more twisted. Will he start killing off the family members to get to the one he likes the most?"

It's not like Williams has been typecast as an actor. In a film career spanning more than twenty years, Williams has displayed a wide range of acting skills, in such films as "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Moscow on the Hudson" and "The World According to Garp," so where does the actor go from here?

"One of things I liked about Insomnia was that I had to be very disciplined; I couldn't just run wild and go off in a different direction like I did in 'Dead Poets Society.' I want more roles like that. I think as an actor you get to a point where you've made all the money, accomplished a lot and you look back and say, 'What's my place in history?' No one can take away what I've done so far, so why not go off in different directions? I don't believe in doing something different just for the sake of doing something different. Every role I play, even the darker ones, has to be a part of me. Every role I've played so far has contained a small part of me."

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