It has been quite the year for Oscar-winner Robin Williams, playing a gallery of dark characters, but none quite like his Sy in One Hour Photo, a performance that may well garner him another Oscar nomination. From a character so shut off to his irreverent return to stand up comedy, Robin Williams may well have proven that he is a true actor, which is why when we spoke, he was at his most focused. Paul Fischer reports.
Robin Williams is on a roll. Having more recently played a serial killer in Insomnia, he returns to a dark and chillingly introspective character in One Hour Photo. It's close to being the character of which he is the proudest, admits the actor. "It might be the work is just so precise so as a whole piece, I think it is the best I have done in a long time." This is the first time in an interview which I've done with the Oscar winning actor, during which he was determined to reduce his irreverent shtick. Perhaps that is because there is no humour in One Hour Photo. Williams is a playing such a precise character, and finding this intensely lonely, tragic figure was a challenge for the actor. "It helps that Mark [Romanek, director], who is so precise, wrote it, who watches it in every detail, everything in the store, everything in the family's house, every detail he watches so he monitors that stuff, with like a microscopic eye," Williams explains. In One Hour Photo, Williams is Sy Parrish, who runs the one-hour photo center at the local SavMart. He's always pleasant and attentive, but he may just take his job a little too seriously. Then again, he's got nothing else going in his life. The only thing that seems to keep him going is the fantasy life he's allowed himself based upon the photos he develops. Unfortunately, for over a decade Sy has come to focus on one seemingly perfect family, the Yorkins, consisting of Nina (Connie Nielsen), husband Will (Michael Vartan), and nine-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy has developed their family photos since before Jake was born. By now he feels he knows them so well that in his dream life he imagines himself as Jake's "Uncle Sy". He's so emotionally invested in them that once they begin to unravel as a family, Sy begins to unravel too. Getting into the skin of this complex, disturbing character was made a little easier by the fact that Williams was an only child, he recalls, "so it's not like I didn't know loneliness." Then, the actor revisited his classically trained acting roots in developing the character and the often surreal world in which he inhabits. "You start to create a world where here's this guy, who you find out at the very end, has had this horrific incident happen to him. So, he created in a weird way his fascination with photography, and kind of created a whole life for himself by other people's photographs, where he really does have this second life. At the same time, his life is just so mundane, and we've depicted it as almost hyper-mundane, like an Arbus photograph, a picture that is so black and white, and so distinct, that you have no choice but to focus; that's what we worked on."
Nobody was more surprised than Williams himself when director Romanek came to him with this script, and he surprised the director by accepting it and for relatively little money. "I took it because it's so good and such a well-written piece. When I saw his videos, I asked to be part of it and he was shocked when I said I was doing it. It was like 'Ok, where's the hidden camera?'"
Audiences, who see Williams completely enveloping the character, will be genuinely shocked at seeing the gifted actor take up his irreverent stand up routine, recently televised, and a stark contrast to his trio of screen characters that have emerged this year. Talking briskly about his return to stand-up, he describes his triumphant theatrical return "as an immediate kind of vampirism because I get right back, the laughter feeds it." Comparing his return to live comedy with the darker One Hour Photo, for instance, he defines the latter as being "very disturbing, and in a weird way that's good. Someone came up to me after Sundance and said 'That was creepy in a good way.'" That meant ensuring he didn't inhabit the character 100% of the time. "I would get into it, and then get out of it because I didn't want to inhabit it. I didn't want to be coming home, and share it with my own children, because when you do it, you inhabit it completely and that's the joy about doing movies, you can inhabit it; you would do time for it otherwise," Williams laughingly adds. Selling One Hour Photo to mainstream America, however, may be as challenging as making this film, but Williams tries to laugh it off. "The 'feel bad' movie of the year. The movie that will make you doubt yourself. After a summer of Scooby-Doo here's One Hour Photo."
This brings us to the flip side of Robin, the master of irreverent stand-up, to which he has returned after a decade-long absence. On stage, he is far removed from Sy Parrish, or the serial killer he played in Insomnia. Here he inhabits a very different persona, which is very much a release. "Some would say I'm acting out and all of the dirty stuff that I do is such a physical reality", such as his show's frenetic finale in which he is visually describing cunnilingus by using his upper arm. "When I do that, I look out, and I can peek under my arm, and I am going up and down, and I can see women going 'go lower'. To just see the reaction of the men laughing, is a weird kind of catharsis and there was just this kind of thing that is built to that. The show starts off kind of what's happening now, and then it goes political, then religious, then all of a sudden, it just gets as primal as you can get." On stage, Williams is frenetic, a comically consistent bundle of energy that comes, he says, "from the laughter. Without the laughter, you know, stand-up tragedy doesn't work too well. But it comes from the release, you get the laughter back, and it feeds you and pushes you." He had not done stand up in over a decade. Now, he says, he will continue, because, after all, "I realized that it's a source of income and I don't have to wait for movies. I just go out and do it, and then if a movie comes along, great, so you can do both." Williams' toughest critic, he says, is none other than his 10-year-old son. "He said 'You have to set limits', which was great; it was like having a tiny woman living with you. And he's very sweet, but he's very direct and he's honest."
Williams' return to stand-up began in New York. "It kind of started after September 11th, I went into a small club in New York and performed, and it was weird that night, Colin Quinn was there, Chris Rock went on, and everyone was kind of going back out to see what people would tolerate. It was interesting. And people said, 'We need it.'"
When Williams was 20, he left San Francisco to study acting at Julliard under John Houseman. His classmates included Christopher Reeve, Mandy Patinkin and William Hurt. "Like everyone else, to pay the rent, I waited tables but then I started doing stand-up. It paid more and it was something I really enjoyed." Houseman suggested Williams had found his niche and encouraged him to pursue stand up rather than dramatic acting. The comedy which so enriched him as both a child and adult, partly came from a lonely childhood. "I was very much alone as a kid, I was an only child, so you know, and there were not a lot of people around. Sometimes we moved to certain neighbourhoods and there were kids around, and that was a great page in my life, but there were other times when I was pretty much alone, and it's not like I don't know that existence and how you kind of fantasize and make worlds up." His urgent need to express himself with humour also came from "connecting with my mother. You find a way of relating to people with what you see, and my mother was very funny, and my father was very dry."
Williams moved to Los Angeles where he met Jay Leno who got him gigs at clubs in L.A. to help the actor pay bills while he auditioned for film and TV roles. In 1978, Williams was cast as the alien on Mork & Mindy, quickly earning a reputation as a comic sensation, and describing that period as one "during which I was trying to make it to the next day".
In the ensuing 23 years, Williams won Emmys, Grammys and Oscars and has become a major humanitarian as well as a major Hollywood player. Williams' movies have been both critically acclaimed and others, such as such sentimental works as Patch Adams, Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar. But he laughs at his critical bric-a-bracs. "You know it's out there. Once in a while when you read a review of somebody ELSE'S movie and they take another shot at you. There was this review and she was reviewing some other movie and here's what she wrote: 'The people who made this movie should be put on the same ice floe with the people who made Patch Adams.' And I was going, 'Fuck, lady.'" Yet through it all, Robin Williams has no regrets, and muses about what legacy he will have left behind. "Yeah, it is interesting to think about that. I have made some good films that have had an effect I think. Even the comedy special where it's interesting that people come up and say, 'I haven't laughed that hard in a long time.' They needed it, it's a weird thing, and we say yeah, I found something." Williams' continuing ambition, now that he has just turned 50, "is to keep doing interesting parts, and to keep pushing the envelope. I got to meet Rod Steiger before he died and to hang out with him for a couple of months. He told me these amazing stories of why he was an actor, he was in the Navy, this amazing life growing up in Newark and just this tough fucking life, and why he loved acting, and initially he went into acting to get laid, but who doesn't? But then, I got to know him, and here's this guy, this great character actor who did these extraordinary characters, 120 movies, played the Pope, Mussolini, all these different things and was also a hardcore manic depressive. He lived the life. It hit me hard when he died, but then I went, you know he really swung hard, and had a great life."
For Williams, the great life is continuing, and it is his family, in particular wife Marsha, who keeps him grounded. "She's amazing. She's really intelligent and very honest. And once again, the children are very honest and wonderful in their own way, intuitively." When not performing, he is playing the role of father, about which, he says, he is getting better. "The other day, I was acting out my violent tendencies with Paint Ball. Have you ever done that? It's insane, because it's like this paramilitary, where they all get guns and they shoot paint balls, and they hurt. You get these little welts. And it turned out my daughter was really good. All of a sudden I realized the lethality of girls, because she was just sitting there picking off people, and I said, 'Zelda, are you all right?' My little sniper nailed twelve people with that thing."
Williams loves to make us laugh, but then we look at his work in Insomnia, Death to Smoochy and now One Hour Photo, and Robin Williams, actor, comes out. No wonder he is enjoying this new renaissance in his career.