Robots: An Interview with Robin Williams

Originally published on March 4, 2005 | | written by Wilson Morales

In his first animated film since "Aladdin", Robin Williams is back to charm the audience with his many humorous tricks he can do vocally. In "Robots", Williams plays Fender, a robot who loses his body parts so many times that the tin man can get a heart faster than he can be put back together. Nevertheless, Williams is a true delight and he spoke to about coming to the world of animation.

Are you going to be really out of control?
No. I won't be. It's just really good to see you. Thank you. This is fun to do. An interview like this, 'Oh, hi. Nice to see you again.' We had fun in France though.

You have fun doing these, right?
No shit, dad.

Now, is this all about riffing?
Yeah. And when you have someone with a sense of humor like Chris Wedge you know that he'll add more and you know that he'll give the visual to this.

Do you work from the script as well?
Yeah, he goes in and says, 'Here are the lines.' I'll go in and I'll take that and go, 'All right, I'll go off in this way.' Or you have to try different scams and things because he's basically a street scam artist. So you first just try to get inspired for what the voice will be. At first I tried a kind of Bowery guy. 'Are you crazy like that?' Then I'd try like a little bit of a Homie-bot, like, 'Yo. Yo.' Then I tried to bring it down and do a little crankpot. 'Yeah, yeah, it's really good.' Then I brought it back and made it slightly off, a little off, but then you kind of get it simplified because you realize that kids are going to watch it. Then you modify that for effect and then once you've got the base you can go off. And with him and with real animations you can build on it over a period of time and they add layer after layer and layer. You see the early drawings and you go, 'Okay. He's got a crank for a head. I like that.' Then, 'Okay. He's falling apart. I can work with that.' And these parts are from different people maybe, things he's found. You work off all of that. Then you start to build off the fact that if he falls apart he's still going to make it like an alcoholic. [Drunk Character] 'Everything is okay. I'm fine. Shit happens, happen. I have no drinking problem, there's just a lot of alcohol around.' You build off of that.

I grew up with "Aladdin"...
Oh yeah. That was the first that I could really riff. It was like standup on film.

What brought you back to animation, what was it about this project?
Seeing them design the world. I mean, I play a lot of computer games. I love computer graphics. I've had Pixar envy for a long time [Laughs]. For a long time, I mean, I guess after 'Aladdin,' we had the falling out with Disney and then the reconciliation, but I think that during that time I missed a lot of chances to work with Pixar. And then this came along and I caught a wave. I got to work with Chris who's good friends with John [Musker] and is, I think, equal on that level of creating worlds. And I wanted to be a part of it.

Has it re-energized your decision to do more of it?
I'd love to. But you know, you have to pick and choose. You don't want to do so much of it that kids go, [Kid Character] 'Is this you? Really, I'd like to see a movie without you.' ???

And you did a lot of darker roles the last couple of years...
Yeah. I got dark, psycho roles. I get nice letters from prison. It's like, [Prison Character] 'Hey, pretty boy.'

What's your favorite computer game?
'Half Life 2' is pretty great. 'The Mods' are great. The scary thing is this, and there are two different schools. One is that we have really kind of bright people doing quests and building up massive inventories and creating these communities. The other people just go online and are shooting the shit out of each other and trash talking. It's kind of interesting to sample both. If you have Roger Wilco which is the thing that you can hear the voices with, usually you hear a fourteen-year-old kid going, 'That guy's my bitch.' It's like, 'Wow.' 'Fuck you, man.' 'No, fuck you.' It's like how many times can you type fuck you because of the other guy.

So you play online a lot?
I play online a lot, yeah. I play with myself. I did. That was before computers. If I'd had a computer I wouldn't be this hairy you fools. If I'd have had a mouse and a hard drive! Jesus Christ I wouldn't have been alone in that room. I'd have had Pamela Anderson and pictures. I wouldn't have had to make up shit!

What about the Golden Globe, was that sucking up to the foreign press?
No sucking up. It's just like I'd known them for twenty-seven years and they were like, 'Why did you bring up the Pia Zadora thing?' 'Look, it happened. I know you, you're like my extreme extended European family. We come, we have a nice meal and we talk. Hello.' I've known them for so many years. It's kind of interesting because the Golden Globes are so much looser than the Academy Awards for better or worse. It has an open bar and you'll just see people halfway through the awards going, 'This is fucking great.' And the FCC guy is going crazy.

What is coming up for you?
Coming up is a small movie in New York called 'The Night Listener.'

Do you play another baddie in that?
Wow. No. I actually play a writer who finds out that there's a kid who's a fan of his and the boy tries to meet him. He wants to meet the kid and it's very convoluted.

It's another dark film. I can't believe you're doing that...
It's nice to balance that with the animation and keep the kids off guard.

What about "Happy Feet"?
'Happy Feet' is like a big animation film with George Miller. I play about six things in that. There's a couple different penguins and a sea lion and a little [Doing Penguin character] Argentine penguin and for me 'He's one of the best because they're small, but fierce, powerful. You know this, and listen to me you who wear the leopard camouflage. I know it's a brave thing to do, but to wear that, I have never seen a green leopard. But someone said to you that this was a fashion touch. He's very sexy and powerful and most guapo. Mas fuerte. I know once you go penguin you can't back because when I bring you the stones and I'm talking about the gift of love, because I give the stones to the women to share your nest, to sit on your egg. I know that you're looking at me like, "Why would you do this? Why would me who is dressed as a green leopard let you sit on my eggs?" Because that is love. To sit in four degrees below Fahrenheit, to sit on a warm egg with a cold ass with the wind blowing in your feathers and ice melting nearby thanks to your George W. Bush. He's turning the north pole into a pool! I say no! But if this world will melt, not my love for you, green darling.'

What do you think of the new 'Superman'?
Are they doing that? I didn't know that. Are they going to do the death of Superman?

No. 'Superman Returns.'
Wow. I don't know. I mean, I didn't even know that they were doing it. I've just been dealing with him dying. I'm kind of feeling this kind of phantom friend pain where you think that he's still around because I thought that when he got ill he would make it. He was so tough through all of the other things. Marsha was the one who was wise enough to know, 'You better talk to him.' She knew that he was starting to have a hard time. So I talked to him a week before he died. That was at least good. I got to say hello. I didn't know about the 'Superman' movie. The only movie that I knew that they were making was the 'Batman' movie. Who is directing that?

Oh, Chris Nolan. That'll be great. Chris Nolan. It's interesting that they're going back and doing that.

The Richard Donner ones.
Yeah, doing that, coming back to that.

What about the movie 'The Krazees' and 'The Big White'?
'The Krazees' hasn't been written. That's based on a children's book. 'The Big White' has been done. It's based on a guy who lives in Alaska and finds a corpse and tries to scam an insurance company.

Is that you?
Yeah. I'm not the corpse. 'Brother please, don't be a hater. A black comedy with a white man? What is that about?'

A couple of years back, during your dark period, was that because something personal was going on?
No. It's not something like that. I wasn't feeling like, 'Fuck humanity.' It wasn't like that at all. No. I just got offered these parts that I've always wanted to do, but never got offered because studios at the time would say, 'You play nice, warm, cuddly people.' And I'd go, 'Okay.' Then you get offered a guy who seems kind of nice, but not necessarily kind of cuddly and then when they said I could play it creepy, I went 'Thank you.' Then to be in 'Insomnia' was a great double bill for three reasons. One, I wanted to work with Chris Nolan, to be in the room with Pacino, to work with him and get the entire 'Godfather' action set, and then to be able to play a sociopath literally. I got to approach it from that way and you get the kind of stunt casting, and people are like, 'Oh, that's that nice guy.' I remember people saying after they saw the movie, 'He didn't really do it.' They didn't buy that I actually did it. They're almost buying him which is a great thing. Playing those characters is great and it's really freeing on that level for any actor to play those characters because you get to explore behavior and do something that you can't do in real life without doing time. Ask Robert Blake.

Would that overflow off of the set?
No. No. I'm not a Method man. 'Kids, leave daddy alone.'

Is Pacino a Method man?
He is, but he isn't. I mean, he will prepare and he'll be in that thing, but I remember the first day of 'Insomnia.' When I was working he used to do this thing of he would roar like a lion and that was a cue to everyone, 'Don't fuck with Al. Don't fuck with him.' Then I came on the stage and was like, 'Who did that? Hi Mr. Pacino. I'm out of order. I'm definitely out of order. I'm very sorry. I'm out of order. Hoo Ha! I'm out of order.' Then we kind of established a relationship. 'I'm going to be fucking with you. It's my job. I'm going to go, "Hi, Al! How are you? You're a good guy. You're a great guy. You're really good. I've seen you in The Village having a cappuccino. You're a father now. You're a great guy. You're really good. How's Bob?"'

One of my favorite movies of yours is 'Death to Smoochy'...
Oh, me too.

How did you feel about how that turned out at the box office?
The interesting thing is that I just came back from doing another show in Iraq and all these guys come up and go, 'That's my favorite movie, man.' I go, 'You're in combat. That's so cool, the fact that that makes you laugh.' It's a really dark, nasty, a movie not for kids, but a movie about... afterwards when I finished I thought, 'I wish that I'd have had the balls to do it like Pinky Lee like this, "Hey, kids!" And then afterwards to be like, "Where are the bitches? I'm going to slap the shit out of you." It's like you think that he's a sweet children's show host and then afterwards he's just one nasty, cracking asshole. That's what I wanted to do. But I loved that movie just because it's nasty fun, but I think that's what hit people. They were like, 'What is this?' I remember people going, 'Why do you have to do a really dark comedy?' I was like, 'Oops.'

With all the reunion things that they're doing and whatnot with television shows, what about your early successes like 'Mork and Mindy'?
Yeah, they do that stuff. And they're making a movie. I think that it's the 'Making of Mork and Mindy' and the kind of the wild times. I mean, if they really do it...

Who are they casting as you?
I heard that, and this is wild, it's Dave Chapelle. No. I don't know. It's a Canadian improv actor.

What about 'Mrs. Doubtfire II'?
No. They're trying to write it. A friend of ours is writing it, and I think that if she can do it right, it'll be okay. If they don't do it right, it's not worth doing it. You've got to find a way of doing the character. How do you take it on after so long? You've got to be able to do her, do the character, why is she dressing up again, and how did she get away with it? The first one was so much fun because the conceit was pretty good and the makeup was great. The really good news now is that that makeup has come along. The makeups have just gotten better and better and better.

Would you do a 'Mork and Mindy' reunion?

Have they asked you to do that?
No. They haven't done that, and I think that they know better. I wouldn't do it. I mean, for me it was a great memory and a wonderful time. Pam [Dawber] is the sweetest woman on the planet.

Are you still in touch with her?
Oh, yeah. She's wonderful. She was a sweet lady. She looks the same, and I think that's just because she's so sweet. She's had two kids and looks wonderful and is still hot. I'd be on shows with her, but not 'Mork and Mindy.'

Are you planning on going back on the road soon?
Yeah, maybe next fall.

Are you going back to Baghdad?
Am I going back to Baghdad? [Laughs] [Flawless Bob Hope Impersonation] 'Hi, this is Bob Hope on the road to Baghdad. Is it crazy or is this one big sand trap? What happened to that car? That's wild, isn't it?'

Are you going to do a special like Bob?
No, I'm not at all. I'm not going to be doing specials from there. I like doing the shows, and it's for them and they're real blue. It's for them and it's with General Meyers who's a good guy. You travel with him and you can go to a lot of places. And the first time that I went, I went on my own. It's a blast, but I'm not Bob Hope.

Are you scared when you go?
Well, when they do the combat landings and you see everyone putting on Kevlar and you're going, 'Do I get one?' 'No, sorry, sir. We don't have enough.' I mean, there's nothing really scary about it. I mean, you performing in front of everyone fully strapped and you're just going, 'I don't want to piss off people sitting the front row who are going, "That's funny."' People come up to you and are like, 'Can you sign this autograph?' 'Yeah, but only if you put the machine gun down.' This girl came up asking for an autograph and the saw was pointed right at my mouth. Guys come back from patrol and they carry pump shotguns and the safety wasn't on and I was like, 'Yo, Holmes. Will you put the safety on because that's pointed right at my balls. I ain't going to be a Ken doll.'

Why is it important for you to do that kind of work?
Because it's a great audience, but also because you just want to let them know that people haven't forgotten about them, and especially in Afghanistan where there are still ten thousand people. There is still a coalition, not of the willing, but the rest of the world that went into Afghanistan. I mean, the only places that I haven't visited that I'd like to are the English forces. But I've seen a lot of people and they're great audiences, and you meet just like hardcore great people. My favorite is when you go over to Afghanistan, you get to meet the special forces guys. I mean, these guys just look like heavily armed surfers. You'll see a guy with like a full beard and if you have a red beard in Afghanistan it means 'Hello.' This one Irish guy goes, [Irish Accent] 'Don't start. Don't fucking start with the beard.' But it's like these guys are the best because they're in the army, but not. They go on long patrols, and they'll see a guy dressed as a full Afghan, but then have a Yankees hat on. You go, 'That's cool.'

Are you optimistic about the future with what's going on there?
I mean, I still have many questions. I still find that, we have had an election, but if you noticed there was a lot of secret ballots. There was an election, but who was elected? A lot of people voted, but who's coming out for the party. I mean, in Afghanistan it's getting safer, but that's also because the Opium poppies are being harvested. [Singing] They're still paying those guys and they still pay off the warlords and at a certain point you have to say, 'You have to turn in your weapons,' and as the IRA said, 'Maybe. Not yet.'

What are you watching, listening to, and reading?
I'm listening to, I heard a great French Canadian band called Arcade Fire. I also heard...

What do you like about them?
It's just wild music. My son has just recently gotten into Nirvana and I never listened to them the first time around, and I'm like stone cold into Nirvana. What am I reading? I'm reading a book called 'Collapse.' It's a very happy book about civilizations that have collapsed because of ecological failure. It's a fun book. What am I watching? I just watched a shitload of Japanese anime. 'Appleseed 2004' which is wonderful. 'Ghost in the Shell II.' It's pretty great. Then there's this other Korean anime called, I think, 'Blue Sky.' DVD films, I just got a copy of a very old and wonderful film, 'Man In The White Suit.' It's a great movie. Tivo, I've been living off of that. I've been watching 'Texas Hold 'em' every night.

Wall of Tributes >