Wallace Shawn is the kind of esteemed, veteran character actor who provokes from the uninitiated a response along the lines of “What’s that guy from?” Over the years, Shawn has provided the cinema a number of memorably poignant grumps, most famously in The Princess Bride and Clueless, though it’s My Dinner with André, Vanya on 42nd Street, and A Master Builder, his scalding, formally ambitious collaborations with actor, friend, and theater director Andre Gregory, that fully tap his remarkable and daring emotional range as both a performer and writer. Promoting the forthcoming Criterion Collection box set of his three films with Gregory, Shawn has a way of unceremoniously dropping surprisingly unguarded sentiments in between his answers, doubling back on his responses to reveal something seemingly more personal than a more straightforward recitation of facts could provide. I spoke with Shawn about working with Gregory, Louis Malle, and Jonathan Demme, as well as by himself, tucked away in a little room fashioning voices for cartoon animals.
In one of the supplements included in the new Criterion set, filmed in 2009, I believe, you say that you haven’t watched My Dinner with André in years because of what director Louis Malle found in you. Can you elaborate?
There are some poignant glimpses of the past that I experience when I see My Dinner with André. That’s a little glimpse of my life as it was 30 years ago, even though, of course, it’s fictional. So, nobody would quite know which things are real. For instance, the coat that I wear when I get on the subway [in the film], I would never wear such a coat today. In a way, it’s a grubby, shabby version of something that my late father might’ve worn. And it conjures up a time for me when I was perhaps a bit more like him than I am today.
There’s a fear, or perhaps a shame, expressed in these films. The word “reality” is mentioned throughout all three works in shifting, ambiguous fashions. I wrestle with this too. I spend my life with my head in books and films, and I tend to make a fetish of this imaginary idea of a “tangible” world.
I think class has a lot to do with that. I’m from a privileged background, and I think that has cut me off brutally from the real world. More than…reading has. Reading has brought me closer to the real world than I was before. Most of us live in only a part of the world. I grew up in Manhattan, on this little island, and I grew up on a privileged island within the island, and I’ve seen very little of life and have a limited understanding of the suffering that most people go through every day. I’ve just had a lot of good luck. And I’ve only had rare encounters with the “real world.” So I’m very aware of that, yes. And, of course, complacency of any kind, and comfort of any kind, cut you off from people and their suffering.
Related to that social distance somewhat, a portion of My Dinner with André jumped out at me, when your characters discuss how the Ted Kennedy affair was turned into a cocktail joke. Obviously the film was made far before the advent of the Internet, Twitter, and such. Re-watching this part of My Dinner with André, I wondered what Wallace Shawn would make of the Internet age of chewing up public figures, making a spectacle of our own self-righteousness.
Absolutely. A lot of things would be very different if we made it at a different time. The film itself is more complacent than it would be if we made it 10 years later under Ronald Reagan. It was made when Jimmy Carter was the president, after all. When we made My Dinner with André, I think politically I would be described as a centrist, like Obama. We made the film in 1980, Reagan was actually elected a couple of weeks before shooting. By 1990, I would’ve described myself as I would today, as much more leftist, more like Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore. No longer a political moderate. I think if we’d made the movie 10 years later there would’ve been much more anger and frustration, not that it’s absent completely. We would have had a more politically oriented conversation.
I think Andre says, in one of the Criterion supplements, that if you guys made a sequel it’d be all about sex.
We had an idea of doing a whole film in which we talked about sex as old men. It does come up in an interesting way, when [Andre] talks about love affairs and marriage. The theme is touched upon.
It’s powerful for what isn’t explicitly said. Politics and sex hang over it. You can intuit things that are running through the characters’ minds. To circle back to that retrospective Internet relevance thing, obviously your film was conceived before, but it’s amazing what My Dinner with André can still accommodate and speak to.
It seems to have spoken in some way to people in every age group. And continues to, strangely.
In another of the Criterion supplements for the film, you say that Malle made a more emotional work than you initially intended.
I was more into the satire of it, really. These two guys sort of oblivious to the rest of the world, talking. The original germ of the idea was that maybe we’d be walking down the street having the conversation, totally ignoring all the people who were, you know, digging a ditch beside of the road while we were talking. That all now is just in the character of the waiter. For me the whole idea of the film was funny. I think Louis was very sympathetic to both people. I think I’m a colder person, probably, than he was. Or at least, when he was making the films, he had a warm feeling about his characters and his actors.
When you re-watch the film, do you ever long for that initial, more satiric approach that you had in mind?
No. The finished film is a collaboration of everyone who worked on it, and it’s its own thing. I don’t know, I wouldn’t be capable of thinking that the script could be interpreted differently.
Watching all three films together, and I assume this wasn’t an intention, they play as a trilogy. With My Dinner with André, there’s a Wallace Shawn character in his 30s, perhaps not entirely realized and uncertain. Vanya on 42nd Street follows a middle-aged Shawn character who’s in the midst of despair, and A Master Builder finds an older Shawn character who’s been conventionally successful, but who’s rediscovered the despair he knew at the beginning of his life. [Shawn laughs.] I assume there was never such a structure to these projects, but have you retrospectively considered them as portions of a larger, singular narrative, despite the wild difference in source materials?
Well, obviously, we were aware when we were doing the scene [in A Master Builder], where these two dying old men are trying to kill each other, we were very aware that we’re the same guys who were in My Dinner with André 30 years earlier. I was aware doing Vanya that I was once the very complacent guy of André who was now falling apart and going berserk.
So there was consideration, moving toward each project, as to how they’d eventually fit together?
Yes, we have been. Not that it’s been planned in that way. Obviously, when we were doing My Dinner with André, we never dreamed we’d be doing these other things. But, yeah, there is something.