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Interview: Wallace Shawn Looks Back at My Dinner with André and More

We spoke with Shawn about working with André Gregory, Louis Malle, and Jonathan Demme, as well as by himself.

Interview: Wallace Shawn Looks Back at My Dinner with André and More
Photo: The Criterion Collection

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.

There’s a through line. The scripts vary. One is taken from your writing, and the other two films are based on works by Chekov and Ibsen, obviously, but they tell the collective, free-associative story of a single man’s life.

Yeah, that’s right.

Jonathan Demme stepped in for Louis Malle with A Master Builder. Demme’s an American director who’s clearly inspired by the French New Wave, of which Malle was a part. Was the poetry of that situation considered? Of someone replacing one of their idols?

Well, I think he [Demme] was very aware of taking over for Louis Malle. We had the same cinematographer, Declan Quinn, who’d done Vanya, he did A Master Builder, and he’s worked a great deal with Demme. And, of course, Demme has quite a few things in common with Malle. And I don’t know quite where this fits in, but they’re both documentary makers. Not many directors work as many weeks a year as either of them. Both, as they finish a feature, they go off and make a documentary.

They both also show an inherent warmth in their work.

Yes.

Malle and Demme have a similar relationship with taboo subjects in their work, as well. It has do with that warmth. You never catch either filmmaker editorializing. I can’t think of an American filmmaker who’s more in line, aesthetically, philosophically, with the French New Wave than Jonathan Demme.

Yes. That’s great. I’ve worked with an amazing variety of directors, and the two of them are remarkably similar in their affection for actors. Compared to dozens of other directors. They’re both outstanding in that way. They’re both obsessed with the craft of film, with where should we put the camera. For some directors, that’s a mechanical job that doesn’t fully engage their interest.

How does the relationship between you, Andre, and the cast, who all work on these plays for years as theater projects before they’re turned into films, change when a filmmaker, new to the group, arrives and begins to fashion a different version of the work?

Andre is a great collaborator. He’s invited them in. He knows that he doesn’t know how to make a film. It was very collaborative. They [Andre and the filmmakers] would usually agree on which takes to use. Louis asked a lot of questions of us. He asked Julianne [Moore] who Vanya was to her. He asked if he could’ve won her over, or if that was ridiculous. Andre wasn’t into sitting and talking about the play. Just not his way at all, but Louis wanted to pin those things down. And Jonathan would get inspired and have very passionate intuition about how to do things that was different from what we’d do with Andre and he’d go along with it. But neither Louis nor Jonathan could really shape the [various] characters, which we’d be working on for years. They couldn’t really get into that, not that they wanted to. Those characters were not consciously devised by us, they grew up over the years. We didn’t know what we were doing, consciously. We couldn’t make them “a little bit more this way” or “more that way.”

It sounds as if these films represent a fascinating idea of the director as outsider of his own production. Or as an insider and outsider at once. Perhaps this is where Malle and Demme’s mutual experience as documentary filmmakers comes into it. They’re documenting fictional entities.

Yes. Well, it was something like that. They took the characters as a given the way you would in a documentary. It’s as if a family invites a documentarian into their home.

Funny you say that, I was about to refer to the directors as symbolic uncles.

Yes. [laughs]

You’re a prominent character actor, of course. Do you approach for-hire acting differently from these personal projects?

On television, they write these things up to the last minute and then you get them and try to remember the lines, and you try to use whatever resources you have to make it seem vaguely believable. If you’re supposed to be the boss coming into the office, greeting your employees, you’re trying to get your mind screwed around so it can be vaguely believable. You think to yourself, “Have I been in a situation like this?” You’re grabbing any resources that you have, rather frantically. Whereas in these three films, these were rooms that I’ve lived in.

How do you find voiceover work to contrast with conventional live-action acting?

Well, I live off it. If someone were to tell the story of my life, it would say, well, it depends on who wrote the story of my life, certainly a lot of people would say, “He tried a lot of different professions, it was sort of sad and pitiful, but he finally found success doing the voices of animals in cartoons.” It’s interesting that I’ve found a kind of success in that area. It’s odd and interesting. As far as what it feels like to do it, it’s sort of the ultimate use of imagination and nothing else. You’re getting nothing. You’re in a little glass booth, alone. You’re not with any other actors. You can’t take inspiration from any other performer. You just have to imagine the situation and squeal or bark or meow or do whatever right out of your own imagination. Except that the directors of animation are very severe and control your performance in a way that they would be thrown out for doing in film or theater. I mean, if a director of a film were to say to an actor, “I want you to use your higher register for this line and be sure to say the last word very emphatically,” that director would be fired, [as] the actors would be horrified. But in animation that’s what they definitely must do because only the director knows what’s really planned for the animation.

I want to gently argue one point: You’re very much going to be remembered for these Criterion films.

That would be thrilling, and you’ll be around to know about it. I assumed that they would come out after our deaths. Actually, I didn’t know they were really going to put them in the box [set] before we died. It’s quite exciting, it’s like Huck Finn going to his own funeral.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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