You might know Wallace Shawn from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, which he wrote and starred in, from his small but memorable role in The Princess Bride, or as the voice of Rex the Dinosaur in the Toy Story series. I spoke to the actor and playwright by phone on the morning of May 16th; mustering all the restraint I could manage, I decided not to title the resulting discussion some variation of “My ___ with Wally.” After a bit of edited-out introductory fumbling around on my part, we got down to conversational business.
366 Weird Movies: You’re here today primarily to talk about Don Peyote. There are a lot of interesting cameos in Don Peyote: Anne Hathaway, most notably, but also cult figures like Speed Levitch, the director Abel Ferrara, and yourself. How did you come to be involved in this project?
Wallace Shawn: I don’t know. Somebody called me, and I… you’ve read about Pavlov’s experiments? When certain bells are rung, the dog begins to salivate. In my case, I ran out the door and joined this rather eccentric collection of people for a day.
366: I imagine you didn’t get to interact with a lot of the cast; your scene was just with Dan Fogler, I believe.
WS: This was a very improvisational movie, and there were all sorts of other things that went on.
366: Were there scenes that didn’t make it in that you shot?
WS: Sadly, there were even scenes that didn’t make it in. Because the whole movie was made in a rather improvisational way, and different things were probably… I don’t think it was just me… they probably had five hours, if they put everything in. It would be a five hour movie—I don’t know, I’m speculating. But they obviously had to make some tough decisions in there. Each of the little interviews with the people that are in the documentary, they’re fragments, obviously, from longer conversations.
366: I’m guessing from the title alone that you realized this was going to be a drug movie, which doesn’t seem like the sort of movie you’ve done before. What’s your view on drugs, or the movie’s take on the psychedelic experience?
WS: The movie’s take, if I were to decipher it: I would say on the one hand the whole style of the film is, let’s say, a very “druggy” style. So, someone who had never taken any drugs might never have been able to make such a film, and might not have been interested in making such a film. There’s an implied criticism of excessive drug taking in it, because they’re not really up to the task of making the documentary that they dream of, and certainly Dan’s character is unable to enjoy his relationship with the very nice fiancee. So, in a sense the movie shows some of the negative sides of taking too many drugs.
My own view, obviously coming as I do out of the 1960s, I know that a lot of people have learned a lot from taking drugs, and expanded their consciousness. On the other hand many people have been destroyed by taking drugs, particularly in excess.
366: I don’t want you to incriminate yourself about any of your own drug use in the past, potentially, but were you involved in the counterculture movement in the Sixties, or did you consider yourself to be part of that movement?
WS: I tragically missed all of it, because I was too fearful. And I regret that, tremendously. I was afraid of everything at that time. I’ve become slightly more youthful in my older years, but it’s too late. Those decades are over and that counterculture period is over.
366: I saw you do another interview where you talked about being fearful in your youth, and it seems strange that you would then get into a vocation like acting, where you have to be very outgoing. So how did that come about?
WS: Well, I started as a writer, and I got into acting almost completely by accident. And I was changing by that time. I was about 35 years old when I had my first acting job. And by then, I was already becoming less fearful.
366: You are in another movie right now, The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg. I haven’t seen it yet, but based on the trailer you seem to have a very prominent part in that one. What’s your role in that?
WS: In that one I play the boss of the office where the “first” Jesse Eisenberg works as a miserable underling, and I barely can recognize him. And then the “second” Jesse Eisenberg comes along and he’s very smooth and suave and I absolutely am crazy about him and promote him and have the deepest respect for him. It’s a very, very fascinating film, based on Dostoevsky.
366: Do you have any other projects coming out soon that we might look out for?
WS: Yes, I am going to be in a movie called A Master Builder that Jonathan Demme has directed. It’s based on a play of Ibsen that Andre Gregory has been working on as the director since 1997. I have an incredible part in it, I translated and adapted the Ibsen play and I play the main part, I have to say. It’s a very remarkable film.
366: Is that coming out in 2014?
WS: It’s opening in July in New York.
366: I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck with all your endeavors.
WS: Okay, it’s great to talk to you.