DATE November 24, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Robin Williams talks about his new movie "The Night
Listener," humor, his early days as a stand-up comic, his recent
"darker" roles, and the helpfulness of psychology
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, in for Terry Gross.
On today's FRESH AIR, we feature an interview with Robin Williams. He
co-stars in the new animated feature "Happy Feet" about a penguin born to tap
dance. Williams plays Lovelace, the guru penguin, who'll answer any of life's
questions for a price of a pebble. In this scene, he's approached by a group
of penguins led by Mumble, who is played by Elijah Wood.
(Soundbite of "Happy Feet")
Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) One at a time.
Penguin #1: Uh. We're with him
Penguin #2: We're together.
Penguin #1: He got a beautiful question..
Penguin #3: Go.
Penguin #4: Come on.
Penguin #1: Just don't look him in the eye.
Mr. ELIJAH WOOD: (As Mumble) Have you ever been abducted by aliens?
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) Excuse me?
What kind of question is that? Next!
Penguin #5: No.
Penguin #6: Wait.
Mr. WOOD: (As Mumble) I met a squirrel once with something like that on his
foot. Said he was abducted by aliens.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) This, friend, is my sacred talisman...
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) ...bestowed on me by the mystic beings...
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) ...during my epic journey of enlightenment to
the forbidden shore.
Mr. WOOD: (As Mumble) You saw mystic beings?
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) I hear them. They speak through me. Oh yeah.
Hemina, hemina. There's a power that makes me stand upon this tower.
Mr. WOOD: (As Mumble) Did they have frontways eyes? Did they probe you?
Tie you up? Drop you down?
Penguin #5: Get down! Let the man be. (Unintelligible)
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Lovelace) There's too many questions. You don't have
enough pebbles, fool.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: Robin Williams also recently played the host of a late night radio
program who tells autobiographical stories in the film "The Night Listener."
(Soundbite of "The Night Listener")
Mr. ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Gabriel Noone) From the studios of WNYH in New York
City, I'm Gabriel Noone, and this is "Noone at Night." As a storyteller, I've
spent years looting my life for fiction. Like a magpie, I tend to steal the
shiny stuff and discard the rest. The facts can always be altered when you're
telling a story, but this time I have to be careful. I'll lay out the events
as exactly as I remember them. I want you to believe this, after all. And
that'll be hard enough, as it is. This one is called "The Night Listener."
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: The story Gabriel tells is about his relationship with a big fan, a
14-year-old boy who has written a memoir of his own about being terminally
ill. They've establish a close relationship by phone, but he starts to wonder
if the boy's story is true. The movie is adapted from the autobiographical
novel "The Night Listener" by Armistead Maupin, who's best-known for his
series, "Tales of the City."
Terry talked to Williams in August about acting, comedy, improvisation, and,
of course, his new film. His other films include "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Good
Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society," "The Birdcage" and "Good Will
Hunting," for which he won an Oscar.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Robin Williams, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now, you're a friend of Armistead
Maupin, who wrote the book "The Night Listener," which the movie's based on.
He co-wrote the screenplay and was an executive producer of the movie. So I'm
assuming that that friendship has something to do with the fact that you
decided to be in the movie. Is that right?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. He sent me the script, and it's an extraordinary piece.
And after talking to him, knowing that it's based on a real incident, it
becomes more interesting. And knowing Armistead, it's great to play an
Armistead-like character. I mean, they changed the names to protect not only
the innocent, but others, and it really was, for me, kind of an interesting
thing to do with him around all the time. I'd always go, `Is that like you?'
`I think it is,' you know. Now I just made him sound like Bill Clinton, but I
mean, it was great to have him around.
GROSS: Are there certain aspects of Armistead as a person that you tried to
convey in the performance?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Kind of the elegant Southern confirmed bachelor, which
is code in the South. You know, the idea that he's this very literate man,
but also that he has a, you know, there's an anger there sometimes, but
there's also there's a kindness about him. There's a gentility, I guess you'd
say. That's another great Southern word. Gentility. That's why in the
South, they say "bless your heart" rather than...(censored by station).
GROSS: Before making your new film "The Night Listener," you did a trilogy of
recent films in which you were bad guys or very troubled. Two of them were
dramas, "One Hour Photo" and "Insomnia." And one of them was a comedy, "Death
Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.
GROSS: I'm wondering, was that a conscious choice on your part to head to
Mr. WILLIAMS: It was unconscious at the time. You realize...
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Imitating Darth Vader) `To go that way. Come to the darker
side, Robin.' They just came. I thought, `These were interesting.' I'd never
had a chance to play them before. And especially with "Insomnia," to work
with Pacino--hoo hah! It was a...
(Imitating Pacino) `I don't know, Robin, it's weird. I could--how was that
`It was wonderful, they weren't rolling.'
(Imitating Pacino) `Ah, that's good.'
But to work with him was the gift, and "Insomnia" was a--the idea of playing
this kind of a psychopath and the idea of someone who tries to win you over.
I mean, the sociopath-psychopath double-billed was fascinating for me, to
explore that type of behavior and not have to do time.
Mr. WILLIAMS: And also with "One Hour Photo." A lot more people seem to be
deeply disturbed by that about the access to their private life through, you
know, their photographs which, you know, it's weird, because now a lot of
those labs are closing out as digital cameras take over. But every person I
talked to who worked at a lab said they all had a wall of shame where they had
duplicated weird photos of grandma in a thong and put them on the wall, and it
was like, `Come over here, Bob, look at these.' And that's, you know, the
truth about the situation. You get--people were very disturbed by that.
GROSS: Yeah, it was a--I really liked your performance in this movie, and you
played somebody who runs one of those one-hour photo booths in like a big
drugstore kind of store.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, in one of those big kind of mall outlet stores, where
the lighting is so bright, even, you know...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And your life is so kind of empty in it that...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Very much.
GROSS: ...you become totally involved in the lives of, you know, of the
people whose photos you've developing. Particularly one family and their
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, basically, it's family by proxy. And he tracks their
life through their photos, and he thinks of himself as part of the family.
And it's that thing of when you see the news, they'll show somebody who snaps,
and he'll go, `He always seemed so regular.' And you go, `What's that guy
like?' And that loneliness and that idea to live another life by, you know, by
proxy, by photograph, you know.
GROSS: You've played a couple of psychologists. I mean, you played the
neurologist Oliver Sacks, and you played a psychologist in...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, who's a very good friend, and it's...
GROSS: Yeah, in "Good Will Hunting." But I'm wondering if you see yourself as
a psychologist, in a way, as an actor because, I mean, what you have to do is
really get into somebody's mind when you do that.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Very much. And it helps to read about all that, like--and
even doing a character like Harry in "The Fisher King," you have to really
kind of go through and read all the documentation and look at the tapes and
the things of post-traumatic stress, and there's a lot of--yeah, as an actor,
you get to explore all sorts of behavior. Some of aberrant, and some of it
normal, and some of it, you know, quite unusual. And it helps to be aware of
that and to observe that and to bring as much detail as possible.
GROSS: I mean, one of the things you're famous for is always having, like,
100 people inside of you, and often when...
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Doing voice) Oh, that is very strange. Why do you bring this
up with me?
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Doing voice) Yes, you...
GROSS: Well, my point exactly.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Doing Voice with French Accent) But for me it's crazy for me
to do this on radio, American radio. You know, after I find it difficult to
do. But hun--what--hun--what--part of me is...
GROSS: But here's what I'm wondering, since you always seem to be traveling
with a coterie of people inside of you...
Mr. WILLIAMS: A package of people?
Mr. WILLIAMS: It's a cheap posse.
GROSS: ...if there's always--whenever you do a character in a movie, if you
feel they always have a counterpart inside of you some place.
Mr. WILLIAMS: No, I don't know if they always have a counterpart. I think
they--maybe afterwards you find that. But I don't carry the characters around
when I'm doing the movie, because it can be quite frightening for your family
to come home as those people.
GROSS: Yeah, I'll bet.
Mr. WILLIAMS: I did that one time with a movie "The Secret Agent," and I
came home. And in "The Secret Agent," it's basically a character that was
admired by Theodore Kaczinski, which is some fan mail you don't really want to
open. But, that he--this is a man who's, you know, a chemist and who
specializes in making bombs and despises humanity. And I was kind of thinking
about the character, and my wife said, `Stop!' Because you get that very kind
of dead-eyed look, like...
(Doing voice)...`I really don't want to be here. No, I mean, the planet, not
just this room.'
And it was--it frightened her, and I didn't want to do that to my family.
GROSS: You know, you obviously like improvisation a lot. What's it like for
you when you're doing a movie, where you're supposed to be following the
script, and you are following a script? Do you find that...
Mr. WILLIAMS: I am in a...
GROSS: ...restricting or do you like that discipline?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I like the discipline because, you know, it forces you to kind
of--years ago, I was doing "The World According to Garp," and I improvised.
And I started off just improvising like crazy, and George Roy Hill made a face
like a weasel in a wind tunnel, and then I went, `Not good?' And he went...
(Impersonating George Roy Hill) `Just say the words.' And it really helped to,
you know, focus, put all of yourself into that, and also be freed up by that
and find the behavior with that. And occasionally you can improvise, use that
as a base and go off from it. But if a script is well-written, you realize
you don't have to. Like with "Good Will Hunting." Very little riffing there
because it was such a precise piece that you didn't need to.
GROSS: Well, you mention "Good Will Hunting." Why don't we hear a scene from
"Good Will Hunting"?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Sure.
GROSS: And this is a clip where--you play a psychologist whose wife has
Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.
GROSS: ...and there's at hole at the center of your life, and you're
counseling a kind of working-class kid who is actually quite brilliant in
terms of math, even though he's only working at the university in a kind of
janitorial position. And you're actually both helping each other in this
therapy relationship, because he's bringing you more in touch with your
feelings, and you're kind of counseling him.
Mr. WILLIAMS: It's pretty symbiotic in what we're doing.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. WILLIAMS: And it kind of builds off both, and it's, you know, almost
parental in that way. And, yeah, he...
GROSS: Yeah, and he's--there's a relationship he may or may not be building
with a girl, and you're trying to encourage him to move forward in that. So
anyways, let's hear the scene.
(Soundbite of "Good Will Hunting")
Mr. MATT DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I went on a date last week.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) How'd it go?
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) It was good.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) You going out again?
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I don't know.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Why not?
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) Haven't called her.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Christ, you're an amateur.
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) I know what I'm doing.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Yeah.
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) Don't worry about me. I know what I'm doing.
Yeah, but this girl is like, you know, beautiful. She's smart, she's fun.
She's different from most of girls I've been with.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) So call her up, Romeo.
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) Why, so I can realize she's not that smart,
that she's...(censored by station)...boring? You know? I mean, this girl's
like...(censored by station)...perfect right now. I don't want to ruin that.
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Maybe you're perfect right now. Maybe you
don't want to ruin that. But I think that's a super philosophy, Will. That
way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know
My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful
little idiosyncrasies. You know what? She used to fart in her sleep. One
night it was so loud, it woke the dog up. She woke up and goes like, `Was
that you?' I said, `Yeah.' I didn't have the heart to tell her. Oh, God.
Mr. DAMON: (As Will Hunting) So she woke herself up?
Mr. WILLIAMS: (As Sean Maguire) Yeah.
Oh, Christ. Ah, but Will, she's been dead two years, and that's
the...(censored by station)...I remember. Wonderful stuff, you know? Little
things like that.
Yeah, but, those are the things I miss the most. Those little idiosyncrasies
that only I knew about. That's what made her my wife. Oh, and she had the
goods on me, too. She knew all my little peccadilloes. People call these
things imperfections, but they're not. Ah, that's the good stuff. And then
we get to choose who we let into our weird little worlds.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Robin Williams and Matt Damon in a scene from "Good Will
Hunting." Now, that's the movie you won the Academy Award for?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.
GROSS: Did it seem like a stretch for you to do the movie?
Mr. WILLIAMS: No. I mean, I was just excited that they offered it. I mean,
when I read it, I went, `This is a piece that has such depth.' And when I met
the boys, I went, `OK.' You know? And then they actually took flak for it
because people thought they didn't write it. But they did, and you realize
it's based on, you know, family members, like Matt's mother's is a
developmental psychologist, and Ben's father's a bit like the character,
Matt's character. This, you know, kind of maverick genius who went to MIT and
then ended up working at a theater company with Robert Duvall and Dustin
So all this stuff was part of it. And, no, it wasn't a stretch. It was just
a great exploration. And the idea of playing a psychiatrist, but also a guy
who's led, you know, who's coming out of it. I mean, the loss of his wife
pretty much knocked him on his ass and set him back drinking, and kind of, you
know, and then coming back to deal with this boy who is brilliant, you know,
intellectually, you know, far outstretching everybody else, but emotionally
really blocked. And, you know, is a victim of a lot of, you know, not
necessarily, I mean, physical abuse, and you realize taking him through that,
walking him through that, in a weird way, pulls me back, too. I'd given up,
you know. I was teaching, but I wasn't really practicing as a therapist.
DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Robin Williams. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Robin Williams. He's
co-starring in the new animated film "Happy Feet" and in the recent movie "The
GROSS: Was the kind of improvisational, eccentric humor that made you famous
ever considered a problem? And here's what I'm asking. Here's what I mean by
Mr. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you behave in that kind of way with a lot of, like, zany
characters popping out from you--when you were young...
Mr. WILLIAMS: No.
GROSS: ...at times that were considered inappropriate, like in school?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Not at all. I was very quiet. No, no, no. In school, I was
very quiet and very kind of, you know, I went to an all-boy's private school
for high school, and then went to a public high school in San Francisco in
1969. It was pretty much like the yin and yang of education, so I never
really started to even be funny openly on that level. You know, I was a
closet comedian for so many years. And the idea of finally just letting it
out was as a senior in high school where they had like a play where you could
make fun of everything, and that was the first time I really had a
performance. I was about as serious a student as you could be. You know, cum
laude society and the whole thing, and an athlete. So it was all kind of, you
know, `Go ahead!' You know, I remember the motto of my private school was
"Mens sana in corpore sano," "In sound mind, in sound body." It's a bit like
the school in "Dead Poets Society," and I was one of the students going,
`Yes!' You know? And then luckily I had a few teachers--a history teacher,
who told me that, you know, history is one of the great black comedies of all
time. It just depends upon who's writing it. And all of a sudden, I went,
`Wait a minute, I can use these skills.'
And then when I went to college, that's where it really came out big time. I
had a chance to perform at an improv theater company, mainly to meet girls, as
you find out from a lot of people. When I talked to Rod Steiger years ago, he
(Imitating Rod Steiger) `I went to an acting class not necessarily to act but
to meet women.' But, you know, you get the idea that, you know, it started
then. But, no, there weren't--and it still isn't. I mean, a woman came up to
me in an airport once and said, `Be zany.' I went, `Pardon?' `Be zany!' She
wanted me to just--it's a bit like what Jon Stewart said, you know, `Be a
little monkey boy. Come on, dance.' You know?
GROSS: Oh, oh, what he said on cable.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: Right, to, yeah--on "Crossfire," yeah.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. I mean, it's that thing, they want you to kind of, you
know, be that thing. And it's like, `No. No.' Sometimes, it's fun, and I'll
play if the moment's right. If it's like, you know, if there's an
opportunity, yeah. And if not, I'll talk straight with you. We can talk
about that. Be cool.
GROSS: So do you think of yourself when you were younger as having been quiet
or inhibited or both?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Quiet and inhibited both, yeah, I think, yeah. I think I was
just learning. Quiet, I'm an only child, so, it was like, you know, going
`OK, let's just learn where we are now.' And moving back and forth between
Detroit and Chicago, and you make a group of friends. Sorry, lose those.
Moving over here now. And so you learn to kind of adapt and take your time.
You kind of work the room slowly.
GROSS: It sounds like you really went from one extreme to the other, from...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Big time.
GROSS: ...inhibited, to, you know...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Disinhibited.
GROSS: ...incredibly uninhibited, yeah.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. Very much. As Oliver Sacks says, voluntary Tourette's.
You know, you, just this side of Ann Coulter, you know, except that,
occasionally I get a laugh, you know. You know, they're actually using her
saliva now as an anti-venom. Lot of people going, `I was bitten by a cobra.'
`Here, we have some of Ann Coulter's saliva!' Even the cobra's going, `Wow!
GROSS: Now, before this, did you know that you had a gift as a mimic, that
you could do voices and accents?
Mr. WILLIAMS: A little bit. I mean, I used to, for my mother. I could play
my grandmother, which even Freud would go, `Don't do that. Be very careful
when you imitate the relatives who are nearby.'
And I would do my grandmother.
(Imitating grandmother) `Oh, sonny, boy, how y'all? I'm down here, just
sittin' in Memphis watchin' wrestlin' in a teddy.' And my mother'd be like,
`Oh, that's wonderful. Stop.' But, you know, that was the first kind of, you
know, playfulness and imitating. You know, you always start imitating family
members, and that's pretty cool.
GROSS: What kind of roles were you cast in in college? We're talking
Julliard here. This is Julliard?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, when I actually started--yeah, Julliard. Oh, all
different types of roles. I remember we did a production of "Midsummer
Night's Dream," and I was one of the rustics, you know, kind of the guys who
were--the union guys in the middle of the Shakespeare play, you know. They're
there doing there play.
And I also played a fairy, which was--and a dancer, Peasblossom. And
Houseman, I remember seeing him laugh big time, which was like watching Buddha
blow up, so it was pretty wonderful.
And then we played all different roles, you know. From Tennessee Williams,
"Night of the Iguana." I played an old character. And it was, you know, you
do the whole gamut. But that was also where I started to play a little bit
more and, you know, realize that I had more of a character comedian than the
leading man. Who I went to school with, you know, Chris Reeves, and a lot of
people, Bill Hurt, Mandy Patinkin. They were all there at the time. And, you
know, hard core, you know, intense actors. And I'm like, `Ah, that's cool,
but I'd rather play...'
GROSS: So now, how did that lead to comedy?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I think it led to comedy as a survival mechanism, especially
when I left school and went back to San Francisco and couldn't find acting
work and saw this thing, and like, it said, comedy workshop. And I went,
`Hmm.' It's like syntax repair, interesting. So I went to this workshop in
the basement of a Lutheran church, and it was stand-up comedy, so you don't
get to improvise with others, but I started off doing, ostensibly, just--it
was like improvising but solo. And then I started to realize, oh, building an
act from there. And then you went from the, you know, the workshop to
actually clubs, which at that time were usually music or folk music clubs that
put comedy on as almost like, you know, interstitials in between the acts.
And it was pretty wild.
I mean, even the workshop, we'd have comedy night after they had an evening of
lesbian poetry, which brings in a really interesting audience for comedy,
especially if you're a male stand-up. And it was kind of fun to see, and that
builds up. And performing comedy in San Francisco to begin with is pretty
wild, you know. You've got to--you've got the human game preserve to play off
of, you know? And it's a lot of great characters everywhere. And you work
off that, and then you play the rooms, and eventually you get to a point where
you're playing a club that is a comedy club with other comics. And it's like,
`Oh. Now you're among your brethren.'
DAVIES: We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Robin Williams in the
second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
Let's hear Robin Williams from the soundtrack of the new animated feature
(Soundbite of Robin Williams singing "My Way" in Spanish)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Let's get
back to her interview with Robin Williams. He's currently co-starring in the
animated film "Happy Feet." He also starred in the recent film "The Night
Williams first became famous as the wacky alien from another planet in the TV
series "Mork and Mindy," which ran from 1978 to '82.
GROSS: You got started doing stand-up comedy in, what, the '70s, probably,
right, or '80s?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I mean, the '70s. Mid- to late-'70s, yes.
GROSS: So it was kind of like the early days of the whole comedy boom? So...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was like the revival, and it was like, it started out
kind of small in, like, little clubs that were like, ostensibly these were
music clubs that would have comedy. And then, later on, when I went to New
York, there were literally like the comedy clubs, like The Improv, and then,
in LA, The Comedy Store. But, yeah, it was...
GROSS: Who were you, then? Like, what was your style onstage like, before
"Mork and Mindy"?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I was still Robin Williams, but the style was just kind
of--early on, I realized that I didn't need to use a mike. Having been
trained at Julliard, I could enunciate and be offstage. And it kind of freed
me up to work the audience and kind of--it was more like an anti-heckler
defense, because if someone said something, I could come out in the audience.
And they're going, `What you doing out here?' `I know where you live.' And you
could kind of change perspectives and kind of keep it going.
First time I did a paying gig was at a club in Orange County called The Laugh
Stop, and the whole sound system blew out. And so all of a sudden they said,
`Go on.' And I went up there, because I didn't need a mike to begin with, I'd
just work the crowd kind of until they got the sound system back up. And it
really kind of helped build a style that was more like, use anything,
anywhere, and with the improv background, if anyone said anything, to go off
Like one time in a New York club, some woman yelled out, `Dr. Roof.' She was
trying to say `Dr. Ruth,' but she'd had five gin and tonics. And I started
doing Dr. Roof, who was like a black sex therapist. `Mm-hmm.' And you just
(Doing voice) `Mm-hmm. Man say foreplay, mm-hmm, you not done. Mm-mm.
Protection? Mm-mm, get away from me, that's my protection, straight-edge
But it was all part of, you know, building a style that was pretty loose. And
then later on, you would start to put structure to it. By the time I did
"Night at the Met," it was pretty--it started to have like a flow and kind of
a structure. But up until then, it was pretty free-form. It was pretty
GROSS: I know you've done performances in Afghanistan and Iraq for American
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's an interesting thing. When you perform there
it's--when you're onstage and everybody's fully armed and in body armor, `I
guess I didn't get that memo.' And you realize you better be funny, because
they're strapped. And performing in Afghanistan the first time--because I
wasn't going with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so it was pretty much on our
nickel--was pretty wild. And great audiences in it.
You know, you land there the first time, and you're met by people who look
like Spider-Man on a day pass. Full night vision goggles and, you know,
djellaba. My favorite people to perform for are the Special Forces guys who
are dressed in full Afghani kit, except for the New York Yankees hats. And
that was always--they're the ones with the light sticks, going, `Dude!' But,
yeah, I've performed there. Three times in Afghanistan, twice in Iraq. I'll
go back. I mean, this year I missed it because I was working. But you don't
get a better audience, and it's good to go there and bring other people.
GROSS: What kind of material seemed most appropriate for entertaining our
Mr. WILLIAMS: Materials for them? They don't censor me in terms of, you
know, the blue factor. I mean, they just want to have a good time, so you can
be, you know, pretty much let me do anything I could do on HBO. You mean the
political stuff? Sometimes, you know, you can try stuff, because we went to
one National Guard base, and that was the time when they were revealing that
the hummers were about as well armored as a Prius, and talked about putting
Don Rumsfeld on the front, strapped down like in "Road Warrior," and just,
`Aah! Humongous! Bring them to me!' And just see how that would affect the
Iraqis. Just the fact--or put Cheney there and just hook up his pacemaker to
jump-start some of the hummers.
GROSS: And you said that, and you weren't criticized for it?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Not by them, because they were living it. They were living
the dream, baby! You get picked up in a hummer that goes, `Did you just strap
that stuff on?' `Yes, Mr. Williams, it's part of it.' But you do stuff for
them, you know, like MREs--meals ready to excrete. They're basically, you go
to Afghanistan and you'll swallow enough dust that you'll pass an adobe brick.
But that's all part of it, you talk about that, and you know. You see a lot,
you know? And you meet a lot of amazing people.
GROSS: Did the troops there want to know what your position on the war was?
And did you want to let on at all?
Mr. WILLIAMS: No. They know what, I mean, they know what I'm not--they know
what my position on the administration is, you know. The great decider.
(Imitating George W. Bush) `I'm the decider.' No, you make decisions. The
decider is what they serve--they serve decider down with de apples in Maine.
Yup, right theah.
But they know where I'm with that. They know that I came there to perform for
them. It isn't like--with the war you want to go, `Oh man.' You know? With
Afghanistan, you see that they've tried to really make a difference and, you
know, build it from the ground up and create, you know, like when you see when
the elections occur, people really do want to vote and get out and, you
know--and at one point when the Iraqis were writing their constitution, I
said, `Take ours, we're not using it.' But it's--and you remember when the
Iraqis were coming here, and they're like, `What is an amendment? But the
amendments are--you amendment, commandment. Explain to me the difference.'
But it was--they know. And I met one guy who said, one guy who came up, one
Special Forces guy, saying, `I'm one of the only Democrats here.' I said,
(imitating Elmer Fudd) `Be vewwy, vewwy quiet. Uh-huhh. We're looking for
But, you know, they know, and you're there, and saying, `Hey, dude, it's not
about the politics, it's about you.'
GROSS: Would you have been surprised if somebody told you in the late 1960s,
in the Vietnam era, that you would be entertaining troops in the 2000s?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Would I be surprised? Maybe a little bit, you know. When I
went to Claremont Men's College, their ROTC program had three people, and
people protested. Five people protesting three people was the extent of our
GROSS: Yeah, I guess that's what I'm thinking. Like, if your whole idea of,
like, the military and what it means to be in the military has changed.
Mr. WILLIAMS: I mean, I find that there's a lot of extraordinary, brilliant
people in the military. And then I find that there's, you know, there's
others, the lifers, the guys who know, and there's people who are prepared to
do, you know, full out, go, you know, do whatever they're told. But yet they
want to know, you know--I mean, it's a whole mixed bag for me, because I've
always loved--I've followed military history most of my life. I'm fascinated
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, I do.
GROSS: Well, have you ever wanted to be in the military?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I have until my father explained to me that when he was on a
carrier and it was hit by a kamikaze that they closed all the bulkhead doors
and you're pretty much there on your own and the dolce et decorum est doesn't
last very long. And he explained, `If you want to do this, understand that,
you know, when things go down, you're on your own. And it's pretty ugly and
very brutal and, you know, men burn to death around you, and then when the
all-clear sounds, they come in and pick up what's left.'
So it was like, you know, any ideas that it's glorious? No. But to realize
that they're dedicated people there? Yes. To realize that there are cases
where it's quite necessary, that force is, you know, if you watch "Why We
Fight," with Eisenhower, you realize that here's a man leaving office, saying,
`We have one thing to beware, the military industrial complex.' And this is a
man who took total responsibility for D-Day. He wrote a letter saying, `If
this invasion fails, I take total responsibility.' I'd like to pass that
letter on to "W" and just say, `Read this. Compare and contrast.' You know?
GROSS: How did you deal with the draft in the '60s?
Mr. WILLIAMS: My draft number was 351. That meant the Viet Cong had to be
coming from Kansas.
GROSS: Oh, gee. So it was like not an issue for you? You were just out?
Mr. WILLIAMS: No, it wasn't. And, you know, it wasn't an issue. So in a
weird way, I won the lottery and it made the decision for me. If I'd been
drafted, it would've been an interesting call. I don't know whether I
would've gone, or you know. I don't think I would've fled to Canada. I
think, you know--would I have gone? I would probably lean to probably saying
yes, or be in a unit like W. You know, in a--he was in the same National
Guard unit as Bigfoot, about the same number of sightings.
DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Robin Williams. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Robin Williams. He's
co-starring in the new animated film "Happy Feet" and in the recent movie "The
Night Listener." A couple of minutes ago, they were talking about performing
for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GROSS: Were you a fan of Bob Hope when you were growing up, and of his...
Mr. WILLIAMS: No, I mean, I watched his movies later on when I saw him, you
(Imitating Bob Hope) `Yeah, it's crazy, isn't it? Here I am in Beirut. Wild.
One big sandtrap. I can't imagine Brooke Shields in a burkha. All you'd see
is an eyebrow. It's crazy. Look out. We're dropping Ann Coulter down just
to see who flees. It's incredible. I think we've even violated the Geneva
Convention by--putting her anywhere in Iraq is a violation of the Geneva
Convention. People are fleeing right there. Actually, some of the Iraqis are
giving up. And how about this Zarqawi? Doesn't he look like Ron Jeremy? I'm
telling you, it's crazy. I saw the autopsy photo, I went, "That's that porn
actor. It's Ron Jeremy." I don't think either one of them are happy about
that connection, but wild, isn't it? It's loopy.
GROSS: Very good. Very good.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Thank you. Very good. Thank you.
GROSS: Now, I know you were a big fan of Jonathan Winters.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Huge.
GROSS: I have to tell you, you know, I interviewed Jonathan Winters once,
like in the late 1980s, and it was as if he were narrating a hallucination
that he was having that I didn't see.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, big time. Well, he's an artist, plus he's also been
medicated over the years, you know. And the greatest part about Jonathan is
he will create a world for you there. I mean, that's why his records are so
great. But if you see him in person, he transforms. He literally morphed
before the technology existed. He was there doing that, and people were like,
`What?' And he would jump in and out of these characters--multiple characters.
and people were like--and, you know, you're right, it is like all of a sudden
you're going--and he'll drag you into that, slowly but surely.
GROSS: When did you become a fan of his?
Mr. WILLIAMS: When I saw my father laughing, and when he used to be on the
old "Tonight Show" with Jack Parr.
GROSS: And this is before...
Mr. WILLIAMS: It was amazing.
GROSS: ...you were performing, and before you thought of yourself...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that was right. He was doing this thing and it was
like, `I'm a'--he come onto Jack Parr, and he came in with a little pith
helmet saying, `I'm a great white hunter. My name is Terrance Torgety.' And
he said, `What do you hunt?' `I hunt mainly squirrels.' And Jack Parr said,
`What do you do?' `I aim for their little nuts.' And you could see Jack Parr
just going, `Hoah, hoah.' You know, and it's...
(Doing voices) `And a lot of these people are people he knows, you know,
people--' `Aw, John, you know me.' And people from what he calls `the happy
place,' which was the institute they put him in. And he had the great thing
when he, you know, the time he had the kind of a breakdown, and he climbed the
mast of the Balclutha, which is an old three-masted schooner that's in the bay
in San Francisco dock, and he climbed it totally naked. And when they brought
him down, and the ambulance and the police were waiting, they said, `Mr.
Winters, do you have anything to say?' He said, `Yes, never land alone.' So,
you know, you have certain perspective there, that comedy comes from a deeper
GROSS: Now you mentioned that he genuinely had a breakdown.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
GROSS: And I think it's true that a lot of comics have a very depressive
Mr. WILLIAMS: Oh, they have a dark side, I mean, because they're looking at
that. You know, it's a part of looking at--in the process of looking for
comedy, you have to be deeply honest. And in doing that, you'll find out
here's the other side. You know, you'll be looking under the rock
occasionally for the laughter. So they, you know, they have a depressed side.
But is it always the sad clown thing? No. But there, you know, I find comics
to be pretty honest people in terms of looking at stuff from both sides, or
all sides, and presenting you with, like, `Here it is.' You know? And like
Lenny Bruce did the great thing about the white collar drunk. (Imitating
Lenny Bruce), `Yeah, I'll kill you.' He said it's not like the sweet Clem
Kadiddlehopper drunk like the Red Skelton, `Hello, buddy. Hello.' He's like,
(imitating Lenny Bruce) `Yeah, I'll kill you and I'll kill your dog, too.
Yeah, buddy. I'll tell you what, I love you but I'll kill you. That's how
much I love you.'
GROSS: Have you ever dealt with depressions? And I guess I'm wondering if...
Mr. WILLIAMS: Mm-hmm. As a human being, yeah.
GROSS: And I guess I'm wondering if like your manic side has an opposite
Mr. WILLIAMS: It's not even manic. I mean, manic--people sometimes, I mean,
I volunteered to be on the cover of a--I think it was Newsweek, for their
issue on medication--thank you. And when the guy said, `Well, do you ever get
depressed?' I said, `Yeah, sometimes I get sad.' I mean, you can't watch news
for more than three seconds and go, `Oh, this is depressing.' And then
immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me manic depressive. I was like,
`Um, that's clinical. I'm not that.' Do I perform sometimes in a manic style?
Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me
hard? Oh, yeah. Do you find a way--but does that immediately make me like,
`Oh, thanks, Terry. Nice talking with you. Oh, I don't know, Terry. I don't
know. I don't get--oh, I'm OK. I'm OK. Give me that. Can I borrow that?
All right, thanks for asking that, Terry, because, yeah, I get depressed. I
get depressed that I wasn't on "American Idol." I could sing, you know?'
GROSS: So no clinical depression is what I'm taking away from this?
Mr. WILLIAMS: No clinical depression, no. Am I--no. I get bummed, like I
think a lot of us do at certain times. You look at the world and go, `Whoa.'
And then other moments you look and go, `Oh. Things are OK.'
GROSS: I was also wondering if you were ever in psychotherapy? You know,
again, you've played therapists. But I was wondering if you were ever in
Mr. WILLIAMS: In? Well, I was near it, yes. Yeah, I mean--no, actually for
years, yeah, still talk to a...
GROSS: Here's why I ask. First of all...
Mr. WILLIAMS: No, no, why do you ask? Because I'm not paranoid, but why do
GROSS: Well, a few reasons. One is, like, as we were talking about, you
know, as an actor, I think you have to have insights into how people operate
and human psychology. But also, some people are so kind of verbally adept,
like you are, that I wonder if they're talk therapy proof? You know what I
mean? Whether they're so skilled at using words to get around things, in a
way, that, you know, is it hard for them to be disarmed by language?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Disarmed? Well, you can disarm yourself. You can lay down
the arms and, basically, that's the purpose of therapy at a certain point. If
you're just going into say, `Hey, look, I can really shuck this guy,' that's
not the purpose really. Eventually, at a certain point, you have to say, `OK,
what do you want to do? Why are you doing this?' You know, at certain point.
Or get money back, you know, because the idea is to kind of get to the point
of realizing where are the issues that you could, you know, confront yourself?
Which is, you know, the ideal is to deal with that and come out the other side
going, `OK. I know now these are certain things that I do and do you wish to
continue that way?' Or, you now, if, like you said, you can talk yourself
around it, then all you're doing is just kind of, you know, self-replicating.
OK, continue the behavior and never change. As one therapist said, `Change is
not a hobby,' you know? And as the one guy at the suicide hotline said, `Life
isn't for everybody.' That would be a rough one. `Hey, how you doing?' `Well,
GROSS: So you feel like you've gotten a lot out of psychotherapy?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's helped me over the years. and really helped kind
of, you know. A lot? I mean, I think enough to keep going and be able to
say--yeah, does it mean everything's wonderful? Am I... (Imitating Arnold
Schwarzenegger) `All is working well, you know, Terry. It's going well for
me. I feel good. And being governor has made me feel that, you know, as an
immigrant, I came here to America with a dream and a vial of anabolic steroids
and look what happened.'
But, yeah, it's helped me. I would say it's done a lot more good than bad.
And I have been able to be disarmed on that level, but there's other times, in
the beginning, where, you know, `Yeah, sure, OK, talk your way out of it.' But
a good therapist will kind of say, `OK, this is not stage.' Or it was a
friend, I guess, I heard somebody who said--used to go to AA just for stage
time, and that's not it.
GROSS: Can we talk about your voice for a minute? You're able to do so many
voices, so many different styles of speaking and accents and so on. Did you
work on that? Is that something you just kind of intuitively had or is that
like a craft that you...
Mr. WILLIAMS: (Imitating Carol Channing) Well, initially, I had to overcome
But, no, I didn't work on it. I think it just happened. It was fun. I mean,
I have, people would say, kind of an eidetic ear to be able to do that, and
speak French and speak Russian--I mean, not as much Russian as I speak French.
And even when I speak French in Paris, they're going, `Don't try it, speak
English.' And then she gives a cigarette to a baby. But it is the idea of
just hearing it and kind of being able to assimilate that. I guess I was just
acoustically, you know, given that ability. So I don't work on it. It just
seems to come out pretty naturally.
GROSS: Do you sing?
Mr. WILLIAMS: I can, and I'm hoping to be on Broadway for "Brokeback
Mountain" the musical. I have a song, "Can't quit you, Ennis," "I know." "As
I hold you outside, there's snow, and I feel that glow as I hold you down
below." And I'll stop right there because I know that when I accept the Tony,
I want to thank my partner, Tom. And things you don't hear at the Tony,
`Don't wait up for me, kids.' But, you know, those are the things that I love
about musicals. They're great and I can sing, but it tends to be more like
Ethel Merman. I go for the big numbers, like in "Aladdin," which is like
Ethel Merman. Do I have...
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
(Imitating Ethel Merman) Hello, young lovers!
And, you know, even then, right now, your engineer went, `Tell him do not do
that.' But it's a good thing.
GROSS: Yeah, because I figure people who can imitate voices and do accents
and stuff like that can probably get notes, too, you know, be on pitch.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. They could get notes, yes. Little notes like, `Call
me.' Signed--who is this? Signed Maria. `Maria who?' `Callas, you fool.'
Yes, I could get notes. I mean, there is a pitch to even any voice. Just in
(Imitating Chinese accent) You know, in Mandarin, you say xie xie,
It can be the difference between ordering a car and saying, `Please play with
my buttocks.' You know, that's the difference in tone for--and that's actually
not a real Mandarin phrase, so for those listening, it's OK.
GROSS: Can I make a confession?
Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes.
Mr. WILLIAMS: You're not wearing anything, but that's OK. You're in the
radio studio, and if you're wearing--if you're in a thong, that's wonderful.
A thong in your heart, that's OK. No, no, please, confess.
GROSS: Well, before we did the interview, I had no idea what to expect.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Right.
GROSS: And I wasn't sure you'd give me a straight answer to anything. And I
just want to say thank you for actually having a talk.
Mr. WILLIAMS: You're welcome. Well, it's good to talk like that. You know?
GROSS: And for being really funny at the same time.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, that's probably what life is. You know, you can do
both. You can talk and be funny. And you see it wasn't that zany. It was
just conversation. It's a good thing, Terry, you know that.
GROSS: It's a good thing.
Mr. WILLIAMS: It's what we--it's a good thing, as Martha Stewart said once
she got out of prison. You know? She had that wonderful magazine she
published while she was in jail called Truly Inside Living, which was
wonderful. `How to make trompe l'oeil with a lovely toothbrush. Things to do
with a shiv besides stab.' You know, wonderful things. And if you only have
one window, use the light. She's very good that way.
`And you call this shiv?' You know?
GROSS: Robin Williams...
Mr. WILLIAMS: And we'll be right with some people--oh, you're welcome, Terry
Gross. We're here with some people from New Zealand, and we're talking about
animal husbandry. And can you marry a ewe? Your call. Lines are open.
(Imitating sheep). `Easy. Terrance, no.' (Imitating sheep). `How was it?'
`Not baa-aaa-aad.' `All right, thank you.'
We're back. Thanks, Terry, it was a good day. It was a good day.
(Doing Australian accent) Good on you, Terry. Got to take care of yourself.
We'll be right back with Ann Coulter, just to talk about, you know,
euthanasia. We'll be gone. Bye-bye.
GROSS: Thank you.
Mr. WILLIAMS: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Terry spoke with Robin Williams in August. He's co-starring in the
new animated film "Happy Feet."
Coming up, John Powers offers some thoughts on the controversial hit film
"Borat." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: John Powers reviews "Borat"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Sacha Baron Cohen's new film "Borat" is a huge yet controversial hit. Since
it opened, the filmmakers have been threatened with lawsuits from people in
the film who claimed they were misled or tricked, and it's prompted lots of
debate about what kind of comedy it is and how far the comedy goes. But our
critic at large John Powers says it also gives an insight into the nature of
documentary and reality programs.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
I once did an interview for a British TV documentary about a Hollywood
filmmaker whose work I greatly admired. The crew came to my house, and I
spent an hour praising his movies in great detail while they told me my
remarks were brilliant. Months later, I saw the show. I appeared once for a
few measly seconds, making a mean joke about the director's one bad film. And
I was outraged. I'd been completely misrepresented.
So I understand why so many of the people in "Borat" are unhappy, and I'm not
surprised that some of them, including the Romanian villagers who passed for
lewd Kazakhstani brutes, are even planning to sue. They feel abused,
betrayed, exploited. And their feelings are one reason the movie offers such
a valuable glimpse into the nature of all nonfiction film, be it documentary
or reality TV.
You see, what happens in "Borat" is only a gaudier, higher-profile version of
something that's been going on for decades: Somebody comes with a camera and
films peoples' lives, often befriending them in the process. These people
sign a release, giving their permission to use what's been shot. And then the
filmmakers go to the editing room, and they use that footage to serve whatever
agenda they want to. In "Borat"'s case, the result is essentially a
ratcheted-up version of "Candid Camera," or a "Punk'd" that targets ordinary
people. With the ruthless glee of a born comedian, "Borat"'s creator Sacha
Baron Cohen mainly wants to make audiences laugh, laugh at how his victims
react to Borat's startling lavatory practices or his bigoted remarks. Here he
baits a trio of long-time feminists.
(Soundbite of "Borat")
Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) So what it means, this feminism?
Unidentified Woman #1: It's the theory that women should be equal to men in
matters economic, social and political.
Unidentified Woman #2: You are laughing.
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) Yeah.
Woman #2: That is the problem.
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) Do you think a woman should be educate?
Woman #1: Definitely.
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) But is it not a problem that the woman have a
smaller brain than a man?
Woman #1: That is wrong.
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) But a government scientist, Dr. Yamaka,
prove it is size of squirrel.
Woman #1: He's wrong.
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) Give me a smile, baby. Why angry face?
Woman #1: Well, what you're saying is very demeaning. Do you know the word
Mr. COHEN: (As Borat Sagdiyev) No.
POWERS: This scene is clearly just a goof. Its agenda is comedy, just as
Michael Moore's agenda for all his jokes is ultimately political. He cuts his
documentaries to make conservatives look foolish or evil.
Of course, the agenda in nonfiction is often less ideological than sheerly
dramatic. For example, the last season of "Project Runway" spent weeks
portraying the eventual winner, Jeffrey Sebelia, as a creep. But when he made
the final round, the program suddenly showed him with his girlfriend and
child, and he instantly seemed warmer and more human. You grasp that your
previous image of Jeffrey had been shaped to serve the show's need for a
Such shaping of reality goes on all the time in all documentaries, even those
that pretend to be objective or that aspire to enobling ends. In fact, it's
the very nature of nonfiction that it's never completely innocent. It can't
be. It's forever taking the enormous complexity of real life and then shaping
an end determined by the filmmaker, not its subjects, which is why nonfiction
projects nearly always leave somebody--or lots of somebodies--feeling
This is vividly clear in the gripping new film "49 Up," the latest installment
of the BBC documentary series that began filming a cross-section of British
kids when they were just seven years old. It has checked in on them every
seven years since then. Today, the subjects are 49, and now they're fighting
back against how filmmaker Michael Apted has depicted them over the years.
In the best scene, an East End mum named Jackie says she's always been angry
at having her life treated as an emblem of working class life. "I like it
when you're angry," Apted says. "No, you don't," she snaps, noting that when
she's been angry in the past, Apted never put that footage in the film. It
didn't fit the slightly-downtrodden image of her that he was then creating.
Now, it's to Apted's credit that he lets Jackie rebuke him onscreen. Most
filmmakers have far less conscience. And the world grows ever meaner in an
era when technology devours privacy, when your foibles can be caught on
videophones, then posted on YouTube, and when the line between reality and
entertainment grows ever fainter.
These days more and more media outfits, even including "The Daily Show," go
out of their way to make ordinary people look foolish. That's why the abiding
message of "Borat" is not that Southerners are bigots or that frat boys are
louts or that Americans are ignorant or that Sacha Baron Cohen is some kind of
satirical genius. No, the real lesson is far simpler: If someone approaches
you with a camera, even if it's your friend or your mother, think twice before
signing that release.
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue.
DAVIES: I'm Dave Davies.
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