Inconceivable! An Interview with Wallace Shawn

Legend has it “It” girl Lana Turner was “discovered” at a soda counter in 1937. Outside of perhaps Hedy Lamar, who invented some heavy military tech in WWII, most of the actors in the “glory days” of Hollywood were not known for smarts but for looking glamorous. Hollywood was the way for good-looking people from the back fields of America to break free and become wealthy and “cultured.” They had to speak well, dress well, stay thin, know their lines and marks, and obey the studio.

Times have changed. While good looks are nice, there are plenty of successful actors who have never been considered heart-throbs (Steve Buscemi, Clint Howard, Vincent Schiavelli, Mike Smith, Linda Hunt, etc). Hollywood may have its mega-cash flow (A-listers make $15-20 million per film; Dwayne Johnson had 9 films 2016-2018), but many stars aren’t afraid to flaunt their smarts and get that college degree, knowing how fickle the acting business is. Jodie Foster has a degree from Yale, Natalie Portman from Harvard, Emma Watson from Brown, Mayim Balik has a PhD in Neuroscience, Gerard Butler a law degree, James Franco is finishing a PhD from Yale, and more.

Smart AND Talented

Recently, I had the extreme pleasure of meeting actor Wallace Shawn, listening to him speak and interviewing him briefly. Never heard of him? I’ll bet you have. Perhaps most famously he is known for the Inconceivable role of Vizzini in the cult classic, The Princess Bride. Currently, he plays the Professor on the TV show Young Sheldon. He’s had roles in Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, Bojack Horseman, and if you had children any time in the last 20 years, he’s the voice of Rex in Toy Story. You might not know his name, but you probably do know his face and voice.

And what an interesting man he is!  Soft spoken and humble, he loves to chat, and was charmed by all the happy faces he met. Shawn graduated from no less than Harvard, with a degree in history and the hope of becoming a diplomat – so far as spending a year in India teaching English. Acting was never on his radar – in fact, he was known far more for being a playwright, with such well-received plays as Grasses of a Thousand Colors, Marie and Bruce, My Dinner with Andre, A Master Builder, and Evening at the Talk House. His acting career came about due to a friendship with play director Andre Gregory, with whom he collaborated on the semi-autobiographical My Dinner with Andre, and he’s never stopped working since.

He’s also published books of essays, including one titled simply Essays, and his 2017 collection entitled Night Thoughts, which he admits is a bit political. Although biographies will give more clues to his opinions, in person Wallace treads a neutral line, doesn’t give many clues as to his feelings, and tries to keep many of his opinions private. Originally he considered writing to be selfish and self-indulgent, but then realized it was a satisfying creative outlet.

Heavy Reader

photo: Dawn Swingle

So what does a highly educated actor and playwright like to read? What authors does he favor? Wallace preferred to side-step the question a bit, citing that he likes to keep those things private. In the past, his favorite book was The Idiot by Dostoevsky, because it contained just about everything you could ever want to know about the human condition – not the kind of answer I expected, far heavier than I would have imagined. He admitted to liking Japanese literature, including Yasunari Kawabata and Haruki Murakami. The man is far deeper, and a deeper thinker, than I ever would have imagined.

Time with Wallace Shawn is like spending time with a favorite uncle who comes to Sunday dinner. While his movie and television roles may portray him otherwise, he’s sweet, personable, and down to earth. He admires Woody Allen, spent much time with him, and does not believe the accusations against him. His environmentalism showed when asked what he would have liked to have told his younger self, and he remarked he never realized “when he was young that the most destructive animal on Earth was ourselves, that what we put into our cars would destroy everything not only locally, but globally, that butterflies and bees would be dying, and only a handful of people would even care about it.”

Wallace Shawn: actor, voice actor, playwright, author. If you can’t catch one of his plays, check out his movies and TV shows. Truly, a man who is much greater than the sum of his roles!

  

Tales of Three Chrises

befunky-collage-5-11While looking at upcoming films, I watched the newest trailer for the Wonder Woman movie (due June 2, 2017, and it looks fantastic), and was surprised to see actor Chris Pine in the role of Steve Trevor – I had no idea he was in the film. I like Chris Pine, he’s a worthy actor, and I think he’ll do a wonderful job in the role. But I can’t help but notice, he’s been cropping up in an awful lot of films lately.

Sometimes Hollywood gets hooked on a new actor and they become “hot” – in high demand because they seem to pull in audiences and thus make a lot of money, worthy or not. They may hang around a while, then fade off into obscurity when it’s realized they have no real talent, only to reappear on a C-grade cable network show pushing designer socks. Sometimes actors let their popularity run for a few years, make their money, and then get out altogether, to pursue directing, theater, music, or sometimes even a college degree.

But lately the name Chris seems to be the favorite in Hollywood – Chris Pine, Chris Pratt, and the other blockbuster, Chris Hemsworth. All are fine actors who have taken on roles that shot them to stardom, yet all have solid resumes of good films behind them even if you’ve never heard of them.

mv5bmtm4otq4ntu3nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwnjewndu0oq-_v1_ux214_cr00214317_al_Chris Pine comes from an acting family – his dad was Robert Pine, Sgt. Getraer from CHiPs, and he’s one of those well-rounded actors with actual talent. Although currently best known for taking on the iconic role of Captain James Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, he’s done an array of very worthy films, from action hero in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, to wine maker in Bottleshock (a very underrated movie with an excellent cast), to Coast Guard skipper in The Finest Hours. If you doubt his acting talent, listen to his singing voice as he belts out the tune “Agony” in Into the Woods. If he runs out of films, he can  switch easily to Broadway. If you’re of a certain age, or have daughters of a different age, you may remember him from Princess Diaries 2.  He’s not just taking on any role to make a buck.

On the other end, you have Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who gained thirty8e289e037001b64b43665c8be542d3f9 pounds of pure muscle to take on the role of powerful comic book hero Thor in the multitude of Marvel films. But Hemsworth is not just eyecandy. His latest film was a comic role in the Ghostbusters reboot (okay, not exactly a great film, but not Thor either), but he’s popped up regularly in Snow White and the Huntsman, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, chasing Moby Dick in In The Heart of the Sea, racing cars in Rush, and escaping computer espionage in Black Hat, a worthwhile thriller though not of the same caliber of a Marvel film. He may look like he fell off the cover of a romance novel, but you can’t say he’s allowed himself to be typecast. He, too, was in the Star Trek reboot, as George Kirk, James T.’s father – a role he will be reprising in the next Star Trek film, which has not yet entered production (even though he’s three years younger than Chris Pine). If you really want entertainment, listen to him speak with his native Australian accent – you realize just how impressive his American accent is.

chris_pratt_-_guardians_of_the_galaxy_premiere_-_july_2014_croppedChris Pratt landed two franchises – starring in the latest Jurassic Park flick, Jurassic World, as well as the lead of Peter Quill in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (and the upcoming GG2, due out May 5 of 2017, and the next Jurassic, in pre-production, and reprising his Peter Quill role in the Avengers Infinity War, currently filming – talk about busy!). AND he starred with Jennifer Lawrence in December’s new release, Passengers. Before taking over the action-hero trade, he appeared in such varied films as Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball, and the recent star-studded western, The Magnificent Seven. Of the three, he’s also done extensive television, with recurring roles on Parks and Recreation, The O.C., and Everwood.  He’s earned the right to be exhausted!

So while the weather is less than delightful, make it a weekend of high entertainment and Chris-cross some of these films off your list. No matter what your style of movie – westerns, intrigue, racing, science fiction, comic heroes, fairy tales, covert wars, musicals or more, one of these men has the perfect film for you.

James Cromwell films

james cromwellYou may not know his name, but chances are you know his face. James Cromwell is one of those lucky actors who never seems to want for work, with more than 163 film and television credits to his name.  At 6′ 7″, he is the tallest actor ever nominated for an Oscar. Born in 1940, educated at Middlebury College and Cal Tech, Cromwell has been cropping up everywhere since the early 1970’s, and is still going strong.  A staunch vegetarian, he was once arrested for protesting a Wendy’s in Virginia.  Total Film ranked him 56th of the Top 100 Greatest Movie Villains for his role as Captain Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential, which many people think he should have won an Oscar for. Whether you remember him as Farmer Hoggett in Babe (his Oscar nomination), Zephraim Cochrane in Star Trek: First Contact, or Archie Bunker’s loading d0ck buddy Stretch Cunningham in All in the Family (yes, that was James Cromwell), you’ve probably seen his work. Whether funny, serious, or villainous is your style, get that popcorn going, sit back, and check out some of these great Cromwell performances!

[Cover]        [Cover]