An Interview with Wallace Shawn |
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I had been expecting his phone call sometime that day, and when he finally called he didn't need to identify himself. I had grown up watching Wallace Shawn in the movies, and his voice is one of the most distinctive in all of Hollywood.
Shawn has appeared in more than eighty movies since Woody Allen's "Manhattan" (1979). His most famous movie was based on his real-life dinner conversations with theater director Andre Gregory called "My Dinner with Andre" (1981). He is also well-known to children as the evil Vizzini in "The Princess Bride" (1987), and as the voice of Rex the dinosaur in the two "Toy Story" movies.
He is currently performing in a one-person show of a revival of his 1990 monologue "The Fever."
"I play a character who's stuck in a third-world hotel room," said Shawn from his home in New York City. "The play explores some of the themes about why some people are poor and some are not."
He has re-written it a bit since it was first performed back in 1990. "But it might be even more timely today," said Shawn. "Poverty might not be getting all of today's headlines, but it hasn't gone away. It's still around."
Although he loves the personal encounter of performing this play all by himself he admits that it's exhausting.
"I'm up there all alone for one and a half hours," said Shawn. "People in the audience expect you to do something, so you really have to give one hundred and ten percent of yourself for the show to work."
Many of his film roles have involved frivolous and humorous characters, but as a playwright his eight plays are often dark, and politically and sexually controversial. His writing has not gone unnoticed. In 2005 he received PEN America's Laura Pels Foundation Award, which is presented to "a master American dramatist."
Like any playwright, he hopes his plays are relevant. "Of the two hundred people who nightly come to see 'The Fever,' " said Shawn, "I hope five or ten of them might actually think differently about the poor when they're leaving the theater."
He also said it's much easier writing a play and not performing in it. "I mainly like to write the plays and let others perform them," said Shawn, "because then I don't have to learn all the lines."
According to Shawn, most people assume that actors would prefer to act in the theater than in a film, but he feels differently. "There's a lot of boring dog work in the theater," he said. "You have to project your voice and stand in a certain place. In film it's more pure acting."
Although secretly he'd like to think of himself as a writer, he admits that in actuality he's really in show business. "When I write plays it's primarily as an unpaid charitable activity," said Shawn. "In fact, there are only a few of us, maybe three or four in our entire nation, who make a living as a playwright."
He said that everyone else who writes for the theater has some other job which provides them an income. "Theater today has thrived as a commercial entertainment form for big musicals," said Shawn. "Probably the best time to write plays and make a living at it was during the 1920's."
His two favorite projects in film were both directed by Louis Malle, "My Dinner with Andre," which Shawn co-wrote, and "Vanya on 42nd Street," in which he played the main character Uncle Vanya.
"I met Andre Gregory back in the 1970's," said Shawn. "I admired his work as a director, and we always had great conversations. I thought it would be fun to tape record some of our dinner conversations and see if there was a script there so that's what we did. We'd meet two or three times a week for dinner and talk."
The 1981 film based on these conversations became an arthouse classic and appeared as one of the top ten films of the year on many film critics' lists. "I think that film showed there's an audience for intelligent conversation," said Shawn.
Although he is discouraged about many of the problems facing our country and our world, he still believes it's important to speak out and attempt a dialogue about them.
Back in 2004 he put together a journal called "The Final Edition: Volume One, Number One, The Last Issue," which featured stories, poetry and essays by himself, his long-time partner Deborah Eisenberg, scholar Noam Chomsky and writer Jonathan Schell.
"What I did was get some of my friends together and we put this journal out as a way to express our concerns about how the meaning of America had changed," said Shawn. "We seemed to be going in the wrong direction, and we haven't gotten much better in the years since."
He didn't want to keep publishing the journal because he didn't want to keep repeating the same things over and over and boring people. "It was an expression of a moment in history," said Shawn.
Shawn, who graduated from Harvard University and then studied economics and philosophy at Oxford, has lived a life of the arts since he was a child. He was the son of William Shawn, who for over thirty years was the editor of The New Yorker. His mother was a journalist, and his brother is a writer and a composer.
"My father was friendly to the idea of his children expressing themselves in an artistic way, rather than working in an office," said Shawn, "but he was more involved in the literary field than the theatrical field. He was attracted to Broadway musicals, but he wasn't crazy about anything done after 1945, and straight plays were never his thing. He had little interest in the work of playwrights like Tennessee Williams."
Shawn is looking forward to visiting the New York State Writers Institute. "I came up a few years back when Deborah read there, and we had a great time. It was a fabulous experience."
He expects to read from a sample of the collected works of Wallace Shawn and talk about some of his experiences in film and theater. His big plans for the future are to one day be cremated. "But before that happens I've been writing a screenplay with Andre Gregory about Ibsen. We hope to make a film of that, and I expect to be a performer in it."