Questions For Wallace Shawn
By John Glassie
(This interview was published in slightly different form in The New York Times Magazine, August 17, 2001.)
Q. You've had comic parts in dozens of movies and dozens more television shows. Do you actually try to be funny in these roles?
A. Yes, but no more than in almost every minute of my life. I can't define the word funny and yet from an early age, my behavior has seemed funny to people. When I was younger I would try to be serious and I would sometimes be upset that people would laugh. Now I have been living with myself for a long time and I know that there's something funny about me. And I know that in many cases in my acting roles, people are finding things funny that I don't find funny, and I don't even want to know why they think they're funny. But I try to avoid roles in which people are actually laughing at my character because he's short, for example.
Q. You are also one of the most well respected playwrights of the non-mainstream variety in this country and abroad. One critic has said you write "vicious little comedies obsessed with portraying the dark side of life." How would you describe your plays?
A. I find my own plays rather hard to interpret. I mean, I know in some way I've written more about sex than a lot of other writers. And I know my view of the world, which is not mentionable, is an influence on the plays that I write. Some of my plays more directly reflect the views that can not be mentioned.
Q. Well, they often seem to go right to questions about how to behave as a human on the planet. How do you approach the project of being a human on the planet?
A. That's an excellent question. I think I have an idea of the life that I should live, but don't have the courage to live it. During the years that I have been alive, the country that I happen to come from has actually been a cruel force in the world, in my view. I don't believe in holding on to my U.S. passport, and yet I haven't given it up. I have a terrible fear of prison. I'm very claustrophobic. And so I don't do the things I really believe in doing, chaining myself to this or that and getting arrested. And by temperament I find it very hard to be an activist. So I'm very aware of the absurdity of my life which is caused by cowardice and fear.
Q. Are you, by any chance, the brooding type?
A. Well I have to be something. I'm either a completely worthless parasite who is simply consuming off the backs of the oppressed in the world, or I am a consumer who is also brooding. The part about being a worthless parasite is obvious. It's not debatable, really, because I am a consumer at the top of the food chain, and I am a bourgeois citizen of the United States of America, and that, no one could possibly deny. If I'm also contributing something, it's in an ineffable and ethereal realm, which actually is debatable.
Q. Is it fair, then, to ask you if you are a happy person?
A. No, it's not good luck to ask that.
Q. Oh, is that right?
A. In other words, it's certainly not good luck to answer it.
Q. I guess you're right. Sorry. Your play The Designated Mourner was in part about the conflict between low brow and high brow culture. How do you yourself reconcile your involvement in the movie remake of "My Favorite Martian" and your own film "My Dinner with Andre," in which you and theater director Andre Gregory hold a two-hour long conversation?
A. I have been a participant in low brow culture and nobody can dispute that. My writing, if it has any value at all, would in some ways fit into the high brow category. I suppose I have listened to 50 times more classical music than rock music. I read poetry and I don't watch much television. I actually have never had a television. On the other hand, I don't feel I understand the poetry I'm reading as well as lot of people. If you give me an anthology I might understand three poets out of ten.
Q. Do you usually go to see the kind of Hollywood comedies you have appeared in?
A. I don't go to to many Americam movies. You know, when the Oscars come around I usually haven't seen most or any of the movies that are nominated for best picture or whatever. On my own time, I've never missed a movie by the French director Eric Rohmer to my knowledge.
Q. I understand you are intensely private. You once said about yourself: "You can say that even the people who know him best honestly don't know what the f**k he does all day long." What do you do all day long?
A. I actually have three professions if you want to look at it that way. I'm a writer, I'm an actor in paying projects, and I'm an avant garde actor working with Andre Gregory. Each one of these is a potential full-time job. And I'm a very, very slow person. And of course my main profession is doing errands, and I am at the extreme edge of being overwhelmed and gasping for breath. It's all too much for me actually.
Q. What kind of errands?
A. Well, being my own personal assistant is a full time job. I don't know how people do it, honestly. I basically wear the same clothes every day, and then I change in the winter and I wear my other same set of clothes, and yet I feel I spend more time just presenting myself presentably than Louis XIV. It seems so complicated.
Q. The character Jack in The Designated Mourner becomes completely bored with his own sense of self. Is that a factor in your life?
A. I think there's something idiotic about the self, that everyday you have to get up and be the same person. And when your work centers around yourself, as work in the so-called arts does, there can be something so idiotic about it that it is boring. It can be somewhat infuriating to wake up and find that one has the same characteristics that one had when one went to bed the night before.
Q. I'm sorry. I just laughed. Was that supposed to be funny or not?
A. I honestly don't know.