Billy Connolly interview: What We Did, Muppets, X-Files

We chat to Billy Connolly about What We Did On Our Holiday, Judi Dench, hot fillings, X-Files, Sean Bean and more...

The incoming British comedy drama, What We Did On Our Holiday, boasts a terrific ensemble cast. But perhaps the standout is Billy Connolly. He takes on the role of Gordy in the film, primarily working with the film’s young cast. And on a British Monday morning, we found ourselves opposite an apparently jetlagged Billy Connolly, sipping away at his tea, and in fine form. Here’s how our chat went…

Nice to meet you.

Consider yourself met!

I’ve been told that to knock you off kilter for the rest of the interview that I should ask you something random right at the start. So: have microwave ovens been a good thing for modern cooking?

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Nooooo! No! It’s been crap! They can’t handle pastry. It’s its great failing!

It’s true. Plus you get explosive heat with whatever the filling is.

That’s right, that’s right. I think McDonald’s suffered from that, because I got cherry pie once, and I thought I was going to lose my tongue! It was like eating lava.

Best talk about the film then. What I really liked about What We Did On Our Holiday is that it’s a film about a family that doesn’t talk to each other, and I think that’s worth talking about.

Oh, absolutely.

So: how did you get involved? How was it pitched to you?

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I didn’t hear much about it. My office said that we had an offer from a British-based movie, which is kind of rare for me. So I said where are they shooting it, and they said the west of Scotland. I said it sounds great, who’s in it? They told me, Tennant and those people were in it. I thought, well, they wouldn’t knock back one that was a duffer!

Was that your criteria?

Yeah! [grins]

Why is it rare that the British stuff isn’t even being offered to you, though?

It’s the way it works. I lived in America and I’ve done mostly American films…

… you’ve done Australian too?

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Yeah, I did Australia, and I did Mrs Brown here, and stuff like that. I thought after Mrs Brown I might be offered more, but I wasn’t.

Mrs Brown, though, changed the perception of what you could do on film.

What I could do? Oh yeah.

That there was an assumption that you’d be a comic actor.

Aye, but if you look at my films, I’ve done virtually no comedy. Very, very little.

You go for characters who make us laugh in films, but not by telling jokes?

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That’s right. It’s weird isn’t it?

But that’s presumably by choice?

Oh, very, very much so.

Going back to the film itself, my old boss had a theory that it was perfectly apparent to him why grandparents and grandkids get on so well: that they share a common enemy. Do you subscribe to that?

[Laughs] That’s lovely, that’s lovely. I don’t subscribe to it in my own life. We all get on great. But I’ve seen it millions of times.

There’s a thing that really hurts me in America. Thanksgiving. I see guys saying ‘oh fuck, I have to go home for Thanksgiving’. And I got my children together and said if you ever say that when I’m not there, don’t say it, just don’t come. Don’t think you ever have to come and see me. Don’t come. It’ll be a shitty atmosphere and I’ll know that you’re itching to get away again.

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When I had my first child, the bit I wasn’t expecting at all was the transformation it had on my own parents, that they regressed into children the second they were handed their first grandchild. Was that the same for you? Was that the kind of magical moment that you were looking to capture?

Absolutely. With my grandchildren, we had a lovely moment the one day when we were barefoot in the grass. My daughter went ‘look, their feet are the same’. My and my grandson had identical feet. And you can see that genetic leap. You can see it of course when you have a child, but when you get the next step, it suddenly makes a great deal more sense why you’re here. You’re here to reproduce, and no other reason. You can see it so clearly. It’s lovely, a joyous, joyous thing. You want to sing, lift them and hold them all the time.

I remember Pamela, we were in London and we’d just got together. We were creating a bit of a stir. I’d left my wife and she’s left her husband, and there were journalists chasing us down the road. We were going to the theatre, and we were running in the door. This guy says ‘Pamela, I’m from The Sun’, and Pamela said ‘your mother must be so disappointed’ [laughs].

In lots of interviews you’d done over the years, you keep coming back to the phrase that you have this determination not to turn beige.

Oh yes, yes.

Is that ongoing for you? The mantra across all the work that you do.

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Oh yes. The beige attitude must go. There was a time in the 1950s I think that Britain went beige crazy. Painting fireplaces beige, wooden panels across the country were painted beige. Some people called it mushroom. But it was beige, and this beige attitude that everything goes with everything. Fuck that! Clash!

I remember I went to buy some teddy boy shoes, and I had my lime green socks on. When I got there I saw this pair of lilac suede ones and I tried them on. I was marching up and down the shop, and the guy said the best line: he said ‘they clash lovely with your socks’!

Archie Fisher told me in the 60s in Scotland, he was walking through my home town. He was barefeet through Partick Cross in his bare feet, and there was a guy on the corner, and he says ‘hey Jimmy, you’ve got a hole in your sock!’

Scotland’s attracting more people to films now, of course. I don’t know if you saw Under The Skin earlier in the year, but Scarlett Johansson walks past Greggs in Glasgow in that?

Really?! Oh, why not!  There’s a peculiar light in Scotland you get around teatime. A liquid light, when the sun’s gone down. I really want to see that on film.

Directors Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton were very natural in the way they lit What We Did On Our Holiday too, I gather?

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Oh yeah. That’s right. But the midges! Fuck! The west of Scotland midge is a bastard of a thing. Sabre-toothed midges! It was fucking awful!

But the atmosphere on this film was absolutely delightful. The cast was lovely, the script was great, everybody was pleased with their role. We fell into our roles very quickly, very easily. I fell into it with consummate ease. Playing a grumpy old guy comes very naturally to me. And the kids are so impressive, adlibbing all the time. So nice and unspoiled.

There’s a line you have in the film, where you ask if you remember jokes, arguing that kids remember jokes, grandparents remember jokes, but parents in-between don’t. Do you buy that too?


Do you think we ground parents down?

The parent role is a thankless one. Guys will say I’m taking some time off work to spend some time with my children, because I don’t see enough of my kids. And I always want to say shut the fuck up! Go to your work! That’s your gig, that’s what you’re here to do, that’s your function. Your function is to go to your fucking work, hunt antelopes, whatever you do to feed your family. Get out there and fucking get about it.

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One of the things I like about What We Did On Our Holiday is that it’s a film where I can barely see an adult in it. It’s people behaving with different gradations of childishness.

Absolutely! And you can see my joy when I’m with the children. Because I’m a child, I make no bones about it. I’m very proud of it.

You talked about the relationship you had with the children in this film. But I think you and Judi Dench captured something wonderful with Mrs Brown. Did you get a sense working on that one that it was something special? That the two of you had clicked? I think I’d have been terrified if I had to act opposite Judi Dench.

Yeah. There was a moment when we were filming at the castle, and she was opposite me. She looked at me and I thought fuck, she fancies me! What am I going to do? [grins] So I thought I’ll just fancy her back! I learned a great deal about acting that day. To be in the moment, and fancy her right back again!

It just came to life for me. Another one was The X-Files film, where I burst into tears. And it was real. If it wasn’t for Judi, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Off the back of Mrs Brown, I’d imagine in the light of the success of that you’d have been offered the usual boring range of Hollywood blockbusters…

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No I didn’t. Not one.

Not a Die Hard villain or something like that?

No, I never got offered anything like that! I was delighted with Mrs Brown myself. And I did the Mike Parkinson show with Michael Caine, and they showed a clip of it. I nearly burst into tears. My lip went. It was so powerful.

Is Mrs Brown the film you’re most proud of?

Yeah, no question. But you only get one of them in your life I think. You get one, and you don’t know it’s it while you’re doing it.

It was hardly an expensive film, was it?

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No, it was made for TV!

So when did X-Files come to you?

The director and writer, Chris Carter, he sent for me. And he said that his brother had seen me in Mexico, walking up the street one night with a purple beard. He phoned him from his house in Mexico and said ‘does Billy Connolly have a purple beard? I’m sure I just saw him in the street!’ And Chris said it was in his mind for ages, and then he started to write, and started to write the priest role for me.

Was it a no-brainer to take the job on then?

Yeah. It came to me dead easy. Chris said to me do you want to meet some paedophile priests and I said no. I’ve got it. I’ve never seen one who looks sorry. They all blame God. God made me this way, it’s nothing to do with me. So that’s the way I played it.

The film never really took off and got enough appreciation though.

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It didn’t, no. Neither did The Last Samurai, and that deserved a lot more.

I remember watching you doing interviews with Tom Cruise for that. Clearly you had a ball!

Oh, yeah!

Are you both on speed dial now?

He sends me Christmas cards [grins]. I met a guy on Broadway once. I went for a walk. I’d had a curry, so I thought I’d better go for a walk before I go to bed. It was in November last year, and this guy came up to me and said are you Billy Connolly? So I said yeah. And he was a Scottish guy. I asked him what he was doing in New York, and he said he was Christmas shopping. So he said ‘you send me a Christmas card every year’. I said ‘I do?’. He said ‘yeah. But it’s not to me. It’s to another guy called Rob, a banjo player, who used to live in my house!’ So this guy said ‘please keep sending them’. I told him I’d keep him on the list!

I have to talk to you about working with The Muppets, as you did on Muppet Treasure Island. I interviewed somebody who acted on a Muppet film once, and he said it was the most knackering job he’d done, just trying to keep up with the energy of the puppets.

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Yeah, yeah. It’s weird, because you’re sitting doing the thing. Mine was all filmed inside. Between takes you’d look around, and there’d be a stag’ head on the wall, and so you look at it and its head moves. Then the pig starts going ‘I love him, I love him’. Miss Piggy wouldn’t meet me though because I wasn’t big enough. I learned from the wardrobe people that they’ve never seen her naked either! Isn’t that brilliant? They dress her behind a screen!

So did you fall down one of the trenches on the Muppet set?

Oh, you have to be really careful.

The family movies you’ve done have covered all sorts of crafts of course. Pixar at one end, you did a talking dog film at one point…

I did, yeah! Yeah!

But is it the old fashioned crafts, such as puppetry, that are particularly important to you.

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I think they’re outstanding. I love them. The bigger they get, the happier I become. Blind Pew on Muppet Treasure Island was two people! He was coming towards me, and I was quite scared. It was as scary as the samurai coming through the woods on The Last Samurai!

You really get into your films!

Oh yeah. There’s no other way to do it. Get in, and believe every second of it. I learned that from Michael Caine.

On Water?

Yeah. He taught me so much, about how to be generous to other actors. We were climbing up a hill and we were being filmed from the top. Suddenly he went, oh! My leg! And he spoiled a whole take. So they said we’re doing it again, and he whispered to me ‘next time, move further to the right, they can’t see you’. He was lovely.

Water was when Handmade Films, which traditionally could only just afford to make one film at a time, tried to make two? It was your first big location film.

That’s right. It was funny. We went to Heathrow to fly out, and fly out we did. Not knowing that – there were no mobile phones then of course – they were racing up to tell us not to go. That the money had fallen through. But by the time the place landed in Saint Lucia, they’d got the money again!

Has film for you always been a side thing, though? Have you ever considered it the main thrust of what you wanted to do, or do you approach it as a treat?

It is a treat. I’ve never considered what I wanted to do. I’ve always played it by ear. I refuse to be put in the corner and have to choose from. I’ve never been much of a careerist. I once had tea on the wing of an aeroplane with some Brownies in the Isle Of Man, because it appealed to me.

Was the plane flying at the time?!

No! It was a little aerodrome! These Brownies wrote to me, and asked if I would do it. And I said sure!

You’re aware that with your film work, by the way, that you rival Sean Bean. That Sean Bean is a human spoiler: this film aside, you seem to die in everything you appear in. As does Sean Bean.

That’s me, that’s me! Dead man walking! If I start supporting Sheffield United, you’ll know I’ve bought the whole thing!

Did you ever see him in When Saturday Comes?

Yes! Yes! I think Sean Bean is – it sounds stupid to say – underrated. But I think he is. He gets huge publicity and huge admiration, but I don’t think he’s held in the light he should be. I think he’s extraordinarily better than he’s given credit for.

I’m getting the signal to wrap up here, so I’d best ask what are you working on next then?

I’m touring Scotland.

You’re doing it a country at a time?

Yes, that’s what I always do now. The last few years, it’s got a bit out of control. It’s not as cheery as it used to be in Britain. The landmarks have gone, it’s one way systems and all that. It’s not as jolly as it used to be.

Last question, then, and it’s a bit of a traditional one for us. Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

No I don’t! [pause] He’s that hard man? Oh, hang on, my favourite is when he played a goalkeeper in a Scottish jail. He was beyond good. His accent was breathtaking!

Billy Connolly, thank you very much!

What We Did On Our Holiday lands in UK cinemas on Friday.

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