Reading a Robin Williams interview is like trying to listen to a Hendrix tune by staring at the guitar tab: so much of the good stuff gets lost in translation. He doesn’t so much answer questions as improvise a stand-up set around them, springing into voices and one-liners with the lightest of prompting.
Williams speaks fast, and laughs often. When he’s being himself – though how can you tell? – his vocabulary is full of “like, dude” and “big time” surf-speak. He nimbly evades anything getting serious by driving his answers full steam into entertaining anecdotes or gags.
In a 15-minute round table chat, he did at least 15 different voices (one per minute, though it felt like more) and cracked jokes I’m not even sure make sense written down. He is both brilliant and completely exhausting.
It’s with an apology and a warning then, that the following chat with Robin Williams is dished up on the page, as he was never meant to be seen…
At this stage in your career, what does a film role have to have to attract you?
Well, this one [Happy Feet 2] wasn’t hard to sign on for because I read it and I’d done the first one, and I said [begins dialogue with imaginary agent] “It’s the same people, right?” “Yes”, “Okay, I’m in”, ‘George [Miller, director] is there right?” “Okay”, “We’re recording in Australia”, [Aussie accent] “Oh, I don’t know…” That was easy to go back to.
With film roles it just has to be a character either I haven’t done before, or a role with somebody really interesting, or with an interesting person or group of people. So that’s kind of the prerogative, the parameters now with new films for doing acting roles. With animation, with this it was pretty easy to say, okay, yeah, because it was like a reunion, getting everybody back together.
You’ve only played bad guys twice in your career…
Three actually. I did in this movie called The Secret Agent with Bob Hoskins, and then in One Hour Photo I played this creepy guy, then Insomnia, oh and years ago, in Dead Again, with Kenneth Branagh I played kind of a nasty psychiatrist.
Those are great, I love doing those, [slips into desperate, pleading, hand-rubbing audition mode] please if there’s more, if you have any out there please send them, I could play a great serial killer, don’t be afraid, I can play it, there’s people I want to kill I just don’t do it…
The idea of playing those characters though, I’d love to. Any actor would tell you that one of the greatest thrills you can ever have is to play those guys because they’re so frightening and some of them are so charming. I mean when you play a sociopath, their whole object is to be charming while at the same time fucking someone over so the idea of playing those characters is a gift.
Do you have to give more of yourself to those roles?
Of myself? Yeah, I see where you’re going baby! Yes, [riffs around the idea of giving more of yourself in creepy serial killer voice] Give more of yourself, you have to give more of yourself literally… I never meant to hurt her, thank you, yes, yes…
One of my favourite actors of all time although he doesn’t necessarily play villains is Peter Lorre. I once asked him “Mr Lorre, what is it like to act?” and he says [Peter Lorre impression] “I don’t act, I just make faces”. But him with those eyes, him in M, oh God, that’s one of the greatest portrayals ever.
You’ve had a little break from film in the last few years haven’t you?
I did a movie with Bobcat Goldthwait [World’s Greatest Dad] and they sent some other stuff but there just wasn’t anything interesting. I did a play for five months which then took me out of circulation, but the play was just so interesting I had to do it. It was called Bengal Tiger In The Baghdad Zoo. It was like this weird, heavily armed Waiting For Godot.
Was that your first time on Broadway?
Yeah, I did Godot years ago with Steve Martin and F Murray Abraham and Bill Irwin but that was off-Broadway. But Bengal Tiger was a great play, it was just an interesting piece because it talks about the Iraq war. Then with World’s Greatest Dad which was about a year ago, that was Bobcat, he’s a friend and it was a really strange, dark piece and I just wanted to do it.
Do you find that interesting scripts are rare to come by these days then?
No, there’s a couple that have come in but it’s just hard to get them done sometimes, people are kind of tentative on them. You have to just find a good script with good people willing to make it, that’s what the drill is.
We’ve all probably got our own favourite Robin Williams characters, but what’s yours? Do you have a favourite accent to do?
For me, the favourite character I’ve ever done with an accent was in Moscow On The Hudson [segues seamlessly into a very slow, deliberate Russian accent] I learned to speak Russian for the movie I studied Russian and the other thing you come around from learning to speak Russian is learning English from a Russian’s point of view, difficult things, weird toilet paper world now [possibly a reference to Moscow On The Hudson, but your guess is as good as mine…] You learn to speak this language coming at it from my perspective.
It was based on a real Russian jazz musician so I got to work with him too so for me it was one of the more interesting experiences. Getting into another language set, exploring America from an immigrant’s point of view, it was really fun, but also hard work, but I loved doing it.
Where does your love and talent for accents come from?
From my mother. My mother’s a Christian Scientist who had plastic surgery so that’s a weird kind of double bill. She was southern, so she had this kind of [female southern accent] terminal optimism. Everything is wonderful!
My first voice I did was my grandmother who was very much [goes up a couple of octaves] “Sonny boy! I’m on the phone right now with you. I’m just watching wrestling and having some Cointreau”, so that’s how it would be and I think the voices came.
I had this wonderful black lady who took care of me named Susie so I would [drops to a southern black drawl] do her voice, “Robin, we’re going outside now, we’re going to dress you up in your little snowsuit so you’re going to be a Michelin boy”, so I would do her for my mother and my mother would laugh. I think that was the beginning of accents. And then in school you start to make fun of teachers and then you’re off and running.
Your career can be seen as a symbol for the idea of a clown combining laughing and tears…
[Earnest, charity ad voice] Please help, the United Laughing Tear Foundation. A tear is a terrible thing to waste. I’m Robin Williams, part of Laughing Clowns…Call now…
I don’t know I’ve done both. Crazy-ass characters and sad characters, I’ve done both, it’s part of being a human being, but thanks, I’ll think about being a poster child for the laughing clown.
Are you still into gaming?
Oh big time. My favourite game is Call Of Duty, the new one, that and Battlefield I’ve played through. But I don’t play multiplayer because when you play multiplayer you get your ass kicked by a ten year old and you can hear them saying, like [shrill childish voice] “I own you, old fucker”.
Do you do the accents playing multiplayer?
Oh no. The funniest thing one time, I was playing the game and there was some poor little French kid who was having a really bad time, he was going [comedy French accent] “Does anyone speak English? Je parle Français, je suis ici, aidez-moi! Je suis en la B4, la B4? My call sign is…” And I was just trying to talk him through, but he was getting creamed by all these American kids, [taunting southern accent] “Hey little frog-boy, I killed you”, oh dude, it was sad.
Because you’re playing late at night in America, you’re getting kids in Europe playing so you get all different accents and now with multiplayer [female computer console-type voice] “the fifth element, multiplayer”, but when you play at that time you get to hear more European accents. Then sometimes really late at night you get the Australians [broad Aussie accent] “G’day, behind the tree” but it’s crazy, but I don’t play a lot of multiplayer because of that reason.
Would you be interested in doing voiceovers for games?
No. I play them, to be a game voice… They offered years ago for me to do them and I’m like, no, I’ve played them, I know what it’s like. These games have the budgets of movies. You watch, next year it’ll be [deep movie trailer voice] “He’s back! Hairy Boy!” so no I don’t think I’ll do it. But I know people who do and it’s interesting when you recognise the voices. You’ll hear like Samuel L Jackson in, like Afro Samurai, which was actually based on a cartoon which was pretty cool.
Your film work must be dubbed into other languages, have you met any of the foreign language Robin Williamses?
I met the guy who does me in French, he’s a really sweet man and he’s actually cleaned up a lot of my jokes. There’s one in Good Morning Vietnam. There was a joke where a sergeant says “Do you know what three up and three down means?” and in Good Morning Vietnam he says it means the end of an inning which is a baseball term, and the dub artists translated it into French and when they said “Do you know what three up and three down means?”, he says “Renault”. So he cleaned up that joke so he’s also doing the voice but finding new jokes in French which is like, dude, how cool is that?
Aladdin was one of the great voice roles because you changed the rules for animation voiceover. It was 20 years ago, what has changed in your opinion in animation over the last 20 years?
The technology, it changes almost on a weekly basis, it’s immediate. Not just 3D but the depth of field, the realism. George [Miller] said it best, George said that the last thing left in terms of computer graphics and animation in terms of humans – and that’s why even in this movie he uses humans for the close-ups of the human eyes – the hardest programme that they cannot write yet, it’s probably five years away, are the human eye. Because yeah, you can put an eye in, but it doesn’t have the same depth of soul and perception as your eyes.
We read each other’s eyes immediately and there’s such subtlety in the pupil contractions and all these other things that that’s the last thing to be done in computer animation so at least there’s still that [desperate, insane voice] at least I have these!
But I’ve seen it change over the years and anything is possible, it’s amazing, with motion capture, with animation, if you can think it, you can make it, it’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay.
Next you’re playing a priest?
Yeah, playing a priest with Robert De Niro in this movie called The Big Wedding, it’s fun, he’s a good man, I love being with him.
What would really excite you for your next project?
I have an idea for a movie called The Walken Dead which is about a town where instead of zombies, everyone becomes Chris Walken. So all the way through the movie people are saying “Bob, how are you?” [Brilliantly exaggerated Walken impression] “Not bad”. By the end of the movie “Mom, Dad, the town is crazy, weird…” What I’m going to do next? There’s a couple of movies I’m interested in, there’s one called The Angriest Man In Brooklyn, which is really lovely and it’s crazy fun.
Are you still doing stand-up?
I will when I go back home, I’ll have to start over. I have to get back out on stage. It’s great, it’s good training and it pays the bills.
And you’ll be coming back to the UK with your new show?
Yeah, after a year. Like the last tour when I came to London, I did like six or eight months in America then when I came to London it was after being in America and having enough to really work. It was fun, playing London was like, oooh, great. Everybody was like [Scottish accent] “Would you be prepared to come outside of London Robin? Don’t be afraid”.
Congratulations on your wedding, by the way. It’s not too late I hope to offer congratulations.
No, no, it’s not too late, it went well. We’re not the Kardashians [laughing].
Do you still believe in love?
Oh, totally. I do believe in love, it’s wonderful, especially love third time around, it’s even more precious, it’s kind of amazing. A friend of mine said that being married for the third time is like being a burn victim bought to a fireworks show but it’s really extraordinary and it’s wonderful and she is a gift.
Robin Williams, thank you very much!