A Talk with Wallace Shawn
One Part Anger, Two Parts Cheer

Depending on your perspective, our ten-minute roundtable with veteran stage and film actor/writer Wallace Shawn got off on either the wrong foot, or precisely the right one. Courtesy of a national publicist, I was at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons for the Kit Kittredge press junket, and was cloistered away with eight other journalists in a hotel suite while producers, actors, and the film’s director rotated through so we could all get our editorially-mandated sound bites.

We had seen the film the previous evening in a private screening room just a few blocks away, and had all found Shawn (as newspaper editor Mr. Gibson) cast in his characteristic role: irascibly lovable, a larger-than-life villainesque rogue you’d be more than happy to see get far more screen time than he does. We all remember his hilarious scenes as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, for instance—or his entertaining raconteur in My Dinner With Andre. We know what Shawn can do, and do so well.

Wallace Shawn as Mr. Gibson in Kit Kittredge: An American GirlI was fortunate enough (or unlucky enough—again, depending on your perspective) to initiate the first exchange with Mr. Shawn. Because it was Shawn, we expected to be entertained. In an odd way, we were.

In the production notes, you commented about reporters: about how great it is to be a reporter because you get to ask people—let me get the quote right—“you get to ask them whatever you like, really, until they throw you out.” Was that just a warm-up for us, or what?

Wallace Shawn: Gosh! I don’t even remember saying that.

Well, you know production notes aren’t always—

WS: Yeah, I probably said it. I probably did say it.

How much of what you say is for our entertainment, and how much is for your own entertainment value?

WS: Do you mean: Do I mean the things that I say?

Generally, you come across as a very entertaining man; how much of that is you, and how much of it is wanting to entertain?

WS: Well, I suppose I confuse people because I’m usually quite angry; but I have a cheerful personality. And that’s really been a lifelong fact about me that I don’t understand. But I can’t change it. People have sort of not known whether to laugh, or to be upset. And many people have said to me, “You seem like a harmless, cheerful little fellow; but you’re saying these very bitter things. How does that come to be?” And I don’t know why.

Well, what things are you bitter about?

WS: Well, you know: I think that the way the world works is unjust. And it’s not just a little bit wrong, it’s very very very wrong. And so I get up and I’m angry every day. These are what, in another country, are called left-wing views. Feeling that— Well, I suppose that I actually believe that all people really are created equal. If you take that seriously, obviously something has gone terribly wrong! I really don’t believe in the American Empire; I don’t think there should be an Empire. I certainly don’t want to be an emperor, which is what we all are; so, you know, that’s why I get up and I’m upset every day.

I know, I know: this comes off almost as badgering on my part, and as a bitter and depressing gripe-fest on Shawn’s part. It wasn’t at all, though. As Shawn pointed out, he has a very odd way of saying dark things in a very cheerful, light-hearted way.

Believe it or not, this entire exchange was punctuated by considerable laughter on Shawn’s part, as well as on the part of the press corps.

But he really isn’t joking about the anger and bitterness. A little bit later, in reply to my question about John Cusack’s recent satire War, Inc. (which features John’s sister Joan, who also costars with Shawn in Kit), Shawn expanded on the source of his anger:

I think every type of protest and truth-telling that we can muster is required because the noise of the lying is overpowering. Sadly, I think, this is the only country where people actually believe the propaganda. I traveled in Eastern Europe in the Communist days, and no one believed the propaganda. They owned the airwaves, they owned every channel. But nobody believed it. Here, they buy it.

So does this make Shawn a left-wing radical? The films he makes hardly support that notion. He explained to another reporter his rationale for choosing projects:

I don’t get offered [scripts] that much, because [filmmakers] don’t like me that much. I get a certain number of scripts in the course of the year, and the scripts that nauseate me I don’t do. And the ones that are left over, I do, basically. In other words, there are quite a few that disgust me and that offend me too much, and that seem to me to make the world a worse place. And the ones that are left, I do.

In true muck-raking journalistic fashion, of course, the reporters in the room wanted to pin Shawn down on which of his films he actually liked, and which he found simply “not disgusting.” One fishing expedition solicited his opinion of the Toy Story films (about which he was diplomatically brief in his remarks, and complimentary) and the details of the upcoming sequel, Toy Story 3. “Why, only the lowest form of worm would give away that sort of information!” he characteristically replied.

So, what about Kit? How did it rank on the nausea scale?

This script is like one of the very very few that I actually read and I thought, “Oh! I quite like this. These are things I actually believe.” What’s quite amazing about this little story is the family of Kit Kittredge: they are hard-working, middle-class people, and when they see that other people fall on hard times they think, “Oh! How sad. I wonder what they did wrong?” And then, amazingly, they themselves are hit by the hard times. So the movie is saying that poverty is not caused by the poor people. People are not poor because they are lazy, or because they are stupid. Poor people are poor because of the circumstances that come and hit them over the head. And the homeless people in the movie are not only similar to you, they are you if you lose your home. So I thought, “I actually like this one.” Usually I think, “Well, it’s not nauseating,” so I do it.

Whatever the cause of Shawn’s anger; whatever his politics; whatever his methods for choosing projects—I find that the films he has chosen to make have, indeed—in some immeasurable way—made the world a better place.

In my book, he’s a national treasure.

Hmmm… I wonder: did he see those scripts?