Wallace Shawn juggles acting jobs, play writing

Mon Jan 31, 2011 8:39pm EST
 
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By Dany Margolies

LOS ANGELES (Back Stage) - He is not now, nor was he ever, a matinee idol, a chameleonic star, or the go-to guy for second-banana roles.

But Wallace Shawn has amassed an astonishing number of rich, varied credits -- as an actor and as a writer. The actor who plays Vizzini the Sicilian evil genius in "The Princess Bride" also penned the provoking play, later a screenplay, "The Designated Mourner." His ultra-disturbing anti-war play "Aunt Dan and Lemon" clashes in our heads with the Republican Stuart Best on "Murphy Brown." Or, maybe that's all just good acting -- even with what others term his speech "impediment." Nonetheless, judging from various interviews, Rex the anxious, insecure dinosaur in the "Toy Story" series may be among the closest characters to Shawn's view of himself.

And yet we can still visualize him talking, at length but fascinatingly, at dinner with the co-writer Andre Gregory in "My Dinner With Andre."

BACK STAGE: HOW DID YOU LEARN YOUR CRAFTS OF ACTING AND OF WRITING?

Wallace Shawn: When I was first starting to write plays, I quite literally had never heard of the idea of studying playwriting. I wouldn't have studied it even if I had heard of it. I started writing plays in around 1967, and at a certain point, I thought, "I'm writing plays, I should learn about acting and what it is." So I went to the HB Studio in New York, and I was there for about nine months. I told them when I went, "I don't have any thought of being a professional actor. I write plays." And they said that's fine ... From the time I wrote my first play, I thought, "I have a calling," and I would just follow it, and everybody else will have to learn to respect me. At first I didn't realize that they wouldn't respect me. At first I was confident that everyone would share my opinions of myself. But I was pretty quickly disappointed.

BACK STAGE: BUT THEN YOU GOT INTO ACTING. DID YOU THINK IT WAS GOING TO BE A ONE-OFF THING?

Shawn: Yes. My first acting job was in a play that I had translated from Italian (Machiavelli's "The Mandrake"). I had translated it for the director. He said, "We'd like you to be in the play." I did think it would be one crazy experience for a few weeks. The producer decided to extend the play, so it played for a long time, and I got put into movies. After being in one movie, it didn't seem like that would be my life. I had done several jobs, briefly. I'd been a shipping clerk, I worked in a copy shop, I didn't think the acting was going to go on and on.

BACK STAGE: DID YOU EVER AUDITION FOR ROLES?   Continued...