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.
Shawn: I still do. At a certain point I became upset that I had no money. This was sort of after I had had some of my plays performed. Unconsciously I had expected that having my plays performed would lead to somehow my being able to live a bourgeois lifestyle. That didn’t turn out to be true. So, then I began to think, “How will I make a living?” I didn’t have any very good ideas. When I’d had two or three film jobs, I thought, “Well, maybe I could make a living doing this.” Then I got an agent, tried out for jobs, etc.
Shawn: I’ve often felt that I don’t have the ability to do what should be done. Frequently, because I have not been trained for years at a conservatory, I feel that I’m not qualified. And I frequently feel I can’t adequately rise to the demands.
BACK STAGE: ARE YOU EVER INTIMIDATED ON A SET OR WORKING ON A PLAY — SOMEBODY ELSE’S PLAY, OBVIOUSLY?
Shawn: I’m usually intimidated because I do feel that other actors know how to do things and I don’t. In a sitcom, I suppose I felt more comfortable than in most things that I’ve done, because in a way it just comes very naturally to me. Being in “Star Trek” (“Deep Space Nine,” as Zek) came very naturally to me, because it was like showing off in a school play. It’s where it’s supposed to be truly believable that I often feel I have no idea what I’m doing. I remember I had a scene in a movie many years ago, and I was on the telephone, and I was supposed to say, “Hello, Dr. Smith, did you get the results of the test? ... What? I only have six months to live?” I didn’t know what to do. I called Bob Balaban; I said, “I don’t know what to do.” I can’t tell you quite what he said or how he did it, but somehow I did it.
BACK STAGE: WHEN YOU’RE ACTING, WHAT DO YOU DO TO NOT JUDGE THE WRITING?
Shawn: First of all, I’ve accepted the job if I’m doing it, and I don’t accept everything. But if I’ve accepted it, then usually the challenge of doing the scene is huge. I don’t find it that easy, even a scene that looks easy on paper — you walk into the office and you say good morning to your colleagues — by the time you actually do the scene and you’re there on the set, to make it truly believable is actually very difficult ... Of course, if it’s a certain kind of film or television program, the writer might be pleased if you change the wording a little bit to make it more congenial or natural, and if I can get away with it, I do it. Sometimes they don’t even notice, and sometimes they’re pleased, and sometimes people ask you to put it into your own words.
Shawn: Woody Allen is famous for that. It’s not that he wants you to make up things that aren’t in the script, but if you want to word it in a way that’s more natural to you, it’s going to make the scene better.
BACK STAGE: WHAT ABOUT ACTORS WHO ARE PERFORMING YOUR SCRIPTS? DO YOU WANT THEM TO PUT THINGS IN THEIR WORDS?
Shawn: No. I would be unbelievably bitter and unbelievably upset.
Shawn: Yes. It’s only happened to me a few times. But I was unbelievably upset and I would be again. I’ve spent years writing these plays, and a TV show might have been written in a week. My last play took me 10 years. It’s a different type of situation. Or that’s how I feel about it.
BACK STAGE: WHAT DO YOU MOST WANT OUT OF ACTORS WHO DO YOUR PLAYS?
Shawn: What I want is to be shocked and inspired by stuff I could never have dreamed of that nonetheless is not violating what I dreamed of.
BACK STAGE: IN GENERAL, WHAT DO YOU NOTICE ABOUT THE ACTORS WHO ARE AUDITIONING FOR YOU?
Shawn: If I had even the tiniest scrap of advice to give to a young actor who was figuring out how to audition, I would say don’t memorize the script ... The reality about auditions is that 98 percent of the results has to do with what you are, not with what you did in the audition.
BACK STAGE: HAVE YOU EVER FELT SOMETHING AKIN TO JEALOUSY AFTER HEARING ANOTHER PLAYWRIGHT’S WORDS? OR AFTER SEEING YET ANOTHER ACTOR’S PERFORMANCE?
Shawn: Yes. I feel that quite a lot. With actors, I feel that all the time. It’s quite common for me to feel I wish I could do that. And with other playwrights, there are times when I think, “Oh, it would be wonderful to write a play that affects people emotionally,” in the way that, let’s say, “Death of a Salesman” affects people. It’s emotionally overwhelming to people, and my plays don’t go in that direction. I myself don’t go in that direction. But it’s somehow not the way I see life, so it’s not in the cards that I would write that way.