Life & Culture

Interview: Wallace Shawn

He makes Woody look pretty, but he’s a pop culture icon


What do you have to look like for Woody Allen to think he is much better looking than you? Apparently, like Wallace Shawn.

He is the American actor whose career took off when he appeared in Allen’s film Manhattan as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband — a character whose reputation as an intellectual and sexual goliath Allen’s character finds somewhat hard to reconcile with the balding, gnome-like figure cut by Shawn.

“It’s certainly very surprising that I ended up being so involved with acting,” the now 65-year-old admits, speaking from his New York apartment. “I highly recommend it.”

Since the release of Allen’s movie in 1979, Shawn has appeared and starred in well over 100 films and television shows, perhaps the most memorable of which is the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre in which he and theatre director Andre Gregory play themselves as they sit it in a posh restaurant, chewing over philosophical questions.

Perhaps his most popular film is The Princess Bride, released in 1987, in which Shawn achieved cult status as the fiendishly clever kidnapper — catchphrase “Inconceivable!”. Or perhaps it is Toy Story, in which he voiced Rex, the neurotic dinosaur, a role he will reprise for the third movie in the series, due out in 2010.

But when he arrives in London this month, it will not be as an actor — though he will be acting — but primarily as a playwright whose work is being revived and premiered at the Royal Court. “It is an incredibly moving and thrilling thing to happen in a person’s life,” he says slowly, weighing and considering every word for logic and meaning before it is spoken. “Most people could never dream of having such an experience.”

And that is the thing about Shawn. He has a career that is so distinctive it is downright strange. While he makes a good living out of popular culture — he currently has a regular part in the American private school-based soap Gossip Girl — he is also comfortably ensconced in the rarefied milieu of New York’s liberal intelligentsia.

“There’s something funny about the fact that a lot of people on the street know me for very odd activities that many of my friends are not even aware of,” he observes.

His father was William Shawn who edited the highbrow New Yorker magazine for 35 years. His mother Cecille was a journalist who also wrote for the publication. Their son was educated at Harvard and Oxford, but an increasing awareness of the privilege in which Shawn grew up resulted in his writing self-searching plays.

The Fever, for instance, is a 90-minute monologue set in a Third World hotel room in which a traveller — played by Clare Higgins in the Royal Court’s revival — assumes guilt for being the root cause of the deprivation beyond the borders of her rich country.

Shawn’s plays are densely though elegantly written. There is often a lot of talking and not much action. His London season ends with Aunt Dan and Lemon which was first seen on the Court’s stage in 1985. It is a play that warns how America can commit atrocities in the name of self-defence. His point is certainly not to draw a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the White House, but looked at from today’s post-Bush perspective, the work appears remarkably prescient.

“In Aunt Dan and Lemon, there’s a lot of discussion about Kissinger,” says Shawn, referring to the US Secretary of State under two presidents in the 1970s. “Kissinger was the one who said that in order to protect and defend our country we have to do x, y and z. But he always did say that we should also have awareness of how this will affect other people on the planet.”

This, he adds, was not the case with the recently departed Bush. “With him it was much easier to say: ‘Well, I think he doesn’t really care that much about the rest of the world.’ His attempt to ‘protect and defend’ has spread out into a desire to dominate and conquer. And yes, there is an element of cruelty and sadism. It isn’t simply a question of a policy designed to protect us. I detect a policy of punishing people who we don’t like and even, in some cases, literally torturing them.

“We have to be very careful with the line between protecting and defending on the one hand and dominating and conquering on the other.”

He sees few signs that President Obama will be much different.

Shawn has used similar arguments to criticise Israel, a country whose leaders, he maintains, see their Palestinian enemies through the prism of antisemitic persecution. In a recent article he wrote that, to many right-wing Israelis and American Jews, a Palestinian throwing stones at Israeli soldiers is simply part of an eternal mob of antisemites.

“The agony the Israelis might inflict on a Palestinian family today,” he wrote, “is seen in the perspective of Jewish families in agony all over the world in the past.” It is, he adds, a perspective that will condemn Israel to a cycle of “irrational” policies. It will lead Jews to being seen as victimisers instead of victims and ultimately to an increasingly precarious future for Jews.

As if to underline this point, last week he took part in a New York Theatre workshop reading of Caryl Churchill’s controversial play Seven Jewish Children.

“I find it horrifying that Jews are seen — particularly by a young generation who do not know the history — as victimisers who are very self-righteous about what they do,” he says. “From a moral point of view it was better when we were victims.” However controversial these views are, there is every chance they will be eclipsed by his first new play in 10 years. Grasses of a Thousand Colours, which receives its Royal Court world premiere in May, is a fantastical foray into a parallel universe. Performed mostly in monologue, it will resurrect memories of Shawn’s 1976 work A Thought in Three Parts, which was described as part-pornography and was even investigated by the vice squad during its run at the Royal Court in 1977.

Grasses will star Shawn and Miranda Richardson and will reunite its author with director Andre Gregory. It is a funny work, but disturbing, outlandish and, it has to be said, nauseating — there are graphic descriptions of sex that do not describe the activities of humans. There will be people who hate it.

“I’m always very optimistic about how people will respond to my plays. — and shocked if they don’t like them,” says Shawn. Though less overtly political than his other works, Grasses nevertheless forms part of the author’s ongoing enquiry into how to make the world a better place.

He and his long-time companion, writer Deborah Eisenberg, do not lead a particularly Jewish lives — “I live in an American world, a New York world and a world world. But not particularly in a Jewish world,” he says. But he describes the seriousness with which he takes life, the sense of responsibility he feels for being a decent person as facets of his Jewishness.

“I feel a connection,” he acknowledges. “I’ve been to bar- and batmitzvahs, and it can feel quite alien. And then at certain moments I’m overwhelmed by emotion.”

Royal Court Theatre

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