This is an interview I did with Robin Williams on the phone back in 2009 or 2010, specifically about Insomnia for an Empire special on Christopher Nolan. He was, as you’d hope, a lovely interviewee: quiet and thoughtful and funny and warm. When he learned I lived in Scotland he went into a Mrs Doubtfire voice and accent for a while. Remembering that still makes me smile.
RW: I had a great time working with Nolan. My memories of him are just of his being so quiet, and going, ‘That was wonderful, let’s try that one more time,’ and ‘we got it, thank you.’ I don’t ever remember him going, ‘Aaaagh!’ My first impressions of him were that he was just so kind and sweet. After seeing Memento, I was like ‘This is the same guy?’ He was about to have his first child. Or maybe his first child was conceived on our movie, I’m not sure. If you imagine Gus Van Sant, who’s kind of quiet and that’s-great-let’s-try-this. Nolan’s the same. Just very genteel and low-key. Great, wonderful, nothing ever seemed to phase him.
O: It’s a darker role for you, from a time when you seemed to be taking projects that allowed you to play against type. Was that deliberate? Did you need any persuading to take Insomnia?
It wasn’t a deliberate plan to take more serious roles, with this and One Hour Photo. It just happened that the offers came up. I think any actor will tell you, whenever you get a chance to take a role like that, you get to explore some pretty amazing behaviour. He didn’t have to persuade me to take the role, after I saw Memento and having the chance to work with Al Pacino. I don’t remember how it came about. It was an interesting time for me. I don’t know if it was stunt casting, or because of One Hour Photo. I think just the idea of me playing this character… People think of me as likeable, so when this benign guy is actually a brutal thug, that helps. Start people off thinking, ‘Oh wait a minute, it’s that sweet little man.’ Initially you just hear him on the phone saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ It’s a bit like a serial killer saying, ‘Can I get you some tea?’ The appeal was to play against those expectations, and explore those areas that normally you’d have to do prison time for. And the idea of this guy trying to convince people that stuff just happens, trying to justify his case.
I was watching interviews with serial killers, and the idea that they’re powerful and scary men is most of the time wrong. They’re actually… I was talking to a guy who was in prison, and he said ‘Y’know, a lot of the heavy murderers look like bankers.’ And now when you see Goldman-Sachs you understand. The time they’re in control is when they’re killing people. That’s the time they’re like, ‘What, no, I’m okay, just getting by…’ For me that was the challenge, just keeping him… personable. And work on Al. Al’s whole thing was, ‘You don’t fool me, you don’t convince me,’ and as he’s becoming more and more raw I’m working on him, mindfucking him, and he’s really losing it.
How was working with Pacino? Do you have very different approaches to acting?
It was wonderful working with Al. Having worked with De Niro [on Awakenings] I was kind of prepared for the idea of someone who’s that intense but also prepared to do anything if you want to try stuff. And Chris sets that environment where it’s like, ‘Let’s try it, it’ll be good, let’s see what happens.’ Any scene I had doing conversations with Al was memorable. We only had a few scenes, but I think the scene on the ferry was the best, because it was just him working on me, and me trying to connect with him and him fighting me off but also coming unglued.
He’s played all these amazing characters, but I just loved talking to the man. He says most of the time he just wants to be in the Village having coffee and discussing Aristotle. Then you see him… there’s this thing that just came on in America where he’s playing Dr Kevorkian, and you realise this is the same guy that played Scarface, playing Dr Death, but playing him very kind of quiet and in his own way very driven. For me it’s one of those things where you’re like, ‘I have to work with this guy.’ And when you’re watching him it’s quite surreal, because you’re like, ‘I’m watching Al Pacino!’ And you’re in a scene with him. ‘You go, ‘Shit, I’d better act now.’
My first day working with Al… he does this method thing where before every take he would roar like a lion. So my first day working with him I bleated like a goat.
‘What was that?’
‘It’s me, Al, it’s Robin, I was just kidding.’
It was kind of nice to just go, ‘I’m here, I understand, I’m just playing.’ At that time he was flying back and forth from LA because he’d just had the twins, and I think it was beyond method acting because he really wasn’t getting any sleep. He was just really raw, but that was perfect.
Where were you filming?
We were shooting up in Alaska, in a place on the border of Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder. Their claim to fame is something called Hyderising, which is where you drink Everclear, which is 190 proof alcohol. If you can drink the first one and not puke they’ll give you another one for free.
It was interesting to shoot up there at that time of year, when it is almost 23 hours of daylight. It’s beyond method acting at that point. You’re in a pretty surreal biological state. Plus you have this pretty crazy mix of cultures. There’s a difference between Stewart, which has a toaster museum, and Hyder, where there are people where you kind of go, ‘Nice tooth’. We were staying on boats because there were no hotels, and the woman next to us on the boat had a dog, but it wasn’t really a dog, it was a wolf that she called ‘dog’. That kind of gave you the idea: you’re in Alaska now, my friend.
My character is trying to connect with Al and almost talk him through it, like, ‘Hey when you’re up here it seems crazy and crazy things happen,’ and now when you see Sara Palin you realise, yes, you’re right. Alaska is witness protection land. It is really bizarre when you get up there and you’re in these little towns where there’s a moose walking down the main street. Anything is possible. That slow pace is also the pace in that temporal dysfunction where you really do lose track of time. Everything has this weird kind of twilight-type look, and Nolan captured that light too. It literally is the wilderness, five minutes out of town. There was a story of one guy who got drunk and was eaten by a bear. And I imagine the bear was hungover afterwards. Like a bear eating a clown: does this taste funny to you? But shooting up in that place really added to all of it. It wasn’t like filming on a set. The cabin on the glacier lake was built, but most of the other stuff is just places up there, and it’s all pretty raw. Even that shot flying over the lakes is just what you see when you fly in there. We said to the pilot, ‘Wow, lotta lakes, where are you going to land?’ he was like, ‘Oh, one of ‘em.’ But it was a wonderful experience. Being up there, playing a character like that with a director like Chris who’ll let you try anything, opposite Pacino… Not a bad way to spend a day.
One day there was an avalanche. We were shooting at a glacier lake, and we looked over and thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s beautiful.’ And then all of a sudden all the local Alaskans were going, ‘Get away from the lake!’ Because these people understand that by the laws of physics the water will be displaced by a large amount of ice falling into it. And sure enough they were right. The water level rose by four feet. And everyone was like, ‘Woooah!‘ Except Chris who was like, ‘That’s great, thank you, everyone move away, thank you, stay calm, thank you.’ He was like an English army officer.
Insomnia was only Nolan’s third film. Was he confident?
He certainly didn’t feel like an early career director. He felt like a guy who knew what he was doing. Everyone knew that. He had a sense of confidence. If you see a movie like Memento, you go, ‘This guy has chops!’ Even then you kind of knew he had it. There’s no, ‘I think I know what I’m doing, young boy.’ He knows what he wants and you have a sense of confidence. And it’s not the accent going, ‘Oh, I think I know.’ He does know. He’s very confident, but also confident enough to let you try stuff. That’s the sign of real confidence. Peter Weir’s the same way. When something interesting comes up he’s like, ‘Let’s pursue that,’ which is cool.
You feel comfortable enough that he knows, and that if you try something he’ll be willing to tell you like, ‘Nnnnnnnoooo, not really.’ Or, ‘That’s great, keep going.’ I don’t remember him saying much of anything except, ‘Great, keep going.’ And knowing that you’re going to bring to him, and he’ll choose. Rather than going behind your hand, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ The main thing, which again makes him compare with Van Sant, is that you get so comfortable you stop worrying about it. That’s when you’re just at ease, and it becomes conversational even though you’re talking about murder. That’s why I also think people like Heath, although I obviously wasn’t around when he was doing that character, could do something as outrageous and ballsy as that and pursue it. You can see that process of creating a character.
It’s the same with Al. He’s got the hard part because he’s coming unglued and I’m working on him, and we’re also in this weird environment, running across log jams going, ‘Nice day. Lunch!’ Even then, with the action stuff, Nolan knows exactly what he wants, setting it up.
What sort of character notes did Nolan give you?
He told me to just be conversational. Which was great for playing a murderer. ‘Hi, how are you? Can you feed the dog?’ With this and One Hour Photo you’re playing these seemingly benign guys that aren’t. You see it on the news. It’s rare you hear, ‘I knew that prick would pull this shit.’ More often it’s, ‘He seemed so quiet apart from that unusual smell in his basement. I didn’t know he was using human hands as mulch.’ Playing those characters is, I won’t say exciting, but exploring that behaviour is always fascinating. The idea that someone is damaged but trying to pretend that he isn’t; that it was insanity or whatever. But you realise no, he’s pathological. And then you have the psychotics that just do it. The sociopaths at least try and work their way into the circle, going, ‘You understand, right?’
Richard Pryor used to tell this joke about when he was in prison with this guy who killed a family. He asked him why he killed the whole family, and the guy said, ‘They were home.’ Fuck…
But Chris set up the idea, just work on Al. Try and connect with him, work on trying to get under the radar. And Al’s thing was two-fold: try and stay sane in the face of this weird environment where you can’t keep track of time and your biological clock is screwed. It is midnight and it’s still daylight. No matter what drug you’re on it’s like, this is not right! I can’t imagine doing cocaine in Alaska. It must be so bizarre. ‘I’ve got to go to sleep. You don’t have to!‘ Everything is white! Coincidence? You be the judge.
Do you remember which scenes you shot first?
I don’t remember the actual first scene we shot. It was a while ago. Plus I relapsed. I think one of the first scenes Al and I did together was on the ferry boat where we meet for the first time, where I’m like, ‘Hey, how are you?’ and I’m trying to convince him that I know who he is and I know what he’s doing and I understand. My object was to just keep at him and try to wear him down, and I can’t. Or it might have been the action scene, running over the log jam. Something around then.
Did you do all your own stunts?
Some of the fog scene is me, and some of it’s a stunt-double named Mitch. He fell in the water, which was interesting because I’d asked how safe it was and they said, ‘Its fine, as long as the logs don’t get you. If you get between the logs you’ll be crushed.’ Thanks! We had to run in a wetsuits, which is like, ‘This is comfortable, thanks.’ But it’s cold, man. The moment you go in, your genitals disappear.
The last scene where I die and get shot, and I have this thing of sinking in the water. They asked if I wanted to do it, and I said sure. So I have this thing where, as I’m dying, going underwater… I was underwater going, ‘Gee, I hope they got it because I’m about to surface.’ And I asked if they wanted me to blow bubbles or something as I go down slowly. They said, ‘Either way you’re going to have to come up sometime, sport.’
Did you watch the original version?
I never saw the original, but I think now it’s time I can watch it. I know the original is quite different. But once I committed to Insomnia I didn’t want the other one in the back of my mind. Now I can probably look at it and go, ‘Oh my god! What was I thinking?’ I think there’s more the issue that the cop has done questionable things in the original. Stellan Skarsgård, I get the impression, is kind of, he’s killed people too, so what the fuck?
And how satisfied were you with your own version?
I was very happy with the finished film. I was proud to be part of it. If I ever get to work with Robert Duvall I’ll have the entire Godfather collector’s set. Except for Brando. But I got to meet Brando once, so I guess that qualifies. I was happy with the finished product. I thought it had a very interesting look and feel, and a lot of people have come up and told me they enjoyed it. I say thank you. ‘You’re scary!’ Er, thank you?
When you’ve seen Nolan’s stuff since, he’s just still growing, which is amazing. I want to work with him again. After seeing the The Dark Knight and watching what Heath did… oh man it was wonderful. It’d be hard to top Heath as the Joker. That was the craziest… My favourite thing was when he was dressed as the nurse with his clown make-up. The Prestige is a strange movie too. I liked David Bowie as Tesla, the unsung hero of static electricity. He said that with a threepenny nail he could bring down any building in New York. You don’t get that schematic on the internet.
I would work with Nolan again in a second, playing anyone in anything. It’d be fun to work with him again. I’d play the Riddler if they followed through with the offer! I’ve been screwed twice on that. Years ago they offered me the Joker then gave it to Jack Nicholson, then they offered me the Riddler and gave it to Jim Carrey. I’d be like, ‘Okay, is this real? If this is a real offer, yes! Don’t pump me again, motherfuckers.’
It’s interesting that even the small characters are interesting in those films. There’s nobody you see and think it looks like a cartoon. It’s great to see Gary Oldman playing the cop. Those films kick ass because they engage you so heavily, and the detail is all there. Even in terms of the Batmobile, going, ‘My god, it’s a Hummer on crack!’ And it’s got a motorcycle inside it, so every techno-geek in the world is going, ‘Yes!’ All his stuff works. Is he doing Superman now?
I think he’s just producing that.
Even having him as a technical advisor would be amazing. An English Superman. ‘You’re soopah, man. No, stop it, he’s soopah.’
I’m putting this as an ad in the article: Chris, please call me, I’ll do anything. I’ll leave it with, ‘The last thing Mr Williams said was please.’ I could be a great character, or some weird little man in the background in Arkham Asylum. Although I’m a little hairy to be in tights.
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