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The Inscrutable, Ubiquitous Wallace Shawn

With Guest Host John Harwood.

From “The Princess Bride” to “My Dinner with Andre “and “A Master Builder,” actor and writer Wallace Shawn joins us.

Actor Wallace Shawn attends special screening of "Turks and Caicos" hosted by Vogue and The Cinema Society at the Crosby Street Hotel on Monday, April 7, 2014 in New York.  (AP)

Actor Wallace Shawn attends special screening of “Turks and Caicos” hosted by Vogue and The Cinema Society at the Crosby Street Hotel on Monday, April 7, 2014 in New York. (AP)

You know him as an impish villain in “The Princess Bride,” or an improbable Lothario in “Manhattan,” or the voice of Rex the Dinosaur in “Toy Story.” But Wallace Shawn’s real passion is not acting but writing. He spent 15 years translating and adapting a 19th century Norwegian play by Henrik Ibsen – which is now a new movie, “A Master Builder,” starring Shawn and his friend Andre Gregory. We’ll ask how he balances the twin sides of his working life – and competing demands from audiences and his own conscience. This hour, On Point: a conversation with Wallace Shawn.

- John Harwood

Guests

Wallace Shawn, actor, screen writer and playwright. Star of the new film, “A Master Builder,” among many others.

From The Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: Wallace Shawn: Wrestling With Success — “[Wallace Shawn] sees himself as a writer, even though he’s never really been accepted as one, he says. The 70-year-old Mr. Shawn finds playwriting more central to his identity and compares acting to walking a cute dog. ‘People stop and say, ‘Oh my God, your dog is great, I love your dog!’ ‘ he says. ‘In a way, it’s very gratifying, and you start thinking, ‘They really like my dog!’ But it’s not quite you.’”

New York Observer: Wallace Shawn, Hollywood’s Favorite Comic Villain, Wrestles with the Double Life — “>Wallace Shawn lives in Chelsea. Meet him at a café in the neighborhood, and, making conversation while perusing the menu, ask what street he lives on, and he will begin smiling that gleeful, rueful, slightly malevolent smile that, along with his bouncing, perpetually astonished, faintly lisping voice, makes him such an indelible comic villain on TV and in movies. Smirking madly, he will decline to name a street, explaining that his mother was a ‘brilliant woman’ with ‘too much emotional energy to devote to her children,’ and as a result he is quite secretive.”

The Paris Review: Wallace Shawn, The Art of Theater No. 17 — “I love going to plays. There’s a subconscious side to it, obviously—some people like to be spanked for XYZ psychological reasons, and I like to go to plays, and I can’t entirely explain why. But on the more conscious level, I simply love watching actors act.”

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  • Arkuy The Great

    Wallace, what was “that word” again? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2y8Sx4B2Sk

    • streetglide

      Inconceivable!

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    How come Hollywood movies are just awful? Derivative. Cliche. Animated crap-ola. Volume level 1,000. Badly edited to point of incoherence. Trace amouts of acting abilitites. I don’t watch them*. I haven’t been in a theater since Angela’s Ashes was released. Great stuff could be made but isn’t.+

    * Those I do on dvd only, checked out from the library. Usually can’t get past 1st 8 minutes.

    + Cloudsplitter; A Prayer for Owen Meany; March Violets.

    • Leonard Bast

      I would suppose what makes Hollywood movies so bad is the same thing that causes people to write incoherently in incomplete sentences: a general lack of standards overall in modern America.

      • J__o__h__n

        I wouldn’t just blame the Americans. The movies have to make money internationally so they pander to an even broader lowest common denominator. What is worse than countless sequels? Yet another movie telling the origins of Spiderman, Batman, Superman, etc. Since they need to sell in China, all the villains invading America are now North Korean, aliens, or zombies.

    • Duras

      Marketers.

  • Duras

    I watched “My Dinner with Andre” twice. I glad I watched it once.

  • J__o__h__n

    The short bio left out his being the Grand Nagus.

    • Davesix6

      Thanks John, Mr. Shawn was wonderful in the role!

    • Ray in VT

      You beat me to it, John. I didn’t see your comment before I posted mine above.

      • J__o__h__n

        I don’t think unintentional plagiarism violates the Laws of Acquisition.

        • Ray in VT

          It’s probably okay as long as you can get away with it.

          • J__o__h__n

            What isn’t?

          • Ray in VT

            You’re only in trouble if you get caught.

  • SteveTheTeacher

    Mr. Shawn,

    I would like to hear your perspective on the degree to which your play, The Designated Mourner, highlights opposition, by the US government and Republican and Democratic party leadership, of those critical of US government mass surveillance, US government crimes against humanity (like the mass murder of hundreds of innocent civilians by unmanned drones), and the crimes against humanity of US allies (such as the mass murder of over 150 children in the Israeli/Gaza conflict)?

    To what extent, would you say, Jack, is symbolic of the large numbers of the contemporary American populace, who are willing to go along with the government narrative and embrace governmental oppression of critics and crimes against humanity?

  • http://hlb-engineering.us/ HLB

    I was going to ask: Who goes to plays anymore?

    Then I realized the woman I live with does. Five or six or seven a year produced by this organization: http://www.ppt.org/

    The arts aren’t dead everywhere. Yet.

  • Davesix6

    Mr. Shawn is one of those rare actors that brings a smile before he has uttered a single word. And he has one of those wonderful voices that is instantly recognizable.

  • Ray in VT

    Let us also not forget his role as Grand Nagus Zek.

  • Richard Gonci

    Pretty disastrous interview… (interviewer)

    • Mike

      You have to assume that the production/editorial staff wrote the interview questions for the guest host.

      • Richard Gonci

        Whoever wrote the questions has the intellectual/artistic depth of a 14 year-old. To waste such valuable time with the likes of Mr. Shawn is a travesty. Likewise, the interviewer is utterly out of his depth. This interview should have been scheduled for the return of Tom A., who is at least somewhat worldly.

        • Mike

          I agree with your points on an abstract level, and it seems obvious in hindsight, but I don’t think you could have anticipated this result.

          • Richard Gonci

            Well, I will bow to your more generous nature. I think my disappointment overran my more gracious self.

  • AW

    Oh my goodness….to the interviewer: please set his pop culture identity aside so you can move on to the more interesting discussion.

  • Chicken lady

    I have been a fan of WS for many years. Seems to me that we have a ‘slow-talker and deep thinker’ being interviewed by a fast talker. When I saw My Dinner with Andre over 20 years ago it so deliberately articulated the question that I was pondering at that time – “Is this is? (as in life). Periodic life reassessment is a task worthy of the time it takes and I’m glad that this film helped me along in that task.

    I appreciate WS’s thoughtfulness in his comments.

  • Kim Rademacher

    Just wanted to say thank you to Mr. Shawn for his high-quality, intelligent work. I am a maritime historian and former museum curator mired permanently in the 18th and 19th centuries; As someone who is often criticized for my inability to connect with pop culture and for my interest in things that require thought and education, I really appreciate it.

  • methos1999

    He’ll always be Grand Nagus Zek to me :-)

  • Guest

    I’ve enjoyed his acting but 10 minutes of this interview and I wanted to scream. Painful to listen to.

  • Steve_the_Repoman

    “It is different than being a human being most of the time”

    This quote could have been in My Dinner with Andre

  • J__o__h__n

    My Brunch with John Harwood wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped.

  • Erma Sidelines

    this was not a conversation at all — the interviewer spoke as if he had no curiosity about anything — his guest, literature, art or politics — nor any serious prior knowledge of his guest’s work over the years.

    a suggestion not noted in comments below: Vanya on 42nd St, with andre gregory, phoebe brand, julianne moore, larry pine and george gaynes. a most memorable treatment of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

  • Jacob Arnon

    Actors don’t have anymore insight into the nature of politics or of how the world works than the rest of us.

    They should confine themselves to talking about what they know best: acting.

    • J__o__h__n

      He is a playwright and an essayist. He isn’t just an actor talking to a chair.

      • Jacob Arnon

        Doesn’t matter whom he addresses as long as one uses the words of other in a script one is acting out a role.

        • Po Tater

          I’d rather listen to Lindsey Lohan talk about politics than politicians in the pockets of big business or pundits like Hannity. At least then it would be a positive experience being surrounded by boobs.

          • Jacob Arnon

            Your choice, not mine!

  • Beth Wallace

    What a disappointing interview by On Point with this important American playwright. The ineptitude and superficiality of the questions were a kind of dark comedy, whose subtext might be, “Whatever happens, don’t let him start talking about Israel.” I can think of no play more worthy of being produced in the current situation than Mr. Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “a play about how literate, civilized societies can drift en masse into beastliness and commit the most obscene acts of history.” (Frank Rich, NY Times, 1985) Thank you, Mr. Shawn, for laboring to bring us a new treatment of “The Master Builder.” I look forward to seeing the film, and will look, and listen, elsewhere to learn more about it.

  • LinRP

    I can’t blame John for this painful experience. I thought Wallace Shawn was simply terrible — circuitous, feigning confusion at simple questions that were reasonable. Just because someone excels at some things, does not mean they master all. WS was just an awful interview, and seemingly deliberately difficult.

  • Ashley Yoshida

    I agree completely. Thank-you for saying it so I don’t have to.

  • Ashley Yoshida

    Can I get an Amen? I was horrified by that interview. Maybe it was a prank that Wallace Shawn orchestrated?

  • Ashley Yoshida

    Yes!

  • AstroManUS

    When I heard Wallace Shawn was on the show, I was thinking “This should be good”. I don’t know if it was Wallace or John or the format or the questions, or a combination of all four but, this interview went south right from the first question. Would have Tom have done better? If anything, the interview can be used as an educational example when nothing works. Can someone point me to a good Wallace Shawn radio interview?

  • Regular_Listener

    Yeegads – I have never seen such a negative reaction to an OP interview before! And I too thought there was something wrong. A lot of you are pointing fingers at Harwood, but personally I found myself wondering about Shawn’s mental health and fitness. He just seemed to be off in the twilight zone or something, unsure how to respond to pretty ordinary questions, not at all prepared to be interviewed. I hope he is all right.

  • Midwest

    Agree with others here–was excited about hearing the interview, but Harwood was completely out of his depth. It would have gone so much differently, I think, if Tom Ashbrook had conducted it. His cultural breadth, intellect, and sense of propriety would fit the subject–and he would have done his research. Shawn is a significant artist and intellectual, and it’s always a pleasure to hear/read/see what he has to say.

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