Hand-to-Hand Combat: Wallace Shawn on Vamps

The beloved character actor talks about his first big fight scene and wonders why everyone thinks 'Inconceivable!' is so funny.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Oh, I was looking forward to this one. Amy Heckerling's new horror comedy Vamps stars Alicia Silverstone and Krysten Ritter as modern vampires balancing their immortality with their femininity, their innocence with their species' history of violence, and struggling to stay in hiding in a world where the government is increasingly involved in Americans' lives. Wallace Shawn co-stars as Van Helsing, and gets to wield a crossbow and fight an undead Sigourney Weaver. With Heckerling, Silverstone and Shawn involved, Vamps is a bit of a Clueless reunion, and it's an infectiously charming film, on DVD and Blu-ray this week.

It took some finagling to schedule a time to speak to Wallace Shawn, the famed playwright and character actor from The Princess Bride ("Inconceivable!"), My Dinner with Andre and the Toy Story series, but I finally got him on the phone yesterday afternoon to discuss his first big fight scene, the mysteries of his beloved on-screen persona and his latest theatrical works in New York City. He was fighting a cold brought on by the devastating Hurricane Sandy.

CraveOnline: Sir, it is an honor to talk to you. How are you doing?

Wallace Shawn: I am absolutely fine. I mean, taking a few pills. Popping. You know, some of us got sick from that big hurricane, but nothing serious.

I’m glad it’s nothing serious. Are you okay? Do you still have power?

Well, we had no power for a while. A bit of a wakeup call. Global warming literally coming in the window, so that was… You know, we all have to wake up and face the realities of the world we’re living in.

It was a hell of a timing for it too. We got through an entire election without anyone mentioning it.

I know. I know. They didn’t have the guts.

I guess not.

They just didn’t have the guts. Now Jill Stein, who ran on the Green Party, got herself arrested just on the very issue of global warming at that very time, protesting the grotesque pipeline. So I say god bless Dr. Stein. She was an excellent candidate.

I feel kind of bad talking about Vamps with so much serious stuff going on.

Well, it’s all related.

Is it?

Well, yeah, I mean Vamps is, in a certain way, about someone who is trying to be a decent person in a situation where people, where vampires usually live off of others and cause their deaths, which is what we do, and Alicia’s character at any rate is trying to think of a way out of that.

I hadn’t really thought about it in a political context.

And Alicia herself, of course, she is a very, very devoted environmentalist.

Was that something that attracted you to the project originally when you read the script?

Both Vamps and Clueless are Amy Heckerling’s musings on how to be a decent person. That’s what she’s preoccupied with in both films, and Alicia really embodies that hope of being a good person in a very ugly world that we live in. How could you possibly be a good person? But she is someone who, in her very being, clearly is striving for that.

And it strikes me that the character of Van Helsing is someone who has a more serious change to go through, in becoming a better person himself and not demonizing a group.

Yes, exactly. He starts off totally rigid, he’s out to get them, and he’s quite humanized in the course of the film. I have a great part in the film. It’s a very charming part.

Correct me if I’m wrong, is this the first time you’ve gotten to wield a crossbow?

The first time that I did quite a few things, including hand-to-hand combat, with Sigourney. You know, they usually don’t cast me in that of type. I went even flying through the air in that big battle. That was extraordinary.

Was that actually you?


That’s cool!

Well, I mean it was actually me who flew up into the air, and it was a stuntman who landed.

Did they have you up on one of those big wire rigs?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t do that for any other director.

There’s such a long history of people playing Van Helsing in theater and film. Did you have any affection for the character before this?

[Laughs] I have to admit that I did not go all the way back and study the Van Helsing legacy. I simply didn’t. I just played it as me.

I think we all really like “you.” There’s a moment in all your films where we go, “Oh, Wallace Shawn’s in this! This is going to be great.”

Oh, well that’s a very nice thing to say…

Well, you have a persona that, especially after The Princess Bride, an entire generation appreciates.

God, I wish I appreciated it.

Do you have any sort of sense of what your presence is in a film? Is that something you’re consciously aware of or is that just you being you?

No, I mean the first film that I was in was Manhattan, of Woody Allen. In a way there’s a joke being made about me, in a way, which I didn’t understand at the time and still don’t, and that’s been true of many of my films that I’ve been in. There’s a joke involved that I don’t really want to understand. Even in The Princess Bride, I didn’t even realize… I mean, in The Princess Bride I keep saying “inconceivable.” I had only the most vague awareness that that was funny. I didn’t really get the joke, and I still don’t in a certain way. So no, I’m not terribly aware of what impression my presence makes on other people. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s a matter that I don’t really want to know, because I know in several films I have been in some way, let’s say “romantically linked” with a pretty woman, and I think it was meant to be funny. I think it was meant to be some kind of a mockery of me, but if that was true, I didn’t want to think about it.

Honestly, when I see you in roles like that… You have a really lovely wife in Vamps as well [Kristen Johnston]… When I see you on screen with a particularly attractive romantic interest, I see, “Oh, that’s how cool he is.”

Oh, that’s very nice of you. That would probably be how I would look at it because I’ve never… Well, I’ve had this strange experience in my life, which was when I was a kid, let’s say from the age of five until nine, a good deal of emphasis in school was put on the fact that I was short. The other kids referred to it frequently, and I guess I sort of thought, “Oh, I guess I am short,” or I don’t know what they mean exactly, or what they feel about that, but it’s obviously a bad thing, and it’s supposed to be rather comical. And then, from the time I was about nine on, people didn’t really notice it because I had other characteristics that they noticed.  And then when I was 35, I fell into this weird thing of being an actor, and all of a sudden I was short again. Really, it hadn’t been mentioned for about 25 years, and then suddenly it became an important issue. So it’s strange about how people see you in the movies.

Well, it’s strange, too, because I meet a lot of actors and so many of them are shorter than they appear on screen. It doesn’t seem like it would be a real issue.

It is bizarre. I mean, actually, let’s say, Al Pacino and I are the same height. But he’s, as far as anybody is concerned, he’s tall, and I am always seen as short, and even, believe it or not, in animated films where I’ve done the voice.

Yeah, you’re right.

They always have me as the short guy, except for the dinosaur in Toy Story, who is actually bigger than the other toys. But almost every animated thing I’ve ever done, I’m the little guy.

I remember I was very fond of Melinda & Melinda, and in that one I felt they were playing not off your physical persona, or other roles that you play, but the fact that you are an accomplished writer.

Yeah, there was almost a little bit of a reference, in the feeling anyway, to My Dinner with Andre. I don’t know, I felt that hovering in the background.

Well, the bulk of the film is you having a conversation over dinner, even though it does cut to the actual story that you’re spitballing ideas for. Did that character feel like you as a writer having that conversation, or was that a Woody Allen character that you were simply playing?

No, that was a Woody Allen character, but of course the way he works, he wants you to be you, more or less. He doesn’t go for the type of acting, that “man of a thousand faces” type of acting. He wants everybody to act in a very, very natural way, and that’s why he casts you, because he thinks you, being quite natural, would fit the part.

Are you writing at the moment, by any chance?

My dear fellow, that would be my secret!

Oh dear!

I mean, after my death, we’ll see! I don’t think it’s very good luck to talk about what you might be doing.

Fair enough.

I mean, I’m going to be doing a couple of plays that theoretically I’ve already written.  But actually I’m rewriting them. That’s one thing I don’t mind talking about, that I’ll  be doing two plays at The Public Theater in New York, in June and in October. And inevitably I can’t help myself. I rewrite all my plays, so I’m rewriting these a bit.

Are these plays that have been performed before?

They’ve been performed before. They’re my two most recent plays. One of them was done in the year 2000, The Designated Mourner, and the other one has only been done in England because America wasn’t quite ready for it yet, and probably never will be, but that one is called Grasses of a Thousand Colors. I did it in London with Jennifer Tilly and other people.

When you rewrite these plays that have already been seen, are you doing dramatic rewriting or are you more polishing right now?

Well, to me, making any change is kind of dramatic. I’m not sure I draw that distinction between…

I think I mean structural changes, as opposed to working on the characters…

I don’t think, no, I’m not introducing a new character or a totally different story, no.

Do you have a writing process that you adhere to? I know Woody Allen always uses his typewriter, and a lot of writers write at a certain time of day, for example. Is there anything that you keep coming back to?

I sadly don’t have a process. I wish sometimes that did. Maybe I would have written more, I don’t know. I can’t explain the process. I don’t have a very regular… I think that writing is like a bizarre miracle, if you can write something, and no, I can’t really describe my process.

This is a question one of my colleagues always asks, and I’m very curious in your case: what was the first record you bought with your own money?

Now that’s weirdly hard to remember. I discovered classical music and pop music at the same time, when I was about twelve, and believe it or not, I’m going to make a guess that probably around the same time, and probably with my allowance, I bought Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which was recommended by a friend, and “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley. Both I would have bought when I was twelve years old.

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