Wallace Shawn: I wish people knew me as a radical playwright instead for "The Princess Bride"

The beloved character actor and playwright on sex, power, Ibsen, and his disturbing new "Master Builder"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 22, 2014 10:57PM (EDT)

Wallace Shawn      (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
Wallace Shawn (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

Wallace Shawn would no doubt prefer it if you knew him as a radical playwright, the American successor to Chekhov and Ibsen, rather than as the lovable character actor of “The Princess Bride” and “Clueless” and innumerable other movie and TV roles. But Shawn, now 70 years old, appears more or less reconciled to what he calls the comical nature of his destiny. He came along as a dramatist who was eager to challenge theatrical conventions and liberal orthodoxy (in works like “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “The Fever” and “The Designated Mourner”) at a moment when the American audience, even at the upper edges of the bourgeois intelligentsia, was losing its taste for adventurous theater. Perversely enough, he came along as an actor at a moment when a diminutive, helium-voiced, balding man with a perpetually aggrieved demeanor could become a fixture in popular culture. (He was supposedly cast in “Princess Bride” based on his irresistible reading of the word “inconceivable.”)

Shawn’s acting résumé over the last several decades is bewildering in its breadth and, as he would cheerfully admit, in its total lack of discrimination. He has certainly done “respectable” roles in independent films by Woody Allen, Alan Rudolph, Rebecca Miller and Richard Ayoade. But he’s also voiced the plastic dinosaur called Rex in three “Toy Story” films and several video games, had recurring roles in “Gossip Girl,” “Crossing Jordan” and “The L Word,” and played aliens in several sci-fi series (most notably “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”). He is apparently shooting a film right now that’s called “Robo-Dog.” I was tempted to ask him about “Robo-Dog,” but I never got around to it. After all, I had called him up to talk about Ibsen.

Shawn's frenetic screen career has not prevented him, at least intermittently, from pursuing his passion for the stage – and from combining the two. More than 30 years ago, Shawn, theater director André Gregory and film director Louis Malle upended the indie-film market with “My Dinner With André,” a two-hour philosophical talkfest that became one of the unlikeliest hit movies ever made. A dozen years later, they repeated the feat with “Vanya on 42nd Street,” which captured the rehearsal process for a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” that Gregory staged (with Shawn in the title role) in a Times Square theater awaiting demolition. Despite the specific social context and lack of props or scenery – or maybe because of those things – it’s almost certainly the best film adaptation of Chekhov’s classic.

Believe it or not, the process that ultimately led to Shawn and Gregory’s smoldering new film version of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Master Builder” began shortly after that. Malle had died by the time they began rehearsing the play in 1997, and ultimately Jonathan Demme stepped into the director’s role. Shawn did an original translation of the play from Ibsen’s Danish-Norwegian dialect -- although he does not claim to speak either language -- and once again plays the title character, the tormented, abusive and possibly deranged “master builder” Halvard Solness, a man haunted by his own enormous success. Halvard is cruel to his damaged and neurotic wife, Aline (the wonderful Julie Hagerty), to his ailing rival Knut Brovik (Gregory) and Knut’s long-suffering son Ragnar (Jeff Biehl), and to Ragnar’s fiancée Kaia (Emily Cass McDonnell), who is Halvard’s secretary and also his mistress. But the master builder is made helpless by the arrival of a mysterious woman from the past.

This production is staged in modern dress but shot in a 19th-century mansion that could plausibly be the Solness family’s house, echoing with trauma and tragedy. As Shawn and I discussed, “A Master Builder” can be read as a realistic play, perhaps a story about a victim of rape or sexual abuse seeking revenge years later, or about the consequences of a lifetime of mistreating others. I mean, it is about those things -- but the overtly seductive Hilde (Lisa Joyce), who shows up with no luggage and no clothing except what little she has on, and announces that she’s moving into the Solness household, does not compute within the conventions of dramatic realism. Is she crazy? Is she kidding? Is she demonic? The power of the work lies largely in the fact that Halvard is never certain who she is or what she means to do, and neither are we.

Actually, Hilde explains it herself: She is a princess out of a fairy tale, who has showed up after 10 years to claim the kingdom she was promised long ago, during a murky and clearly inappropriate interlude between them when she was just a girl. She promises Halvard some measure of redemption, the possibility of becoming a less despicable person even at this late stage, and also leads him onward toward his doom.

I reached Wallace Shawn at his home in Manhattan earlier this week. I tried to ask him questions that would cause the word “inconceivable” to come up organically. It didn’t work. But even when the subject is this rarefied, a conversation with him is every bit as entertaining as you could hope. (I kept in the moment when we are disturbed by my noisy kids because of the way Shawn made use of it, without missing a beat.)

“A Master Builder” is such a big and bewildering play. I’m curious to find out how and why you decided to take this on. In the credits it says that you and André Gregory developed this for the stage. But did you ever present it that way?

No, we never did this on stage. Basically, we rehearsed it for -- I don’t know, 15 years or something of that nature. We began in 1997. The older people began in 1997. We had different younger people then.

I imagine so! Lisa Joyce, who plays Hilde in this version, was probably a baby in 1997.

She was, you know, crawling around in the nursery, chewing on dolls, I suppose. We really only ever did it for an invited audience of friends, maybe 20 people at a time. We’ve never actually performed it on a public stage or in a theater.

And at some point this turned into the idea of becoming a film?

Well, from fairly early on, it kept getting less and less “theatrical.” Basically everybody involved has done a lot of movies and TV. André Gregory’s taste is really for a kind of hyperrealism or spontaneity in acting, which is much closer to film acting than it is to projecting a performance out into a large auditorium. And of course, the play is about the inside of people’s heads more than anything. So we did think from a pretty early time, “Well, this would be a wonderful film.” And maybe Ibsen would have done it as a film if he had had that option.

That’s an interesting thought. Now, the credits say that you’re actually the translator of this version. Does that mean you can read Danish, or Dano-Norwegian or whatever it is?

Well, we can all — I’ve visited Norway and learned how to pronounce it. We can all go to Norway and we can all pronounce Norwegian if we know English. I know some German and I know English and in my early days I was a Latin teacher. I do know something about it. Obviously, a normal person would not do that. My life has led me to be dangerously overconfident. I try to avoid driving, because I know I’m overconfident as a driver --

We’re all grateful for that.

… and I’ve realized it. I’m an arrogant person and I always have been. I mean, I’m actually much less arrogant than I probably was when I was 10, or when I was 30. I’m much, much less arrogant, but still. If you want to know how I did it – well, it would take a couple of minutes.

Please, sure. I’m interested.

I went to the Norwegian consulate and I got a copy of the text in Norwegian. Based on my skills as a Xerox machine operator, which I did for a while professionally — because in my early days I really didn’t have an idea of how to make a living, so I worked as a Xerox machine operator — I blew up the text to a very, very large size. And then a scholar of Norwegian wrote the English synonyms into the Norwegian text. So basically it was like having a little dictionary of all the words in that text. And then we talked through it, and she said, “Well, this word is actually a word that was archaic at the time that Ibsen used it. It was a word used in Norse mythology and it wasn’t common at that time. And this is a word that Ibsen used in an unusual way — other people used it to mean X, he used it to mean Y, etc.”

So we talk through the thing, and basically I recognize most of the words from German or English, except weirdly pronounced. When I finished my translation, I did check it out with another professor, line by line, and they occasionally said, “Here when you say ‘He walked out the dog,’ actually Ibsen meant he walked out the door. So you were wrong on that.” And sometimes my translation was not to anybody’s taste but mine, for a given line. So anybody else might say, “Well, I hate the way you translated that,” but they could still tell that I knew what Ibsen had intended. And ultimately, by the end, I changed certain things, rightly or wrongly. And cut quite a bit. And then Jonathan Demme and his editor, Tim Squyres, even cut more from what we’d actually shot.

Right. I didn’t attempt to do anything close to a line-by-line comparison but it seems like what’s in the film is on the order of two-thirds of what’s in the play. Does that seem right?

That seems fair enough.

Now, in terms of what drew you to this particular work in the first place, to the point that you spent 15 years with your collaborators working on it. I mean, you said earlier that the play takes place inside people’s heads, which is interesting. But where did the allure of this work lie for you?

Well, the allure of Ibsen is so great to me that I don’t know how to begin, really. André and I actually met because in 1970, André wanted me to adapt and cut Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” for his company of actors. That was something I utterly failed at, but the association remained. And after we finished doing “Uncle Vanya,” I said to André, “I would like to do something of Ibsen” and he said, “Well, let’s do ‘A Master Builder.’” For me — I keep trying to explain to myself why Ibsen is so thrilling to me, as he was to James Joyce and others. Joyce actually learned Norwegian in order to read Ibsen.

Ibsen was only interested in the most important and intense aspects of life. He seems to have an uncanny ability to write very believably, while leaving out the mechanical and trivial aspects of life, and to deal only with the most intense subjects. And to deal with them so that every line is somehow what would be the climax in other people’s writing. And that’s just a normal page for Ibsen. He’s writing about the demonic and evil side of human nature in which people try to dominate each other and crush each other and he’s also writing about sex —

Hold on for a second. I need to make these children shut up. Guys! Outside on the porch! Right now!

Well, and he also wrote about children and about the intimacies of love, the intricacies, the brutalities, but also the sort of — I don’t know, the possibilities of human decency. And I was listening this morning to a Norwegian doctor who’s been in Gaza and working in a hospital in Gaza, risking his neck and going through a kind of unimaginable hell. And I was thinking, well, he’s there because of Ibsen. He wouldn’t be there if that man had not influenced his society in such an extraordinary way. He was revealing the most alarming and almost shocking things about what was going on inside his own soul and psyche, but at the same time — after being despised for many decades and being in exile for many decades — by the end of his life, the Norwegian public revered him in a way that is mind-boggling. And even while being revered and respected — or maybe because of it — he kept doing these plays that were more and more daring and shocking. Including “A Master Builder,” which came quite near the end of his life.

You’ve talked at various times in your career about realism and your discomfort with it – your feeling that old-fashioned dramatic realism is childish or artificial. This play seems to be right on the edge. You could view it as entirely realistic, as a story of a marriage, a powerful and abusive man, a romantic triangle. But the play is right on the cusp between dramatic realism and something entirely different.

Well, you know, Ibsen began by writing in verse and writing these very poetic plays, wildly unrealistic. In a way, much, much less realistic than Shakespeare. And then, in his restless, I don’t know, search for truth, he made this dramatic change in his writing. He started writing in prose and he started writing these plays that had regular, middle-class people in them. With, you know, the children playing on the porch, to pick an example.

Yeah. (Laughter)

And with the furniture of people’s homes brought right into the theatre and put on the stage. Which was, like, mind-boggling. And he wrote these plays that were kind of — things that could actually happen, in a way, in the homes of the people watching the play. But by the time he’s writing “Master Builder Solness,” this is not a realistic play. I mean, parts of it are realistic, but the character of Hilde doesn’t make sense as a realistic character. At the end of the play, Solness is very soberly saying, “While as an architect I began by building churches, I decided not to do that — I decided to build houses for people. And then, now, I’ve decided I’m only going to build palaces that stand in the air! That don’t touch the ground, just float in the sky!” Well, that’s not a realistic play, unless it’s a play about someone going completely berserk, which is not really what it’s about. It’s not about a man who becomes mentally ill. In a very far-fetched type of production, you could make it realistic. You could make it about a certain type of obsessed woman who is like the one who boiled the rabbit — I’m not quite remembering ...

Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion,” yes.

Well, I was thinking of Glenn Close —

Oh, Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction,” yes, of course. (Laughter) Two different rabbit-cooking women.

You could do that or you could make it — there are hints in the play, many hints that Solness has mental troubles, if you want to look at it that way. So you could make it a realistic play. I don’t think that’s what Ibsen was doing and so our version flatly interprets it as a dream. Hilde is a kind of dream-figure. She is the figure that he needs in his imagination to quickly, before death, race through the issues of his life and try to deal with some of the conflicts and contradictions of his life. Of course, he can’t really. He can’t answer the contradictions and Ibsen could not answer the contradictions. They can’t resolve the contradictions, neither the main character nor the author. Contradictions remain. Solness, the character, is even considering the possibility, could he be a somewhat better person? He’s a terrible person, but he’s not so terrible that he doesn’t have something left in him that wonders, “Could I possibly be a better person? Should I at least, before I die, face the fact that I was a pretty terrible person and is there anything I can do to make up for it?" He’s a tormented person. And Ibsen was too, although I don’t think Ibsen was a terrible person himself.

It doesn’t seem that way, from what I know about him. There’s been a fair amount of feminist criticism of Ibsen, and of this play, and I want to ask you about that. Seeing this play in the contemporary context, amid our obsession with power relationships between men and women, which was certainly a major issue in Ibsen’s work, it seems like a familiar kind of story. You’re suggesting that maybe Hilde, the young woman from the past, does not exist at all. But there is a sense of real pain and trauma in her story: She shows up and accuses Solness of doing something 10 years earlier, something unspecific that could have been rape, could have been sexual abuse or molestation, but at any rate was clearly inappropriate. Do you feel it’s wrong or misleading for people to focus on that? Because unavoidably they will.

Well, you could see the play as simply the revenge of someone who has been molested. That’s one way of looking at the play. I think it’s not the way Ibsen looked at it. I don’t think that he saw it in the way that people normally would see it today. But there’s no question that even if you were to take that whole story as a dream, you could still quite plausibly believe that when this girl was 12 years old, this man got drunk at a party and he kissed her, clearly in an inappropriate way.

And of course, Ibsen is obsessed with the question of what today you would say was the relationship between power and sex. In many, many, many of his plays, he’s dealing with it. Of course in “A Doll’s House,” the wife is a grownup who is being treated like a child, and who has no power, because she is being sort of manipulated by her husband, and he’s keeping a lot of secrets from her. And yes, obviously, Ibsen was worried or tortured or concerned about the power relations between a powerful man and a much, much younger girl.

I mean, it has to be said: In his own life, he became infatuated with several young girls in his later years. He sort of fell in love with them, although I don’t think anybody has suggested he had a physical relationship with any of those girls. Of course he thought about it obviously, because in this play the elderly hero is, in a way, considering leaving his wife and running away with a 22-year-old girl. That’s the plot of the play, on a realistic level: It is a triangle. And no situation of that kind ever remotely got to that point in Ibsen’s actual behavior in life, but he was thinking about it in this play, and laying it out for the world to see. And he also toys with the fantasy of the victim falling in love with the molester.

Yes, that’s the most disturbing moment in the movie, to me. The scene when Solness is talking about the Vikings stealing women and raping them, and Hilde says she could fall in love with a man who did that. And you, or rather André and Jonathan, have staged the scene suggestively. She is sprawled out on the sofa and you’re gripping the furniture. The body language is intensely sexual.

Yes. I mean, look. Ibsen is one of the people who … If a man can presume to make a list of men who contributed to the feminist view of life, you’d have to put Ibsen at the head of the list. But he’s laying out on the table some of the worst male fantasies. I mean, he was a very daring writer, and he dared to be sort of sickening. He dared to create these characters who were sort of dreadful. I mean, Solness is a dreadful person, and yet he’s the protagonist of the play.

You do so much acting in film and television that, shall we say, is in a different register from Halvard Solness. Is playing someone like him personally helpful or therapeutic, after playing so many lovable comic figures and animated dinosaurs and so on?

I would say definitely, and I would recommend it to practically anybody. It is a wonderful thing to be an actor, and of course, the way that we work with André Gregory is that I’m playing me if I were in those circumstances. I’m not sort of reading the play and thinking, “Hmm. Now, what would a guy like that look like? And what would a guy like that walk like? And what would a guy like that talk like?” It’s more, “How would I be if I had his circumstances and his drives and his needs?” And it’s interesting to see the ugly side of yourself and what you could easily be and would be, but for the grace of God. You know, this is what I would be if I hadn’t had the good fortune to have slightly different circumstances -- and maybe I am this way at heart. I think there is something psychologically — what can we say — vaccinating about doing terrible things, or wonderful things, in a play or a film that you don’t actually plan to do or want to do in real life. The vaccination works by … the virus is real, and you get a taste of that virus, but it’s not enough to kill you.

I suppose everyone asks you a version of this question, but since this is so clearly a play about death and mortality I will ask it anyway. Are you relatively at peace with the fact that whenever you depart this planet, many obituaries will appear that will feature the words “impish” and “mischievous” and first-paragraph references to “The Princess Bride,” and somewhere down below, it will be mentioned that you also wrote plays?

You know, it’s … (long pause) I know that’s my destiny. (Laughter) People didn’t know that Büchner wrote plays at all! It’s just a very comical feature of my destiny. I suppose when I was 30, I imagined that by the time I was 70, there would have been a turnaround in my fortunes similar to the one that has happened in the case of many writers, such as Beckett or Pinter. People started out by thinking what they did was terrible, but by the end, they were practically worshipped as gods. As was true of Ibsen, come to think of it. And … (laughter) that hasn’t happened to me. Although it’s happened to some extent!

I think that’s true. It’s not a fair sample because I also live in New York and know people with peculiar tastes. But I think there are more people who have read your work, quite possibly, than have seen it on the stage. Among other things, it feels like the world you depicted in 1997 in “The Designated Mourner” -- the nightmarish society of permanent surveillance and acquiescence to authority -- is the world we see around us now, to some extent. Do you feel that way?

Well, I think that once the government knows everything, we are taking the first step towards the government controlling everything, and what happened to Martin Luther King or Jean Seberg could happen to you and me. At that time, a guy called J. Edgar Hoover was incredibly powerful in the U.S. government; he wasn’t even the president. But if you imagine somebody like Rick Perry of Texas as the president, or Benjamin Netanyahu as the president, whoever is gonna be a few inches to the right of Obama, then people like — I won’t speak for you, 'cause I don’t know you — but people like me will be harassed. Under J. Edgar Hoover, they tried to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide by saying, “We’re going to disgrace you publicly to such an extent that suicide is your best option.” He didn’t do it. And they harassed Jean Seberg, and they said, “Well, we know terrible things about you,” and she did commit suicide, although some people think she was murdered. But yes, I think “The Designated Mourner” could have hints about our future in it, quite possibly.

One thing I see around me that reminds me of that play is that there are so many younger people who have grown up in the years since Reagan and grown up with the Internet, and they have no expectation of things ever being different, or moving in a different direction. The idea that your thoughts are private, that the things you write are private, that your telephone calls are private — that all seems dreadfully old-fashioned. So nothing you can tell them about Hoover seems shocking, for example. So much ideological and philosophical ground has been lost, which is what “The Designated Mourner” is about to some extent. As much as you deride the old liberal bourgeois intelligentsia for being ineffectual, it stood for some hypothetical idea of resistance, or at least a faith that things would get better.

Absolutely, and the members of that group who are threatened in the play, the intellectuals in that group, turn out to have some courage. They basically refuse write the articles that would exonerate them, and they take the risk of being killed, and they are killed. And the guy who wants to survive, and who is willing to compromise, he does survive, and yes, it’s a difficult problem. I mean, I myself am very cynical when people are hopeful about the wrong things, but I am also frightened that cynicism could go so deep in people that they wouldn’t think it was worth putting up a fight.

”A Master Builder” is now playing at Film Forum in New York, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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