The final movie role by Robin Williams has little in common with his early appearances – the goofy alien he played in “Mork and Mindy,” the manic standup comedian, or the motormouth deejay of “Good Morning, Vietnam.” In “Boulevard,” he plays instead an outwardly conventional but deeply repressed 60-year-old banker who falls for a young male street hustler. (Read Andrew O'Hehir's review.)
We spoke to the film’s director, Dito Montiel, about Williams, his acting in “Boulevard” and his legacy. Montiel is also a onetime hardcore musician and author of the memoir “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” which became his directorial debut. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The main character in "Boulevard" is a low-key, internal guy. He’s kind of the opposite of a lot of the famous Robin Williams roles. When did you start to think that Williams was the right guy for the role? What made him seem like a good fit?
I’m usually really worried about actors getting roles, especially when they’re so famous, as he is. It’s incredible — every generation has a different Robin Williams that they grew up with. It’s not like he was going to surprise me by being a good actor, too. I’ve seen him be an incredible actor in “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets’ Society,” so he’s been down the road. What seemed most exciting besides him being a great actor is, a guy like him, the public persona is the guy on David Letterman jumping out of his seat, which is mine as well.
I thought, “How interesting that Robin Williams could be the loudest guy in the room even when he’s not talking.”
So you thought it was a different kind of role for him, but you also knew he had the chops to pull it off.
As an actor, there wasn’t even a question. Of course he can do it. It’s such a quiet little role — maybe not little. A guy like him who’s got every acclaim you could ask for and all kinds of notoriety in every world — if he wants to do this movie, it’s not the money. Something must be touching him. I thought, “How lucky for us.” It’s kind of exciting.
Do you have a favorite early role of his?
I certainly watched “Mork and Mindy,” you know? You grow up on him, and like I said, he’s always been there. It’s this strange celebrity of him.
I think these days, every famous person out there, I’d say the ratio is 60-40 to people loving you and hating you. With a guy like him, you go into a supermarket with him at 2 in the morning and everyone’s telling him they love him. At any age, he’s always been there, whether it’s hosting some kind of awards show or being on a talk show or being in a movie or TV or comedy; it’s crazy!
It’s hard, you can’t pinpoint a guy like that. When you’re doing this movie, it’s weird to try and put a person that’s that famous into a role of a guy working at a bank. As great an actor as some people are, it’s like, “Wait a second, come on. You don’t work in a bank.” With him, I don’t know why, maybe it’s the familiarity of having him around your whole life, you say, “I could see him in a bank.” At least that’s how I felt. I don’t know why, it doesn’t make any sense. You kind of feel like maybe you know someone like him, and I don’t think there’s a person out there who doesn’t imagine that there isn’t a quieter side of him.
Did you talk about his interest in the role with him at all? Did he see it as a challenge because it’s such an atypical direction for him?
No, right off the bat, we had similar thoughts about it, which really excited me aside from him wanting to be a part of it. He was very concerned right off the bat about the relationship between his character and Kathy Baker’s. He said, “They love each other.” That’s kind of what excited me. If the role were written for a 23-year-old, say, who got married at 18, it would be a really glorious story, possibly, about coming out. But with their age, it felt like it would complicate the film in a good way.
Certainly with him and Kathy Baker there, I thought, This could be interesting. He was very concerned with the relationship not vilifying the wife or making it one-dimensional in the aspect of, “Everyone’s going to stand up and cheer when I come out at the end of the film.” All he kept saying to me was, “What about Joy, Kathy Baker’s character?” She felt just as strongly. Kathy would always come over and say, “We have an unwritten agreement in this marriage and he’s breaking it.” I really liked that thinking that they had behind it, and I think that excited all of us.
The striking thing about the Nolan character is his yearning and heartache, especially early in the movie. He talks repeatedly about wanting to be “somewhere else.” Did you get a sense that Williams himself was uncomfortable, guarded, or hiding something in the same way that Nolan is?
That’s impossible to tell because [on a movie set] you’re out there pretending make-believe with your own personal feelings. In a movie like this, it’s a crazy version of therapy. You’re going back and forth between your personal feelings and all that.
As far as being guarded, I can’t imagine anything being less guarded than being a character like this. It’s so incredibly vulnerable because you’re letting us see... There’s nothing cornier than a director saying, “This guy was so generous.” It makes me want to vomit when I hear it. I mean that in hopefully not a vomitous way. But it was incredibly honest to come out there, for all of them… You could go one way with this film, which is to say, "I have a life that you want to get the hell away from, and I can’t wait to come out finally.” But it was much more, at least what I was hoping for, what I feel like we got, what we were aiming for was much more complex.
You’re going to show us how hard the situation is at this age. Starting over sounds like it’s nice. The tagline is “It’s never too late to make a U-turn,” and that’s a nice thought, and you’d hope that that’s true. My parents divorced in their 70s after being married for 40-something years. My sisters, after our parents passed, said, “Maybe they would’ve been happier if they stayed miserable with each other.” It’s a more complex thing than a simple tagline for me.
I never met Williams, but journalists who did said he was fun and often on, cracking up all the time, loved an audience, really high-spirited. What kind of Robin Williams did you see on set and in formal settings around the shooting?
A combination of a little bit of everything, like with most people, especially when you’re dealing with those kinds of minds, like Robert Downey. You’re kind of just there to support them. He understood the role and that was his reason for being there. He doesn’t come to Nashville at 2 in the morning to do a show for all of us hanging around; he’s there because he obviously wants to do something. He understood the role.
Of course there are times he’s Robin Williams. There were a couple times I was with him, and I’d say, “This next scene, you’re going into your house, and you’re really screwed up, man!” And he’d look at me and say, “I’ve done the research.” He’s a quick one like that, always. It was a combination of a little bit of everything, but interesting to be around for sure.
He wasn’t somebody who was obviously struggling with depression or intense pain or anything like that?
No, nothing that you can tell. Like I said, you’re making a film of make-believe. You’re casting a character that’s dealing with something else, or you’re talking about that character. It’s a weird world of make-believe. That would be like, if you do the happiest movie on earth, could you tell if the guy was the happiest guy you’ve ever met? “Well, he was jumping up and down on a ball!” Hard to imagine he wasn’t. So it’s complex, you know?
Did he seem to change over the course of the filming? How long was he there for the shooting?
He’s in every scene, so 23 days of shooting. We were there for a couple months together. At the end, I know we all felt really good. We got to see the movie together after we had gone back and forth with a lot of different cuts. The version that’s out now we all saw together. It was a nice long process, or short, in movie length.
Do you have a favorite moment with him? Something he said or did that made you feel really lucky to get to know him and work with him?
There was a lot. We had a scene that really always touches me. This one with him and Kathy Baker, in rehearsals he would try them saying “I love you” to each other in this scene, which initially got a lot of pushback from everyone involved. They were like, “Why are they saying ‘I love you’?” It wasn’t in the script. But it felt like, “Well, these characters do love each other.” In that scene, “I love you” means everything from “I love you” to “Goodbye.” I really enjoyed rehearsing and shooting that because it was touching onto a lot of what the film was about.
But of course, taking long walks in Nashville at 1 in the morning, talking over the scenes with Robin or Kathy Baker or Bob Odenkirk. That’s kind of a good deal.
When you heard about his death, how did you respond? Were you shocked? Did it seem like something that might have been coming? What did you feel besides a sense of loss for someone you respected and liked?
You never see anything like that coming from anyone, for some reason. Movies are a weird circus life. It’s a life sped up. You meet on Monday, and Tuesday you’re trying to do everything you can to make everybody [seem like they have] a 40-year relationship with one another. A couple months, you say “cut” and everybody goes home, and you hope to see them when the movie comes out or in the street one day.