Catching a relatively straightfoward performance from Crispin Glover in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland over the festive season reminded me to dust down this interview I did with the actor for Uncut back in 2005.
It was around the time of his directorial debut, What Is It?, a predictably strange and unsettling film that I’d seen earlier that year at the Sundance Film Festival. If I remember correctly, tracking Glover down for an interview proved a mildly tricky process. What Is It? was without a distributor, so I approached Glover via his website. I vaguely remembering entering into postal correspondence with someone who might have been his mother before the interview itself got scheduled. Anyway, here’s the piece in full…
There comes a moment, about half way through his interview with Uncut, when Crispin Glover announces in that thin, unsettling voice of his: “You know, I tend toward playing more extreme or eccentric characters.”
For the last 27 years, Crispin Glover has been an intense and edgy presence in movies you could variously describe as bizarre, disturbing or downright transgressive. Rake thin, pale to the point of translucency, with jet-black hair and piercing, dark eyes, he claims to be inspired by “the aesthetic of discomfort”. The proof’s there in his most eccentric performances – as Olivia Newton-John impersonator Larry in the rarely-seen The Orkly Kid (1985), speed-freak Lane in River’s Edge (1986) – demonstrably further out there even than co-star Dennis Hopper – and cockroach-loving cousin Dell in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990).
There’s more, of course. He played one of Sean Penn’s gang of teen hooligans in At Close Range (1985), was a memorably spaced out Warhol for Oliver Stone in The Doors (1991), and gently sent up his own persona as the sinister Thin Man in the two Charlie’s Angels movies (2000; 2002). He’s cameo’d for Milos Foreman (People Vs Larry Flint, 1986), Gus Van Sant (Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, 1993) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, 1995).
The wider world, though, might remember him for a July, 1987 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman, dressed in stack heels and wig, when he delivered a roundhouse kick to Letterman’s head, stopping the show. His biggest commercial success came as George McFly, the father of Michael J Fox’s Marty, in the Spielberg-produced Back To The Future (1985). But after refusing to sign up for the sequel, the producer’s used his likeness without permission; he sued and won. The case prompted the Screen Actors Guild to devise new regulations about the use of actors’ images.
Born on April 20, 1964, he’s the son of actor Bruce Glover, best known as Bond villain Mr Wynt, one of a pair of misanthropic gay hit men in Diamonds Are Forever. As Crispin Hellion Glover, he’s published four books, cut ups of Victorian novels, overlaid with his own narrative additions and gruesome sketches, released through his Volcanic Eruptions imprint, and in 1989 he released an album, The Big Problem Does Not Equal The Solution, The Solution Equals Let It Be, a mostly spoken word affair, on which he covered Nancy Sinatra and Charles Manson.
And now he’s directed his first movie, What Is It?, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and screened in Cannes last month. Apart from Glover, the cast consists almost entirely of performers with Down’s Syndrome. One actor, dressed as a black and white minstrel, shoots slug juice into his face, declaring: “400 more injections and I shall be an invertebrate.” There are talking snails and semi-naked women with animal heads. It’s a provocative, uncomfortable piece of surrealism which Glover clearly views as being in the tradition of Bunuel, Dali, Jodorowsky and early Lynch. “What I always like has been the truly counter-cultural,” he tells Uncut. “I’m only interested in people who live outside the mainstream.”
UNCUT: So, Crispin. What Is It? What *is* it?
GLOVER: It’s the adventures of a young man whose principle interests are snails, salt, a pipe and how to get home. As tormented by an hubristic, racist inner psyche.
That’s quite some pitch. What kind of questions are you asking with the film?
I think the most important thing it does is question the lack of counter-culturism in the culture. By “counter-culture”, I’m not referring to the counter-culture that existed in the 1960s and Seventies. There are different things to react to right now, and I don’t see that going on in any kind of movement – maybe here and there in art, but I see very specific things that should be reacted to and that’s what this film is about.
Can you tell us something about the history of the movie?
I’ve been working on this for nine and a half years. What Is It? was originally a short film to promote the concept of using people with Downs Syndrome. I was originally going to look at getting a film made with corporate funding, it had various actors attached, David Lynch was going to be executive producer, but the corporate entity had questions about the viability of shooting a movie using a cast of almost exclusively actors with Downs Syndrome. In fact, there’s now going to be a trilogy of movies. The second one, I’ve already shot and I’ve just started editing that. I had to shoot the second one because the main actor in it, he was having some health issues, and I had to shoot it before he died.
Why did you decide to use Downs Syndrome actors?
When you look at somebody who has Downs Syndrome, there’s a history in that person’s face that means a lot of different things to different people. It’s very apparent that these are people who have lived a life apart from the mainstream culture, which reinforces the film’s identity.
You could say that generally the characters you play in movies live outside the mainstream.
I tend towards liking that stuff. I’ve always wanted there to be a counter-cultural movement, and the entire time I’ve been acting there hasn’t really been one, which has been very frustrating for me. I end up playing characters that have an outsider element to them, because they’re genuinely interesting to me. They’re almost avant-garde.
You went into acting very early on. You made your professional debut at 12, didn’t you?
I knew it was something I could do. It was a business concept in my mind. I knew that I couldn’t just have my parents support me. My father was an actor and my mother was a dancer and actress, so I was familiar with the basic understanding of how the business worked and I knew I had an ability to do it.
Who were your role models? I assume your father…
No, no. I wouldn’t say my father was a role model. I didn’t think, “Oh, I can be like my father”, no. I had interests in certain things right from a young age like surrealism and certain kinds of graphic art, but I didn’t necessarily equate them with film or acting. At that point, acting was more something I could do – if I was going to be in a television commercial, that would be great. Then I did television, and eventually, when I was 18, I started making movies, and then at a certain point I just wanted to do a certain kind of film.
Let’s talk about The Orkly Kid, one of your personal favourites. It marks the start of your relationship with Sean Penn.
It hasn’t been seen very much, but I think people can find it on the Internet. It’s only 35 minutes long. It’s been put into a trilogy of movies called the Beaver Trilogy. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much because I got to watch the actual person it was based on. It was an American Film Institute project, Sean did the first year film and he was supposed to do the second year version but things were getting really busy for him and he recommended me for the part. He was very nice to me early in my career. I worked with him on At Close Range and Racing With The Moon. He helped get me some of the jobs, so it was good.
Your breakthrough role was in Back To The Future, where you sued the producers. How do you look back on that experience?
I have difficulty with the film itself, but on top of that I had a very difficult experience with the producers and the filmmakers where I had to get into a lawsuit. They made another actor up to look like me specifically, as opposed to the character, and then they inter-spliced some footage of me from the original film to fool people into believing that it was me. I’ve never seen the film since; it’s not a pleasant memory.
River’s Edge is a great movie, a fantastic performance. Where does Lane come from? He’s pretty unhinged.
Yes, I think so too. There are different reasons for liking different performances and that is definitely one of my best performances. The original script was based on a real event in Oregon. I always felt it was quite realistic. The issue dealing with the covering up of death and that kind of stuff, that I thought was accurate. The films I like best that I’m in are The Orky Kid and River’s Edge. For the most part, an acting career is a business. You have to keep working in order to survive, so you can’t always count on being in excellent films. I wish I could, but really the only films that I think are genuinely excellent all the way through are those two.
Walken in At Close Range and Hopper in River’s Edge. Are these actors you feel an affinity with?
My father knows Christopher Walken very well, they worked together in New York as actors, I believe. And I do like Easy Rider and The Last Movie. Of course, I have a whole different background and there’s different things I’m interested in. But I understand what you’re talking about, how people perceive me, and how you could connect us to a certain type of character we’ve all played. But it’s not something I grew up thinking – I want to be like these people.
Let’s talk about that Letterman appearance. Some sources suggest you were on acid at the time; others say it was a piece of performance art. Care to set the record straight?
That appearance definitely had a large impact in the United States. For many years, people have considered me insane, or crazy… But they think that really is Crispin Glover, and they should understand there1s a difference between who I am in my day-to-day life and the characters I’ve played. I have never personally stated what it was, for various reasons. Primarily to let it be what it is and to let people figure out for themselves what it is.
Back to the movies. Wild At Heart. I take it you were a fan of David Lynch?
Definitely. I saw Eraserhead repeatedly when I was 16. That’s my favourite David Lynch film, it was an extremely important artistic influence on me. It was very interesting working with him on Wild At Heart because I was in acting class at the time and I would take things that I had seen in that film and utilise them in class. I learned to act through an improvisational techniques class that used Michael Checkov and Ute Hagen techniques. When I worked with David, I could see the story not necessarily as complicated or mysterious as it seemed, but just very straightforward psychologically. That’s another performance of mine that I really do like a lot.
Cousin Dell’s completely mad, Crispin. He wears a Santa suit, he’s convinced aliens are coming for him, and he puts cockroaches down his pants…
Yes, I’m happy with how it came out.
OK, then there’s Warhol in The Doors…
I met Andy Warhol at Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding. It was just after Back To The Future had been released and he was very complimentary about my performance to me. But I stood back and watched him after we1d talked, watched his movements, how he was. He was a very interesting person, very quiet but very intense. Then it wasn’t too long after that that I knew there was a small role of Warhol in The Doors movie. I had met Oliver Stone for Platoon, and although I had gotten on with him, I wasn’t right for it. But then I pursued that Warhol role. Andy Warhol was a difficult one, though, because he’s not quite on your mind – he’s more of an image that you think of, like in photographs. It’s not like playing Marlon Brando or James Dean, or people that are personality types. I had a prosthetic nose in the film, but being that I’d met him I did try to replicate the essence of Andy Warhol.
As for Charlie’s Angels, there’s something quite subversive about seeing you co-starring with Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore in a big budget studio film.
I understand that, but on some levels, I don’t feel like it is subversive because I grew up in the film industry and my father1s an actor. Most of the work I’ve done, it really has been coming from mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. And also, in order to fund my own films, I had to make as much money as I could in the pro cultural film state that exists. I don’t have a bad attitude to it, I want to do the best job I can and find the most interesting things I can in the characters.
Outside of movies, can we talk about the books. There’s four of them…
… in fact, I’ve made many of them that I’ve not published. I’d like to publish more of them but my finances are all tied up in the films right now. There’s almost 20 of them. Each of them are different. The earlier ones tended toward utilising a lot of the text that was in an original book from the 1880s and I’d rework it, and then I’d put images in and I’d rework the images. Some of the other books, though, I would only use the binding of the book and then I would completely obliterate the text and come up with different images and text. I’m proud of the books, but that artistic energy has gone into making films – or making What Is It? in particular.
I hear you collect antique medical equipment.
That’s not entirely accurate. In an article, a journalist wrote that I collected antique medical equipment and I had a collection of diseased eyeballs. It’s not true – I mean, I do know people that have collections of certain kinds of things. I see a beauty to some of those things but it’s not something I collect. I do have a stainless steel medical table that I’ve had almost 20 years now. It used to be that my apartment was painted black and I had very little furniture in the living room – it was almost more like an art display and I had this stainless steel medical table there. I also have one case of wax replications that was from the 1800s. I bought it in England, it’s museum quality. I also have a lot of antique furniture. I tend toward liking older things. But none of its medical.
To order Crispin’s books and album, visit www.crispinglover.com