It’s with no small amount of awkwardness that I enter the room where Robin Williams sits expectantly. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon and he’s been through countless interviews during the day, so the press room has already been quietly murmuring about the stark difference in the man since his last visit.
As one would imagine, he’s courteous and welcoming but, even at first glance, the 55-year-old has the unmistakable air of a humbled man. Williams battled a well-publicised drug and alcohol addiction in the late ’80s. The fatal overdose of John Belushi, with whom he’d partied that same night, was the catalyst which finally persuaded Williams to quit. But after being sober for 20 years, it was announced in August that the star had started to drink again and was seeking help. The fact that he left the rehab clinic only weeks ago sits between us as obvious as an elephant in the corner – which is politely ignored, for now.
Williams is in London to promote Happy Feet, George (Babe) Miller’s new CGI animated movie about a dancing Emperor penguin, one of the handful of films he’s been involved with this past year. In the film, Williams portrays two comic characters, Ramon the Latino lothario – who befriends Mumble, the film’s hero – and the equally libidinous prophet of the colony, Lovelace. Yet even though he doubled up on roles, it’s hard to see the project as a huge challenge for gifted stand-up who made his first mark in animation almost 15 years ago.
Before Aladdin, most Disney cartoons had leanings towards the wholesome and sentimental: baby deer and wooden boys coming of age, the dangers of fraternising with crocodiles and so forth. The comedy was light and sweet, with spoonfuls of slapstick. But when Williams stepped in, it was a different story. Having already established himself as a mimic and master of improvisation, he was let loose to voice the Genie from the Lamp – and he threw away the script. The resulting hero, a bearded blue cloud with Attention Deficit Disorder was an unforeseen success, taking over half a billion dollars in gross takings. That was the birth of the phenomenon of celebrity appearances in animated movies.
He smiles at this suggestion, but there’s a slight hint of concession too. “Yes, I invented the celebrity voice”, he orates melodramatically. “It’s not so much of a challenge. To me, voice work is a gift. It was liberating in a great way working with George because, like in Aladdin, he would let us just go. And because it’s computerised, it’s great to know that someone didn’t draw for two years and go ‘Oh please, just say the words!’ So it was great to have that freedom and to watch George basically closing his eyes and going ‘slower’. But George has a great sense of humour. He’s done ‘Road Warrior’ and ‘Babe’. That gives you a certain breadth of
Williams certainly knows about range, having plied his trade in almost every genre, save perhaps German arthouse. He was one of just two students selected for the world-renowned Julliard Advanced Program by mentor John Houseman, who spotted his ability for both drama and comedy. The other student was Christopher Reeve who would become his life-long friend. I asked if he still drew on his experiences at the great school.
“No, not really”, he muses. “Maybe slightly with voice work, but more with some of the mask work in other films. Mrs Doubtfire was more that kind of thing, even with all that make-up and costume, the idea of being fully cocooned, or in Bicentennial Man, where the face is almost like a statue. That’s where Julliard comes out at its best. I suppose with animated films, you can be physical, and in a cartoon you can create a character that doesn’t look like you or sound like you. You can build it from scratch, you’re manufacturing this brand new person”. The man known for his uncanny ability to change character and accent at the flick of a switch recalls most fondly classes where actors learned to express themselves with their faces hidden behind a Grecian mask.
It would be too obvious a cliché to paint Williams as the manically-depressed comic, but he’s in an undeniably melancholy mood. Sitting forward with his hands clasped between his knees, the signature bursts of energy are rare, showing only the occasional flicker in his eyes that seem to be somewhere else.
It’s hardly surprising, even disregarding the obvious toll of a three-year dependency on alcohol. His hectic schedule over the past few years would have had most other actors in an early grave. This year he appears in no less than six movies, showing he’s more in demand than ever. Could this boom be attributable to the about-face in his role as the sinister Sy Parrish in One Hour Photo?
He dismisses the idea. “I’ve always been mixing serious and comic over the years. It kind of started with World according to Garp and the Awakenings. It’s the fact that I can that makes it all so wonderful and then, all of a sudden, they let me do something as dark as One Hour photo or a cartoon like this. It’s what I love doing”.
Whoever “they” are, it seems as if Williams doesn’t feel in control of his own life. There’s also a sense of the burden of being typecast unfairly. Despite winning the Best Supporting Oscar for Gus Van Sant’s charming Good Will Hunting and three nominations for his dramatic roles, the comedian was generally better known by audiences for his comic turns in films such as Mrs Doubtfire and Patch Adams. By 1999, it seemed he had milked his “wacky” persona dry, and his street-cred spiralled downward. His contribution to Bicentennial Man drew some of the most harsh criticisms.
We move on to happier subjects and his love for nature programmes. “I’m fascinated by animals, I watch all of the BBC series.” Now David Attenborough appears, as Williams drops his voice to a whisper: “Once again we see the small male approach the female with hope in his eyes, realising that the female will eat the male after the fact. How many women would love to make love all night and then have their man turn into a pizza? This is the way with the black widow spider. Let’s watch…” This is the way with Williams, ever ready to entertain.
In another manifestation of his love for role-play, Williams readily confesses to an obsession with video games. “Been doing it for years, since the very first consoles”, he chuckles. “I mean, it’s great playing online for eight hours straight and getting my ass kicked by a 10-year-old again and again. That’s my idea of fun.” Then, jumping into the child’s voice “First time playing Counterstrike, old timer? Yes…Kerpow!” Those who doubt his conviction need only to ask his daughter Zelda, named after a successful role-playing game for the early Nintendo system, The Legend of Zelda. “It’s just amazing to see the quality in the games, the quality and gameplay and the AI.” Just as he finishes the sentence, he defaults once again to a semi-frown and it becomes apparent that little will excite him today.
Happy Feet’s final message is a plea to the world’s leaders to end over-fishing, delivered via a rather blunt montage that would embarrass Greenpeace. Surely that sits well with this self-described Californian liberal living in San Francisco? It appears subtlety just isn’t working.
“You’d have to be asleep not to get the point, alright. But it’s only about industrial fishing and its effect. There’s been a lot of publicity recently and scientific studies revealing that, by the year 2048 – I don’t know how they get that specific – that will fish out 98 per cent of the world’s fish. That’s kind of frightening, considering the size and the nature of our oceans. Yeah, I think it’s not bad to at least make people aware of that because first the penguins go and then at the end people will be going ‘Aww where’s the fish, Helen. Sorry Sam, we’re down to nothing. One clam’.” I’m grateful for the chance to laugh out loud.
A gentle knock on the door says we’ve run out of time. Finally – partly out of concern, but mostly out of curiosity – I rustle up the courage to ask him why, in the name of God, he’s here at all.
He nods dutifully. “I’m taking a break after this, so I’ll be taking some time off and just be with my family, you know? But you’ve got to get back out there to your life, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing, you just can’t suddenly say, (mimicking a frightened child) ‘I can’t do that, there may be alcohol in England’. But hey, I’ve met a lot of people who are Irish and have been through it and that helps.
“I mean, yesterday I was performing in Vegas for a charity I work for called Comic Relief. That was weird, to get out of rehab and go to Vegas, wow, great idea smart guy! It’s like going to detox in Colombia. Obviously, now I feel better than I did before. During the three years when I was drinking, I was still working, but now it feels good to have complete sentences, you know?”