Don’t mess with the Schneider
Far from being the dunderhead one might expect from his movies, Rob Schneider in person turns out to be assertive, likeable and even charming. Then the conversation turns to art, Joyce, PostImpressionism ... Donald Clarke almost drops his notebook
OH, DEAR. This isn’t going well at all. It is not unusual in this business to be disappointed by your heroes. That brilliantly talented director, whose searing epics helped define your adolescence, turns out to be an inarticulate boob with a passion for Scientology. This charismatic character actor, a new Brando in the making, begins by making oblique homophobic slurs and goes on to reveal himself as a Creationist half-wit. Such is the interviewing lark.
Then there is the complementary problem. It is, in fact, more common to discover that somebody you had always marked down as a gibbering dunderhead has hitherto unsuspected charms and gifts.
Let’s talk about Rob Schneider. Like a number of other film writers, I have, from time to time, made unkind remarks about the star of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and The Hot Chick. A frequent collaborator with Adam Sandler, this jaw-droppingly broad comic actor has, indeed, come to be regarded as a kind of all-purpose emblem of the entertainment industry at its most lobotomised. “It’s like being trapped in a lift with Rob Schneider,” one might quip while reviewing the latest awful TV show/play/record/movie.
As it happens, I’m trapped in a Dublin hotel room with Schneider and, sad to relate, he begins by revealing good manners and apparent intelligence. After helping me with my coffee and notebook and tape recorder, he muses a while on his first visit to Ireland.
“Yeah, I first came here when I was 19 or 20,” he says. “I really had a great time. I read that Leon Uris book about Ireland, A Terrible Beauty, and I really wanted to come and see the beauty of the west of the country before it disappeared. So I sold my car to pay for a trip here. The west really was the most beautiful place on Earth. I hope it stays that way.”
Fair enough. Rob goes on to explain that he read Joyce when travelling and despaired of contemporaries who failed to acquire a passport and see the world. If you were feeling kind, you could argue that You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Schneider’s latest film, bolsters his campaign to get the United States to gaze beyond its borders.
Adam Sandler stars as an Israeli intelligence agent with a secret ambition to become a hairdresser. Following a few scrapes with an arch enemy, he makes his way to New York and sets up a salon on a street inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. Then, one terrible, terrible day, Schneider’s Palestinian cab driver recognises him and sets about planning his annihilation.
Here we encounter one of the most common complaints about Schneider.
The diminutive comedian – now 44 – can boast an agreeably eclectic racial heritage. His dad is Jewish and his mom is the daughter of an American soldier and a woman from the Philippines. But that can’t quite excuse his cavalier approach to caricaturing other races. In I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Schneider essayed a comedy Japanese person. In Mr Deeds, he played “Nazo, the Italian Delivery Man”. Now he attempts a “funny” fake Arab. Didn’t blacking-up go out of fashion in the 1970s?
“I do sometimes get criticised for playing other nationalities,” he admits. “But, you know, with my background, I don’t really know what race I am myself. As an artist, you should be able to go where you wish. Guys like Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness weren’t confined by race.” Well, maybe. But, by 1984, when Guinness played an Indian in David Lean’s A Passage to India, the practice was already frowned upon.
“You can’t be a slave to public opinion,” Schneider argues. “As an artist, you can’t allow yourself to be constrained by the conservatism of society. You just have to go for it. Think about it historically. When the Post-Impressionists came out, people thought they were obscene, but now we realise that that was just another interpretation of classical painting.”
Ding, dong! Do you hear warning bells? Rob Schneider has just compared his performance in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan to the work of the Post-Impressionist painters. He has also used the phrase “as an artist” twice and will go on to use it another 12 times in the next 20 minutes. This interview is working out quite well after all.
Raised in the Bay Area of San Francisco, Schneider plunged into the world of stand-up comedy shortly after graduating from high school. In his early 20s, he caught the eye of Dennis Miller of Saturday Night Live, and was invited to join the influential sketch show.
“My mother was only able to go to college in the Philippines because her sister found a bag of money in a cave,” he says with apparent sincerity. “So she valued education, and was appalled when she realised I wasn’t going to college. Even after I was on TV, she still felt this must be a passing phase.
“Every now and then, somebody I knew would quit, and I would be amazed. How can you quit this job? I always told my mom: it’s not having the safety net that makes a tightrope artist get to the other side. When I see people who teeter at the abyss, like Britney
Spears, I see that as a lovely flaw.” Here come those three words again. “As an artist, you have that sense. I think about James Joyce when he wrote Portrait of an Artist. I can remember reading that book when I was in Ireland, and what was beautiful about it was you got this sense of a kid realising he is an artist. And that’s when I realised I was an artist too.”
Good grief. So far Rob Schneider – yes, Rob Schneider – has positioned himself alongside Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, the Post-Impressionists and James Joyce. It can only be a matter of time before he starts comparing himself to Orson Welles.
“I still feel like I haven’t made it yet,” he says. “It’s like Orson Welles. As an intelligent artist, you have to be aware of the nature of the beast. They call creativity the merciless mistress of innovation.
“Think of Orson Welles. He was brilliant. Better than me.” No! Surely not. “But he still had to beg for money to get films. If they can do that to him, if they can force him to drink himself to death, then they can do it to me.”
In 2005, a journalist named Patrick Goldstein, when previewing the Oscars in the Los Angeles Times, made a sarcastic remark about Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo’s failure to secure a nomination. Schneider then took out ads in both Variety and The Hollywood Reporter making fun of the fact that Goldstein had himself never won, say, a Pulitzer.
Some weeks later, Roger Ebert, the veteran Chicago critic, provided a perfect fullstop to the story. “As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize,” Roger wrote. “And so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize-winner, Mr Schneider, your movie sucks.”
One wonders why Schneider drew attention to the original story. Given his reputation, the conversation could only end in embarrassment.
“Well, that was just anger,” he says. “A lot of people are tempted to respond to those sort of attacks, but are afraid of looking like an ass. I amnot afraid of looking like an ass.”
There was a postscript to the story. Last year Ebertwent into hospital to have a salivary gland removed. Schneider sent him a big bunch of flowers with a note from “your least favourite actor”. The critic went on to write an article publicly thanking Rob and expressing the hope that he would make a good film sometime soon.
“Hey, I love Roger Ebert,” he says. “It was because of him I began going to see foreign movies. And he wrote a lovely response. I still think he’s a good guy.”
Ebert’s exact words were “Rob Schneider might (in my opinion) have made a bad movie, [but] he is not a bad man.” That seems a fair assessment. He is polite, articulate and friendly, but, my word, he has a high opinion of himself and he enjoys talking rubbish.
When the PR person comes in to pull me out, he waves her away because he wants to talk in greater detail about his latest divorce. Feeling increasingly like a hostage, I settle down for another 10 minutes of whittering.
“It’s a selfish pursuit being an artist,” he says. “Being an artist – whether sculptor or writer or whatever – comes at a price. We artists understand one another, but it comes at a price. Every relationship I’ve had has suffered for that. But I am a Buddhist now and so that offered me the perfect lesson.”
Eventually, I leap to my feet, tumble out the door and sprint for freedom.
Good grief, that was like being trapped in a hotel room with Rob
Rob Schneider as Palestinian cabbie Salim in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and, below, with co-star Adam Sandler