WALLACE SHAWN BLURS CULTURAL LINES
Actor and playwright Wallace Shawn discusses his eclectic career, his place in the cultural spectrum, and a chance sighting of Jerry Seinfeld; Shawn appears at the Lensic in a Lannan event
How you perceive Wallace Shawn probably depends on how old you are. Now known as a versatile character actor and voiceover artist, he emerged in 1981 as the co-writer and co-star of the intellectual gabfest My Dinner With André , which came out a couple of years after his acting debut in Woody Allen’s Manhattan . In 1987 he had a small, pivotal role in The Princess Bride as the kidnapper Vizzini, which forever connected him to the iconic film and his catchword — “Inconceivable!” — uttered in a shocked lisp. Nearly three decades and dozens upon dozens of roles later, people still shout this at him in airports, which can make him grumpy. It’s not that he’s not delighted to have brought cinematic joy to people’s lives as Vizzini, but it’s not as if it’s his all-time favorite part.
“There are people who assume that if you were in a funny movie they enjoyed, you must be an enjoyable person and somehow in a good mood. The thoughtful airport visitor knows you may not be funny, you may not be an enjoyable person, and you may not be in a good mood. The more sensitive airport visitor approaches with fewer assumptions,” he told Pasatiempo . “It’s a bit like being a girl with a nice figure. A more sensitive man knows that she may have a range of attitudes about having a nice figure. A less sensitive man might assume that her attitude is the same as his, and he could make a crude remark and imagine she will be delighted by it. I suppose I’m a little bit the same. I can feel a little bit dehumanized, objectified, or misunderstood when people say certain things to me.”
The trouble with only knowing Shawn through one or two roles is that there is so much more to him. He has written plays and essays and has released a singleissue magazine about politics and art called Final Edition that features poems, fiction, and an interview with Noam Chomsky. If a word could be selected to shout at him in airports, it should be “Thoughtful!” Shawn spoke to Pasatiempo while traveling in Spain (where, he said, he was “pretending to be an author”), in advance of his appearance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, April 15, with Michael Silverblatt as part of the Lannan Foundation’s Literary series. The audience may or may not get to hear him and his longtime partner, writer Deborah Eisenberg, read a section from his 1997 play, The Designated Mourner . He wasn’t sure what he was planning to present, but he promised to bring a date.
Shawn grew up in New York City. His father, William Shawn, was the editor of The New Yorker for 35 years, beginning in the early 1950s; his brother, Allen, is a composer, musician, and writer. It’s not surprising that someone with his pedigree would one day write politically tinged theater or act in Woody Allen films, but Shawn’s writings, especially his 2009 book Essays, evince as much skepticism about a world without enough high culture as they do about a world with too much, if it comes from privilege at the expense
I’m the guy who makes a living doing the voices of animals in cartoons, who, weirdly, has a little knowledge of the music of Beethoven.
of a moral center and concern for all humankind. He’s as much at home adapting and starring in a film version of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder as he is doing voices for Family Guy video games or for the children’s television series Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness . (For the record, he says Halvard Solness, Ibsen’s successful architect, is his favorite role to date.) He is aware that many of his fans don’t know he writes and that most of his friends have never watched Gossip Girl , Law & Order: Special Victims Unit , or Kit Kittredge: An American Girl .
“I think it’s fair to say I’m sort of a devotee or hanger-on of high culture, without being a highly qualified devotee. I suppose I would count as a lover of literature, but I’ve probably read fewer books than anyone I personally hang out with, largely because I read abnormally slowly, to the point that people would be shocked. People often think I’ve read more than I have because I sort of act as if … I don’t mean I lie. I don’t lie. I just seem like the sort of person who would have read all sorts of things I haven’t read.”
People often think I’ve read more than I have because I sort of act as if … I don’t mean I lie. I don’t lie. I just seem like the sort of person who would have read all sorts of things I haven’t read.
He doesn’t know where to place himself, Shawn said, in terms of high and low culture. In acting, he prefers roles that don’t have a negative effect on society, in movies that don’t support cynical American attitudes of greed, militarism, bigotry, and mockery. “Those are all things I don’t believe in.” But the question of where he fits in prompts some soulsearching. “I mean, obviously, compared with people who don’t know much about Beethoven, I come off as the greatest Beethoven expert they’ve ever met. But compared with people who really know about Beethoven, I’m the guy who makes a living doing the voices of animals in cartoons, who, weirdly, has a little knowledge of the music of Beethoven. When I’m doing some of the silly acting things I’ve done, I feel totally comfortable and at peace. I’m not worried if the script isn’t as intellectually brilliant as the writings of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein himself used to go to the movies of Betty Grable and sit in the front row. We all have different sides, and maybe that’s all it comes down to. I think that there are probably more than two kinds of art, more than high and low. Some art requires more intense concentration — a commitment — and some meets you more than halfway.”
If Shawn can’t locate his own place in the cultural spectrum, then perhaps the speculation of some bloggers and cultural critics that My
Dinner With André might be the aesthetic and philosophical inspiration for Seinfeld — and therefore the foundation for most modern sitcoms on television — is a place to start. In the film, which was based on stories from real-life events, Shawn and André Gregory sit in a restaurant and talk, and nothing happens except for the images and associations the viewers make in their minds. For many, My Dinner With André remains a cultural touchstone 35 years later, eminently memorable and quotable, just as Seinfeld — a show in which people sit around and talk — continues to be in syndication and on DVD. Shawn was flattered, if slightly bewildered, by the proposition.
“I don’t even know if Jerry Seinfeld ever saw My Dinner With André! I was once in the same restaurant with him, and he nodded at me in a friendly way, or maybe I nodded at him. He didn’t stop me and say, ‘Sir, your film is the foundation for my work.’ I mean,” Shawn continued, “he nodded more like, ‘We’re in the same field of performing, so we’re nodding at each other.’”