Talking With The Dead: 12 Questions With American Actor, Writer, Director, Musician, and Icon Crispin Hellion Glover (From the Exhumation Series)
Exhumation: (n) the act of digging something out of the ground (especially a corpse) where it has been buried.*
Crispin Hellion Glover (born April 20, 1964) is an American film actor, director, screenwriter, recording artist, publisher, and author. Glover is known for portraying eccentric people on screen such as George McFly in Back to the Future, Layne in River’s Edge, unfriendly recluse Rubin Farr in Rubin and Ed, Andy Warhol in The Doors, the “Thin Man” in the big screen adaptation of Charlie’s Angels and its sequel, Willard Stiles in the Willard remake, The Knave of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Phil in Hot Tub Time Machine, and as a Willy Wonka parody in Epic Movie. He is also the voice of Fifi in the Open Season franchise and most recently has appeared in the screen adaption of the Elmore Leonard novel “Freaky Deaky”. Next he played a World War 1 era German speaking Clairvoyant in the Polish Language film “Hiszpanka” and an unwitting employee in service of Robert De Niro’s Character in “The Bag Man.”
In the late 1980s, Glover started his company, Volcanic Eruptions, which publishes his books and also serves as the production company for Glover’s films, What Is It? and It is Fine. Everything is Fine! Glover tours with his movies and is currently supervising the building of sets for his next productions at a property he owns in the Czech Republic.**
1. Your career encompasses many facets of the entertainment industry. After playing a lead part in a stage production of “The Sound of Music” (that also starred Florence Henderson), you went on to have guest spots on several television shows, including Happy Days, Hill Street Blues and Family Ties. How would you say that your experiences on stage helped to propel you to television, and in turn, how would you say your time on television helped you once you stepped up to working on feature films?
I always drew and wrote as a child. I always liked Bosch and Dali as painters when I was a child. I saw Tod Browning’s Freaks when I was a child and was quite favorably impressed by that. My father is an actor, and my mother retired from her primary profession as a dancer and secondary profession as an actress when I was born. As I was growing up watching my father work in the film industry, I did not necessarily equate the business of acting with art as much as seeing it as a business.
I became a professional actor at age 13 by my own choice. I emphasize that because there is a large difference in that from when a child is forced in to acting by parents who choose that career for a child. I began studying in a professional acting class at age 15. At age 16 I viewed many revival films of the 1920s through the 1970s at the revival theaters that were popular in the early 1980s before the advent of VHS competition that led to most of the revival houses closing. While watching many of the films and being in acting class, I began to understand film and acting as art.
I had gotten two commercials at age 13. Then my first long term experience with professional job as an actor was in 1978 at age 14 for “The Sound of Music” with Florence Henderson at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. I got that through a “Cattle Call/ Open Audition” where literally thousands of people would show up to audition for the cast of the show. My mother had seen the ad for it in Variety for “children who can act, sing and dance.” I was concerned about the dancing and singing in particular.
My parents were both supportive. My mother had been familiar with the singing and dancing sort of “Cattle call” from work in New York and made me feel like it was not that big of a deal. So I went through the experience and it is something I will not forget. As the day went on more and more people getting cut, and I kept getting called back in till there were very few at the end of the day. As I recall, we were then called back for one more day of auditions and then the decision was made that day. Actually that kind of experience was really very much a confidence builder because I was there physically with all the other people progressively getting cut.
I had already started to do good work as an actor in class by age 16 at the point that I went to yet another “Cattle call” audition for “Best of Times” that was advertised in Variety. It was similar sort of cutting out experience as for “The Sound of Music” except the audition was more based on a scene that you were supposed bring in. I had brought in an improvisational scene with someone trying to get their parent to listen to a certain song. The scene was later rewritten by the show writers and changed in to me getting a shop owner played by Jackie Mason to listen to the song.
Being cast in that from yet another cattle call at age 16 was of course a good thing and yet by no mean did I think I had “Made it.” Nicolas Cage was also cast in it from the same “Cattle call” and he and I were the only two actors that were of the age that were still in school. So we had a tutor that we would have to be in a special room or trailer and do a certain amount of hours of school work each day. He and I shared a certain sense of humor of the absurd and became friends while making that show.
I was not technically proficient enough of an actor at the age of 16 to take weak writing and make the intentions work in a strong or differentiated way. I saw the clip you refer to on YouTube, and I still see one moment that I was directed to do that I did not feel good about then or now. I saw it a few months ago and I was concerned about watching it because I had not watched it since it was on the air when I was 16. I did not like my performance in it. I learned a lot and was very careful after that experience to make certain to be very careful about the decisions as an actor to intensify or even change the intentions of the character as written so that it plays. I feel like in that show the lines for the most part are played as written and it makes me uncomfortable still to this day to have public record of a time where I am still learning the craft. In any case I am glad I did the show and learned a lot from doing it.
The sort of training that I had or acting focused on bringing portions of your own psychology to make those characters have an organic quality. Something that is important to understand is that those who appear in corporately funded and distributed films and more importantly the content of are corporately funded and distributed films is not determined by the populace of the culture, but by the corporate interests that are funding and distributing the films. If an actor willingly cheerleads the corporate interests, that actor will be rewarded with money, media backup/publicity and consequently more work that sustains the corporate interests. Around the time I started acting in films in 1982 there was a shift in the kinds of films that were being corporately funded and distributed.
The film industry I had thought I had stepped in to was the spirit of when I was a teenager attending the various revival theaters that were so popular in Los Angeles in the 1980s before home theater business competition forced most 35 mm venues to close. I did not realize at the time that I stepped in to working as an actor that the kinds of films that were being funded and distributed had changed.
As soon as I got my driver’s license when I was 16 in 1980, I attended screenings at revival theaters that were quite popular in LA before VHS competition cleared many of them away. Many of these revival theaters no longer exist such as, one of my favorites, the beautiful Fox Venice with a wide cinemascope screen on Lincoln Blvd.
The films I saw that played in these venues tended to question culturally accepted truths with performances that underscored these concepts. Films played such as: Ken Russel’s The Devils, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Chinatown, Frederico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Cassanova, John Cassavete’s A woman under the influence, Orson Wells’ F is for Fake and Citizen Kane, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Sunset Blvd, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living, Todd Browning’s Freaks, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove, Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Even Dwarves Small and Fata Morgana. I was a regular attendee of David Lynch’s Eraserhead at midnight on Fridays at the Nuart.
I studied actors giving performances like: Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider, Timothy Carey in Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks and Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Brad Dourif in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Wise Blood, Peter Lorre in M, Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God.
These films and performances characterized the atmosphere of cinema and acting I believed I was stepping into as a young actor.
By 1982, at age 18, I began to act in feature films. At this time I believed contemporary culture’s film’s main purpose was to question suspect things in our culture. I enthusiastically supported the idea of questioning our culture. To help support the idea, I also questioned the film industry’s and media’s messages. Sometimes I felt scorned and isolated; other times I felt accepted and admired. Then, at one point, in the midst of my career, I realized that the types of films the industry was financing and distributing had changed almost diametrically from the types of films I had watched when I was 18.
2. Your horror genre career started with the role of Jimmy Mortimer in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). Your character meets his gruesome demise when, after celebrating his sexual encounter with Tina (one of the twins), Jason pins him to the counter with a corkscrew to the hand and a cleaver to the face. What led to your role in the film, how were you able to bring the awkwardness of the character to life so well and looking back at it after all of these years, are you surprised that the film STILL has the cult following that it does?
It was my third feature film. I contacted the agent of the actor that I was going to have the audition with and arranged to rehearse the day before the audition. This was something I realized was important to do if I was going to audition for a film with an actor as opposed to auditioning with a casting person. Actors can get the sense of the energy that will happen before they perform for the audition if they rehearse beforehand. If they come in cold with another actor to audition, the energy can be way off and it will serve neither actor well.
I am glad that I was in the film. I knew while filming it that someday there would be something humorous about appearing in that film. I am not really that much of a follower of horror. That being said, there are certain films considered to be in the horror genre that a truly great films. I think people can be drawn to horror for the concept that it lets one feel they have survived something brought to them from the darker side of life. That can be invigorating.
I asked that they play “Back in Black” by AC/DC when my character puts the record on and asks the girl to dance. That song is not what the audience hears in the film of course, but that is the song to which I was dancing. Of course the style of dance I am performing is not the standard style of dance for that song. The dance is more syncopated than it might seem. The original music was AC/DCs Back in Black. I asked them to play that for the actual filming of the scene which they did, but the music they used in the soundtrack was something that was less syncopated to the dance. It was always an unusual way to dance, but probably made even more unusual by the non-fitting music put over it.
3. In Back To The Future (1985), it almost seems that you took the general teenager awkwardness of Jimmy from FT13: TFC and reformed it to parental awkwardness for the character of George McFly. How easy (or difficult) was it to you to go from playing the teenager with shyness and awkwardness to the adult with those issues, was it odd playing the father to an actor that is about the same age as you (Michael J. Fox) and what was it about the role and film that appealed to you the most?
The film was shot mostly in 1984. I was 20 the entire time the film was being shot. Both Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role and shot for more than 5 weeks, and Michael J. Fox were older than myself. The role was well written, and it was a good character to play. I was more concerned about the psychology of the character than the age of the character.
4. The producers brought your character of George McFly back to life in Back To The Future 2 (1989) by splicing together archived footage and new scenes (using an actor in prosthetic makeup). You had not given permission for your likeness to be used and sued the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg and won. The case prompted the Screen Actors Guild to devise new regulations about the use of actors’ images. As much as your acting has left a mark in the industry, how much do you feel your case has helped actor and actresses for all future generations and how important do you feel the decision was that the SAG incorporated new regulations because of it?
The obvious illegal action of the producers of the film was of course an important aspect to the lawsuit. The other was that it was the only way to let people know that I was not the actor in that film. To this day you will find many people that believe that I was the actor in that film. This was and is still the most distressing part of the situation. Of course your main trade as an actor is yourself. If someone else is able to claim that they are you and then deliver a less than excellent performance that people believe is you, that is of course incredibly damaging and frustrating.
What is worse is that the producer writer Bob Gale has not only not apologized for his part in illegal activity, but has made matters worse by trying to justify his illegal work by making up lies about me. He has claimed that I asked for the same pay as Michael J. Fox. Bob Gale’s claims about this are as false as the prosthetics that were placed on the face of another actor to made to look like me. If Bob Gale were to take the creativity he is using for his lies he has made up about me and write a film to be produced, then it would be a better use of energy.
If one studies Bob Gale’s IMDB, it becomes clear that his feature film writing essentially stopped not long after the lawsuit. There used to be some interviews with Bob Gale on the Internet wherein he was bragging about most of his screenplays being bought by Steven Spielberg. None of those screenplays were ever produced by Steven Spielberg.
I wonder if Steven Spielberg noticed that Bob Gale’s screenplay had a lot to do with the illegal concept to use prosthetics on another actor’s face to make them up to look like me. I wonder if Steven Spielberg may have been irritated at Bob Gale for being an architect of illegal activity and then felt it would be better if Bob Gale did not contribute much to the film industry after the lawsuit. I wonder then if Bob Gale decided it was a good idea to try to re-write the truth in order to justify his lies to friends and family. Lying and stealing are bad things, and it seems like Bob Gale does not understand this concept in relationship to me. I am amazed by this.
I am glad to have worked again with Robert Zemeckis on Beowulf playing Grendel. It was a second successful collaboration as actor and director for a good performance in interesting screenplays. It is interesting that the moral of Beowulf was “Lies are bad.” That was probably the most sincere form of apology that could be offered, and it certainly lightens my view about the situation with Robert Zemeckis. I of course wish that they had simply hired another actor to play that role and used that actual actor’s face, as they did with the role of Jennifer that was played by two different actresses in the two films without the use of any prosthetics.
5. 1990 saw you in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in the role of Dell (a role that most people would say was the start of you playing epically cult characters). With David’s track history of making films that have a way of sticking with you long after viewing them, what was it like to take direction from David, how was it working with fellow costars Nicholas Cage, Laura Dern, Willem Defoe and Diane Ladd, and what did you take away from this film that you think has furthered your acting?
When I was 16 in 1980 and I had learned how to drive, I would go see Erasherhead playing midnights at the Nuart over and over. I was in acting class at the time, and there is no doubt that the film had an influence on my acting. It was great to work with him on Wild at Heart and understand the true character psychology motivating the sort of behavior I had admired in his film Eraserhead. David Lynch specifically had a business influence on What Is It? because he had agreed to executive produce a different film for me to direct. This film will ultimately be part three of the trilogy, and this film will be titled IT IS MINE.
David Lynch was great to work with as a director. I had been very influenced when I was 16 years old and went to see “Eraserhead” projected at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles many times. It was fascinating working with him when I played Cousin Dell in “Wild at Heart” That performance is probably the most specifically directed performance by a director I have performed, and because it was directed by such an excellent director it is one of my favorite performances of myself. I get a lot of compliments on it.
David Lynch had influence on What Is It? in one way that was very business oriented: I had co-written a screenplay in which I put the concept of the majority of the characters to be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. This screenplay is called IT IS MINE. David Lynch had agreed to executive produce this film for me to direct, which was very helpful. I went to one of the major film funding corporation in Los Angeles that was interested in funding the film. After a number of meetings and conversations, they let me know that they were concerned about funding a film where in most of the characters were to be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome.
So it was decided that I should write a screenplay to make what was originally going to be a short film to promote that it was a viable idea to have most of the characters in a film be played by actors with Down’s Syndrome. This screenplay eventually become the feature film I have now completed and am showing entitled What Is It?
6. You are great friends with Johnny Depp and have worked with him on What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and Alice In Wonderland (2010). With both of you being known for playing eccentric characters and working in eclectic films, how much do you enjoy working with him, was there ever a situation where you both had to step back from your roles so that you did not overshadow one another, and is there a film concept that you think that the two of you would excel in well together?
It is true I have worked with Johnny Depp on three different films, which are the most feature films I have worked with the same actor. It is also true I knew him since well before he was working as much. I met him the first day he has received his first job as an actor which was “Nightmare on Elm Street.” He of course has continued to do great ever since. I do not see him now other than work, but he is always very easy to work with and a gentleman to be around.
It is never a worry for an actor to step back from something other than that which could physically harm someone. Otherwise I think all good actors want the person who they are playing the scene with to be the best that their fellow actor can be. You only look better when the person you are in the scene with is good. The ideal is that everyone in the scene is acting at the best possible peak. Johnny Depp has interesting taste in directors and material, so I have always had good experiences on the projects I have been in with him. If I am in the good fortune to act with him again, I assume it will be another interesting project and another good time.
7. The current trend in Hollywood has been to take TV shows from our past and turn them into feature length movies. In 2000, you took up the role of The Thin Man in Charlie’s Angels, and reprised the role again in 2003’s sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. How was it for you to take a role in a feature length version of an iconic TV series from our youth, did you expect it to have the popularity that it did (including a sequel), and how was it working with Bill Murray (another actor known for going his own way)?
The Thin Man had multiple months of training with the great Yuen family and their cinematic understanding of character involved with wire work. Through a series odd coincidences, I ended up having more influence on the character than I have played in any other film. Things like the character having no lines, the way the character dressed and looked, and the hair fetish were all things that emanated from my suggestions.
One of the most important coincidences was that Bill Murray had brought in a writer to help improve the screenplay, which it did. It also improved my character because there was fluidity to the way the filming was going due to the script changes and the abundance of influence I had on the character. It was not something that normally happens on even a smaller budgeted film, much less a large studio film like that.
I was very pleased with the way the character came out in that film. I ran in to Bill Murray at Sundance a few years ago and let him know how much he and the writer he brought in ended up improving my character for the film. He gave me a big hug and was very complimentary and kind. It was a great moment. He is a truly unique and interesting force in the artistic film world.
I was also able to fund the shooting of my second feature film “It is fine. EVERYTHING IS FINE” with the money I made from the first Charlie’s Angels film. Steven C. Stewart wrote and is the main actor in part two of the trilogy. I put Steve in to the cast of What Is It? because he had written this screenplay which I read in 1987. When I turned What Is It? from a short film in to a feature, I realized there were certain thematic elements in the film that related to what Steven C. Stewart’s screenplay dealt with.
Steve had been locked in a nursing home for about ten years when his mother died. He had been born with a severe case of cerebral palsy, and he was very difficult to understand. People that were caring for him in the nursing home would derisively call him an “M.R.” short for “Mental Retard”. This is not a nice thing to say to anyone, but Steve was of normal intelligence. When he did get out, he wrote his screenplay. Although it is written in the genre of a murder detective thriller, truths of his own existence come through much more clearly than if he had written it as a standard autobiography.
As I have stated, What Is It? was going to be a short film to promote the concept to corporate film funding entities. Steve had written his screenplay in in the late 1970s. I read it in 1987, and as soon as I had read it I knew I had to produce the film. Steven C. Stewart died within a month after we finished shooting the film. Cerebral palsy is not generative, but Steve was 62 when we shot the film. One of Steve’s lungs had collapsed because he had started choking on his own saliva and he got pneumonia. I specifically started funding my own films with the money I make from the films I act in when Steven C. Stewart’s lung collapsed in the year 2000. This was around the same time that the first Charlie’s Angels film was coming to me.
I realized with the money I made from that film I could put straight in to the Steven C. Stewart film. That is exactly what happened. I finished acting in Charlie’s Angels and then went to Salt Lake City where Steven C. Stewart lived. I met with Steve and David Brothers with whom I co-directed the film. I went back to LA and acted in a lower budget film for about five weeks, and David Brothers started building the sets. Then I went straight back to Salt Lake and we completed shooting the film within about six months in three separate smaller productions. Then Steve died within a month after we finished shooting.
I am relieved to have gotten this film finally completed, because ever since I read the screenplay in 1987 I knew I had to produce the film. Steven C. Stewart’s own true story was fascinating, and then the beautiful story, and the naïvety — including his fascination of women with long hair — and the graphic violence and sexuality, and the revealing truth of his psyche from the screenplay were all combined.
There was a specific marriage proposal scene that was the scene I remember reading that made me say, “I have to produce this film.” I also knew I had to produce it correctly. I would not have felt right about myself if I had not gotten Steve’s film made. I would have felt that I had done something wrong and that I had actually done a bad thing if I had not gotten it made. So I am greatly relieved to have completed it, especially since I am very pleased with how well the film has turned out.
We shot It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE while I was still completing What Is It? And this is partly why What Is It? took a long time to complete. I am very proud of the film. I feel It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE will probably be the best film I will have anything to do with in my entire career. People who are interested in when I will be back should