Robin Williams Interview, The Night Listener

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

With more than 80 film and television roles on his resume, comedian Robin Williams has played everything from an alien in "Mork and Mindy" to an obsessed employee in "One Hour Lab." Currently, he’s popular late-night radio host Gabriel Noone in "The Night Listener," directed by Patrick Stettner and adapted from Armistead Maupin’s best selling 2000 novel. Maupin co-wrote the screenplay with his former partner, Terry Anderson, inspired by real life events from the author’s recent past.  In "The Night Listener," Williams’ character develops a telephone friendship with a young AIDS patient and gifted writer (Rory Culkin) who claims to have survived a terrifying secret past and has since written a manuscript about his horrific experiences. But when Noone attempts unsuccessfully to meet the young boy in person through his adoptive mother, Donna (Toni Collette), he starts to become suspicious.

Williams recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss his new film. His responses were thoughtful, well considered, and delivered in a hilarious, wildly improvised, rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness during which he switched back and forth between cultural references, impersonations, and one liners to make his points. Dressed in a dark shirt and bold plaid pants that warned you not to take things too seriously, Williams appeared cool and relaxed, and happy to talk about his latest movie:

Q: Robin before you get too funny…

Robin: OK?

Q: What would you like your work to say about you?

Robin: My work to say about me? That I’m a human being. That helps, you know. With a slight intelligence. That would be good. A functioning intelligence. That would be good too.

Q: Is there like a switch you flip to be funny or to be serious?

Robin: Yes. (laughter) No, I think it’s a choice. It is a conscious choice, yeah. I can turn it off or on according to need or according to inspiration. If someone says something it seems like a nice opportunity, as in Donna. (putting on Spanish accent) "I will go that way. I will attempt to find the comedy in a Spanish maid suddenly going: ‘I’m kidding, Mr. Armistead. It’s me! I’m back!’" Yeah, there’ll be moments, and other times when you realize, no, we can talk straight if you want.

Q: You know Armistead was just talking about all the famous people that this character or this woman…

Robin: She duped many of them. And a lot of them won’t talk about it, you know, and he will.

Q: Have you ever had anything like that happen to you, or had any friends who’ve…

Robin: Been duped? No, I’ve, no I’ve never had [inaudible]. I’ve done a lot of Make-a-Wish kids and I’ve never had one call from the Bahamas, going: "I’m 30. Thanks for the money for the machine, the dialysis machine. I’m riding it!" It’s like, "VROOM!" "Is that your dialysis machine?" "Nope! It’s a Honda!" (laughter) No, I’ve never been duped like that but I’ve met other people who have been. There was a woman who also was going around here, she was with a lot of comics, coincidence, who claimed she had a son who’s either severely handicapped or suffering from something and engaged them I think for money and also for companionship and they were going with it and they never met the kid. Maybe at one point she did bring a kid but it turned out later it wasn’t even her kid, she borrowed some kid. So it is out there. And as we’ve seen with J.T. Leroy and stuff, there’s books where people … "Oh, this book is so devastatingly sad and real." Turns out it’s a couple in San Francisco going: "[Whistles]. Hahaha!" And Oprah’s going: "Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Don’t you EVER offend the queen of showbiz! [whipping sound] Your name shall be Tobey!"(laughter)

Q: With all the personas that you can put on, have you ever fooled anybody like over the phone?

Robin: No. I mean, I’ve fooled friends. I’ll call up as different people. You know, Kevin Spacey will always call up as Marlon Brando. Hard to do now. (laughter) "Hi, I’m in heaven. I’m sitting next to Elvis at the buffet." Sometimes I’ll call up as different people, or answer the phone. Sometimes if it’s someone we don’t want to talk to I can answer the phone — in San Francisco if you answer with a Chinese accent, solicitors immediately go, "Sorry to bother you." "Not no one here! Not no one here!" "Hi, is the head of the household home?" "House not home! House is not a home! OK, thank you for calling!"

Q: Who’s your best impression?

Robin: My best impression? (impersonating Jack Nicholson) Well, I think I can do Jack for some people. On the phone it’s fun if you call girls and go, "Hey, is mommy home?" (laughter) That always gets you interesting responses. Best impression? Yeah, I think that works. I mean, there’s accents and things I can do sometimes if necessary to kind of work off people. That’s fun.

Q: Robin, many of us have followed your career for a long time. We know about your successes, but when was the hardest time for you?

Robin: After the cancellation of "Mork and Mindy," where I didn’t even find out about it in person. I read about it in Variety, and I was dressed at the time as a three-foot frog, doing "The Frog Prince" with Eric Idle. It was just this kind of devastating thing like "Well, the ride’s over. That’s it. Game’s done." And then Eric was great because we just had a great funny day shooting and I realized "Maybe not." But it was like this thing of "OK, that’s it. Game’s over, I gotta go rob a convenience store with a transvestite." (laughter) But that was kind of like "Oh, where do we go from here?" And then you realize there’s a lot of places to go. That was kind of the roughest point.

Q: Did it take you a while to figure out what to do next?

Robin: About an hour. Because I was actually performing and doing comedy with Eric that day, and I went, "Let’s keep doing this." And then I went back and did standup and kept going with that and that really helped. It always helped as an access, to have the ability to kind of talk about it and you still get the kind of feedback. And it was literally like a survival mechanism. It also helped to move out of L.A., because you’re not surrounded by the business. I literally was stopped by a cop once and he handed me a script. (laughter) "You were doing 40, but hey, Mr. Williams, this is just an idea." (laughter) And parking lot attendants would know how your movie did every week: "Sorry about last weekend’s grosses. Too bad you were No. 3. I thought you would open big. I thought the movie had legs. But they were little legs, Robin, little legs. It’s bad. The per-screen was pretty good, but I thought that you’d be a bigger per-screen. I thought maybe five to six thousand. Eight hundred is not good."

Q: What convinced you that you could do drama more regularly? Was there a tipping point where you felt you could take roles like this?

Robin: It was probably after "Dead Poets" you felt the chance for that. And after "Insomnia," it opened up a whole kind of … the other side, the dark, kind of stranger roles. It’s like, "Oh, good." That was really kind of a wonderful access. Like if you play video games, accessing the next level. "You are now welcome to the dark part. Welcome."

Q: Did you know that you could access that?

Robin: Oh, very much. I knew that in spades, especially during that time in the cancellation of "Mork and Mindy" and from my drinking years. "You know that! You’ll find out …" (laughter) You’ll find there’s a wonderful side of yourself that stays hidden, for witness protection reasons.

Q: If you get two equally good scripts, one comedy, one drama, which would you lean towards doing?

Robin: Which one pays more? (laughter) No, I wouldn’t know. Whichever character I either haven’t done before or haven’t done something like, or it’s what about the other elements like director and cast. Then it’s a really hard call if they’re both equally good. I mean, I wouldn’t know how to pick that. You have to give all the elements and even then, in the end it’d be [smacking sound] "Drama!" Because finding a good script is the toughest part of all, and one that doesn’t need a lot of … .The scariest thing of all is saying, "We will fix it." It’s like before you’re leaving on the Titanic and seeing that big hole and going: "We will fix it. Half-way out at sea, I’m sure it’ll be done." (laughter) Or as I think Alec Baldwin said: "You start a movie sometimes and they say, "You know, we’re going to shoot this movie in Paris." "Great." The day you get there for shooting they go, "We’re not shooting in Paris." "Where?" "We’re shooting in Long Island. It’s a lot like Paris." (laughter) Those are the scariest things, when you realize they’re going to fix it in process, it’s too late.

Q: How did you prepare for the Gabriel character? Because you met Armistead…?

Robin: Yeah, but it’s not Armistead. It’s like, even he would say, it’s only … . If you give a percentage, it’s like 20 percent. It’s only Armistead in the sense that there’s somewhat of a Southern accent. As you saw when you heard Armistead speak, he’s a very elegant man, a very articulate man. In San Francisco, he’s like the mayor, the second mayor. We have our regular mayor, then we have Armistead. (laughter) It’s like the idea of having him and that kind of persona of Armistead and then being this other guy. But it’s based upon incidents in Armistead’s life. Like, he talked about Terry. I’ve known him, Terry. I’ve known them for years. We’re like friends and family to me. I’ve known them for a long time. So I wasn’t doing an impression of Armistead. I was just doing a character, kind of just taking a little bit of Armistead and just using that as kind of a base. It’s like when I did "Awakenings." It’s not fully Oliver Sacks, it’s Oliver in pretty much every mannerism but him. Because if you did full Oliver, it would make him very uncomfortable.

Q: Is it just as gratifying for you when a film like "RV" succeeds as something smaller like this?

Robin: Oh, yeah. The fact that "RV" survived the initial maelstrom and then kept going was like, that’s wonderful. And the fact that you get people coming up, guys who say, "I took my family, we laughed our asses off." It’s like Sullivan’s travels. There’s a moment when you go: "Hey, dude, that’s what it was made for, to have a good time. It wasn’t made to be anything else. I wasn’t trying to change your life." "What message did you want to take out?" "Have a good time! And a little poop! Good luck! A little fecal matter! Good luck!" "Thank you!" (laughter) But it’s like with this one, if people go and are affected by it, that’s what we made it for. If it disturbs you on that level, if you kind of examine the nature of connection and storytelling, like even Armistead I know [inaudible] he described one thing and the guy told him it was much more mundane. The back of an elephant? No, it was a Presbyterian church — that idea. An author will always expand — even biographies, autobiographies, people will remember incidents or neglect incidents, lie by default on that level but necessarily to protect certain people or to change things they will omit.

Q: How about when you win the Oscar for a serious role, do you wish the comedies …that those performances could get recognized?

Robin: I would just like to wish that it … and then you’d like to honor all the guys who didn’t get one, mention all the names, go back to the start. Chaplin having to wait until he’s pretty much … having been thrown out of America. "Thank you for this wonderful award." You know, Chaplin, Keaton, Oliver, Laurel — Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy — the Marx Brothers, all those guys, you go back … Lemmon. With the comedies it’s always like, they treat you as like: "Oh, yes, those are there. And sure, it pays for the industry … . Sure, that’s how it started … . They’re damaged people! That’s what they do! They’re just this side of mentally challenged! They’re clients really!" (laughter)

Q: It’s such a difficult talent. We all wonder why those aren’t….?

Robin: Oh, because, I mean, the Golden Globes acknowledges it as a category. But that’s them, you know. Those are old people and their parents. They know that, we’ve talked about this. When you see them on the respirator in the front row. "Robin!" [hissing sound] "This year’s lifetime achievement …" [hissing sound] (laughter) With comedies, yeah, I mean, you realize how many great comedies there are and how many people are affected by them. Comedy you say is a great art? Yeah, when it works. I’ve never seen anything funnier than Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor," that scene around the dinner table. That alone would get an award if you just want to go for sheer funny. But they’re always talking about, "Well, is it meaningful?" I think so, meaningful if you had a great laugh and you actually come out going: "Oh, man, I’m a human being. I laugh, I fart, I grab, I do things. I’m awkward, I don’t know what I do most of the time. I fall down. "Didn’t happen to me. [laughs] Laughing at him." It’s all part of that. Now you’ve got a whole generation of people coming up. And comedies can be dark like "Doctor Strangelove." He didn’t get an award that year, John Wayne did. "For this character. He made a character that could just as well have been Dick Cheney. But not seeing why we do what we do." Dick Cheney and Sammy Davis: "And I know we’re moving on in this crazy world! I’ll always walk alone!"

Q: Is it easier to find the kind of serious parts you want to play in the independent side?

Robin: Oh, yeah.

Q: Is it gratifying to be …

Robin: Because studios will sometimes… Obviously you’ve seen a lot of these movies are made by either the independent wing of studios, where they’re not even made by them, they pick them up. They go out looking for them. They don’t option them, make them. They go out and find them. Studios make serious dramas but they tend to make ones that they can say, "OK, here’s the face, face, face, here we go."

Q: Would this movie not have gotten made if you or somebody with your….?

Robin: I don’t know, I think they would’ve. I think they would’ve made it, just the same.

Q: Robin, what’s your dream now?

Robin: Angelina Jolie. No, I think to be … just to keep working and enjoy life as it’s been going. It’s been going quite wonderfully.

Q: What about standup?

Robin: I’ve been doing that still. I mean, I do that. That’s part of the dream. That’s later on, when I go home this summer and then to take a little while off and then start again, going out on the road again and back in clubs.

Q: Is that a plan? Are you planning on going out on tour again?

Robin: It’s kind of a plan, for now. You have to start off and just lay the base. There’s a lot to talk about, as in everyday. I have a question: Do you think that Zarqawi looks like Ron Jeremy? (laughter)

Q: Yes.

Robin: Oh, cool. Thank you. Those who watch porn and we know who we are. (laughter) That’s just a quick question. I think, going back on the road, yeah, I would like to do that. But I just have to take some time. I’ve been in a lot of movies.

Q: Speaking of Ron Jeremy, we went to a junket for "Cars," the Disney movie …

Robin: Right.

Q: He sat right next to me on the place. Coach. (Journalist hands Robin his cell phone so he can see photo.) He slept on me.

Robin: Great. Ron Jeremy. You slept on Ron Jeremy? I guess you didn’t need the headrest.(laughter)

Q: I couldn’t sleep. The picture should come up. Is it coming up?

Robin: No, we’re looking for service. "You’ve got mail." "Hi, it’s Ron Jeremy, call me." (finally viewing photograph) Oh, God! Save that. That’s a kind of wonderful thing. "Who was on the plane next to you?" "Ron Jeremy!" "What’d he put in the overhead?" "Would you excuse me?"

Q: It was the middle seat in coach.

Robin: I know. Well, he had to have a seat for his penis. (laughter) It was next to him. (Suggesting conversation between Ron, his penis, and airline hostess) "So, what are you doing?" "Ron, what would you like?" "Uh, I’ll just have a drink." "What would you like?" "Nuts! Do you have any of those little nuts? Peanuts? Just something to nibble on?"

Q: Talk a little bit about standup. To me, I can’t think of anything harder than standing out in front of people and daring them to laugh. Why do people do it? How does it feel?

Robin: It feels good when it works, and when it doesn’t work there’s nothing harder and there’s nothing worse. There’s times when it doesn’t work and you go, "OK, well, I learned that." But when it works it’s kind of wonderful and if you really find new stuff it’s great.

Q: How young were you when you realized you had this unique comic voice that no one else had?

Robin: I haven’t realized that yet. But I realized it was working pretty well when I was about in my 20s, that I was all of a sudden starting to find a unique voice versus a combination of other things. And it was kind of interesting, there was a show one night in San Francisco, a big benefit show, and I really started to have a good time and realized: "Wait, this is me. This is not like Jonathan Winters or anything." Everyone starts off kind of being someone else.

Q: Is it weird to you that you think like that and no one else does?

Robin: That’s like a Freudian question. It isn’t weird, it’s basically I realize that’s how I’m wired, that’s what I do. Do I think like that? I mean, I think, there’s the idea that I kind of look at life through a different perspective. But I hope to be finding things that other people can relate to. Not so out there that it’s lost on people.

Q: Would you mind commenting on what you thought of the new "Superman."

Robin: I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve only seen posters and I go, "It’s him. It’s like Chris." It’s like he’s back, and it’s kind of wonderful. I hear it’s quite elegant and the kid’s really great and I think it’s a great kind of tribute to him that number one they made it again, but it’ll bring back the memory of Chris.

Q: They dedicated it to Chris and Dana.

Robin: Oh, wonderful. To both of them, that’s a wonderful thing. They were very supportive of them. Warner Bros. did a great thing before he died. They created this medal which is like a dog tag with a Superman logo for his foundation. No, it’s kind of wonderful. Yeah, it’s a great character. He loved doing it. He took great pride in that.

Q: Having worked with Chris Nolan and they talked about having the Joker in the next "Batman" …

Robin: Oh, God, I’d love to do that with him.

Q: And you do a hell of a Jack.

Robin: Well, you’d want to do a different joker. But, you know, if they do "Arkham Asylum," it’d be amazing. "Arkham Asylum" is one of the great, nastiest comic books ever. It’s truly … it’s like the Marquis de Sade, on that level, wonderfully damaged and quite tragic in terms of the realization, the creation of these characters … . It’s interesting now that they’re kind of realizing with all the adult comic books — graphic novels, for those who are trying to upscale themselves. "Is it a comic book?" "No, it’s a graphic novel." "Is that porn?" "No, it’s adult entertainment. With accessories." (laughter) They’re making these really interesting pieces. And there’s a lot of great, great comic books and graphic novels out there that could make wonderful movies. And they’re looking for them and it’s great. Some of them are like … there’s a great … I read this comic book called "DMZ" which is about New York after kind of a … almost like a civil war. Could it happen? [laughs] Kidding. Every time the helicopters fly over my house I’m like, "Hey, welcome to Baghdad." But it’s kind of fascinating because they treat it like the country’s divided and New York is like all these cities, like Lebanon or Beirut, Baghdad, military zones of control and yet it’s still the Village. It’s a fascinating concept. But that’s what’s good about alternative forms of literature or like stuff that you read, like this, short stories. There’s so much good stuff out there.

Q: Have you given any thought to where you would take the Joker if you had that chance? Over-the-top or darker?

Robin: You can go both, I mean, you know, as in madness there’s a lot of ways to go. I think you can really explore how bright and how nasty-funny he is, like I guess what Kevin did with Lex Luthor — making him really funny but yet still damaged, and yet still as evil is accessible and yet still horrific. And you jump back and forth all the time. (bumps journalist sitting next to him by accident) I’m kidding. Kidding! See there it is, as I saw your eyes go "Fuck off."

Q: You’ve got "Happy Feet" coming up.

Robin: Yeah, that’s a blast.

Q: Is that another chance to go wild with your voice?

Robin: Well, I do three different character. One of them … (to journalist he accidentally bumped) You OK?

Q: The lawsuit’s in the mail.

Robin: "Happy Feet" has three characters, one is an Argentinian Gilly penguin who is (altering voice) "like this, very powerful but very small as you will see from the World Cup." One is like a Barry White kind of penguin who has a six-pack ring around his neck, but he treats that as a magic love token. And another is kind of a big elephant seal named Cletus. He’s big and not that bright. But it was a blast to do, because it’s George Miller. It’s basically "Riverdance" meets "March of the Penguins." There are huge musical numbers, big dancing numbers. One group of penguins, the one penguin, they sing like the Emperor Penguins sing, and they do that in real life. Their mating is based upon singing. Gilly Penguins, like the Argentineans, their mating is based upon giving pebbles or little penguin bling. "Look baby!" This one penguin, the one character, he dances. He can’t sing very well, but he can dance. They get Savion Glover to do the dancing of the penguin. And he can hoof, baby. So it’s kind of the idea of this new transition combined with they’re trying to survive in the Antarctic, which is melting. On that happy note …

Q: One of the hardest things for comedians to do is to stay fresh and on top of their game for other generations. Who are some of the guys that you think pulled it off and how do you hope to pull it off?

Robin: I think George Carlin’s pulled if off by just having kind of the great Johnathan Swift vitriol. He had a great line, he said to me, "Just because the monkey’s off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town." Who pulled off the long program? I think Cosby has. Cosby’s just a great storyteller, who is true to the word of never being … he doesn’t ever get obscene. He doesn’t ever use any blue words. Robert Kline, he’s fun. But you’re talking about long program, you’re talking about people who have been around a long time. Of all of them I think Carlin, Kline, Richard can’t perform anymore, so …

Q: What about on-screen performances?

Robin: Oh, God. You have Bill Murray. You’ve got a lot of people. I love it when Eddie comes back and whenever Steve Martin does … . He can do both. I’d love to have Steve direct more because he’s such a bright man and has such a great eye, not only being an art collector but also being a great writer. He has both.

Q: You have a very strong, serious, compassionate side to you. Was there any time when you were riffing on somebody and you said, "Oh, I’ve gone too far."?

Robin: Oh, yeah. I have. There’ve been times when you went: "Ohhhhhh. I shouldn’t have talked about the chair." But sometimes you do it and they love it. It’s hard to tell. When I was with Chris, we would make jokes about, you know, "How’s the lawnblower tie?" Because he had the respiratory. I called it the Black and Decker tie. Or I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, here’s my friend Christopher Reeve — he’s on a roll." (laughter) And it’s like, "Ohhhhhhh!" You’re like, "Ahhhhh-ha-ha!" Sometimes if you walk the edge you’re going to fall sometimes and say something that will be offensive at that moment. Obviously you can’t stop, though. And afterwards if you do do that, you say: "Listen, I’m sorry. I went too far." "Apology not accepted."

Q: You just did "Night at the Museum" with Ben Stiller. I assume you guys wrapped.

Robin: Yeah.

Q: What was it like working with Ben Stiller? He and that whole generation, they pride themselves on doing a lot of improv.

Robin: Well, he improvised like crazy because I’m basically playing a wax-figure of Teddy Roosevelt. And we do a thing where I’m basically … I abuse him: "Come on, boy!" It’s a bit like Foghorn Leghorn, except from New York. And he has this thing of "What are you doing? Come on, Leonard. You have to bring yourself forward, catch up with me. Bring yourself and deal with that." I smack him a lot. "There you are, son! Do that! Get the monkey off your back! Start your life!" It’s really a monkey. And it was fun because I’d just see his eyes light up because he’d go, "That’s good." He liked that. He was fun to play off of. It’s a pretty wild movie because it’s got … For me it’s about the Museum of Natural History in New York coming to life at night. If you’ve ever been in there, you go, "I’d like that." Pretty crazy place.

Q: You manage to be different every time we see you, every TV appearance. Is it the sort of thing where it’s really just off the cuff for you? Do you prepare certain things for certain venues?

Robin: I’ve prepared the thing under his neck. (teasing journalist seated next to him; laughter) No, there’s no preparation, it’s just talking and trying to respond, have a good time. For me this is fun. This isn’t open-heart surgery, it’s just a good time, we talk. Sometimes it’ll get heated: "Do you believe it?" Why not? I like the interplay. That’s why I like still performing and improvising, at this small theater up here on Franklin. I’ve been having a good time doing that. I don’t want to cocoon myself. I think the idea is to still wade out among people. Like you said, of still keeping yourself in the game, still hitting the ball or being out among people you kind of know what’s … The weird thing is, recently, I didn’t know, I felt kind of like, "Where have I been?" I found out about MySpace. My son looked at me like, "You poor, troubled man." (laughter) It wasn’t like all of a sudden: "I’ve found a friend! She’s in high school! My name is Tim! My name is Tim!" But all of a sudden I was … You find out about all sorts of things. You find out about music, books, all sorts of different things and from all different sources. And that way you kind of go, "Oh, that expands you, versus contract."

Q: Do they even bother to do a pre-interview for you when you do TV?

Robin: They do, but it’s always — and that’s what’s kind of weird. They say, "What’s been happening?" "I don’t know." And most of the time they just say, "Just give us general areas." And I say, "That’d be fine." And some of the time people say it’s best if you don’t come in so loaded for bear that it’s like standup sit-down.

Q: What’s the hardest part of raising kids? And what’s the most fun part about it?

Robin: The most fun part is watching them change. And the hardest part is watching them change. And the fact that they are growing exponentially. And I do believe that there is a thing where intellectually they’re growing quicker than they are emotionally. So they have this intellect that … my daughter’s 16 physically and emotionally, and yet intellectually I think she’s somewhere in her 30s. She’s dealing with things and concepts and all these things. But yet she still is a girl. And yet looks like a woman. And yet has a boyfriend. And yet he’s a nice man. And yet have they done it? I don’t know. (laughter) And yet I know that she’s very sweet and kind and this boy seems kind and I’m going, "Great." My other son is 14. He is just like … he’s on all cylinders. He’s always just doing incredible things and out doing stuff and that’s what’s interesting and also frightening. He’s fearless, which is great. And he’s fearless, which is scary.

Q: Could you talk about how it was to work with Toni? And did you meet Rory?

Robin: I did. He’s great. He’s such a gifted actor, and really good, and playing this part which is almost thankless in the sense of really being this minor part. But he is so good and was so into it and created such a believability. Working with Toni is amazing because she is a chameleon — and coming from me that’s a great compliment. She really transforms herself. She can go from being flat-out gorgeous to being very vulnerable to being hideously frightening — in a millisecond. When she’s playing that character in the basement, it’s almost heartbreaking. And the moment you don’t go along with it she’s like, "What?" You realize this is a violent woman, or could be potentially violent. Or has the potential to harm you, if not physically then emotionally. She’s good stuff, man. She’s a great actress. And really funny, and kick-ass funny. She’s always great. Like Hilary Swank. Hilary will be doing a scene with you and just all of a sudden go, "What?" "I like your guns." She’s buff.

Q: With a label of chameleon for somebody like you and for someone like Toni, it’s obviously high praise. The woman who Toni plays in the story and the woman who really did this to Armistead is a chameleon too. Do you have compassion for where she was coming from?

Robin: I do and I don’t because you also have kind of … compassion says there’s something deeply … something motivating that, besides the fact that she can, that there’s something disturbing her. If you track her history like Armistead has, she went on to marry some man and that turned out to be really a car wreck. And the fact that we think that she contacted … Toni got a letter during the filming of this and Armistead said most likely it’s from her. There is that weird kind of stalker mentality combined with the ability —she does have the ability. She convinced these people. And she used it … . You have to say, "Wow." What did she do with it? She scammed people. She had them going. You have to say there was a certain amount of skill in that, as with all great sociopaths.

Q: Do you think there’s something in our culture that …

Robin: Yeah, I think so. I think there’s a desire to live other people’s lives, to observe other people’s lives. You know, when you look at most of these magazines, they’re all about looking at other people living. Now with reality series you’re literally watching other people watching other people. At a certain point you’re going: "We’re all watching each other. That’s so cool." And then with the cell phones, with the video cameras, you’re watching other people watching you on your phone watching other people watching me on the phone and talking to myself and watching you on the phone. And it’s also the idea of their life is better than yours, screw them, or I want to live that life, or … I can somehow hook onto your life. Like you said, what makes it interesting is you and I talking here, directly, and not text messaging. Communicating. But yet, yeah, there is a culture built around that. And it’s growing. IPods would be great if aliens figured out that IPods are a great way to possess people. "Don’t you see?" (speaking in a stilted alien voice) "No, I don’t see. I’m loading MP3 files."(laughter)

Q: Can you talk about the letter that Toni received?

Robin: I only know that it was kind of like: "I hope you do this part well because I know about this. It’d be great if you did it great." It was well written, it was much more articulate than that — she wasn’t on medication. (laughter) But it was like Armistead noted where it came from, I think, and plus the handwriting he recognized. I mean, after six years you start to know the handwriting. And I think it was just her. But it was also like, they thought it would happen at some point.

Q: So you were really familiar with the story since you knew…?

Robin: Yeah. I mean, I knew and I didn’t know. At a certain point you don’t want to know too much because it’ll creep you out beyond … you won’t be able to work that well. I mean, she exists. And there are other people who have done it. Obviously the J.T. Leroy, there’s other scams that have been perpetuated for a while. Some of them against celebrities, sometimes against regular people. There was a thing in the paper the other day about a guy who scammed $70,000 from his friends by claiming he had pancreatic cancer. This, what she did, is Munchausen by ventriloquism — create a persona: "Hi! You want to talk to me? Thanks for calling." People who engage, thinking, "Oh, this child." And people’s desire to help, you know. It’s like, "Ohhh." It’s the child factor, the puppy factor. People go, "Awww."

Q: Do you think that the news media and politicians sometimes grab onto that?

Robin: Oh, big time. Look at the woman in Florida, the issue of euthanasia. At that point the debate became a national political issue about right to life versus "Is she dead, is she alive?" And doctors saying, "I know she’s alive." "Really?" And then they perform the autopsy and they go, "There was nothing left. There was no brain activity." And they played off that and used that, or will use an incident with someone in desperate need or pain and focus on that and the politicians will come: "Don’t you understand?"

Q: Or send money to this charity?

Robin: Big time. That’s a standard scam. Big time. When you found out after 9/11 there was all these people … guys saying that I was there, a lot of people scamming there. Anytime there’s money or a lot of sympathy to be gained, you’ll find people working the edge. Katrina — billions of dollars. And then there’s other people who’ve genuinely been screwed. Because the guilt was so huge after Katrina they just poured money at it and didn’t bother to do the normal phases. Meanwhile, there’s other people, living in their houses with black mold. Or they had 10,000 trailers in Alabama that have not been used and still the 9th Ward and a lot of those places are abandoned or they don’t have electricity. It’s like Baghdad. Even people in Baghdad are going, "I have more power than you." "Goddamm, that don’t seem right. But I’ve got better music." (laughter) So it’s all a drill. Thanks.

Q: Thanks, Robin.

Robin: My pleasure.

"The Night Listener" opens in theaters August 4th. My review of the film will appear on site in the next day. Williams supplies the voice of Ramone in the recently completed "Happy Feet," and his films "August Rush," "Man of the Year," and "Night at the Museum" are in post production. He is currently filming "License to Wed" and an upcoming comedy tentatively titled "The Krazees" has just been announced.


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