The fact that Crispin Glover's middle name is "Hellion" is just one of the many reasons mainstream Hollywood considers him odd: The others include a career's worth of quirky film roles and unusual personal projects, a penchant for unpredictable behavior (such as nearly kicking David Letterman in the head during a now-famous guest appearance), and an intimidating intensity that makes even his minor characters memorable. But Glover's interviews frequently reveal that he doesn't understand his reputation: He's just doing his own thing, and hoping others will follow in his footsteps. Doing his own thing includes illustrating and publishing a series of Victorian book reprints, releasing an album of cover songs and spoken-word pieces, directing two provocative films (What Is It?, starring a cast of actors with Down syndrome, and Everything Is Fine), and touring with one of them under the name "Crispin Glover's Big Slide Show." Personal projects aside, Glover made his name in high-profile mainstream Hollywood pictures—most notably, he twitched and gibbered as a stoned teenager in 1986's River's Edge, and became unforgettable as Michael J. Fox's hapless dad in 1985's Back To The Future. (When he declined to return for the sequel, producer Steven Spielberg re-created his role with archival footage and an actor doing a Glover imitation; Glover successfully sued.) More recently, he played the creepy, predatory heavy in 2000's Charlie's Angels and starred as the enigmatic title character in the recent Herman Melville adaptation Bartleby. And, in what he's described as his first starring role in a mainstream studio picture, he takes on the title role in Willard, a remake of the 1971 cult classic about a lonely man whose only friends are a horde of obedient rats. Glover recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his Willard character, his problem with emotional roles, and his belief that America needs to be re-educated in order to make room for a countercultural film movement.
The Onion: Were you familiar with the original version of Willard when you got involved with the remake?
Crispin Glover: I wasn't. I had never seen the film, although I basically knew what the idea was. When they told me about it, I found it interesting, and it was an excellent script, and obviously a great part to play, so I said yes. At that point, I watched the original film.
O: Did they offer you the part outright, or was there an audition?
CG: I don't think they pre-selected me. I think there was another actor they were thinking of, but the studio didn't want that person. That's kind of what I've heard. I'm not sure about that. And then I somehow got to be the next choice. It was offered to me straight-up, so I didn't have to audition.
O: Several advance articles about the film have made a big deal about the fact that you stayed in character throughout the production process.
CG: Well, that isn't accurate. I don't know exactly what was said–it's always kind of an odd thing, this idea of "staying in character." That isn't really possible. I aspire toward getting real thoughts and emotions, and there are a lot of emotional themes in the film. I had to concentrate a lot to get to those points, so you have to stay in a certain frame of mind. If you're trying to have everyone relate to you as Willard, that would become more distracting than if you just were dealing with people on a straightforward level. So staying in character all the time is not… I can understand that mode of working, and if the director behind the piece is 100 percent into that, and that's how the whole piece is going to be, then so be it. But I personally find it distracting to try to dictate to people how they're supposed to be dealing with you. I do have to think a lot and concentrate a lot to keep myself in the right state.
O: How do you go about producing "real thoughts and emotions"? Do you believe in The Method, or process acting?
CG: Most of these terms, "The Method" and "the process," that are taken from [Constantin] Stanislavsky's exercises and books, are really getting into the psychologies of people. They're different methods of arriving at these things. But what's stressed in upper-case-M Method tends to be emotional recall. And for some reason, it's been popularized as "staying in character." I was taught Stanislavsky-based methods of getting to things, but I would not call it the upper-case Method, because I think that ends up being a misnomer. It isn't as exacting. There's something about it that seems overly stated. But Stanislavsky-based training is valid and usable.
O: What's your personal method like?
CG: Stanislavsky uses the question of "what if," or basically "it is": "This is what's happening at the moment." If you can get into that concentration, then you can really get into those emotions. Sometimes emotional recall can be helpful, but generally not. To me, it's usually necessary to have the actual moment be what's going on. That's the differentiation between Stanislavsky and what's come to be popularized as The Method, from what I understand. It seems like there's a lot of emotional recall in The Method. I don't even like the term The Method, because there's a lot more to it than that simple thing. It depends on the scene: Every single scene is different, and whatever works at that moment is what you get to. What I said to the director before we started filming… There was a lot of cheerfulness written into the script. Often, I've seen that written into characters, and I felt like it wasn't appropriate. With this one, I did think it was appropriate, but I said to [Willard director Glen Morgan], "I'd rather there's a little bit of real emotion in the character than a lot of fake emotion." He said he agreed 100 percent. So that frees you up. At that point, you can feel like, "If I'm just a little bit sad here, that's fine." At the same time, I also knew that it was important to get to those places psychologically, because for this character to have his only friends be rats, that does come from an arena of true aloneness and sadness.
O: Is there anything about this character that's unique among characters you've played, or anything you felt you hadn't done before as an actor?
CG: I'd done emotional work as an actor in acting class, but not so much of it on film. That was the thing I had to concentrate on the most.
O: Do you have a preference between that kind of role and your more detached outsider roles?
CG: No, and I… That's the hardest stuff for me, that state of cheerful sadness. Everything else, I feel, is relatively easy to get to. I have access to those other kinds of things relatively easily. If I had to do it again, if a different movie required that kind of thing, I would have to really concentrate again, and I would not know at what points I would be able to get to it.
O: What's your ideal role like? What would you most like to see in a role?
CG: Well, I don't think about specific roles as much as the thing I've always been very interested in, which is countercultural art and specifically countercultural film. I've wanted there to be a countercultural film movement the entire time I've been in acting, and there never really has been one in the time I've been acting. So I've been making my own films. I've directed and produced two of them, and that's more important to me than a kind of role. It's the idea behind it. Although, because I've had to fund these films on my own, I need to, in order to make the money to finance these films, work as an actor in the pro-cultural film state as it is. As I made that decision, consequently, my roles have gotten increasingly interesting in the last several years. So it's good that I've been able to fund my films and get more interesting roles at the same time.
O: How did you find the actors in What Is It?
CG: I went different routes. A casting person helped me with quite a lot of it. I went to group places that worked with people that had Down syndrome, and then there were people who knew each other and helped me. It was pretty involved in a lot of ways.
O: In interviews, you often talk about the need for a countercultural film movement, but you never define exactly what shape that would take. Could you define what "a countercultural film movement" means to you?
CG: Yes, but the difficulty is that it's extremely involved, and it really takes a long essay that I would have to write out, that would need 5,000 words to truly get to it. I've not been able to come up with a single sentence or two that gets it into an essence. But one thing to help determine what it isn't: It isn't a hippie counterculture. That was the last time there was really a countercultural film movement. The morals of the hippie movement often had to do with love as a cure-all. There was validity to the idea at a certain point–though I always happened to think there was something wrong with that message–but it was reacting to something in the culture at a certain point. But right now, that's not a valid thing in terms of countercultural art, or a film movement, because that's basically been subsumed into the pro-cultural film state, which is subsidized by, or sponsored by, corporations. And corporations use love-is-a-cure-all in order to sell things. That's what the pro-cultural state basically is: a film moral, or message, that will not make people feel uncomfortable, but will definitely make them feel comfortable with buying things. Anything that can make people question something, or provoke people, can make people feel uncomfortable about buying things. If you're questioning what might be considered right in this culture, somebody may become offended by it. Therefore, a corporation doesn't want to get behind something that has questions about the state of mind of the culture. That's why we don't have a countercultural film movement: There's not, like there was in the '60s or '70s, a group of people where corporate sponsors could say, "Okay, we can sell this to this number of people." There's only a pro-cultural film state where people are being… Well, the best word for it is that there's propaganda that's going on, and propaganda works. So it feeds on itself. If you have people who see something that's questioning or reacting to what is considered right in this pro-cultural film state, because people have grown up with that state, they'll say, "Ooh, this is weird. This makes me uncomfortable. I don't like this. I don't want to deal with this." And they'll dismiss it. That's the problem with the pro-cultural film state: People don't question. They only think about something in one way, and that's unhealthy. It stupefies the culture.
O: Wouldn't that imply that discomfort itself is an important part of a countercultural artistic movement?
CG: It can be, yeah. What's important is that things are questioned, and that sometimes can make people uncomfortable. Because people will feel like, "This is the right way to think. This is the only way to think." And if that's suddenly being questioned, and they grew up with it, they become uncomfortable. I won't say it's the only thing that's important, but it can be very important.
O: You say there's no countercultural film movement, but what about individual films and filmmakers? What have you seen that fits into your concept of counterculture?
CG: Well, what I'm talking about is a movement that can be pointed to by corporations. There definitely are people like myself who have an interest in it, and there's a market for it, as well. There are people that can feel this, and they want to see things like that. But unfortunately, there's nothing that a corporation can point to for advertisers and say, "There's this group of people that we can sell this to," and everybody knows that there is that group. There are some filmmakers from the hippie era that still have valid countercultural status: Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel, Stanley Kubrick. There are others, as well, and those fellows–you look at their films, and they really don't dictate to you the exact emotion you're supposed to be feeling, or the exact thought you're supposed to be thinking. They let you question, during the film and after the film, what's going on. You think about things. And they were reacting to different things than just the hippie counterculture. And, of course, Luis Buñuel predates the hippie counterculture by decades, and Kubrick does by at least a decade, as well.
O: Of course, three of those directors aren't American. Is it fair to apply the "countercultural" label to directors who are just operating outside an American cultural paradigm?
CG: I do believe that for the most part, Europe is reacting and becoming a part of the same culture. I'm not just talking about the United States, because much of the world is operating in a similar corporate atmosphere. There's some cultures that aren't… There are a couple of interesting filmmakers I've seen from Iran. [Abbas] Kiarostami is very interesting. And I think that happens, where you can see that there are people reacting to a certain kind of culture that I don't know so much about, but they're something that I can feel more attuned to, because there's a bit of thought they're having to evoke. But it's generally not Europe. It's generally not the places that are having the same things happening. Like I say, it's not 100 percent. I'm not saying there's nobody making countercultural films; I'm saying there's no countercultural film movement. It's a very difficult atmosphere for people who want to have questions in films.
O: You seem to be saying that a true countercultural film movement would require strong corporate interest and support…
CG: Yes. That's what makes it a movement.
O: But at the point where the culture is promoting and internalizing and shaping an art, can it really be considered countercultural?
CG: What's interesting, though, is that that's when things start to be able to change, and new things can come into thought, and into play. That's the problem right now: That isn't happening at all. The benefit would be, there'd be some real thought coming into the culture at that point. Yes, maybe some of those thoughts would become wrong. But there's a new… I feel like there are two steps to what needs to happen. Right now, first off, there needs to be a slap in the face of the pro-cultural film state. Something that breaks the spine of it and mutilates it a bit. The next step after that, once people start to see that there are questions about what's considered the truth right now–which isn't necessarily the truth, but propaganda–then the second stage can deal with a different kind of a truth. Because truth is also what's considered a truth. It isn't necessarily what is the truth. I mean, it's difficult to agree on exactly what the truth is. But a different kind of truth needs to be dealt with in film, and that isn't happening right now. There's one kind of truth that can be corporately sponsored right now, and that's what is considered right and moral by this culture. We're not having a questioning dialogue in the medium at large, and I consider that very unhealthy. It's the sign of a culture in decline.
O: What kind of questions are you asking with your own films?
CG: Well, What Is It? is more of what I was talking about that needs to happen first. It's a slap in the face, dealing with things that are not supposed to be talked about, and not supposed to be dealt with in the culture right now. If you're thinking about these things, you're weird or crazy. Everything Is Fine has some of that element to it, but it was written by a fellow named Steve Stewart who had cerebral palsy. It's kind of an autobiographical, psychosexual, fantastical retelling of his point of view of life. He's the main actor in it–there's a documentary element to it, as well–and he's reenacting his point of view, which he's written. There's a naïve element to it, a folk-art element that we've tried to keep in the film. Steve had this naïveté, and he's looking at the culture from a different point of view. That's kind of what I'm talking about, about a different kind of truth that can be dealt with. Some of these things may not be the truths that are dealt with right now in popular film culture, but there is a real truth to them, and they should be thought about. Everything Is Fine is more of a second-stage film, but I needed to make it, because Steve died within a month after we finished shooting. Of course, if I hadn't shot it, he would have been dead. That's why I shot both of these films before completing the first one.
O: Can you be more specific? "Things we're not supposed to talk about or deal with" is very general. What kind of themes are you talking about?
CG: Well, the reason I don't go into specifics is because they're not… I've seen things from The Onion, and it seems like readers of The Onion, and writers from The Onion, may very well be interested in some of these kinds of things already. But even still, I hesitate to go into too much detail, because the nature of articles–you have to make a point finite, and things, when they're broken down into smaller bits, when it's not being dealt with in the understanding of a countercultural film movement, it can be portioned out and secluded and pointed at, and it can be said, "Well, this is not the right way to think." It's not a good thing to talk about in these snippets. It's better for me to present the film as a whole and let people critique it and have thought about it, which is the point. And then it can be reacted to in a critical and intellectual fashion. But before that, I would just sound like a guy spouting off stuff that sounds pretentious. It's not a good point to do that, now.
O: If a true countercultural film movement were in place, wouldn't your films be subjected to test screenings and demographic analyses and ratings standards and studio editing? Could your ideas withstand that kind of corporate interference?
CG: Well, it would require a whole different atmosphere in the entire country. The way it is right now, every film in a cineplex must be made for children to watch. You can't distribute a film that's strictly for adults, because if it's strictly for adults, it's rated NC-17, and corporate entities will not distribute that. The only place to distribute those things is in arthouse theaters. The films that I'm making are strictly for adults. So there'd have to be an extreme climatic change in how people feel about what kind of films–that there's a market for people to see films rated NC-17 in cineplexes. In order for that to happen, it would have to be a popular, spoken-about thing in the media, and the education of the people would have to change drastically. That's why I don't predict that there's going to be a countercultural film movement any time soon. It could take an entire generation just to re-educate people.