Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Elvis Costello may not have been the one who first uttered the words, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” but it’s been attributed to him plenty of times over the years. As such, when it was announced that Costello and his wife, Diana Krall, would be serving as members of the voice cast for Amazon’s animated adaptation of the long-running children’s book series Pete The Cat, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to write not about Costello’s music but rather his work as an actor. Given that the majority of his on-camera work has involved playing himself (or some exaggerated version thereof), it wasn’t entirely surprising that Costello’s initial reaction to this premise was to snigger and ask, “That’s what the girls have been clamoring for all these years, eh?” Nonetheless, he was game to give it a go.
Pete The Cat (2017)—“Pete’s Dad”
The A.V. Club: So how did this gig come about? Did the producers of the show just come and pitch it to you?
Elvis Costello: Oh, yeah. You don’t get a lot of jobs by hanging around recording studio doors. [Laughs.] But I was really kind of elated, and it’s an extra bonus that my wife and I get to go to work together. So far we’ve recorded all of our parts in parallel. We’re not speaking together in dialogue, but we go to the studio, and it’s, like, “Okay, you go do a few lines, I’ll do a few lines, and if we’ve got to sing a song, then we’ll sing a song.” We’ve done a couple of bits of singing together. We don’t get to do that all that much, and the fact that we’re doing it where we’re freed from any sense of who we’re supposed to be publicly… We’re being these cats, you know? It’s a real gas. It’s really great fun, because you can let yourself go and do silly voices.
I don’t know whether you’ve seen the [New Year’s Special], but when you do see it, you’ll get right away that I’m doing a voice. It was, like, “Well, what does Pete’s Dad talk like? I don’t know, but he can’t talk like me, can he?” So he had to talk in some way that I’d imagined. So I suddenly started talking in this voice, and nobody said, “Stop!” So I guess they liked it. So now we’re stuck with it. And now I’ve got to remember how to do it every time.
To me, it’s kind of a memory of listening to comedy records when I was the age of the kids who’d watch this show. I just loved people who did daft voices, so I thought, “Well, I’ve got to do that kind of voice, haven’t I?” And all the songs are about little lessons in life that we all have to go through, like don’t be cruel to your mates, don’t be afraid of the dark, don’t be afraid to try something different. It’s really fun to do something like this, because I don’t really… Well, look, I don’t know what your other questions are about my acting career, but let’s put it this way: The world is not waiting for my King Lear.
Americathon (1979)—“Earl Manchester”
EC: Oh, Earl Manchester was more spectacular for the journey there and back than it was for the actual moments on camera, because I had to fly all the way from New Zealand to Los Angeles just to do it. And this was in the days where they had so much money, all these companies, that they would just fly you there in much more style than I was used to traveling. I think it might’ve been the first-ever time I flew first class on a plane. And it was unbelievable! That whole thing was more memorable than anything when I actually got there, because by the time I got there, I was completely wrecked. I don’t remember very much about the actual filming, except that I sang this song that I’d recorded while I was down under called “Crawling To The U.S.A.”
I think the idea that we would have a telethon to bail out a bankrupt America is not as completely implausible as it might’ve seemed when they made that. I’ve not seen the film in years. I can’t say whether it’s any good or bad. As predictions of a dystopian media future go, I don’t think it matches, say, Network or even the story that I’m working on adapting into a musical, A Face In The Crowd. Still, it has a few moments. Doesn’t it have Meat Loaf wrestling his granny or something?
AVC: At the very least, it has Meat Loaf attacking cars with a sledgehammer and a mace.
EC: So something that you can really imagine being on Fox then.
AVC: Oh, it definitely predicted reality television.
EC: Absolutely! It’ll probably be a cult film any time now. It’s about time.
No Surrender (1985)—“Roscoe De Ville”
EC: Wow! You know about Roscoe? Well, Roscoe De Ville… Actually, that’s probably the most acting I’ve ever done in a film. I was actually trained by a super-famous magician—the technical advisor for all the top guys—and I learned that it’s very hard to do a trick badly unless you know how to do it at all. It’s like actors actually learning instruments to play musicians. You know, like when Sean Penn was in that film where he was a guitar player [Sweet And Lowdown —Ed. note]?
I did actually learn how to be able to do simple card tricks, just so I’d be able to fumble them, which was a lot of fun. And I had the experience of working with a live rabbit, and it confirmed the famous old saying about never working with animals and children. They had to stop the filming while the prop department went out and located a stuffed rabbit, but it actually was a hare, so they then had to filet it and take out most of the innards. So I ended up with that under my top hat so that I could do the big reveal of having a sick rabbit under my hat. It’s a very complicated, grubby story which I won’t bore you with, but that’s some serious prop acting, anyway. I think the dead rabbit actually acted everybody else off the screen in that scene!
There’s a couple of really great actors in that movie, like Bernard Hill, who ended up being the captain of the Titanic [in Titanic —Ed. note]. Joanne Whalley, she’s in the movie as well, and Mike Angelis, he’s a great fellow, and he’s done all sorts of things.
My best pal wrote that: Alan Bleasdale. His name turns up in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool—the movie that I have a song, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” in at the moment—because Peter Turner, who wrote a memoir about his relationship with Gloria Grahame, was working for Alan in 1982 when that occurred. So there’s a connection between those two films. I don’t know if you knew that.
AVC: I did not. That’s amazing.
EC: I know! Believe me, it was a surprise when I read the script.
Spice World (1997)—himself
EC: I just had to do it. My admiration for the Spice Girls knew no bounds. And the chance of being in a film with Richard E. Grant was enough reason, because of Withnail & I. You know, I thought, “If I go to IMDB, I’m only a couple of clicks away from Withnail!” It’s almost like being in it, being in—what was it called?—Spice World?
EC: And I play a barman. What year was that? Well, anyway, I’d only quit drinking a couple of years before, so I think the idea of being a barman was sort of ironic in my mind.
AVC: By the way, this now makes two films you’ve been in with Meat Loaf. I don’t know that it necessarily means anything, I just felt like it should be stated for the record.
EC: Well, you know, I’ve been in two films with Courtney Love, as well. Maybe we should go out on the road, all three of us, like the Main Event, with Frank [Sinatra], Dean [Martin], and Liza Minnelli.
AVC: You know, I’d pay to see that, actually.
EC: I would as well. I think a lot of people would. It’s what they’ve been calling for all these years. They’ve been calling for it more than my King Lear, that’s for damned sure!
Straight To Hell (1987)—“Hives The Butler”
EC: Fantastic. I knew I was in trouble when I refused the little derringer that the armorer wanted to give me for the final shoot-out, saying, “Hives wouldn’t have this gun. It’s not my character.” I knew I’d been out in the sun too long! Because we’d been filming out in the Almeria desert in southern Spain, and it was about 110 degrees every day. I think I was just crazed from the sun and dehydration. When you start arguing about whether it’s in character for the kind of weapon you have in a bloody fake shoot-out, you know that you should probably go back to music and forget about acting.
But it was a lot of fun. You know, if I wanted to write the legend of my screen career, I could say I was in a movie with Dennis Hopper, because I was. Dennis Hopper was in that movie, as was Grace Jones. And Joe Strummer! It was a nutty idea. Particularly having The Pogues being a bunch of tea-totallers. That wasn’t very easy for continuity, having to make sure that there weren’t any bottles of brandy in any of the shots.
AVC: We talked to another one of your co-stars in the film for this feature: Xander Berkeley.
EC: He’s great. He was terrific in it. Everybody was terrific in it, including Courtney. I saw Courtney a few weeks ago at the Leonard Cohen tribute. Speaking of, the other film that we did together, is that on your list?
200 Cigarettes (1999)—himself
EC: Well, what can you say about that, except that I might be the only one in that film who didn’t end up with a major movie career? [Laughs.] Now, what does that tell you about my acting abilities?
AVC: When we talked to Martha Plimpton, she was still excited about having met you.
EC: Oh, she was so great. She was so funny in the movie. And it was heartbreaking, because she brought the record that I thought was my worst record [Goodbye Cruel World] for me to sign. But I thought it was such an honest thing. I’ve been in that situation. I once got Cybill Shepherd to autograph my copy of the Cole Porter album she did, where she completely obliterated Cole Porter songs. But it had a great cover. It was a really wonderful picture of her, and I loved it. And she’s a great character. So I had her sign it. And it was a moment where, you know, sometimes you just want to be a fan. I don’t think there’s any shame in that. If you’re lucky enough to meet the people whose work you love, everybody has a moment like that.
AVC: Given that it was a period piece, did you find it challenging to play yourself in the ’80s?
EC: Well, you know, with the help of some serious shadows, I don’t think I did too bad. It was when I was moving from my man-in-glasses cameos to my man-in-hat-and-glasses cameos. I saw it as a shift in my theatrical skills, really. My thespian skills, if you will. I’d kind of deepened, don’t you think?
AVC: I think the work speaks for itself.
EC: There you go. I’d really evolved as an actor there. The addition of the hat was a crucial thing. It’s allowed me to take on much deeper roles.
Prison Song (2001)—“Public Defender/Teacher”
EC: You know, that sounded like a really fantastic idea when it was brought to me. I don’t think people cared for it that much, but, well, again, I thought it was tremendously bold of them to ask me to do it, because I had to be completely unrecognizable in one of the roles. There was no cachet to it being me. It really was trusting, because I looked like some sort of awful teacher.
But when you say that you’re going to have all these things sung, I guess the way it came out was much closer to a music video, where you’re acting it out. Of course, I made a lot of those in the ’80s, when people were just wasting money willfully, having us mouth the words to our songs like goldfish and making up these crazy scenarios where you’re, like, remaking The Third Man or Casablanca to a horrible synth song. There was so much of that going on then. But I think Prison Song was very sincere.
And I got to write a song with Q-Tip! It wasn’t a very complicated collaboration, but he pitched in some lines, and I liked the pieces I wrote for that a lot. “A Teacher’s Tale (Oh, Well)” and “Soul For Hire,” I liked those songs. I don’t have any kind of snobbery about these things. I believe you should just do everything and have fun. If you look at my career, you go, “Well, that must be made up! He couldn’t have been in that film!” But I was!
Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby (2006)—himself
EC: I’ll tell you, you want to talk famous, you try walking through DSW with Mos Def, as I did one day. Now that’s famous. That guy is a famous guy. And it was great. People loved seeing him. The minute they saw him, their reactions… I don’t bring joy into people’s lives like he does. They see me coming, they’re, like, “Oh, my god, it’s… him!” And that’s if they recognize me at all, which increasingly isn’t the case. But he was terrific in that movie. I just had to [stand] still! I felt like it was Jerry and Dean, and I just didn’t have to do anything. Every time they called “action,” he didn’t just say different lines; he was a different person. It was so funny. Everything he did was great. The outtake reel just from that one scene… I mean, we were out there for a long time. Where was that, the Carolinas?
AVC: Yeah, the Charlotte area.
EC: That food was real, by the way. That wasn’t plastic food. That was real shrimp that was going rotten in the sun, I can tell you. After about the tenth or twelfth take, it got to be pretty funky and not the good kind of funky! But it was really good fun.
The Larry Sanders Show (1994 and 1996)—himself
AVC: You actually made two appearances on The Larry Sanders Show.
EC: They were terrific on that show. I got to do some riffing with Rip Torn. What can you say about that?
Garry once gave me the best line, and it’s one I’ve used loads of times when I’ve been stuck for something to say when people ask, “How did you meet?” Because sometimes it’s way too complicated to explain, or sometimes it’s just not actually very interesting. But he asked me to be on—do you remember It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the one that came before Larry Sanders?
EC: That was a great show. And I was going to be in the last season of that. That’s how far back it had been in the plan that I was going to work with him, and it just never worked out for some reason. I don’t know, maybe the show ended before I could be on it. But I said, “Garry, how is it going to be that I’m going to suddenly be in that show? How are you going to make that feasible or viable?” And he said, “Oh, we met in show business school.” Isn’t that the best explanation for how you met somebody? “We met in show business school, didn’t we?” “Why, yes, we did!”
30 Rock (2009)—himself
AVC: As a result of being on 30 Rock, you’ve picked up a new title: Declan MacManus, International Art Thief.
EC: Well, I love Tina [Fey] for putting that in.
AVC: She wrote it, then? I wasn’t sure.
EC: I assume she had something to do with that. There’s a lovely picture that I think she used at the end of that episode. I haven’t known her for as long, but I’ve known her brother Peter for a long time, and they ran this very sweet picture after… You know the card that comes up immediately after the credits end? Right after that. It’s a still—it might even be a Polaroid or an Instamatic shot—of Peter and me and Tina as a teenager outside the Tower Theater in about 1986. So that’s pretty groovy. It’s just sweet that they kept it all these years.
Scully (1984)—“Henry Scully”
EC: Well, that’s my friend Alan Bleasdale again. The show was about a 16-year-old schoolboy who fantasizes about things he sees, like that he’s a hero footballer, and he’s in his imagination all the time. It was sort of a family comedy-drama, and again I didn’t speak. I was mostly his kind of daft brother who just listened to train noises on his headphones all the time. The only stretch for me was the not-speaking part!
The Comic Strip Presents… (1984)—“Stone Deaf A&R Man”
AVC: You did at least have a few lines when you did your episode of The Comic Strip Presents.
EC: Wow! You’ve really done your homework. I can’t even remember it!
AVC: Well, to be fair, I had to revisit it myself, but you played a stone-deaf A&R man.
EC: Oh, well, that was easy. That was just from life. That’s Lily Allen’s dad in that. Keith Allen. He’s one of The Bullshitters. There’s a little known fact for you! All those things, those Comic Strip shows, were really funny. There were some really funny people in those shows.
AVC: And the episode was directed by Stephen Frears.
EC: Was it?
AVC: It was.
EC: I didn’t know that. They would’ve all been contemporaries, though. I did benefits and stuff with people like Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I didn’t know them very well, but we were always on bills like that during the Thatcher period, doing benefit shows.
One time, a friend of mine was a writer on House, and I went to see him at the studio, and when I walked into the writers room, Hugh came over and greeted me and was very English in doing so, and the young writers didn’t know he was English, because he’d only spoken in his stage accent! They looked completely startled when he was, like, “Oh, how are you?” and he was sort of back to being the Hugh I’d met. I don’t know, maybe he didn’t go in there much? But when he heard I was coming by, he came in, and there you go! It’s just one of those peculiar things. I didn’t know about the Stephen Frears thing, I must say. That’s pretty great. I can’t say it’s his best work, though.
AVC: Well, everybody’s got to start somewhere.
EC: Oh, I’m sure that was done as a favor for someone. Some years later, I did a video in which I was dressed as the Devil, and I used my Spinning Songbook, where I had sins on it. We had the sin of envy, the sin of avarice, the sin of Trump. That’s right. We had the sin of Trump in 1990. Check it out: It’s in the video for “This Town.” And I bring it up because it was directed by Adrian Edmondson, one of the Comic Strip gang.
The late Rik Mayall was another, and Jennifer Saunders, of course. They were all that same generation of really terrific English comic writers and actors. I was still on the fringes of pop music in those days, so people hadn’t forgotten who I was at that point, so they had me in that episode as kind of a joke. A bit like being the barman in Spice World!
AVC: When you did Frasier, you got another opportunity to actually act.
EC: Fucking dreadfully, though! I mean, really. “Somebody tell him to stop!” A friend of mine who’s a really great comic writer was working on another show on the lot, and he came over and, the thing is, I was watching episodes from three years before. The shows we were seeing in England were really great. But it was the last season I was on, and by that point, they were all leaving, they all knew it was ending, and there was nobody really steering the ship. And I started wildly overacting. My friend came over and watched one of the takes, and he said, “You, uh, might want to take it down a little bit.” And, of course, nobody was saying, “Don’t do that.” But it was fucking horrible. Do you want to hear the weirder thing, though? Well, at the table read, Kelsey Grammer and the woman who played his producer, Peri Gilpin, they both said to me, “We both know your ex-wife.” I said, “Really? I don’t think that’s very likely.” And it turned out that they’d both been represented very briefly by a woman who claimed to be married to me 30 years earlier.
AVC: That’s crazy.
EC: She had lived a whole double fantasy life and told people that she’d represented me. She’d put people on hold to talk to me, and she’d never met me. I had found out about it years before, and the person… It was about as close to a stalking thing as I’ve ever had to experience, thankfully, but there you go. Isn’t that strange? And these people actually knew this woman! They’re the only other people I’ve ever met who’d actually encountered this person. Imagine how uncomfortable that was.
The Simpsons (2002)—himself
EC: Well, that was just great, anyway, because it’s such a great show to be in. I just can’t look at Mick Jagger now without hearing, “Everybody’s naughty.” I think they got him even more than they got me, if you know what I mean.
That’s one of the times when I did actually get to act with people on an animated series. I got to be in the studio with Hank Azaria, and that was amazing, because Hank was doing the voice to lead me into my bits, but he was going from character to character in mid-flight. It was incredible. I guess that’s what those guys can do, but that was just thrilling.
Also, I have got an 11-year-old boy, so to go to the comic book shop and see they’ve got your action figure in there, you’ve got to say, that’s pretty knockout. When that came around, that was pretty great, you know? I should say they’re 11 now, they weren’t 11 when it happened. They were even younger, so it was even more psychedelic. As it is, they’re pretty freaked out about their mom and dad being cats now. It’s probably years of therapy for them later on.
Two And A Half Men (2004)—himself
AVC: This is a must-ask, if only because of the disparate group of people you were there with. Sean Penn, Harry Dean Stanton…
EC: And that other guy! I don’t even know who he was. I think he was Sean’s bookie. I don’t know who he was. Just a poker buddy of Sean’s, I guess. He must have a SAG card to be on the gig, though, right?
Sean was great. I kept giving him my guitar and saying, “Go and play the guitar.” And he said, “Nah, I don’t play the guitar.” I said, “Then what the fuck were you doing in Sweet And Lowdown, then?” That’s real acting: You learn to play like Django Reinhardt and then forget again. If I learned to play like Django Reinhardt, I’d fucking remember it.
But the best thing was Harry Dean, god rest his soul. I actually knew him already. We’d sung together a couple of times. I met him with T Bone Burnett, and he was great company to sing with, and we’d sung a couple of old Jimmy Reed songs or Hank Williams songs in a club. We’re all drinking iced tea that’s supposed to be whiskey, and he’s drinking real whiskey, and it’s nine in the morning! If you want to see hardcore, that’s him. It was pretty fantastic. And again, every take was different, and it was all great.
AVC: His silences were as important as his responses.
EC: Well, yeah, that was his thing. But he covered a lot of ground. He went so far back, his career. I mean, when I say to people, “I was once on a TV show with Frank Capra,” they say, “You liar!” I say, “No, check it out: I was!” I was on a TV show with Count Basie as well.
I mean, these are not necessarily great moments in the overall sweep of what you do. My real job is writing songs. It used to be making records and playing shows. But these sort of asides, why would you not want to have the experience of being in the desert for three weeks with a bunch of drunk people, trying to make a fake Western? Have you ever actually seen Straight To Hell?
AVC: Most certainly.
EC: Okay, because not many people have. Tell me, did Quentin Tarantino not rip off Samuel L. Jackson’s character [in Pulp Fiction] from Sy Richardson’s character in that movie?
AVC: There’s definitely an argument to be made there.
EC: I mean, he totally just went CLIP! CLIP! and put it in there. It’s totally the blueprint! Not that Samuel L. couldn’t have done the role anyway, but the whole thing, it’s too inside. It’s too like it. The same way he looks, the same tastes, the same kind of menacing way. It’s still great, though. It’s like jazz. It’s like a great jazz player playing a whole solo, and then they suddenly play some quotation from another song. That’s how art works.
The Late Show With David Letterman (2003)—guest host
Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (2008-2010)—host
AVC: Lastly, while not acting, per se, you’re one of the very few people who can claim to have been a guest host for David Letterman. How intimidating was that?
EC: Well, you know, I really just loaded the deck, I have to say. I had really great writers on that, and I have two or three pals who do that for a living. I had a pal who was working on House, another who was working on Two And A Half Men, and Mike Scully from The Simpsons pitched in a joke. So I took those in and said, “Hey, can I use these things?” And they put a couple of those suggestions in. It was just a few things from people who knew me well and knew things that would be funny if I said them, things that the regular writers might’ve thought of. But they knew what they were doing.
With the guests, I kind of knew Eddie Izzard a little bit, and it taught me that it’s actually harder to speak to somebody that you know a little bit. I wouldn’t say that we were really close friends, but at least I knew him. I’d never met Kim Cattrall before, but that was a much simpler interview because I didn’t know her. She just sort of came on and did her act, which at the time was a version of Samantha [from Sex And The City]. So I didn’t fall over the furniture.
I would’ve done it again. I was briefly offered another gig, doing another late night show after that, and they called up and told me at short notice that they couldn’t have me do it because they had another contender for the chair. And I said, “Well, you know, if you’d only asked me, I would’ve done it.” I wasn’t doing anything at the time. But I guess they had other ideas. I’ve watched a couple of those guys go crazy, though. I was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although I didn’t do it with Johnny. I did it with Joan Rivers. But I’ve watched the way it goes.
I miss Letterman, in the sense that I did 30 performances on his show, or something like that. It was a fantastic place to play, thanks to the wonderful producer, Sheila Rogers. From a musical point of view, I got to do so many different things on that show. I appeared with the Attractions, I appeared with the Sugarcanes, I appeared with Stevie Nieve, Burt Bacharach, Debbie Harry and the Jazz Passengers, the Fairfield Four, and more than that, I’m sure.
AVC: In doing Letterman’s show, either as a guest or as a guest host, did you learn things that you were able to incorporate when you did your own show, Spectacle?
EC: Well, I think the main one with Spectacle is that people trusted me up to the limits of my abilities as an interviewer, which were relatively limited, and the depth of the inquiry. I won’t say that the depth of the inquiry that we wrote and that we filmed, but the depth that the editor would allow. Because the editor is there to tell you what will hold a general audience.
I would ask Herbie Hancock about scoring Blow-Up, because that’s a favorite film of mine. It’s an Antonioni film from the ’60s, so I wanted to know how it came about that Herbie Hancock was put in charge of the music for an Italian New Wave cinema kind of film. And his story about it was fascinating, but—honest to goodness—it took too much explanation of who Antonioni was, what Blow-Up was, who most of the people we were talking about were. Because most people know of “Rockit” and “Watermelon Man” and Miles [Davis] and everything Herbie’s done that’s more high profile than that. But I had to believe that people trusted me to talk about anything beyond the basic details of the biography, because I do sort of the same job.
I go on the stage with some words and some music, and no matter how I sing and how they sing, we’re mostly just trying to make sense of it emotionally or spiritually or whatever it is that you’re driving at, whether you’re an opera singer or a folk singer, whatever you are. That’s what Lou Reed has in common with Tony Bennett, just to mention two of the guests. They’re both just going on the stage to tell stories of some kind. And that’s why it worked up to the point that it did, when we just ran out of people to speak to. Who knows? Maybe the time will come when we can do it again.