Michael Jackson stole “Eat It” from Weird Al Yankovic and reinvented it as “Beat It.” Weird Al dated Madonna and they wound up on a wacky adventure that involved Pablo Escobar. That and more happens—brilliantly, hysterically, and with just the tiniest grain of truth getting in the way—in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Yes, the high-energy, frizzy-haired guy who plays the accordion, performs a mean polka, and has entertained a couple of generations of fans with parodies of hit songs, is the subject of a biopic. Only, Weird pulls a fast one, spoofing the biopic genre.
Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic, joined by Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna and Rainn Wilson as Dr. Demento. Yankovic, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie, plays a supporting role, appearing as Scotti Brothers Records executive Tony Scotti. And cameos abound. Be on the lookout for Conan O’Brien, Jack Black, Thomas Lennon, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and other surprises. In advance of the film’s November 4 debut on The Roku Channel, The A.V. Club spoke with Yankovic, who discussed spoofing biopics of all kinds, marveled at the fact that the little boy from the Harry Potter films is playing him, revealed his favorite curse word, and shared what remains on his bucket list.
The A.V. Club: Weird started in 2010 as a Funny Or Die fake trailer that you then started showing at concerts. What’s it been like to watch this explode into an actual film?
Weird Al Yankovic: It’s a bit surrealistic. I always hoped this movie would get made, but it’s always a miracle when things do get greenlit. It was about my third week on the set, when I was thinking, “Okay, I think this movie might actually happen.” I’ve been around the business long enough that I trained myself not to get excited about things, because things always fall apart and go away. Even during the movie, I was thinking. “Somebody is going to get COVID and this is all going to get shut down.” We had 18 days to shoot this thing, and incredibly, we pulled it off. It turned out great, and I couldn’t be more excited.
AVC: Weird is pretty much the movie version of one of your parody songs. What aspects of the biopic genre did you think were ripe for parody?
WAY: Oh, there are quite a few. [Director] Eric [Appel] and I sat down and discussed a lot of music biopics, even some nonfiction biopics. There’s a little bit of Boogie Nights and a little bit of Forrest Gump thrown in there as well. In particular, the music biopics always hit the same beats over and over. There are all these tropes in every single one. It’s maddeningly familiar. So, we wanted to hit every one, starting with my parents. My parents in real life were super-supportive, but you never see a music biopic where the artist has a happy childhood and supportive parents, so we had to make my father vehemently opposed to his young child learning the Devil’s squeezebox. That became a whole dramatic arc for the movie.
AVC: If I told you back in 2000 that the little boy who plays Harry Potter would be playing you one day, and that you would be acting opposite him, what would you have said?
WAY: That would not have been on my bingo card at any point. That’s something I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around, that that all just happened. I will say I didn’t think I’d be casting him in a movie, but I did see Daniel on TV in 2010 on The Graham Norton Show, where he performed “The Elements” by Tom Lehrer, which is an extremely nerdy thing to do. The fact that he memorized that and then performed it on national TV in front of Rihanna? That’s alpha-nerd stuff. I thought at that moment, “Oh, we’re kindred spirits. This guy … we’ll be friends.” I had that in the back of my mind for years. When we started casting the movie, and Daniel’s name appeared on the shortlist of actors we were considering, I thought, ‘Daniel’s got to be the guy.’ He’s got the right spirit. He got the right energy. He definitely has the acting chops. I can’t imagine anybody that would be more suited to this role than him.
AVC: What impressed you about his performance?
WAY: He pulls off the comedic and dramatic moments amazingly well, which is not an easy thing. We’re going for a very specific tone. It’s obviously a comedy, but we’re not playing it like a comedy. We’re playing it like an extremely serious Oscar-baiting Hollywood biopic, so the comedic and dramatic moments had to land. There are some moments where some people weep, in the screenings. It hits both ends of the spectrum. We needed somebody like Daniel, who’d be able to play both sides.
AVC: Who do you find funny?
WAY: Oh, gosh. If I started mentioning names, I’d leave out a lot of people, so go to my Twitter feed and see who I’m following. That’ll give you some clues.
AVC: What was the last thing that made you cry?
WAY: Oh man, I don’t know. I’m not sure. I don’t remember the last time I started crying, but I got a little teary-eyed a couple times during some screenings of this movie, actually.
AVC: What’s your favorite curse word?
WAY: I don’t curse, so I’m probably going to say, “Dang it!”
AVC: What’s your favorite candy?
WAY: I have a sweet spot, but I don’t really have a favorite candy, just off the top of my head. What are those little chocolate discs with the little white things?
AVC: Nonpareils. Snowcaps is the brand name that you find in the store...
WAY: There you go. My daughter gets me those for my birthday. So, let’s go with that.
AVC: Star Trek or Star Wars?
WAY: You’re going to get me in trouble, but since I’ve written two big Star Wars songs, I’m going to have to go with Star Wars. I’ve made Star Trek references, and I almost wrote a Star Trek song for the last album. Instead of “Let It Go,” I was going to do “Make It So,” but then I did a Google search and found out that there already was a parody like that. That’s the problem with the YouTube age; there’s no idea that hasn’t been done before.
AVC: If there’s one thing that happens in Weird that did not really happen to you but people will believe it because, “Hey, it’s in a movie,” what makes you happiest for someone to believe?
WAY: I don’t really want people to be confused and misinformed.
AVC: You know it’s going to happen. How many people see JFK and think it’s what really went down?
WAY: I know. And going into it, I knew that was going to be the case. Twitter has been good preparation for this movie because I’ve learned that anytime I tweet something as a joke, completely ironically, and as facetious as you can possibly imagine, there’s always going to be a group of people that take it at face-value, that don’t understand I’m a comedian and it’s a joke. They say, “How could you possibly think or do that?” The same is going to be true of this movie. Even though it gets so ridiculous by the end, I can’t imagine anybody is going to say, “Oh, this all really happened,” I guarantee you some people will, and that frightens me, but that’s what we’re dealing with here.
AVC: Weird was shot in 18 days for a very modest $8 million. How close to guerrilla filmmaking would you describe the shoot?
WAY: That’s the reason why we had to shoot it in 18 days, because we didn’t have a whole lot of production budget to go on. We could not have pulled it off unless we had an amazing crew and cast. Everybody was working at the top of their game. Daniel, Evan, Rainn, and everybody else going in knew exactly what they had to pull off. Daniel had fight and dance choreography. He had to perform on stage. He took accordion lessons with me. As soon as we hit the set, it was one, two takes, you’re done. Three takes maybe, but we were moving very quickly. If anything had gone wrong, we wouldn’t have had a movie, so I’m just thankful the stars aligned and we were able to pull it off.
AVC: If there’s a Blu-ray for Weird, what will it include that’s not in the movie?
WAY: I’ve been asking Roku about this, and so far, they have been against releasing any physical media. I’m going to keep pushing them. This needs to be out on Blu-ray, a nice 4k Blu-ray. Obviously, they want this exclusively on the Roku Channel. That was the whole reason why they were making it. Again, they have said that this is not going to happen, but I’m going to keep pushing. Hopefully at some point, there will be a Blu-ray. There aren’t a lot of deleted scenes, because—as you can imagine—since we had an 18-day shooting schedule, we had the script down as tight as we possibly could. I didn’t think we’d have anything on the cutting room floor, but there’s a small scene or two that got left behind and one or two things we had to take out legally because people complained. I don’t want to get into that.
AVC: We won’t tell anyone!
WAY: Maybe someday I’ll be able to talk about that, but right now, let’s not. There are definitely some nice, cool little features, some Easter eggs and things we can do … if this ever gets to some kind of physical media.
AVC: Your recent tour is over. The movie and the promotion for it are just about done. Though work tends to fall into your lap, you’re currently staring at a blank slate. Does that excite you or scare you?
WAY: It used to scare me when I was younger because I thought that I always needed to be grabbing for that brass ring. In the ’80s, I was putting out an album every year because I didn’t want people to forget me. That’s what’s nice about having a career that’s lasted as long as mine has. I don’t stress about that anymore. I’ve got a bit of a reputation, a track record, and a brand. People know who I am, by and large, and I don’t need to always be in people’s faces. I can relax and just take it easy if I want to; not have to force anything out, and just wait until inspiration hits.
AVC: You’ve had huge hits. You’ve written bestselling books. You’ve played sold-out concerts featuring your parody songs and sold-out concerts with your original songs. And now you’ve made a biopic parody. What’s the next challenge?
WAY: I don’t think there’s anything I’m itching to try. I feel very fortunate I’ve been able to do everything in my life I’ve ever wanted to do. I’d like to do more of what I’ve been doing. If this movie does well, maybe I’ll get an opportunity to do more movies. That would be amazing. And, I haven’t given up on my recording career. There’s a soundtrack album coming out with the movie, and I’d like to continue doing that as well. In terms of what I haven’t done before, doing a Broadway musical has always been on my bucket list. I don’t know if that’s something I’ll be thinking about in the near future, but that’s uncharted territory. I’d just love to continue doing what I’ve been doing, and hopefully do it better as time goes on.