Wallace Shawn is a man of many talents and artistic identities.
There's the high-minded playwright who has crafted well-known politicized works such as "The Designated Mourner."
There's the beloved character actor/pop culture icon with credits such as "The Princess Bride" ("Inconceivable!"), "Clueless" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
And finally, there's the collaborator with Andre Gregory in a connection that spans more than four decades and includes multiple staged works and movies: the beloved "My Dinner with Andre," "Vanya on 42nd Street," and now "A Master Builder," an adaptation of the Henrik Ibsen play that's currently showing at Film Forum.
amNewYork spoke with Shawn, 70, about adapting the play and starring in the movie and more.
What draws you to Ibsen?
When I was a boy people always said that I saw things in an exaggerated way. And I always said, "No, you see everything in a very diminished and understated way. I'm right. That's the way the world really is." And Ibsen was definitely someone on my speed. He sees human beings as driven by very extreme passions and he sees life in an incredibly intense way. The world of Ibsen is on fire.
Why "Master Builder," which is not as prominent as some of his other work?
After finishing our "Uncle Vanya" project, I did say to Andre, "I think you should do an Ibsen play next" ? and he said, "Well, let's do 'Master Builder.'" And I said, "That's great." It's such a deep play that there's no end to working on it because when you rehearse a play you're not just rehearsing that play, in a way, you're exploring the issues in life that play discusses, for instance, aging, death, how do old people and young people relate to each other?
How did you translate it without speaking Norwegian?
Chutzpah. I come from a Jewish background, you know that word, chutzpah. So I went to progressive schools where they tried to build up your self-confidence and in my case they succeeded. I'm sort of arrogant and that kind of thing. I taught Latin at one time. I may not be qualified to teach Latin but I was a Latin teacher professionally. So I feel that I have an intuitive understanding of languages. ? Norwegian is like German with a strange accent in a way. I mean I don't think a Norwegian would accept that definition but if you know some German and you know English most of the words in Norwegian are familiar.
Your career has spanned so many different spheres. When you're walking down the street in New York, what do people talk to you about?
A lot of people on the street in New York do recognize me. I'm sort of like a politician who is running on several different tickets. It's quite strange walking down the street because some people seem to know me from "The Princess Bride," others from "Clueless," others from "My Dinner with Andre," a few from my political activities as someone who is occasionally to be seen marching through the streets and someone who has spoken out in various left-wing venues. And some people even are fans of my plays. And I never used to meet them on the street. But now there are even people who know I write plays on the street every once in a while.
Any other interesting encounters?
Occasionally I'm congratulated by someone on the street and I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. They come by and they say something nice and I don't know whether they heard me introduce Glenn Greenwald at Zankel Hall or they enjoyed my performance in "Star Trek."