Time Out New York Kids, Fall 2004
Voice of America
Indie icon Wallace Shawn talks about the out-of-body experience of being a
computer-generated star in The Incredibles.
By Bruce Kluger
Incredibles, opening in
Wallace Shawn lends his familiar
voice to the character of Gilbert
Huph (left), a ruthless insurance
executive with a penchant for
Nothing could be further from
Shawn's real-life self. A quirky
intellectual whose lefty politics
and New York sensibilities out-
nature, politics, propaganda and the state of the world.
typical except for the fact that the parents happen to be former superheroes—that
gets called upon to save the world. Do you detect a real-life parallel here? Is this
movie saying that ordinary folks can really change things, or is that just a flight of
Wallace Shawn: It's not a flight of fancy. People will obviously bring their
awareness of the issues to the film. The story is about a group of nice, big, friendly
people, and that's how we like to think of ourselves—as big, goofy, innocent and
totally well-meaning. That's not what we really are, but it is the picture we like to
have of ourselves.
TONY Kids: And with the ability to be a superhero.
WS: Yes, but only a benign one. And if we intervene, it really is for a benign
purpose. If anything, people will reflect on the fundamental gentleness of that family
and possibly compare it to the nastiness of the real family that we can sometimes
TONY: Kids What's your character in the movie?
WS: I play the boss in the insurance office where the father [Mr. Incredible, a retired
superhero] works. I'm trying to point out to him that the purpose of the insurance
company is to make a profit, and we do that by denying the claims whenever we
possibly can. If the father were running the business, he'd pay all the claims,
because he feels sympathetic toward these people.
TONY Kids: You're becoming as famous for your voice work—Toy Story, Monsters,
Inc., The Incredibles—as you are for live-action films. Is it challenging to create a
movie character without the help of your body?
WS: In some ways, my body hasn't helped that much over the years. I suppose I
don't want to talk myself out of work as a full-figured human being, because I enjoy
acting with my whole body, but I have to admit that this kind of job—where I can just
sit down and use my imagination—plays to my strengths.
TONY Kids: The Incredibles was produced by Disney, which came under fire for
refusing to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. To some degree, the studio
seems to represent the antithesis of the views in your plays. Politically speaking,
does working for Disney betray your own personal values?
WS: I adore Michael Moore, and I wasn't flabbergasted that Disney didn't want to
support his movie. Is there a contradiction between having left-wing beliefs and
working for Walt Disney? Uh, yes, there is. Still, as a kid, I was a voracious
consumer of Disney stuff and I thought I'd work for Disney one day, maybe as a
cartoonist. I've come awfully close to being what a lot of eight-year-olds fantasize
about being. So, it's a complex relationship that's covered my whole life. I mean,
you could say that Donald Duck made me what I am today.
TONY Kids: You told the New York Times that you've been vain since birth and
expect people to like your work. How does that square with the fact that there are
people who still refuse to sit through all 110 minutes of My Dinner With Andre?
WS: As a very optimistic person, I always think, They're gonna love this! And then
when they don't, I'm shocked. I'm afraid that's been a repeated motif in my life.
TONY Kids: Your dad, William, was a legendary editor of The New Yorker. That
puts a lot of pressure on you as a writer. Any father issues?
WS: The main pressure my father had on me was his very high standards; he didn't
respect sloppy or lazy work. So yes, I think it will be virtually impossible for me to get
out from under a fear of the second-rate, at least before my own death. Then
again, as a playwright, I've managed to make my own tiny universe. I rule it and I
have my own standards, so that no one—neither my father nor anyone else—can
really tell me how to write a Wally Shawn play. It's my own possibly worthless but
extremely self-controlled domain. But do I have father issues? I'm afraid that,
although he died, I'm stuck with him. I carry him around with me, so those issues
really don't go away.
TONY Kids: Articles about you often mention the kind of fame you enjoy. On the
website www.fametracker.com, you're described as not so much of a name, but a
"Hey, it's that guy" celebrity. And at the end of its description of you, the site writes:
"Current approximate level of fame: Cameron Crowe. Deserved approximate level
of fame: Russell Crowe." Do you find that there's an excessive amount of talk about
WS: Not in my circles. I don't hang out in the showbiz world. It's definitely a
peculiarity of my life that when I step out into the street, a lot of people come up to
me and say, "I don't know who you are, but you're somebody! Who are you?! I feel
as though you've done something in the past...."
TONY Kids: You don't own a television. What's that about?
WS: I'm trying to protect myself from propaganda. I do have different political views
from other people, and I can only account for it by the fact that I have never had a
television, since I lived with my parents. But I trudge to a particular newsstand every
day, because I know I can get The Guardian from England there. I listen to
Democracy Now at nine o'clock in the morning on 99.5 WBAI.
TONY Kids: So many articles about you quote your famous line in The Princess
Bride, "Incontheivable!" If you had it to do all over again, would you keep your
WS: I'm not personally aware of the lisp. Thank God, for some reason I don't hear
it. When people meet me on the street and imitate that line or my lisp, I tend to say,
"It's not particularly nice to make fun of a person with a disability."
But let's put it this way: If I had ever dreamed in 10 million years that I would be a
professional actor, I would have trained as an actor, and today you would be seeing
me trying to play—maybe with no talent, but still trying to play—King Lear! And I
certainly wouldn't be doing it with a lisp.