Film: From the sublime to the ridiculous

Writer-actor Wallace Shawn mixes highbrow drama with Star Trek appearances. Geoffrey Macnab meets a paradoxical man
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Played back on tape, it sounds like the interview that never was. There is the clink of teaspoons and the rumble of laughter from adjoining tables but Wallace Shawn's answers have vanished into the ether. For close to a minute, there is not a pipsqueak from the diminutive American writer- actor (whose screen adaptation of his own play, The Designated Mourner, receives its first run at London's National Film Theatre in early May.)

Eventually, just when it is beginning to seem that his voice must have been pitched at such an unusual frequency that it defied recording, Shawn breaks the silence. "For me," he announces a propos of nothing in particular, "the issue is really: does one have the inspiration or ability to write something worthwhile? If I could write a few more things that were worthwhile, that would be my dream. But I don't have any reason to believe that I have that ability." Then he falls quiet again.

The interview is taking place in the bar of a smart Berlin hotel. They say that Jews have always liked Berlin, strange as that sounds, he remarks of what he claims is his favourite European city. He wrote most of The Designated Mourner here and even insisted that a photograph of Berlin's Tiergarten be put on the cover when the play was published in book form. He seems happy enough with the film, which has been directed by David Hare in a minimalist style, one presumably intended to provide as stark a contrast as possible to big-budget, effect-driven Hollywood blockbusters of the Titanic variety. Like the play, the film is a three-hander, shot in a couple of days at Pinewood Studios with the original London stage cast (Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson, David De Keyser.) It consists almost exclusively of talking heads. If you like the dialogue and ingenious way in which Shawn wraps ideas about politics, violence and censorship around what seems to be an intimate, character-based confessional, you're in for a treat. If not, you'd best stay away.

Shawn is a bona fide New York intellectual. He agonises over the most straightforward questions and then delivers his answers in lapidary style. There is something both comic and touching about the way he wrestles with the metaphysical monstrosity of existence every time he opens his mouth. Shawn, it seems, is a prophet without honour in his own country. "I know it is not very attractive to complain, but I've had a very hard time with American audiences." He was happier, he says, for The Designated Mourner to be performed in London and Hamburg rather than back home in the US. Much of the lure of being a writer, Shawn claims, lies in the opportunity not to have to think as an American. "I'm oriented to escaping my provincial boundaries. But I don't believe in different countries. Immigration laws, passports, visa - I'm against all of that. I would like to be a citizen of the world.

Notwithstanding his distrust of the inanities of American culture, Shawn recently guest-starred as the rubbery, latex-clad Grand Negus Of The Ferengi in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This may appear a highly unusual career move for a writer/actor steeped in Chekhov and Ibsen. The Negus, though, is the wisest, oldest and craftiest in the tribe. In other words, he is an extra-planetary intellectual, and therefore makes a perfectly fitting character for Shawn to play. Shawn only appears in the series once a year. "I like to assert my rule, but I don't think I could stand to do it more often. It's a tremendous ordeal. I don't think it's healthy to be under all that make-up." Just as doting parents are want to flaunt pictures of their puckered-cheeked children, Shawn can't resist plucking a photo from his wallet which shows him in full Ferengi garb. Sure enough, he looks extraordinary: a cross between Confucius and one of those giant toads that David Attenborough sometimes finds under rocks in old episodes of Life On Earth.

"I guess I've always been a low-brow at heart," a character murmurs in The Designated Mourner. Perhaps the line strikes a little close to home. Shawn, it turns out, hasn't been making his living all these years only by writing plays and poetry or acting in the classics. Take a glimpse at his recent films credits and there is no sign of A Master Builder or a Cherry Orchard. He is again the voice of Rex in the forthcoming Toy Story 2 (1999); he co-stars in the National Lampoon spoof, Vegas Vacation (1997), he barks up a storm as the labrador in All Dogs Go to Heaven 2. Other recent efforts include A Goofy Movie, Just Like Dad and House Arrest. Shawn is a wonderful comic actor, with a memorable face and an instantly recognisable whining, sardonic New York drawl. Even so, doesn't his choice of acting roles seem just a little perverse?

Shawn is indignant at the question. At around the same time that he was appearing in Star Trek, he protests, he was also translating an Ibsen play for his old colleague, Andre Gregory. Shawn and Gregory are something of a double-act. They featured together in Louis Malle's two-hander, My Dinner With Andre (1981), in which they chatted blithely about art, psychoanalysis and other weighty topics over a meal in a New York restaurant. The conversation, which lasted the entire duration of the movie, sounded entirely spontaneous. When the film was first released, audiences were amazed by just how witty, articulate and profound these two middle-aged men managed to be. They seemed like a latterday version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Gregory, thin, ethereal and full of outlandish stories about actors running around naked in the woods of Eastern Europe or Scottish faith healers floating off to space, was very much the dotty, old-fashioned knight. Shawn, short, squat and hairy, was the earthy intellectual on the donkey behind him. It came as at least a slight disappointment to learn that all the bons mots and philosophical gambits were scripted beforehand. Still, it's a beautiful piece of work.

Shawn later played Vanya in a Chekhov adaptation mounted by Gregory in an old Broadway theatre. "We were only originally going to work on it for eight or ten weeks," he recalls, "but it ended up lasting for four years, on and off. We never performed it as a play from beginning to end, but we would invite friends to watch us rehearse it." Malle filmed the production as Vanya On 42nd Street.

There is something about the idea of Shawn as Vanya that doesn't ring quite true. It's like casting Danny De Vito as Hamlet or Ethel Merman as Hedda Gabler. Nevertheless, he brings such melancholy charm to the part that, in the end, one almost thinks Julianne Moore is mad to spurn him. In person, he is equally engaging. Despite the outbursts of peevishness and the long silences between questions, you just can't help but warm to him.

The Designated Mourner screens at the National Film Theatre in London in early May.