Love or loathe, but almost everyone knows Elmo. And after the release of “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” audiences will know — and likely love — the man behind the Muppet, Kevin Clash.
Constance Marks’ acclaimed documentary tracks how Clash went from being a Muppet-obsessed teenager to being noticed by Muppet designer Kermit Love and landing on “Sesame Street,” where he’s played Elmo since 1985. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, Marks’ portrait includes interviews with Frank Oz, Rosie O’Donnell and Cheryl Henson. It’s a moving behind-the-scenes look at the legacy Clash is trying to leave in honor of his mentor, Jim Henson.
We caught up with Clash (Elmo had the day off) and Marks to discuss why the character continues to awe toddlers, why the film has struck a chord with festival audiences and how much longer Clash wants to stay in the game.
So how did you two meet?
Kevin: (Laughs) Through her husband.
Constance: James Miller, my husband, was a cameraman on “Sesame Street” at the time. He was on the set with his brag book which had pictures of our daughter. He asked Kevin if we would do something as Elmo looking at the pictures. Kevin sweetly obliged and James came home with a VHS. I was just speechless. Kevin was just marvelous.
So we had lunch and met. I think part of the reason we were able to go ahead is because he knew James. He looked at a bit of our work, got two thumbs up and that’s how we started.
Now Kevin, I’m guessing you must have been approached before.
What was your initial impression when Connie approached you?
Kevin: Well, the thing is I had done a book, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster,” so this was my next step. They didn’t let me put any pictures in the book! They didn’t want to put any in there. A lot of the stuff Connie used, I had given to them. So when Connie approached me, I thought it was a great way to take it to the next step, to visually show my enjoyment over so many years working with the Muppets.
Were you wary of putting yourself out there, without a puppet?
Kevin: No, because I’d been doing a lot of keynote speaking because of the book. I was really enjoying talking about my life as a furry red monster (laughs). It felt right. Plus there was challenges as far as puppetry in the industry. We had done a couple of movies that didn’t do well (“Muppets From Space,” “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland”), so it was a challenge to really do the things that we really enjoyed doing.
Pixar, which I love… that type of medium was getting more popular. I was concerned that Jim’s legacy, and what we do, might go away.
Full disclosure: I didn’t grow up watching “Sesame Street.” So I was really surprised by the emotional response I had to the film. I cried, but I wasn’t alone. I swear, the majority of the audience in Sundance was weeping throughout. What do you attribute this outpouring of emotion to? It is Elmo, is it your story?
Kevin: I think it’s the fact that generations watched “Sesame Street” growing up. They knew Jim and the Muppets. I think that’s where the emotion comes from. The outpour when Jim passed away was unbelievable… letters from Presidents to garbage truck drivers. It touched everybody.
And also… listen, the whole situation with the Make a Wish Foundation is something that touches everybody. But that’s the excitement in of being in a show that’s that loved and then getting to give back.
Constance: I think Kevin’s absolutely right, but I think what he can’t see because it’s his life, are the aspects of his story that are very touching. They make people feel that it’s worth risking things and trying things. Going against the grain is not necessarily going to have a bad income.
I’m really trying to figure out what it is. So many of the Tweets say, “I hate to admit it, but I have to see this film.” Or, “Who’s cutting the onions? Please stop.”
So Connie, you must have known you were getting offered a goldmine when Kevin agreed to take part.
Kevin: (laughs). Tell them, Connie!
Constance: I didn’t grow up watching “Sesame Street” because I was born in 1958. When 1969 rolled around, I was onto other things. Honestly, when Kevin said yes and I started rolling, I didn’t understand the power of everything we’re discussing today. In a way, it was good. I was in this little ignorant bubble of “Let’s get great footage and tell the best story we can.”
Every time at the beginning of the film when Kevin says, “I didn’t know this was going to happen with Elmo,” I say, “I didn’t know this was going to happen with the film.”
How did Whoopi Goldberg get involved?
Kevin: Whoopi’s been a friend of mine for a long time. I met her in L.A. We did a beautiful piece on race relations. Jim had already passed away and we had a lovely conversation. She had gotten sick with walking pneumonia like Jim had. She talked about that. We became close then. So she was definitely the right one to ask. Her heart and her connection to what we do is very genuine.
Constance: She’s the most erudite of anybody, speaking about why Elmo is important to so many people.
The doc really delves into the craftsmanship behind Elmo and The Muppets. What I’m curious to know is how you mastered the improvisation side of puppetry. That’s an art all unto itself.
Kevin: It’s funny. That’s something that’s a part of what we do. All of us do it. I don’t know if it’s a part of puppetry, but it’s something that comes with the whole package. All of us do it, none of us are afraid of it. That’s how you develop a character. You play off one another, trying to make one another laugh. It’s so much fun once you know the character. And you got to know the limitations. I mean, the show is “Sesame Street.”
And people like Rosie, playing off her on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show”… she believes in it. And that’s why [Bill] Cosby is so brilliant with children. He doesn’t talk down to them. And the same thing with Jimmy Fallon. He believes it. Because of me being in television for such a long time and knowing that medium in terms of camera placement, I can play around with that at the same time. But I know I don’t want to do it to the point of screwing anything up. I know my limit.
People talk about Robin Williams, saying he’s probably uncontrollable. No. If he were that uncontrollable as a comedian, you would never be able to direct him. He knows when the time is to do that. He can control it and that’s what we do.
Kevin, you’ve played Elmo since 1985. How do you keep it fresh after all these years?
Constance: That’s a great question.
Kevin: You know, it’s like humans. We don’t get bored with ourselves, we keep going with whatever’s happening. I think what’s nice is the show evolves with what’s happening around the world. And so there’s always something new to write about that can incorporate the character in what’s happening. We keep it fresh like that. Our characters are in everyday life. It’s not a period piece.
With that in mind, how many more years can you see yourself embodying Elmo?
Kevin: Listen, I’m 51. Caroll Spinney is 77 years old and he’s still performing Big Bird, so I hope I can last that long. I think the show is going to run a lot longer than I am because it’s touched a core. This is what children need. This is like eating or brushing your teeth or learning your ABCs. For as long as children need that, this show will be around.