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Crispin Glover on Playing With His Public Persona and How He Goes About Forming His Oddball Characters

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire February 27, 2014 at 10:51AM

There was no one quite like Crispin Glover when he broke out onto the scene in 1986's award-winning "River's Edge" -- and the same rings true today.
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The Bag Man

There was no one quite like Crispin Glover when he broke out onto the scene in 1986's award-winning "River's Edge" -- and the same rings true today.

Glover has over the years played a list of characters almost as odd as the public persona he's cultivated since first appearing on "The David Letterman Show" in 1987 wearing platform shoes and a wig. He played a geeky dad in "Back to the Future," a silent and perverted assassin the "Charlie's Angels" movies, a loathsome monster in "Beowulf," a mouse-loving social misfit in "Willard," and in this month's "The Bag Man," Glover steals scenes from John Cusack as Ned, a mysterious wheel-chair bound motel receptionist.

When he's not acting, Glover makes and tours his own films, and publishes his own books through his publishing company, Volcanic Eruptions.

Indiewire spoke with Glover about "Bag Man" (out in select theaters this Friday), cultivating his public persona, and how he goes about forming his characters.

Given what I've seen of your work, I'm guessing you had a lot of input in regard to Ned's accent, his hair and his overall appearance.

Yeah, the way that I looked and spoke was how I interpreted it and thought of it, but the dialogue was very good dialogue, and that was stuck with quite precisely. Usually we did a lot of takes, which was fun because then we could play. Even when the dialogue is not improvised, there can be an organic way of playing with how it happens, what the interpretation of the dialogue is, and that was enjoyable to do.

"Charlie's Angels"
"Charlie's Angels"

I read that for "Charlie's Angels," you convinced the powers that be to cut all of your lines, and that the forming of the character was solely based on what you brought to the performance. Do you always come to a project with such strong ideas or does it depend on the script at hand?

It depends. This screenplay, for example, had excellent dialogue, and if it was cut we'd have a problem -- there wouldn't be any play particularly. But in the case of "Charlie's Angels," it was a very active character that had to do with a lot of physicality. When I read the screenplay, it was quite expositional, it didn't need to be said. So it made it much stronger for the character not to say anything.

That was a long time ago, it was the year 2000, when I was offered that part. And my mindset was quite a different mind set around that time. That was before I starting funding my own features. Actually, the first time I funded a feature was with the salary I made from "Charlie's Angels," and I made my second feature which is titled "It is Fine, Everything is Fine." And that film, it's a bit more complex and we don't really have the amount of minutes to go into all the detail but, I switched the way I was approaching my acting career at that time.

I don't know if you know but I tour with my own films and I perform two different live shows before the two different films. It's along the lines of young Cassavetes, where he was acting in films in order to fund his own feature work. It's not the only reason -- I'm glad to be acting in films and it's not something I don't think about. I do, and I put all best work into it. So there are different reasons why one does things at different times for different projects.

How has your actual approach to selecting projects evolved and changed since becoming a filmmaker? Has that also changed along with the way that you work?

Basically, for the decade from 2000 to 2010, I didn't do every single movie I was offered, but I did virtually every single movie. I can't say exactly how many films I didn't do, but I did most of the films that I was offered because I really needed to fund those movies, and that's expensive. Also, I don't make as much money when I'm touring with my films, and so the fact that I'm acting in corporately funded and distributed films, is what allows me to do that.

"Alice in Wonderland"
"Alice in Wonderland"

But after "Alice in Wonderland" came out and "Hot Tub Time Machine," I expected to get a lot of offers that year, because that really is how things works, is when you're in movies that make a lot of money you get more offers. "Alice in Wonderland" is the highest grossing film I've ever been in, and "Hot Tub Time Machine" did well at the box office also. But it was interesting. I got offers but it was a very strange thing because I was used to doing a lot of films, and there was something about the trend of the kind of parts I was being offered that I didn't like.

The first film that finally came along that I actually liked the part was "The Bag Man." And then I did another film in the same year, a Polish language film set in 1918, and I play a German-speaking telepath. (Which was really difficult, I don't speak German, so it was really complex dialogue.) And then there was another pause where there were not a lot of things that I liked. I got offers, but not the right things. But right now there are some interesting things, they're independent films so you never know about them until you're on the set, but I'm really starting to like some of the things that are coming about.

So, it goes back and forth, you know. Sometimes you just have to work, and sometimes it's like, well, I got to be a bit more careful, I've gotta make sure the material is right to play, because that can cost you money in the long run as well. If you do a whole bunch of movies where the material is not as good, then people start saying "Oh well, you kind of sink with the ship." If the material's not good it's difficult for the film itself to be good. And I was very aware during that decade that some of the movies that I was going to partake in were not necessarily the best material.

Some of them happened to be good material, so you know, sometimes it just happens that you need to work and you've been offered good material, and sometimes you need to work, and you just have to do it… I won't say which films, but there were times in that decade between 2000 and 2010, where I knew before I opened the screenplay, before I opened it up I said "Whatever this is, I HAVE to do this movie." I knew what the offer was -- it wasn't like it was a gigantic amount but I really needed to work, and I opened it and I said "Okay, get ready to come up with a good idea, no matter what." And you know, it was a part that ended up being fun to play, but I knew it wasn't going to become a classic movie.

Well as long as it helps you fund your films I'm okay with it.

Well, yeah. But I did like the material for "The Bag Man," it's well-written dialogue. And then of course there's good people in it. I mean to be in this movie, it's the second time I've worked with John Cusack, and Robert De Niro is very well regarded, to understate it.

I finally came around to watching your infamous first sit down with David Letterman, and watching it, I was reminded of Shia LaBeouf's recent, very public antics. Do you draw any parallels between what you did and what he appears to be orchestrating now?

Well, if you look at how I conduct any questions about "The David Letterman Show," I neither confirm nor deny that I was on "The David Letterman Show." And I'm very careful about the way I speak about it, in media. You can influence it your own public persona, and in some ways you can't. This is something that I've been very aware of for a long time. There's a public persona, so to speak, that has the same name that I was given at birth. Crispin Hellion Glover is my full name, Crispin Glover is the name that I chose to use when I joined the Screen Actors Guild when I was 14. And, there's a name that along with the public persona, that I share as a person. But I'm not that person, so to speak. I have influence on it, there are things that I've done that have to do with it.

But then as a private individual, I'm probably somebody quite different from what that public persona is, and I'm sure that's true of virtually anybody, but of course your personal actions have something to do with it, but then it can be either purposefully guided, or not purposefully taken and reworked. So there's a complexity to it, it's not something that is simple to describe or deal with. But I think that for a human being, the healthiest way to look at it is how I'm describing it, as that it's a separate entity from yourself.

In fact, there's a very good quote, if I remember properly, from that actor, he was in "Notorious," from Alfred Hitchcock, he's extremely famous, why can't I think of his name… Cary Grant. I think that was his stage name, I don't think that was his given name, he had some quote like this: "Everybody wants to be Cary Grant, even I want to be Cary Grant." So, everyone has a persona, but it's quite different from what is the private life of an individual.

"The Bag Man"
"The Bag Man"

You started acting from a very early age. How long did it take you to come along to that realization?

Pretty early. You started the question with talk shows, and so, I always found even when I was a kid, I always found talk shows a strange thing to look at, just in talking about when I was a teenager, looking at people on things like talk shows. In 1980 I was 16, and there was that show "Fridays" with Andy Kaufman where he very apparently went off, did not take the cues from the cue cards. And I saw that when I played, I was in acting class at the time and I was quite aware of what was going on, I'd been watching Andy Kaufman's work.

And I could tell that there were certain people involved in the program that did not know what was going to happen, and I could also tell that there were certain people that did know what was going to happen, and I could tell the difference. So I was pretty sensitive to it, but it was also because I was taught acting through the improvisation through technique rather than improvisation for comedy. Nonetheless, it does make you, if you're really concentrating on it and thinking about it, which I was, very sensitive to what somebody's doing improvisationally. And I was very interested in what Andy Kaufman was doing, and I could tell that portions of what was done that were definitely a surprise to the people who were working with him, and then there were portions that people knew what was going on, it was very very evident to me, what the difference was.

But like I say, what's interesting about that is Andy Kaufman played with persona in a very interesting way. He was making a career of that. So I would say I was aware of this, well before I was established as an actor, and part of that did have to do with watching him. I mean I was aware of it for other reasons, but he's a good example of why I might be aware of it.

This article is related to: Crispin Glover, Interviews, The Bag Man, Thriller, John Cusack, Charlie's Angels, Alice in Wonderland