Billy Connolly on Cancer, Tom Cruise and What We Did On Our Holiday

Since his groundbreaking days in the 70s slinging jokes with a cartoonish goatee and a pair of banana boots, Billy Connolly has been one of the great stand up comedians of his or any era. An explosive array of wide-eyed contentment, twisted anecdotes, and good old fashioned vulgarity, the Scottish comic has charmed the pants off the world and seems to be able to deliver 3 hours of comedy to giddy audiences at will (legend has it that he once went on for so long on stage that the entire audience got locked out of the parking garage). Between his world tours and award-winning travel-documentaries, Billy’s also found time to become an actor and a pretty damn good one too. 

From hurling commands at Judy Dench in Mrs. Brown to battling alongside Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or hanging out with The Muppets in Muppet Treasure Island, Connolly has built up a nice little side career in acting on the big screen. This week his latest feature What We Did On Our Holiday hits screens, a delightfully awkward family comedy in which Connolly plays a dying grandfather hoping to pass along some jokes and life-lessons to his dysfunctional adult children and quirky grandkids. It’s a role that takes advantage of Connolly’s natural comedic chops while also serving up a little unexpected dramatic heft since he secretly played the cancer-riddled role shortly after being diagnosed with the disease himself. Of course, when Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with Connolly about the film, he was laughing about it because…well…that’s what he does. He’s not too shabby at making other people do the same either. 

First up, I’ve got to tell you that you’ve been one of my favorite comedians since I was a child. You taught me to swear properly and I can’t fucking thank you enough for that. 

(Laughs) That’s great! You know who else told me that? Andy Murray the tennis player. I met him at the Australian open. He was interviewed and someone said, “I believe you have a friend in the audience?” He said, “Yeah, he’s my swearing tutor.” If that’s my legacy, I’m very happy. 

So, how did you get involved with What We Did On Our Holiday?

Oh, it was very plain. I just got the offer through the usual channels, you know agents and stuff. I’ve never been scared of children. You know how people say that bullshit about “Don’t work with children or animals.” It’s total nonsense. The only thing that slowed me down is I thought, “Oh shit I die again.” Because I die a lot in movies. But now I don’t care if I die, I just want to die further into the movie than I have. You know, in The Last Samurai I died after about 20 minutes. It was a good part and a good death, but they have to be further into the movie for me now. 

Do you rank your death scenes at all? Do you think you died better in this one than in others?

(Laughs) Oh I think I always die rather well. I’m quite proud of my dying sequences. It always makes my children cry, so it must be working. 

I get the impression that you improvised most of your scenes with the children in this movie, how did you find that?

It was breathtaking, they are sensationally good at it. We had two directors on this movie Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. They did a television show in Britain Outnumbered with children and they made them adlib. So they are so good at it, just sensational. I technically adlib for a living, so I found it very comfortable. I’m never scared to shut up. That’s the thing with adlibbing, you’ve got to remember to shut up from time to time and I’m very good at that. 

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I’m weirdly almost surprised when I see you in a comedy like this because most of your acting work tends to be dramatic. Is that a conscious choice? Do you try to keeping acting and comedy separate if you can?

I don’t choose to keep them separate, no. I just love drama. I love to do it and I don’t particularly like acting in comedies.

Why is that?

It’s awful hard. You need to change the crew every take because they stop laughing and then you start trying too hard and get that awful desperate look about you. You can’t help it. You get desperate to make the fucking cameraman laugh, which isn’t your job really. But as a comedian, I can’t help it. I just think, “I’ll get this bastard if it’s the last thing I do.” That’s not often good for the film. It goes off and becomes something else.

How do you feel about being at the point in your career when you get all these ‘old nutter’ roles?

Oh they’re brilliant. It’s the same as playing the bad guy, you get to do all the fun weird shit. You know, you get to fart and pee and all that. It’s the best stuff. 

Yeah, you seem like someone who really likes to take advantage of the fact that once you reach a certain age you can get away with saying and doing almost everything. 

Oh yes, I do it in my life. It’s a lovely position to be in. At a certain point people say, “Oh leave him alone, he’s fucking nuts.” After that, you can say anything you please. So I do.  

Between the movie and your most recent TV series (Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off) and your act, you’ve been doing a lot of material about death. But you do it in such a cheery way that’s never the least bit morbid. How do you manage that? 

Well, it is a cheery subject and it’s surrounded by cheery people. If you talk to undertakers and all that, they’re not what they seem. They take their job very seriously and they take it very lightly as well. I think it’s time that the Western world got a grip with death. You know, you spend half your life being terrified that it’s going to happen, and it is going to happen anyways. But it can be good fun. You know, there’s a weird moment in the movie when I’m in my room with Emilia Jones and I tell her I’ve got cancer. Do you remember that bit?

Yep.

Well, I actually had cancer at that moment and I hadn’t told anyone on the movie.

Really?

Yeah, I thought it turned out rather well (Laughs). It was taking method acting a bit seriously, wasn’t it? I told the director later, but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. 

Have you ever considered or tried writing a film or a television series for yourself? Because you’re obviously a natural storyteller, so I’ve been surprised you’ve never gotten into that?

No, I never did. I wrote some plays early in my career about working class life that won a prize at the Edinburgh Festival, but then I just stopped.

Why is that? Just got bored of the process?

No, I kind of liked the process. I just got busy doing other things. But you know, recently I’ve started toying with the idea of writing a movie, but I haven’t put pencil to paper yet. 

What about that ABC sitcom, did you do any writing there?

I did some ad-libs, but that’s all. 

Yeah, when I was a kid I always used to tune into that hoping you’d sneak in some of the filthy Connolly that I love.

(Laughs) Well, the trouble was that they’d encourage me to do it, but the better it got the less they would use. They’d use the effect I had on the other actors and the audience, but it would never make the show. I’d have the actors falling about, but then they made it seem like it was their words in editing. They thought I was too far out for television at the time. Then along came HBO and kicked them all in the arse and showed them how it’s done!  

I also thought it was so hilarious that you were in The Hobbit after spending years making fun of Tolkien. Did you ever see it?

No. As a matter of fact, I haven’t seen most of the movies that I’m in. I kind of lose interest by the time they come out because the good bit’s over. The doing of it is what I enjoy. The rest doesn’t really matter.

Well, I did appreciate that you got the word “bugger” into a Hobbit movie. Thanks for that.

That’s right and the line “let’s kill the bastards.” And I got to headbut a guy, which was lovely. 

Was that your first onscreen headbut?

(Laughs) Yeah. It was a big moment for me. 

Are you still in touch with Tom Cruise at all? I always thought the two of you were hilarious when you were doing the press tour for that movie together.

Oh that was great. We still send out Christmas cards to each other. I’m very very fond of him. I’m one of his great defenders. People find it fun to attack Tom Cruise, but he’s actually a magnificent actor and a fun guy.

Yeah, I know what you mean. I feel like it became so fashionable to attack him that now people don’t even know why they’re doing it. 

Yeah and he can take a joke as well. He isn’t one of those evangelistic pricks, you know? I used to take the piss out of him about Scientology all the time and he would just roar with laughter. 

Oh yeah? What would you say?

(Laughs) I would spell it out like the old Disney theme. You know, (to the Mickey Mouse Club theme) S-c-i-e-n-t-o-l-o-g-y. 

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That’s pretty catchy, you could probably have made some money off of selling that to the church. I think that could have increased enrollment.

(Laughs) Oh fuck that. 

I heard you sold your castle in Scotland, is that true?

Yeah, well I just reached the point where I was there maybe nine times in three years. When you’re employing gardeners and all that stuff it just gets stupid and embarrassing. I still get up there. I love it, but it’s in a constant state of change the same way that everything good is like language and film and comedy. You have to stay alive to keep up with it. I think that’s why people become right wing, they stop at some point and everything flies by them so they think the world is going to hell. People like that have a glowing idea of the past and say, “Oh we could leave our doors open back then” as if buggering was invented yesterday. 

You’ve done a pretty good job at staying in touch with the world.

Oh you have to stay in the game and it gets quite difficult to stay in. I try, but I miss out on music because I can’t stand rock radio. It’s the DJs, you can listen to a Roman DJ and know he’s talking shit without understanding a word. It’s that tone they use that I despise. It’s a pain in the arse. Where are you from? 

Toronto.

Oh I love Toronto and I love Canada, but god it’s some fucking size isn’t it?

You know it! Are you planning on doing anymore of your documentary series like the one you did around the artic circle?

Yeah, I’m starting one in a month’s time following the railways around America. I’m going to festivals and state fairs and all that.

Is this the moment when you become an official trainspotter?

(Laughs) Oh now you’re talking! Yeah, I’ll get my anorak ready. I’ve been longing to do it for a long time. The only trouble is that we’re going to bluegrass festivals and I’ve got Parkinson’s Disease and it’s really effected my left hand and I can’t play the banjo or guitar anymore, but I’ll join in on the singing at least. It’s been a rough go between that and the cancer. I kept telling my wife that hemorrhoids couldn’t be far behind. 


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