Interview: Billy Crystal


He’s been around longer than the Internet, On Demand, and social media combined, but his Twitter bio probably says it better than anyone else could: “You should know me by now.”

Comedian Billy Crystal is in a rooftop meeting room in Downtown Toronto about to address the press gathered to talk to him about his reprisal as the voice of the green, diminutive, one-eyed ball of excitement Mike Wazowski in Disney Pixar’s prequel Monsters University. He’s relaxed and very natural with a quip or anecdote that doesn’t seem forced. He’s the kind of pro that doesn’t hesitate with an answer. He just has it at the ready.

Crystal (who aside from a starring role in Parental Guidance last winter hadn’t done a film in about a decade, but did squeeze in another one of his 9 Oscar hosting gig) at age 65 plays an even younger version of Mike, one not hampered yet by the working world, as he enrols in the elite and highly competitive Scarer program at Monsters University, where he starts a rivalry with his soon to be co-worker James Sullivan (also returning John Goodman) before they become friends.

Dork Shelf was able to chat with the When Harry Met Sally, Soap, Analyze This, Mr. Saturday Night, City Slickers, and Princess Bride star about how the themes of Monsters University still pertain to his life today, what his grandkids think of the films, what scares him, how his university days differed from his younger, more diminutive altar ego, what serves as a source of friendship and strength to him, and much, much more.

You have four grandkids, and the youngest just turned 3 months old…

Billy Crystal: Born on my birthday, too! On my – I hate to say it – 65th birthday. No, wait. I don’t hate it. I’m here so that’s a good thing. But that was a pretty amazing night.

So of the three that are old enough to have seen Monsters Inc….

Billy CrystalBC: Well the littlest has actually seen everything now. They’ve seen everything I’m a nightlight to him. The girls are 3 and 7 and the other boy is 3½ , and that half is VERY important.

One time we were walking through the mall and this paparazzi – I have to say, creep – jumped out and started taking pictures, and it got the kids all really freaked out. “Wait, what, why are they doing that to you for?” I had to explain what I did and that I was internationally famous. (pauses for a second noting how that sounds and laughs) So they asked me what it was I do and I showed them Monsters Inc. first because I couldn’t show them the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally. “Why is she making that noise?”

At that point I became Grandpa Mike. I had to literally be Mike Wazowski for about a year. They would call up the house and I would say “Hello,” and then they would go, “Um, is Mike there?”

“Okay, I’ll get him, hold on”

And then I would talk to them as Mike and that went on for a full year.

Then when I did the Oscars again, there were billboards up all over the place saying I was doing the Oscars, and then they kinda became used to it. Then they came to the Parental Guidance premiere, and then the oldest turns to her mom and says “Do people know that grandma is married to Billy Crystal?” So, now were all good.

It must be confusing to them all the time at that age seeing you in such different stuff.

BC: It’s confusing to me! One time we were watching – because they watch the same things over and over and over and over and over again… and over again and over again – Dora the… um, something. The exploring, um, seeing things. And then I was looking at the guide on the TV and I saw that City Slickers was on. So with the remote I just went through – boom, boom, boom to 247 or whatever TNT or whatever it was – and there I am, and she just turns to me and just said “How?!?” (laughs)

So now it’s gotten to the point where it’s just become bragging rights at school. But we’re trying to play that down because we live in a part of town where a lot of kids’ parents are performers or something. At school we come to read every two weeks at the school, so there’s a lot of famous parents there.

Do you think they know how cool it is that they have Billy Crystal reading to them at school?

BC: Yeah, I think they would think, “Yeah, that was okay” because Will Ferrell read the day before. (laughs)

You’ve said before that you really identify with Mike Wazowski in a lot of ways.

BC: I love this guy! I think this is my most favourite character that I’ve ever played in anything because I just don’t know what it is about him. Well, actually, I do know. He has such a great personality. I love that he always stands up for himself. I love that he’s forever positive. I love how when something gets in his way he always goes over it around it or through it and he always comes out on the other side. Every picture of him that gets taken it’s always just the top of his head. He doesn’t even see it as a set back on his college ID or in the first film when he’s on the cover of a magazine and he’s barely there. I love that. He’s a positive guy! I love that he’s a leader of monsters. I love that he has a great sense of humour, and that he stands up for himself, and I love that he’s cranky, too. I think that’s great!

One of the biggest themes in the movie is that Mike is constantly being told that he isn’t scary, and that he doesn’t have “it,” and that’s something that I’m sure comics at the same point in their lives get a lot…

BC: Which is something that always keeps happening to us, really.

…Is that something that triggered any sort of flashbacks or memories to your early career?

BC: Oh yeah! I get those flashbacks all the time. I don’t even have to flash that far back. People are always telling you you’re done. Someone’s always telling you that, especially now in the day of social media. There used to be that you only had four or five critics that you would look to for intelligent conversation, be it Tom Shales in Washington, Janet Maslin at The New York Times, Vincent Canby, those are the ones I most remember as the ones I would look to read. But now there are millions of people who can just press send, and everyone’s got an opinion even if no one cares what they say. It makes things a little bit tougher.

With Mike and the message of the movie it becomes something pretty special. You are watching a hard drive (laughs) and yet you’re falling for these kids being created because they’re at the tender age of 17 or 18. We’ve all been there whether you went to college or not and you were out making a living and making decisions that will determine some sort of path that you might follow, and when you do that, you’re going to have to be ready for disappointment, and that’s always horrific to anyone. You always have the most perfect dreams, but when these things happen and it doesn’t work out that’s the true test of a man or a monster or a woman. That’s why I think there’s a great message in the movie. These guys don’t always do well. These guys sometimes cheat. They fall behind greatly in school. But they always end up back on their claws.

What scares you?

BC: Oh boy. This could get dark. But, actually, the dark still scares me. But it’s not just the dark of a room, it’s just the dark of the dark. You know what I’m saying? Well, if you’re Jewish, you definitely know what I’m saying. It’s the unknown. Time scares me. Having enough time to do all the things that I want to do in life just even in terms of forgetting about the business I’m in. There are all these things I want to accomplish, especially with these little ones. I really want to get to know them and get as far as I’m going to get with them. We never know how long we’re going to get.

Fear is a really great motivator. I remember The 2000 Year Old Man album, was kind of like my bible. Some people would turn to Proust or Mark Twain for inspiration as humorists, but for me it didn’t get better than when Carl (Reiner) asked Mel (Brooks), “How did you get around?” talking about how he got around before there was any transportation and the response was “Fear. Basically fear. A lion would roar and you would run a mile in a minute.” (laughs) To me that’s it. Just trying to make sure you have enough time to do what you want to do and defying the odds. Those things are scary to me, but you can’t let that fear overwhelm you.

Has that changed over the years? Would you have given that same answer in your twenties?

BC: Probably not.. There were definitely different fears then. I didn’t know where I was going back then, which comes with its own kind of fear. Now I sorta know where I’ve been. (laughs) What was that old saying, “If you remember the sixties you probably weren’t there?” I just had such a good time and such a hunger to create more things. I mean, I just turned 65 recently and I’m busier now than I’ve been in years, but that’s all by choice. I hadn’t made a movie in ten years because I didn’t really have anything that was good, and I was having fun doing my one man show…

Which you’re bringing back.

BC: We’re bringing it back in November.

Any chance of it coming to Canada?

BC: No. When we did it here last time it was the jump off for the first national tour and we had a fantastic time at Canon Theatre. Great audiences there.

Next we’ll be at the Imperial Theatre (in New York City). If you have the chance to come you should. You have to see this and it’s going to be the last time I’ll probably do this. To me doing it there means a lot because I saw Zero Mostel there doing Fiddler on the Roof in 1964 back when I was a junior in high school. So to breathe in the same atmosphere as a legend like him is going to be special.

Pixar is usually known for high quality standards, but how protective of the character were you this time out with a different director at the helm?

BC: Good question, but it all starts first knowing that you’re in great hands to begin with. It’s all about that level of trust. John Lasseter – who is our Walt Disney – has created a life for all of us to go to in this amazing kind of imagination that I think even Mr. Disney himself would just stand back and say, “Wow.” He has this extraordinary gift that he’s able to share with all of us.

It was at his 50th birthday, and it was this huge surprise to me when he talked to me about it. It’s 12 years old at this point, and about 3½ years ago he says to me straight up “We’re going to do a sequel. They’ll be in college.” And he literally just walked away, and I was standing there laughing and thinking it was going to be so good and what a great idea it was. How did they become friends? What a position to put them in and to let us see them at that point in life where decision making informs who you are. On this one, the first one was already such a great concept that you knew coming back it would be great.

For the first movie I was asked if I wanted to talk to John Lasseter and I said that whatever it was he wanted the answer was yes. And he called me up and he asked me where I was and his office was actually on my block, and maybe about thirty seconds away. He said, “We have this thing in this movie and we want you to play it and here’s what he looks like.” And he produces this cake box and pulls out this grey Maquette and it was Mike. I just looked at him and I wasn’t sure and he told me the story and it was just this mind blowing idea of what’s in closets and what their profession was. He showed me these photographs and explained the concept of the doors. I thought it was the most insanely original and amazing concept. To make this into a story that can make kids not scared of these things and helping them to overcome these fears made me want to do it right away.

To me it was a challenge of what that was going to be and John said that he had some screen tests with my voice already. At that point they gave me a VHS cassette, because it was that long ago when the first film was starting to be made, and there was pretty much just Mike and they took scenes from movies I was in and put them to Mike’s face. They had lines from When Harry Met Sally for the first one. It was the bit about the stupid wagon wheel coffee table and he was actually underneath a wagon wheel coffee table. (laughs) That didn’t sound right so we tried it again.

What did sound right was that I did a character with Christopher Guest on SNL that was a masochist. The “I hate it when that happens” guys. That was ultimately the voice that kind of became what Mike was going to sound like.

But that was all I knew because the level of secrecy on these films is astounding. We sort of got an outline. It was kind of almost like when I worked with Woody Allen on Deconstructing Harry because everyday you only get your pages and a hand written note from him to say what he wants, he asks you if you want to do it, and he’ll see you there.

Here, the night before you show up for your next session, you get the script hand delivered to you. It’s all watermarked and on special paper and you have to give it back the next day and then people would shred it right in front of you, so it doesn’t get out to Nikki Finke or one of those other “journalists.” Talk about monsters. That’s the level of secrecy around it.

But to answer the question, is that it’s great because they are constantly reworking the story. So my first session with John to do the opening scene was about four hours long, and it was a very different opening than the film has now. Three months later they did it again because it wasn’t working for them. They are always re-writing. They take it back to this amazing university they have in Emoryville, California, which if you haven’t been there you really have to see it. Next junket make sure you’re on the line-up. It’s the most creative place you can imagine. It’s like Monsters Inc. It’s this big, huge factory of fun.

The start by working with this really rough computer animation mostly of just the characters in various looking ways. Then they keep coming back and always rewriting the story right up until the very end. I only actually finished up about two and a half weeks ago. I worked about two years on this and come back every three months or so because they were always rewriting.

Can you talk about how you and John Goodman got together to record your sessions at the same time?

BC: On the first movie I came in on the first day, and he wasn’t there and they played his tracks for the scene, and I just went “This isn’t good.” If a thought occurs to me to go off and improvise something, he’s already locked into the dialogue and tone of how he’s going to play the scene. So reacting to him wasn’t going to be all that natural. I asked where he was and if he could come in. They said “Oh, he’s in town! He was here yesterday!” So I called him and asked if he wanted to do this and he says [doing a Goodman impression] “Are you kidding?” They hadn’t done it before us. Tom (Hanks) and Tim (Allen) hadn’t worked together on Toy Story. It just seemed unnatural to us, so we insisted on being together and we’re really acting together. The funny moments have a great repartee because we’re there together, and the more tender moments are heartbreaking. And again, you’re watching a hard drive! Yet you feel something real and this artwork is so beautiful. You take it for granted about how genius the animation and the execution of it is. We all work together and I think that’s why it all pays so well.

The characters here also have a much younger look to them to go along with the story, too.

BC: Yeah, they’re doing what I always have trouble doing. (laughs) It’s funny to see Mike here because I have no neck, and no body, and really nothing else, and not much to work with and they bring it to life. They videotape me while I’m working and somehow they caught my hands and certain movements of my brow and sort of use that as a map.

How did your own university experience compare with Mike’s?

BC: Oh, it was nothing like it as far as the campus life and all that. I finished up at NYU in the film program, but my fraternity was really the theatre. When I did theatre in junior college, they became my campus family. You had your nerds in that, too. They would do the tech or they would be the light and sound crew and the set designer. Then you would have the actors in another spot. Then you would have the directors. Those were the cliques I knew.

Unlike Mike, I was very shy going in. I was hoping to be a baseball player at a little school in West Virginia called Marshall University, and it was sort of an isolated place for me and just a wrong choice overall. The best thing that came out of that was getting a job as a disc jockey on the campus radio station. Disney asked for a picture of me in college and that was really the only one I had was of me at the door of WMUL “The voice of Marshall University.”

It was in the theatre department that I really started to develop what we all wanted to do. We were all 18 or 19 years old like they are. We built our own theatre and formed our own actor’s equity company. The school was called Nassau Community College. It was on an old abandoned air force base, so they had these huge airplane hangers. It was right near where Lindberg took off on his flight, which was from the Roosevelt Field that was right across the highway. But we took one of these hangars with these huge sliding doors and turned it into an indoor/outdoor theatre where you can get 2,500 people on the runway to watch these shows. We made our own what was known as a Z-company of Summer Stock and we did it all ourselves.

What kinds of shows would you put on?

BC: I did Finnigan’s Rainbow there. I was probably one of the only Jewish leprechauns ever. My wife of 43 years was there, too. We did Death of a Salesman because we had a 17-year old with his hair spraypainted and a cracking voice playing Willy Loman. I started with a little kind of stand-up thing there. We did The Odd Couple. But while I was there we did a really fine production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I was Rosencrantz for that and it was really something great that I’m still proud of. We were even able to bring in some big name directors and have some guest actors work with us. It was fantastic to come up around that.

When you do comedy, a lot of it is very physical, so how hard is it to convey that when you won’t be directly showing up in the film?

BC: I know this guy. You know what he looks like and what he’s going to do and how it’s going to be funny, but Mike is more energy than he is anything else. It’s really hard when you think about it. We’re on our feet pushing it out all the time. We have four to six hour days and you’re just exhausted towards then end of it, and that’s when they usually close out with just 45 minutes of us recording screams. (laughs) When you see those days you tend to ask them to put them at the end.

That’s why the director is always so important to me. Dan Scanlon directed this and he’s kind of a hipster. (laughs) He’s a really funny guy, and he would sometimes paint these pictures for us literally. They were these beautiful computer generated oil painting looking backdrops of where we are, so I know what the dorm looks like, what the frat looks like, what the classroom where Alfred Molina – who’s great in this – teaches looks like. We also had a look at what everyone’s character looks like, which is especially great in the case of Helen Mirren’s character to see what she looks like. We’re surrounded by at least renderings of everything. That’s always the hardest thing for me: to ask where am I and what am I doing.

This film has certainly opened you up to a whole new generation of fans. Do you remember any particularly memorable interactions with any of them?

BC: Yeah, and that really started on Parental Guidance where my nickname was Farty because I played a guy named Artie. My friends all called me that in the movie. I don’t really get “You look marvellous” anymore, but I do get a lot of Farty. I don’t know which is better. Now when kids know that I am Mike Wazowski, it’s a totally different thing. Sometimes they can’t make the leap from who the character is in the movie and who I am in real life, because when you’re four you buy that these movies are real!

Are you surprised how often people remember your impressions from early in your career?

BC: It’s funny because I never really did a lot of them. I first started with Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. That was the first TV show I was ever on when I did Ali and I was right next to him, and at the time I was still just a substitute school teacher jus trying to be a comedian, and I just got lucky enough to get to be on this TV show with him. I just started doing him and he went crazy over it. That was a phenomenal bonding experience, but that was all an accident. I was trying to do Marlon Brando from The Godfather, and the voices blended into each other.

The only other one was Sammy Davis Jr. on SNL. I was Sandy’s opening act for a bit and it was easily one of the greatest experiences of my life. I did a month with him in Lake Tahoe. That was an extremely important experience for me to be that close to a true genius on stage. You’re probably too young to remember him at his height because he wasn’t that tall. (laughs) But the genius of Sammy Davis Jr. was that he was really the first guy who could do everything. When I was growing up, he was our Michael Jackson, but he was even cooler. He could sing, dance, do impressions, play instruments, and he could be really funny. The whole persona of the cool thing with the Rat Pack, the cigarettes, the big glasses, the knee high boots, and the Nehru. He was just a cool throwback even then.

I would go on at 8pm and I would be off at 8:28 precisely. I would get to the dressing room usually around 7 for an 8pm show, but Sammy would be there at 5 because he loved being close to the stage. Sometimes he stayed to himself and he was alone. Sometimes he was playing backgammon with some stage hands. He didn’t care. He just loved being in that environment. He said he was getting there at 5 and all of a sudden I was getting there at 5:15 or 4:45 and we would just talk.

And he is the greatest storyteller you could ever imagine, and the stories were about the Rat Pack. There were all these stories about Sinatra. One of the first stories he ever told me was about getting high with Gary Cooper. So when you’re in the room with him you just can’t help but start to inflect and do the things he was going to do. Then on SNL I just started doing him, and that was really satisfying. And I mean, that’s a hard thing to do because it’s a white guy in make-up doing it, but it was done with love an affection and obviously with Sammy’s blessing. That was a great thing to be.

Monsters University not only gives the message of being yourself, but the power of having other people around you who believe in your potential. Did you have some people who specifically helped you along the way at that same point in your life?

BC: That’s a good question. I had a number of people, but most importantly is my wife Janice. We’ve been together since 1966. Any time anything good or bad happens, she is there. Any moment of self-doubt is something that she lets me have and then talks me out of it. That’s the most important thing. Along the way, you know, I’ve been blessed with some pretty great managers and agents. I’ve been with the same people since 1974. They’re my second family. These are the people who can tell you the truth, both good and bad, and it has to be done in a right way. You also have to have someone who’s always there for you so you can make mistakes, but they never seem as bad.

And along the way, even my audiences give me that. It’s always comforting to know that people want to see you. When we opened on Broadway with 700 Sundays originally – and I’m really not trying to blow smoke here, I’m really not – we became the highest grossing non-musical in Broadway history that meant so much. Think of how many plays showed there. That was unbelievably comforting and supportive that people would even want to come out and see this story about my family. That’s always great to know that’s out there and it makes me want to keep putting this stuff out.

An extension of that would be to talk about friendship and how it works in the film and how it factors into your everyday life.

BC: Well, my wife is the greatest friend I could have ever asked for. But the oldest friends I have are actually all of my high school friends. My best friends are my early friends. These are the guys who love you actually as a friend and not as anything else. And I mean, you get really great friends and new ones as you go on through life, but those old friends are the ones that make you feel better as you go. They keep things in a certain humble reality. Especially as you get older, real friends are the greatest treasure you can have next to your friend. It’s great to just be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone without paying $100 for a session.

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