Robin Williams delivers a compelling performance as a storyteller caught in the middle of a “mystery of the heart” in The Night Listener.
Based on the real experiences of his friend, the author Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City), Williams plays a late night radio presenter who beguiles his audience with tales of his own life.
Gabriel Noone is in the middle of the painful break up of a long-term relationship when a publisher asks him to read the memoir of a young survivor of a horrific, abused childhood.
“He’s immediately sympathetic towards this child who has suffered terribly,” says Williams. “And who wouldn’t be? The abuse described in the book is beyond awful.”
Noone strikes up a telephone friendship with the seriously ill 14 year old, played by Rory Culkin, and his understandably protective, adoptive mother (an excellent Toni Colette).
“It’s a kind of surrogate father son relationship,” says Williams. “And although they haven’t met face to face, he can feel the bond with this boy and it gets stronger and stronger.”
When Noone does in fact suggest a face-to-face meeting, it’s always cancelled at the last minute. And when his former lover, Jess (Bobby Cannavale) hears both the boy and his mother speak on the telephone, he plants a seed of doubt in his mind over their real identities – and, indeed, the truth of the story Noone has been told.
Based on the book of the same name by Maupin, The Night Listener is a thriller which explores the nature of story telling, truth and illusion.
Williams, 55, was born in Chicago and studied at the prestigious Juiliard School of Music and Drama before embarking on a career as a stand up comedian – emerging amongst a golden generation for American comedy which included the late John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin and others.
He won an Oscar for his portrayal of a therapist who counsels a maths genius, played by Matt Damon, in Good Will Hunting and his impressive CV includes Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, The Fisher King, Jumanji, Insomnia, One Hour Photo and more recently RV.
Q: Are you pleased with the film?
A: Yeah I think it has a lot nuance and it’s interesting to have a film where you have to engage, you have to track it and then you go ‘oh, wait a minute..’ and he’s worked very hard, Patrick (Stettner, director), has tweaked and changed it for the better..
Q: There’s a big debate with your career, the lighter films and the darker ones...
A: Oh that’s OK, that’s part of the drill.
Q: But surely that’s what you would wish for, the chance to do different things?
A: Oh yeah, I don’t want to do one thing and it’s fun to have the chance to do something like this. When you get a chance to play a character like this it’s great. Armistead sent it to me and said ‘just read it and see what you think..’ I did and I thought it was really interesting. And then Patrick shot it pretty much on the run in New York which was also great. In the end you go ‘yes, it’s worth doing..’
Q: Do you think ‘well I’ve done a comedy now I’m going to do a more serious role?’
A: it’s not like I have to do one comedy, two dramas, it’s more that ‘this is a great character..’ If it turns out that I do three comedies in a row or three dark characters in a row, that’s great. I’m not really looking to balance this. Sometimes agents go ‘pst, maybe you should do one financial movie now, one big comedy…’ but it’s like these come along and you go ‘yeah.’ And you’re not in it for the money at this stage, you are in it for the glory and the chance to work with interesting people and interesting material and interesting people.
Q: So it’s a chance to explore different things?
A: Yes, behaviour, With something like this it’s like the bookend of One Hour Photo, the receiving end of that sociopath, you know, what’s that like? And I have met people somewhat like her, I mean, I haven’t met the full on Munchausen’s Ventriloquism but you come across people who go ‘you know I met you in Oklahoma..’ and you go ‘maybe when I was drinking, cool..’ And then she says ‘you know I travelled all around the country with you, I worked for you for six months’ and then you realise ‘no, you didn’t’ and the minute you kind of doubt that they get quite angry, ‘No! I did!’
Q: And celebrity does draw that kind of person towards it...
A: It draws it and people create complete histories and probably what happens is that they have told other people these stories and then they convince themselves. And maybe, in their minds, it is real. With this woman, I don’t know. When you see the end of the film you realise that it is continuing, she will continue this with as many different people as did the woman with Armistead. The real woman had a lot of people scammed and she preyed off of that idea of people’s compassion, the desire to help. And it is a violation; it’s kind of like a mental cuckold. I was talking to a journalist who was doing a story about Armistead and the real incident and he tried to contact some of the other people and they didn’t want to talk about it, they were too embarrassed, they felt like they had been scammed, it made them look stupid. It was like ‘how could people believe this was a kid?’ but if you don’t know, if you have been told it was a child you would talk to him in a different way, you would listen.
Q: What would you like your work to say about you?
A: That I’m a human being, that helps. You know, with a slight intelligence, a functioning intelligence.
Q: Is it like a switch you flip where you can be funny or serious?
A: Yes. I think it’s a conscious choice, I can turn it off or on according to need or according to inspiration, if someone says something that seems like a nice opportunity (switches to Spanish voice) I will go that way, I will attempt to find the comedy in a Spanish maid suddenly going ‘I’m kidding Mr Armistead, it’s me! I’m back!’ Yeah, there are moments and then others when you realise, no. We can talk straight if you want.
Q: Armistead was talking about all the people that this woman had duped...
A: She duped many people and a lot of people won’t talk about it, he will.
Q Have you ever had anything like that happen to you?
A: No, I’ve done a lot of Make A Wish kids and I’ve never had one call for me from the Bahamas going ‘I’m 30! Thanks for the money for the dialysis machine! I’m riding it!’ (makes a motorbike noise) I’ve never been duped like that but I’ve met people who have been.
Q: Was there a point in your career when you thought you could take more serious roles, darker roles?
A: Insomnia opened up a whole kind of other side, the dark kind of stranger roles and it was like ‘great..’ That was a wonderful access. It’s like if you play a video game when you access the next level (deep announcer’s voice) “You are now welcome to the dark parts! Welcome!”
Q: If you get two equally good scripts, one comedy one drama, which one do you take?
A: Which one pays more? (laughs) No, I wouldn’t know, whichever character I hadn’t done before and the other elements like director and cast. And then it’s hard if they are both equally good. Finding a good script is really difficult and the scariest thing of all is when they say about a script that’s not right, ‘we will fix it..’ it’s like before you get on the Titanic and you see a big hole. In process it’s too late.
Q: How did you prepare for this character? He’s based on Armistead, who is a friend, is that where you started?
A: Yeah but it’s only Armistead about 20 per cent, like it’s only Armistead in that there’s somewhat of a southern accent. Armistead is very elegant man, a very articulate man, in San Francisco he is like our second mayor. It’s like the idea of having him and that kind of persona of Armistead and then it’s this other guy. So I wasn’t doing an impression of Armistead. I was just taking a little bit of him for a base. It’s like when I did Awakenings it’s not fully Oliver Sachs.
Q: Is it just as gratifying when a film like RV succeeds despite the critical reaction?
A: Oh yeah, the fact that we survived the initial maelstrom is wonderful and the fact that you get people coming up and saying ‘I took my family we laughed our asses off’ And that’s what it was made for - you have a good time, I wasn’t trying to change your life. But with this one if people go and affected by it then that’s what we made it for and if it disturbs you on that level. if you examine the nature of connection and storytelling,
Q: You won your Oscar for a serious role and not a comedy performance. It seems harder to win one for comedy...
A: With the comedians they are treated like ‘oh yes, they’re there and sure it pays for the industry and sure, that’s how it started, but they are damaged people, that’s what they do they are just this side of mentally challenged. They are clients really.’ But you know, I would honour all the guys who didn’t get one and mention all the names – go right back to the start, you know Chaplin having to wait until he’s pretty much been thrown out of America – Keaton, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, The Marx Brothers. Comedy is a great art when it works. I’ve never seen anything funnier than Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, that scene at the dinner table. That alone should get an award if you are just talking about sheer funny but they are always talking about ‘well, is it meaningful?’ Well, sure it’s meaningful if you come out and you had a great laugh.
Q: How old were you when you realised you had this unique comic voice?
A: I haven’t realised that yet. But I’ve realised that it was working pretty well when I was in my twenties when I was finding like you say a unique voice versus a combination of other things. There was a big benefit show in San Francisco and I really started to have a good time and realised like ‘this is me, this is not like kind of Jonathan Winters..’ Everyone starts out being somebody else.
Q: Christopher Reeve was a close friend of yours. What’s it been like for you with the new Superman film with Brandan Routh?
A: I see posters and I go ‘it’s him, it’s Chris!’ It’s like he’s back and it’s kind of wonderful. I hear it’s elegant and the kid is great and I think it’s a great tribute to him. Number one they made it again but it will bring back the memory of Chris. And you know Warner Bros have been very supportive. They made this medal which is like a dog tag for his foundation and it’s kind of wonderful. Superman is a great character and Chris loved doing it, he took great pride in that.
Q: You worked with Christopher Nolan on Insomnia and now there’s talk that you might play The Joker if he does another Batman movie. Would you make the character darker?
A: That would be wonderful. And there’s a lot of places to go with a character like that. I think you could explore how bright and how nasty and funny he is. I guess that’s what Kevin (Spacey) did with Lex Luthor (in Superman Returns), make him really funny but still damaged.
Q: Toni Colette is seriously creepy in The Night Listener. What is she like to work with?
A: She is amazing to work with. She is a chameleon and coming from me that’s a compliment. She really transforms herself; she can go from being drop dead gorgeous to being vulnerable to being hideously frightening. She is a great actress. And kick ass funny,