Wallace Shawn on Essays, Being Funny, and What He’d Say to Obama

By
Photo: Getty Images

Wallace Shawn, 65, has long supplemented his prodigious acting career with writing — plays, mainly, but he has delved into political commentary as well. He has contributed to The Nation, and in 2004 he published a one-time-only, politics-heavy ’zine called Final Edition, with pieces by Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Schell. With a new book, Essays, out today from Haymarket Books, Shawn gets personal. Prior to his reading tonight at 7:30 at the Barnes & Noble Lincoln Triangle — and in advance of the new season of Gossip Girl, to which he returns — Vulture talked politics, sex, and toy dinosaurs with the playwright-actor.

The essays in the book deal largely with Bush-era politics. Have you always been so political?
In my early 20s, I studied history and politics, and I really thought that perhaps I would devote my life to that. I certainly didn’t expect that I would ever be the voice of a dinosaur in a cartoon. [He voiced Rex the Green Dinosaur in Toy Story.] I thought I would be more like an international civil servant working at the U.N.

So how does one transition from that to playing a toy dinosaur?
I grew up. I began to think the United States had some problems that really required the help of artistic people to solve. And I gave myself permission to be a writer instead of a civil servant. From being a writer of plays, it was not that surprising that somebody thought of giving me a job as an actor. After I played one part, others came along. And then I became the voice of a dinosaur. It’s all rather logical.

You seem like a pretty serious guy. But you’re really known for your comedic, character-driven roles. Is that something you seek out?
In the old days, I used to be offered parts in serious movies. I couldn’t cope with those movies, and I usually turned those parts down. I found them too nauseating because they too directly expressed values that I found sickening. So people stopped asking me.

Do you consider yourself funny?
For some reason, people find me funny. It’s quite hard to define why a thought is funny. It’s even harder to define why a person would be funny. It’s a word that I can’t define at all. But whether I know quite what it is or not, I seem to be it.

In the book, you’re pretty critical of Bush and his cohorts. How are you feeling these days?
This is a much more complicated time than Bush, because Bush and the people with him were completely alien figures to me. Obama is someone with whom I could communicate and yet, for me, what is happening in our country is still quite horrifying.

How so?
There’s still a system in place that is oppressing the poor of the world and doing terrible things.

You say Obama is someone you could communicate with. What would you talk to him about?
There are a hundred things. I could be terribly eloquent, and he could burst into tears and say, “Everything that you think is just exactly what I think now because you were so eloquent and you were able in ten minutes to sum up every issue of our time.” But how much would he be able to do? There’s a question of who’s running things. It isn’t him.

Any new plays in the works?
I have just come back from England, where they did quite a lot of my plays at the Royal Court, including my new play, which I was writing over the course of the last dozen years or so, called Grasses of a Thousand Colors. It has just also been published here. Andre Gregory directed it, and I was in it, along with Miranda Richardson and Jennifer Tilly and Emily McDonald. We all hope that we will do it in New York.

What’s it about?
The character that I play is a scientist and businessman. I would say it’s semi-mythological and it has quite a bit to do with animals.


Dinosaurs?

No, there are no dinosaurs involved.