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Crispin Glover on Playing the Least Weird Character in Alice in Wonderland

Crispin Glover’s reputation as an unpredictable eccentric hasn't kept him from getting cast in big studio films: He can currently be seen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland as the villainous Knave of Hearts, a sort of Darth Vader to Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen. He will also be seen in the upcoming Hot Tub Time Machine, which will no doubt remind many of his iconic role as Michael J. Fox’s father in Back to the Future. Glover's body of work includes scene-stealing in Charlie’s Angels, concocting his own, odd indie films such as What Is It? and It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine, and touring around the world with his Big Slide Show, a multimedia experience in lovable strangeness. (You can keep track of all that Glover is up to on his website.) The actor recently spoke with us about his part in Alice and his idiosyncratic career.

So how did you end up getting cast in a big Disney family film?
I don’t know, actually. I was touring around with my own films in Australia, and I was supposed to go on to Europe, when I heard there was interest in me for this film. I had known Tim Burton socially back in the eighties, not too long after he had done Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I’d always liked him, but I hadn’t talked to him in many, many years, and I thought this might be an interesting part to do for a few days, reconnect with Tim Burton, etc. And then I got the offer and it turned out to be this great, big part! I was very happy and grateful to be in this. I really liked working with Helena Bonham Carter. It was a very enjoyable film to make, and I wanted to support the world Tim Burton had set up.

It’s so effects-driven. What was it like working on the film itself? Was it just a lot of green screen?
It was in fact a lot of green screen. I’ve never worked with this much green screen before. Everything in Wonderland was shot on green screen. Everything not Wonderland was shot in England. I was on stilts for much of the shoot, and I was wearing green. My head is basically the way you see it in the film — my face and a wig I was wearing — but my body was motion captured, so they could elongate the body. The movements I’m doing in the film are the movements I did myself, but my character is supposed to be eight feet tall or something.

You’ve actually had some input into your characters in studio films in the past. Did you get a lot of input into this one?
Well, in terms of my previous studio movies, on Charlie’s Angels, I had more input into that character and how he looked and acted than basically any other character I’ve ever played in a film, other than my own films. It’s not usual to have that much influence, obviously. In Alice, the screenplay was very succinct. I was sent a drawing of what the character would look like. For the most part, the finished product is pretty similar to that concept. Basically, I wanted to help Tim Burton. When somebody like that has a genuinely eccentric vision, they’re very often told not to do things, because there’s this fear of going into unusual territory — and I could tell from working with Tim Burton that this is something that’s happened to him in the past. As a result, he does not want to do that to the people that he’s working with. I very much appreciated that. You feel that you can genuinely explore what the psychology or the thought process is for a character and not get boxed into anything. And you want very much to accommodate what he’s going for. He’s somebody that’s open to things, so you want to help him. That’s how I felt about the whole project.

It can safely be said that you have a bit of a reputation. Do people expect you to be totally crazy when you show up on set?
I don’t really know. People don’t really come up to you and say, “Oh, I thought you were gonna be really crazy.” [Laughs.] That’s the one thing you don’t hear. I think Tim Burton knows that my eccentricities are artistic eccentricities, but it’s also interesting because the character that I play is really less eccentric than the others in the film. For example, Helena Bonham Carter’s character is very volatile. My character, by contrast, is very diplomatic.

He’s a company man.
Exactly! The most eccentric thing about him is the casting. [Laughs.] I wasn’t the most obvious choice to play this character. He’s probably the most straightforward character inside Wonderland. Often, I will make choices that have certain kinds of extremes to them. In this particular situation, it made sense to not have those extremes. People are used to seeing me play relatively extreme people, but I always try to find the truth of the character. I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about it, actually, but I’ve seen Alice a few times now and I think it made sense.

So, tell me about the slideshow you’ve been doing.
It’s called Crispin Hellion Glover’s Big Slide Show. I first did it in 1993. There was a film festival that had done a retrospective of films I’d acted in, and they wanted to bring me up. I had been publishing my books since 1987. People had told me I should have a book reading, but my books are so heavily illustrated, and the visual elements help the reader to understand what’s going on in the story. A straight reading didn’t make any sense. I knew I’d have to have slides, so I conceived of a big slideshow. The show did well, so I’ve been performing it on and off since then. That’s also how I’ve been distributing my films, What Is It? and It Is Fine, Everything Is Fine.

And I hear you’re working on the third part of that trilogy now.
Well, I’m going to. I own property in the Czech Republic — an old chateau built in the 1600s, next to some horse stables that I’m making into a sound stage so I can keep my sets there. In the long run, that becomes a less expensive way to do it, but in the short run, it’s very expensive. When I set out to do the first two films, I thought, naïvely, that because they were small films they would be very simple productions. But they were in fact very complicated productions. Part three will be more complex, so I think I need to make a number of films that are simpler, to work myself up into making a more complicated production. So I’m writing things that can be simple, but can also have visual spectacle. What I’m working on right now is something for my father and myself to do together. My father is an actor, but we’ve never performed together.

Photo: Patrick McMullan