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Wallace Shawn on Admission, College Applications, and a Clueless Musical

Wallace Shawn. Photo: Getty Images

In Admission, in theaters tomorrow, Wallace Shawn plays an almost-retired dean of admissions at Princeton. (Tina Fey is an officer vying for the top spot, and Paul Rudd is a genial teacher trying to get one of his students into the Ivy League.) Vulture spoke with the actor, who also played a deceptively intimidating lawyer in a recent episode of Good Wife, about television, college applications, and what he should sing if Clueless goes to Broadway.

You were so great on The Good Wife. They have to have you back!
I don’t think they have to do anything! But I hope they have me back. I haven’t seen it yet, but it was scary. I thought it was fascinating to do it, and I can’t wait to see it.

Admission’s ideas about the college admissions process reminded me of your “Why I Call Myself a Socialist” essay.
Well, of course the whole idea of — and thank you for referring to something I actually wrote — the whole idea of American college admissions is sort of nauseating. It’s a different type of elitism, and I understand why it’s practiced, in that they’re trying to take in the more wonderful people. That is to say, people who do good works, who go on adventures, who play instruments, who do things that are not just academic. Now, when that began, which I think was certainly more than 50 years ago, people really were interested in the different activities that they practiced. They didn’t go on charitable missions, go help in a refugee camp, or play the violin because it would look good on a résumé. It wasn’t calculated. Now these things are all sort of branding strategies, selling points, but I’m dubious about the whole thing. Obviously there are not hundreds of thousands of great professors, and it’s understandable they gather in certain places. Who knows who would get the most out of them? I would rethink it all from the ground up, I suppose. I think the whole system of education would change if I were in charge and had the ability to make changes. I don’t think I would keep Princeton exactly being Princeton. I haven’t worked out my entire plan to overhaul education yet, but hmmm …

I expect it on my desk by Monday.
[Laughs.] You know, in the system we have, obviously, it’s a beautiful thing if the people who would get the most out of meeting those teachers get to meet them. And there’s a great difference between what’s valuable about meeting the teacher for the student and whether that student does well on tests about the subject. In the discussions in the film, it’s all about who is going to do well at Princeton, and the system is set up so that if you don’t do well, you would be kicked out. So you can’t admit the people who are not going to do well, but on the other hand, are they the people who would benefit the most by being taught by those fine teachers?

So I’m wondering if you noticed something, or talked to him about it: The director of your upcoming movie The Double, Richard Ayoade, was also the director of the Community homage to My Dinner with André.
He directed that?! I had no idea. I had no idea that Richard Ayoade had anything to do with that! Somebody sent that episode to me, and I thought it was very funny.

Do you usually watch Community?
Sadly, we can only do so much in our lives. I don’t have a television, and I’m just not too up on television. I watch television in hotel rooms, and I’ve seen every show once. Not every show, but depending on how often I’m in a hotel room, there’s a limit. I don’t really know country music, either. But I was familiar with Community because I went to school with Chevy [Chase], and I’m always happy to see him in something, and he was in the early years of that show …

He’s still on it.
Oh, I thought he departed.

He did, but after shooting this season. So he’s still a presence on the show this season. But that was a pivotal past episode for the show.
[Laughs.] I had absolutely no idea.

You also just shot Wally and Andre Shoot Ibsen. How did that turn out?
Right. I don’t think that’s going to be the title of our movie. I’m not sure what’s going to be the title, but I don’t think that’s going to be the title. This is a film based on a play that André Gregory directed, The Master Builder, written by Ibsen, as adapted and translated by me. So it’s a play that’s been turned into a film. It’s its own entity, but it’s also a sequel to Vanya on 42nd Street and My Dinner with André in the sense that André and I have worked together for 40 years, and this is the third film that we’ve done together.

Amy Heckerling is planning a Clueless musical.
Ah, yes!

Would you be involved if she asked you? What songs would you want Mr. Hall and Miss Geist to sing?
[Laughs.] Well, if Amy Heckerling were to ask me to do something, I always say yes. But see, this is another of my weak points, because I have a little knowledge of classical music, but no knowledge of popular music, really. I mean, it’s sad, even tragic. I just don’t know much about popular music, but I’m sure it’s going to be a great musical. And my singing, I don’t think I could sing Wagner or opera, but I could probably carry a tune. I was in a musical once, but it was never performed.

Why not?
Not because of me. [Laughs.] It wasn’t my fault. It was a group of songs by Ed Kleban, who was the lyricist for A Chorus Line, and it was at the Public Theater, and it had many good people in it, but we never actually performed it. It was called Gallery [a musical that took place in an art gallery, with different songs inspired by painters and paintings].

You could do a love song with Miss Geist, a duet.

You wouldn’t have to do “Rollin’ With My Homies.”
[Chuckles.] But my knowledge of the music of the eighties …

I think it would be the nineties …
The nineties? [Laughs.] See, now I’m clueless.

Wallace Shawn on Singing in a Clueless Musical