Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn on the Legacy of My Dinner With Andre

A meal worthy of the Criterion treatment. Photo: New Yorker Films

When My Dinner With Andre hit cinemas in 1981, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn were already established figures of the New York theater scene. But the hit film, directed by Louis Malle and consisting almost entirely of a scripted dinner conversation between the two men, turned them into something closer to celebrities: “Few people knew who they were when they entered the theater,” wrote Roger Ebert about the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. “Now they would never be forgotten where films were taken seriously.”

Over the next several decades, the two men built on that collaboration with more films. Next came 1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street, also directed for the screen by Malle, though the theatrical production itself — essentially a years-long workshopping and exploration of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with little thought given to a traditional audience — was directed by Gregory himself. Then, in 2014, the duo appeared in A Master Builder, a film version of Gregory’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder, directed by Jonathan Demme, with Shawn in the title role. (Our own David Edelstein called Vanya “an astonishing fusion of theater and film — superb Chekhov, superb moviemaking,” and said of A Master Builder that it was “madly, bitingly, chillingly alive.”) My Dinner With Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street, and A Master Builder are all now available in a gorgeous new boxed set from the Criterion Collection. In honor of its release, we spoke to Gregory and Shawn about their three cinematic collaborations.

What do you think of grouping the three films together? They were produced separately, each under different circumstances.
Andre Gregory: That was Criterion’s idea. But it’s a natural thing to do, because each of the projects was originally launched by myself and/or Wally. They are all classics: You could say that My Dinner With Andre and Sex, Lies, and Videotape helped start the independent film movement, in a sense. And you might say, if you are pessimistic, that A Master Builder saw the end of that movement, in the sense that far fewer people now actually seem to go see movies. But Wally and I have also never done anything like these three films without each other. In a way, they fit together because you can see two men going from youth to middle age to old age. I once asked Louis Malle why he was interested in doing Dinner and Vanya, and he said, “I’ve always liked the talkies.” All three are great “talkies” — which is a tradition that has been somewhat lost. So, it’s natural for them to come together.
Wallace Shawn: Obviously, the two later films are plays that Andre directed over the period of years, so they are logically linked together. Linking the third one, My Dinner With Andre, is interesting, because although Andre didn’t direct that one, there were certain qualities in it of his rehearsal process, of the way that he works. And, of course, My Dinner With Andre throws you quite a few hints about what type of theater we’re coming from.
And in My Dinner with Andre, the “Andre” character is extremely disillusioned by theater. He’s looking to reclaim some aspect of “the real.” But by Vanya on 42nd Street, we find him — even though it’s obviously a different “Andre Gregory” — back to doing something like theater, albeit without a traditional audience; he’s trying to reconnect theater with reality, in a sense. Then, by A Master Builder, we’ve embraced this theatrical warhorse. That movie is basically the play — there’s no ironic distance anymore. But it’s also a film, which allows for both greater intimacy and, potentially, a bigger audience.
WS: In the first film, we speak of [Jerzy] Grotowski, who was a kind of mentor to Andre, and therefore indirectly to me. Grotowski left theater. After a certain point he didn’t perform for an audience. He had a group of actors who did ritualistic performances that were not seen by anyone; he managed to get financing for that, but he had no audience. He didn’t do plays anymore, whereas we’re doing something very traditional, in a way, because you could say we’ve sunk some of the best years of our lives into two 19th-century figures, focusing in on them with almost obsessive intensity. We’ve logged an incredible amount of hours in the rehearsal room, and when we’re not rehearsing, we’ve let the unconscious mind brood about these plays. This is our way of reaching what we do, and making what we do reach out to a large audience. Some bitter people might condemn this, but the way that we work is inevitably only comprehensible if you’re sitting right next to it. And we couldn’t do what we do for 200 people, much less 800 people. But for film, we can do it for lots and lots of people.
AG: There is another progression, which I think is interesting for people who loved My Dinner With Andre. These two guys are young, opinionated friends in Andre. By Master Builder, they are old, bitter antagonists. That opens the film, so it’s making a statement of how time passes and how people change.
WS: In My Dinner With Andre, I play the quiet, reactionary, bourgeois guy who wants to stay at home and have what he thinks of as a normal life. This isn’t exactly what I was at that time, or any time, but still there’s some reality to it. In Vanya, you could say that the frustration bursts out of that normality. And then in Master Builder, megalomania takes the place of frustration. Certainly, for me, as an actor, the roles are wonderfully contrasting.
Andre, you’re a theater director, and you directed Vanya and A Master Builder. But for the film versions, the directors were Louis Malle and Jonathan Demme. How do you navigate a partnership and collaboration like that — where they are directing films of your directions of theatrical productions?
AG: You navigate it in the sense that you choose as the film director somebody with whom you think you could have an extraordinary collaboration. I totally trusted them as equals, and as people who view the movies in a way that I didn’t. So I just let them go. Naturally, I put in my two bits over something that seemed to be going totally somewhere that I didn’t get, or didn’t like, or something like that. But when I choose a set designer for theater work, I give them great leeway and great freedom. So I choose a movie director and give him quite great freedom, because he’s a fine director who I respect and feel in my bones will be faithful to my vision, while at the same time creating his own unique vision.
WS: Every actor has a certain interpretation — spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious — of the character that he’s playing. In my case, with Vanya and Halvard Solness, I’ve evolved a certain interpretation of the character, a certain way of being that character, over the years with Andre. In each scene, there are certain things that are going on that were important for me, and it was all shaped by Andre over a period of years. Basically, both Louis Malle and Jonathan Demme accepted these interpretations. There was no, “Well, I think you’re too timid, and I don’t think Vanya is so timid, and I think he should be much more bold,” and that sort of thing. That said, Jonathan Demme is someone who works off of almost mad inspiration at times, and there were a couple of scenes in which he had a vision of how it ought to be that shocked me.
AG: It becomes yet another stage in the process of the work. I want to be surprised. They are not theater directors; they are moviemakers. I consider each one of these a unique movie, not theater. Even though, of course, both men were documentarians, so there’s a sense of it being a document of what we did, but those are moviemakers, so they become movie movies. I love to be surprised by what these fine moviemakers will come up with that I have never thought of.
Both of you have said that the characters in My Dinner With Andre are not, in fact, you. But how much of you is in those characters?
AG: I believe that there are many different sides to all of us. I’ve been thrown out of five different gyms for what you would call cutting up — making fun of working out, all kinds of different things. Somebody else has never seen that Andre. No one has ever seen the Andre who is at home with his wife. These are all different characters, or sides of one. When I was creating the role, I had a terrible time. It drove me nuts because who the hell is Andre Gregory? How do I play myself? Then, after months of rehearsal, I came up with four different voices. One was Andre Gregory the Peter Brook guru. One was Andre the off-the-wall rich kid — spoiled, narcissistic. The other was the Andre who is sometimes sincere. All of these voices were mine, but they only arise when I become those different characters. If a young student comes to me and wants me to pass on some kind of experience or wisdom to them, I might get into the Peter Brook guru voice. I literally created four different Andres, all of whom were aspects of my personality.
WS: Basically, the facts that are given in the film are true. They’re just selectively deployed. I certainly grew up in a bourgeois household, and I’m addicted to comforts. I’m a hedonist. There’s no way for me to get away from the fact that I am a very bourgeois person. If Malcolm X met me, he would find me a complacent member of the New York elite, and he would have as much contempt for me as he would for anybody else who, say, eats in the same places I eat at. On the other hand, I’m actually a divided person who really believes that there shouldn’t be an elite that has people like me in it. That the world should be completely reorganized, and that people like me should really not be allowed to plunder the planet. So I’m a divided person in My Dinner With Andre, which was written at a time when I was less angry and less politically aware than I am today. Still, I knew that complacency was not the way I wanted to go in life, and I did intentionally write myself as a very complacent character in the hope that it would spur me to change — which, to some extent, it did.
But there were also aspects of my biography that were not included in the film intentionally, because we were portrayed as two archetypes. So, for instance, I had written incredibly obscene plays, which had put me at risk of being prosecuted in England, and that would have slightly detracted from the image of the character that I was painting in the film. I had spent a year living in India. Whereas the character you see in the film had probably never left Manhattan.
Your character also has to do much more reacting. He’s much more passive than Andre — who really gets to talk. Was that a challenge?
WS: We rehearsed that piece for months, and it was a challenge at the beginning, because I started the process thinking that as an actor I would try to be natural and just the way I am. I thought that the process of changing that person into a character had been completed in the writing — so that in the acting, I would just be me. But Louis Malle immediately pointed out how ridiculous that was. He made suggestions, and I said, “I would never do that.” And he said, “Well, I don’t care. That’s what your character would do, so you have to do it.” I thought that was going to look unnatural, but he videotaped our rehearsals and showed me that, indeed, if I did it his way, it would be much more natural. So, after a very short time, it became like playing any other part. Partly because, as an actor, let’s be frank, I don’t do anything. Maybe this is why I’m not a very successful actor. I play a character on The Good Wife who is a criminal, and my technique is to just be me, if I had those circumstances.
It’s also striking how much of My Dinner With Andre involves creating images with words — it’s all about Andre relating these striking experiences that he’s had in far-off places, things that many other filmmakers would actually show onscreen. But we never leave that dinner table.
AG: Everybody always says, “Oh, how did a movie work where two guys just sit at a table and talk?” Because storytelling is the heart of the movie — as it is in A Master Builder. Kids love stories because they activate the imagination of the person listening to the story. So the camera doesn’t have to show you the Polish forest or the Tunisian desert — you see it and make your own movie in your own mind. So you could say that these movies are more cinematic than a lot of cinema. That’s what makes it thrilling. Everybody who watched A Master Builder in a movie house was absolutely on the edge of their seats and riveted and carried away, because the things that they’re asked to imagine are so extraordinary that a camera could never do what the magic of words in a story can do.
WS: You can get people to imagine things when they’re reading a book and there’s no image — that’s a remarkable human capacity. But it turns out to be possible to tell a story even in a movie, just as you can tell a story in a book or in life! You’re looking at my head while I’m telling the story, and yet the episodes in the story are forming in your mind somehow. Why shouldn’t we make use of that fascinating capacity? There’s something exciting about that. We like to create work that people can have different opinions about, rather than more manipulative work that makes everybody feel the same thing at the same time. Similarly, people can see things at different times in their lives, and it strikes them as different each time.
Andre, did you share the pessimism of the character in My Dinner With Andre at the time?
AG: At that time, yeah. Although once, when I was in Poland, I was introduced to a young man, and the Poles have wonderful ways of putting things. He had no idea who I was. He shook my hand and he said, “I look into your eyes and I see the most optimistic pessimist I’ve ever met.” So while the ideas that Andre is expressing in the film are often pessimistic, he also talks about subjects like relationships in a very positive way, and he has an enormous amount of positive energy when he speaks.
WS: Andre emphasizes in My Dinner With Andre this idea that most people go through their lives in a semi-conscious dream state without being wide awake and serving reality and living in the moment. There is a kind of plea in that film that we should all expand our consciousness and wake up. We’re both children of the 1960s, when that idea was quite prominent. Now we’re living in 2015, where I do think the multiplicity of information and the way we spend our lives makes it even more of a challenge to focus and look and listen. I can’t prove that this is a sensible thing to say, and you may consider it absurd, but I do think that consciousness and waking up are particularly relevant to us as Americans. This is a very dangerous country — I believe the most dangerous in the world, by far — both to other people and the planet. We should figure out what we ought to do about it.
Andre, you noted your optimistic pessimism. That struck me, too, while watching the film again. You’re saying all these potentially apocalyptic things, but you do it in a very gentle way, with a half-smile on your face. It’s still a pleasant experience, hearing you rail against society.
AG: That’s how I am. I personally believe — and this is just my own belief — that America is heading toward corporate fascism, that the Middle East is about to explode, that we’re as close to a world war as we have been since the 1930s. But at the same time, I enjoy reading, I enjoy drawing, I adore my wife, I adore my kids. So both are part of reality. The earth dies in wintertime, and it gets reborn in spring. So, if I were completely blissful, I would be denying the fact that there is a huge problem of climate change, global poverty. I mean, how could I be completely happy knowing that that’s a fact? But if I lived only with that fact, I would be a psychotic, because the world is also a beautiful place. And I feel incredibly grateful that I’ve been given a life that I could, in a sense, never grow up. I make movies and plays and draw and write. What a privilege.

Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn on Their Dinner