Looking at Wallace Shawn’s filmography, it’s easy to imagine someone who knows nothing of his origins being stunned at the revelation that his original plan was to pursue a career as a playwright rather than an actor. With his unique look, memorable voice, and knack for witty dialogue with a devastating delivery, Shawn’s performances in films like My Dinner With Andre, The Princess Bride, and Clueless — not to mention his efforts as a voice actor in the Toy Story franchise — have made an indelible impression on the pop-culture landscape.
In addition to writing for the theater and his big-screen performances, Shawn has made a career of popping up for an episode or two on just about every TV series you can think of. Recently, however, he’s had a gig on CBS’s Young Sheldon that’s provided him with something he hasn’t had in a long time: a recurring role. Shawn plays Dr. John Sturgis, a physics professor who, over the course of the series’ run to date, has become romantically entangled with Sheldon’s beloved Meemaw, played by Annie Potts.
Shawn spoke with Vulture about having a rare long-term gig, his appreciation of his young co-star, and his uncertainty about what the future holds for him and Ms. Potts on the series, but he also took time to reflect on the weirdness of being approached by fans when you don’t know exactly what they’re a fan of, and why he hasn’t owned a TV in over 40 years.
You’ve had plenty of TV roles over the years, but you haven’t really had a substantial recurring role like on Young Sheldon in a long while.
No, I’ve never done anything like this. There was a TV series of Clueless shortly after the film came out, and I did that for about a year. But I’ve done this for many more episodes, I think. By now I must have filmed, I don’t know, 18 or 19 episodes of Young Sheldon? So I don’t particularly want to know why they invited me. For me, it’s a wonderful thing, I’m very lucky. I don’t know how it’s happened, but it’s been very good fortune for me.
In regards to your young co-star, Iain Armitage, you two seemed to have a great onscreen rapport from the get-go.
Oh, well, he is not only an outrageously talented actor — because he’s absolutely nothing like this character that he plays — but he’s very … Well, I can only say I adore working with him, and I’m thrilled when I see that I’m going to be doing a scene with him. He’s an amazingly warm person.
And Annie Potts, you’ve been in a voice cast with her several times now, but this is the first time you’ve actually worked with her.
[Laughs.] Yes, absolutely! I’m blessed. I’m really very blessed. It’s been a joyful experience to have her as a partner.
When it comes to your own TV viewing, do you tend toward sitcoms? Given your work as a playwright, my instinct is that the answer is “no,” but you never know.
Well, I’ve never owned a television, and I still don’t, so I really haven’t understood anything that people have said to me for the last 40 years. I don’t understand references to TV shows, famous TV commercials, important sports events … So I’ve acted on sitcoms more than I’ve watched them, really! But it’s certainly been a very, very congenial forum for me to work in. I’ve done some very wonderful sitcoms, including The Cosby Show and Murphy Brown. I was even on a couple of episodes of Taxi! I’m definitely sort of in awe of the best of these short little dramas.
Even going back to my childhood, when my parents did have a television, I saw, for instance, The Honeymooners, some of the episodes of which I watched again recently. In some ways, I admire those episodes more than the plays of that period. Certainly the acting of Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows … These people were great actors, maybe better than the people who won the Tonys and the Oscars at that time.
Forgive me, but I’m very curious about this never-owned-a-TV thing. Since your parents did have a TV, was it originally an act of rebellion for you to not have one?
Well, I think it was maybe an instinct. A fear of brainwashing? I don’t know. My girlfriend and I both grew up in a certain generation that was somewhat rebellious about TV. We didn’t know each other then, but when we were 12 or 13, we both were very influenced by George Orwell’s book 1984, which sort of had a frightening and somewhat accurate view of the TV screen as having an overwhelming influence.
I think I thought it might be not so beneficial to watch the regular news shows and the commercials. I think I was afraid of it. I do find television very seductive. I mean, I spend a certain amount of time in hotel rooms, and sometimes I just don’t ever turn on the television, and sometimes I become obsessed and watch many, many shows in a row. So I didn’t want to spend my time watching television, and my girlfriend didn’t really find television very appealing. We didn’t have a very big apartment, and we just didn’t get into it. And we never have! Although now we have computers, so you can watch a TV show if you want to. Maybe not at the time it’s being shown to the general public, but if you want to look up a TV show, it’s easy to do now.
Your original career path had not been toward acting. What led you that direction? Did you just see it as an extension of being a playwright?
Well, my close friend Wilfred Leach asked me to perform in a translation I had done for him at the Public Theater in New York, and he offered to pay me to perform in the play. And the part theoretically was not too difficult, so I said yes. And it sort of developed from there. I realized I could really support my life as a playwright by being an actor, at least for a little while. And each time the acting has seemed to be fading out and I’ve thought, Maybe I should figure out some other way to make a living, it’s revived!
You’ve got a few signature films in your back catalogue, but is there a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you’d hoped it would?
Well, Andre Gregory and I spent 17 years working on our production of Ibsen that became the film A Master Builder, directed by Jonathan Demme, and I would say there are quite a few people out there who’ve never seen that movie, if you can believe it!
Thankfully, it’s been released by Criterion, which certainly ups its chances of being seen.
Yes, it’s definitely on Criterion, and no one is stopping anyone from seeing it.
You and Andre have collaborated a number of times over the years. When you and he first met, did you get along immediately, or did it take some time to find a groove while working together?
He was the first person in professional theater to like my writing, so that was an overwhelming thrill for me. Because I was so absolutely determined that I wanted to spend my life writing plays, but I hadn’t yet found anyone who actually worked in the theater who liked what I was writing. So that was a very big deal for me.
A friend of mine moderated a panel that you did a few years ago, and he was surprised that you were surprised that people were actually aware of My Dinner With Andre.
Well, it’s had periods where it was less spoken about or known about. But, yeah, in the Trump period, it’s become much more popular. Andre makes some rather prescient comments in that film, and people have thought, Wow, he predicted the future! How did they know in 1981? But there have been some bits of My Dinner With Andre that have been seen on social media a shocking number of times.
Plus, once The Simpsons slipped a My Dinner With Andre video game into an episode, it’s probably fair to say that most of the world at large at least now knows it exists.
The Princess Bride and Clueless have cemented your place on the mainstream pop-culture landscape. Do people who call out lines from your characters while you’re walking down the street?
Yes, there’s … a certain amount of that. I have a lot of different lives going on at the same time. So I may be walking down the street, thinking very angry political thoughts, and people stop me and say lines of mine from a movie I made 30 years ago! And, you know, I’m briefly startled and look at them as if they’re insane. But that’s my life. That’s my destiny, it seems.
I can only tell you that, in responding to the fact that I was going to be talking to you today, I’m sure no less than 75 people uttered the “I” word.
Well, you know, we don’t get to choose what other people think about us. Of course, an actor is sort of seen as responsible not only for the things he himself has done or said or thought, but also what the characters that he’s played have said or thought. So it’s a peculiar destiny. But apparently it’s my destiny.
Even my political writings are a little bit known. I mean, they’re known to one out of maybe 100,000 people. But people do sometimes come up and say, “I really appreciate what you’ve done.” And, you know, it’s a lovely feeling in a way, but for me, I am a little bit confused, and I don’t quite know what to say, because it’s hard to say, “Well, which of my great accomplishments have led you to say that?” [Laughs.] But on the other hand, if I don’t know, I’m at a little bit of a loss for even how to respond. But obviously, in a roughly general way, you could say it’s pleasurable to have people compliment you on the street. I mean, I have also had the experience of being criticized on the street … and elsewhere! I think to some extent, whatever harm it’s done to my ego to be complimented as an actor is slightly compensated for by the hostility I’ve received as a writer. So I’m hoping that I come out not overly bloated with arrogance because of the experience of having been amusing in different movies.
Well, if there’s ever been a time for political writing, we’re definitely living through it right now. Not that there haven’t been plenty of times prior to this as well, but this is definitely one of them.
[Laughs.] Yes, although it’s challenging to write about the time that you’re living in. And this is a particularly tough one in some ways because of the crudeness of the evils. It was very hard to know whether there was anything new or interesting to say in the George Bush era in the area of “I think torture is bad.” How do you say something new and interesting along the lines of “Racism is evil” and “Actually, climate catastrophe is real”? I mean, to write, you want to say something new and valuable and interesting, and in a funny way, the stupider the target, the more difficult it is to write valuable criticism of it. You know, aside from just sort of yelling, “Ugh!”
To circle back to Young Sheldon, will we be seeing you again soon? Where do things stand with you and your character’s relationship with Annie Potts?
Well, we just don’t know! My character has suffered a great loss of confidence, as can happen if you have a mental collapse, and the relationship of our characters gets disrupted by my character going into the mental hospital, so as far as what happens going forward … Well, it’s up to the writers. We’ll just have to wait and see!