Crispin Glover has a reputation for playing creepy fellows, from the mincing George McFly in Back to the Future and the villain in Charlie’s Angels to the rat-obsessed recluse in Willard and the Knave of Hearts in Tim Burton’s gloriously trippy, box-office behemoth, Alice in Wonderland. Adding to his rep for the bizarre is his infamously unhinged 1987 appearance on David Letterman, as well as his self-directed releases, It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine! and What is It?, both of which feature hyper-sexualized performances by handicapped actors and people with Down syndrome.
The 45-year-old actor, who carts 50-pound suitcases filled with heavy film reels around the world, performing and screening his self-financed movies, is finishing up the screenplay for his third feature, which will co-star his father. While trolling the high-end boutiques on Madison Avenue, Glover is polite, inquisitive and searching. He drops Noam Chomsky and William Buckley into conversation while pondering the omnipresence of propaganda and the ethics of appearing in an article about shopping. You see, despite his cultivated weirdness, the guy really digs a nice suit.
Barneys New York 660 Madison Avenue I very rarely go shopping. I’m actually very particular, so I’m lucky if I find one thing I like at a store. I do almost all of my shopping exclusively on eBay. I’ve bought two Bentleys and an old Jaguar on eBay. But I have a jacket that I love from Barneys. I’ve had it relined a number of times. I do care about my clothes and I’m somehow more comfortable being a little elegant. At the same time, if I’m doing day-to-day work, I wear simple black clothes—they look relatively elegant, and they stay pressed.
Ermenegildo Zegna 663 Fifth Avenue I don’t like denim. I wore jeans in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, but I feel like if someone looks good in denim, they will look better in something else. It has come to mean something in this culture and ultimately worldwide. It is associated with a rebellious quality. Rebellion is something I can identify with, but denim has become the opposite in my mind—it’s become conformist. I prefer dark stripes. They have a lot of that here, and a fine-wale corduroy suit I might buy.
John Lobb 680 Madison Avenue I don’t do reptiles, but they have a lot of beautiful shoes here. When I was filming Alice in Wonderland, which was all CGI, I shot on a greenscreen in a green outfi t. I wore a long wig, an eye patch and a scar. I had stilts, so I’m very tall in the film. There was something about the green itself. I think people really, genuinely reacted to it. It was a totally unreal-world green, like that neon, strange green. That was probably my favorite professional experience. I really enjoyed working with Tim Burton. He obviously has the sensitivity of a genuine artist who knows what it’s like to be interfered with in an unpleasant manner, artistically.
Souen 28 East 13th Street I started macrobiotics when I was 19, so I’ve been eating at this place for a long time. Macrobiotic diets are based on indigenous eating habits, which means that if you’re at the North Pole, whale blubber is acceptable, but in the tropics, you’d eat fruits. It’s kind of Japanese-biased because the guy who created it was Japanese. I started because I wanted to lose weight for Back to the Future. I went off it when I first bought property in the Czech Republic, but I could see that it wasn’t good for my health. The woman who works for me at the property only speaks Czech, so I found a macrobiotic Czech cookbook. You can usually find a vegan place everywhere, and if you can’t, you can always find an Indian place and order chana masala.
Did you know Tim Burton before appearing in Alice and Wonderland? I had known him in the early and mid-‘80s.
Just from being around and working? There was some kind of meeting. I hadn’t talked to him in about 20 something years. When I heard there was interest I thought maybe there would be a weeks worth or two weeks worth of work. I did not think it would interfere with the touring I was doing. But when the offer came in it was for basically almost the whole run of the film we shot in the US. I got the sense from the casting director that she had suggested this and he picked up on it. It’s interesting that something that was from all these years before ended up turning into probably my favorite experience I’ve had in the profession.
Did you have a relationship with the book when you were growing up? Well, it’s such a famous book. I think I’ve read parts of it. In this culture, it’s impossible to not be familiar with it.
Have you read it since? I got in on my Iphone actually. I’ve been reading a lot on Kindle on my Iphone. I’ve been reading other things.
Like what? Well I’m working on the screenplay for the next film that I want to make. I have been reading a lot of screen writing books. I’ve also been reading Noam Chomsky’s Media Control and a book he recommended reading called Propaganda. I noticed that Chomsky has very eloquently, in an academic sense, spoken about the very things that I have been emotionally reacting. My first film is very much a reaction to the controls that have happened in corporately funded and distributed film within the last 30 years, which I have found personally frustrating. There are business interests that have extreme control in what comes forth to the public. Of course, I’m saying this as I’m standing here, looking at wracks of clothing, which I really don’t do. Sometimes I go look at things. I buy things on Ebay. Yet, at the same time, when I’m touring around with my films, I’m very aware that on many levels I’m the salesman. I mean ultimately I’m putting forth art that I believe in, but on some level, there’s a sales element to art. I need to fund my films. When I was acting initially, monetary elements were the last thing to come to mind. As I’ve had significant outlay of my money in my own movies, I have had to investigate, How do I recoup on these things?
And what’s the answer. Do you have a backer? No. I’m the backer.
So when you’re doing all this touring with What Is It and Everything Is Fine, the tour is paying you for having made those movies in the first place? Ultimately, the touring is paying me back. What has allowed me to do the films is my acting in other peoples’ movies. I had many years where I had a lot of money out on the film. The first film, What is It, cost between $150 and 200,000 and I started shooting that in ’96 and I premiered it in Sundance in 2005. In 2001, we shot the sequel, Everything Is Fine, and we shot that before completing the first one. That one we premiered in Sundance in 2007. And that one cost approximately 200,000 to have a 35 mm print. So from ’96 to 2007, I had approximately somewhere between $350 to 400,000 dollars out, doing nothing but waiting to be finished. That’s a lot of money to be sitting on. I haven’t even calculated the interest rate. So acting in other people’s movies is a way for you to finance your own? Well, yes. At the same time, they’ve worked well with each other. Working on something like Alice and Wonderland with Tim Burton was great. He obviously has the sensitivity of a genuine artist that knows what it’s like to be interfered with in an unpleasant fashion artistically. He lets you think about things and play with things. You end up getting really good results from that. You feel free to explore something. I genuinely appreciated that. Every single on of the actors was excellent to work with and it was a great part. The whole production was well put together. It was a great character, too. I was very, very surprised about it. When the offer came in, I was in Australia and I heard there was interest in me.
Do you watch yourself in films? I haven’t watched all of them. If they don’t send me the DVD and there’s not a premier for it and all of that it’s like I’m involved in other things. When I first started working, video-assist was not the norm, and they didn’t really want actors to watch themselves, for whatever reason. I remember in the first couple of films I did want to see, just to make sure everything was okay, and I did watch myself, which was actually confidence boosting. But I don’t like to go over and look at the video monitor. I remember on Charlie’s Angels there was fighting involved which isn’t, of course, the “norm” for me, but there is an acting element with the body that is differentiated and there were a couple times when it was helpful to watch myself for very specific technical reasons. On the whole though I avoid looking. I’ve done it enough now that generally I can feel if something is really working or not. I generally try to do as many takes as I can and I’ll try to peak and go past the peak, because you don’t really know where you’ve peaked until you do a worse take. Sometimes the first take will be the best and sometimes it will be a few takes and sometimes you’ll even experiment. But I noticed when we were working on Alice in Wonderland that Tim Burton actually shot less than I was expecting, which was interesting. Part of it, I’m sure, is just experience with him knowing exactly what he wants. I’m used to people shooting more actually.
What is your regular day? People keep asking me about it. When I was here in New York last time Peter Travers asked me about it. He was doing a video thing, and it was weird because I started saying, “Well I have many different lives that I lead” and he didn’t seem to want me to be saying that.
What did he want you to say? I think he wanted a short, crisper thing. I was going to say, Sometimes I live in the Czech Republic, sometimes I live in Los Angeles, sometimes I’m touring and sometimes I’m acting in other people’s films, but each one of those are different. I was going to go into that but he said, “No, no, what do you do when you’re not doing anything?” And I said, Nothing! He was a nice guy, but I didn’t know what he was asking. If I’m in Los Angeles… I just had a koi pond with streams put in my back yard, something I’ve wanted to do for years. And I like to garden, for relaxation purposes. Sometimes I’m doing production work when I’m in L.A.
Do you hang out with other movie people when you’re in L.A? No. I live a relatively solitary life. In a certain way, my most social times are when I’m out touring and working. Most of my friends have actually moved out of Los Angeles. I don’t know a lot of people. My socializing, with going on dates or having a girlfriend or whatever, usually that’s in Los Angeles. A weird element of the Czech Republic is that, other than a woman who has worked on the property since 1976 and a couple other people who worked at the Chateau, I don’t know anybody there. When I’m there for more than two weeks in a row, there’s a little bit of a social depletion there. I know some people in New York, as well. It’s kind of like people I talk to on the telephone or something. I go out to some things. I’m invited to certain things. Every once in a while, I’ll go to a party or event. I’ve really found that, since about 2006, it’s been pretty much work.
You’re content with that? I have a social life. I’ll have a girlfriend, or not. I mean…Yeah. It would not make sense for me to have a family at this point because I really do travel too much. I kind of feel like the point of marriage is to have children. I know there are people who want to get married because of commitment, which I understand. Personally, I am not about that element. For me, if I were to get married, I would feel like it would be to have a kid.
You’re working on your third screenplay right now? I’ve actually written many, many screenplays. It would be the third….
That you would make into a film. It would seem likely that it would be the third film that I will have made into a feature film.
Is it done or are you still rewriting? I am in process of it. I sent it to my father actually this year on father’s day. It was an outline.
Did he like it? There are certain things my father didn’t like.
Did you take his notes? He and I will be the predominant characters in the movie and I do want him to be happy. There were things that he came up with that were actually good. Then, there were certain things where… I would be open to even going away from the basic content, if I felt that there was a superior concept that was suggested. He actually came up with some good deep structure elements, but for the most part, it was psychological elements for the characters. Those things had not been fleshed out. I had put things together so that I could mainly start building sets. I also don’t want to start building sets until I completely know that what I’m going to do is what I’m going to do. Because, you don’t want to spend a whole bunch of money on a set you don’t really need. I’m funding these films myself so.
Do you think people will be going to movie theaters in 40, 50 years? I think that the Vaudeville element will retain. When I go in and have these forums, question and answer periods, people get a lot out of that. And there will always be people in there teens or early twenties who want to get out of the house or go somewhere that’s air conditioned. I think that kind of entertainment will stay. I tend to go to with my films to single screen old vaudeville theaters, nice art deco venues. Many metropolitan centers have at least one such place. You can tell they have a niche and it’s something very specific and it’s needed. Certainly, the day of the single screen movie theater is done. The Cineplex is the main element of mass marketed, corporately funded and distributed media. Then, of course, there will be home entertainment. I do have great concern about piracy. I don’t quite understand why copyright mechanisms are not being more lobbied by the film industry.
How so? It doesn’t make sense to me that people don’t understand that this multibillion dollar industry is going to be wiped out. Look at the way it’s ravaged the recording industry. There is not an understanding within the studios. Because they are not being aggressive about it, the same exact thing that happened to the recording industry is going to happen.
It’s interesting, because musicians now make their money on tour, which is what you’re doing. That’s part of why I’m doing what I’m doing, but I don’t see how the industry at large can do that.
Is touring a lot different than being is someone else’s film? There’s a different kind of energy that goes into goes into touring than goes into acting in the film. I have been performing the live aspect of the show since 1993 so that’s kind of autonomous. There’s the performing of the live show, which there is a full amount of energy that goes into that. I introduce the film. The film plays. I can eat or rest while that’s happening. Then I do a 45-minute to an hour – usually it’s closer to an hour– Q-and-A session. That doesn’t take that much energy, but it takes something. Then I have a book signing after it and that actually is the most tiring part.
Why? Because, I don’t just put my head down. People sometimes come from far away. I make it so I can genuinely talk to the people and I keep it private. I make it so it’s not just like a line where I’m manufacturing this thing. I had a sold out audience in Chicago at the Music Box Theater which is a 750 seat theater. I think I was there until 3:30 or 4:30 in the morning. The kind of energy that goes into a film is different because it’s a first time thing and you want everything to be as perfect as possible for those moments on screen. It’s a different kind of tension. In a certain way, I’m more relaxed with film. Also, late last year, I had a certain debt. I funded both of these films. If anything goes wrong on the tour or if there’s a monetary issue it’s on me. My New Year’s resolution this year is to do more art history projects and tour more leisurely. The previous year was to tour aggressively. That was my New Year’s Resolution and I did.
So you keep your New Year’s Resolutions? I do. That’s something I stick with. There were a number of years where I wouldn’t go out for New Year’s while I was editing. I tried to make it the strike of midnight for the year to be what it is that I wanted to accomplish that year.
Right. It’s like kissing the person you’ll be with all year, but this way, you’re like, “I’m with this movie.”
Exactly. I would literally be doing something at the stroke of midnight having to do with the film when I knew that that was what the year was about. Then, there was a time where I was like, “Now, I want to be more social.” So I did go out instead.
Photography by Mark Squires. Suit by Ermenegildo Zegna, Grooming by Anthea King for Mark.
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