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17/May 2012

Have you ever had any kind of a relationship with a gadget?

In this day and age who hasn’t? The depths of the relationship that Walter has in the movie – I haven’t reached that point I’m glad to say. But I am pretty attached to my phone.

Did it feel strange to fall out with a sat nav in the film?

Yeah, but in the context of the story, it makes sense. Also, I think it says something about who we are – turning the world off and then reaching out to something that isn’t necessarily going to be as demanding and as complex as a human relationship.
Now, I’ve often wondered about this. It’s said that acting is largely about reacting – reacting to your character’s situation within a story, reacting to other cast members – if that’s the case then I imagine performing alongside a gadget is a little like having the feet cut from under you….

In a way it’s not – a lot of the time in film you’re acting alone. But the character aspect of it is interesting because in this case the character, Walter, is genuinely interacting with this device and so in his eyes it’s not strange or unusual - it has all of the same dynamics and the same kind of potency as a real relationship. Acting that is quite easy, because you’re basically just imbuing this inanimate device with all kind of anthropomorphised characteristics and treating it as a person – because that’s how Walter sees it.

You have a very rich background on the stage – I heard that you performed for the Obamas not so long ago. What was that like?
That was an extraordinary experience. I’d previously had the occasion to go to the White House and perform for the Kennedy Centre Honours, so I was able to meet President Clinton and First Lady Hilary Clinton. Coming back for a second time felt kind of like winning the lotto. It was a little different to the last time because we spent a lot of time there rehearsing as opposed to before which was kind of a walk through and a meet and greet and then you’re on your way.
But this was interesting – I was basically lounging around in the East Room and putting my hand on the wall of this incredible place where so many historic things have happened.
 Not to mention - our waiting room was down in the map room, which is a famous room in the Whitehouse where World War 2 strategy was devised. That sense of history to me was just overwhelming. And the clash of all this history, and then me just standing there with a coke waiting to sing a song – that was a little incongruous to me.
And of course meeting the First Lady and the President was an honour.  Sometimes in a situation like this the formality can trump any kind of feeling that you’re having. But in this case it was a very lively and a very communal experience, and knowing that the family was enjoying it was a great relief and very inspiring.

Tell me about that – when you perform onstage and you have this audience before you responding to what you’re doing – do you draw on that while you perform?

Well there’s always a sense of that relationship – it’s impossible to ignore a reaction… or a non-reaction. Sometimes the house is alive, or reacting, or laughing, or sometimes that house is dead. You’re always aware of what that relationship is, but I think it’s a mistake to cater to it – that’ll get you in trouble. You’re better just doing your job onstage, being true to the story and the relationship you’re having onstage with the other actors.

So is there a big difference when you’re performing before a film crew?

Well it’s a different process for sure. Obviously the audience is not there. With film you’re just kind of catching things, lightning in a bottle, scene by scene. It’s not as communal with your fellow actors but it is with your crew - the crew is the main ingredient that stays consistent. So, the sense of family is still there, but when you’re on a set your relationship with the crew is really your lifeblood.

If I was to offer you a choice between your ideal part on stage and your ideal part in a film, and you can only pick one, which would it be?

I guess right now I would say film – I can’t give you an exact role – but if I could just choose between the mediums I would choose film right now. I’ve spent a lot of time doing theatre, and it’s something that I’ve had great fortune to do it for the last twenty years so. But at the same time, I love film and I love the novelty for me, in terms of what I’m used to and what I’m not, so I would want to go down that road.

How was your experience shooting in London, in Ealing?

Fantastic! Just being in Ealing studios was – again the sense of history there. And what I loved also about this particular film was it being born out of Met Film Production and Met Film School – a lot of the crew was either recently from the school, or had ties to the school, so there was a great sense of community and a great sense of passion.

What was most interesting for me (and by interesting I mean terrifying) was having to drive a stick shift on the other side of the road! That was something I wasn’t expecting. Thankfully we were doing night shoots and most of the action takes place in a car and the director and producer were courageous enough to allow me to drive the streets of Ealing. But for about 48 hours the community of Ealing was in dire danger.

I heard Reed Hastings showed up onset, did you meet him?
Yeah, I did! He was there for a good chunk of time there on set. It was a good chance to meet him. He and Ted Sarandos who works with Reed, they were both there.
According to Wikipedia your uncle, Brian Kelly, was a producer of the great sci-fi film Blade Runner. Is that true? Is there some hereditary interest in machines who act like people?

Aha, perhaps, perhaps. Yeah, that is true. My Uncle Brian was an actor in a TV show called Flipper, and he was a producer on Blade Runner yeah, he really got the ball rolling on optioning the Phillip Dick novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. Ultimately Michael Deeley produced it and Hampton Fancher wrote it, but my Uncle Brian was the one who, at the outset, really got the ball rolling.

I remember reading the script when I was a kid. We have a cottage, a lake house up in Michigan, and this was when he was just starting to put it together, and maybe was in different drafts of the script and I remember a coffee stained script titled ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ and the title alone to me was so alluring and so unsettling. And I always remember following the evolution of that becoming this big movie, but, I don’t think my Uncle had any kind of obsessive relationship to science fiction per se, but I think he, like so many, responded to this story of the human heart clashing against the coldness of technology and that weird communion that is happening in that film.

So what drew you to Bird in a Box?
Well. The magnet for me first and foremost is the director and the writer, Torstein Blixfjord, who is a great friend of mine. Then the idea of the story I think is very bittersweet; I love the absurdity of it, but I also love the contrast with these people who really are just trying to connect, and that very human thing of wanting to find someone, and how that plays out against previous relationships.

You’ve played Shrek on Broadway, and we know that everybody loves Shrek, and although I didn’t see you in the role it seems like everybody loved you – I mean, you won two very prestigious awards – now you’re playing what seems like a very different part. Will people love Walter in the same way that they love Shrek?

I hope so. Clearly with Shrek you have a template or a precedent that is there preceding you doing the role – it is something that is there in the consciousness of pop culture so you’re trying to live up to that in some way and thankfully I didn’t tarnish the image of such a beloved character. Now the great thing about playing a character like Walter is that you are putting a stamp on something that hasn’t been seen before – you’re creating a character that is your own, it’s your own creation. Now you don’t necessarily want to create a character that people will love per se, but I do think that Walter does have qualities that I hope people will be able to relate to – that simple, basic need to be loved and to feel like you have some kind of connection to someone or something. And I think that’s a very powerful thing. And now that I’m talking about it… and I hope this won’t be a strange leap, but Shrek was kind of the same thing, you know? Just a creature who needed to be loved and was trying to find that in his own way.

What is it, do you suppose, that draws Alice, Walter’s big date, to Walter?

Well the first thing that they bond over is collecting postcards. But I also think that Alice also has a similar view of the world in that Alice is someone who hasn’t been embraced easily or fully by the world or in her relationships. I think that the hobby is the ignition, and the deeper connection comes with the similarity in terms of how the world embraces them or not.

So what are your hopes for this film?

You know it’s a whole new world with short films and the ways in which people can experience storytelling through film, so I’d be lying if I said I had a sense of how this would play out, but it’s exciting to know that there are lots of opportunities for people to see this, and ways that are different to, say, ten years ago. I hope that people get to see it, and more importantly get to feel a little something for this guy and this girl on their date and especially in the broader context of how we live in this world that is perhaps, on the way to being dominated by technology, and maybe just not forget that it’s the simplicity of holding a hand that trumps everything else.

What’s next for you?

Right now I’m getting ready to do some concerts in New York – I have a week long stint at a new venue called 54 Below which is named so because it’s in the legendary basement of Studio 54, there’s some ghosts down there for sure. I’m going to be singing there from the 26th to the 30th of June and then I’ve got a whole bunch of little things that I’m working on – I’m writing a film at the moment, I’m trying to sell a television show about my experiences in corporate entertainment … there’s always a plate spinning on a stick somewhere.

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