It's saying something when Alice in Wonderland is one of your least weird onscreen roles. But Crispin Glover, who appears as the Knave of Hearts of Tim Burton's motley fantasy out on DVD this week, consciously had to dial back the eccentric image he's cultivated for more than 20 years as a top character actor.
Since his breakout performances as Marty McFly's father in Back to the Future and his nervous, detrimentally loyal slacker in River's Edge, Glover has acted in more than 30 films ranging from cult favorites (Rubin and Ed, Willard, The Wizard of Gore) to literary adaptations (Bartleby, Beowulf) and the occasional popcorn flick (Charlie's Angels). Tapping into the psychology of his often-twisted characters, Glover has created an auteurist oeuvre rivaling that of many directors.
He's always been a thinking person's actor, so it was no surprise when he embarked on directing himself, filming an ongoing series of surrealist movies, cast with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy patients, that he tours independent cinemas with as part of his "Big Slide Show" presentations.
Glover spoke to me from Prague, where he owns property and films his fiercely independent movies, funded in large part by his work in movies like Wonderland.
Orlando Weekly: Let's go back to River's Edge, one of the defining films of the 1980s. You've played a lot of eccentric people since then, and you played an eccentric character in that film. How much of an impact did that film have on the type of characters and even the type of career you would pursue going forward?
Crispin Glover: Well, it's funny. It's hard to say for that. I haven't thought about it in terms of framing it in that way as far as how that character helped to define my career going forth. I feel it has a certain depth because I switched the intention of what the character originally was written as. As it was written, the character could have been played that he was sincere in what he was after. How I switched the intention was that I played that character as interested in the attention that was attained by going through this particular kind of dramatic situation, which is a very different intention than what was written.
I think it works well in the film, though, and I like the performance very much. The character initially was not necessarily written as an extremely eccentric character. But that choice was an eccentric choice. And the characters I've tended toward being cast in since that time are characters that are written initially as eccentric characters.
Now, the character I'm playing in Alice in Wonderland is the least eccentric character of all the characters in the Wonderland world. And that's interesting to me. It's something I thought about both while I was doing the film and after. It's like on some level, I think people are used to me playing eccentric parts. Sometimes I think people even accuse me of being weird for the sake of being weird, which I don't like. I like to find the particularity of that character's psychology. In Alice in Wonderland, the particularity of this character was somebody that wanted to attain a certain level of status and wealth within the aristocratic area that he was involved in, and my character needed to be diplomatic with the queen, because the queen was obviously very eccentric and very easily disturbed to the point that if you're not properly diplomatic with her, you could have your head cut off. It was very important for my character to be almost the opposite of eccentric and be centric. So I try to maintain what is proper for the psychology of the character, and for a lot of the characters I get cast as, the prerequisite for the character is a certain kind of eccentricity.
That was not the case with River's Edge; it was a choice that I made, and I'm proud of that choice. In the way you framed the question, as how did it affect my career, I suppose one could argue that if I had played that character less eccentrically, had I not made that choice, maybe I would be cast as less eccentric characters consequently.
OW: I've always wondered if you would be comfortable playing a conventional leading man in a romantic comedy opposite Jennifer Aniston.
CG: I did do something somewhat close to that in Neil LaBute's film Nurse Betty. I play a pretty straightforward character. I don't have anything against doing something like that. I do consider myself a professional actor, meaning that when I get a job that I'm being paid my quota, I want to do the proper job for the film. If I was offered to do a part for a Jennifer Aniston romantic comedy, I'd want to make it work on whatever level I would be able to make it work.
OW: Looking at your resume, there are a lot of films I'd either forgotten you were in or didn't know you were in – Wild at Heart, The Doors, Dead Man, The People vs. Larry Flynt. You strike me as the kind of actor who jumps at the opportunity to make important work with great directors, even if the parts are not huge.
CG: Yeah, and that was especially true in the late '80s and '90s. I was very much looking to work with directors I admired, or if there was something interesting about a character within an interesting director's work, even if it was not a huge role. I realize in retrospect that was not necessarily monetarily, or even career-wise, the best strategy. I don't regret having done it, because I feel it etched out a certain kind of element that stuck in people's minds. But at this point and time, as I'm funding my own films, it's very apparent that I need to be making choices that do have to do with commerce and help enable me to make my own movies. What tends toward happening in the film industry is that for films that make a lot of money, the people in those films tend to work more. You kind of think early in your career, if I'm good in a movie, then people will think I'm a good actor and they'll want to work with me. On some level that has happened, but even more than that, what really matters is if the film that you're in made a lot of money. One of the many reasons I'm very happy that I'm in Alice in Wonderland – I really enjoyed working with Tim Burton, and it's a great part – now, on top of all that, it's made so much money.
OW: You seem to have been entering a period of doing a lot more comedies than you have in the past, with Epic Movie, Freezer Burn: The Invasion of Laxdale and Hot Tub Time Machine, and you did a sketch for the Funny or Die people recently. Is this something you're more interested in now than maybe 20 years ago?
CG: Well, I don't know. I think it's less interested in being in comedies and more interested in working, period. The Funny or Die thing you're referring to is an exception in that it was a project I didn't make a lot of money for. In the sketch, they get somebody genuinely, truly drunk, just about to the point where they're about to vomit. And they get them to retell an element of history, and in the one I did with John C. Reilly, Reilly plays Tesla and I play Edison. What I like about them is that they admit to the fact that when you're reading history, even if you're reading a sober point of view of history, what you're reading is somebody's point of view. We don't really know what George Washington did on such a day. I've done enough interviews where I can talk to somebody, sit in a room with them, and read what has been written, and what I said is completely different from what has been written. That's what I like about the drunk history stuff. On some levels, you're probably getting as much truth in this drunk person's retelling of history as if you're getting a sober telling of history. They get to the point of the emotional truth of what's going on and I think that's a good thing.;; firstname.lastname@example.org