Interview date: 05/01/2008
Run date: 05/15/2008
Seeing the above photo, you’ve no doubt just had an epiphany and said, “Oh, that’s Larry Miller! I totally know that guy!” It’s almost impossible to turn your TV dial and not find a show or a film that Miller’s been in, whether it’s his work as part of Christopher Guest’s repertoire of players, his turn in both of Eddie Murphy’s “Nutty Professor” movies, or his stints on “Mad About You” or “8 Simple Rules.” The guy’s all over the place…so much so, in fact, that we had to twice reschedule our conversation because of the number of gigs on his plate! Finally, however, Bullz-Eye was able to pin down a time to chat with Miller about his work in the new teen comedy, “Senior Skip Day,” while also discussing his turns in “10 Things I Hate About You,” his famous HBO “One Night Stand,” his status as a character actor, and his intake of narcotics (or lack thereof) during the ‘80s.
Larry Miller: Hi, good morning! This is Larry!
Bullz-Eye: Good morning to you! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
LM: Same here. Where are you?
BE: I am in Chesapeake, Va. Right next door to Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
LM: Ah! That’s a nice place to live.
BE: Well, I’m a native of the area, so I’m pretty partial to it. So based on the fact that we’ve had to reschedule twice before finally getting together today, I’d say it’s a fair assessment that you’re a man who’s very rarely without work.
LM: You know something? The fact is, I’ve been very, very lucky. When I was just getting out of school, I would’ve thought, “Yeah, I think I’d like to be an actor or a writer or a comic,” and I’ve been very lucky, because that’s what I am. There are a thousand things I haven’t gotten, but there are a bunch of things I have gotten, and…boy, I don’t want to sound too knuckleheaded, but, yeah, I love all this stuff. Even the movies or TV shows that haven’t been that good, there hasn’t been a day on that set that I haven’t loved. And the same with stand-up, y’know? Some jobs are a little rockier than others, but (hesitates) well, actually, that doesn’t quite hold to the same thing (starts to laugh) because that’s never pleasant. But you know what I mean? Every set, even when people say, “This caterer is no good, this guy with the food isn’t as good as the other guy,” and I’m there with a giant pile of free food, thinking, “Gee, it tastes pretty good to me!”
BE: I went to my first TCA press tour last summer, and on the first night there, I went to the HBO party, where they were serving filet mignon and lobster. And I thought, “If I ever get jaded to this, I need to just quit journalism altogether.”
LM: You know something? No kidding…in my opinion, anyway…that’s the exact right attitude, because I’m not kidding when I say there isn’t a day I haven’t loved. I was just on something this week…which is why, in fact, my schedule changed, because it just came up…but you’re there, and in the morning, they set out this giant array of food. That’s why I love writing, by the way; I have a book out called “Spoiled Rotten America,” which is fun. I love all this stuff, but that’s why I love that theme so much. You want to say to people who have sort of a bleak, empty vision of life, you want to say, “Folks, you know what? Just take it easy and eat something.”
BE: So what did you think of “Senior Skip Day?” It seemed like the goal was to create a modern-day, R-rated John Hughes film, and I don’t know that they succeeded across the board, but I applaud their attempt, anyway.
LM: You know what? And it’s got a lot of good stuff in it. First of all, George Gallo produced this, and he wrote “Midnight Run,” which I think is one of the greatest movies ever. It’s a heck of a movie. That’s Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro, and it’s just a wonderful movie on so many levels. And I really got to know George, and I love the guy. And this kid Nick Weiss is a first-time director, and Evan Wassterstrom wrote this. I always mention everyone specifically by name because they don’t get mentioned a lot or much of the time. The director of photography was also great. I had the best time, and we had a chance to rewrite, to rethink…y’know, one of the most fun things about this part for me was that the idea came up…in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which is a great movie, a wonderful, wonderful movie that I think is gonna be great forever, but the arc of the principal in that is steadily downward. As each bad thing happens to him, he gets beaten down more and more and destroyed more and more until, by the end of the movie, he’s just shattered emotionally. So I suggested on this one, “Well, how about with this guy, instead of that, every bad thing that happens just brings out this dark creature in him more and more? How about if it’s a steady vector upward, but into a life of crime and shanghai?” So by the time, for instance, Clint Howard finds me because he’s going to kill me…because I ruined his life 20 years ago, and he’s been in jail and an asylum…so that by the time he gets to me, the idea was that, instead of being terrified because this insane guy was going to come to kill me, at that moment I in effect grab him instead and say, “You don’t even know what emptiness and death is!” And he’s just shocked because he’s met someone who’s (starts laughing) who’s going to be his dark lord forever, basically. We kidded around that if there was ever a chance to make a sequel of this thing, they could start with these two at the heart of a crime empire somewhere in Southeast Asia, drinking shots of snake venom. So that was a lot of fun.
BE: It is. I was pleasantly surprised by a lot of the movie.
LM: And, y’know, it’s not a big budget movie. We were always chasing the day, meaning that you couldn’t get a lot of shots in, but that’s part of the fun for me sometimes. If a movie is a gillion-dollar movie and you have all the time in the world…sometimes, y’know, those movies don’t work out, either, because they get over-made. They’re overproduced. They’re over-directed and overwrought in every way. In this case, sometimes, it’s great to have guerilla filmmakers, so that the DP says, “Okay, we’ve only got one shot left. The light is here and there, we’re outside, and we’ve gotta chase and this and this. All right, c’mon, we can do this!” Y’know, it’s a really wonderful, very joyous way to work. And I loved it. So every single day, you’re not in exotic locations – you’re deep in the valley, and you’re hot – but you’re at 10 or 15 different locations, and every single day I get to get up and go and try my best to be funny in this thing. I’ve got news for you: there’s very little better in life than that.
BE: You’ve got a scene where you bury your face in a baggie of cocaine. As someone who was doing stand-up in the ‘80s, I’m sure you’d never had any exposure to the drug, so that was some really good acting on your part.
LM: You know what? For whatever it’s worth…believe me, I’ve seen it a lot. In fact, there were a couple of clubs who would actually offer it to comics instead of money. They’re not still around, by the way. But for whatever it’s worth, I didn’t do it. But (begins laughing) I just remembered…boy, this hasn’t come up before…there was this one club, and there was a Cuban drug dealer who used to hang out there, and he offered me some…well, drugs. Cocaine. He lined up some stuff, and he just gestured. And this was a very mean-looking guy, but…well, he was a drug dealer! And I remember I said to him, “Gee, no, thanks, I’m just gonna head back to the hotel.” And he looked at me and said, “But I offer you this for free!” And I said, “Well, yes, and thank you, but I don’t really, uh, indulge. But thank you!” And I’ll never forget it, because he looked at me…and it’s not a look you really need to see a lot, anyways…but he looked at me, and he said, “Oh! You are Jesus Christ!”
LM: And I just said, “Well, no, but it’s all right, and thank you, anyway, and…uh, I’m just gonna sort of run out to the cab here.” So, oddly enough, drugs are not part of my life, and obviously a lot of damage has been done there, but it seemed funny with this guy that he did…that this character had a drug problem in the past, and he winds up accidentally coming on these gangsters, and they have drugs. And that was a fun scene, too, by the way (laughs) just eating giant vats of pasta in the morning. But he takes the drugs, and as his life begins to disintegrate more and more, he goes back to the drugs. That was the idea; that was the joke, that he just puts his nose in there. I felt like “Scarface,” you know? But you just really go nuts, and it makes the guy crazier and crazier. So it was fun to be able to play that…and to knock it off, by the way, in a couple of shots. You know, those car shots take a long while to set up, and you’re always chasing something, and to get it back in position, we kept saying, “But we can get it! We can get it! One more!” But they have to clean you off if you’ve just put your face into a baggie of white powder, and you actually have to try and do it in a certain way so it doesn’t get on the clothes, because you might want to do another shot on it. And, so, it’s a lot of fun, y’know? It’s just wonderful fun playing this guy; he’s a lunatic, he’s bleeding, he’s got drugs on him, he gets beat up, he gets thrown out of windows…yeah, it’s fun.
BE: You know, with this role, your roles in the “Nutty Professor” films, and a few others you’ve done, I think you’re well on your way to becoming the Joe Flynn of your generation.
LM: That’s (laughs) Okay, first of all, I bet you and I are the same guy, because if you can pick a name like that out, I think we have just about the same affection for him. That’s very flattering. I love what I do, and I think I’m pretty good at it, but there are many great guys over the last 60 or 70 years who are character actors in American movies and television, and they’ve really been good. And Joe Flynn, in case people don’t know, was…amongst many other things, he was Capt. Binghamton on “McHale’s Navy.” And he was a very funny character. He had kind of a hook, where he’d go, “What? What? What?” And he was in a lot of movies, and he was always playing the annoying or the annoyed or the cranky guy saying, “I don’t understand!” He was always outside the good that was happening. But you know what? It would be an honor to think that I could live for another 50 years to keep knocking off comedy. It’s a good way to live; it’s a good thing to bring to the world.
BE: One of our other editors is notorious for quoting from your HBO “One Night Stand” whenever he can find a way to work it into his pieces…in particular the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing it.
LM: Oh, thanks! That’s great! You know what? I’m adding a lot to that. I’m going back on the road more as a comic, because I’ve missed that. I haven’t really been a real punch-it-out comic for a long time, so I’ve been working that up, and I’ve added more to that. But thank you for that. Please send a tip of the hat to him, because that’s a good line from a good bit, and I’m adding a lot more to that. Oh, by the way, would you do me a favor?
LM: Would you mention my website, too? Because I’ll be posting the dates around the country that I’ll be playing. It’s http://www.larrymillerhumor.com. If you could mention that, it’d be much appreciated.
BE: No problem. I’ll close with some rapid-fire questions, so I can help keep you on schedule. First up: do you have a favorite project that didn’t take off as well as you thought it should have?
LM: Oh, absolutely. I’ve had 11 television development deals, and none of them have gotten on the air. And I know, as much as I know anything, that they would’ve been good pieces and good, creative and entertaining shows. But you know what? That’s the way it goes. If you don’t learn to love that in show business, you’re in the wrong business. I don’t mean love that it happens, but you know what? I’ve been in 40 or 50 movies and a lot of TV shows, and somebody asked a couple of months ago, “How many auditions did it take for that?” And I realized that I didn’t even know! 700? 1,400? 2,300? I don’t know! But you get used to that. Either you get some hard bark on you, or you’re in the wrong line.
BE: Do you have a favorite dramatic role that you’ve done?
LM: Yeah, I’ve been on a couple of those “Law and Order” series. I’ve done a few of those, and a bunch of hour dramas, and some movies that I really enjoyed…some higher budget movies, some lower budget ones. There was a remake of “Carnival of Souls,” and, really, this is not a funny character. He’s a really bad guy. But you know what? It’s not that I love that more. A lot of comics think that they want to do serious things more, but, y’know, it’s a really good thing to bring to life if you can make people laugh a little or a lot. And that is not a small thing. I mean, I was just mentioning this before that Moe Howard from the Three Stooges always said he wanted to play Hamlet, really…and you realize that he’s not kidding. There’s a temptation to kind of chuckle at that, but if you looked at the man’s eyes in that interview, he’s not joking. But you want to say to him, “I hope your life was good, anyway, because your stuff is good, and it’ll be around a long time.”
BE: One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on “Entertainment: Tonight” was Jim Varney doing a segment where he was discussing his Shakespearean background, and he’s dressed in full costume doing a completely straight version of the Yorick scene, then turns to the camera and says, “Y’know what I mean, Vern?”
LM: (laughs) See, that’s the thing: you never know where something’s going to come up. You could be in a rep company doing “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and the next thing you know, you’re cast as Curly.
BE: So I can see from your website that you’re still continuing to write essays like the ones in your book.
LM: Yeah, thank you. I love all that stuff, all of it, but I’m really spending most of my time right now into writing more stand-up. And I’m very, very lucky because I have the chance to write another book beyond “Spoiled Rotten America,” which I’m very happy with. I’m very proud of it, and I love that format. I love the essay as a form. And it’s really very rewarding. But, then, so is scriptwriting. And I mean “rewarding” in the creative sense, by the way. In the end, if I even bothered to look back and add up whatever I made on it, it’s probably not a lot. But that doesn’t matter. Hey, I had a chance to write a book, and it sold something like 25,000 copies. Somebody is reading them, and it’s still available on Amazon. But I love to give out copies, just because I’m proud of it. I’m as proud of it now as I was when I was sitting in the office writing it. I’m proud when I’m on the set every day; same thing with being on a stage tonight, doing my act and getting ready to go back on the road. This is…it’s a lot better a life than getting around a table with nine other gang members and wondering, “Who can we murder today?”
BE: (laughs) Given how much of a character actor you are and how many things you’ve done, you might not have an answer for this, but…is there any one role in your career that really stands out for you as your favorite?
LM: You know what? Seriously, I don’t. Every single…I mean with every fiber of my being that the best part I’ve ever had and the most fun I’ve ever had is the next one.
BE: That’s a good closing line.
LM: And it has the added advantage of being true!
BE: Okay, well, I’ll close by making a lot of the staff happy and asking you about working on “10 Things I Hate About You.”
LM: That was great.
BE: And, coincidentally, that was another example of a film that tried...and, in this case, succeeded pretty much across the board…in updating the John Hughes style of teen comedy.
LM: A big lynch pin of that was the script…and, oddly enough, I just did something with Kiwi Smith, who wrote that. She’s directing her first movie, which is a short; I just did that last week with her, and I really admire her and like her, because she’s gonna be a really good storyteller. But Gil Junger, though, directed “10 Things I Hate About You,” and he gets a giant chunk of the credit for telling that story and making it the way it was. It had heart in it, and it had humor in it, and it had longing in it. And he really got all of that out of it. Plus, we were in Tacoma! There are some really nice shots in that movie. That closing shot in the movie, the helicopter shot pulling back from the roof of the high school, that’s really quite a shot. And that was not a high-budget movie. Joseph Gordon Levitt was in that, who’s also become a very wonderful actor, and, obviously, there was Julia and Larisa. There’s just some great stuff, and it was great fun to do. I have young people come up to me, and I have mothers with girls come up and say, “You did a wonderful job playing the father, you were so concerned.” But I had a chance to really care about them. He was the one who stayed home. The mother took off, and he’s the one who stayed there and said, “You know, I don’t know how to do this, but I’m going to try my best.” And that’s a good theme for everyone in life, I think.
BE: Indeed. Well, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. You’re right up there with Fred Willard as someone who never fails to make me laugh, no matter what you’re in. Well, except for your dramatic roles, of course.
LM: (laughs) That’s awfully nice of you. He’s one of my favorite guys, too; he’s a real knucklehead. And, again, please do send that tip of the hat to the editor who said the nice things about my stuff.
BE: Will do.
LM: Thanks, pal! Until the next time!