Harry Shearer & For Your Consideration

To mark the release of Harry Shearer's new album, Songs Of The Bushmen, I'm posting an interview I did with him around the release of For Your Consideration, in 2006, where he talks about the process of being funny, the state of America and the future of celebrity.

“Ho-ho and bejabbers” says Harry Shearer in a terrible Oirish accent as his PR minder smoothly introduces me. Surely that’s not your best effort I reply, in a neutral tone, as the man of a thousand voices explains the double reference in his greeting: he’s doing Steve Coogan doing Alan Partridge doing Irish, “in that scene with the visiting TV producers in the restaurant, remember? I love Alan Partridge, he’s so…clueless.”

When not momentarily confusing visiting journalists, regardless of nationality, Harry Shearer wears a lot of hats, mostly in disguise. As an actor, he is probably best known for his long collaboration with Christopher Guest on the series of hilarious mockumentaries that started with Rob Reiner’s Spinal Tap back in the 1980s and continued with famously improvised comedies like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. If you don’t know him from there, for more than a decade he has voiced an ensemble of the best loved characters on The Simpsons; Monty Burns, Principal Skinner and Ned Flanders among them and had finished work on the upcoming Simpsons Movie the week before. Last December he published his third comic novel, ‘Not Enough Indians’ while keeping busy by releasing albums of satirical songs, doing a weekly radio show and exhaustingly, spending most of last year on the road in a run of one-man ‘evenings with…’, including a sell-out month at the Edinburgh Fringe. Despite the workload, he looks chipper enough today, painstakingly neat like all American actors bar the teenagers, resplendent in a vivid purple shirt and black dress pants with razorblade seams.

For a certain constituency of moviegoer, the opening of a new film from writer/director Guest and his collective of comic performers, is cause to dust down their happy faces and bulwark their sides against an imminent splitting. They arrive every four years or so and feature, for the most part, identical casts but they never seem to repeat themselves. So how does it come about? “Well, Chris will initiate something discreetly so once we all get wind of that, we sit by the phone waiting for the call to say “you’re in!”. I’m friendly with Chris outside of the work and he’d been saying after Mighty Wind that he didn’t want to do any more of that specific type of movie. So that was that, we thought, and we all went away to do our own thing. That lasted about three months, then I get the call - I have an idea - then six months - well I’m kind of still looking at it – and then it’s like – what are you doing in February?”

The movie’s title, For Your Consideration is taken from the strap line of the attention-hustling print advertisements for the Academy Award nominees that clog the US trade magazines around this time of the year. It is something of a departure from Guest’s trademark mockumentary format, being at least partially scripted. “About half of it was all there beforehand.” In it, Shearer plays Victor Allen Miller, a middle-aged actor best known for portraying a six-foot hot-dog in a series of adverts on the telly. In the film-within-a-film a grateful Victor is playing the concerned father in a low-budget production, a preposterous Jewish melodrama set in the Deep South in the 1940s called Home for Purim. Opposite Victor is the similarly faded Marilyn Hack (Catherine O'Hara), playing Ester, the ailing wife and mother to Callie (Parker Posey) who has returned home for the titular Jewish holiday after a long estrangement. What we see of the film is a procession of hilarious Oy-Vey! yiddisher clich├ęs, directed by Guest himself as a wire-haired buffoon. The real story is happening off set where thanks to some buzz on a movie website, the rumour starts that the three ‘stars’ might be in the running for an Oscar nomination. The three suddenly star-struck nobodies are surrounded by a typically deranged army of Guest’s usual performers, familiar faces that, endearingly and almost uniquely, are a genuine pleasure to see together again. Fred Willard and Jane Lynch play a duo of Hollywood gossip show hosts. Bob Balaban and Michael McKean play Purim’s railroaded writers. John Michael Higgins plays an exciteable publicist while the blank-faced Jennifer Coolidge plays a dense producer. The most notable newcomer to the ensemble is Ricky Gervias, playing and interfering studio executive, as keen as the cast are to ride the coattails of the Oscar possibilities.

Although comics will tell you that being funny is the hardest thing in the world to do, the impression from the outside is that the cast reunite, put on the togs and start cracking jokes, while later Guest trims it down to into a manageable movie. “No, it’s not like that at all”, says Shearer. “We don’t crack jokes. We’re really not cracking jokes. As a group, we’re not deadpan serious, obviously, but the first job is to tell the story that Chris has outlined in his notes and be that character. So if it’s a scene with Victor and his agent (Eugene Levy, co-writer and constant presence), I think the scene is pathetic enough without having to lard it up.” I ask him if, in the ensemble, there’s ever any argument when it comes to deciding who plays who? “No, no, we’re very civilized. Anyway, both Chris and Gene have a clear idea at the outset of who is going to play who. The fighting comes over deciding the look of your character. I get to the makeup room on the first day of shooting and might be thinking about something in a moustache, say and they’re like, no, sorry, McKean has a moustache. What about a beard? Funny teeth? So, literally, that is what we fight over. We’re the kind of actors who work on our characters from the outside in – we need to know what they’re going to look like from the outset.” Is that the secret, goofy teeth? “Well, it helps if we make each other laugh, right? Chris is operating with the luxury of time and in the assumption of trust; that if you get these people together funny stuff will happen and he will be able to find it. But the job description is really just an acting job. Yes, we’re all trying to make our characters into funny characters, but just to play that guy or girl as much as you can and try to get into their skin, and add to it the little you know about yourself or other people.”

Everything we know as being bad about Hollywood and the business of stardom gets a skewering in Consideration. Shearer, who was a child actor, has been around the place for a long time so I ask him what the dumbest thing anyone ever said to him within the precincts of LA. He thinks about his answer for a moment and grimaces slightly as he leans forward. “I was in a movie called The Truman Show and in the lead up to the release this American magazine asked me to do a diary about working on the picture. So, I did that, carefully writing up my thoughts, and the first line was ‘Even though this movie stars Jim Carrey, I never laid eyes on him during filming. So this diary is not about Jim Carrey’. Now, that was simply stating a fact, because we didn’t have any scenes together but the magazine chose to title the piece The Trouble With Carrey.” He spreads out his arms to marquee the headline, emphasising it word by word and sighs. “The day it came out, I get a call from the producer, who shall remain nameless, to say that I was disinvited – is that a word - to the premiere. I was persona non grata on the whole publicity tour. So I said that I didn’t write the headline personally, or edit the piece, but if he was to actually go and read beyond the first paragraph, it was very complimentary and very positive about the movie and so on. He hangs up. The next day, word comes back. ‘If you show up at the premiere, the entire event will be cancelled on the spot’.” He pauses for effect. “I stood there, phone in hand, for a full five minutes thinking “I’m going to do it! Where’s my tux?” But I like Peter Weir and the rest of the cast, and I had a great time making the movie, so why would I want to ruin their evening? But that, the ravings of a five-year-old, temper-throwing moron who just happens to be a very powerful person in the motion picture business, is about the dumbest and weirdest thing that’s ever been said to me.”

Victor, a dummy adrift in a sea of idiots, goes to some weird and infantile places over the course of his momentary fame, pulling on a tight, shiny t-shirt, spiking his hair and bleaching his teeth and acquiring a startling oxo-cube tan. He even dances on MTV’s TRL, bumping and grinding with two teenage girls. Shearer insists that although he knew Victor would “get a dose of the same disease, the madness that grips Marilyn”, he didn’t realise it would involve completely reinventing himself into what he calls ‘Victor II’. “You see, this is one of the ironies of this situation, that at the very moment they get the attention they believe they deserve, they want to be a new, improved version of themselves. It speaks to that big hole in the centre here, the actor’s idea that they really deserve this recognition but they’re simply not good enough at the same time. Victor feels the need to be prettier, younger, nicer, thinner, hipper, and all of the above and more.”

Has he thought about the part that the interview process, the same publicity machine that they nail in the movie and part of which involves somebody like me being hustled into a hotel room to ask a few barely probing questions? “Well, first of all, it’s not somebody like you, it’s the actual you. I think the cast were all thinking about that, the kind of mirror game we’re playing here. It started for me when we were in Toronto at the Film Festival and I was walking out of the hotel to get a cup of coffee and I met these two guys, just regular festival goers not industry people. They offered to buy me a cup of coffee and one of them says, completely straight-faced, ‘so Harry, what’s the buzz on your movie?’ I said to myself, isn’t that what Consideration is about. It’s a hall of mirrors.” Shearer admits that while making the film, the cast talked about how they were going to face the press and the publicity with a straight face. “First of all, there is this cacophonous media environment where companies spend zillions of dollars to bludgeon you with news of their new product. We’re trying to get just the tiniest scrap of the public attention and say, this movie might interest you. You might have a good time watching this. What we’re doing here, it’s all about that and you know, what we’re making fun of in the movie more than anything else is that note of desperation that can creep in. Please notice me, love me!”

In the movie, there’s the sense for the actors that finally, after this long process of humiliation there might come a moment of esteem? “Well it’s that or just relief from the humiliation.” He laughs. “Which would be just as good, believe me.” “It’s not about flattery, though”, he continues, “with the cast of Home for Purim, these people always been third-tier talents and when you’re anywhere but at the absolute top in this business, humiliation is a constant. You’re either experiencing it, or you’re just over it or it’s coming around the corner. It’s the actor’s constant fear. So any salve you can apply to that is the Holy Grail.” The ultimate salve, the most soothing ego-balm for any actor, is the Oscars. I ask Shearer if he's a member of the academy. “Nope”, he says. Has he ever been asked to join? “Er, well, Ed Begley said you need two people to nominate you for your body of work, which is a curious phrase, and something happened over the years that turned into nothing, but I don’t really care. My wife (singer Judith Owen) is in the BAFTA, so we get the screener DVDs and isn’t that the only real benefit?”

After admitting that he’s recently been busy enough to justify employing a publicist for the first time, I ask Shearer what he thinks about awards show season, which now runs from December to the Oscars in March. “There are way, way too many of them, no question about it. But there are too many awards generally. I’ve been making a little collection of awards shows from outside of the entertainment industry, the strangest little corners of American commerce and effort. Really, I get sent videos. I have ones from ‘The Oscars of Funeral Directors’ or ‘The Oscars of People who make PR Videos about Funeral Directors’.” I laugh at his joke, partly because he delivers it in pure Kent Brockman, before he stops me. “No, really, it goes on and on and on. They’ve all watched the real Oscars, and have learned about walking to the podium and doing their acceptance speech and not talking too long in case the music drowns you out. Doesn’t anybody just do a job anymore? Is there a back left unpatted in America? The great American humourist Jean Shepherd once said ‘Eventually, Everything Will Become Showbusiness’. At the time, it seemed like a daffy thing to say but now it’s absolutely true.”

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