For an actor who has made a career largely out of playing uptight English gentlemen, John Cleese presents himself as surprisingly laid-back. Ensconced in a plush chair, his 6-foot-5 frame stretched onto an ottoman, Cleese is the picture of comfort. It suddenly makes sense that this is the man who once listed among his hobbies "gluttony" and "sloth." Of course, with a recurring role on the hit show Will & Grace and countless film projects keeping him busy, no one can accuse Cleese of slacking off.
He greets his visitors with that unmistakable British accent, and it's impossible to not let your mind wander to myriad Monty Python characters—Gumbys, The Black Knight, a Minister of Silly Walks—instantly associated with that voice. It's a voice that's on ample display in the blockbuster-to-be Shrek 2, in which Cleese's King of Far, Far Away finds himself the unwilling father-in-law of the green ogre. Ask Cleese how he came to be cast in the part, and his answer is simple. "The phone rang," he replies with a shrug. "No more than that. I was particularly pleased, because I thought Shrek 1 was wonderful."
Unlike many cartoons, the physical traits of the king are not based at all on Cleese. "I thought they were going to base it on me, but I can't see it at all," he says. "For starters, he's short. And he's rather sort of ruddy-faced. But I was delighted, anyway, because it's the kind of work I really enjoy. I've done about six of these now. It's been quite a familiar way of working. Ninety-nine percent of the time you're absolutely on your own and very dependent on the director to tell you exactly what's going on, since it exists in his head. By and large, it doesn't really exist outside of his head. It hasn't been animated yet."
The opportunity to do something fun and lighthearted seems to have drawn Cleese to his recent projects. In addition to Will & Grace and Shrek 2, he has taken on small but memorable roles in two enormous franchises—as a decapitated ghost in the Harry Potter series and gadgets expert 'R' in the James Bond films. Later this year he will appear in the star-studded remake of Around the World in 80 Days. Not bad for an actor who started out wanting to be a lawyer and has never even heard the term "Meisner technique." "What is that? I've never ever heard of the term," Cleese asks quizzically. "I never had a lesson in my life. And I'm not exactly proud of it, but I'm not defensive about it. I think very frequently there's a kind of originality you get from people who haven't done extensive training."
It never occurred to Cleese as an undergraduate studying law at Cambridge that he would wind up with a career in show business. Although he participated in several shows, including the prestigious Footlights troupe, it was a show he did his senior year in 1963 that set him on his current path. "It was very good and, as a result, we were taken to the West End," Cleese recalls. "I was around 22 or 24 and offered a job there because we were young and they could afford us rather easily. I had a choice between earning 12 pounds a week working as an article clerk in a law firm or 30 pounds a week in the theatre. I thought, 'This sounds a bit more interesting.' "
Having taken that step, Cleese found he loved the freedom performing provided. "I like the fact that I went from project to project. You're always learning. I love to learn new things. My main complaint about comedy is, I feel I haven't learned much recently. It's sort of the law of diminishing returns. I think I do it as well as I ever did because I have much greater relaxation than I ever had. And an enormous amount of delivering the goods when it comes to comedy is to relax."
Which is not to say that Cleese doesn't take his roles seriously. "There are certain things I do—I was recently asked to make some commercials for Tasmania. I wouldn't worry about commercials for Tasmania as much as I would worry about commercials in England," Cleese admits. "They're what one of my agents calls free money because it doesn't really affect your career." At the same time, Cleese insists he gives great consideration to his preparation, no matter what the part. "I don't think my approach is very different: I start very much from the script. In fact, my weakness as an actor is probably to be too respectful of the script." A writer himself, who penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay for A Fish Called Wanda as well as co-wrote the acclaimed Monty Python and Fawlty Towers series, Cleese has the utmost respect for his fellow writers. "There aren't many good comedy writers out there now, so I'm very respectful," he notes. "It's all right to change things when I've written it, but I think sometimes when someone else has written it, I don't try to bring enough to it. I sort of rely on what's there on the paper and just try not to screw it up rather than just taking it and making it my own."
Does it ever pose a problem when Cleese writes a role for himself without realizing he'll have to perform the scenes? "To a surprising extent," he says with a laugh. "When I was writing Fish Called Wanda, I wrote that hanging-upside-down-outside-the-window scene. Then, after I'd polished it, rewritten it, argued with the director, and rewritten some more, I sort of put my actor hat on and it really was as though I hadn't quite realized I would have to do this. You get so into writing it that you forget you actually have to deliver the goods."
Cleese was most recently seen delivering the goods as the millionaire fiancé of Megan Mullally's Karen Walker on the sitcom Will & Grace. In a rare occasion of stunt casting that works, Cleese's Lyle Finster finished off the season finale marrying the self-absorbed Karen. It's a role that reunites Cleese with director James Burrows, with whom he previously collaborated on Cheers in a role that snagged Cleese an Emmy. Another appeal, not surprisingly, was the chance to be comfortable. Says Cleese, "The character was interesting to me because it was not just that he was so wonderfully depraved, but it was a very relaxed form of acting if you compare what I've done in the past, which is usually very precise and rather high-energy. And that part of it pleased me because I like doing different things."
Cleese even learned something new while working on the show. "Not to panic when you don't get any rehearsal," he says. "They've almost abolished rehearsal. The more times I play a scene the happier I am, I love to play. That helps you make your choices. Well, there isn't time for that on Will & Grace. For starters, you're getting a new script every day. You also discover that when you're actually recording the thing in front of an audience, they're giving you new lines. You say, 'Fuck, I haven't got the old ones right yet!' And Jimmy [Burrows] is so clever that he makes you look good. I didn't really feel I was good, but it was all right on the screen." BSW