Rob Reiner knows he's in a privileged position as an actor: He hasn't had to audition for a gig in years. He's never been desperate for roles, and he doesn't worry about his status in the Hollywood talent rat race. For years, Reiner said in a recent interview, he's been taking acting jobs simply for fun--and because it's hard to turn down offers from directors Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Ron Howard, Danny DeVito, and Nora Ephron.
Even before landing his role as Michael "Meathead" Stivik on the classic Norman Lear-produced sitcom All in the Family, in which Reiner's liberal character famously fought with his close-minded father-in-law, Archie Bunker, for eight seasons, Reiner really wanted to direct. Reiner grew up watching and admiring his father, Carl Reiner, successfully juggle myriad professions--comedian, actor, producer, writer, and director--and the younger Reiner certainly followed in his father's footsteps.
While Reiner has no regrets about his time spent on All in the Family, those years on the series and the years immediately following the show's completion in 1978 were a detour for the aspiring director, who found it hard for the industry to separate him from his TV persona. While still a cast member on All in the Family, Reiner began producing and writing for television, including a few failed television series and the 1978 TV movie More Than Friends, in which he co-starred with his first wife, Penny Marshall. Reiner finally got his shot at directing a film with the 1984 cult hit comedy This Is Spinal Tap, in which he also played onscreen director Marty DeBergi. Reiner ran with the success of Spinal Tap and next directed the 1985 road picture The Sure Thing, starring John Cusack.
From there, Reiner established himself as one of the most successful and versatile directors of the 1980s and '90s with Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally..., Misery, A Few Good Men, An American President, and Ghosts of Mississippi under his helm. In 1987, Reiner co-founded Castle Rock Entertainment, which oversaw many of the above-mentioned films and many more successes, including City Slickers, In the Line of Fire, Honeymoon in Vegas, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and TV's Seinfeld, to name a few.
In addition to his many hits, Reiner has had his share of misses as a director--namely North and 1999's The Story of Us, after which Reiner took a four-year hiatus from directing, concentrating in recent years on political and public policy causes, specifically those aimed at raising awareness of early childhood development. While he's still actively involved in this area of work, he recently returned to his first love, directing, with the romantic comedy Alex & Emma, starring Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson.
Back Stage West: Did you start out wanting to be an actor?
Rob Reiner: My interest was always to be a director, even though I was doing acting jobs, too. I got interested in [acting] my last year of high school, and my first jobs were as an actor, because when you're 17, 18, 19 years old, it's hard to get jobs as a director, although I did start my own improvisational theatre group when I was 19, and I directed that and some theatre here in Los Angeles. When I got All in the Family my directing career got put on hold, although it was a great experience and I'm thrilled to have been part of it. It wasn't until after I got out of All in the Family that I really started focusing on the thing that I wanted to do.
BSW: But you've continued to act over the years. What keeps one foot in the acting door?
Reiner: It's fun and it's not a lot of responsibility, compared to directing. I mean, you have the responsibility to do your work and to do your part, but you don't have the burden of having to make everything work and to bring things on schedule and on budget and millions of decisions to make and all that pressure with how all that money is being spent.
I love acting in films because it's like recess to me. You get to play. Ron Howard once called to do a movie called EdTV and he said, "Do you want to play a part?" and I said, "Yeah, OK." He said, "Well, I'll send you a script to see if you want to do it." I said, "No. I'll do it." He said, "You don't even want to read the script?" I said, "Why should I read it? If it's no good, it's not my fault. [Laughs.] I'm just acting. I know you're a good director. I'll get to act with some people, and it will be fun for me."
I don't have the burden of having to build a career as an actor. Actors who are stars have to make those choices because they're worried about whether it's going to maintain their level of stardom and all that. I don't have to worry about that. If Nora Ephron or Mike Nichols or Woody Allen calls me, I go "Great! I get to act."
BSW: I gather you've never felt that sense of desperation so many actors experience?
Reiner: I haven't, and maybe one of the reasons I became a writer and a director is because I didn't want to be at the mercy of other people telling me when I can and can't work. I like working. I like being busy and active and involved. The idea of sitting around and waiting for somebody to call me or go in and do auditions and not get the parts and be at other people's mercy, that just is brutal and, quite frankly, I don't know how actors who are just actors do it--even actors who are wildly successful. If you do a couple of pictures a year, you're still not working six months out of the year.
It takes a certain mindset to be sitting around, and all actors have the same fear, which is--even after they're successful--they don't know when their next job is coming. So you see a lot of actors trying to start productions companies. Not too many of them have been all that successful doing it, but you can see why they want to do it, because they don't want to sit around and wait for somebody to call them.
You see a lot of actors becoming directors, and that's a good trend because I think the best directors are people who were once actors. Orson Welles, Sydney Pollack, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Milos Forman, Elia Kazan--these great directors were all actors first. I think they have a much better insight as to what other actors go through. They have a good sense of the human condition and how scenes need to be played. I think it's a natural way to go.
Being an actor doesn't necessarily make you a good director, because you do have to be able to have a vision of the overall [picture]. You have to kind of put your ego aside. And the fact is that you have to also deal with actors, and actors are sensitive people. They're fragile people. They're looking to you for approval. There's a parent/child aspect to the relationship. You have to be able to assume that role as a parent.
BSW: What qualities do you most admire in actors?
Reiner: The more naturalistic ones are the ones that I'm drawn to. But beyond that I want to be with people who are good people, who are decent people, who are not selfish types, who I like hanging out with, and who can bring something to the table--not just their acting ability, but from a creative standpoint. They make the experience better.
That's what was so nice for me on Alex & Emma. Luke and Kate are the most pleasurable people to be around. They're not only good at what they do and creative, they're just decent, good people who want to make the process work well. They're not selfish, and a lot of times stars can be selfish. They can make a production twist itself into a pretzel in order to get it done, and then it's uncomfortable for everybody. Nobody has a good time. At the end of the day, it's all about the experience.
BSW: Do you enjoy the casting process as a director and as a producer?
Reiner: I don't really like the casting process. I like to be able to come up with an idea for somebody I think could be right for the movie and then just tell him that he has the part. I don't like auditioning. I don't like any of that stuff. It's really awkward, and I know it's brutal for the actors and I know what they go through because I've been through it.
The nicest thing was when Kathy Bates came in to meet me for Misery. She was going to audition and she read literally one line and I said, "Listen, you don't have to read anything. You're great. I want you to be in this movie. You want to do it?" And she couldn't believe it. She said, "That's it? I can be in the movie?" And I said, "Yeah." She said, "Can I tell my mother?" And I said, "Yeah." The same thing happened with Luke Wilson on this movie. He came in with a whole speech prepared as to how he saw the character and why he thought he was right for the part, and I had already decided he was somebody I wanted. I just wanted to meet him to see if this is somebody I'd want to spend time with.
I love working with people who really understand that they are a cog. They are part of the process, but they are not the main one. Even the stars should understand that. I've worked with really big stars who do get that, like Jack Nicholson. It's a pleasure because they know that they are not the movie. They are serving the master, and that's the movie.
BSW: Who were your heroes growing up?
Reiner: Willie Mays was my hero. He's the only person that I would actually say is a hero. And then I guess Orson Welles, when I first started thinking about filmmaking. I mean, he's everybody's hero. He made the greatest film ever. I saw [Citizen Kane] over and over and over again. I couldn't believe what I was looking at--that somebody could take film grammar, story, character, the quality of acting, and bring it all together in this incredible masterpiece. It's very difficult to do all of those things. I wouldn't call him a hero, but he certainly was somebody who inspired me. I don't believe in heroes. My dad's my hero. My dad and Willie Mays.
BSW: Did your father give you any helpful advice when you were getting started or offer any pearls of wisdom over the course of your career?
Reiner: We never had those conversations. We never had the talk about going into show business and what I should do and not do, but the way in which he conducted his life and the way in which he approached his work and actors and creating The [Dick] Van Dyke Show, I got to see that firsthand--not just because I lived in a household with him, but I actually went down to Desilu Cahuenga Studios when I was a teenager. When I was off from school during the summer, I went every single day for three months, and I sat and I watched how he created the Van Dyke Show. And that's the best advice I could get--seeing how he did that. That's what was communicated to me.
BSW: Is there any reason why you have never cast your dad in any of the films you've directed?
Reiner: No. Because he wasn't right for the part, although he could have played the Peter Falk character in The Princess Bride.
BSW: Do you feel completely comfortable in your role as a director?
Reiner: I do. It's funny because I hadn't done a picture in three or four years before I did Alex & Emma, and I was a little nervous at first, but then I thought, It's like riding a bike. Keep pedaling and wear white at night, which I did actually. Well, I wore white during the day, and it helped. [Laughs.] I found that I was relaxed right away. I thought, OK, I'm in my element. I know how to do this. BSW