It's likely both flattering and a little aggravating for Frank Oz that he will forever be associated with puppets. As a longtime collaborator of Muppets creator Jim Henson and as the voice of such iconic figures as the Muppets' Miss Piggy and Star Wars' Yoda, the 63-year-old filmmaker and performer confesses irritation when people ask him to compare directing actors and puppets. "That's a question that is always asked, and I find it so strange," he notes. "I don't direct a puppet; what do people think I do, talk to a fucking puppet? Of course not; I talk to the professionals who work the characters, and they are actors. We discuss things, we talk it over, and I don't always get what I want—just as with all actors."
Though he worked with puppeteers on his first three feature films as director—The Dark Crystal, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Little Shop of Horrors—Oz has spent the last 20 years building an impressive résumé with intelligent comedies that feature standout performances. Oz films such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bowfinger, and In & Out are remarkable not only for their smart humor but also for the excellent work by their actors—including Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Kevin Kline. In his new film, Death at a Funeral, Oz plunks a group of respected British actors (along with Yanks Peter Dinklage and Alan Tudyk) into a veddy proper English setting, where everything goes awry. The sons of the deceased (Matthew Macfadyen and Rupert Graves) must deal with their sibling rivalry and a blackmailer (Dinklage) who crashes the solemn occasion. The jokes fly fast and furious as plot twists ensue, involving an accidentally drugged guest, a hypochondriac, and a love-struck suitor; the day descends into chaos and farce. But Oz was determined to ground the events in reality, no matter how crazy things become. "I always try to be as honest as possible. And when it's honest, hopefully, it will be comic," he says. "I'll use the movie Airplane! as an example. It's a very honest movie. It's wild and over-the-top, but it's honest to the world in which it lived. And that's how I try to approach movies."
He says the same goes for the actors he hires. "I look for people who don't try to be funny," he notes. "There are people like Steve Martin or Bill Murray who know how to do the funny without trying. People who want to get into a comedy to show how funny they are, I avoid like the plague." Oz also considers it an advantage that he was unfamiliar with almost his entire Death at a Funeral cast. "It's great, because I can see them as the characters, not the actors," he says. The one exception was Dinklage, who was Oz's first choice for the blackmailer, even though the role was not necessarily written for a little person. "I was a huge fan of The Station Agent and knew he was a great actor," notes Oz. "Fortunately, I was able to get him."
The rest of the cast was filled by actors Oz auditioned in England with casting director Gail Stevens. Oz insists on meeting with actors, rather than relying on tapes. "How can I interact with an actor; how do I know if they can take my notes?" he asks. "I auditioned one person who was, sadly, an alcoholic. How would I know that on a tape? How would I know if they even like me—there might be something with me that they have a problem with. Mostly, I just want to see what kind of a person he or she is. And you can't tell that on tape."
Oz is forthright about actors he hasn't gotten along with: Cher fired him from the film Mermaids, and he famously butted heads with Marlon Brando on the 2001 heist flick The Score. "I mishandled the situation very badly for about a day and a half," Oz says. "[Brando] was upset because he'd created a different character that was too broad for our movie. I confronted him when I should have nurtured him, and that was a big mistake of mine. I was wrong. After I did that, I was not able to recover him no matter what I did. And I guess I deserved that." There have been other cases in which he didn't get along with actors, but Oz maintains that it doesn't show in the final product. "Sometimes you can cajole someone around. Sometimes you decide not to work together," he notes. "I said to one famous actor, 'Okay, you don't like me. The question is: Can we work together?' And the answer was yes. Other times the answer is no."
But Oz professes a strong admiration for actors. He studied for two years at HB Studio in New York—not because he wanted to be an actor but because he wanted to learn how to better communicate with them as a director. In his 20s he spent six months trying to act, though it was a halfhearted effort. "I was getting headshots and going to agents and stupid directors who don't know what they're doing, and it's hell," Oz says bluntly. "It's so courageous for actors to do what they do. And when someone comes in to an audition, I know what they're going through. So all I can say is just be yourself and try to relax because at the end of the day you're still going to be you."
Whether he likes it or not, Oz is held in high regard for his acting. "I'm a performer, not an actor," he corrects. "And I haven't performed in years." Aside from his voice work, he has appeared in a number of films, usually directed by his friend John Landis, such as The Blues Brothers and Blues Brothers 2000, in which he had a scene-stealing turn as a prison warden. "That's not acting," Oz maintains. "That was John being a friend of mine and us having fun. But every director should get in front of a camera to remember how frightening it is. Everyone should experience how emotionally naked actors have to be. And remember you have to care for them."
Asked if he misses performing, Oz doesn't hesitate. "Not at all; I love directing," he says. He began his career hoping to direct theatre, but, he notes, "I haven't fucked up too bad as a film director, so I keep being asked. When I screw up, maybe I can go back to theatre." When he was 17, he first met Henson; Oz eventually dropped out of college to work with him on commercials and variety shows. "I didn't go to film school; I hung around and asked a lot of questions from [directors of photography] and editors and other crew members," he says. "Then Jim gave me the break of asking me to direct The Dark Crystal with him. Well, he directed it. I helped him."
Oz admits he isn't sure why they had such a connection. "I think, in part, because we were opposites," he muses. "But I really couldn't say. During Dark Crystal, it got to a point where we would look at each other and know exactly what the other was thinking. We didn't even have to talk. How that chemistry happens, I don't know. But it's pretty special."