Robin Williams on Improv, Acting, 'License'

By Sandy Cohen

Robin Williams is an improv artisan, an Oscar-winning dramatic actor and the kind of off-the-cuff performer who seems to live in a perpetual animated state of comic creation.

In his latest film, "License to Wed," opening July 3, Williams plays an over-the-top pastor who puts a young, ready-to-marry couple through an intrusive pre-wedding prep course.

He shifts gears for "August Rush," a dramatic fable due this fall. Then he'll double-clutch back to comedy, with 2008's "Old Dogs" opposite John Travolta, and a planned return to the road with his standup act.

After promoting his new movie in New York, Williams spent his airport-bound drive on the New Jersey turnpike talking with The Associated Press about his love of acting, his stint in rehab and balancing comedy, drama and life.

AP: You bounce between comedy and drama. Do you approach them differently?

Williams: No, not really. Sometimes with a comedy it's just having the instinct of how real you play it and what level you want it. But no. I think for me it's the same amount of work and preparation for both.

AP: Do you have a preference?

Williams: My preference is live performance.

AP: Why?

Williams: Because you get the feedback. There's an energy. It's live theater. That's why I think actors like that. You know, musicians need it, comedians definitely need it. It doesn't matter what size and what club, whether it's 30 people in the club or 2,000 in a hall or a theater. It's live, it's symbiotic, you need it.

AP: Does that mean you will do standup again?

Williams: Oh definitely. I did a couple of dates before preparing for this movie. ... It was fun. I would like to do that after this next movie.

AP: Who are some of the people you have yet to work with but want to?

Williams: Oh, I don't know, so many. I just learn from everybody. Even like in this movie with people who are kind of just starting out like John Krasinski (the intended groom in "License to Wed"), and the boy playing the choir boy, Josh Flitter, he's hysterical. And Freddie Highmore (his co-star in "August Rush"), who is stone-cold brilliant and so young. I just like the fact that I get to work with anybody at this point.

AP: When and how did you know you wanted to be an actor?

Williams: I knew when I failed my political science classes that the options were closing.

AP: Have you wanted to perform since you were a kid?

Williams: No, it didn't really hit until senior year of high school and they had the class play where you made fun of the teachers and I could do dead-on impressions of like two or three of them. It got huge laughs and it was like, 'Oh this is good.' And, like a lot of guys, you start doing that and all the sudden girls are like, 'You're funny.' It's a way to meet women. ... Then something else kicked in where all the sudden you start doing it and going, 'I really enjoy this.' And you're doing improv and the chance to use all the knowledge that you have, and you get the laughs too. Then it's really fun.

AP: Is improv your thing?

Williams: Sometimes you can have stuff and it looks like improv but other times, when you're really improvising, that's when it's really fun. I mean, when you really do find a new idea or you're in and it's all working, that's the gift. It's like a musician when they hit a riff, that's when you're like all right, it's mellow. When it happens, it's a gift. You back off and just ride it.

AP: What roles do you dream of doing?

Williams: Freud, Einstein, you always dream of some of the historical roles. Ulysses S. Grant. Those are the people, just because those are characters from history and also, you read about them and go, 'What complex, amazing people.' Plus there's great works of fiction that you can go to.

AP: What do you like to do when you're not working? You're a big baseball fan?

Williams: I've just started to be a baseball fan. Billy Crystal is the one who got me hooked on going to games. I'm really a cycling fan and a cyclist. I like to ride bikes, that's my passion.

AP: What are some of your favorite roles you've played?

Williams: "Awakening," playing Oliver Sacks or someone like Oliver. "The Fisher King" was probably one of the most, just because he's such a damaged character. "Good Will Hunting" was, for me, just great to play someone at that point in their life. Those are some of the best for me.

AP: What about "Dead Poet's Society"?

Williams: For me, that was kind of a life-changing experience as it was, I think, for everybody who did it. It was kind of a beginning of a passion for work and a passion for what you do.

AP: Last year, you made a highly publicized trip to rehab. What do you think about today's revolving-door rehab for young stars?

Williams: With people who go, recidivism is always a problem. I fell off the wagon after 20 years and people are like, 'Really?' Well, yeah. It only kicks in when you really want to change. I mean, obviously Lindsay (Lohan) said (she's) going to stay in rather than come out and have a birthday party sponsored by a vodka company. ... They can't keep you in rehab unless it's court ordered, so when you decide to stay extra, that's a good sign. She's saying, I have a problem, and the only person who can really address that is you deciding you need help. ... You have to kind of give up in order to deal with it. You have to say, 'OK, I need help.' And once you acknowledge that, the process begins.


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