The voice of Principal Skinner to a generation of TV fans or an arthouse comic and Christopher Guest collaborator? As Drew Turney finds out, Harry Shearer is all things to all people.
Xpress asks Harry Shearer if his latest film, For Your Consideration, is biting the hands that feeds it. It is after all a parody of the chaos, confusion, egos and bitchy backstabbing that goes on behind the scenes — hardly the sort of stuff Hollywood types want on screen.
“I guess we are,” Shearer answers down the line, “but hands can taste good with a little ketchup.”
It sums Shearer up. Xpress expected a rambling discourse on the intellectualism of Hollywood’s occasional tradition of self-scrutiny. Instead he comes out with a line that sounds like it’s come from… well, The Simpsons.
Such random personality is the most effective weapon in Shearer’s canon. He’s not the funniest, most famous or best-looking guy in comedy, but like so few Hollywood actors who can step effortlessly between the arthouse and the multiplex, Shearer inhabits separate worlds.
He’s as comfortable — and as funny — in For Your Consideration (released this week) as he is playing Charles Caiman, the misogynist, self-centred senior reporter in 1998s overblown, universally derided Godzilla.
How did this radio host, playwright and one of the world’s most famous voice actors conquer so many distinct fields? Does he consciously decide to do a Simpsons and a Best in Show, a Chicken Little and a For Your Consideration?
“What I’ve cultivated consciously is a desire to avoid being pigeonholed by the industry because that’s a way of shortening your career,” he says. “So I’ve tried to choose different things to do and always come up in different contexts. ‘Be a moving target’ is my way of putting it. The business thrives on bringing you in young and chewing you up; ‘You’re just the lead we want’, and then four years later ‘You? Are you still around?’ To shape shift a little bit is a way of saying ‘I’m still here’.”
The mockumentary genre pioneered by Guest, Shearer and partner in crime Michael McKean with This is Spinal Tap 23 years ago has a unique subtlety loved by movie fans. So many regular faces have joined the Guest mockumentary fold over the years (Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara to name a few) he’s almost the Altman of comedy. How does Shearer think the films retain their unique, adult and razor-sharp humour?
“These movies start with an atmosphere of trust on the set,” he thinks. “Chris trusts us, we trust him, we trust each other and ultimately we trust the audience. We trust the audience to get jokes that don’t come hammering at them at a hundred miles an hour and a hundred decibels.
“We invite [the audience] to come towards us a little bit and I think audiences enjoy that as a contrast to most comedies which are just hammering at you with the relentlessness of a television commercial.”
It also has to do with Guest’s m.o. as a director. Famously, he sets up a scene and the cast perform it unscripted, with such a strong sense of where their character’s coming from the humour comes naturally from the clash or clamour of well-drawn personalities.
It sounds like great fun; a high school drama class full of fast and loose improv, or sitting around with friends eating pizza telling funny stories, but this much fun is studious work.
“Fast and loose is a slight misnomer because if you were to come to the set you might be hard pressed to know there’s even a movie going on,” Shearer says, “There’s a very quiet, disciplined air because we have maybe three takes — four max — to get a scene, so it’s a very focused thing. We don’t rehearse the scenes — we don’t even discuss them beforehand so everybody’s tightly wound inside themselves and it kind of unspools gradually in the relaxed atmosphere of this very trusting environment.”
“And in contrast to the commercial movies I’ve been in, the great thing about [Guest mockumentaries] is there’s no clashing force fields of egos in these movies, it’s a very cooperative enterprise. That’s what allows us to really walk out on a ledge without a net because of that trusting and relaxed atmosphere. ”
From a small, trusting, unrehearsed environment, Xpress asks again about The Simpsons, which must be like moving to another dimension — particular deep in production as Shearer is on The Simpsons Movie, due out this July. After being with history’s highest rated animated family (and near-highest rated sitcom) for 17 years, how has voicing Skinner, Otto, Smithers, Kent Brockman, Reverend Lovejoy, Dr Hibbert, Homer’s co-worker Lenny and many more not become boring?
To paraphrase the great philosopher, it’s history, stupid. “First of all,” Shearer reminds us with the only really necessary truth, “it’s still funny. Secondly it’s an enormous privilege to be part of it. If you’re an actor and you’re on any TV show you’re incredibly lucky. And if you’re on one of the biggest hit shows in the history of the business, you’re really in the wrong business if you’re bored with that.
“It’s why you get into the business in the first place, because being part of something like it is like winning the lottery. It’s like saying ‘aren’t you bored with having won the lottery yet?'”
So with a stage play about to open in London (a musical comedy on the life of J Edgar Hoover), a long running and widely syndicated weekly radio show and playing more characters at any one time than most actors manage in an entire career, Shearer has little time to be bored. Derek Smalls would be horrified at the thought of so much hard work…