Klaatu Barrada Nikto, might be something you’d expect John Cleese to have said back in his Python days. But the catchphase (!) is one that made the The Day the Earth Stood Still famous (or was it the other way round), and Sir Cleese (surely he’s been Knighted by now) plays Dr Barnhardt in the remake. We caught up with him (via a released interview) to find out more about his role in the film and the funny man’s future projects.
Are you pleased with the film?
This might sound awful but I haven’t seen it yet! It’s funny when you make a film; you come on set for the first time and you are made a huge fuss of. Everyone looks after you and they are very kind and nice and solicitous. Nothing is too difficult. And at then at the very end, after your last shot, they always have a round of applause. It’s a nice moment and you go round shaking people’s hands and giving them a hug and say ‘Thank you’. And then you go back to the trailer and take off your costume and the make up, and get into the car and go home and you don’t hear anything for months until they want you for publicity.
How many scenes did you shoot?
I shot it last March, so off the top off my head, there’s one big one at a blackboard with Keanu, a couple of shorter ones, and quite a long dialogue one, which I was a bit nervous about. They’re quite dramatic, though: meeting with Keanu’s character, realising he’s not human, trying to dissuade him from his plan. And while if I am doing comedy, I do basically, or at least, I think, I know what I am doing, but when I am doing drama I know that I don’t! Scott Derrickson very carefully detached me from the performance that I had arrived with and coaxed me into giving a performance that was almost the exact opposite!
Was your initial idea for Dr Barnhardt a little flightier, perhaps?
Actually, I can’t remember! I’d just decided to do certain things in certain ways and certain other things certain ways and you think it might work like that. But then you walk on the set and must wait to see what the director has to say. I feel perhaps that I am too humble at times, as an actor, but I do feel that the director has been with it longer than I have and I want to do the performance that fits in with his concept of what the film. Sometimes, you may not have a very clear sense of that when you arrive on day 33. You have the script but you need to get a feeling of the sense of it, the style of it, the mood and tone right from the very beginning. But if you begin on day 33, how on earth can you know?
Tell me a bit more about the character
He is smart enough to see what Keanu’s character, Klaatu, is on about, and he’s smart enough to see how one might get Klaatu to change his mind about destroying Earth. He’s very, very highly intelligent but once Klaatu gets up beside the blackboard he realises that this guy is different. That was a nice little bit of acting to do. I enjoyed doing it because when I’m doing comedy, I know what I am going to do and I am very technical. People would be surprised but even with a lot of that physical comedy stuff I am very, very highly technical and I will do six or seven takes and most people won’t see the difference between the takes. But once I get to this dramatic stuff, I am prepared to push off a little bit to from the shore and throw the paddle away and just to see what happens. And that’s a little scary.
It’s your first serious role since Frankenstein, although I understand that your agent’s been encouraging you to do more
That’s true, but one of the things that people don’t seem to understand is that I don’t do more of this because I’m not asked. I did two days on a movie called ‘A Man About Town’ with Ben Affleck in Vancouver in the Fall of 2004. Then I did not do another movie for three years!
And what did you find appealing about The Day the Earth Stood Still; were you a fan of the original movie?
First of all it was rather interesting. I didn’t know the original and every time I mentioned it to one of my friends who was a fan of movies, they would say, ‘That was a good one’. So at least we were remaking something good. Secondly, I thought it would be quite exciting to work with Jennifer Connolly. She is really good. She is. And it’s fascinating when you are with her because she goes so deeply into herself when she’s trying stuff out. The director, Scott Derrickson, told me he would make a suggestion to her and it would be greeted by a prolonged silence. He thought, ‘Oh, she doesn’t like that’. After a time he mentioned it, and she said, ‘No, no, I am just processing.’ So if you speak to Jennifer when she’s thinking about what she’s doing, you actually don’t get an answer. I’ve never seen anyone who goes so deeply inside herself. It’s fascinating to watch and when you act with her it’s kind of easy, because it is as though she is so good she creates a force field and you just fit into it. Acting opposite her you don’t even have to act; she pulls your performance out of you. Oh, and I get paid jolly good money and it was in Vancouver.
What’s Keanu like day-to-day?
I liked him. He’s a sweetie and we had a lot of fun practising over the blackboard. All I can say is that I enjoyed him and I found him sympathetic. I think he knew I was a little bit scared because, like I said, when I go onto a drama set I don’t know what I am doing. I had trouble with lines at one point and he just went and got the script, gave it to me, and said, ‘Don’t worry. You are off camera. It doesn’t matter.’ I thought he was kind. He may be uncomfortable but don’t forget the characters he plays are often strange.
You, however, seem more relaxed with the press these days
I used to be very uncomfortable at interviews for a lot of the time because I was uptight. Now I’ve got comfortable in my own skin but I do share one characteristic with most of my friends, who regard British journalists as a thoroughly treacherous lot. There are exceptions, but by and large, that’s true
You hosted Prince Charles’ 60th birthday bash recently. Is he fun to be with?
I think he’s a very nice guy who is much, much brighter than the British press ever give him credit for because he was ahead of most in his thinking. I don’t think people in business always liked his suggestions, and particularly journalists who regard themselves as completely hardnosed. They are just mean rather superficial and narrow most of the time.
You’re currently working on a couple of film scripts at the moment, right? It must be the first time you’ve tackled feature-film writing since Fierce Creatures
You are right. I’m writing one now with Lisa Hogan. It’s called ‘Evasion’ and it’s about the lengths that people will go to to avoid paying tax. We are writing it on spec. We are about 70 per cent through that but we have to go to down the border between California and Mexico to do research on how illegal immigrants come in. And so we are going to do that at Easter, and then in the summer I think we have our first draft. I’m also doing May Divorce be With You. And of course I am doing a musical based on A Fish Called Wanda for the stage, with my daughter. We have no idea if we can do it but we are having a lot of fun.
What turned you onto that idea?
I was actually bored, when they first asked me, I thought why would I want to do that? And then, really, what turns me on is working with people. It’s always been that way. Wanda was about working with Kevin, Jamie and Michael. It wasn’t about making that script. It was about that kind of excitement. And I find that Lisa is so inventive on plot. It’s an absolute joy to work out the story with her, which is why I think we have such a good story. And Camilla [his daughter] has a very similar, terribly fast, terribly funny mind. So we said to ourselves, ‘Let’s keep as much as the film as we want and throw the rest of it out.’ So the last 20 minutes may not be at an airport at all. And I said to Camilla at one point, ‘I am a little bit worried about Otto eating Ken’s fish, because fish are very small -you do that in a theatre and how are they going to see them?’ And Camilla said, ‘Well, let’s have him eat Ken’s pets’. So we have this crazy idea of him eating budgies and nibbling the ears off a kitten. Also Camilla said, ‘We don’t have to kill only three dogs do we, Dad?’ The moment you can look at like that, it’s fun. The whole thing is about working with other people -I found out doing my one-man show in Australia.
How was that, because stand-up has never been your thing
Well my one-man show had other people! And I found that when I was doing a few monologues, I didn’t enjoy them. I was spending my time thinking ‘In seven minutes the whole thing will be over!’ Which is not the way it should be, and yet as soon as I was interacting with the other people I enjoyed it. That’s why I never really became a stand-up.
â€¢ The Day the Earth Stood Still is released on December 12
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