To understand something about Crispin Glover, you have to appreciate his need for provocation.
Best known for his portrayal of George McFly, Marty McFly's nerdy father in the 1985 hit Back to the Future, Glover has been called Hollywood's town weirdo. He is not the easiest guy to figure out, and he's not about to help decode himself.
Well, that's not quite true. He tries. But that doesn't help much, either.
If you think that's all a bit confusing, consider the content of his first film, a one-hour feature that he wrote and directed, called What is it? (The title, it turns out, is a very good question.) There's a snail-obsessed protagonist. Swastikas and whiffs of Shirley Temple are woven throughout, plus murders of snails with salt and razor blades. A black-faced minstrel hopes to mutate into an invertebrate through snail-enzyme injections. And the majority of the actors have Down syndrome. It took him nine years to complete, and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this year. No distributors picked it up, so Glover, who personally financed the project to the tune of nearly $125,000 (U.S.), is taking it around North America to various venues. Tomorrow, it will be shown at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto at 7 p.m.
"It's my psychological reaction to working in the industry," he says from behind a flutter of starched white napkin.
Yes, I am having dinner with the actor David Letterman once dismissed from his talk show by calling him "some dork from wherever" and when the audience booed a bit, challenged them by asking, " You wanna have dinner with the guy?" which hushed them up.
That was on July 28, 1987. Glover had walked onto the stage dressed in striped bell-bottoms, black boots with 3-inch heels, a long-haired wig and two-tone plastic glasses. He stuttered his way through some conversation, then got up and kicked at the talk-show host's head. Letterman promptly left the stage -- the only time he's ever abandoned a guest out of annoyance.
For a long time in Hollywood, the buzz was that any director who wanted to cast Glover was asking for trouble. For the 2003 remake of the horror film Willard, the studio, at first, allegedly refused to let director Glen Morgan consider Glover for the lead. Morgan persisted. Who better to cast as the socially awkward man who trains an army of rats to mete out his vengeance upon the world? Glover has self-published several books, most of which have ghoulish photographs and text from Victorian books that has been cut out, pasted in and scribbled over. One of them is called Rat Catching.
"You didn't write the text, right?" I ask, flipping through a copy of the book.
"Well, I erased some of the text and I wrote some words," he responds solemnly. He wipes the tips of his fingers on his napkin (he has been eating sushi) and takes the book from me. "Here, see?" he says, pointing to the page where he had scribbled the words, "The sand-pit man violated a lamb," next to a grainy photograph of a farmer lifting up the back end of an animal.
His handwriting looks like a madman's scrawl you might see at a murder scene. I ask him to autograph the three books of his that I brought along.
"Oh," he says, "Give that one back to me. I didn't sign my middle name." His middle name is Hellion. "People always think it's made up," he says. "But it's not. My parents gave it to me." He pauses. All I can see is the top of his head and that geeky hair of his, light brown and parted smack dab in the middle, as he bows in concentration over his signing. "They made it up," he says, lifting his face to meet mine with a strange little smile.
Glover is the only child of actor Bruce Glover, best known as Jack Nicholson's partner in Chinatown, and Marie, a musical-theatre dancer. Born in New York, he later moved to Los Angeles, where his parents still live. At 11, Glover had his first acting gig in a stage production of The Sound of Music with Florence Henderson. In most of his films ( River's Edge, Wild at Heart, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and recently, Charlie's Angels) he plays strange characters.
It's not hard to see why directors choose him for such roles. He has an odd Victorian vibe. He wears black almost exclusively and prefers vintage clothing. His face has a waxen appearance, as though he's a figure in Madame Tussaud's famous museum. And his movements are stiff like those of a gentleman robot. When he was being photographed for this story, he would turn his head awkwardly, as if the screws in his neck were rusty, and remain completely frozen, only his eyes shifting back and forth, like those in a horror-show portrait.
"In a career, the idea that a persona gets sold in some way is a valuable thing," he says, when asked if he feels pigeonholed as Mr. Creepy. "You should strive for identification."
His greatest breakthrough, he tells me, is that in the last few years he has been able to divorce himself from the message of his films. "For a long time, I was trying to find things [films]that were fitting into an artistic expression for me. But now, the reason I'm working a lot [as an actor]is just to finance my own films." He is not difficult to work with, he says calmly.
The message of his film is similar to the "sensibility" of his books, he explains. "Most films are made by corporations that take away anything that will produce a question. There's no dissent, and that seems absurd to me."
His work aims to make people think, to question what the media routinely feeds them. "The reason I cast Down syndrome actors is that when I look into their faces, I see people who have lived their lives outside of the culture." He is agitated as he explains his thinking, and it goes round and round a few times in convoluted explanations about provocation and reaction. He is planning a trilogy. "Will each film have Down syndrome actors?" I query. "No, well, maybe yes. I don't know. The second film stars Steve Stewart. He has cerebral palsy," he offers.
In an essay he wrote about the film's subtext, he attacks the Hollywood fare that he thinks anesthetizes the culture. In particular, he bashes Steven Spielberg in a crude, pornographic manner. Glover is notorious for the lawsuit he brought against Spielberg, who used footage of the actor as George McFly from the first film for Back to the Future II after he turned down the part. Glover won.
Does he have a vendetta against Spielberg? He shakes his head. "I don't want to comment about what I write. It stands on its own," he says, choosing to concentrate on his raw tuna.
Glover's interest in what he sees as art in the surrealist traditional of Salvador Dali began when he was 8, he says. He made his books for his own pleasure until a friend suggested he publish them. He even used himself as a piece of performance art to confound cultural expectations.
"I do consider the [Letterman]appearance part of what I put out there to make a statement," he says. "At the time, I was reacting to the 'Brat Pack.' There was this idea about how young actors were supposed to be. They were supposed to have this decorum." Now, he has decided to compartmentalize his art into his own projects. "Before, I would let everything be up for questioning."
His urge to provoke was also why he allowed reporters into his house, even though they got it all wrong, he tells me. "I don't collect glass eyeballs," he says, shaking his head sadly. "I have one museum-quality wax representation of eyeball diseases from the 1800s, before they had photographs. And I have one sterilizing medical table. It's not a gynecological table," he says, wishing to set the record straight. "I did have black walls. But now they're gold with black highlights." He lives in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. Recently, he bought a castle outside Prague.
"I like very normal things," he insists. "I like classical music." He owns two Bentleys, a 1953 and a 1957 model. "I like antiquity," the Victorian wax gentleman says.
Asked what his life is like, he goes on a long-winded recitation that sounds like an obsessive rant, as though all the dates and events are inked in his brain.
"Wait, a girlfriend?" I say, interrupting him, when he mentions an item on the list: his girlfriend dropping by.
"Oh yes," he says, fidgeting a bit with his fork.
"Who?" Glover has been painted as a recluse.
"I've learned not to say," he says primly. "A nice girl," he adds, dabbing the edges of his mouth with his napkin, as he has done several times throughout the meal. "An intelligent girl."
Another item on the list of Crispin's busy life is the new film he's doing, Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis, who worked with him on Back to the Future. Glover will play the flamboyant role of Grendel, opposite Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie.
"Yes," he says succulently, his eyebrows raising. "Angelina is my mother."