Robert Elmer "Bob" Balaban is an American actor, author, producer, and director.
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I'm an actor, producer, director and writer. I produced the movie GOSFORD PARK, I write children's books, I'm currently in a play on Broadway with John Lithgow and Glenn Close, it's called "A Delicate Balance," we started previews last night. I've been an actor since I was a kid: my first movie was THE MIDNIGHT COWBOY, my last movie was THE MONUMENTS MEN, and I'm currently filming a miniseries for HBO written by David Simon, the wonderful writer who wrote The Wire, called Show Me A Hero.
My latest project is We The Economy, in which I created a short film about globalization for Paul Allen & Morgan Spurlock's companies. It's intended to educate and amuse. Hopefully it does a little of both: https://wetheeconomy.com/directors/bob-balaban/
My proof: http://imgur.com/K6edl2s
Victoria's helping me today via phone. AMA.
EDIT: Thank you everybody, or those of you who are still awake - fun sharing stuff with you. I hope everybody has a great day.
Bob, hi! Thanks a lot for doing this AMA.
A few q’s for you:
In the Chris Guest movies, how the hell do you keep a straight face? Was there ever a bit where they got you busting up laughing?
I adore Ghost World. Did you ever feel like the character Enid? Where you weren’t sure of which direction you were going? If so, do you still feel that way sometimes?
1) None of us - we usually don't laugh too much in these Christopher Guest things. We're really being our characters, and if our characters don't think it's funny, we shouldn't either. It happens. Mostly when we're tired and it's the end of the day. In WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, my character was usually irritated by him, but there were things Christopher occasionally did where I had to bite my lip and look away.
2.) I would say I generally feel that way. And I'm in denial most of the time, pretend everything is fine and proceed.
Hello Mr. Balaban! It's always a surprise to see you pop up in unexpected places.
Can you share your experiences working with Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Any cool anecdotes? Thanks!
Well, here's another anecdote about CLOSE ENCOUNTERS - when I met with Steven Spielberg and Julie Phillips the producer, I didn't have to audition. They just wanted to make sure I could speak really good french, because I was playing the part of Francois Truffaut's interpreter. I hadn't spoken french since high school, and I was really worried. So when they asked me to say a little something in french, I said -
Il y'a avais beaucoup d'annees depuis que j'ai parlais français, et ci vous me donner ce boulot, ce cera très difficile pour mois."
Which means "It has been many years since i have spoken french, and if you give me this job, it will be very difficult for me."
Fortunately nobody in the room spoke french, they thought I spoke fluently, and I got the job.
What's it like working with Wes Anderson?
Working with Wes Anderson is really fun.
It keeps you on your toes. He's kind, and gentle, and strong, and knows just what he wants. He creates a real feeling of focus and creativity and family on the set.
When I was in MOONRISE KINGDOM, we didn't have dressing rooms, because these are very low budget movies and everybody's so happy to be in it, we would practically live on the street. My character was the narrator, and I had to wear funny shoes, a green beanie, and a giant red coat. And i was staying in a rather nice hotel in Newport, and every morning I had to go down in the lobby with my costume on and sit there in front of dozens of people waiting for the car to come get me. One day I met my cousins for dinner after shooting, and I arrived at a little italian restaurant in my full costume, and it was pretty embarrassing.
We had a great time doing GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. I was only there for about 10 days, with Bill Murray, and some other wonderful people. And we did one scene on top of a mountain, across a bridge on a little parapet, it was 20 degrees and snowing and I sat out there in my purple tuxedo, looking around at Wes, 40 feet away on the other side of the bridge, and thought it was either a dream or I had died. We warmed up at the end, but it was incredibly - a very odd and lovely moment.
What is your Top 5 movies? And, if you could redo any movie you were in what movie and why? Who would you cast?
Well, first of all, my favorite movie is LA RONDE. It's an old french movie. That's my most favorite. I'm a Preston Sturges fan, so anything by him would be next. I happen to have just seen the film MR. TURNER, Mike Lee's new movie, and I put that somewhere near the top.
I would have recast - I was in PRINCE OF THE CITY, and if I could do it all over again, it's one of my favorite movies. I loved Sidney Lumet. If I could have, I would have cast Paul Sorvino in the part instead of me, but he's already in the movie. But this is just a fantasy, so that's okay.
Can you tell us something about yourself that we may find surprising?
I speak pretty good French, but that's not exactly a shock. Hmm... I'm a great fan of the Salzburg Marionettes. They're these little tiny Marionette puppets, they performed at the Metropolitan Museum last year, and they used tiny puppets as the Von Trapp family and real people as the Nazis and the Nun who sings "Climb Every Mountain." I'm a sucker for a doll on a string.
Hi Bob - You had a string of cameos in really hot TV shows in the 90's. All of them hilarious. Which current TV show would you like to make a cameo if it was your choice?
Well, I currently have cameos on GIRLS and THE GOOD WIFE, and that Comedy Central one - I guess if I could have a cameo on anything, I would do a cameo on SHARK TANK. I would be somebody who invented a new kind of rice. And they would humiliate me. Just because i would only be acting, it wouldn't really hurt me. This is really stupid, I know that.
First of all your name is the most fun to say.
Secondly, I think you are an excellent actor! I am interested in knowing about your experiences working on Catch-22? Orr is one of my favourite characters in my favourite book!
CATCH-22 was one of my first movies, I was in college. I was very, very afraid of the other actors, because they were famous, and really good, and I was just a pipsqueak. I shot 14 days over 7 months, and lived in Guaymas, Mexico for most of the time. It's the shrimp capitol of the world.
I became a vegetarian during the movie.
They kept serving adorable birds arranged in poses for lunch on our plate.
Lined up, praying, and stuff like that. And I've had a hard time ever since eating chicken, but I give in sometimes.
It was fascinating, long, I had a few experiences I can't really talk about, and I had one of my favorite moments in a movie but it didn't make it into the final cut. My character escapes to Sweden at the end of the movie, and there was a dream sequence in which I crash-landed in one of Esther William's largest swimming tanks at MGM, sank 30 feet to the bottom of the tank with the camera, and spoke to the camera underwater. I had to be trained in scuba-breathing in case I got stuck at the bottom. And it didn't occur to me until the next day how terrifying it had been.
Hi Mr. Balaban,
Thanks for doing this AMA.
A few questions:
How often do you get back to Chicago?
You've performed across a spectrum of media and genres, so what draws you to a role?
What is your favorite book (aside from your own)?
Harry Shearer is coming on AMA later today - are there any questions we must definitely ask him?
Thanks so much!
1) I love Chicago. But I only make it once or twice a year. My favorite cousins live there. And my older daughter goes to graduate school in Chicago, so I love being there.
2) What draws me to a role is usually the writing. I happen to like playing villains. But lately I've expanded into some nice people as well. And I'd say even more than the writing, the director is what attracts me to a part. I'd rather do 2 lines in a Wes Anderson movie than do a great big part with somebody whose work I don't admire as much.
3) I'm currently reading a book that I like very much called "The Orientalist" by Tom Reiss. I keep thinking of what a great movie Wes Anderson could make of this. It's pretty great.
I also really enjoy Bill Bryson's book "At Home."
4) Ask him to talk about the musical he wrote about J. Edgar Hoover. I heard it was great, and I doubt anybody will get to see it.
You should ask him about his incredibly talented jazz musician wife!
How do you spell Dalrymple?
D-A-L-R-Y-M-P-L-E. It was my character on Seinfeld. It's a fake name, but I was playing a real character.
What has it been like working with Wes Anderson? Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories?
Well, Wes is incredibly interested in the big picture, and all the little details inside of it.
When I went to be the narrator of MOONRISE KINGDOM, I shot mostly during the first week of the movie, before the other actors were there. And Wes didn't tell me anything about the character, but I knew, from wearing my costume, from trying on my costume once before at a fitting, I got a real feeling of what this guy must've been like.
And the day I showed up, Wes Anderson showed me a series of little videos, in which he was playing the part of the narrator. He didn't do it to show me how to be the narrator. He did it to give me an idea of what the narrator would look like in the various frames of the scenes he was narrating. It SO made me understand what he was going for, without discussing it at all, and I felt instantly comfortable. And strange as it was to narrate a movie on-camera, I felt like I'd doing it all my life.
It also happens to be one of my favorite movies as well. I should have put it in my top 5 list of favorite movies. I forgot.
On Seinfeld, you played the fictional head of NBC. If you were the real head of NBC, what would you do?
Well, the real head of NBC at the time was Warren Littlefield, who was a friend of mine! And people actually used to think I was the real head of NBC, which was really strange. They would try to pitch me ideas and projects, and I guess if I were the real head of NBC, I would have produced all my own projects and gotten fired immediately.
Is there a film you have done that you think went under the radar? What project do you wish more people had seen?
Oh! I directed an evening in New York, and an international tour, called "The Exonerated." The true stories of 5 men and 1 women who spent up to 22 years on death row for crimes they did not commit, and were eventually exonerated. I wish everybody could have seen that evening. Because the stories were moving, and true, and astonishing. And it would really make everybody think about the death penalty in a new light. Whether or not you are for or against the death penalty as a concept, the stories in The Exonerated made you realize how impossible it is in some cases to get to the truth, and that a small percentage of men and women have actually been put to death for crimes they didn't commit.
What is your morning routine like?
What would most people be surprised to know about you?
What advice would you give to your 22 year old self?
It's different with every job. When I'm not working, I am in my house in the country, where I get up, pick vegetables, go for a bike ride, and have dinner with a friend in town. It's really nice. Now that I'm doing a play, I get up, I got to the gym, I do some preparation, and then have a rehearsal every day and do the play at night, it's a full-time occupation.
I think they would be surprised to know I'm a very fast runner and I'm an uneducated but devoted birdwatcher.
Don't rush. You're going to be here for a long time.
How are you today?
Today I feel pretty good. I had my vegan raspberry muffin for breakfast. I will be going to rehearsal in half an hour for A DELICATE BALANCE where I get to see my 5 friends who are in the play, and I get to do the show tonight at 8.
It's kind of nervewracking, and really really fun.
It seems you tend to be type casted as either angry or misunderstood in comedies. Is that what you usually go for? which you do real well. with working with Chris guest and Eugene levy and all them, what was one of the funniest or craziest moments on set you experienced?
Well... I probably am confused or angry, a certain amount of the time.
There are actually too many fun crazy moments to just pick out just one. But if I had to, in A MIGHTY WIND, I spent one entire shooting day annoying Michael Hitchcock by being afraid of everything. The plants were dangerous. I was worried that the scenery was flat. At the end of one riff about how scared I was that the lights were going to fall on us during the performance, he bopped me on the head from behind and I actually fell to the ground, thinking he had hit me. It was a complete surprise, we all started laughing, and that was the end of the scene.
Hey Bob Balaban! Thank you for giving us this opportunity
What was it like working with the cast and crew of The Monuments Men?
Do you have any off camera memories from Close encounters of the Third Kind?
Thank you again for this chance, on behalf of this AMA I'd like to commend you on your amazing talents and wish you luck on your current and future projects
Okay! MONUMENTS MEN was really fun. And really different. I loved living in Europe with a bunch of non-pretentious actors having a great time, eating some really good food, and doing a movie that we all cared deeply about. George sets a great example. He makes everything look easy, he never sweats, he's incredibly prepared, and he wants shooting to be fun. What more could you ask for?
I have so many memories of that move, I actually wrote a book about it! It's called "Spielberg, Truffaut and Me" and I think you can get it on Amazon.
One story: Truffaut said one of the reasons he did the movie was to experience firsthand being an actor working for another director, because he'd never done that. He came to me - we had most of our scenes together, since i played his interpreter - one day he came to me and said he was really worried about a scene that he had to do next month, where he had to utter the phrase "Einstein was right." He told me he was afraid he couldn't pronounce it properly, and that people would laugh at him when he said it. He spent all month worrying about it, dreading the day when it was going to come. And then I saw him right after he finished shooting the scene and asked him how it went. He said "I think I finally understand what it means to be an actor."
I said "What do you mean?"
He said "When they got to my line, 'Einstein was right', Steven gave it to another actor, and all I could think of was... how could he do that?!"
And he was depressed for the rest of the day. He said "Now I understand what it is really like to be an actor.
Could you talk a little about the experience of working with Ken Russell on Altered States?
Yes. Well, it was pretty strange.
I preface this by saying that I was very fond of Ken, and I thought he was a very gifted artist.
But he was also a man who hated authority. He wasn't the original director on the movie. Arthur Penn was originally hired (he's the guy who directed Bonnie & Clyde and some other great movies) and after some form of creative disagreement, he left and Ken came in.
All during rehearsal - we had rehearsal for the movie, we had 4 weeks of rehearsal - Eddie kept coming up to me and saying "Gee, I heard Ken was a difficult guy to work with, but he seems so easy-going."
And at the end of the day, Ken and Paddy had a huge fight on the first day of shooting. Paddy (who had been used to being onset for all of his movies) flew back to New York, and I always worried about Paddy during the movie, and I always felt kind of guilty, even though it wasn't my fault of course, that the two didn't get along. Paddy Chayefsky had it in his contract that you couldn't change a word of the dialogue, but what he didn't have in his contract were the VISUAL elements. So Ken went out of his way to remove everything that Paddy had describe visually in the screenplay, and use his own wild & fertile imagination instead, further fueling the feud between Paddy and Ken.
Well, I would say Russell really did not get over his rejection by Elaine because he drowned and didn't have enough time to get over it. By the way, when I was first cast as Russell, they told me Larry David had a general outline for the arc of the character: in the original concept, Elaine was going to fall MADLY In love with me, we were going to sleep together, and she was going to experience her first orgasm with me. Instead I fell in love with her, she rejected me, and I died.
The story of my life...
I like doing anything that is good, interesting and fun.
Hey Bob! Great to see you on reddit. I know you are a crack bananagrams player- what other games do you like to play?
I wonder how you know that?
I like charades, I like Pictionary, and I like First Line of Novel. I hate Scrabble. It takes too long and it always makes me feel like a failure.
What was it like working with Robin Williams?
I loved Robin Williams, and I worked with him twice.
I acted in a movie that he was the star of, called Jakob The Liar, and he was one of the most generous people. I directed him in the San Francisco company of "The Exonerated" where he transformed himself into one of our characters, and did his usual brilliant, thorough and dedicated work.
And I feel very lucky to have known him.
What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?
I really enjoyed working with Steven Spielberg. He was great on the set. Even though he doesn't have an acting background himself, he was always extremely sensitive and helpful with all the actors. Which is something not every director of a huge special effects movie does. And he's a really nice guy. He doesn't take himself too seriously. He adores what he does. And he makes great movies.
I just had a turkey, cheese, and avocado sandwich. What's your favorite kind of sandwich?
I happen to especially like the weird veggie burger sold (in New York anyway) at a series of restaurants called The Birdcage? The Birdbath Bakery.
What was the best and worst part of working with all of the famous actors in The Monuments Men?
Well, the BEST part was that they were all really nice, and extremely non-pretentious.
The worst part was they were so tall you couldn't see me in some of the scenes.
Hi Bob, I really enjoyed your work in The Monuments Men. What's your favorite ride in Disney?
My favorite ride at Disneyland has always been - what's the thing where you come down the mountain, and you kind of go around in circles? I'm going to choose another one instead, I'm going to choose - this is really really babyish, but I like the Snow White ride. OH! I like the Peter Pan ride too! I love the Peter Pan ride! I first went to Disneyland the year it was built with my grandparents, they lived in LA and they took me. It wasn't finished. I had the best time I ever had as a little child. And my grandmother, who was very fancy, got bored and we had to leave after an hour and a half to go shopping. I wanted to kill her.
Hi Bob! Love your work, especially the Christopher Guest movies and Seinfeld. Since it seems no one has yet mentioned Seinfeld, let me ask: how much do you miss playing the NBC exec? Was that D-A-L-R-I-M-P-E-L? I'm imagining your impeccably-delivered response.
Also, any favorite memories of your time on Seinfeld?
I really enjoyed being Russell Dalrymple.
It was really interesting to watch the rest of the regulars rehearsing and shooting. And my most fun scene was when I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean. I was standing in front of a green screen, and 5 men with hoses were spraying me with water, and I fell off the boat and drowned.
It's really fun having a good death scene.
I also liked my death scene in THE MEXICAN. Julia Roberts shot me in the neck. I was attached to a little pipe that went through my pants up my shirt and under a prosthetic device in my neck so that when she shot me, blood spurted out of a hole in my neck.
I enjoyed that a lot too.
Simply, how did you manage to get into the movie business and have you any tips for someone trying to be a screenwriter?
I got into the movie business by mistake. I was appearing on Broadway as Linus in the original "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." I was attending NYU at the time. A brilliant casting director named Marion Dougherty saw me and cast me in both THE MIDNIGHT COWBOY and CATCH-22, and that's how I started.
Write a lot. Get a book of great old screenplays and read what other people have done. It's a great education. And when you do write something, get some actor friends to sit around and read it for you. The experience of hearing these things is often quite illuminating.
Do you have a favourite board game?
I used to love "Careers." But now that i have one, I'm not so interested.
Oh! I have a game I'm absolutely insane about. It's not exactly a board game, it's called Labyrinth. I have one of the original Made in Sweden versions of the game at my house. It's a game in which you guide a small silver ball through a maze of barriers using two controls on the box, and you can't touch the ball of course, and the object is to get your ball from 1-64. I played it SO MUCH as a child that now i can mostly get it to 64 and back, and it really upsets my friends.
Any good interactions with Anthony Franciosa?
Anthony Franciosa is a WONDERFUL actor. He used to be married to Shelley Winters. He was also married to my cousin. The last time I saw him was at his daughter's Bat Mitzvah. I really liked him, he was a great actor and a very sweet man, and I wish I had gotten to know him better.
Hi Mr. Balaban!
Do you have any directorial advice?
Steven Spielberg, when I was about to direct my first movie, PARENTS, I asked Steven for advice, and he said "The most important thing I can tell you is wear comfortable shoes."
Sometimes the greatest masters are the most straightforward.
Your life seems like a fantasy. Born with some affluence, built on it very nicely. A pretty big shot actor in NYC, and all that that entails. Is that a fair assessment? What has been the best part of being a solid part of the NYC arts/theatre scene since the 60s/70s/80s? The whole era of NYC in the 70s appeals to me a lot. So much art, music, TV, theater, literature was created then and there.
I would say that if i had to stand back and look at my life, I would find it pretty startling. I did come from a movie background, of various kinds. But the idea that anyone as seemingly un-actor-y - it never has really occurred to me that I would be successful at ANYTHING in show business, and anytime I'm in anything I consider it a great miracle that I'm in it. And yet I've managed to stick around a while.
I was really lucky to be in New York in the 1960's and 70's. I did several wonderful plays at the Public Theater, I got to know Joe Papp, one of the greatest theater producers ever. He gave me my first directing job. New York was brimming with new voices, and opportunities, and I look back on it very fondly.
What is your writing process like? do you methodically plan or do you just dive straight in?
Well, I've written a couple of series of children's books. And it's all very well planned, or I try for it to be. But if I'm lucky, the characters eventually take on a life of their own, and tell YOU what they want to do - that's when it's going well. When it's not, it's like dragging around two buckets filled with lead up a mountain.
As a director; what is the first thing you look to do on set?
I look to make sure the actors are being taken care of. I always like to rehearse with actors before setting a shot. Sometimes I know exactly where I want them to be and what I want them to do, but i think it's a good idea to start with the impulses of the actors. You've got to be prepared, and also able to change your plan on a moment's notice.
What was it like working on F.R.I.E.N.D.S?
I enjoyed working on FRIENDS. One of the best parts was getting to know my daughter on the show, Lisa Kudrow. Oh, she is one of my favorite people! And an incredibly gifted actor. I can't say enough nice things about her, so I better stop now.
Big fan of yours. My question: What advice can you give to somebody aspiring to get into the film industry?
See a LOT of movies. Learn about film's history. That's really helpful. Try to work anywhere in the industry that you can. Be a production assistant. And if you're dedicated and creative and smart, somebody might actually notice. I got my first break by being in an inner city theater in Chicago, and sent to California for a television series. You never know what door is gonna open, and you better be ready and willing to open it whenever it arrives!
Are there any kinds of roles you'd like to play that you haven't had a chance to? Like a cowboy for instance.
I've been a cowboy, actually! In a short film that seemed to get some attention, called Tex The Passive-Aggressive Gunslinger.
Oddly enough, when I first started working, I got a call from GUNSMOKE to be on the show! They asked me if I rode horses, and I said "sure."
And then they said "You'd better be REALLY honest about this. We've had some actors on the show who've lied, and slowed down shooting, and gotten severely injured. So do you actually ride a horse?"
And of course i said no.
I've gotten to be in outer space a few times. I've gotten to be a good guy and a bad guy. I've only once gotten the girl in a movie - I was a Woody Allen movie called "Crimes & Misdemeanors" and my character ended up being engaged to Woody's sister in the movie, and we had a REALLY fun scene on a beautiful rooftop in lower Manhattan, with a massive clock on it, but we were in love, we kissed, it was romantic, and then of course it was ridiculously funny after that, and the scene got cut from the movie, but that was my most romantic scene and really fun.
I'd like to play a killer. Like a killer psycho, like what's-his-name in the movie M - like Peter Lorre in the movie M, that would be my dream.
Ever play Settlers of Catan?
I have never played that game. Is that anything like the Chinese game of GO?
For all it's worth, all would watch the shit out of that Shark Week, sir. Thanks!
I think those intelligent hosts would decimate me.