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The Fretts on Film Interview: Billy Connolly

January 10, 2013

At 70, Billy Connolly has finally, truly moved to the Head of the Class. The Scottish standup and sitcom vet, who held his own opposite Dame Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown, now steals the show from Dame Maggie Smith and Co. in Dustin Hoffman‘s directorial debut, Quartet. I spoke with Connolly for the New York Daily News, and here’s more of our conversation about life with his wife (SNL alum Pamela Stephenson), why he never did a Harry Potter movie and how “that British middle-class idea of charm gives me the shits.”

Dustin Hoffman told me he had called you after Mrs. Brown came out to compliment you on your performance and he didn’t think you took him seriously at the time. Is that true?

Well, it’s not that I didn’t take him seriously. We always have fun. We always have a laugh. I took him seriously, but there’s nothing you can do about it. I didn’t want to faint and say, “My God, Dustin Hoffman takes me seriously as an actor!” At the time he asked me to send him some tapes of stuff I had done, and I didn’t do it. I got embarrassed. I’m kinda like that. If I don’t do it immediately, I don’t do it. I’ve always been fond of my friendship with Dustin but I didn’t want to push it.

You joked about him in your act, though.

Oh, yeah. Nobody gets off safe. Nobody gets a free pass.

Is it true you turned down the role in Quartet initially because you didn’t know if you were up for it? What was your concern?

I didn’t turn it down. I was a bit worried about it, if I could do it.

Judi-Dench-Billy-Connolly-Mrs-BrownYou worked with Dame Judi Dench before, so why not Dame Maggie Smith?

Yeah, I thought if it was anything like that, it’d be great. Because the people of that stature like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench bring another thing with them. It’s very difficult to explain. If you see someone play a Beethoven sonata, if you see Nigel Kennedy playing the fiddle or Earl Scruggs playing the banjo or Eric Clapton playing the guitar, you think great when they’re on. They bring a sort of atmosphere with them.

He initially thought you were too young for the role. Was that a concern?

No, I’m very close in age to them but I’ve been blessed with this skin like my father and my sister. I don’t look aged. Albert Finney had a great deal with getting it on. He and Tom Courtenay convinced the writer to do a screenplay and they were going to do it, but I don’t think Albert was very well when the time came. He was a bit sick.

I don’t necessarily think of you and Albert Finney going up for the same roles…

No, the guy’s a genius. The thing is, most of these people—for instance, Tom Courtenay in Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner—I saw them when I was a a welder! From another world.

Are you an opera aficionado?

Oh, I like opera, yeah. My wife talked me into it. I thought it was fat people shouting at one another. My wife asked me to the opera and I said, “If I want to see fat people shouting, I’ll go next door when they’re having dinner.”

There’s a discussion in the film about how often men think about sex. Do you still find yourself thinking about it as often?

Oh, God, it’s overtaken my life! It seems to have increased. Oh, it’s healthy enough. And I’m healthy. I have no problems. I find myself running like an old guy. If I’m running across the road, halfway across, I go, “God, I’m running like an old guy!” I’m not athletic like I used to be, although when I’m on my bicycle, I’m OK. But when I’m running, I’m not quite the same.

20352176.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxWhat’s it like to be directed by Dustin Hoffman?

It’s an absolute joy. I was very fortunate that he was my friend first. It made life easy and difficult. First of all, I didn’t want to let him down because he stuck his neck out for me. And secondly, I had to keep remembering that he’s Dustin Hoffman. He thinks I’m his friend, but I’m actually a fan as well. I have the same trouble with Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Steve Martin. When I’m talking to them, I’m their friend, but they don’t know I’m a fan as well. I’m a wee bit nervous in their company.

What’s his style like? Is his acting background his greatest strength as a director?
Oh, without question. He never leaves you dangling out there. There was never one instance when I was left dangling. You know how you’re in a scene with three people and the other two are talking and you’re not sure what to do with yourself? Well, he never put you in that position. Sometimes you’d see it in the script and you’d come in on shooting day and it’d be gone. He would’ve spotted it and gotten rid of it. So he knows these things. Plus, he’ll just do weird shit. He’ll say, like, “After you finish speaking to him, you always turn right. Try turning left.” And you do it, and the difference is extraordinary.

Were you surprised he was attached to this project? It seems unlikely that he’d take on such an English project…

He was given it by the director of photography. He handed it to Dustin, who immediately loved it. He knew by the end of his plane journey when he was reading it that he wanted to do it. And good stuff’s like that. It jumps up and bites you in the face, and you know whether or not you should be doing it.

I thought he did a great job and that you were an inspired choice for the role.

Well, thank you very much.

And Mrs. Brown was what captured his attention in terms of your talent. Did that change the perception of you generally as an actor?

Oh, without question. Most of the stuff I’ve gotten since then is because of it. It usually comes into the conversation. Funnily enough, that and Boondock Saints. I have a lovely reputation from that.

hotc3I still remember you from Head of the Class.

That was fun to do. It was great fun.

And you’ve got a part in the next Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug?

I’ve got a cameo kind of role. I’m a dwarf. I was never a Tolkien man, but Peter Jackson is making his Hobbit, and that’s lovely. If it was just the book on film, I don’t know if I’d be to cheery about it. But Jackson has a real good view of things.

You were not in the Harry Potter movies. How is that possible?

When Richard Harris died, my agent put me forward for that part, and they didn’t give it to me. They gave it to somebody else. I don’t get very much British stuff.

But you’re famous in the UK than you are in the US, right?
Oh, very much so, but as a comedian. I get very few British offers. They see me as a comedian and overlook me.

Do you still think of yourself primarily as a comedian?

I see myself as what I’m doing at the time. I’m kinda like that. I’m happy where I am and what I’m doing. I tend not to get homesick because I attach myself to what I’m doing. I never carry photographs and things like that.

Why do you choose to live in New York?
Because it’s fun. And my girls have been brought up in America. They were only children when we came to America to do Head of the Class. And we’ve lived here ever since then. I was 15 years in Los Angeles. Now I’ve been four or five years in New York. Twenty years in America. So I can’t just leave them in America—that’s their home.

What do you do for fun in New York City?
I like to eat and I go to bluegrass gigs, stuff like that. I went the other night to see that Michael Apted documentary, 56 Up. It was brilliant. He was there, which was lovely. I’d never met him before. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I seem to have been watching that for my whole life as well.

Are your kids all grown up?

Yes, the youngest one is 22.

article-1243938-07DC2E3A000005DC-800_468x410Are you experiencing empty-nest syndrome?

They’re all gone! They all have apartments and are working. It’s sad. Just me and the cat. And my wife’s away dancing in Brazil. She’s a multi-tasker extraordinaire. She’s a psychologist, but she loves to dance and she’s organizing a Latin American dance live show. She’s in Brazil at some dance conference. But she also writes for a diving magazine, Scuba, so she’ll be diving there as well. They send her off to places to look at reefs.

How do you keep up with her? Do you ever dance with her?

No, she’s way beyond me. I go to tango lessons but I’m very clunky.

You have a good life—a beautiful wife, great kids, a baronial house. What drives you to keep working?

Because that’s what I do. Your work is what you do and so much of what you are. It’s not just the work itself. When I’m making a movie, I’m always hanging with the crew, the technical guys. I love watching them be good at stuff. They can make you stuff. They can make you shoes and a belt and all that. I love watching them being great at it. And the drivers and meeting people—it’s all an essential part of staying alive. But if that was all taken away and I was sitting looking out a window saying Oh, what should I do today?, it would be a whole different world I’m not looking forward to.

Do you have anything else coming up you’re excited about?

I have an offer for an English film to be filmed in Scotland. I’m not sure if I want to do it. I’ve asked them to rewrite it. If they do that, I’ll have a look at it. If they don’t, I won’t. I have no interest in doing stuff that’s charming. Unless it’s charming like On Golden Pond. That British middle class idea of charm gives me the shits.

Me, too. Do you ever find yourself on a set with Dustin Hoffman and Maggie Smith and think about how far you’ve come from when you were a welder?

I don’t dwell on it. But people bring it up a lot, and I’m happy to talk about it. It’s lovely. I learned a lot from being a welder that helps me now. It gave me a boldness. Not a lot scares me. I’ve been working 50 feet on the air on a plank of wood and I don’t give a shit about it. It’s a stupid way to put it, but it prepared me a lot for not being too afraid. The only thing that makes me afraid is abandonment, being left, dangling—that thing I was speaking about a bit earlier. In my standup, I don’t have a moment to do that. I just keep talking until I remember what I was talking about. And that has helped me a lot as well.

Are you a Billy Connolly fan? Post a comment!

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