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One on 1 Profile: Actor Wallace Shawn Balances a Successful Film Career with His Passion for Play-writing

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If you don’t know his name, you most likely know his face. For his fans, the mere mention of this actor’s name, Wallace Shawn, brings a smile to their faces. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Of course, it was tempting as I sat with Wallace Shawn at his favorite diner to think:
this is "my coffee with Wally."

"There are many people who use that phrase and write an article...'My Breakfast with Bob,' and they don't even know I made up that phrase," Shawn says.

The phrase he's referring to became the title "My Dinner with Andre," the 1981 film that Shawn co wrote and starred in with his friend Andre Gregory, a film featuring two guys talking in a restaurant—a film that became a cult favorite.

"I don't think Andre or I has the remotest idea of why that film clicked in the way it did," Shawn says.

Shawn and Gregory are back together in "A Master Builder," a film based on the play by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Jonathan Demme.

Shawn wrote the screenplay.

He got help from a native speaker with the translation from Norwegian, but tried to do some of it himself. He came across one problem, though.

"In an ideal world, I would have known Norwegian and it would be best. I mean, should I look at the camera and say 'Don't do this at home?'" Shawn says.

It's a film about a maniacal architect straddling reality and fantasy.

"It's about love, sex death, the desire of human beings to dominate each other," Shawn explains.

Many of the actors, who attended a film forum event, have been rehearsing a master builder for fourteen years—but not all of them.

"The younger actors were children at that time, so they were not rehearsing the play," Shawn says.

Shawn is popular for the many lighthearted roles he's played in the movies.

A younger crowd may know him from a recurring role on Gossip Girl.

"In several episodes, I'm wearing a yamaka and quite a bit is made of my Jewishness," he says.

"In London, I met so many Saudi girls who said, 'Oh, you're my favorite character.' I thought 'Wow, I've contributed to international understanding. This is amazing,'" says Shawn.

Then, of course, there was his memorable turn in the beloved 1987 film, "The Princess Bride."

"There was no feeling of, 'people are going to be coming up to me on the street, you know, 25 years later and talking about it,'" he says.

I ask him if that is, indeed, the case.

"Oh, yeah—every day," he replies.

The movie-going public generally doesn't know him for what might be his greatest passion, however—his plays.

His films are seen by millions, but his plays, which he’s been writing since the late sixties, are usually seen by an audiences that only total 50 or 100 people, if that many.

"They are generally quite demanding and long and you have to make an effort to follow them. They’re not for everybody," Shawn says. "It's odd, in certain ways, to be accepted and rejected on the same day."

Wallace Shawn grew up on the Upper East Side. Writers were always around, because his father, William Shawn, was the long-time editor of The New Yorker magazine.

"My father was an overwhelming figure," Shawn says. "You either had to be intimidated by him or sort of think that you were him, and I kind of went the second way."

Shawn went off to Harvard, where he says he was exposed to a high degree of elitism.

He doesn't remember the years fondly, but they clearly affect his work, and world view.

"Pretty much all of my writing goes into this, some way or another, by the question of people wanting to be superior to other people," he says.

Shawn started to think about becoming a writer during a Fulbright scholarship in India.

He wrote his first play while studying at Oxford, and then came back to New York and wrote several more.

The first plays met with little critical or commercial success.

"I thought, 'They're all wrong.' And I don't have that confidence today, but it's like a rocket launching. You need a kind of crazy confidence at the beginning to get you launched," he says.

His confidence was helped by some advice from his father, who was influential as an editor, but frustrated as a writer.

"If you want to write, don't get a wonderful job," Shawn recalls his father saying. "You will do well at your job and your boss will offer to promote you and you'll get stuck."

Wallace Shawn never got stuck.

He continued to write his plays, and have them staged and read, including at a PEN American Center event with his long-time girlfriend, actress and writer Deborah Eisenberg.

Shawn does pay attention to the reaction of the audience, but in the writing, he's never compromised.

"My most recent play is my strangest play, and I did—there were many people who have really liked my earlier plays who read that and said, 'I can't follow you that far,'" Shawn says.

In a conversation with Wallace Shawn, you never get the sense that he blames the audience for not understanding his writing, or that he dismisses fans for liking his movie and TV work but not seeing his plays.

He’s found a balance he seems to enjoy.

"I've never achieved commercial status as a writer," Shawn says. "I've sort of squeaked by making a middle class living, without having to do disgusting projects as an actor."

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