Billy Crystal Talks MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Getting Back into Character, Playing off John Goodman, His College Experience and His Favorite Character to Play

     June 19, 2013

Billy Crystal-MONSTERS UNIVERSITY-interview-slice

As a fan of many of their movies, I’ve been wanting to go to Pixar, for some time now.  And since you have to either work there, know someone who works there, or get an invite to go there, I jumped at the recent opportunity to make the trip to Emeryville, do interviews for their latest feature film, Monsters University, and had a great time while I was there.  The film follows Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), who arrives at the campus with the dream of becoming a Scarer while James “Sulley” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) feels like he doesn’t have to put in the time or work to succeed because he was born with his talent.  When their journeys both prove to be a bit more complicated than they anticipated, they find help and friendship in the unlikeliest of places.

At the film’s press day, actor Billy Crystal talked about how easy it was to get back into the character, how great it is to play off of actor John Goodman during their recording sessions, what kind of student he was in college, why Mike Wazowski is the favorite character he’s played, how much his grandkids love it, why they never made a sequel to the original film, and finding satisfaction in every medium he works in.  Check out what he had to say after the jump. 

billy-crystal-monsters-universityQuestion:  Were there several attempts, in the past, to get another movie made?

BILLY CRYSTAL:  It was about nine years until they decided to do it.  It took about three years to make this.  I don’t know.  I kept saying to John, “There’s gotta be another story,” but they didn’t really do sequels except with Toy Story, and I think even those might have been reluctant, in the beginning.  I guess they must’ve brain-stormed a bunch of ideas.  I was up here for John Lasseter’s 50th birthday.  He had a surprise party, and he came up to me, and he goes, “We have the sequel.  It’s a prequel.  They’re in college,” and he walked away.  And it was hilarious!  I went, “Of course, what a great idea.  That will show us something we haven’t seen.”  Just another adventure of them would’ve been fine, but it’s not what they do.  They value the story here.  They value telling the right kind of story.  No matter how good a sequel idea might have been, it would’ve been a sequel.  This is a different movie.  I love it because you’re finding out new things about them.

Was it easy to get back into character?

CRYSTAL:  Yeah, because I work with John [Goodman] together, in the studio.  We just looked at the first movie for a little while.  Listen, I’ve seen it plenty.  I have grandkids.  But, to place them in that time in their lives, we talked a little bit about it.  We had storyboards, which showed us slightly thinner versions.  It’s just amazing that with these little touches, they are younger.  Sulley’s thinner and his hair is slightly different, and there’s the way we carry ourselves.  We just approached it that way.  And then, Dan Scanlon’s a terrific director and he just created the world for us. 

Is there a trick to sounding younger and thinner?

CRYSTAL:  Boy, I wish there was because we could make a lot of money.  No, it was just was more of an attitude, in what they wrote and how we hit the lines and a certain enthusiasm.  But, Mike’s always enthusiastic about everything. 

How easy was it to get back together with John Goodman and throw things off each other?

CRYSTAL:  It’s the easiest thing in the world.  He’s Sulley.  He’s this wonderful, big, grizzly bear of a guy who sits there and says, “What do you wanna do here?”  I said, “I’m gonna just play around here.”  And he just listens and says the right thing, and he laughs.  He’s just a wonderful actor.

monsters-university-sully-mikeWas it that way, from the very first time?

CRYSTAL:  Yes.  Well, I went to work on the first day and his stuff had already been recorded.  I was like, “Wait, he’s not gonna be here?  But, that means that if I have something new to say, I can’t do it because he’s not here to answer it.  This isn’t gonna work.”  They said, “Well, that’s how we did Toy Story.”  I said, “Can’t he come in?  Is he not here?”  They said, “No, he’s here.”  So we called him, and he said, “Great!”  So then, we did everything together and it just popped.  Throughout some of my movies, I’ve had partners that have been really extra special, good teammates.  Gregory Hines was a great teammate in Running Scared, and [Robert] De Niro, of course, and just recently with Bette [Midler].  You just key in with people, and they’re so good and they have a natural thing with you.  Then, it’s a great joy.  So, falling back with John was like putting on a pair of old slippers. 

What kind of student were you in college?

CRYSTAL:  I was okay.  I could’ve been better.  I, I was always looking for something else to do, most of the time, until I got into the acting program.  Then, I really found myself.  But, that was true through high school, too.  I knew what pretty much everything was.  I could study last minute and get a solid grade.  I really could’ve been a good student, but I was always hearing an imaginary audience.  That’s where I was at.

What was it like to be in college with people like Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean? 

CRYSTAL:  Nobody was who they were yet, you know?  We were 18.  Oliver was a little older, I think, and then he left quickly and went in the Army.  And Martin Scorsese was our film professor at NYU.  He was a graduate student, but he handled all the production classes and all the history classes.  He was a very intimidating young guy with hair to his shoulders, granny glasses and a big thick beard, making his first movie.  He drove us, always.  We had lousy equipment.  We had old newsreel cameras from a TV station in New York, named WPIX.  We had these turret lens cameras.  And he was always talking about telling the right story and where the camera should be, at that moment.  That was his big thing.  The history of film was a great class with him because we watched movies and he would talk about them.  That was inspiring.

You’ve said that Mike is your favorite character that you’ve played.  Did you feel that way before this?


CRYSTAL:  Yes, I felt it when we made the first movie.  I just fell in love with him.  What I loved about coming back to him was that I got to play him at a special time in his life.  I got to play him at 18, or so.  It’s hard to tell, with these monsters, how old they really are.  He goes through things, in this movie, that he didn’t go through, in the first movie.  And I totally relate to him.  I totally relate to his determination and his, “Don’t tell me I can’t,” attitude.  And then, when he handles disappointment, he handles it really well and he finds a way out.  I think that makes him an adult. 

How special were the lake scene and the cabin scene to do?

CRYSTAL:  I hadn’t seen the movie until a month ago, and when I saw it, I didn’t know that half of the cast was in the movie.  I would see John, but I didn’t ask who’s doing what.  I didn’t know that Charlie Day was in the movie.  He’s hilarious.  I didn’t know that Sean Hayes was so funny.  I knew that Helen was in it, but I didn’t know that Alfred Molina was.  It’s a really wonderful cast.  I loved the funny, but when those moments happened, I was really very pleased.  I have to say that I was moved because they stopped feeling like animated characters to me.  They really felt like real people, or real monsters, with hearts and souls.  I felt very moved by the bonding of the friendship, and how Sulley helps Mike through that.  I thought that was great.  Part of why I also felt good was that, on the first movie, I pushed that we work together.  John and I threw aside the script, in that recording session, and we really got to act the scene out, close to each other.  We weren’t on opposite sides of the room with headsets.  We were able to really act.  He’s such a good actor.  Together, we thought we did a good job on it.  This movie is very wise, in that way.  It surprises you.

How different is the dynamic, acting in front of a microphone, as opposed to acting in front of an audience or a camera?

CRYSTAL:  Well, it is what it is.  You’re in this vacuum.  You don’t even know where you are sometimes.  That’s why Dan Scanlon was so good.  He could really paint the picture of whatever set we were going to be in, and what we were gonna be.  Otherwise, I don’t know what I’m saying or where I’m going.  So, that’s always different.  But, you’re working really hard to bring them to life because, especially with Mike, he’s a very high energy guy and I don’t want to sound like Daffy Duck, or something.  I’ve really gotta keep him in reality, so I had to know where I was, at all times.  It’s a little difficult, in that way, to know where you are, all the time.  But, with the use of some computer images that they would bring up, I knew what my room looked like, and I knew what the lecture hall would looked like and the campus.  They would show us rough stuff, but nothing was as beautiful as it is now.  So, it’s frustrating, a little bit, to not know where you are, but with a gifted visualist and a former animator like Dan, he made it a lot easier.  That’s the hardest thing, I think.  That’s why I like John there.  Then, you’re really acting.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY mikeHow did you strike the balance between scary and funny, so that it wasn’t too scary?

CRYSTAL:  I didn’t think about that.  Mike doesn’t get real scary, so I wasn’t worried about that.  With the roars and stuff, if there was anything objectionable, it would be about something violent, or something like that. 

What do your grandchildren think about you being Mike? 

CRYSTAL:  They’re 10, seven, three, and 10 weeks.  So, when the girls – who are the older ones – started to understand what I did, it happened by accident.  We were out at a mall and some paparazzi guy jumped in front of us and took a picture, and they got scared and wanted to know what that was about, so I had to explain why.  I couldn’t show them the orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally, so I showed them Monsters, Inc.  And then, I was Grandpa Mike Wazowski.  You can’t call him Mike.  You have to call him Mike Wazowski.  It’s almost one word now.  So then, they understood that I did that.  I did that for a year.  They’d call me up and be like, “Is Grandpa Mike Wazowski there?”  It was stuff like that.  It was a big deal to them, and they’re really excited about this one.

Do you think the heart of these movies is why they succeed?

CRYSTAL:  Well, these are truly family movies.  They’re truly for people, in the best way.  We’re seeing this disintegration of the family movie into these blockbuster things that kids should not be exposed to with explosions, carnage and violence.  There’s less and less of these kinds of movies being made, and this one is truly for everybody.  What’s great about Pixar is that, if you know John, at all, it comes from him.  He’s a brilliant guy, but he’s got a great heart, and that has to be part of the movie.  But, all of the Disney movies, in the history of them, back to Pinocchio and Snow White, all have that moment where you need for the audience to feel something besides having a romp.

When you finally saw the finished film, were there any scenes that most impressed you or any characters that you found most fun to watch?

CRYSTAL:  That obstacle course scene is phenomenal.  I had no idea that it was gonna look like that, when they get swollen.  There’s an outtake where you see that Mike’s lips are so big, and it’s hilarious.  And I thought the two-headed guy was hilarious.  And Charlie Day’s guy was really funny.  There were always constant surprises.  I did this for maybe a year and a half, or two years, so I forgot that I said some of these things.  And then, you see the film and it’s fun because you don’t remember saying them.  That’s cool.  That’s a great surprise.

monsters-university-poster-mike-wazowskiDid you worry about things in the prequel being set up properly, for the later movie?

CRYSTAL:  It was probably a big concern because it took so long for them to figure it out.  While you’re working, you get rewritten pages.  You get a call every couple of months where they say, “Are you available in one or two days?”  And a lot of times you rework stuff that you already had done.  So, they were constantly aware that that might be a problem.  There are so many movies that I wish I had been able to do that on, where I could fix problems, and go back and do something again.  There were several different openings of the movie that I did.  I think that they settled on this field trip idea out of a story that I told them about going to my first Yankee game in 1956, and having the star of all stars, Mickey Mantle, sign my program, and then I wanted to be a Yankee.  And that became that opening field trip when you see the guy at Monsters, Inc.  I had recorded two different versions of Mike being brought to college, where I played his parents and his sister, with all of them in the car, dropping him off, and how nervous he was.  And then, when I saw the movie, I had forgotten that they’d even talked about that because a little boy voiced that.  I didn’t do that scene.

Do you think we’ll ever get to see any of that stuff?

CRYSTAL:  Probably not.  I don’t know how far it got with the animator.  I never saw it.

Would you ever do a sequel to the original movie, so that people can find out what happened to Boo?

CRYSTAL:  That was always what I thought the obvious thing would be.  They’re gonna go into the real world when they hear something happened to her, and now we’re trapped in the real world.  Boo would be 16 or 17 by now.  We thought that’s where they were gonna go.  This was just a delightful romp.

Do you get the same sense of satisfaction, as a performer and an artist, from all your performances, no matter the medium?

CRYSTAL:  They’re all different.  There are all different kinds of highs.  The best high, honestly, is always in front of a live audience.  That’s why I love doing my show, whatever it is.  I’m going back to Broadway with 700 Sundays in November, which will pretty much be the last time I’ll do it.  I’m gonna do 60 shows, and I can’t wait to do it again.  It’s been three years since I toured with it last.  That’s still the greatest high, that feeling of being in control of 2,000 people.  It’s me and them, and I like the odds.  It’s not even so much the funny.  It’s getting them quiet.  In the quiet moments in 700 Sundays, I just really love that they’re getting moved.  That’s a particularly powerful feeling.  It’s very hard to describe, but it’s incredibly satisfying.  

billy-crystal-still-foolin-emAnd I have a book coming out on September 10th, called Still Foolin’ ‘Em.  I turned 65 in March, and it’s about a man’s view of what happens as you get older.  I thought I’d go out on the road with it because I was missing that juice, and I started writing about what was going on with me, but instead they felt more like New Yorker essays about different things.  I said, “This may be a book more than it’s something else.  I never had that discipline to sit down and write, every day.  I gave it to a lit agent and sold it.  It’s sort of a memoir.  Since most of it takes place in my 60’s, I said, “Why don’t I do 0 to 20, my 20’s, my 30’s, my 40’s and my 50’s, as funny, anecdotal pieces that support the other pieces.  That’s how it came out, and I’m very excited about it.  So, that’s a different kind of high.  That’s a very satisfying feeling, writing something and then taking weeks to just polish a couple of paragraphs.  When you write a piece, you feel good that you did it right.  It’s just a different kind of thing.  

I’ve had good times, in a lot of things.  When I directed 61*, I thought nothing would be a better experience than that, directorially.  That was a movie that I really loved doing because I knew those guys and I knew that team, and I knew Mickey Mantle very well, ultimately.  It was a real love story to recreate that time period.  That may be the best job of all, in show business, directing something that you love.  But for me, being in front of people is still the best thing. 

Monsters University opens in theaters on June 21st.


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