Interview: ‘Toy Story That Time Forgot’ star Wallace Shawn on the series’ anti-decadence message

You'd have to go a long way to find a career that touches as many far-flung bases as that of write-director-actor Wallace Shawn.

One can know Shawn's voice from the “Toy Story” movies, but not recognize him from “The Princess Bride.” You could, I suppose, know him as Blair's eventual stepfather on “Gossip Girl” and not know him as Rex or Vizzini. You could think yourself an intellectual and know “My Dinner with Andre” or “Vanya on 42nd Street,” without knowing any of Shawn's acclaimed, often outspokenly political plays or his myriad essays.

Shawn is so multi-faceted an artist that it's entirely unsurprising that a very brief conversation tied to ABC's very enjoyable “Toy Story That Time Forgot,” airing on Tuesday, December 2, begins with simple questions about Rex's endearing short-armed innocence and progresses to the lure of acting to help him maintain a bourgeois lifestyle, delves into the anti-decadence message of the “Toy Story” franchise and closes with the idea people don't recognize him from “Toy Story” because he doesn't resemble a dinosaur. 

It's a fun chat and my only wish is that we'd been able to talk longer, because I had “Princess Bride,” “Gossip Girl,” Mike Nichols and Andre Gregory questions aplenty…

“Toy Story That Time Forgot” airs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. 

Check out my full Q&A with Wallace Shawn…

HitFix: I admire how protective Pixar is of this property. When you get a script for a special like this how quickly can you tell it”s of a qualitative piece with what has sort of come before?

Wallace Shawn: Well you really don”t know what it is until you see it, I must admit. I mean you can”t imagine what it”s gonna look like or feel like, or I can”t. I just go on trust. It”s easier to read a regular script with people in it.

HitFix: So your typical role as an actor is sort of the guy who is the smartest guy in the room or at least thinks he is. What is sort of the pleasure of spending a couple hours in Rex”s relative innocence?

Wallace Shawn: Well yes, it”s quite pleasant really. I”m flattered and happy to play a part that is, you know, quite sweet and gentle and not repulsive. I”m often cast as… I guess people find me repulsive and I”m often cast as that, you know. So this is a very flattering role really compared to a lot of what I”ve been offered.

HitFix: Is it hard for you to sort of tap into that innocent side of yourself? That sweet side of yourself? Or is that the natural Wallace Shawn?

Wallace Shawn: Well let”s just say we all have a lot of things inside us. You know, I”m an angry person, I”m a bitter person and I… but I do work as a professional actor and so you try to make a leap into the part of yourself that is less angry and less bitter and it”s down there somewhere really. You can find it. That”s what the job of acting is.

HitFix: With your writing as sort of a constant presence in your life, have the things that compel you to act – have they changed over the years?

Wallace Shawn: Well it”s hard to say. I certainly would be excited by the thought of a good part or a good project and I suppose that”s always been true. I mean obviously I have a craving for a bourgeois lifestyle or middle class lifestyle and so it”s exciting to be asked to do some work and be paid for it because that enables me to lead the bourgeois lifestyle that I can”t seem to wean myself away from. So yes, people… Yes, I mean what can I say? Working is something that I appreciate.

HitFix: Do you feel like you”re more drawn to that, as you say, bourgeois lifestyle now than you were 20 years ago? Was the balance at one point being drawn more to the art or to something else I guess?

Wallace Shawn: No. I”ve always really wanted to – when I say “wanted” I”ve always had an addiction to a bourgeois lifestyle and I don”t live very differently from the way I”ve always lived. It”s just a question of can you pay the bills or not. The bills themselves, give or take inflation what have you, are not tremendously different from one year to the next in my life. And my life is not terribly different.

HitFix: Do you ever stand back and look at sort of the themes of the “Toy Story” movies and the franchise and how that relates to consumerism and your own feelings on that culture?

Wallace Shawn: Well the film shows a middle class household. Well, Andy”s household, and Bonnie”s household is also a middle class household, so there”s definitely in this short film there is a – the young boy that Bonnie goes to visit seems to be a bit decadent and to have an outrageous number of toys, more than he”s using and there”s a certain statement there that this is excessive. And he doesn”t even play with those toys because in the film he”s watching video games or playing video games.

HitFix: And do you think that this is a message that kids get out of it as well or is it just something that you can take away yourself?

Wallace Shawn: No I think that a kid would take away the same thing I do. There”s something disturbing about the scene in that boy”s house and of course the whole idea of playing which is so emphasized in all of the films is kind of about finding satisfaction in your own imagination, which is helped along by these material objects, toys. But the basic idea is that you can have quite a lot of fun based on your own fantasies and, in fact, in this particular short film that is contrasted with the world of the violent toys, who get fun only out of crushing each other and conquering each other. The little Pixar gang is much more gentle and innocent and they get pleasure from fantasy.

HitFix: I”m right there with you. Now sort of just as a last question, do people recognize you specifically on your voice these days and how does that sort of compare to the number of people who recognize your face from “Princess Bride” or even something like “Gossip Girl”?

Wallace Shawn: Well yes, people do recognize my voice and, you know, some of them put it together with my whole resume. I mean it”s hard to say because I”ve done quite a few things. I don”t know if anybody has ever really just heard the voice on the street, in the shop or something of that nature and said “I don”t know who you are but you must do Rex.” I don”t know because I don”t look like a dinosaur. I mean there are people who recognize – and a lot of people say, “Oh, I didn”t know who you were but when I heard your voice I knew you.”

“Toy Story That Time Forgot” airs at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, December 2.