The morning of my scheduled interview with Bob Balaban, Mother Nature had decided to dump, and continue to dump, a few inches of snow onto New York City on the first official day of Spring. I received a note from the Isle of Dogs publicist asking if I’d rather just talk to Balaban on the phone, which would have made my life a lot easier. But with someone with a career like Balaban’s, it just felt like some I needed to do in person, regardless of the snow. So off I went into a snowstorm to meet Balaban at a Midtown Manhattan hotel.
Balaban is one of the rare actors who seems to get more famous as time goes on. The sheer weight of his body of work pretty much ensures he’ll be familiar to pretty much anyone who has ever watched television or seen a movie. Balaban has been in everything from Midnight Cowboy and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to playing Phoebe’s father on Friends and NBC executive Russel Dalrymple on Seinfeld – and those last two roles seem like they’ll live on forever in syndication.
Balaban is currently voicing a dog named King in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. It wasn’t Anderson, but it was another ensemble troop that changed Balaban’s career in the late ’90s when Balaban took a role in Christopher Guest‘s Waiting for Guffman. After this, at least on paper, it looks like a whole different era. Balaban would be featured in Guest’s films like Best in Show and A Mighty Wind before jumping over to Wes Anderson’s films starting with Moonrise Kingdom. (When I ask Balaban if there’s a secret fight over his services between Guest and Anderson, without missing a beat Balaban asks me if I’ve ever seen Guest and Anderson in the same room. I can’t say I have.)
Ahead, on a snowy New York City spring day, we sit in front of a fireplace with Bob Balaban and do our best to talk about almost everything.
Bob Balaban: Let’s sit here near the fireplace.
As I drink an iced coffee. People have questioned this particular order during a snowstorm…
Well, truthfully, if you’re very, very hot – and somebody was talking to me about their experience in the Sahara Desert – the big drink that they drink in the Sahara desert is hot tea with mint and honey.
I’ve heard that before. I don’t remember the reason why, though.
Well, I can explain it, but I wouldn’t do a good job.
One of your Seinfeld episodes was on this week. Do people still recognize you for that? They are on non-stop.
Well, also, in the beginning – I only did it like four or five times – and the first time I was on it was the first year of the show. And by the end of the first year they were in the 98th position, for the least popular thing on television. And then I did it again. In September, when the summer was over, I came back and all it needed was the right time slot and the right lead-in. It was something like the third most popular show. And I just came home like always and I’m walking down the street and people are pointing and I’m going, “What are they looking at?” It was me. And then it went away immediately. Which is probably a good thing. I don’t mean it went away, but the people pointing at me and saying, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it’s him,” went away.
You seem to have the perfect acting career of being able to do a lot of great projects but you also don’t get hounded and can lead a normal existence.
Well, that’s certainly true.
People know who you are. So at parties, I assume people want to talk to you. But then you can walk down the street and not have TMZ in your face.
Well, it’s all pretty mild, but yeah. Yeah, it’s good. They don’t hurt you and I’m not scared that they’re going to come over and break into my house and take my picture or something.
Isle of Dogs is a delight.
I love being associated with it in any way, shape or form. It’s really interesting. When we did our vocal parts for the movie – which, in our case, I was with a few other of the dogs and we did it together in a day or maybe a day and a half – I really had no idea what it was going to be like. When I went to see the movie, I thought it’s Ben-Hur for puppets. I mean, it’s so adventurous. If somebody’s getting pompous, there’s always some amazing turn of something sweet and emotional where you didn’t think there was anything hiding in this sad desert of a wasteland where the dogs are sent to be.
Your first Wes Anderson movie was Moonrise Kingdom, but at this point it feels like you’ve been in a lot more…
Well, I’m glad.
It feels like you’ve been part of this group for a while.
I feel like it, and I hope it comes to be true. But you know, you never know.
I think it’s because you’re also associated with the Christopher Guest movies, which is another troupe…
Well, no, they are similar in that it is a troupe. I liken it to the Carry On pictures, which I don’t know if you remember them. There were Carry On Nurse, Carry On Doctor, Carry On Constable. And it was the same six people… But there’s something to be said for a movie that’s inhabited by the same basic group of people, always with some surprises. The audience becomes a collective audience that is seeing all your work as a continuing situation. So you’ll look at these movies, this movie, and you hear people you’ve been hearing for 20 years and it just so makes you closer to the movie. You really feel like these are friends of yours.
I wonder if Christopher Guest has ever sent Wes Anderson an email, “Hey, Bob is part of our troupe.”
Have you ever seen them both in the same room together at the same time?
I have not. Have you?
[Smiles and shrugs.]
I might have the scoop.
[Smiles and shrugs again.]
Speaking of Christopher Guest, when you did Waiting For Guffman, do you look at that as a start of a new era for your career? On paper it kind of looks like that.
Well, you know, when you have a continuing career that goes for a long time – well, that’s what that means. When you’re around a lot, you either kind of grow and change – or you don’t really grow, I suppose, but you get to do different things. If you played the same part that long, you would never be hired again, because you’d be acting in the wrong style from a movie from 40 years ago. It wouldn’t be something. I can only say it’s luck…
Well, everyone says that.
I know luck plays a role, that there are talented people who don’t have the same success that others do, but I think it has to be a combination of both luck and being good…
Yeah, it’s a combination of who you are, what you do, and does it fit in, or does somebody want you? But it’s funny, what you said with Chris Guest, I have never thought of myself as anything in particular, much less serious or funny or whatever it is. I haven’t labeled myself. I wish I could.
But you’ve grown a following. When people mention your name there’s always a different answer. Wes Anderson movies. Christopher Guest movies. But it could be Seinfeld. Sometimes it’s even Friends…
Well, it’s a surprise to me that anybody would notice that. But for me, I studied at Second City when I was in high school. I did a teenage workshop of improvising there – and then never did anything like that in my career. But I tended to be cast in the movies for big swaths of my acting life as a “bad person who was a lawyer.” You know, I could be a doctor or I could be something else, but I was kind of like a scary, bad person. As you can see, I’m not terribly scary. I think part of my doing that was sometimes I’d get afraid when I’m working, and so I’d become kind of steely or something. I just didn’t know what to do. I was kind of lost.
But there were periods there where I was just so many obnoxiously terrible people, and I liked that. It wasn’t a bad thing to be and I kind of knew who I was. And then when I was in Waiting for Guffman, it was like, oh, you can be in that too? So then I think it did open up sort of a little, “Oh, look, Bob Balaban is still alive and he’s working and he was funny this time.” So I think I got a shot at other things. And then to be in Chris’ movies multiply, it makes you feel more comfortable in doing that.
I live on the Upper East Side and there’s a bar that, instead of showing sports, they show movies…
Oh, a movie bar? Does it also have esoteric people who wear berets? A lot of people wear berets at that bar.
The owner used to be a doorman at Studio 54…
Is it hard to get in like Studio 54? Do you have to be dressed a certain way?
Oh no, it’s just a local hangout. But the rule is they won’t show any movie that’s newer than 1985. So, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was on the other day.
It just made it in, didn’t it?
There were people sitting next to me who, when you show up asked, “Hey, who’s that?” I said, “That’s Bob Balaban.” And they were shocked. They had no idea that you were even in that. I do wonder if you ever now retroactively get that, people surprised that you were in Close Encounters?
Well, it helps if you have a beard that obscures your entire face.
That’s a good point.
You know, I had so much hair in some of these movies, it was like all you could see were my eyes. It was like a complete body mask I had on.
Or that you’re in Midnight Cowboy.
Well, we live in a different world. When I was a kid, you saw the movies that you saw and then they went away. And maybe 30 years later, they’d appear on a Friday night show that had movies. You don’t think about this too much, but everything that we have ever been involved with that had celluloid on it is now being recycled. It’s being recycled for the movie channel, it’s being recycled for your iPad. You can see it every which way. And there’s this cry for content that doesn’t just move forward by having 900 cable stations that are doing some of the best storytelling that we’ve ever had done in any media. It goes backward, because they rescue, they sift through anything that was made that hasn’t been destroyed by time. And people become familiar with everything.
But that’s a good thing…
Oh, I think it’s great. Yeah.
Close Encounters is a good example. Or even Star Wars, until my parents got a VCR you couldn’t see it unless it came back into theaters.
Well, there were certain constants. The Wizard of Oz was always going to come back every 10 or 12 years, and Disney cartoons would come out…
Right. And The Wizard of Oz would be on television every year…
But other than that, you could easily never know who James Cagney was, because maybe you had a memory of a movie that your mother showed you once when you were three years old. But now, you feel like everybody’s alive and working from 1931, we are so familiar with everything. You’ve had the opportunity to see everything if you’re interested.
Your Close Encounters Of The Third Kind Diary is hard to find…
Oh, is it hard? Did you look on Amazon?
It said it was unavailable.
I would say I’d give you one, but I don’t have that many left. But did you look for, it’s the Close Encounters Diary, but it got republished…
Oh, I might be under the original.
It’s called Spielberg, Truffaut & Me. Have you looked for that? That’s easier. It’s a nice little book like this. You can get it for about $800. I’m not kidding.
Oh, I know.
It’s pretty expensive. The original is called The Close Encounters Diary. It was made on tissue paper and it’s yellow and green and moldy, if it exists. But it’s kind of fun to see it that way. This one has bigger pictures, it’s got some color photography and all that.
Have you rewatched it recently?
It’s been released on 4K now. It’s beautiful.
I think it’s gorgeous, yes. And I did a little piece of a documentary about it. They do special materials. Yeah, there’s a great guy named Laurent Bouzereau. Did you ever come across him? Well, he did a documentary last year, a wonderful documentary about Hollywood going to World War II and coming back and writing about it and stories of them. It was like a four-part, five-part series…
Right, Five Came Back. Based on Mark Harris’s book…
Yeah. But Laurent Bouzereau directed the documentary. And he has been in Spielberg’s compound, sort of army of resources that hang out with Steven and he’s always in charge of little documentaries and special stuff like that. And he did the whole Close Encounters thing for the 25th anniversary and he does other stuff, but he got to do this unique documentary this year.
I’m curious, with Moonrise Kingdom, who called who? Do you email Wes and say, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be one of your movies,” or did he reach out to you?
Oh, it would be horrifying to do that! And then they could go, “Oh, sure, you can be in my movie next time.” Then, “Get out of here quick.”
I think people would be excited to get an email from you.
I don’t think so. But maybe. I’ll try.
You should just try it once and see what happens. I bet it goes well.
It might, I don’t know. But I don’t remember. But I do know that pretty quickly, early on, there was communication of all sorts.
Have you seen your King the Dog action figure? You have an action figure now. Is this your first action figure?
Probably. I guess, what else what would it be? The translator in Close Encounters?
I guess there could be a Close Encounters action figure of some kind?
Well, if there were sequels then there would have been. But that has no merchandising, because if you don’t do it more than once, it doesn’t get merchandise. So I think it is my first action figure… and it looks nothing like me.
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