A specialized slinger of sardonic asides, and a multi-hyphenate talent in the truest sense, Larry Miller is one of “those guys” — a familiar face whom audiences recognize from other movies, and lean forward in pleasant anticipation of, yet might not be able to immediately place. Miller’s latest acting turn comes in the direct-to-DVD comedy Senior Skip Day, where he plays a principal with a near-sociopathic dedication to killing the buzz of his carefree students. The grateful and gracious Miller took some time recently to talk about that movie, as well as his other projects, and the conversation is excerpted below.
Brent Simon: Hi Larry, I appreciate your time. I know you’ve had a busy week.
Larry Miller: Well thank you, but don’t be silly, we’re in each other’s lives here. I’m lucky because I’ve had a couple jobs come in, and I work pretty steadily.
BS: I believe I first interviewed you for 1999’s Pros & Cons, which you wrote. Is that something you see yourself returning to, screenwriting? Because I think you have a distinctive comedic persona, and I imagine a lot of times you’re cast for that, but do you have the desire to strike out and create something new for yourself, all your own?
LM: Absolutely, that was the first thing I wrote! First of all, writing is a big part of my life. When I just got started I said I want to be a writer or an actor or a comic, and it’s unbelievable, that’s what I am. There are a thousand things you don’t get, but a bunch of things you do get. And as far as writing goes, I never left it. I have a book out now called Spoiled Rotten America, which is a bunch of essays, and I love that. I’ve written many, many scripts since, and some TV shows, and some get made and some don’t. And right now I’m doing more stand-up, so I have a chance to write more things for that and go back out on the road. It suddenly hit me after years that I’ve been very lucky as an actor and a writer, but I didn’t want to stop being a comic. And I mean that in the sense of not theaters or corporate jobs, but being a real comic, to me anyway, in two, three, 500-seat clubs, and really knocking it out there. So I’ve always been writing, and I couldn’t pick one over the other. If you asked me if it was more rewarding to write and sell a script, and see it get made… it’s not more rewarding where it counts, meaning in the head and the heart.
BS: That always struck me as among the laziest questions from a lot of journalists — what do you prefer, theater or movies, or TV or film, etcetera? Because the truth is, of course, if you’re a creative-minded person then you enjoy the variety of that kind of life.
LM: Boy, I tell you what, pal, exactly. I mean, come on, look at all these things. I can’t understand how people don’t get up everyday, if they have a chance to make something creative, not skipping around giggling. I know sometimes people like to have a bleak, empty attitude about life, but there’s a great quote of Emerson’s — “give me health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors insignificant.” And I think that’s fantastic. I mean, health and a day! Anyone who’s looking to beat that is I think missing life.
BS: As a quick interjection, I had a friend in college and we were doing peer critiques of things we’d written, and I’ll always remember that he read something I wrote and said, “You met some good writing that day,” which I thought was so striking and perfectly descriptive because when you’re writing that’s all you’re trying to do — you’re trying to do it to the best of your ability, to advance this thought or argument.
LM: Sure. And the phrase that day is very important. The world is brand new every single day! If I come home tonight and everyone’s well, and I can have a drink with my wife, what’s better than that? Would we be happier if we had a 50-room house? You’d have to be a lunatic to need that.
BS: Well, on to Senior Skip Day. Your character, Principal Dickwalder, is sort of an Ed Rooney-type character. He is driven to inflict misery, isn’t he?
LM: And in a way, aren’t we all? You know what was so much fun about that was that — very early in the process, with all these people I loved working with — I had an idea, and we just ran with it. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a great movie, and it’s going to be great for a long time. But I said, and this is what we wound up doing, that Ed Rooney gets weaker and is destroyed more as the movie goes on. Every bad thing that happens to him knocks his spirit apart until at the end he’s just sitting on that bus like, “I can’t take it, I just can’t take it.” He’s destroyed physically and emotionally. And I said, “Why don’t we take this guy and go the exact opposite direction with him? That every bad thing that happens to him makes him break out of this reptilian shell into some kind of dark criminal lord.” Each time he gets beaten up he gets stronger and more horrifying in a way. So when the guy beats him up on his lawn, I kill him. That was the idea, and it was really neat to put it in place and have everyone creatively say, “Yeah, let’s do that!” Even though it’s not a high-budget movie, and there’s certain shots you can’t get, to get there and create it and get as much of it as you can out there is pretty fun.
BS: You’ve played principals and college deans a number of times. Do you think there’s something about you that lends itself to these authority figures?
LM: Hey, fine with me, I guess John Wayne didn’t just play one sheriff. You know what I mean. That’s obviously reaching pretty high, but you know what — CIA guy, head of a corporation… that’s part of what’s worked out for me, and that’s fine. I’m not necessarily going to be up for the remake of James Bond. You know when you see a movie as a kid you think you’d like to be the hero, but you never know in life. There’s a friend of mine, Richard Jenkins, who’s just the lead in a movie now (The Visitor) that’s getting a lot of attention, so you never know where your chance to really bring yourself out is really going to come from. But I have that stand-up too. And if I worked a ton more as an actor, and it was all in comedy, and it was all being a principal or an annoying or a corrupt this-or-that, I’d still have a chance to do these things I love.
BS: Was your own high school principal a memorable character in any way?
LM: No, like most folks, and like you and me too, by the way, he was just a decent enough man who’s trying to get by and figure out what life is all about. We had an attendance officer… what was his name? Oh, Mr. Sykes! It’s like a name out of Dickens. He was fearsome! And the weird thing was that at that point, in the 1970s, that was actually something kids were scared of. Today you wouldn’t be scared, because he never actually did anything to you. But just to get called into Mr. Sykes’ office was gigantic. Tough kids who were in fistfights a lot would sit there with their knees shaking.
BS: When did the performance or creative bug strike? Was it a love of comedy or film that you got into as a consumer of that stuff, or was it something early on that you remember very much more feeling like, “Oh, I want to do that for a living”?
LM: No, I think you hit it right on the head with the word consumer, and I think that’s a great word, by the way, because that’s what we are. I think we misuse the word entertainment a lot, because it’s a great and honorable word — even drama entertains, it’s not that things are high art or low art. And I think being a consumer is true. So when you’re 4 years old, and 7, 9, and then 14, and the first time you see Casablanca on TV and you think it’s first fantastic, to when cartoons really thrill you, and sitcoms are great, and then you start listening to music on the radio, you see a play — you absorb all this stuff in the world. I never thought about doing it when I was young, I just thought it’s great that this stuff is around. In college I was a music major, but I was still just being with my friends and drinking beer. And then, when I got out of college, I thought, “Well, I guess I’ll have to think of something.” And that was when I really first thought of being an actor and a writer and a comic. And look at this! It’s what I am. I feel like the luckiest guy on the face of the Earth. Though I think the last one to say that was Lou Gehrig.
BS: Right before he went, God bless him. How long was the shoot for Senior Skip Day?
LM: I think it was 25 days, which is not long. You’re chasing the day every day, but that’s fun in a way. That’s a kind of storytelling. Sometimes, gigantic movies have a ga-jillion dollars for their budget, and they’re off for seven months in Calgary, shooting this and that. But you know this too — sometimes those movies get over-shot, over-directed, over-acted and over-produced, over-wardrobed, over-everything. So with this, is it the smoothest, most fully shot thing in history? No, but we got a lot of good stuff in there. People can see this movie and say to themselves after an hour and a half, “You know what, I had a lot of laughs there.” And that’s not a small thing. I’m very pleased with this thing.
BS: So, before they get you out of here I wanted to ask you about Blonde Ambition, and specifically a line that caught my attention: “That horsey grin insults us both,” your character says at one point. “And what’s with those teeth? They’re too white,
like an artist’s rendering of teeth.” That’s all yours, right?
LM: That’s mine. That’s another one that didn’t get released, I think, but it was a good movie. And there are people I love in that… Penelope Ann Miller, Penny Marshall. And by the way, let me tell you something about Jessica Simpson — she was a good sport every day and a good pro. She was there every day, and she really dug Scot Marshall, the director. She was up for everything.