crispin glover

Crispin Glover: ballad of a thin man

The off-the-wall actor and director on outsider cinema and bringing crazy to the mainstream

"Never cut me off from my audience!" Crispin Glover screams down his microphone at a female staff member after she signals to him that it's time to wrap up his question time at the Hackney Picturehouse in London. You'd be excused for thinking it was a publicity stunt – after all, this is the personality who blindsided David Letterman in 1987 by turning up on his show in character as “Rubin” in a wig and platform heels and trying to karate-kick his host – but now he seems to have genuinely lost it. As his love-hate history with Hollywood shows, he's a man who demands things on his own terms. Half the audience laps up the drama – after all, oddball spectacle is what they've come for – while the other half is shocked.

It's the first night of a UK tour by the actor and cult-oddity-director, most famous for his roles as awkward SF fanatic George McFly in Back to the Future and the creepy Thin Man in Charlie's Angels. His legendary touring show always includes one of the two films from his unfinished It trilogy along with a slideshow over which he narrates excerpts from his books. Lit up by a red light that put a sinister glint to the distinctive face that gave shape to movie eccentrics from McFly to the titular rat obsessive of Willard, he gestures with a flourish at blown-up illustrated pages on the screen while reading his dark, absurdist gothic tales, which were intricately crafted back in the 80s from 19th-century books he found in second-hand stores in LA. He took these originals, blanked out words, added in his own in spidery ink scrawls and pasted in images creating such strange hybrid compositions as Oak-Mot, which tells of the strange goings-on at a family estate and involves an ill child named Adry, and Rat-catching, which offers up rules on selecting ferrets. Performed in the style of vaudeville, it’s off-kilter Victoriana that’s geared to amuse and titillate, revelling in all manner of taboo-pushing, from anachronistic references to Hitler to overtones of incest.

Glover's been doing this show for years, and it retains a cult status that's increasingly hard to find in this day and age, partly due to the fact that he's refused to make the films – which he produced himself – available any other way. His company, Volcanic Eruptions, was named with a typical Glover touch, and one that resonates even more after last night's finale. “In the 80s I made volcanic landscapes from ready-made paper-mache and black India ink,” he tells us the day before the show. “The volcanoes had red wax flowing out of them to represent lava. Somehow the title ‘Volcanic Eruptions’ seemed fitting.”

“Usually I'm wearing my hair for some character, so this beard is not necessarily my own style preference. I’m about to work on something that’s in the 1880s, so it’s appropriate”

We’re sitting in the cinema’s gallery bar. He’s in a casually elegant get-up of head-to-toe black that suggests that his eccentric gothic shtick doesn't end onscreen. But, he explains, it's also about stripped-down efficiency on the road. “I wear the clothes I’m going to wear for the show,” he says. “More than 20 years I’ve had this coat! It’s very serviceable, and it’s good when I’m travelling because suede doesn’t wrinkle.” He recalls that somewhere along the line he had the 80s shoulder-pads taken out. He also shows me his compact toiletry kit, which fits snugly in his backpack. “I’m essentially always packed.” He’s got his one-man touring system down to a streamlined art.

Glover turned 50 just last week. His intense blue eyes and wry smile are as prominent as ever, though his angular cheeks are now softened with a beard. I ask with a grin for his thoughts on Hackney's peak beard phenomenon. He’s non-committal. “I prefer not to have mine, but it's circumstantial. Usually I'm wearing my hair for some character, so it's not necessarily my own style preference. I’m about to work on something that’s in the 1880s, so it’s appropriate, though I don't want to talk about that film until I've done it." Beard angst, however, is an apt enough topic for a director whose film I'm about to see at the show is about a serial killer with a hair fetish.

A truly bizarre meld of television crime drama and Lynchian surrealism seemingly inspired by the lifestyle of Hugh Hefner and the sets of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 2007's It Is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE (part two of the It trilogy) stars and was written by cerebral palsy sufferer Steven C Stewart, who had spent ten years locked in a nursing home. In a fantastical retelling of his own life, Stewart plays Paul, who enacts his sexual fantasies on a host of luscious-haired willing women who miraculously understand his heavily impaired speech perfectly. They include glamorous divorcee Linda (Margit Carstensen, who also starred in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a masterpiece of unhinged meldrama), her daughter (Carrie Szlasa), and a drunk and buxom blonde played by former Playboy playmate Jami Ferrell. 

"Steve was such a great guy!" Glover recalls of Stewart. "He had a genuinely rebellious sense of humour, which meant I could very much relate to him." After Glover read the script he was dead set on making it, flew to Salt Lake City to meet Stewart and David Brothers, who co-directed, and put the money he'd just made from playing the creepy Thin Man in Charlie's Angels into the production. Stewart’s lung had recently collapsed, and he died in 2001, just a few months after they finished shooting. "Steve was a strong person with an inner need to get this story out,” Glover says. “I knew he'd stay alive no matter what to get it completed." And the hair fetish? "Oh yeah, it was definitely a central thematic element. Steve wrote the screenplay so I can only surmise or feel like I understand what it's about, but that's part of what I love about the movie. There are so many questions I would love to ask him now."

“I'm passionate about making films that cause people to question things. I see a great untruth being perpetrated in corporately funded filmmaking wherein the audience believe they are getting one moral but are in fact fed propaganda that serves corporate interests”

By embracing the role of hypersexual villain, Stewart rehumanised the notion of what it is to be disabled. He claimed a place for himself on the full spectrum of human behaviour, far from pity-worthy and with potent will and black wit of his own – even if he more problematically reduces women to acquiescent props to serve this end. "If anything, Steve was exploiting me, not the other way around," Glover grins of his part in bringing Stewart's inner fantasy life to the screen. At any rate, Stewart's story gelled perfectly with Glover's own desire to challenge social taboos. “I'm not interested in shock,” the director explains. "I'm passionate about making films that cause people to question things. I can see a great untruth being perpetrated in corporately funded and distributed filmmaking wherein the audience believe they are getting one moral but in fact they are getting fed propaganda to get them to do things that serve corporate interests."

The monumental falling out that occurred between Glover and the makers of Back to the Future stemmed in part from this fundamental clash of values. His role in the much-loved 80s classic as the nerdish teen whose romantic fate is disrupted by his time-travelling future son Marty (Michael J Fox) landed him a place in cinema history. But Glover himself remains decidedly unmoved by the film’s charms. “Please understand that I was not given the complete screenplay before my deal was made," he says. "I was a naive 20-year-old actor.” He has a huge problem with the movie's ending. Arriving back in the present, Marty finds that his formerly underachieving family are basking in the joy of material success, and their freshly waxed expensive vehicles. “I felt that all the hints of monetary rewards led to the underlying moral being confused to suggest money, rather than love, equals happiness.” After he turned down the offer to reprise the role for Part IIWeekend at Bernie's-style trickery was employed on set to make it seem he was actually in it; another actor was done up with a prosthetic nose and cheekbones, obscured with sunglasses and even filmed upside down to fool audiences. Glover wasn't having it, and sued the producers.

“After Charlie’s Angels came out I started getting better roles that also paid better. If the director is not truly interested then I can console myself that with the money I'm making I can fund my own films. It's worked out well”

He frankly acknowledges the role the Hollywood industry has played in building the fame he needs to leverage his own projects, but feels no crisis of conscience as a jobbing actor. “After Charlie’s Angels came out I started getting better roles that also paid better," he says. "I've been able to divorce myself from the content of the films I act in and look at acting as a craft through which I'm helping other filmmakers to accomplish what it is they want to do. If for some reason the director is not truly interested in doing something that I personally find interesting with the character then I can console myself that with the money I'm making to be in their production I can help to fund my own films I'm so truly passionate about. Usually though I feel as though I'm able to get something across as an actor that I feel good about. It's worked out well."

The other part of the It trilogy is said to be even more challenging for audiences to get their heads round than It Is Fine. Made in 2005, What Is It? is a blackly comic tale about a snail-obsessed boy trying to get home while struggling with his racist inner psyche and bludgeoning a bunch of victims to death on the way. Glover enlisted a cast made up almost entirely of actors with Down Syndrome in a move he describes as an act of resistance against corporations only being willing to fund very sanitised content, and argues that the film resembles the Occupy Wall Street movement in terms of being a protest against the undue influence of corporate interests. "What's happening politically in the US is essentially legalised bribery," he says. "A new amendment separating politics and money is imperative. I hate being an actor talking about politics because I don't like that stuff, I like art, but the influence of business interests trickles down to affect art badly."

“A new amendment separating politics and money is imperative. I hate being an actor talking about politics because I don't like that stuff, I like art, but the influence of business interests trickles down to affect art badly”

In a bid to make himself even less reliant on the corporate film industry, Glover is in the process of building extensive stage sets in the former horse stables of the 17th-century chateau he owns in the Czech Republic, with the aim of shooting all his future features there cheaply. "I changed my dollars into Czech crowns on the day the US invaded Baghdad 11 years ago because I knew the dollar was going to slightly go up and then fall after that, which of course it has," he tells me, ever the canny planner. "So that was when I physically purchased the property. But it's taken all that time for me to have a production there – it wasn't a small amount of work or money. It was a life decision, a long-term process to be able to continue making films I'm genuinely interested in. When I'm going there from LA, people say, ‘Oh, have a great time.’ They think I've bought this thing as a vacation home, which it's not."

Right now, he's shooting a new feature starring his father, Bruce Glover, a veteran actor best known for playing an assassin in the 1971 Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, and he fondly recalls staying in a Kensington flat on his school vacation when that film was being shot. The production they're working on now is the story of four generations of fathers and sons set in different time periods, but he's reticent to divulge too much. "I'm a little cagey about it because I know how long it takes me to make my films." Will his father tour it with him? Glover chuckles to himself. "He'd probably like to do something like that, but it's not easy to tour as I do. Even now, I've just had a few hours of sleep, and I haven't even started the tour. Because I'm a little sleep deprived I'm probably rambling." He looks apologetic. "It's a little bit too much, I have to say. I'm barely in the same city more than two weeks in a row." Whether this hints at a slowdown in touring in the future is hard to say, but it's one hell of a show.

For more details on UK tour dates visit crispinglover.com

Note: Crispin Glover has since emailed us to state there was an issue with the management over his rider, but that any issue has been resolved for his coming shows.