Billy Crystal was a stand-up comic in New York when he scored his first big break, playing Jodie Dallas in the hit TV sit-com Soap. The role was truly ground-breaking – the first openly gay recurring character in television – and ultimately led to a stint on Saturday Night Live where his Fernando Lamas character made him a household name. From there, he moved on to a steady diet of film roles, ranging from the classic (The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally...), to the decent (City Slickers, Running Scared), to the regrettable (Father’s Day). Along the way, he become the Oscars’ go-to host and even directed a few films himself, notably the critically acclaimed 61*.
But of all those myriad roles, he continually cite Mike Wazowski from Monsters Inc. as his favorite. He got a chance to revisit Mike in the prequel, Monsters University, out this summer. He set down to talk with the press about the role in the cozy confines of Pixar Emeryville headquarters.
Question: Were there several attempts in the past to get another movie made because the film was so popular. Was it a dozen years?
Bill Crystal: It was about nine years until they decided to do it. It took about three years to make this. I kept saying to John [Lasseter], “there’s just gotta be another story,” but you know, they didn’t really do sequels except Toy Story... and I think even those might have been reluctant in the beginning. I found out about it when I was up here for John’s fiftieth birthday surprise party. He came up to me, and he goes, “We have the sequel. It’s a prequel. They’re in college.” Then he walked away. And it was hilarious.
There’s more than that, of course. Just another adventure of them would’ve been fine, but it’s not what they do here. They value the story here. They value telling the right kind of story. When we got into the script meetings, and they were telling me about the visuals and all kinds of funny things the character does, I said, “that’s all great guys, but what’s the story about?” they said – without hesitation – “Mike finds out he’s not scary.” And that was it. I knew they had something just as good as the first one.
Q: Was it easy to get back into character?
BC: Yeah. I work with John [Goodman] together in the studio, and that gets us right back in the same frame of mind. We just looked at the first movie for a little while… and I’ve seen it plenty. I have grandkids. So we talked about the first film, and we talked about that time in everyone’s lives when the possibilities seemed endless. We had so many tools to help us. We had storyboards which showed us younger and slightly thinner. Little differences in the way we carry ourselves. Dan Scanlon’s a terrific director and he just created the world for us. Suddenly, we were right back into that zone.
John and I did everything together; we recorded our voices together. And that energy is just… it’s amazing when it happens. I’ve been blessed with partners that have been really extra special good teammates. Gregory Hines was a great teammate in Running Scared, and De Niro, of course, and just recently with Bette Midler. You just key in with people 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.
Q: Is there a trick to sounding younger and thinner?
BC: I wish there was, because we could make a lot of money. [Laughter.] No, it was more of an attitude in what they wrote and how we hit the lines. You need a certain enthusiasm to convey that state, but Mike’s always enthusiastic about everything.
Q: Did you feel that Mike was your favorite character before this?
BC: Yes, I felt it when we made the first movie. I just fell in love with him.
Q: This must’ve been a joy to explore that character again.
BC: More so because I got to play him at a special time in his life. I got to play him at eighteen. It’s hard to tell with these monsters how old they 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 the way he handles disappointment. He finds a way through it. He finds a way out. And I think that makes him an adult, you know?
Q: Have you had to deal with that kind of disappointment in your life?
BC: Of course! You can’t go through life without facing that. I didn’t want to be a comic actor, I wanted to play for the Yankees! I was going to be on the first episode of Saturday Night Live. I thought I was made. Then at the last minute they cut me. It was a huge blow. But you keep going and you find a way through. If I’d done that, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten Soap.
Q: How different is the dynamic acting in front of a microphone as opposed to acting in front of an audience or a camera?
BC: It is what it is, you know? You’re in this vacuum. You don’t even know where you are sometimes. That’s where Dan Scanlon was so good. He could really paint the picture of the setting and place. Otherwise, I don’t know where I’m saying these things or where I’m going. You’ve really gotta keep him in a reality. So I had to know where I was at all times. So that’s, that’s, that’s a little difficult. But yeah, with a gifted visualize and a former animator like Dan, he made it a lot easier. And having John there because then you’re really acting.
Q: Do you get the same sense of satisfaction from all your performances?
BC: They’re all different. There are all different kinds of highs, you know. The best high always, honestly, is in front of a live audience. That’s why I love going back to Broadway, and performing in front of an audience. That’s part of why the Oscars were so much fun, because you have a live audience in front of you. And that’s still the greatest high: that feeling of being in control of two thousand people.
When I directed 61*, I thought nothing would be a better experience than that. I knew those guys: I grew up watching that team, and I ended up knowing Mickey Mantle very well, ultimately, so 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 still for me, it’s being in front of people. That’s still the best thing.