Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Carol Kane has become so well known for her work in comedy that it’s often forgotten that she first earned a name for herself through more dramatic efforts, earning an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 1975 film Hester Street. Over the years, she’s held her own against Andy Kaufman in Taxi, bantered with Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride, and stolen scenes from Bill Murray in Scrooged. Currently, Kane can be found on Fox’s Gotham and Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but she still appears in movies, including Clutter, now available on VOD and Hulu.
Carol Kane: It’s always extremely flattering when someone comes looking for you. No matter how many times it happens, I always think, “What? They came looking for me?” [Laughs.] But I met the producer, writer, and director at a coffee shop in my neighborhood, and we talked. Diane [Crespo], the director, had a notebook full of images of the clutter and the family’s life, so it was very exciting to see. And I really was moved by the script and then began to delve into that world of hoarding, which is a huge world—and fascinating—that we sort of don’t come in contact with that much, even though probably each of us knows someone who hoards. I think to some extent we all hoard, and we all tend to turn objects into something that might fulfill some emotional need. So it’s an exciting role for me, very complex, and the relationships with each of the children were very different. And I just loved the story.
A.V. Club: How did you delve into the world of hoarding? Did you do some additional research beyond the script?
CK: Oh, I did a lot of research. Of course, like many people, I watched the show Hoarders, and each episode is just unbelievable and moving. I think each person hoards for a very specific, individual reason, but it’s always because there’s an emotional lack somewhere that people try and somehow fill up with objects.
AVC: Did you find yourself wanting to go on a purge while you were doing the film?
CK: I wish I could say I did, but I have my own trouble with hoarding! [Laughs.] I mean, I have a lot of trouble getting rid of objects myself. I don’t think I’d be defined as a hoarder, but like with all of us, different objects represent different memories. For me, it’s different people in my life. I think it’s really great to be able to get rid of things, but I would not say that that is my forte!
AVC: For your first on-camera role, it’s difficult to tell which came first: Carnal Knowledge or Desperate Characters.
CK: I had done a lot of extra work before that in different movies shot in Manhattan—that’s where I grew up—but Carnal Knowledge was my first role. And, of course, that was the greatest privilege of my life, to walk into a room and find Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel and Jules Feiffer. That’s how I met them all. I was flown to Vancouver where they were shooting already, and I was told then that if Mike thought I was right for the role, I would stay and shoot it, and if I wasn’t, I’d be turning around and going back to the city. But I met Mike, and he brought me in to where they were showing the rushes from the day before, and Jack and Art and Jules were there, and imagine that, you know? I’m 17 or 18 years old! It was probably the greatest moment of my life!
AVC: How did you find your way into acting in the first place?
CK: Oh, it’s the most boring, typical story. I was a little girl, and my mom took me to see a children’s theater play, and I just instantly fell in love with the notion of being up there and using my imagination and becoming someone else. See? [Laughs.] I think it’s a pretty typical tale. But it’s true!
CK: I had lunch not that long ago with Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman, who was in that movie with me, and we remain friends. That was just a wild script, a wild experience. And for me it was so funny because playing a little cheerleader was so far afield for me. But it’s a fun movie. I think it was originally called Thursday The 12th.
AVC: That would’ve been a great triple bill with Friday The 13th and Richard Benjamin’s Saturday The 14th.
CK: [Stunned.] Seriously? I didn’t know that! Well, one of my favorite movies that I got to be in was directed by Richard Benjamin!
CK: That was with Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, two young, brilliant actors. And Elizabeth McGovern! She was so great in that.
AVC: And your character name, at least according to IMDb, was “Annie The Hooker.”
CK: Yes, there you go. I mean, I don’t think they called me “Annie The Hooker.” [Laughs.] But, yes, that was me.
AVC: Actors often talk about preferring directors who have been on the other side of the camera. Richard Benjamin more than qualifies.
CK: Oh, completely. You know, I think a lot of my really favorite directors that I’ve worked with, they have a gift of sort of trusting in the people they’ve hired. They hire people they trust, and they make those people feel that they trust in them. I think that brings out the best in actors. You’re not facing someone with grave doubts. You know you’re facing someone who believes you can do it, and I think that enables you to do it. [Laughs.] And Richard certainly was in that camp of hiring who he believed in and then supporting them. He’s very creative. And someone else I think those directors have in common is that they have a lot of trouble not laughing during the takes, because they actually enjoy what they’re doing and what they’re seeing. And that’s fantastic.
CK: You know, something that’s really different nowadays—which talking about directing makes me think of—and something that’s a little hard for actors, I think, is that they have this thing now that’s everywhere all the time. It’s called video village, and it’s so that when you shoot a movie or a TV show, suddenly the director isn’t there with you on the set they used to be. They’re off in the area where there’s a video monitor, and the script supervisor, the director, the producers, the writer, everyone’s off there when you’re doing the scene. It used to be that they were on the set with you, by the camera, so you were all rowing the boat together. [Laughs.] But now they’re off in this place where they yell things toward the set, and you can sort of hear, but sometimes you can’t, and you definitely can’t see each other’s faces. Like in, say, The Last Detail: It’s me and Randy Quaid in the bed, and Hal Ashby was over in the corner by the camera, just laughing or talking to you, but you were all working as one in that way. Now there’s a bit of a distance—not only physically, but also creatively—when they’re in the other room.
AVC: And you also worked in the field of prostitution in The Last Detail.
CK: I guess I did. [Laughs.] And I was working with Jack Nicholson again, and with Randy and Hal. It was just a great, great experience.
CK: Oh, now Addams Family Values, that was a particularly tough thing to do, those characters that require prosthetics to that extent. I have a lot of problems with the glue, and I’m kind of allergic to it all. [Laughs] But I’ll tell you, Danny De Vito gave me the greatest piece of advice, because he had just played The Penguin (in Batman Returns), and that was four hours of makeup as Granny, and Valerie in The Princess Bride was even more! But Danny said that when he had his Penguin makeup done, he rigged a TV set across from the mirror so that he could watch movies while he was getting his face put on. He said, “You can watch two movies every morning!” And that was a lifesaver for me, because to sit there for that length of time, getting all glued up, and you’re disappearing as time goes by, and your face is becoming something rubber. It’s not an easy process! I really admire people on, like, Star Trek, who are doing that for season after season. I find it very difficult.
Playing Granny, I had to wear a magnificent five-pound wig, and the brilliant Tina Aldrich helped me out a lot because first of all, the costumes were so magnificent and so detailed and right for the period they were supposed to be from. But also, because they had so much trouble with the glue, she and the makeup artist teamed up and helped me out by rigging up a system where the collars of my dresses—the high, high collars—could be secured to the neck prosthetics, so that the prosthetic didn’t have to go all the way down my neck, and I didn’t have to feel totally strangled. [Laughs.]
AVC: You and Billy Crystal had great chemistry together in The Princess Bride, even if you were both buried under makeup.
CK: [Laughs.] Thank you so much! Although I did want to say, speaking of chemistry and great people, that it was rippling through Addams Family Values. It was great to work with Raul [Julia] and Anjelica [Huston], who I’d known—both of them—since we were very young, Raul from the theater and Anjelica just through our lives together. So it wasn’t all torture. [Laughs.] Just the prosthetics.
With Billy, it was just so much fun! And he’s a genius, as we all know. He and I got to kind of talk about our back story together and improvise a few things before we shot it. And then Billy, of course, just improvised all through the scene when we shot. Which was amazing. And Rob [Reiner] is definitely a laugher. He’s an off-camera laugher. [Laughs.] And everybody in the scene, really, had trouble with that. Especially Cary Elwes, who was supposed to be mostly dead, so he couldn’t laugh. It was really one of those challenges to keep a straight face.
AVC: You mentioned the improv aspect. How are you when it comes to improv? Do you tend to be pretty fast on your feet? Not every actor is.
CK: Well, I’m not an improviser, as in someone who’s spent time doing that with another group of actors, like the Second City people or the Saturday Night Live people. But I certainly feel that I can do it, and I enjoy doing it within a scene. I love doing it within a scene that’s been written. I’ve never just improvised a whole scene. But, like, the thing about the chocolate pills? “You shouldn’t go swimming for at least… what?” “An hour.” “A good hour.” We both improvised that. You know, I have fun with it. But as I say, I’ve never been part of a troupe of improvisers.
CK: I just love Leelee [Sobieski]. She’s amazing. And Christine Lahti, the director, is an actress who I’ve known for a long time, and I did a Beth Henley play with her [The Lucky Spot] and some other things. And then, of course, Albert Brooks! I mean, he was amazing to work with. And I got to have my doggies in the film with me, which is one of the best things about it. [Laughs.] Christine knew that I had these two beautiful pug dogs, and she asked me if they could be my dogs in the movie. So they were. And that was great.
CK: That was just so much fun, because Mike Birbiglia is just an extraordinary creator and person. He’s so kind and wise at such a young age, really. You know, this was his first film, and he co-directed it, but he had this calm about him and a security in what he was doing that was so extraordinary. I mean, starring in, writing, and co-directing his first movie? It was as though he’d been doing it forever! Like Andy [Kaufman], he’s just such a unique mind, and I just love him. I really love him.
AVC: Speaking of Andy…
CK: Oh, well, you’re asking me about all these great things! I think I’m just going to be your most boring interview yet, because I’ve had a pretty great time, and I know I keep saying so! [Laughs.] But on Taxi, the first thing I remember is when I read the script where I got to say, “Peel me like a grape, so I can get out of here.” It was the episode where Andy cheated on me to stay alive in a blizzard and made love to his fellow cabbie, so I had to go make love to one of his co-workers, and it was going to be Judd [Hirsch], who rejected me.
I remember driving on the lot. That’s magic for me: going to the Paramount lot and having my own parking space, and seeing the fake mountains as you drive in, the backdrop for the water tank where they shot the little miniature ship, and just those sound stages that have been there for so long and have housed so many magical productions. And I had my own parking space there! To go through the gate, past the guards, I’d be thinking, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this,” you know? And I would’ve paid them to get to say that line: “Peel me like a grape, so I can get out of here.” Are you kidding me? Me and Mae West got to say that! [Laughs.] That was just insanely great. And those of us who are still living are still close friends.
AVC: How did you find your way into the series? Was it an audition?
CK: No, originally I guess Jim Brooks had seen Hester Street and had asked me about playing Simka, and it was one episode originally, in the second season. And we got talking at a party, I guess a year later or whatever, and we both just thought—miraculously!—that it would be so great to keep that story going. That was such a privilege for me. So I came back in the fourth season. That was just so great. And those producer-writers were so brilliant, the cast was so brilliant, and Andy… [Sighs.] You know, he created that character—the character of Foreign Man—and I got to learn about that world through him.
AVC: Did you and he have chemistry right away?
CK: Yes, we definitely matched up easily. The thing that was always a point of discussion between us was our different work modes. Because he always said, “I don’t rehearse. I do stand-up.” He created his own act, you know, and the less rehearsal, the better for him. And I grew up in the theater, so I’m very dependent on a tremendous amount of rehearsal. That’s just historically what I was used to. So we used to always have a discussion and reach a compromise about it. [Laughs.] About how much we were going to rehearse together, and how I thought he didn’t want to rehearse and he thought I didn’t want to rehearse. We always had this great discussion like married people, and it ended up in love.
AVC: Out of curiosity, did you ever have any run-ins with another one of Kaufman’s characters, Tony Clifton?
CK: Well, you know, I wasn’t there when Tony Clifton was on Taxi. He was on an episode and got fired, but I wasn’t there then, so I didn’t really deal with him. Because once he got fired, he wasn’t there. But I did know about him. And then later, after Andy was gone, there’s an annual Andy Kaufman event at Caroline’s where someone gets awarded a scholarship in Andy’s name, and Tony Clifton hosted and was, uh, terribly obnoxious. [Laughs.] He took over the show! But that wasn’t Andy. And then there was this other great character that I did get to work with, which was Vic Ferrari, who was kind of obnoxious and pretentious and slick and sly. The opposite of Latka. And I had a date with Latka and woke up to Vic. That was kind of amazing and great.
AVC: How surreal was it for you to go back and play yourself during the Taxi era for Man In The Moon?
CK: Yeah, that was a very emotional experience for a lot of us. Because it looked so… It was exactly our set! So it was very emotional to have that gone for so long and then walk back into it at a later time in one’s life. And then Jim Carrey, who was so amazing that you just felt he was Andy. Of course he wasn’t Andy. But he did such a great job.
CK: That was just really magic, because I was so young, and it was a Hollywood movie. It was my first Hollywood movie. I was at 20th Century Fox, and I even got to pick out the furniture to be in my dressing room. All these antique little pieces. I got driven in a truck to the warehouse to pick out my couch for my dressing room! It was just fantasy time, with those beautiful, big sets that were designed by Karen Marsh. My part was so lovely, and partnering with Gene. It was a very dreamlike experience, I have to say. And just as an interesting aside, in case you don’t know, Danny DeVito had a small part in that movie. He played the assistant director. If you see it again, you’ll see! But it was just a big, big, amazing thing to be a part of. And a period that I loved, too, costume-wise. Ruth Myers was the costume designer on that. So, yeah, that was great. And that was my first comedy, by the way!
CK: Again, too much fun! [Laughs.] I have been forced to have way too much fun in my life! I mean, I got to fly around and act with Bill Murray! It’s a dream! And Dick Donner gave me a tremendous amount of support and freedom. And J. Michael Riva, who designed the sets, he was the one that convinced Dick Donner that I shouldn’t have a ballet double, that I should do my own ballet dance in the beginning. Because he came to watch me do it in rehearsal, and I thought I was doing such a good job. But it was so bad. [Laughs.] And it made him laugh so hard to see me trying to be good! He said to Dick, “We have to use her. She’s doing it.” Which I thought was because I was pretty good. But no, it’s because I was horrible!
AVC: When we talked to Joel Murray for this feature, he was on the set that day, and he said, “it was fun watching Carol Kane almost take his nose off with a toaster repeatedly. It was frightening how close she came—time after time after time—to killing him.”
CK: Oh, my gosh. How fascinating! Well, I did the best I could, let me put it that way. [Laughs.] I love Billy’s face. I wouldn’t hurt it!
CK: Well, Kermit is a lovely frog. He was very much the star, but I think he and I struck up a good relationship.
AVC: Ed Begley Jr. said to give you his love.
CK: Oh, and vice versa! I love that man. He’s a good man. We also had Michael Richards in that! And Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. It was kind of a great cast! And Rudy De Luca, who wrote and directed it, was someone that I knew through Mel Brooks, and I knew Mel Brooks because of getting to work with Gene Wilder. So there you go: One thing leads to another.
AVC: Do you have any specific recollections when you think back on that film?
CK: We were working in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and it was a very difficult time in Zagreb. For instance, when you’d walk past stores, there’d be, like, one object in the middle of a display window, as opposed to in our store windows, where it’s everything you can imagine. There, it’d be one thing. And there was not a lot to do except to shoot, but we all stayed in the same hotel, and for those who wished, there was gambling up on the top floor, and I believe Mr. Goldblum and Mr. Begley did some of that!
For me, the strangest thing that happened was that there was, like, a coffee shop or restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, and I kept thinking that I saw American celebrities there. Like, I was convinced I had seen Dr. Ruth. [Laughs.] And other people, too! Like the therapist who was on Taxi, Dr. Joyce Brothers! I thought I saw her! And I really was convinced that I had seen them. But, of course, we were in Zagreb, so that was not happening for real. But I guess I’d started to get homesick for familiar faces or something, because I kept thinking I saw them!
AVC: You mentioned that Michael Richards was in the film; you also ended up doing an episode of Seinfeld.
CK: Yeah, that was a great thing. They just called and asked me. And that show is just the crème de la crème, so I’m honored to have been on it!
CK: Wasn’t that fun? With so much time in between, it was so great to come back as the same character on the same show. And with the fantastic Mr. Richard Belzer!
AVC: Do you know if he was responsible for having you brought back?
CK: I believe he was! I think the character of his ex-wife came up, and then he told them that he already had an ex-wife… and it was me! I believe that’s what happened, anyway. He’s such a great guy. He’s a big, big dog person, Richard Belzer.
AVC: You mentioned that you’d had lunch not that long ago with Paul Reubens. He’s also going to be on Gotham. Was that how you came to have lunch with him?
CK: My lips are sealed! But I think it’s pretty great, isn’t it? I’m so excited. And it’s all part of the small world department, of course, with Danny DeVito having played the Penguin in Tim Burton’s [Batman Returns] movie, where Paul played his father. And now Paul’s playing the father of Robin Lord Taylor, and I get to be his wife. So it’s a small woild! [Laughs.]
AVC: Robin Lord Taylor is really a force to be reckoned with when he’s on screen. How is he to work with?
CK: Oh, he’s magnificent. I’m so grateful to be working with him. I really love him, I think he’s brilliant, and he’s kinder than anyone. Just so great.
CK: That’s currently what I’m doing the most of, and I’m really enjoying that. Tina Fey is such an amazing writer-producer, as is Robert Carlock. And Jeff Richmond writes the music, who is coincidentally married to Tina Fey and is brilliant. And the whole cast that I’m part of is so great: Ellie Kemper, Jane Krakowski, Tituss Burgess… It’s just really fun! And it’s also kind of fun to have accidentally fallen into the new media, which I really wasn’t very knowledgeable about, that you could watch an entire season of a show in one day. It’s so great!
And this year I get to sing with Tituss, and he’s a brilliant singer, of course, and I’m galumphing along beside him. But it’s fun!
AVC: Can you tease anything else about the upcoming season?
CK: There’s going to be a lot more music. And because we shot the first season for NBC, thinking we were going to be on there, we’re a lot freer with the kind of material we can do on Netflix, and freer to make the story one that’s ongoing. Since people are watching many episodes in a day, we don’t have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end in 22 minutes. That’s freed up the writers a great deal.
AVC: How did you end up stepping in for Carole King for Paul Shaffer’s performance of “When The Radio Is On” on Letterman?
CK: Oh, my God, that was crazy. It was because Paul Shaffer and I, and Diane Keaton and Kathryne Grody, we made a movie together called The Lemon Sisters, where we played a little Atlantic City boardwalk group, and Paul did all the music for it. He taught us all the songs and made the arrangements, etc., etc. So we had become friends. And when this event happened on the show when Carole King had to drop out at the last second, Paul suggested that maybe I could fill in! [Laughs.] And it’s especially great because the two of us get confused for each other on rather a daily basis, where I’ll get complimented on my albums and she’ll get complimented on her acting. So that made it kind of doubly fun!
CK: I got to beat up Vin Diesel. How many people get to do that in a day’s work? So much fun to do that little stunt fight together. It was so great, because I don’t get to do that kind of thing. Of course, Vin does it all the time, but for me it was a real adventure.
CK: Oh, it’s really basically all choreographed. Otherwise, it could be dangerous. Because I’m so much stronger than him, I could really hurt him. [Laughs.]
CK: Well, not a long, long time, because you’re working with professional stunt people. But it has to be perfected. You can’t throw in any random stuff, because as I said, then it could become really dangerous.
CK: I consider that I was fortunate enough to be part of truly, truly classic cinema there, you know? With Woody at his height, and Diane, and great, great writing and cinematography. And my part was so wonderful. The word “lucky” is the only word I can use there. It was a delicious experience.
AVC: Was that a case where Woody reached out to you, or was it an audition?
CK: In that case, I did just get asked. There’s this brilliant, brilliant casting director that works with Woody named Juliet Taylor, and Juliet just set up a meeting with Woody. And I got to go to his house and meet him, and that was kind of that. But I’m grateful to say that I’m in that and didn’t have to audition, because I probably wouldn’t be in the movie if I’d had to do that. [Laughs.] That’s not really my forte. I get too nervous!
CK: I got to work with Charlie Durning again on When A Stranger Calls. I think I did four or five movies with him over the years, maybe even five or six. I just adored him. And I think the director [Fred Walton] was so talented, because he did these terrifying movies with almost no blood. They’re just the kind of classic suspense of a Hitchcock kind of movie. I think they were great. And it was really interesting to have all that time go by between them and revisit. And because Charlie was in both of them, there’s a lot of continuity, even though there was so much time in between.
AVC: You got an Oscar nod for your work in Hester Street, which came out the same year as Dog Day Afternoon, but what was the order as far as when you actually made them?
CK: I shot Hester Street first. Yeah, and that was such an extraordinary role. As was my role in Dog Day! But Hester Street, of course, Gitl was one of the central characters, and that was just an extraordinary opportunity, to be speaking in Yiddish and to be working in that time period. Dog Day also was extraordinary, with Al Pacino and John Cazale and Sidney Lumet and Charlie Durning. It was a good year. [Laughs.]