The multi-talented Canadian-American actor chats about reuniting with his long-time friend Tim Burton for Frankenweenie.
Martin Short has been plying his trade in the acting world since the later 1970s. Though best known for his comedy roles in the late '80s and '90s, Short has sustained a varied career across films, theatre and television. LWLies sat down with Short to discuss Frankenweenie, which sees the Canadian-American reunite with his long-time friend and Tim Burton.
LWLies: You've done your fair share of voice work over the years. Do you try to keep a balance between that and traditional acting?
Short: You know, I've always loved doing a variety of things. Not that I get bored easily... The idea of being on a television show for seven years does not interest me at all, and I've always tended to mix it up – I do concerts, Broadway, movies, television. I think, in terms of a film like Frankenweenie, voice work is almost like a unique muscle. When you work out you're exercising a certain muscle group, and that way you're constantly keeping your muscle groups firing. For me if I do stage work for too long it's a mistake, if I do too much live action it's a mistake. So, I really enjoy doing this, not to mention getting to work with Tim again.
How does working with Tim on something like this compare to doing a live action film with him?
The way he does things is an ideal way for me because he doesn't sit you down and try to explain to you his vision. He says, 'So what do you think?' He's done the initial hiring so the buck ultimately stops with him if you screw up, but he genuinely wants to hear what you have to say, what your take on things is. I remember we were making Mars Attacks! and we were doing this scene – it's a scene I ultimately get killed in, where I'm seducing this woman and bringing her into this bedroom. Anyway, it was a spectacular set, this hidden bedroom in the White House. And we're discussing it and Tim's like, 'so what's going to happen, where would you go?' And I was delighted by just how open he was. I'd say, 'what about if I jump on the bed'... 'great let's do that! He's one of those guys who, because his ego is so in place, he can take the best ideas in the room. It's very rewarding creatively to work with him.
You've voiced characters for two movies that are coming out on the same day in the UK. How did those productions differ?
Well, with anything you do it depends on the people you're working with. I've been lucky because Madagascar 3 had a great creative team; Jeffrey Katzenberg I think is one of the greatest executives ever. With someone like myself, because I improvise so much and tape is very tape and because the drive from my house – I live by the ocean – to the studio is often longer than the film will be, I always want to give as much as possible. The actor's job is to provide the paints for the director and let them paint.
You originally wanted to be a doctor, is that right?
I started off in pre-meds and then I switched to social work. It was indirectly a decision that was based on the idea of wanting to make people feel better.
Interesting that entertaining people, making them feel better in a sense, became your profession.
I'm glad you've said it about me rather than me saying it, but I actually think that my experience of university, those four years, was perfect. I went in thinking I was going to be a doctor, then I changed to social work and by the time I left I was an actor. Was there a game plan? Not really. I maintain that my greatest admiration for a profession is medicine. Social work, well, my daughter's a social worker, that's a spectacular profession. But it just turned out that acting was for me.
How did you get into acting?
It started off at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. I started doing plays and theatre stuff as an extracurricular thing and just loved it. But going back to when I was 14, 15 I was not really like the other kids – where other boys were throwing footballs and baseballs I was up in my attic pretending to have my own variety show, singing into my own tape-to-tape recorder. I even had an applause record. What's weird is that no one suggested I should be an actor. Had I been growing up in Manhattan maybe someone would have said that. So showbusiness for me was a fantasy world, and I was very much conditioned to school. I thought life was like school, that you lived for after five and the weekend. I was lucky enough to stumble into something that I couldn't wait to wake and do every day.
What change have you seen in the industry throughout your career?
Well, I mean... I don't really... I always think of myself as someone who's just doing his thing, moving onto the next thing and wondering if it will be successful. But I do acknowledge that I've been doing this for a long time so maybe it's time for me to get reflective. The blatant answer to the question would be that a lot has changed, but the biggest thing that I have noticed is that the $30 million film has gone away. It's now Pirates 12 or it's a very small million dollar film. And television doesn't have the variety it used to, now it's either CSI or reality. But it doesn't really effect me, because what I do lots of different things and I do it all over the place. I think I'd be more effected if I'd simply have been an actor-for-hire.
You're probably best, or at least most widely known for appearing in a certain kind of family comedy that doesn't seem to exist anymore...
You mean like Father of the Bride?
Yeah, or ¡Three Amigos!
Right, well I guess those types of movies aren't really being made right now. But there are still comedies being made. Judd Apatow's making a lot of great comedies. I think family films aren't quite the same these days. The bottom line is that people will complain about the types of films that are made in Hollywood, but Hollywood will do anything it's asked to do if there's money involved. So people right now are complaining about a lack of women's film or strong female characters, but after Thelma & Louise was made women's stock was very high. Things go in cycles, and Hollywood just responds in a knee-jerk way to whatever's popular. What I think is really interesting is that when Hollywood was established it was run for its first 25 years or so by very powerful men – Louis B Mayer, Jack Warner, who had strong egos and felt that a film from their company represented their signature. They had very specific tastes. Now there's a tendency to follows trends and so I think a film like say, Midnight Cowboy, would be much harder to make now.
What excites you still about acting?
When you get to work with interesting people. Through the years I've been approached about directing, but I always felt like that was something you did when you were absolutely desperate to do it, not when someone suggests it might be savvy for you to do it. I had to acknowledge to myself that at that time it wasn't something that interested me. I've always liked being in front of the camera and being able to lose myself. I find that very rewarding.
Does comedy come naturally to you?
I think it does. I feel honoured to be in comedy. I kind of think that we the audience make a deal with the funny guy, you know. Maybe Ricky Gervais wants to play Hamlet some day, but our deal with him is that we just want to see him do something funny. I feel like that's my deal too. I did a series not long ago called Damages and it was great to do that but there's a reason I've since returned to comedy.
Is there anything, maybe a big part, that you turned down that you've since regretted saying no to?
Let me think... I was originally offered Dumb & Dumber, I think it was Jeff Daniels' role, and I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't see myself in that part. And then when it came out I thought how fabulous Jeff Daniels was, so it was meant to be. But it was a big hit, you know. Who's to say what might have happened if I'd have done that film. It's the ultimate road not taken.
What do you love about movies?
I love the world it can take you into. I can watch the same movie and cry at the same place 25 times. Whether it's To Kill a Mockingbird or On Golden Pond. Film has a way of... it's the same way someone can see the same painting by Da Vinci over and over and still be moved. It's the world that film takes you into and th storytelling that can reflect not only your own life but someone you know.