Arts Express: Chris Elliott Talks The Rewrite

Chris Elliot may just be the sympathetic sidekick to Hugh Grant’s perplexed Hollywood hack turned terrible teacher at a remote Binghamton college in the satirical romp, Marc Lawrence’s The Rewrite. But the actor, comedian and writer best known for Late Night with David Letterman, Get a Life, Adult Swim, Everybody Loves Raymond and How I Met Your Mother, grabs attention no matter what he’s up to on the big or small screen.

Elliot met with me to talk about taking part in The Rewrite, nutty jobs he’s had just to get by, other fellow funny guys who’ve inspired him, and getting stoned on Groundhog Day.

What do you think of the idea in this movie, of rewriting your own life?

CHRIS ELLIOTT: Well, I’d like to think that you can. I think to a degree as a performer I’m trying to sort of recreate and restart.

And you know, change that parameter. I’ve always wanted to paint, and I can draw. I can do that kind of stuff.

But I couldn’t start right now and be a painter. I think I could do it for the fun of it.

But I don’t think I could actually go in and commit myself to a lifetime of doing that. At least not at my age.

And I think age does have a little something to do with it, too. Like, how tired you are.

Chris, you’ve been thought of as more of a comic personality but you also can do a lot of other things. How do you decide when you think something works for you, when it’s got a comic and a serious side too?

CE: Well with me, I honestly feel like I have spent the last ten years of my career trying to get smaller and smaller. With what I do comedically.

And I think that’s been noticed a little bit. And so I’ve been able to move from doing kind of the goofy, crazy stuff that I was known for doing in the ’80s and early ’90s.

And you know, into maybe doing something where I’m a little bit more believable. But I never thought I was a believable actor! I always thought I was just this goofy guy.

There are comedians that I believed on camera. I believed Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Bill Murray.

But I never believed myself. You know, when I was actually trying to act.

And so it’s taken me a while to find that balance. And I think I did in this movie.

And I think it’s because of working with Hugh and with Marc, who keep the reins pulled in pretty tight. That’s about it for me.

I don’t know, I really believed you in Groundhog Day.

CE: Oh, I was so stoned!

One of the funniest parts of The Rewrite, is Marisa showing up in different places and having all kinds of jobs just to survive during these economic hard times. So was there any time in your own career where you had to do a lot of crazy jobs just to survive?

CE: Yes! Unlike Hugh, I still do work for the money! But I’ve actually been so lucky, to go from one thing to another.

And my first job was working for Dave Letterman. I worked there for eight years before I had my own TV show, and then a movie.

And I seem to have always been able to have something during the year to make a living. But I have done some horrible movies for a quick buck.

But my crazy jobs weren’t even that crazy. I was a tour guide at Rockefeller Center, and then a PA.

And a runner on a couple of TV shows. So I didn’t really have to stretch that.

But right now like everybody, the times in this business have changed. And the numbers have gone down.

Especially for people like me in the business. But I still try to be certainly choosy.

And the idea of working with Hugh on this movie was too much to turn down. So I really did it for…below what I usually get paid!

What do you think of Hugh’s idea, that art is as much about being whipped into shape to work, and not just the fun of inspiration?

CE: Well, the whipping is fun too!

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.