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June 10, 2013

Interview: Billy Crystal

http://www.jewishjournal.com/hollywood/article/interview_billy_crystal

Actor Billy Crystal in Hollywood, Calif., on June 6. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Actor Billy Crystal in Hollywood, Calif., on June 6. Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

When Billy Crystal was pitched a prequel to the Pixar hit "Monsters, Inc.," he didn't have to think twice about coming aboard. The first movie not only grossed $290 million, making it one of the biggest hits of Crystal's career, but playing walking eyeball Mike Wazowski was also one of the actor's most enjoyable assignments.

"Mike is fearless so he's my favorite character I've ever played in anything I've done," says Crystal, 65. "I've really missed doing him."

Pixar missed the "Monsters" hitmakers too. So, a dozen years after "Monsters, Inc." debuted, the company is releasing "Monsters University," a prequel that checks in with Mike and his blue furball buddy Sully (John Goodman) when they're students at the School of Scaring.

In many ways, "Monsters University" is a typical college movie, except with a distinctive Pixar-esque touch. There's fraternity pranks, rivalries with other schools and run-ins with the discipline-obsessed Dean (Helen Mirren).

"It was so much fun to revisit Mike and Sully at this time in their lives," says Crystal. "It was such a brilliant idea to put them into that time period where they're about to become who they're going to become. That's what was so interesting to me."

Crystal appreciated the attention to detail paid by the animators tasked with bringing the younger Mike Wazowski to life.

"The first day [Goodman and I] reported to work together, they showed us renderings of the guys," says Crystal. "We just started laughing because oh, sure, they made us look younger Sully's a little trimmer and a little slimmer. [Mike] has this retainer, but there's a little more youth in the eye. And they just carry themselves differently it's just subtle, but it's there."

Traditionally, when it comes time for actors to record their performances, they work alone in the sound booth. But, in the case of the "Monsters" movies, Crystal and Goodman have always toiled side by side. It's a method that allows them to riff off each other and create a one-of-a-kind dynamic between Sully, a natural scare machine, and Mike, who tends to overthink scaring.

"I love [John], and playing off of him is phenomenal," says Crystal. "When we work together in the studio, we're not just reading lines, we're performing them, and we feel them. I think that's why their relationship on screen is really great because it's a real thing."

Asked what gives him a bad case of the scares, Crystal names two things: "Psycho" and his Aunt Shelia.

"Mr. Hitchcock knew what he was doing," says Crystal. "To this day, it's still a terrifying movie. It's the music and the lighting and the [cinematography]. It's all of that. It's genius, just genius."

And Aunt Shelia?

"Aunt Sheila was terrifying because she'd put a napkin in her mouth, and go, `You've got something on your face, dear! Let me just scratch that off your face!'

When he was making "Monsters University," Crystal flashed back to his own college days. Growing up, he could always make his folks and his friends laugh but after he graduated from Long Island's Long Beach High School in 1965, he opted to attend Marshall University in West Virginia on a baseball scholarship before winding up taking classes at Nassau Community College.

He eventually became a film major at New York University and graduated in 1970 from the college's Tisch School of the Arts.

" I have to admit that, in college, I was a little bit of a misfit," says Crystal who's been married to wife Janice for 43 years. "I'm still not sure why I became a directing major when I was really an actor and a comedian but there was something that drew me to [filmmaking]. I had made a few films on my own, and I loved it.

"But I felt like I was a misfit, in a way, and out of it because all those other people in my class - Oliver Stone, Christopher Guest, Mike McKean - were film people. Our professor was Marty Scorsese. It was 1968- 1970, he was an intense guy with long hair, a big beard and granny glasses.

"Marty was a graduate student at the time but we had to call him Mr. Scorsese, and I still call him that when I see him because he gave me a C. "

After graduation, Crystal found his true calling when he began performing stand-up at such New York nightspots as The Improv and Catch A Rising Star.

"It's like being a gym rat but you're a theater rat and then that becomes your fraternity house," says Crystal. "That becomes your extended family. I still see a lot of those people to this day because they owe me money. No, seriously, that's when [performing] became my thing."

In "Monsters University," Mike and Sully go through a similar transformation when they discover exactly what they're good at.

"In this movie, they find out who they are," says Crystal. "That's the most important element of this movie to me. Mike has a dream, and the dream may not work out, and then he has to readjust and recalibrate. He does that with the help of his friend, who tells him who he thinks he is, and he starts to believe it himself. "

Crystal's career took off in earnest after he landed the role of Jodi Dallas on TV's "Soap." Playing one of the first homosexual characters in the cast of a sitcom raised his profile, and in 1984 he joined "Saturday Night Live."

In the '80s and '90s, Crystal graduated to movies. He appeared in a handful of hits, including "The Princess Bride," "Throw Momma From The Train," "When Harry Met Sally," "City Slickers" and "Analyze This." He even put his degree as a filmmaker to good use by writing, directing and starring in "Mr. Saturday Night" and "Forget Paris."

The actor says even though he's in the midst of a career resurgence thanks to December's "Parental Guidance," he still wonders if he made the right choice to become an actor all those years ago.

" I still have doubts," says Crystal, who's hosted the Oscars nine times. "You always do. Every time we finish doing something, we don't have something else, except John. He did 14 movies last year. He's the new Michael Caine.

"But what is so fascinating and frustrating and great about life is you're constantly, in some ways, starting over all the time, and I love that. `All right, I did that, but right now I don't have a job.' Then something happens, or you make something happen."

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