Harland Williams on Half Baked, Disney and improvising with the Farrelly brothers

You probably remember him as the "grandpa's old cough medicine," urine-drinking cop from Dumb & Dumber, or the serial killer hitchhiker spouting "seven chipmunks twirlin' on a branch, eatin' lots of sunflowers on my uncle's ranch" in There's Something About Mary. But you may not know that Harland Williams improvised most of those lines on the spot, using that classic Canadian weirdness that has graced so many of his comedy compatriots to the north. He'll be bringing some of that on-the-spot wit to Comedy Works South this Friday and Saturday. In advance of those shows, we chatted with Williams about working with the Farrelly brothers, the cruelty of Hollywood, and why Canadians are allowed more creative freedom.

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Westword: There is no shortage of stoner, buddy comedies out there, but for whatever reason Half Baked has become one of the most iconic of that genre. When you were filming it, did you have any sense that it would end up being so memorable?

Harland Williams: Well, you never know how the public is going to react to a drug-themed movie. When it first came out, it definitely wasn't a smash hit, but over the years it found its way into every college dorm room in the country and developed a cult following. It had a really slow beginning, but made its way into the fabric of America.

With that movie, you were working with so many actors who went in wildly different directions, with Dave Chapelle becoming a comedy superstar, and Stephen Baldwin turning into an evangelical, anti-marijuana activist.

Well, I knew Dave was going to be a big star because we'd done our HBO specials together and worked a lot of clubs together. You can see when guys are going to emerge, so it didn't surprise me that he ended up where he did.

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The Baldwin kid . . . I just didn't know what would happen with him. I felt like that was a family-name kind of thing -- there was more pedigree than talent. I think his brother, Alec Baldwin, is amazing. What's interesting about Stephen Baldwin is that me and Dana Gould were originally cast for Bio-Dome -- but Pauly Shore and Baldwin ended up doing it. So there's a little movie trivia for ya.

You also ended up working with the Farrelly brothers on Dumb & Dumber and There's Something About Mary. A while back I heard Bill Murray talking on NPR about how little he knew about the film he made with them, Kingpin -- since all of his scenes were pretty tame, he took his kids to see it, and was shocked at how filthy it was. Was that your experience with the films you made with them?

[Laughs] Well, here's some more trivia for you: I was originally offered the role of the Amish kid in Kingpin, the one that Randy Quaid took. But I was shooting a sitcom at the time and couldn't do it. I was going to take the role that Bill Murray played but I still couldn't manage it with my schedule and had to pass on the whole movie.

But the thing is, you never know with any movie how it's going to turn out. It's always a mystery -- you'll do pages and pages of scenes that will never make it onto the screen. And if you're not in a scene with another actor, you never know what they're going to change during the shoot.

In There's Something About Mary and Dumb & Dumber I ended up improvising quite a bit of my scenes, and later I didn't even remember what I'd said because I just winged it. When I went and saw the movie I was as stunned as everyone else was.

Did you improvise that whole seven minute abs scene when you were the killer hitchhiker in There's Something About Mary?

About 50 percent of it. After Ben says, "What if someone invents six minute abs?" I just went off on the whole tangent. It wasn't on the page and it doubled the length of the scene, so they put it all in. All that stuff about chipmunks and gorgonzola time and you're fucking fired, I just made all that stuff up. Same in Dumb & Dumber with the grandpa's cough medicine and pumpkin-pie haircutted freak stuff. So you just never really know what the movie is going to look like.

Was there something about working with the Farrelly brothers that inspired you to be more improvisational?

They told me to be improvisational. We'd do four or five takes off the script, and then they'd come up to me and say "Okay, Harland, do it your way." So I just went off, and we'd do four or five more takes with me improvising. I'd love to see the footage that never made it.

Did you have a background in any improv groups that helped you develop that style?

Nope, it's just something that I like to push myself to do. I like to throw stuff out there. Instead of me leading it, it leads me -- when I throw lines out there I don't know where they're going and I have to find a way to weave them together. It's a mystery, and it's fun.

I would assume you have to do a kind of mental relaxation to let those lines come out of you, not over-thinking anything.

Yeah, you definitely have to go into a kind of zone where you have to trust all your senses to do their thing. You let your mouth become the boss. It's almost like you're physically outside of your body watching it. It's weird. But that's why I love it, because it's so unexpected, even for me.

There are so many actors who shy away from edgy films like Half Baked and the more dirty side of the Farrelly brothers, since that could potentially limit their appeal to family-friendly audiences. But that hasn't been the case with you, since you went from those films to working with Disney and Nickelodeon.

I love it. That's the fun of being an actor, having the ability to switch gears like that. The more diverse the roles, the more I love it. I wouldn't want to play the same guy over and over in my career. Like in Superstar, traditionally you wouldn't look at me as the stud on the motorcycle, but that's what I was; and then I did a Disney movie where I was an evil wizard.

Hollywood has a limited vision on actors. Look at any Sandra Bullock movie, they're all cute and sassy. But as an actor you have to push back against that. I don't take any role that I can't bring myself and something new into it.

It seems like you've taken a break from large movie roles in the last decade -- was that a conscious choice so you could do more standup comedy?

[Laughs] No, that's honestly just the cruelty of Hollywood, man. In most corporate jobs, once you get established you don't have to prove yourself, but unfortunately with most actors you go in and out of favor with the studios. They don't give you credit for what you've done or what you're capable of. It's a constant battle for opportunities. Unless you're the Jack Nicholsons or the Brad Pitts of the world -- but there's only about ten male actors who get to pick and choose what they do. And the rest of us are at the mercy of the system.

Look at Jim Brewer or Molly Shannon, all these people who have done great movies -- and where are they? They all want to be doing movies. But it does come around: look at Travolta. After Saturday Night Fever Hollywood shut him down, until Tarantino put him in Pulp Fiction. That's the cruelest part about Hollywood, you never get any traction.

It seems like the way some people get around that is to surprise audiences with an unexpected role choice, like Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine . Have you ever wanted to take on a darker role, something outside of comedy?

Oh yeah, I'd love to play a kind of psycho, Keyser Söze, or Frank Booth from Blue Velvet. Some really intense, dark guy with a lot of psychological baggage. That would be interesting. And then on the other end of the spectrum I'd love to create an Austin Powers or Ace Ventura kind franchiseable comedy character that people love.

But now you're doing standup, did you have a background in that before you got into movies?

Oh yeah, standup is where I started. That's where everything came from. It was in Toronto in my mid-twenties. There was only, like, one comedy club in all of Canada. It was a unique occupation. "What? You're a comedian? Who does that?" And then after two years of doing it there was that huge standup explosion in the '80s, where just about everyone you met was suddenly a comedian.

I once read Lorne Michaels say that Martin Short was allowed to get away with an extra level of weirdness in his comedy during his early days in Canada, that there was something about performing up there that allowed an extra level of creative freedom. Was that your experience?

Definitely, because in the States there's an entertainment industry, and that boxes people in creatively. There's an expectation of what works in TV and movies. Whereas in Canada it was a little more like the wild west, there was no industry. There was no blueprint. We could roll all over the map freely and tap into our creativity. There was no one to say, "Well, our demographic doesn't like that type of thing." That's why so many of us are so silly and creative -- no one was boxing us in. Harland Williams performs on Friday, May 17 and Saturday, May 18 at Comedy Works South, 5345 Landmark Place in Greenwood Village. Tickets are $25; for more information visit www.comedyworks.com.

For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.

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