IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Chris Elliott Talks ‘The Rewrite,’ the Legacy of ‘Cabin Boy,’ David Letterman’s retirement, and SNL’s 40th Anniversary

Monday, 16 February 2015 23:48 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Chris Elliott Talks ‘The Rewrite,’ the Legacy of ‘Cabin Boy,’ David Letterman’s retirement, and SNL’s 40th Anniversary

Actor/comedian Chris Elliott has consistently been one of the funniest people on television and film over the last 30 years!

Elliott first came to fame in the early ‘80s for playing a barrage of unique characters on Late Night with David Letterman. Some of those wild characters included “The Fugitive Guy,” “The Guy Under the Seats,” and Marlon Brando. He went on to appear in a string of successful movies including Manhunter, The Abyss, Groundhog Day, Kingpin, and There’s Something About Mary. But he is probably best known for his cult classic film Cabin Boy, which also featured Letterman in a legendary cameo saying, “Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?” 

Elliott also created the cult classic ‘90s series Get a Life, was a cast member of Saturday Night Live, and has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, Everybody Loves Raymond, and How I met Your Mother. Currently, Elliott stars on the Adult Swim series Eagleheart, as well as the new CBS series Schitt’s Creek with Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara. He can also be seen on the big screen opposite Hugh Grant in the new romantic comedy The Rewrite, which opens in theaters on February 13th. 

The Rewrite revolves around Keith Michaels (Hugh Grant), an Academy Award-winning writer in a slump that leaves Hollywood to teach screenwriting at a college on the East Coast. He soon bumps heads with fellow facility members Mary Weldon (Allison Janney) and Dr. Lerner (Oscar-nominee J.K. Simmons), and eventually falls for Holly Carpenter (Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei), a single mom taking his class. Elliott plays Jim, a Shakespeare professor living next door to Keith. The film was written and directed by Marc Lawrence (Two Weeks Notice, Music and Lyrics). 

I recently had the absolute of honor of speaking with the great Chris Elliott about his work on The Rewrite, as well as the legacy of Cabin Boy, David Letterman’s retirement, and SNL’s 40th anniversary. The hilarious comedic actor discussed his new film, if he’s ever moved to a new town for work, Hugh Grant’s comedic style, the relationship between Grant and filmmaker Marc Lawrence, why Elliott does not “enjoy shooting movies,” meeting J.K. Simmons, Elliott’s Shakespearian knowledge, the legacy of Cabin Boy, David Letterman’s legendary Cabin Boy sketch during the Academy Awards, what Letterman means to Elliott’s career, Letterman’s upcoming retirement, SNL’s 40th anniversary, and why the Elliott family holds a special place in SNL history. 

Here is what Chris Elliott had to say about The Rewrite, the Legacy of Cabin Boy, David Letterman’s retirement, and SNL’s 40th anniversary:

IAR: To begin with, The Rewrite is about a down on his luck Oscar-winning screenwriter who moves to a small New England town to teach at a local university. As an actor and comedian, I’m sure you’ve had to move to a new city before when you were shooting on location. What was that like for you, and can you relate to what Hugh Grant’s character is going through in the film?

Chris Elliott: It's like The Doors' song, “People are strange when you're a stranger,” and that does happen when you have to go somewhere. I haven't had to travel that much. My new T.V. show called Schitt’s Creek it shoots in Toronto, and I had never been to Toronto before for the amount of time that I had to spend shooting up there. It's sort of the opposite of what happens in The Rewrite. Eventually in The Rewrite he comes to love where he is or the people there at least. I had a great time in Toronto. It was like a whole new world for me up there and really fun. Everybody was really nice to me. I didn't really have that same experience as Hugh's character had.

What was it like acting opposite Hugh Grant, and do you think that your two different comedic styles worked well together? 

Elliott: Yes, but we're similar in some respects. We're both physically and incredibly handsome, that helps an awful lot. I think it's a cheekbone thing. I think that we have that going for us. He was great to work with. It was just one of those things where you walk on the set and automatically know how we're going to work together. We didn't speak a lot on the set because Hugh doesn't and I don't either when I'm working. It's exhausting enough to have to learn lines and speak the lines, but to actually gab in between takes exerts a lot of energy. I noticed early on that he has the same technique I have, which is just to float back to a corner and try to be ignored until it's time to shoot. I think he saw that in me so we had a similar way of working. In terms of the style of comedic acting you know better than me how it worked out. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I know that just working with him it always seemed bright. The chemistry was there and the timing. There was no question about timing or anything like that.

Hugh Grant has starred in every film that director Marc Lawrence has ever made. Was their long working relationship apparent on set?

Elliott: You're asking if they had that unspoken sign language thing between people that work together a lot? I didn't see that. I saw them actually debating jokes, debating dialogue and debating stuff, but that is their way of working together. Maybe there was more there that I was missing and that was going over my head. Marc knew what he was going to do and all that, but I did see them actually dissect things and questioning why. It was refreshing to see that. It wasn't like they were going through this lazy because they've worked together so often and know what each other is going to bring to it. It's a different character that Hugh's playing and it requires a different approach than some of his other character. So they were exploring that while they were shooting. That's how Marc was with me as well. He was very open to questions, open to suggestions and it really was a pleasure shooting this movie. I don't enjoy shooting movies but this was really fun.

What exactly do you mean when you say that you “don't enjoy shooting movies?”

Elliott: It sounds like I'm being a brat, but it is a time consuming effort and a lot of boring consuming time. It's exhausting. You have to wait for it to come out, and doing a movie it's not disposable like television is disposable. There's a little bit more riding on it. There's a little more pressure and all that, but I didn't feel that on this at all. I felt like I was making a movie with friends and that made all the difference in the world to me.

You also appear in several scenes in The Rewrite with Oscar-nominee J.K. Simmons. What was your experience like working with him?

Elliott: I don't usually get star struck when I work with somebody but I've been a fan of his forever. I've watched everything that he's done. So it was a thrill to work with him, but I have to say I was pretty nervous working with him. Just like Hugh, J.K. made me feel right at home. He made me feel like I had something to offer, which is always a surprise to me because I don't feel like I have much to offer and both of them treated me like I was a fellow actor. I was just as capable as they were and I know I'm not, but they made me feel that way. It's hard not to enjoy going to work when you know that's what you're facing.

Your character in the film is a Shakespeare professor. Have you ever dabbled in The Bard's work?

Elliott: No. I think if I was asked maybe I might do some Shakespeare. I guess in high school I did it a little bit. I’m one of those idiots that would say I didn’t understand it until recently. Now I’ve seen more plays, I’ve read a little bit more, and I get it now. As a kid it was like math to me, it was too complicated for me to understand. 

I have to tell you, I love Cabin Boy! What are your feelings now about that project all these years later?

Elliott: That’s nice to hear. That’s one of those things that at the time we certainly didn’t realize there were people out there that would love it. It’s really rewarding now to hear people say that they enjoyed it. From time to time I’ll catch it on cable. I’ll watch it and I’ll think, this is a kind of weird and funny movie. I’ve seen worse. It’s flawed that’s for sure, but I still stand by that movie.

One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television was when David Letterman hosted the Academy Awards and had other famous actors auditioning for his part in Cabin Boy. What did you think about that sketch when it first aired?

Elliott: I was honored. The piece was actually directed by Adam Resnick who directed Cabin Boy. He was my writing partner for three years so we knew about it long in advance. Adam produced it, put together, edited it and I thought it came out great. I thought it was really fun. There was a time when the movie first came out and it brought up a lot of jokes even on Dave’s show. It was just Dave being self-effacing and making fun of himself, but ultimately it poked fun at my movie too. So every time that happened for a few years I would cringe if I saw some joke about, “Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?” I remember Dave doing a bit on his show about new Halloween costumes for kids. Kids would come to the door and Dave would give them some crappy gift instead of candy. One of the crappy gifts was a copy of Cabin Boy. That hurt a little bit. But the bit from the Oscars was pretty funny. 

While we’re on the subject of David Letterman, sadly he will be retiring soon and you recently made your final appearance on The Late Show. Can you talk about what Late Night/The Late Show and David Letterman specifically has meant to you and your career?

Elliott: Dave gave me my start. It’s sad for me. He was my mentor in many ways and the fact that I have a career at all comes from that show and from him. I met my wife at Late Night, and we have two beautiful children now. I didn’t go to college so my training in this business was being put on television and being allowed to be silly and goofy. Dave did nothing but support me all the way through my career. It’s sad in a sense for me because I’ve always had that feeling that Dave and the Late Show was my safety net. If the bottom falls out of anything I try to do career wise, maybe I’ll always go back to Dave. I’ve always been able to go back to that place, hang out and maybe even work there. Now that safety net is gone. I’m seriously out on my own in show business now. 

When Letterman announced he was retiring, it was obviously sad for his fans because they won’t be able to watch him nightly anymore. But I think what has made fans even sadder is the possibility that once Letterman retires he will pull a “Johnny Carson” and never be seen in public again. Knowing him as you do, do you think we will see Letterman again after he goes off the air or will his retirement be final?

Elliott: I could definitely see him doing that, but I could also see him being very active in his production company and developing stuff. He’s his own guy and I haven’t talked to him. I have no idea what his plans are, but I think my instinct would be similar to what most fans think. 

What is your favorite moment from your time on Late Night and The Late Show?

Elliott: I did so much on Late Night and The Late Show. It’s hard to have a favorite. I enjoyed playing Marlon Brando, and I enjoyed doing “The Guy Underneath the Seats.” I had fun making fun of guests who were on the show like Marv Albert. It was always me being myself, but doing a half ass impersonation of somebody and they were all very similar so it’s very hard to pick out a favorite. One thing I enjoyed doing a lot was with (writer) Gerard Mulligan. We used to do this thing where Gerry had a kid. Dave would introduce the kid and it was always me as Gerry’s kid in like a snuggly up against his chest. It was very creepy looking. But that’s something in the back of my mind I’ll remember as being something fun to do. I got a lot of response on the street from that. “Hey, there’s Gerry’s kid!”

Finally, Saturday Night Live recently aired their 40th anniversary special. As a former member of the cast, did you attend?

Elliott: I remember when it was the 15th anniversary. That’s how old I am. I would have loved to been part of it if I could have. I was in L.A. at the time that they did it. That show has done great things for so many people and given so many people a great start. It’s this institution that will continue on and on, and never end. I think the 40th anniversary was pretty exciting. Maybe I’ll be at the 50th. 

You do hold a special place in Saturday Night Live history as the Elliotts are a third generation SNL family. 

Elliott: That’s right! My dad (Bob Elliott) was on the show, and my daughter Abby (Elliott) did four years on the show. She did incredible work on the show, and I was there for one year. I did absolutely nothing on the show, but I had a good time. I just didn’t really do anything. 

The Rewrite opens in theaters on February 13th.

The Late Show with David Letterman will air it's final episode on May 20th. 

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