On “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s alter ego has realized two fantasies: starring in a Mel Brooks production (as Max Bialystock in “The Producers”) and acting in a Martin Scorsese film (as a Jewish gangster).
Now, like a “Curb” story line come to life, David stars in Woody Allen’s latest film, “Whatever Works.”
As co-creator of “Seinfeld” and the creator-star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the 61-year-old David has already left his stamp on television with a penchant for bitter, cringe-inducing realism. “Whatever Works” marks his most notable foray into movies or even acting.
“The script came in the mail and I opened it up and saw the character was on page one,” said David in a recent interview. “I went to page 50, he’s on page 50. I turned to the end, he’s at the end. I went, ‘Oh my God. What is this?’ I realized what it was.”
Allen originally wrote the script in the ‘70s with Zero Mostel in mind. After Mostel — a Tony-winning actor best remembered by movie fans as the original Max Bialystock — died in 1977, the screenplay stayed in a drawer until the threat of an actor’s strike last summer had Allen looking for a project to begin quickly.
The director’s longtime casting director, Juliet Taylor, suggested David for the role. Allen says he’d been a fan of David, who actually had two tiny parts in Allen’s “Radio Days” and “New York Stories.”
“He’s my kind of an actor,” Allen says. “He’s just a natural actor. He doesn’t do anything on the screen or in the scene that he wouldn’t do in real life. He doesn’t give you any false emotions or suddenly launch into dramatic or actor’s mode.”
In the film, David plays grouchy, misanthropic Boris Yellnikoff — a retired, divorced physicist and self-proclaimed genius. A young runaway (Evan Rachel Wood) begs him for shelter, and gradually Boris’ life changes — especially when her parents (Patricia Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr.) arrive.
“Whatever Works” is funny, philosophical and New York-centric — more in line with Allen’s films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when he was hitting his stride with films like “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
Neither David or Allen, though, consider Boris an alter ego of Allen.
David gave Allen every chance to back out of casting him — arguing that he doesn’t really act on “Curb,” that he’s playing himself.
“He was always kvetching that he couldn’t act,” Allen says. “So I felt, look, the guy’s going to be funny. He’s always funny — I don’t have to worry about that. … As it turned out, the dramatic scenes were the ones he had the least amount of problem with. First takes, he’d do the dramatic scenes seemingly effortlessly. He agonized much more over the jokes.”
Boris is more caustic than David, but there are some similarities.
“It wasn’t that foreign to me, feelings of misanthropy,” David deadpans. “The character is a little more out there than I am in that regard. I mostly like people.”
Two basic characteristics of Boris were difficult for David: his long monologues, delivered straight to the camera, and his fondness for shorts. David hates wearing shorts and says he spent “all of my spare time” working on memorizing dialogue. (Much of “Curb” is improvised and he carries a notebook everywhere to jot down jokes.)
Boris maintains that he has “an enormous grasp of the human condition.” David says he simply has “an enormous grasp of my own condition. That’s bad enough.”
David has been in the film business before. Several of the fake movies that Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine discussed on “Seinfeld” are the titles of screenplays that David wrote but never got made.
He still gets calls from producers about “Prognosis Negative” but says he won’t make it now. Another was “Ponce de Leon,” who he still thinks is a funny character: “An actual explorer who a queen gave a ship to go look for the fountain of youth? I mean, what is going on with these people?”
After “Seinfeld,” David wrote and directed “Sour Grapes,” a 1998 comedy that starred Steven Weber and bombed.
Says David: “I would do that a lot differently if I had to do it over again.”
He’s now shooting the seventh season of “Curb,” which will feature guest appearances from the “Seinfeld” principals. Though most TV shows — and many comedians — run out of new material over time, David has shown a seemingly never-ending reservoir of observations about life’s quirks, curiosities and hypocrisies.
“If there was a drop-off, I would know it, recognize it and I wouldn’t do it,” says David, who left “Seinfeld” two season before intended only to return for the finale. “I seem to have a pretty good feel for an idea that tickles me. If it doesn’t, I know it.”
Acting in films appears to be something that tickles David. He doesn’t consider “Whatever Works” a one-off and would “definitely” act again.
When David watches his performance, he’s squeamish, but not as much as you might expect.
“I’ll think, ‘Oh, I really liked that. That was good, Larry. Good going, Larry’ — as opposed to the ‘Oh, you stink, you stink,’” says David. “Sometimes I’ll surprise myself.”