Robin Williams on Good Will Hunting

Here's the extended conversation we had with the actor for our oral history of the film.

Photo courtesy of Miramax

If you’ve had the chance to read through my oral history of Good Will Hunting in this month’s issue, you know that Robin Williams was critical in getting the film off the ground. Not only was his signing on the linchpin in getting the film made, he also convinced executive producer Harvey Weinstein to let the crew shoot in the L Street Tavern. Williams was surprisingly reserved when I got him on the phone, and it was obvious that the film meant a lot to him. (Though for a moment, he did break into song: “It’s not your fault!/It’s not your fault!” when we discussed the possibility of staging Good Will Hunting: The Musical.) Below is an extended version of my conversation with Williams, where he talks about the Boston comedy scene, hanging out in Southie, and winning his Oscar.

JN: Somebody told me that it was actually bringing you to the L Street Tavern that convinced them to shoot there. You walked in with Matt and Ben, no one knew who they were, but you managed to draw this crowd and after that you said, “We really need to shoot here. We need to do some more interiors here if we can.”

RW: There was a guy who came in the L Street Tavern that day offering to sell Gap suede coats. The bartender said, “They better have tags on them.” Because if they didn’t have tags on them it meant they were hot and came off the back of a truck.

JN: That sounds about right. I think Southie has changed just a little bit since then. It’s become far more gentrified. And Boston is such a huge part of the film, but it does have these diametrically opposed aspects that all coexist but don’t often overlap.

RW: Totally, it was the first film to acknowledge there was a kind of rivalry, that there was a tension between the townies and the people who go to school there. And that great scene with Will busting the chops of the Harvard kid:  “Yeah you think you know shit, but you don’t know squat.”

JN: Were you familiar with Boston before you came to shoot here?

RW: Not at all. I knew nothing about it. I’d had one experience playing a club there where Bobcat [Goldthwait] brought me on stage. Boston’s comedy scene was really hardcore with Bobcat and Steven Wright and all these guys who started there playing these clubs like Ding Ho’s. They were having a benefit one night for a guy, and I said, “What happened?” and they were like “Oh, well he killed somebody, but it was an accident.”

JN: That’s rough. Well, a similar thing happened in the movie. One of the guys was cast in the film, Jimmy Flynn, had been a member of the Winter Hill Gang who was acquitted for murder. He ended up playing the judge in the courtroom scene.

RW: He said, “This is the first time I’ve been on this side of the bench.”

JN: Yeah, some serious turnaround there. How did you prep for your role? And what drew you to the role itself?

RW: What drew me to the role just was the idea of a guy trying to give back, who hadn’t been practicing in a while. Here he is, a vet with a history, with a life, an intelligent guy who admits he’s not as brilliant as the kid but who is saying, You’re brilliant but you don’t know shit about certain things. That appealed to me deeply. What can you give a kid like that? The one thing you can give him is just saying, “I can only offer you a certain point of view.” It’s almost like going though rehab and just trying to say, I know who you are, I know who you think you are. Let’s try to get down to who you are. That’s why that scene by the swan boats is so kind of basic, saying: The only thing I have to offer you is my experience if I can help you. That’s what made it very powerful for me. Other than working on the accent and trying to get that right. Robert Easton was my dialogue coach and he helped me prepare and really get it down. There was also the idea of just trying to give him a history. Here’s a guy who has had a deep, deep past and he has wounds and if you poke him he’s not going to let the kid get away with that. He’s like: You don’t treat people like this. I don’t give a shit who you are.

JN: When you were working on it, did you have the sense that it was something bigger?

RW: No, you just have the sense that it’s something. It’s the same sense I had on Dead Poets Society, that there was something really powerful there. I just knew it was a really beautiful piece of writing that’s worth doing, getting it out there. That alone, you gotta say, “I gotta take the shot.”

JN: Winning the Oscar must have been incredible gratifying for you.

RW: It was gratifying but pretty surreal because the Oscar has about the shelf life of a week. For that first week it’s like: “Way to go Robin on winning an Oscar!” And two weeks later it’s like “Hey Mork.”

JN: So 15 years out, obviously your body of work is massive, but what does this movie mean to you among everything else that you’ve worked on? What do people tell you when they talk with you about it?

RW: Like you said, the experience is a little something more than a movie. There’s something in it that most will experience a lot of at a certain age. People would say it really affected them. It’s a movie that’s a movie that also works on another level. It’s entertainment, it doesn’t take away from that. But it’s got cojones. It talks about something. It talks about life issues…the value of experience versus intellect. It’s like, you have a great intellect, but what about life?