It was so hard for Robin Williams to become a bad guy — he could tell you about the pain one follicle at a time.
The hirsute comic — tired of all the feel-good, Patch Adams roles — tries for the third time this year to achieve bad-guy credibility in One Hour Photo. The movie has been out in limited release and goes nationwide this week.
The role of Sy Parrish, an outwardly meek, inwardly obsessed photo processor at a discount store, required Williams to undergo a complete character change — not to mention a dye job and a shave.
Bring on the Weed Whacker
Williams' generous amount of body hair — visible at times even when he's not in summer attire — has disappeared.
"It's hard to think of, isn't it?" Williams says, joking with reporters. "Just to think of the depilatory alone. Three guys with Weed Whackers going, 'I've got to give up, Robin. I can't do your arms anymore!'"
The sacrifice was more than necessary. Williams' face is no longer familiar, and the new look, designed by Cheri Minns, fits the film's dark aesthetic.
"She had a photo lab that she could work on pictures of me and then just started removing hair and changing and blonding my hair out so that I could blend in with the whole store."
As the lonely, anonymous photo clerk, Parrish knows the regular customers all too well because he develops their film. Some are pet-crazy old ladies, who have 20 pictures of their toy poodle for every snapshot of a human. Some are amateur pornographers.
Unable to deal with real humans, Parrish lives through his customers' photos.
"He's very awkward, human skills way down, except to do his job and then he puts on that, 'How are we today?' kind of face and can deal," Williams says. "The moment people leave, he almost shuts down."
Parrish becomes so attached to the Yorkins — a married couple played by Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan — that he starts to think of himself as Uncle Sy to their young boy.
From ceiling to floor, a wall of his home is wallpapered with the Yorkins' home photos. Who asked for the extra set of prints? Parrish did. Secretly.
Not All Psychopaths Are Alike
When Williams' character realizes his fantasy family doesn't live the perfect, white-picket-fence life he thought, he goes to dangerous lengths to send a message.
"This character is living a life, two lives, actually," Williams says. "His own, which is very bleak, and the other through this kind of fantasy about the family, and then at the end when the fantasy starts to deteriorate, he starts to examine his own life and something hideous kind of comes up out of it."
Williams, 50, long ago won the ultimate Hollywood accolade, taking home an Oscar for his supporting role in Good Will Hunting. That came after nominations for his work in Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society.
He also hasn't been afraid to gamble his bankable persona just for the heck of it on projects that, at least in retrospect, seemed doomed. Perhaps you missed his portrayal of a mime teacher in the 1991 bomb Shakes the Clown.
While critics made fun of Patch Adams, branding Williams an unabashed schmaltz-aholic, it was a box-office smash. But there was a saccharine sameness to his characters. Fit him with prosthetic breasts in Mrs. Doubtfire, turn him into an animated genie in Aladdin — he's essentially playing the same role.
Recent box office failures Bicentennial Man and Jacob the Liar only underscored the need for change — though Williams denies that he's made a calculated career move to explore his dark side.
How's this for an accused feel-good freak: In March, he took on the role of a payola-driven, disgruntled children's television host who plots revenge his replacement — a purple rhino named Smoochy.
Death to Smoochy might have made a statement, but it didn't make much money. Williams had more success in his second offering this year, Insomnia playing a psychopath who psychologically tortures a sleep-deprived detective, played by Al Pacino.
Two psychopaths in one year? That's a lot by any standard.
"They're different people," Williams says — although neither one bears much resemblance to that kinetic stand-up comic or our favorite space traveler from the planet Ork.