Robin Williams

Christopher Nolan Once Revealed He Wasn’t Receptive to Robin Williams’ Comedy on ‘Insomnia’ Set

Christopher Nolan once reflected on his experience working with veteran actors like Robin Williams back when he was still a newer filmmaker.

Robin Williams was known for being a great dramatic actor as much as he was known for his comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire. In Insomnia, Williams used his dramatic chops when working alongside Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan. But when Williams tried to use his comedy on Nolan behind the scenes, Nolan didn’t take to it too well.

How Christopher Nolan handled Robin Williams’ comedy on set

Robin Williams appearing onstage during MTV's Total Request Live.
Robin Williams | Peter Kramer/Getty Images

Nolan cast Williams in the type of role role that the late comedian wasn’t commonly seen in. The actor portrayed the main antagonist in the 2002 feature Insomnia, who was suspected of committing a brutal crime in Alaska. Williams would battle wits with Al Pacino in the feature, the latter of which was cast as the movie’s tormented detective.

It wasn’t the first time Williams played a dramatic role. Movies such as Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting all showcased the actor’s range. But it was the first time Williams had ever portrayed a villain that seemed ordinary on the surface. It was an idea that fascinated Nolan.

“I wasn’t interested in any kind of inversion of his comic persona, some kind of manic villain,” Nolan once told BBC. “What I wanted him to do, and what he was excited to do, was to play a character the likes of someone he’s never played before – an unexceptional character. He’s a guy who, if he was sitting next to you on the bus, you wouldn’t give a second glance. Robin’s never done that before. He’s played bad guys before, he’s done dramatic roles, but he’s never played somebody utterly ordinary.”

But being a natural comedian, Williams would always try to liven up the cast and crew behind the scenes. His attempts didn’t work for Nolan, but they did seem to work for everyone else.

“He likes to perform,” Nolan once told Seattle PI about Williams. “He could see I wasn’t receptive to his comedy between takes, but he was always entertaining the crew. Then I’d say ‘action,’ and he’d just go right into what he was doing. I’ve seen his performance many times, and it’s scarily real. There are moments when you don’t think he was acting at all. He’s an incredible talent.”

Why Christopher Nolan cast Robin Williams in ‘Insomnia’

Nolan originally cast Pacino before Williams in Insomnia. Pacino was known for playing somewhat similar roles to his character in the thriller. But Williams was a bit more of an unorthodox choice. Nolan developed the idea of casting the actor after already recruiting Pacino. The filmmaker felt Williams would be an interesting foil to The Godfather star.

“Robin’s name came up when we’d already cast Pacino,” Nolan said. “We’re sitting there saying, ‘OK, we’ve cast Pacino as a veteran cop, and that establishes a very large presence, a monolithic figure, at the center of the movie. And yet the second half of the film is all about the tension between two characters of equal weight. How do we balance Pacino’s presence with somebody who’s similarly interesting as a movie star – but for completely different reasons?’”

Williams gave Nolan the answer.

“When Robin’s name came up I immediately thought it was a fantastic idea, but I always assumed somebody would say, ‘No, he’s a comedian.’ But no one did,” Nolan recalled.

Robin Williams wanted to play The Riddler after working with Christopher Nolan in ‘Insomnia’

Williams had nothing but kind words to say regarding his time with Nolan. Nolan was still in the beginning stages of his professional film career at the time. But it didn’t feel that way to Williams.

“He felt like a guy who knew what he was doing. Everyone knew that. He had a sense of confidence. If you see a movie like Memento, you go, ‘This guy has chops!’ Even then you kind of knew he had it. There’s no, ‘I think I know what I’m doing, young boy.’ He knows what he wants and you have a sense of confidence,” Williams once told Flexible Head.

He enjoyed working with Nolan so much that he even offered his talents to the director for other projects. This included Nolan’s Batman films, where Williams was keen on playing the villain The Riddler. Especially considering he’d already lost the opportunity to appear in a Batman movie a couple of times already.

“I would work with Nolan again in a second, playing anyone in anything. It’d be fun to work with him again,” Williams said. “I’d play the Riddler if they followed through with the offer! I’ve been screwed twice on that. Years ago they offered me the Joker then gave it to Jack Nicholson, then they offered me the Riddler and gave it to Jim Carrey. I’d be like, ‘Okay, is this real? If this is a real offer, yes!’”

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