But Crazy in a Good Way

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The accepted wisdom about Crispin Glover is that you don't want to make a film with him. Even though he's vastly talented, he's nuts. So it's not surprising that in Willard, his first starring role in a major film, Glover doesn't share many scenes with human beings but instead talks mostly to the rats he trains to take revenge on those who bully him. A remake of a 1971 horror film, the movie, which opens this Friday, is — assuming that masses of large rats gross you out — creepy and disturbing. And Glover, as usual, is phenomenal.

From his tormented neurotic in River's Edge to his manic-nerd dad in Back to the Future, the thin, plain Glover has always popped on-screen. But he is perhaps most famous for a 1987 appearance on David Letterman in which a long-haired Glover yelled, "I can kick! I can kick!" and proceeded to kick inches from Letterman's face. His reputation also springs from the fact that his role in the Back to the Future sequels was filled in by a Glover look-alike with Gloveresque prosthetics. And quite a few people heard that he had an old gynecological chair in the middle of his apartment.

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Willard director Glen Morgan says that when he suggested casting Glover, "people around town said, 'You'll never get the film done. Crispin is crazy.'" The studio refused at first to allow him to audition the actor. But Glover never had any trouble on the set, which is impressive, considering that he worked with 500 rats. "Crispin's neuroses are a little more people oriented," Morgan explains. Adds Willard co-star Laura Elena Harring (Mulholland Dr.): "He's sweet, and he's intense at the same time. He has a wonderful awkwardness. Do you think he meant to harm David Letterman? Please. It was just innocence."

In fact, Glover says, the Letterman bit was an Andy Kaufmanesque gag, an attempt to bring art everywhere, and he has been booked on the show many times since. The gynecological chair, he explains, is just an old medical examining table that serves as an objet d'art in his apartment. And his immersion in character, he says, explains his reclusiveness on the Willard set, his darkened trailer and the way that before his first rat scene, after much discussion with his director on how to handle it, he screamed, "I didn't expect there to be any rats!" As for his refusal to do the Back to the Future sequels and suing Steven Spielberg for using a look-alike, he says the movie contains dangerous pro-mainstream moralizing, though he refuses to amplify on what that is.

Other than the Back to the Future stuff, Glover seems normal. He wears a three-piece suit and tie just for the interview and is thoughtful, with a tremendous vocabulary. "I really had to concentrate hard for that part," he says of Willard. "It was lachrymal work, and I'm not a lachrymal person." Still, Glover's interests are pretty dark. After years of refusing to do "pro-cultural" films, he has more paying work than he has ever had before, doing Willard and both Charlie's Angels movies to finance his own very strange countercultural films. And he wouldn't compromise much even then. "When I first read the Charlie's Angels script, I didn't like it. But [the director] McG said he wanted to hear my ideas. I told him I wanted my character to be silent," he says. It may be the most brilliant solution ever to bad writing.

The trilogy of films that Glover is working on isn't quite finished, but he has shown part of What Is It? in small theaters around the country, along with a slide show and presentation. Most of the actors in the film have Down syndrome, and the images supposedly make Luis Bunuel's films look like Home Alone. He's particularly fond of his second film, written by an actor in the first who died of cystic fibrosis. Glover's CD and four novels (which are old books he cut up and drew on to create new, creepier stories) are on the fringe of even art-world culture. But he says he has learned to separate art from his acting and, more important, his interviews, in which the only art he employs is what he calls the clarity art. The clarity art seems to entail making a lot of statements like "There are things that are so sensitive that if I talked about them in a public forum, I would be looked upon badly. I would be called un-American. It would be a bad, bad thing, so it's better for me not to say it." Maybe he is a little nuts.