For Larry David, 'Whatever' Works Well Enough The Seinfeld co-creator gets his first star turn in Woody Allen's new comedy. Playing the part of a misanthropic genius, David catches the eye of a young and beautiful Mississippian (Evan Rachel Wood).
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For Larry David, 'Whatever' Works Well Enough

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For Larry David, 'Whatever' Works Well Enough

For Larry David, 'Whatever' Works Well Enough

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Woody Allen and Larry David - world-class talents, world-class kvetchers. Mr. Allen's just come out with his 40th movie, "Whatever Works." It's quirky, charming, sometimes a little irritating, and of course it's set in New York City. But the star this time is a man whose almost as famous for all of those qualities, Larry David - the man who created "Seinfeld" and his own HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

In "Whatever Works," Mr. David plays Boris Yellnikoff, a physics professor, whom everyone says was once nominated for the Nobel Prize, but he doesn't seem to teach very much. He does kvetch a lot, and earns the devotion of an (unintelligible) young and beautiful Mississippi immigrant to New York, played by Evan Rachel Wood.

(Soundbite of movie, "Whatever Works")

Mr. LARRY DAVID (Actor): (as Boris Yellnikoff) People always (unintelligible) it's the American way.

Ms. EVAN RACHEL WOOD (Actor): (as Melodie St. Ann Celestine) Our (unintelligible) like to focus on the positive things about America.

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) Yeah, except the blacks were kidnapped from Africa, chained in ships.

Ms. WOOD: (as Melodie) Well, my daddy says that America bends over backwards for the blacks because we feel guilty and it's crazy.

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) Oh, yeah, your daddy. Your daddy's a cracker. He's a bigot moron. Daddy…

Ms. WOOD: (as Melodie) Well, you're probably right 'cause you're a genius, but, you know, for a little Mississippi girl like me, this is really exciting. So what kind of genius are you anyway?

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) What kind?

Ms. WOOD: (as Melodie) Yeah, like what are you a genius at?

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) Quantum mechanics.

Ms. WOOD: (as Melodie) Yeah, but what field? Like, music?

SIMON: Larry David joins us from New York. Mr. David, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. DAVID: Did you call me a kvetch?

SIMON: Oh, I might have.

Mr. DAVID: God.

SIMON: Who writes this stuff? I have no idea.

Mr. DAVID: Well, Woody Allen wrote that. That particular thing he prepared.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Listen, what does she see in Boris Yellnikoff, this beautiful young woman?

Mr. DAVID: God knows. I think it's referenced in the movie that he's a genius.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. DAVID: She says in the movie that she never thought she would wind up with a genius.

SIMON: Ah, so she feels this - well, she's very impressed by that.

Mr. DAVID: Yes.

SIMON: Well, she's nice to him in a way. Nice and provisional and devoted to him.

Mr. DAVID: I suppose maybe when you're living with someone, maybe he has some good qualities that emerge. I don't know what they are but…

SIMON: Let me ask - what did Woody Allen say to you to get you to do this part?

Mr. DAVID: First, I was just asked if I was interested in being in a Woody Allen movie, if I was available. And I said sure. I thought it was going to be, like, two or three days. You know, you come in and you do it and then you leave. And then the next day I got a script with a cover letter from him. I opened the script and there I see Boris, the character Boris on page one. And then I go to page 50 and he's on page 50. Then I go to the end and he's got a speech at the end. I go, oh my God, what is this?

So I called him up on the phone. I said, you know, are you nuts? I don't think I can do this. There's so much material to memorize, I hadn't really done anything like this before. You know, on the show I improvise; I make up my own stuff. It was a big challenge for me. I don't care for challenges. I don't know if you know me or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I know you well enough to know that.

Mr. DAVID: Yes. They're not my cup of tea, challenges. But he kind of talked me off the ledge. He said, no, I think you could do it. He said it'll be a stretch for you but nothing that you can't handle. So I said, all right, consider yourself warned.

SIMON: How did you find it to work with Woody Allen?

Mr. DAVID: It was really a breeze. He's very easy. He gives you a lot of freedom to do anything you want. If you're not comfortable with some of the words, he lets you change them. He's wide open to anything. I tried to improvise once, and Evan Rachel Wood looked at me like I was insane. She goes -I hadn't done it before, she didn't really know where - you know, she missed the cue, she didn't know what it was. So I decided, no, I'm just going to stick to the script from now on.

SIMON: You know, you not only have a speech at the end, I think - having seen at least 30 of Woody Allen's 40 films - I think it's one of the best speeches I've ever heard in a Woody Allen film.

Mr. DAVID: It is a beautiful speech, quite moving. If someone else had delivered it, you might have been moved to tears, actually.

SIMON: I was moved to tears anyway with your delivery. Do you like Boris Yellnikoff? Do you have any feeling for him?

Mr. DAVID: I do like him. One of my notes throughout the movie from Woody Allen was that I was being too nice. Like, I would do this scene with a little girl trying to teach her chess. You know, I would be a little gruff with her but try and show some sweetness so the audience would know I'm talking to a little child. But at the end of the scene, invariably he'd come up to me - no, no, you're being too nice. He's too nice. Don't be so nice to her.

SIMON: We don't have, alas, that clip but something that might summarize Boris's view of life. He's complaining about that all-American seasonal favorite, "It's a Wonderful Life."

(Soundbite of movie, "Whatever Works")

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) What if the guardian angel had saved Jimmy Stewart, and Jimmy Stewart was the guy who smoked in bed and he lived and caused the fire that killed 60 people? So - how about that? Is everybody's life still worth saving, even if it's Christmas? Come on, seriously.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) You must have a very dim view of the human race.

Mr. DAVID: (as Boris) Oh, the human race. They had to install automatic toilets in public restrooms because people can't be entrusted to flush. Come on, flush the toilet, they can't even flush a toilet.

SIMON: Has Boris Yellnikoff been hurt so deeply in his life? Is that what this is all about?

Mr. DAVID: I don't know, but I agree, I agree with him about the toilet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID: I mean, seriously. Can't we flush a toilet? Come on.

SIMON: You know what I was told once by a municipal engineer in Chicago? That they installed those automatic toilets because there were people who, yes, didn't flush at all, and then there were people - and I'm just guessing, Mr. David…

Mr. DAVID: I'm afraid to hear what you're going to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: …that there were people who would flush four and five times, and that was just using far too much water.

Mr. DAVID: Oh, wow, wow. OCD people.

SIMON: Yes. Thanks to my old high school friend, Bob Erkenswig(ph), municipal engineer in Chicago.

Mr. DAVID: You know what? I'm so glad I did this interview.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You know, we not only ask you questions, we give you answers, don't we?

Mr. DAVID: Boy, that's fabulous. That's coming out of me tonight at some cocktail party, I can tell you that. You know why, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. DAVID: I'm not going to mention you either. I'm just going to take credit for it.

SIMON: I wondered to what degree do you - do you think you have to identify with a role to play it?

Mr. DAVID: I don't know. This is the first character that I've really played outside of myself, and I did identify with it. But I played a devout Christian on my show and that wasn't that hard.

SIMON: I remember…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, for a few lines.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID: Yeah.

SIMON: So you are playing yourself on "Curb Your Enthusiasm." That's not just a character with your name?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID: I'm playing - yes, I am playing myself. I'm playing the part of myself that doesn't censor my thoughts.

SIMON: Are you interested in more acting roles now?

Mr. DAVID: Yeah, actually. Anything to avoid writing interests me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, you know, here is your opportunity to declare that you've always wanted to be Macbeth or something.

Mr. DAVID: No. That I'm not quite interested in.

SIMON: That last speech, which is very affecting - and I don't want to give away any plot points - but it, you know, essentially says, you know what, we're not always in control, are we? A lot of life is surprise and happenstance and learning how to make the best of it.

I wonder if that speech set off any thoughts in your mind about how lucky you've been in your life, how unlucky others have been. Anything like that?

Mr. DAVID: Every time I go through a toll booth and I see somebody working there, I think that I'm lucky. I generally feel sorry for everybody, including myself, even though I have been lucky. There's a tremendous element of luck in show business, especially when it comes to acting. There are great actors out there who nobody knows about, and probably have had to quit because they couldn't make a living and it's really a shame.

I don't think that's true, however, for standup comedians, because I think when you're doing comedy, you're up on stage, the feedback is immediate, people are able to discern who's good and who's not a lot easier than it when it comes to acting.

SIMON: If you do get another acting role any time soon, would you like to play, well, would you like to play a real romantic lead?

Mr. DAVID: Scott, I don't know if anybody wants to see that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID: Honestly.

SIMON: Mr. David, a real pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. DAVID: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Larry David, he's in Woody Allen's latest film, "Whatever Works." It opens next weekend in New York and Los Angeles. And to see clips from the film, you can come to our Web site,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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