Actor Danny Woodburn Talks…
Robin Williams, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and More!
Wow! I have never started an article with that word, but in this case it is a necessity! Wow is what comes to mind to describe my interview with Danny Woodburn: a phenomenal actor, comedian, and philanthropist with a heart of gold — and not to mention he’s Master Splinter in the new Michael Bay produced film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He has been on Seinfeld, performed as a stand-up comedian all over the world, and he recently starred in a movie called The Identical, which hits theaters September 5. A few years ago Danny starred in Death to Smoochy with Robin Williams, and Danny was kind enough to open up about his thoughts and emotions regarding the tragic loss of Robin.
But first, before we dive into that heavy subject, Danny shares some fascinating behind-the-scenes details about what it’s like to step into the shoes (paws?) of the most famous martial arts rodent in the history of Mutant Ninjas:
Tell us about your experience in the Ninja Turtles movie. What was it like to play Splinter?
It was a very interesting process. They started the whole thing with a big scan of your head with lasers, and then from that they build a precise take-point mask that goes over your face and within that mask there are holes that are drilled, and then they put on different dots, different colored dots to allocate where the computer picks up the certain part or muscle of my face — where the eyes are, where the smile lines are, all of that sort of thing — it is created, and that way when I am on-screen and being filmed, the computers can find those colored dots and create Splinter’s face out of that. It is quite remarkable, and I have a helmet molded to my very own head, and it has on it two cameras that sit out about two or three inches from your face, and they film in 3-D because there is a camera to the left and a camera to the right, and they film what your expressions are throughout the course of your work. And from that it is converted to the rat you see on-screen. [laughs]
Will there be a Ninja Turtles sequel?
There is talk of it. If they would like to work with me again they have that option. So we will have to wait and see. I think it is a little too early to say yes or no about any of it, but with the opening weekend the way it was it looks promising.
You worked with Robin Williams, what was he like?
Robin was a really terrific guy: genuine, good-natured, sweet, and generous, both as an actor and as a person. It is hard to sort of wrap your head around his loss. You know, for me, I worked with him for a few months on a film a few years back, and those memories are still very strong in my mind, and of course everyone who is 20 years or older sort of grew up watching his movies and loving his performances. He was an iconic comic performer, sort of one of the last greats, probably, I would say, the greatest comedian of our generation. I think a lot of people all over the world have shed some tears over his loss. I think a lot of people would wish he would know that and wish that something else would have occurred other than this — that maybe he could have found the strength to reach out to somebody when he was so loved by so many. Working with him in Death to Smoochy was probably my career highlight, being on that film and working with somebody like Robin whom I grew up watching and idolizing and saying I want to be like that guy, as far back as Mork and Mindy and even before that on Happy Days for one episode. A lot of people don’t know that, but Mork and Mindy was a spin-off from Happy Days. He played his Mork character on a late episode of Happy Days, and that is where the character came from.
What is the difference performing as a stand-up comedian vs. performing a theatrical production?
Stand-up is entirely you. If you are truthful it is everything — your life and your philosophy up for the world to see. [When] playing a character on-stage or playing a character on-screen, you are embodying another person entirely, and so there is a certain amount of vulnerability with both jobs, but at the end of the day with stand-up what you are seeing up there is the person not the character, and so I think the judgment of your audience is harsher and maybe more scary [laughs] as a performer because you know they are not judging your character or your acting ability, they are judging you. My first time on stage I remember it. It was February of 1990, that was my first time doing stand-up on stage. I think if I didn’t do as well as I did on that night I might not have stuck to it. But I stuck to it, and I did it for 18-19 years. I haven’t done it in a few years. I still do some hosting gigs, but I haven’t actually done my act in a long time. My wife is pushing me toward getting back into it. I am still a good joke writer, that’s what she tells me. It is such a fearful medium, and to be able to overcome that fear has given me a great amount of confidence in all of the other aspects of my performance. As far as being an actor or being a performer of a character on stage or on film or television, I have less nerves about any of that now. I can get in front of an audience and do just about anything now because of my stand-up experience.
Can you tell us about the film The Identical?
Yes, this September release the film. I worked on it a year and a half ago, maybe two years, with Ray Liotta and Ashley Judd and a newcomer Blake Rayne who is a Las Vegas singer/performer — he sort of does a lot of shows sort of centered around Elvis, and this film is called The Identical. It is a film about twins separated at birth in the ’30s, and one guy comes up as like an Elvis type character. He grows up to become a nationally famous rock and roll sensation of the ’50s and ’60s, and the brother is a son of a preacher who desires the same kind of life because the singing is in their blood, and it is sort of that struggle for the young guy who didn’t get the fame. I play a character in the movie who actually acts as an impersonator of the lead character, and the brother stumbles upon me in a bar. We have a little heart to heart, and then I get up and perform one of the songs. It is a very funny bit I think. I have some postings out there of me in this ’60s garb like psychedelic long hair and outfits that are very funny.
And some of the movie was shot in Nashville?
Yes, we shot in Nashville and we shot in a little small town maybe 45 minutes just outside of Nashville. You drive through and the town looks like the car dealerships are still selling the 1957 Buick. But of course when I was there everyone was dressed that way, so that was my own interpretation of it. It was my first time having shrimp grits too, which was quite an experience. I could never eat like this because I might be dead in like a week. Not on a regular basis, but man these grits were good.
You are a very big advocate for performers with disabilities; could you explain your role within the Screen Actors Guild?
I am a co-chair of the performers with disabilities committee of which I have been involved with 15 or more years, and I have been involved with the negotiations with the AMPTP on behalf of those performers, and I try and get myself out in the world to bring arts and performing arts to people with disabilities by teaching classes or speaking at events — also just as an advocate for the disabled in general. I am working with the ADA Legacy project for the 25th annual anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act next year, and I am sort of their first official ambassador, as they say, for that, and I am on the board of directors for the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which is a festival dedicated to people and issues [that deal with] disability.
What are your thoughts on God and Christianity?
Well, I feel that is a very private thing. And my general feeling about religion is that any way it hurts somebody else because you feel you believe something stronger than someone else, I don’t feel that that is godly. So my feeling on it is that it is a very private thing, and that people should keep it so.