Danny DeVito is scrolling through his Twitter feed, looking at pictures of his own foot. He’s been sharing them under the hashtag #Trollfoot, which, for the uninitiated, is somewhere between a performance art project and a very public private joke: images and videos of the 71-year-old actor’s bare trotter held up against a variety of backdrops, gifted to his following of almost 4 million. “It’s kinda fun,” DeVito says, speaking with the Guide over lunch in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “There’s no explanation, except it’s me and my foot. And you guys will look at it!”
In a way, #Trollfoot resembles a classic DeVito character: grotesque, oddly engaging and, yes, impossible to stop looking at. Many of the diminutive actor’s most memorable creations are incorrigible, morally dubious types imbued with fizzy gusto and unabashed peculiarity. Consider his Sam Stone in dark comedy Ruthless People (1986), a millionaire businessman bent on murdering his wife (Bette Midler); Gavin D’Amato, the super-sleazy lawyer in pitch-black marital farce The War Of The Roses (1989), which DeVito also directed; or the wickedly entertaining villain the Penguin in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992).
Fast forward two decades to DeVito’s latest role as the hapless Dave Schmerz in Todd Solondz’s tragicomedy Wiener-Dog. The darkness is certainly there but the fevered whimsy is lacking. In fact, it’s alarming to see DeVito portray a character so utterly devoid of spirit. Schmerz is a New York university screenwriting professor who, when not languishing in his boxy apartment, fruitlessly attempts to hawk his screenplay to disinterested agents. His existence comprises a string of indignities: he’s warned by his doctor that he’s a “ticking time bomb” on account of his diet; he’s disciplined by a superior for his performance at work; and, most gallingly, he is publicly humiliated by a former student, now a cocky, irritatingly successful young director.
So what was it like for DeVito to play such a sad-sack? “Todd is a very serious film-maker, and I feel like I gave him what he wanted,” he says in a gruff New Jersey drawl. “A very weighted, depressed individual, pretty grim. But a lot of his movies have those elements.” He’s not wrong: Solondz’s blackly humorous filmography is riddled with grave themes, from dark sexual urges (Happiness) to teenage suicide (Palindromes). Then DeVito pauses. “Did you feel bad for Dave?” he asks, peering over his black horn-rimmed glasses. “Yes,” I say, and he looks relieved. It’s true: he is genuinely touching in a film that sometimes traffics in juvenile misanthropy, most notably in the spectacularly ill-judged finale of its last segment.
Dave’s bond with Wiener-Dog is particularly poignant. The dachshund is the constant presence across the film’s four otherwise unrelated vignettes, which include a portrait of an unhappy family, a fraught road trip undertaken by Dawn Wiener – a character from Solondz’s 1995 Welcome To The Dollhouse who went by the nickname Wiener-Dog (here played by Greta Gerwig) – and the painfully awkward reunion of a woman and her grandmother. It would be wrong to spoil the surprise here, but the unsuspecting Wiener-Dog also plays a starring role in Schmerz’s cracked plan to escape his bleak circumstances. In real life, it turns out the mutt was actually three dogs named, in stark contrast to the themes of the film, Faith, Hope and Charity. “I don’t know which one I was with, ever,” confesses DeVito. “Todd had his hands full trying to get them to sit still, but they hung out with me.”
Maybe the dogs were becalmed by DeVito’s aura of experience. He began his acting career treading the boards in the 1960s, and met his future wife, Cheers star Rhea Perlman, while appearing in an off-Broadway play in 1970. (They wed in 1982, separated in 2013, and reconciled a year later.) He made his film breakthrough as a wide-eyed asylum inmate in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) then, buoyed by the success of his recurring role as hot-tempered dispatcher Louie in sitcom Taxi, ascended to the status of Hollywood royalty. He’s starred in various blockbusters, co-produced cred-heavy hits such as Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Erin Brockovich with his company Jersey Films, and directed box-office successes such as Matilda.
Recently, though, DeVito has circled back to TV comedy, starring as Frank Reynolds in the gleefully tasteless US sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Frank is a quintessential DeVito creation: a deeply un-PC, gun-toting misanthrope who somehow manages to be weirdly likable. He’s also evidence of DeVito building a new, younger audience – see also: his appearance in One Direction’s Steal My Girl video, the widely shared footage of him wigging out to techno at Coachella festival and, of course, #Trollfoot.
Indeed, DeVito has been an enthusiastic adopter of social media, using it to support the leftwing Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. He has referred to Sanders as the US’s “Obi Wan”, and starred in one of his campaign ads. DeVito is passionate, too, about British politics, and sees Jeremy Corbyn as Sanders’s UK analogue: “Jeremy and Bernie are the only shining lights we have right now.” He describes the UK’s decision to leave the European Union as “a tragedy; a harsh thing.”
Yet it’s clear DeVito is most concerned with the current state of the US, about which his outlook hits Dave Schmerz levels of despondency. “Everything is bought and sold here, including our duopoly,” he sighs. “We have two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, and they’re both the same. Our Congress, our House of Representatives and our Senate, everything is sewed up. They’re paid by lobbyists, so it’s all about money.”
Like many Sanders supporters, DeVito is no fan of Hillary Clinton, who beat the Vermont senator to the Democratic nomination last month. When I ask whether he thinks she’d make a worthy successor to Barack Obama, he places his fork in his big bowl of salad, dramatically throws back his head and cackles mirthlessly: “Oh gosh! I’m trying to keep my mouth shut.” Yet the alternative, it seems, is too much to bear. He describes Republican candidate Donald Trump as “horrendous and shameful”. As for a Trump presidency? “[We] can’t let that happen. Can’t have that xenophobia and building walls and kicking everybody out. Do everything you can to make sure that Donald Trump doesn’t become president.
“We’re in a mourning place right now,” he continues, citing a lack of progress on gun control legislation in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, mass incarceration of people of colour, and fracking. He rails against recent attempts by many states to defund Planned Parenthood, and the (fortunately failed) efforts by the state of Texas to shutter its abortion clinics. “I don’t understand how people can be so narrow-minded,” he exclaims, exasperated.
Once DeVito gets started discussing issues of social justice, he quickly gets on a roll. “I don’t understand why we have to oppress people, why we have to move people off their lands. Why we gotta be terrified of everybody? Ease up a little bit. Come on. We can all live together. It’s a big beautiful world.” Suddenly, he adopts the nasal whine of a naysayer mocking him for his bleeding-heart sincerity. “‘You’re not gonna get by with that attitude. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. You gotta be cutthroat.’” Just as abruptly, he’s back to his earnest self. “Come on. You don’t have to be. You can do it.”
With all the politics chat, it can be easy to forget that you’re talking to an actor whom you’ve grown up watching. For me, it was his memorable partnership with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he starred in two much-loved high-concept comedies – Twins, where the pair play unlikely fraternal siblings, and Junior, in which Arnie gets pregnant – that particularly resonated. The pair considered making a sequel to that former film, Triplets, but progress has stalled. “I love those movies. We had a great time,” he beams. “Arnie was the kinda guy who would talk to you about physical fitness all the time – I always struggled with my weight – and then he’d bring you cream pies for lunch. That was Arnold. Always teasing.” So what did DeVito make of Arnie’s stint as the Republican “Governator” of California? “It was a mistake, right? I guess he had a good time.”
Has DeVito ever thought about entering politics himself? A firm “no” comes the instant reply. But he’s considering how he can make a positive impact. “Social media is letting us down,” he says. “You think you’re communicating with everybody but you’re not. You gotta get out on the street. Non-violent activism is the only way to go. It got us out of Vietnam. We’ve got the communication, we’ve got a lot of people but we don’t have a lot of education. We gotta marry the two.”
A wry smile creeps across his lips as he ventures his solution: “Maybe it’s #Trollfoot.”
Wiener-Dog is in UK cinemas from Friday 12 August
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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