Since the late Seventies, Wallace Shawn has appeared as an actor in more than 100 movies and television shows, written plays that have been performed on and off Broadway, and been largely responsible for one of the most famous avant-garde films of the Eighties, “My Dinner With Andre.” Next month, the writer and actor — whose father was William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker from 1952 to 1987 — is releasing an anthology of his musings, “Essays,” through Haymarket Books.

WWD: About two-thirds of your book is devoted to the war in Iraq, the conflict in Israel and issues surrounding U.S. imperialism. You even say that you are not truly proud to be an American, and see nationalism as something akin to pornography. Does there exist any possibility that life in America is — while not without its faults — a lot better than a lot of other places?

This story first appeared in the August 24, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Wallace Shawn: Well, I must say a hundred times in the book that our lives are absolutely terrific. I’m not complaining about our lives. I’m complaining about other people’s lives. The point I’m making is what price are other people paying for our happiness? And I’m critical of our life in the sense that we have wonderful experiences, but we don’t have power over our own affairs. I’m a member of the public just like you, and we don’t have power over our own destiny.

WWD: There is a sense in the book about the powerlessness of individuals in America to effect change. I found your arguments about imperialism and nationalism very easy to follow, but this notion that everything is out of our control I found somewhat confusing.

W.S.: Well, the situation is hard to describe. If the American public would rise up and demand the end of a war in Afghanistan, we could probably have that. If the American public would rise up and say we would like a single-payer health care system, we could have it. So it’s not quite the same kind of dictatorship as — to take a clichéd example — North Korea. And yet, because such a large proportion of the people believe the propaganda that is fed to them, that type of demand does not take place.

WWD: Has anything about the election of Barack Obama made you more optimistic about the future?

W.S.: I was quite thrilled that Obama was elected, not because of optimism about the future but because it indicated that the American public was fed up with the Bush years. It told the world that there was more to us than Bush. And electing a person of color to be president was not something that a lot of people would have expected. It showed something again that upset hostile clichés about America. And how great.

WWD: I sense a but coming.

W.S.: So far, the new President has not actually done things that are as dramatically different from what Bush would have done, as some people expected. There’s something about him that makes everyone think, including me, “well, really he believes exactly everything I believe and really he would like to do exactly all the things that I would like him to do.” As almost everybody thinks it, it can’t be true in everybody’s case. So far he’s done hundreds of things I don’t approve of, or even violently dislike, and he hasn’t done things that I was deeply thrilled by, although he’s said many things that I’ve been quite thrilled by.

WWD: Are you more often disappointed in people than pleased by them?

W.S.: I’m not often disappointed. Marilyn Monroe was constantly getting excited about people and thinking that they were fantastic, marvelous people that were going to be different than anyone that she’d ever met. Then they would say one or two wrong things and hurt her feelings and she would go into a despair. I don’t think I’m like that. I’m more frequently pleased than disillusioned.

WWD: So you expect little from people and are then pleasantly surprised when they exceed your low expectations?

W.S.: I don’t expect the German or Polish neighbor to hide the Jewish family in their basement and risk being killed. I don’t think most people would do that. I wish they would, but most people don’t. And if I hear of the family that did take in the Jewish family and hide them and feed them, then I’m pleased and I’m moved.

WWD: In the last year and a half you’ve been on “Gossip Girl,” “The L Word,” “Law & Order,” “Life on Mars” and “ER.” Not bad for a guy pushing 70. Do you say no to much?

W.S.: First of all, I’m 65; I’m not “pushing 70.” I used to be offered a broader variety of things, so I said no to more. But I have my own sense of what is morally or politically nauseating to me. I’ve turned down a lot of things that hit that line of too nauseating. Otherwise, as far as something being too “ridiculous,” I do it. I’ve done some things that are very silly and idiotic, but I felt that I was not making the world a worse place by doing them. Some people say “Gossip Girl” inculcates bad values in people, but when I look at it, those buttons are not pushed. I don’t ever think, “this scene offends me.”

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