Five Favorite Films

Five Favorite Films with Kevin Clash

Plus, the man behind Elmo talks about working with Jim Henson and bringing his characters to life.

by | November 4, 2011 | Comments

It’s hard not to envy Kevin Clash’s day job: he gets to build puppets, perform silly voices and create characters for the entertainment of millions of kids around the world. The subject of Constance Marks’ acclaimed documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Clash is a key player in the Jim Henson team, serving as a perforrmer, producer and creative consultant on the Muppets and Sesame Street, where his impossibly popular little red avatar continues to enthrall young audiences. But he’s more than just Elmo’s engine. As the documentary reveals, Clash’s career as a puppeteer goes way back to his childhood, when he was entertaining neighborhood kids as a peer and later scouted to perform on national TV shows while still in his teens. A mentorship with his idol, the late Jim Henson, would follow, with Clash performing characters in Henson productions like Labyrinth and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles while developing Sesame Street‘s Elmo — a second-string fuzzball who would soon, to everyone’s surprise, became a superstar. We spoke with Clash recently as he was en route to New York’s Muppet workshop, where he reflected on his experience working with Henson, how he creates his characters, and that time Elmo testified before Congress. But first, we asked him to name his five favorite films…

The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985; 88% Tomatometer)



I think I would say The Color Purple. It pulls you in. When the characters are written and directed so well that your heart goes out to all of them, even the ones that are supposed to be the villains, that’s a good movie to me. I really connected to Steven [Spielberg] in that movie, having the kids, you know, play it out with the whole frog scene — that was wonderful. I mean, just so clever. There was even a little clip of Sesame Street in it. [Laughs]

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982; 98% Tomatometer)



Man… just magic. I remember a friend coming back from seeing it and him saying, “You know, E.T. could have been built out of a sock, the story was so good.” It just had the heart, and the excitement, from beginning to end; it’s something that you wanna go to the movies for.

As a puppeteer, what did you think of the way they created and performed E.T.?

Beautifully. I mean, I knew the ins and outs of what they were doing and I thought it was beautiful. It was just enough to believe, you know. Just enough to believe. I know that Spielberg and Lucas, you know… you look back at stuff that you’ve done and you say, “Wow, wouldn’t it have been great to have that technology that we have now to make it work,” but you know what? It worked in the way they wanted it to in that movie and they did a beautiful job, with just enough movement and just enough expression to believe that character.

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011; 93% Tomatometer)



Midnight in Paris, wow. A very imaginative film. Woody Allen at his best. Just wonderful. I wanna go and really get caught up in a movie when I go, and that one definitely did it for me.

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991; 96% Tomatometer)



The Silence of the Lambs… You know, I never thought I would like a thriller but it was so phenomenally directed, and just suspenseful.

Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010; 99% Tomatometer)



I’d have to pick Toy Story 3. It hit the heart, the way it should, that movie — reminiscing about the transition from child to kind of a man. That transition, with toys and stuff, that was wonderful. When he’s saying goodbye to his toys for the last time, that was wonderful.

Next, Clash talks about his experience working with Jim Henson, how he creates characters, and the cultural phenomenon of Elmo.

 

One of the things that comes through in Being Elmo is this sense of Jim Henson’s continuing legacy. What do you think he’d make of things now?

Oh, I think he’d be very excited and happy. For Sesame Street to be going on and to be the icon that it is, and that it has been, and also the buzz about the new movie [The Muppets] — that the characters are maybe having another rejuvenation. I think he’d be very, very excited about that. Because everybody grew up watching it; it’s kind of like Sesame Street. Everybody’s excited about seeing their friends again, because they haven’t seen them in a while.

What was your experience like working with Jim for the first time on Labyrinth?

That was my first movie, so I was blown away. I was in London working on it for, like, eight months, and it was so much fun. It was wonderful. And to work with him, not just performing a character, performing a puppet, but actually being a part of the production of the movie, and working closely with him and with his son Brian Henson, it was a dream come true. It was amazing. I learned so much from that movie.

The behind-the-scenes footage we see in the documentary shows Jim making you do a scene over and over, refusing to accept the possibility that it couldn’t be done. Was he a perfectionist in the way he worked?

[Laughs] In certain ways when he wanted something, he knew it could work — so he wanted us to keep going with it. Was he a perfectionist? In certain ways, yes. Definitely. But it was about that vision that he had, and that’s why he was so successful at what he did.

What’s the one thing you remember him telling you that you’ll never forget?

Well, I think it’s “Just have fun and be silly with it; never take it seriously. You know, what we do, we take seriously, but when you put the puppet on, have a good time. The Muppets are meant to be rebellious, so that’s what they should do.”

I think my favorite performance of yours is Splinter, in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Oh I had a wonderful time with that. I would love to do him again.

Were you aware that you were making this pop phenomenon when you were working on it?

You know what: looking at the dailies — yes. We were blown away. We were saying, “The audience is gonna go crazy over this.” It was really exciting. We didn’t know how huge it would be, but we saw it in the rushes, you know; we saw that it was something really cool. Definitely on Ninja Turtles one.

What’s it like performing a character like Splinter compared to, say, Elmo? Do you employ the same basic principles?

Well, you’re creating a character. Elmo to me is like this little, three-and-a-half-year-old kid. With Splinter, I thought about Pat Morita from Karate Kid, and then I thought about {Edward] James Olmos, who was in Miami Vice, and how cool he was — and I combined those two, to bring life to this 75-year-old rat. [Laughs] So that was my direction for him. He wasn’t necessarily there to make people laugh; he was the father figure to these four teenagers, and that’s the way I played him. So it was a lot of fun to sink my teeth into. It was more of an acting situation with that character, rather than — well, a playful one, like Elmo.

But he does finally get to make a joke at the end, and it’s unquestionably the greatest final line in the history of cinema.

Yes. [Laughs]

 

Elmo was an almost-forgotten secondary character on Sesame Street, who veteran puppeteers like Richard Hunt had given up on. So what was it about him that made you pick him up and say, “I can do something with this character”?

The challenge for me was, if Richard couldn’t do anything for him, well what could I do? But then I thought about it; I went and spent some time with my mom and her daycare kids, and started to check them out and see, you know, the different ways they move. One thing about kids is they go through the motions in seconds — one moment they can be crying, then laughing the next — and so I played that into Elmo to a certain extent, and just picked up different mannerisms. So when I went in [to the studio] the next evening I was a little bit more prepared, rather than just getting thrown this character into the season. That’s how I got his niche.

So Elmo is primarily based on those kids?

Yeah, and also what they always wanted. What they truly wanted was hugs and kisses and play-dates and laughing. [Laughs]. That’s where I got all that from.

Do you think kids respond to him because he’s one of them?

I think that’s why he’s so popular — because they relate to him, as themselves.

When Elmo became such a huge sensation, was it something you expected?

No, not at all. [Laughs] I was pleasantly surprised. It was really exciting because you wanna go in and find your niche with the show, with these iconic characters — I mean, Big Bird was on the cover of TIME magazine. So to try and get a character that can work alongside of these unbelievable characters that were now celebrities in their own right, to actually have a character that gets that popular… man, it changed my life.

Was there any professional jealously on the set between the characters?

[Laughs] No! Not at all, with anyone. We don’t write the scripts. [Laughs] We have scripts, but we play off them. Big Bird would be like, “Look! Another friend!”

So there are no deleted reels of puppet diva tantrums?

No! [Laughs] Not at each other.

Would you ever consider passing the Elmo character on, training an apprentice?

Well that’s definitely a possibility. I think the show will be on forever, you know — just as long as there are kids being born. If it ever came to that point [of passing the character on], of course.

Are there kids out there who come up to you and perform his voice?

No, no, they’re coming up and wanting to say “Hello” and hug their friend. [Laughs] They never really do that — but sometimes adults do. [Laughs]

Elmo is the only puppet to have testified before Congress — what was that like?

It was for NAM, which is a wonderful musical instrument organization that tries to put musical instruments back in schools — that’s the first thing that goes, unfortunately, the art in schools. And so Elmo was there testify that he would love to have instruments in schools when gets there. It was a lot of fun, because I enjoyed doing something that has never been done before — you would never think to see a Sesame Street character in Washington testifying. It was funny. [Laughs]

And why not, right.

Yeah. I remember seeing that wonderful clip on YouTube of Fred Rogers [host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood] testifying about the importance of PBS and I remember the beginnings of it, where the guy’s saying [sarcastically] “Okay Rogers,” and then of course Fred started and melted this guy — and then he got it; he understood what the importance was. That’s the only other time that I saw someone from children’s programming in Washington testifying. [Laughs] Elmo definitely walked in Fred’s footsteps, to make sure that they got it twice.


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow..

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