When Joel Grey flew to Sweden last year to prerecord his musical number for Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark,” the actor expected to report to a high-tech studio in Stockholm. Instead, he found himself in a small hotel room in a remote part of the country where the film was shooting, sharing a microphone with the film’s elfin star and composer, Icelandic pop singer Bjork.
“My foot was in the shower,” Grey recalls, laughing. “Lars put some earphones on me. Do you hear me? Bjork was standing there in front of me performing with me. Lars was lying on the floor. The room was 8 by 10 feet.”
The makeshift session gave Grey little time to get into the groove of Bjork’s music. “The music is sort of odd--her beats and rhythms,” says Grey, during a recent interview. “Then the next thing I knew it was done. Then I said to Lars, ‘I am assuming we were going someplace else to redo this?’ And he said, No, that’s it.’ ”
Though Grey only has a cameo in “Dancer in the Dark,” his appearance in the dark, depressing musical drama that won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and which opens Friday, will make movie musical fans leap with joy. Grey shines as Oldrich Novy, a former Czech movie musical comedy star who has been worshiped by Bjork’s Selma since she was a little girl in the former Czechoslovakia. Her love for Novy is so great, Selma even believes he is her father.
Now living in the U.S., Selma is working in a factory and slowly losing her eyesight to a hereditary condition. Her son, Gene (Vladan Kostic), will also go blind if Selma doesn’t get an operation for him. The only escape Selma has from her glum, darkening existence is entering a musical fantasy world. When Selma goes on trial for murdering the man (David Morse) who stole the money for her son’s operation, Novy shows up in court to testify he isn’t her father. Instead of listening to Novy’s testimony, Selma breaks into a fantasy tap dance number with him titled, “In the Musicals 1 & 2.”
Originally, the Danish Von Trier wanted veteran movie star and hoofer Donald O’Connor for the role, according to Vincent Paterson, who co-stars as the “director” and is also the film’s choreographer.
But O’Connor wasn’t well at the time. So Von Trier approached Paterson for replacement suggestions. Paterson immediately thought of Grey, who had won both the Tony and Oscar for his divinely decadent performance as the master of ceremonies in “Cabaret.”
The youthful 68-year-old Grey leaped at the chance to work with the controversial Von Trier, known for his naturalistic Dogma 95 style of filmmaking, because he thought the director’s 1996 movie, “Breaking the Waves,” was “one of the most amazing works of art I had ever seen. Of course I said yes.”
Diving into his omelet at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant, the still wiry, almost pixieish actor says he sees a lot of similarities between Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” and “Dancer in the Dark.”
“They were both done at a very low budget,” says Grey, the son of famed klezmer cutup Mickey Katz and the father of actress Jennifer Grey. “Nobody had any idea that either of them would be successful, let alone groundbreaking.” Indeed, “Dancer in the Dark,” won top prizes for the film and Bjork at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, though its reception was decidedly mixed.
Though he’s one of Broadway’s top musical comedy stars, Grey considers himself more of a straight actor. “I’m not really a tapper--that’s the truth,” he says. In fact, he didn’t really learn how to tap-dance until he did the 1968 Broadway musical “George M!”
“Of course, I got some kind of problem with my ankle about three weeks before” shooting “Dancer in the Dark,” Grey recalls. “I went for an MRI. I said, ‘I wonder if I am going to get through this?’ I got there and it was fine.”
Because Von Trier used more than 100 small digital cameras to shoot the number, Grey says it only took a few days to complete his scene. He points out that it took months and months to film the much more traditional musical “The Fantasticks.” The movie, directed by Michael Ritchie, languished on the shelf five years until Francis Ford Coppola cut 30 minutes out of the musical and MGM/UA finally decided to release it. “The Fantasticks” is now in limited release in theaters.
“Did you see the new cut?,” Grey asks. “It’s good because the other was long and languid.”
Grey describes “Dancer in the Dark” as a “very brave” film. “I think it scares a lot of people and confuses them,” Grey says. “It’s very interesting, compelling, disturbing and crude and then so lyrical. My belief is the combination of all of these odd, disparate things is what keeps you wondering what is going to happen next.”
“Dancer in the Dark,” he adds, is really Von Trier’s fantasy of life in America. “It’s Lars’ dream,” he says. “He has never been to America.”
The past year has a been a busy one for Grey. Not only did he do “Dancer in the Dark,” he also appeared in the TNT version of “A Christmas Carol” and starred on the New York stage in Brian Friel’s “Give Me Your Answer Do!,” for which he received a Drama Desk nomination.
“That was a major high point for me,” Grey says of the play. “That was one of the most creative experiences of my life.”
He recently went to Montreal to do a cameo in Armistead Maupin’s “Further Tales of the City,” which will air on Showtime. “Armistead asked me to do the cameo,” he says. “I play Rock Hudson’s secretary.”
Coincidentally, Grey appeared with Hudson in the 1961 comedy “Come September.” “He was a lovely guy,” Grey says of Hudson. “It was just one sort of scene. I am told [the miniseries] is very explicit.”
Grey also narrated a National Public Radio documentary on his father. “There’s a lot of great people talking about his work,” Grey says, beaming. “To hear him recognized in a deeper way--everyone knew he was funny but the fact is he was brilliant. It was sort of like they were laughing so hard they never paid attention to the fact [his music/comedy] was really smart.”
Nearly 60 years ago, Grey made his acting debut at 9 years old, starring at the Cleveland Play House in the fantasy “On Borrowed Time.”
“I am not 9 anymore,” Grey says with a boyish smile. “But sometimes I wake up and I think the same way [as a child]--just full of a kind of innocence. I am so grateful that it is still there.”
Grey also recently returned from the Deauville Film Festival and a conference in Berlin for a series called “America’s Voice” sponsored by the American Academy.
For Grey’s appearance, the Berlin festival showed “Cabaret.” “Most people in the last couple of generations never saw ‘Cabaret’ except on television. I think it’s Bob Fosse’s masterpiece. I wanted to see what young Germans would make of it.
“It was packed. Some had never seen it--they were shocked by it. They wept and they laughed at themselves. So it was quite satisfying.”