August 17, 1991
by Tom Provenzio
After being exposed to the delightful antics of Bill and Ted in the movies, it is a strange juxtaposition to meet the man who created "Bill," the bubble-headed blonde half of the San Dimas duo. Though he still looks nearly a decade younger than his 28 years (sic, Alex was 26), the moment Alex Winter begins to speak, all illusions are burst. No more examples of Bill & Ted’s private lexicon but an articulate discussion of the film industry and Winter’s place in it.
Winter has been acting professionally on stage since his pre-teen years. His fascination, though, had always been filmmaking. His early 20s concentrated on directing and writing films at New York University and he paired with fellow student Tom Stern for a series of short comic films. These films have garnered some attention and Winter’s life work is centered there, though his acting career has taken some auspicious curves.
Winter loves acting; he would just prefer to direct and write. The success of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure might well have changed his priorities to take advantage of a newly-won persona to advance his Hollywood star career. But for Winter, the best part of the film’s success has been to boost his visibility inside the industry to help his ambitions for a production team that produced the six-part The Idiot Box for MTV. The partners are currently working on a feature script, with team member Tim Burns making up a third.
Does he feel the clout from his high-profile films?
"Sure. Definitely. It has given me accessibility. It was very helpful in getting the MTV show on. Once we did that and proved ourselves as directors it opened other doors for us. That was definitely a big help. We had to prove ourselves, we couldn’t come up empty handed once we got a chance."
Currently Winter is heavily into writing the new film and making a deal with 20th Century Fox. Still, a certain amount of time has been spent helping with the massive publicity campaign for the release of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, which reunites Winter with Keanu Reeves and George Carlin.
Though Reeves and Winter are miles apart in age, behavior and direction, they realized they were a great team at the first meeting.
"Keanu and I auditioned together for the first time in the very early stages. Something clicked. The comedy was there. We were both improvising a lot. A lot of stuff we took with us to the screen: our sense of goofy comedy, our love of improv. The little studying I had done was with improv people. Most of my learning to act was going theatre. But I was a real big fan of Second City and that school of acting; so was Keanu. That’s what clicked. We created this patter, this dialogue that went back and forth.
"It was one of the more satisfying auditions I ever had, given the fact I had never met the guy before. Most times when you go into an audition with an actor you never met, the chemistry is not there. It can be very grueling and unsatisfying. Some auditions can be satisfying even if you don’t get the part. It was a blast. I really enjoyed it. Then they went through the painstaking process when they paired us up with all these other people. It was a long time before he and I were back together."
It was the student films made with Tom Stern that indirectly led Winter to the part of Bill. The films were "cartoony" and an executive from Warner Bros. became a fan of the NYU student projects. This executive was a good friend of the writer of the first Bill & Ted - though Warner Bros. turned down the script. When the executive heard that DeLaurentis was making the film, he introduced Winter to the casting people.
Since the first film was released, both Reeves and Winter have had a great deal of success in their own ways. Reeves’ acting career has been soaring, while Winter and his company, Stern / Winter Productions, have been making great strides. Still, when he and Reeves were back on the set, nothing seemed to have changed.
"The thing about the two of us is we have remained pretty much the same people. He has gone off and really grown as an actor. I feel I have grown as well. My performance is different than it was the last time - just because time has gone by and I have been able to look back at the movie and see what worked and what didn’t. We both came to this one with a much better sense of how to make them funny.
"It is funnier across the board. The script is funnier. It is less dry than the first movie - much sillier and rambunctious, which I think is good. The theme is much grander which also makes them much funnier."
Is there much of the improvisation that marked their initial auditions in the final version of the films?
"A little. A lot came from the script and a lot came from just the way we talk to each other; the dialogue and manner of two friends who are so close that they have their own manner of speaking to each other. That came out of improv, the way we related to each other. Even off camera we relate to each other in the same kind of goofy way."
Fortunately for Winter he has not been typecast in his Bill role and his work on MTV has been too strange to typecast.
"I have been left alone on the dude market. And the characters I play in The Idiot Box are absurd. I don’t think anyone will send me scripts to play a flying gimp from outerspace. My favorite character, one that comes totally out of improv, is Willard Schreck. He is a pitiful social outcast who works the graveyard shift at a Handimart - like a 7/11 - a staunch conservative malcontent who subsists on a diet of beefstix and caffeine pills. He rails against society all night long to a security camera as if it is a talk show. That was a really satisfying character, definitely my favorite thing on the show."
Winter has worked a lot more than he has studied. Improvisation was a natural part of his being for as long as he can remember.
"I just did it. It was something I did as a kid just from watching various comedians that I liked. My favorite comedians were like Peter Sellers, Alec Guiness, Peter Cook, the British guys, Spike Mulligan. Monty Python was a huge influence. Then Saturday Night Live."
Winter was born in England where both of his parents were in a modern dance company. Winter studied a bit of modern and tap dancing. He never wanted to go on with it, though he loved the movement: "I always like the physicality, especially of acting. Something that also drew me to improv was for far you could take things physically; it was something I loved to explore."
Winter remembers the joy of being around the dance company in England and later around the theatre community in St. Louis where his mother headed the dance department at Washington University.
"I was raised around artists. I became attached at a very young age to theatre and acting and film. Buster Keaton was my first big hero. That’s what I wanted to do. Not necessarily just be a comedian, but wanted to make films."
He got experience very early. "Whenever the theatre department needed a kid they would pluck me out of wherever I was and stick me in a Renaissance costume and put me on stage. I thought it was a lot of fun. The more physical it was, the more fun I had."
The fun turned into some rather arduous work but work that he always appreciated. He moved with his mother to New York City. There he became a very busy young actor. He played Anna’s son Louis in The King and I with Yul Brynner for months on Broadway and on the road. He followed that with two years as John in Peter Pan. If there is any regret, it was that the constant work kept him from actually studying the craft, though he still thinks experience is the best school.
"I was working with a lot of great actors. Especially doing off-Broadway stuff. I just observed. I knew what I liked and what I didn’t like. I would just observe those I like. And I read anything I could get my hands on. All the theory. Keanu opened me up to a whole bunch of books on the set. He has a good sense of things. Whatever you can digest, digest it. It’s knowing what you want to do with your acting or filmmaking or whatever.
"Acting should be a natural process. If the character makes sense to you, then your mouth is going to open and if you are in character the words will come out and sound right. From there you can manipulate it one way or another. Everything has to make sense. You can’t have a question about anything in your head when you are working with the script. Ambiguity is really death to an actor."
Now that he is moving in the direction he wants, Winter has left theatre behind.
"It was a great training ground but I never found it as satisfying as film. I like the scope of it and the imagination of film. It is a great tool for the imagination because you can create any world you want and, for me, you don’t have the same suspension of disbelief that you have on stage where you have to get past the proscenium. If you do it right you can really suck people into a three-dimensional world."
Working with Tom Stern and Tim Burns on The Idiot Box was extremely satisfying. It also brought the writers a lot of attention. The script they are working on now is all-consuming.
"We are a good team. We have been working together since we went through film school together. So we have a very similar idea of how to make movies. We make things that we write, we do not do things on assignment. If your vision is common you are not going to be stepping on the other guy’s toes."
Stern and Winter will also be team-directing, though much of Winter’s time will be spent in front of the camera as the film’s star. "God knows there are so many tasks to perform directing that once we get to the actual shooting period, which is the most grueling, we have no problem dividing those chores."
The pair met at NYU film school. Stern finished, but Winter left after the first year. The official reason he left was to play a role in The Lost Boys, but Winter was not happy at NYU and never intended to return.
"I was pretty disillusioned. I didn’t like the way the teacher’s taught. I thought they were very pessimistic and bitter. I had to cloister myself and just see the movies that I liked. I literally just didn’t stop making films the whole time I was there. I just kept shooting one after another. I firmly believe in the process of learning by doing.
"Personally I believe that being a good artist means finding yourself and finding your take on things. It can be very difficult being taught what a theory is. In school, teachers have a very strident idea of what the right way is. That can be damaging. Having gone and dropped out of film school rather cynically, I honestly believe that the way to go is to digest books and get a sense of what you do well and where your abilities lie and attack them individually."
Winter is far from jaded but having been in the business has given him certain wisdom.
"It has given me a chance to be real single-minded. I have gotten a lot of the garbage out of the way; the expectations or ego problems in dealing with other people in the industry. You get such a well-rounded sense of things, it allows you to kick back and do your job."
Did his constant work on and off-Broadway keep him from having what so many people insist on calling a normal childhood?
"Nah! I was a punk kid like everyone else. I really did balance it. Never took it that seriously."
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