Films

Mike's English mayhem

Brian D. Johnson May 5 1997
Films

Mike's English mayhem

Brian D. Johnson May 5 1997

Mike's English mayhem

Films

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

He is a Carnaby Street caricature, a mod playboy from England’s Swinging Sixties. He has the warm-custard accent, the crushed-velvet bellbottoms, the horn-rimmed glasses. And the bad teeth. He is Austin Powers, fashion photographer by day, secret agent by night. Gadding about town in a sports coupe painted with a Union Jack, he lives for the moment and saves the world in his spare time. Groovy chicks are all just part of his personal upholstery. Cryogenically frozen in 1967, and defrosted 30 years later, Austin Powers is a goofy anachronism—a freezer bag of free love.

His idea of an effective pickup line is: “Let’s shag, baby!” Transported from an era when promiscuity was cute and drugs were cool, he wakes up in a world of safe sex, group therapy and female empowerment.

By turns silly and smart, sophomoric and sophisticated, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is the latest inspired creation from Canadian comic wizard Mike Myers. The 33-year-old Toronto native, who rose to star§ dom on TV’s Saturday Night Live, is best known for the d 1992 hit movie Wayne’s World, based on an SNL sketch, i which spawned a popular sequel and a lexicon of catchI phrases—from the exclamatory “schwing” to the habit ^ of punctuating statements with an ironic “not.” Austin Powers, mod dandy, hails from a different end of the pop spectrum than Wayne Campbell, heavy-metal head-banger. But the swinger and the schwinger have much in common. Like Wayne, Austin is an arrested adolescent who walks with a swagger and talks in lingo (“shagadelic, baby!”). He, too, worships women as babes—and gets away with it because he is such an unwitting nerd, lovable in spite of himself.

But while Wayne’s character sprung directly from Myers’s own youth in the donut shops and strip malls of suburban Scarborough, Austin Powers was synthesized from stuff he watched on TV as a teenager. “When a movie was coming on,” he recalls, “you’d circle the TV guide and prep the room. You’d go buy Dominion brand potato chips and Grand Prix cola, and some Cherry Blossoms, and you’d watch these movies. Kelly’s Heroes. The Party. Casino Royale. Any of the James Bond movies. Or the Matt Helm movies. It was the comfort food of cable.”

Myers, who now lives in Los Angeles, is home for the weekend, visiting Toronto to promote Austin Powers. He has agreed to meet for dinner at a Japanese restaurant across the street from his hotel. It is a chilly Sunday night, and the place is eerily deserted. Myers shows up dressed in black, and swathed in a scarf, which stays on for the entire meal. He has a lingering cold that has graduated to asthma, he explains. “I’ve never had asthma, and now I’ve got one of

those little respirator things.” He orders the beef teriyaki—“I’m severely hypoglycemic, and they recommend a lot of protein.”

Myers is polite, serious and sincere. He is not “on” during the interview, but there is evidence of an erudite wit. This is, after all, the Mike Myers who, as a high-school student, wrote essays titled “The Spy Who Loved Me and Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle” and “Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien : was he innately evil or was he a product of his time?” Myers submitted the essays as part of his application to Toronto’s York University, but he chose instead to join Toronto’s Second City Comedy Troupe. “It was my last day of high school,” he recalls. “My last exam was at 9 a.m. My audition for Second City was at noon. I got accepted at three.”

Years later in New York City, Saturday Night Live producer Lome Michaels invited Myers to a dinner with French director Malle (now deceased) and Malle’s wife, Candice Bergen. “I was just sitting there quiet,” recalls Myers, “Because, you know, it’s Louis Malle. He’s talking about baseball—he’s a huge Yankees fan—and finally Lome says, ‘Mike, you have a question?’ It was like getting called on when you haven’t done your homework.” Myers asked his essay question about the Nazi collaborator in Lacombe, Lucien. “He said he was innately evil,” adds Myers. “I felt like Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan from behind that poster in Annie Hall.”

Myers behaves as much like a fan as a star. And his comedy plays as both an homage to pop culture and a parody of it. Austin Powers is a hilarious spoof, with gags that run the gamut from toilet humor to high camp. It is riddled with kitschy references. First, there are the obvious allusions to James Bond. Austin has gadget weapons, casino encounters, and an arch-nemesis named Dr. Evil—played by Myers with a shaved head and a lazy eye—who cradles a cat in his lap while plotting world destruction from an underground fortress. “Really, it’s Donald Pleasence,” explains Myers, referring to the actor who played the villain in You Only Live Twice. “He’s one of those bad guys who, before they kill you, bore you with their knowledge of exotica.”

Meanwhile, as the skirt-chasing London swinger, Austin’s character offers a rich parody of the decadent fashion photographer played by David Hemmings in Blow Up (1966). And Austin’s love interest, a no-nonsense operative named Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley), was inspired by Emma Peel of the classic TV series The Avengers.

The whole cast—which includes Robert Wagner, Michael York and Carrie Fisher—has a distinctly retro tone. In fact, hearing Burt Bacharach’s retro ballad The Look of Love on the car radio is what gave Myers the idea for the film in the first place. “It made me laugh,” he says. “I started to talk like Austin in the car. I went home and talked to my wife, Robin, like that. She laughed for a few days, then said, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of that. Now just go write it down.’ ” Myers wrote the script in three weeks, sold it to New Line Cinema, and became a co-producer. He also persuaded New Line to hire a

The star of Wayne's World sends up the swinging '60s

friend, novice Jay Roach, to direct. Roach gave his star ample licence. “He is a brilliant improv artist,” says the director. “He loved to play to the crew, and I rolled a lot of film after the place where the cut would be. Sometimes, he was literally writing like a lucid dreamer, generating images without pause or thé slightest hesitation.” Myers knew his character well. Even before selling his script, he played Austin Powers as the front man of a band while performing around Los Angeles in such clubs as the Viper Room. The band became part of the film—and so did Bacharach (who told Myers The Look of Love was inspired by Ursula Andress, one of the original Bond girls. The movie’s mod style, of course, neatly coincides with the current fashion. “It’s something that’s in the popular culture right now,” says Myers, “if you look at Beck and The New Pollution, the swinger thing, the cocktail scene.” But he insists he was not trying to tap a trend. ‘You can’t start from ‘How will the public like it?’ You’ve got to go from ‘What’s making you laugh?’ What’s ironic with Wayne’s World is that it was my childhood—Scarborough. I had no idea it would be universal. And anybody who said they did is lying.” Behind the clowning of characters like Wayne and Austin, there is a vein of serious nostalgia in Myers, an affection for things past that runs deep. It comes out in the way he talks about his home town, his beloved Maple Leafs, and Second City heroes such as the late Gilda Radner and John Candy. He also talks about the loss of his father, who died in 1991, and how, as a child of Liverpool parents, “I grew up thinking I was related to the Beatles. No one else we knew talked like that.” He remembers a post-show party at Saturday Night Live, where he sat with his brother Paul and watched Paul McCartney give a private concert. “He sang Hey Jude at the end, and we start to cry, and I look over and Bill Murray and his brother are beside us, crying.”

Recently, Myers revisited SNL as a guest host. He remembers wondering, “Is this going to be like the guy going back to his old high-school feeling like a weirdo? Then, I looked up at the lighting grid, and a guy in the crew had put ‘Welcome back, Mike’ right by number 22 on the lighting grid.” That, he explains, is his number. “My wife was born on June 22. My father passed away 11/22.1 wore 22 in soccer. It’s my number in hockey. When I got hired for Saturday Night Live, I stayed in Room 1222.1 flew in on Flight 22. It landed on Runway 22. Lome’s office is 1722. It’s a number that follows me around.” But, he adds, “I don’t make decisions based on it. It’s not anything I have to take medication for.” Myers seems philosophical about growing up. ‘You go through phases in life,” he says. ‘You get a futon. You get a futon on a frame. You get a grownup bed. You get married. You get dogs. You have kids. We’re now in our dog phase.” Myers and his American wife have bought a house in LA but are not sure where they will settle. New York perhaps. He says his choice is Toronto, but Robin, a screenwriter, would have trouble working in Canada.

In the restaurant, the waitress shyly asks for an autograph. Myers graciously complies. Before leaving, he requests a takeout container for his beef teriyaki, which he has barely touched. He apologizes. He might get hungry later, back at his hotel room. Myers glances out the restaurant window and scans a marquee across the street. ‘You gotta love a city where Sling Blade, Anna Karenina, Kolya—and Das Boot—are playing in one theatre,” he says. You don’t see that anywhere in the world.” He heads out into the night. It is cold for April, but he even seems to like Toronto weather—he talks about going for a walk with his mother in a “lovely drizzle.” In the morning, he will fly back to swinging Los Angeles, a land of make-believe where Austin Powers would feel right at home.