Christopher Guest is not kidding about the ermine robe. “I used to wear it in the House of Lords,” he says, “until they kicked out the hereditary peers —now it’s in the closet.” It’s one thing to sit across from this mild-mannered, conservatively dressed American with no discernible sense of humour and picture him as English guitar legend Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap, the mock metal band whose amplifiers all go up to 11. It’s quite another to imagine him sitting in the House of Lords, a stone’s throw from the Queen. But that’s where Guest—Fifth Baron Haden-Guest of Saling—found himself at the opening of Britain’s Parliament last year, with his wife, Baroness Lady Haden-Guest —better known as Jamie Lee Curtis— at his side.
Will the real Christopher Guest please stand up? This chameleon performer appeared in multiple guises on Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s. Most famously, he starred as Nigel in This Is Spinal Tap (1984), Rob Reiner’s timeless rock ’n roll “mockumentary,”
which was re-released in theatres and on DVD last week—and he continues to perform concerts in character with the band. In Waiting for Guffman (1996), which Guest directed, he sashayed through a small-town theatre troupe as Off-Off Broadway director Corky St. Clair. And now, in the purebred parody Best in Show, which he also directed, Guest appears as Harlan Pepper, a fishing shop owner with a southern drawl and a prize bloodhound on the leash.
Recruiting SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara for both Guffman and Best in Show, Guest is keeping a Canadian comic legacy alive. And his own identity is so elusive he could qualify as an honorary Canadian. Born in New York City, the 52-year-old actor inherited his peerage from his father, Lord Haden-Guest. “Because of some accident of lineage, I got to sit with the Queen in this robe that has been handed down through my family,” Guest told Macleans after Best in Shows recent première at the Toronto film festival. “It feels as if you’re in a movie. It’s as surreal as the Spinal Tap thing, which is awfully surreal. I have an identity
where I can go out and play in front of 50,000 people. I can be a rock star pretty much at will, not to be arrogant about it.” Earlier this month Spinal Tap shared a bill with Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, The Byrds and Jackson Browne. “And they’re the ones coming to our dressing room with things for us to sign.”
Guest’s creative process is as idiosyncratic as the characters he plays. He cowrote the basic scenarios for Guffman and Best in Show with Levy, but all the dialogue was improvised on camera. Levy recalls that the first day he walked onto the set of Guffman, he was shocked when Guest just started shooting with no rehearsal. Guest and Best in Show co-star Michael McKean (Spinal Tap singer David St. Hubbins) “are geniuses in this kind of thing,” says Levy, 53. “They can turn it on and off like a tap. For me, it’s exhilarating and kind of scary. The balance is, get the laughs but also be good enough to get the audience emotionally involved. It’s a fine line between how well you improvise and how competent a character actor you are.” Or, to quote Spinal Tap, “It’s a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Best in Show, a mockumentary about
contestants at a national dog show, is a funnier, more broadly appealing movie than Waiting for Guffman. With O’Hara cast as his over-sexed wife,
Levy portrays menswear salesman Gerry Fleck, a nerd who has two left feet—literally—and gives the movie’s most inspired performance.
As for Guest, in one of his improvised solos his character sits behind the wheel and talks about how he likes to pass the time by listing names of nuts. But after “peanut” and “pistachio,” Guest realized he didn’t know that many nuts. “Here’s this American driving through the country. I don’t know where I’m going and I can’t name more than five or six nuts. This was an example of being right on the edge.”
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