Billy Connolly began his celebrated entertainment career in the late ’60s as a musician, putting out several albums in a folk duo called The Humblebums. His partner Gerry Rafferty eventually left the band to find fame as the writer/singer of such rock hits as “Stuck in the Middle With You” and “Baker Street.” Connolly branched off into his own solo career, but the funny banter between songs eventually took over his act and he became a legendary stand-up comedian in his native Scotland.
As his popularity in the UK rose he became known by his nickname “The Big Yin” (The Big One), but Connolly did not find success this side of the pond until the early ’90s when he appeared on an HBO special with Whoopi Goldberg and starred in the ABC sitcom “Head of the Class.” Since then he’s done several major world comedy tours and received acclaim for acting in such films as The Last Samurai, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and his BAFTA Nominated performance with Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown.
In 1999, he scored what may be his most recognized film role in Troy Duffy’s controversial action film The Boondock Saints, which developed a rabid cult following once it hit video. In that film, Connolly played Il Duce, a mysterious and deadly hit man released from prison with orders to hunt down the vigilante McManus Brothers, played by Sean Patrick Flanery & Norman Reedus, only to discover that he is in fact their father! Connolly returns in Duffy’s new sequel, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, where Il Duce has to help his sons find the crimelord responsible for the death of a Boston priest.
He sat down with us for an exclusive interview, and though deciphering his Scottish brogue proved occasionally challenging, the funny man gave many details about the new film as well as his role in upcoming Jack Black laugher Gulliver’s Travels and the possibility of appearing in Duffy’s next original project The Good King.
ComingSoon.net: I actually grew up with your old folk music records in the house so it’s somewhat jarring for me to see the man who sang “Little Blue Lady With The Pink Umbrella” bustin’ caps in motherf*ckers.
Billy Connolly: (Laughs) My God.
CS: What is it like to explore the trigger-happy side of Billy Connolly?
Connolly: It was brilliant. It’s a Godsend. I love doin’ it! I think every comedian secretly longs to be a badass. I can’t speak for them all but I can speak for myself. You get jealous of actors doin’ these roles, you know? Shootin’ people and stuff.
CS: And how many guns does Il Duce have again?
Connolly: Six. Six 9MM pistols on my waistcoat.
CS: Was it fun to get back into the skin of that character?
Connolly: It was great. It was real easy because the same cast had all assembled again. If the characters had been different it might have been peculiar, but it was the same guys so it felt like an old, comfortable suit of clothes.
CS: So how did Troy lure you back?
Connolly: I stayed in touch with him. I lost touch for a little while, and then a limo driver gave me his number. The rest of the guys had been in touch with him all the time, and I missed him, I missed his company. He’s a great guy. So I bullied him into thinkin’ about me again, but he had been thinkin’ about me all the time anyways.
CS: You have a substantially bigger role this time, too.
Connolly: Yeah, it’s a size bigger plus there’s a history element. I saw it last night for the first time.
CS: What was your first reaction?
Connolly: I was amazed, you know, at how big it was.
CS: It’s true. I don’t know if you guys had more or less money to work with this time?
Connolly: I think he had more money in as much as it was a bigger number of money, but it’s still only an eight-million-dollar movie. Plus the exchange rate had changed in Canada, so we were essentially working with the same money as the old movie.
CS: Did the cult success of the first one catch you by surprise or did you have faith when you first signed the dotted line that the film would find an audience one way or another?
Connolly: I always had great faith in it! I always stood beside it and forecast that it would be a big hit. Some of the other guys were… well, all of them really were behind it, but I was the most behind it. They were kinda surprised at my reaction to it when it was new. They all thought that because it didn’t get a movie theater distribution that it would die, and I always said that it wouldn’t. I told Troy that it was gonna find its own way, and it did. I don’t know how I knew that, I just had a deep gut feeling that it was gonna look out for itself.
CS: Right, and of course your character wound up being a standout. What is the biggest difference between someone who’s a fan of your comedy and someone who knows you only as Il Duce from the first “Boondock Saints”?
Connolly: There’s not much difference. Most people know me for both, but the younger people in America don’t even know I’m a comedian, they think I’m an actor.
CS: Sure. There’s probably even less people that know you’re a musician.
Connolly: Oh yeah, there’s even fewer… the fewer the merrier, actually.
CS: You and Peter Fonda are both counterculture icons. Tell us about filming the great scene between the two of you?
Connolly: It was lovely! He makes life very easy for you, Peter, ya know? We met and had dinner before we did the scene, which broke the ice. I regarded him as a friend. If he’s just “The Famous Peter Fonda” it’s a bit jumpy, a bit shaky. He made it very easy for me.
CS: It must have been interesting as you both started around the same time in your careers.
Connolly: Absolutely! But he’s a bit more iconic than I am, certainly in America, but he was very gracious. There’s nothing starry about him. He doesn’t behave in a starry way. He was very cool the whole time.
CS: Now Troy Duffy has developed a wild reputation since the documentary “Overnight” came out, to the point where he’s even been parodied on shows like “Entourage.” Yet EVERYONE from the first film came back for this one. What is it about Troy that attracts talent despite his eccentricities?
Connolly: I find his eccentricities attractive! I love the way he behaves, and I feel very very comfortable working for him. I think the fact that everybody came back to work for him says everything. Absolutely everybody, including Dafoe.
CS: Do you think he revels in having a bad boy image?
Connolly: I think he enjoys being who he is. He’s very kinda Rock ‘n’ Roll, you know? That’s the kinda background he comes from, a Rock ‘n’ Roll background. He behaves Rock n’ Roll, and I’m very comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable with a safari jacket and loudhailer. I think those days are kinda over, the David Lean in riding boots… and loudhailer, whatever they call them in America, those things you shout through.
CS: A megaphone.
Connolly: Yeah. I think those days are well over. He loves laughing, and I can make him laugh real easy! So can Sean Patrick Flanery; he’s very funny as well. When we’re filming we spend a lot of the day laughin’, covortin’ around and making a fool of ourselves. He doesn’t take himself at all seriously, and then when he has to take himself seriously he does it and we get right to the point and get it done. Because we had no money it had to be done quickly, it has to be ready. We’re all ready and we’re all kinda professional, and everybody likes his style.
CS: Compared to the first one, the sequel seems to take itself less seriously than the first one. It’s a lot more of a romp this time, very tongue-in-cheek.
Connolly: Yes, I noticed that last night. I don’t, I’m deadly serious. My character doesn’t have fun at all, but everyone else seems to be having a good laugh. (laughs) I relished the role, too. He’s a real dark guy. I’m not even sure about the history. I liked it when he came from nowhere, from hell.
CS: That’s right, in the first one you just kinda show up and start blowing everything away.
Connolly: Yeah, I’m your worst nightmare. I can’t tell you what a joy it is to do, blasting my two 9-millimeters!
CS: So recently you made the move out of Hollywood. What prompted that?
Connolly: Oh yeah! Well, my wife had always wanted to sail the South Seas, so we went sailing in the Pacific and sold the house. Then three of my daughters moved over to the east to go to college, so I thought we would live in the east for a change. As you probably know when you get three daughters you become an ATM, so you have to move closer.
CS: You’ve talked before about your propensity for dying in films, that you’re actually the only person to ever die in a Muppet movie.
Connolly: (laughs) That’s right, I die rather a lot. My children hate it, you know?
CS: Just in terms of shooting, what’s been the most interesting death scene for you to film?
Connolly: The one that shook my kids most was when I died in “Mrs. Brown.” I think it looked like death. This one is bad too. One of my daughters was saying, “It’s horrible to watch you die,” and I say, “Well you know I’m only pretendin’.” She said, “How would you feel watchin’ me die?” and I said, “Well I never really never thought of that.”
CS: (laughs) Maybe you should get the camcorder out and let them have a shot at it?
Connolly: (laughs) You never know. It must be a bit of a trial, because the better you do the worse they’re gonna feel. It’s kinda weird, you know? I like the little boys who come up to me in restaurants who recognize my voice from “Muppet Treasure Island” and think of Billy Bones and ask me why I’m not dead. I love that! “How come you’re not dead?” (laughs)
CS: Duffy’s next project, “The Good King,” takes place in an anachronistic 1500s. Seems like he’s bound to have something for you to do there?
Connolly: Yeah, he’s mumbling about that, we haven’t come to anything concrete about it.
CS: But he has approached you about possibly having a role?
Connolly: Yeah. I haven’t seen the script yet, but I think it’ll prove he’s a filmmaker rather than a guy with one idea.
CS: What can you tell us about your role as the King of Lilliputia in “Gulliver’s Travels”?
Connolly: It was very difficult, very hard work. The character was brilliant and the crew, of course, are brilliant, and the director Rob Letterman is a lovely guy, but I don’t like that greenscreen work very much. You’re talkin’ to a piece of tape on a wall, or you’re reactin’ to a fight that isn’t actually happenin’. It’s all very weird. I think it’ll look sensational, but I must say that kind of work doesn’t appeal greatly to me.
CS: What DID appeal to you initially about taking the role?
Connolly: I was kinda naïve about it. I’d never done a greenscreen movie before, or a movie with so much greenscreen in it so I didn’t know quite what to expect.
CS: As a Lilliputian I imagine you’re very small and Jack Black’s very big, but do you actually get to interact with him on set?
Connolly: Yeah, we spent a lot of time laughin’ and playin’ the ukulele together, but on set he’s a giant so I didn’t really have much face-to-face with him. I was actin’ with his voice. He would be off to the side doin’ the voice and we would be lookin’ up at whatever they had as a focal point. They would maybe shine a little laser on the side of a building or something to say that’s where he is, that’s his face… or a touch of white on the edge of a crane. You’re lookin’ up and you speak to that.
CS: So he was still on set so you could get the timing right.
Connolly: Oh yeah, you get the timin’ bang on, yeah. The other thing to manage is that my head always wanted to turn to where his voice was comin’ from, you know?
CS: Okay, so it was just about direction and adjusting to it. Looking forward to you in that. Lastly, I wanted to know if there is a role you’ve always yearned to play, either a type or a specific script that you have yet to do?
Connolly: I like playin’ driven kinda people. I’d like to play a soldier before I’m too old.
CS: Really? Any specific era?
Connolly: Second World War movie, maybe more modern than that. I’d like to play a real driven military guy.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints’ Day opens in select cities on October 30, and if you’re curious about the song referred to at the beginning of this article, check it out here. Also, look for exclusive interviews with Troy Duff and the actors playing Connolly’s kids, the McManus Brothers, later this week.