Mike Myers: Man of Mystery
Now, after a long absence from the screen, Myers is back — but not everyone is rooting for him
He begins, as he often does, with his father. He talks about the deep depression that engulfed him after his dad’s death in 1991 and the spiritual quest he embarked upon to make sense of his pain. He talks about Eastern poetry, Deepak Chopra, and Seat of the Soul author Gary Zukav. He goes on, discussing Carl Sagan, Lenny Bruce, George Harrison, the Marx Brothers, the 1970s TV show Kung Fu, and the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. He references Joseph Campbell, The 400 Blows, cognitive behavioral psychology, Quentin Tarantino, progressive rock, and the mythology of vampires as it relates to the concept of ”mojo” in the Austin Powers movies. He speaks for more than 20 minutes, without interruption and without cracking the merest semblance of a joke — all in answer to this EW question: Where did you get the idea for your latest character?
For the past five years, Mike Myers, the man who has brought forth such iconic comedic creations as couch-surfing slacker Wayne Campbell, swinging superspy Austin Powers and his nemesis Dr. Evil, and the lovable ogre Shrek, has been all but invisible. Since his last major role in the 2003 Dr. Seuss adaptation The Cat in the Hat — a film that critics lambasted as a hair ball — he has provided the voice of Shrek in two successful sequels. But while Will Ferrell has appeared in 10 comedies over those years and Adam Sandler in seven, Myers’ most notable onscreen appearance was in a 2005 Hurricane Katrina relief special, during which he stood stiffly beside Kanye West as the rapper went off script, declaring, ”George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Now, like the cryogenically defrosted Powers, Myers, at age 45, is coming out of a state of pop culture suspended animation — and he’s hoping he still has his mojo.
With all the pomp of a political campaign, Myers has been trying to storm the zeitgeist in recent weeks with his newest character, a loony spiritual leader named Guru Pitka — appearing on the American Idol finale in saffron robes and chanting his mantra, ”Mariska Hargitay,” rolling out his own MySpace page, hosting the MTV Movie Awards, headlining a prime-time Saturday Night Live special. In The Love Guru, opening June 20 and costarring Jessica Alba and Justin Timberlake, Pitka travels to America in the hope of overtaking Deepak Chopra as the world’s most famous New Age icon. Bawdy jokes, pratfalls, and dwarf tossing ensue. But to Myers, who regards Chopra as a friend and spiritual adviser, The Love Guru is not just a vehicle for a new set of catchphrases; it’s an effort to impart uplifting messages about love, joy, and self-acceptance. ”It’s a delivery system for some wonderful ideas,” Myers told EW in April. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.) ”People may say bad things about you, but you won’t say bad things about yourself. The only way out is in. You’re responsible for your own health and happiness.”
What audiences and critics will make of this hybrid of over-the-top comedy and self-help wisdom is anyone’s guess. But in the years Myers has been largely out of sight, some wonder if the comedy ground has shifted beneath his feet. His unique brand of humor — driven by outsize, absurdist characters, sight gags, and elaborately constructed and at times esoteric wordplay — may be falling out of fashion as audiences drift toward more grounded, relatable comedies like Knocked Up. ”Mike’s one of the smartest people, but he does characters, not real people,” says one high-ranking studio executive. ”If the audience relates to the character — a goofball in his basement, like Wayne, or a James Bond send-up, like Austin Powers — you’re off to the races. But there’s so little margin for error.”
DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who has partnered with Myers on the Shrek films, points to the comedian’s track record as evidence of his ability to remain on the audience’s wavelength. “To suggest there’s some question as to his relevance, I have to say, is off base and somewhat offensive,” he says.
Still, the fact is, within Hollywood, not everyone is cheering for Myers to succeed. Since early in his career the actor has been tagged with a reputation for being difficult to work with: moody, controlling, and arrogant. That description could, of course, fit many actors and filmmakers, but the degree of enmity directed toward Myers by some who’ve worked with him—even years after the fact—is rare. Says one executive who has had a rocky relationship with Myers: “I honestly root against him.” Penelope Spheeris, who directed Myers in his first film, the 1992 smash Wayne’s World, says she has shared war stories with others who’ve worked with the actor. “Maybe he could open, like, a children’s hospital to clean up his rep,” she jokes darkly. “He’s got to do something pretty quick.”
Myers’ admirers insist that, while he can be demanding, it is always in the service of producing the best work possible—and that he is always hardest on himself. “I’ve never understood where the lore about Mike comes from,” says Jay Roach, who directed the Austin Powers films. “I just know he’s very passionate about his work, and he wants it to be great and pushes hard for that. But once the lore begins, there’s not much you can do about it.”
On the poster for The Love Guru, beneath a photo of Myers with a flowing beard and twinkling eyes, the tagline reads: “His karma is huge.” It’s a line that, like much of Myers’ humor, hinges on a double entendre, but there is another layer of meaning at play, one he couldn’t have intended. Over two decades of making comedies, Myers has brought joy and laughter to millions and left bitter feelings and battered relationships in his wake. He’s been at the center of one of the most successful comedy franchises ever and one of the ugliest lawsuits in recent Hollywood history. He has been hailed as a genius and blasted as a megalomaniac. For better or worse, his karma is, indeed, huge.
[pagebreak]For Myers, there are few things more serious than a dumb joke. He’s not the type of comedian who can stroll onto a movie screen and get a laugh playing some version of himself. His humor is based on artful contrivance, every detail machine-tooled with painstaking precision. “Just because it’s comedy doesn’t mean it’s not as important to Mike as There Will Be Blood is to Paul Thomas Anderson,” says Michael De Luca, who helped launch the Austin Powers franchise as an exec at New Line and has produced The Love Guru. “I’d make 10 movies with Mike in a heartbeat, but you’ve got to take it as seriously as he does, and he gives 150 percent.”
Myers takes unabashed pride in that intense devotion to his craft. “Dave Foley said about me—which I love, greatest quote ever—that it’s dumb comedy done by smart people,” Myers told EW. “What Jerry Seinfeld said about me is that I’ve managed to break the rules of all American parody: I parody things that Americans don’t even know. It’s been said of me that I can do comedy where comedy hadn’t previously existed.”
It wasn’t always so. Growing up in the blue-collar suburbs of Toronto, Myers was told he was not the funny one. His father, Eric, an encyclopedia salesman from Liverpool, England, was funny. His mother, Alice, a former actress, was funny. His older brothers, Peter and Paul, were funny. But in a family in which there was no higher value than a sense of humor—in which the boys would be roused from their beds late at night to watch a Peter Sellers movie on TV—Myers was imbued with the idea that he was lacking in that department. “My mom would say… ‘Everyone in the house step forward who’s funny. Not so fast, Michael,'” Myers told Charlie Rose in 1999.
Myers’ innate talent and relentless ambition couldn’t be denied, though, and by 1989, having cut his teeth in the famed Second City improv comedy troupe, he landed a spot on the cast of Saturday Night Live. Though shy off screen, he quickly became one of the show’s biggest draws thanks to his talent for creating oddball characters with memorable catchphrases (see sidebar), like the German TV-talk-show host Dieter and the dim-witted wannabe rocker Wayne Campbell. “There was nobody doing what Mike was doing,” says SNL creator Lorne Michaels.
In 1991, Myers got the green light to bring the much-loved “Wayne’s World” sketch to the big screen. But what should have been a moment of triumph soon began to sour. According to several accounts, including a Vanity Fair article in 2000, Myers felt threatened by his more famous SNLcostar, Dana Carvey, who played Wayne’s nerdy sidekick, Garth. “Mike didn’t want Dana in the movie because he felt insecure that someone who had his own creative ideas would get in the way,” says one source involved in the production. Carvey, via his publicist, calls this notion “ridiculous.” Michaels, who produced the film, says it’s “overstated,” but adds, “That isn’t to say they’re not both comedians and that occasionally there’s not some disagreement over who should be speaking what.”
Directing her first studio film, Spheeris found herself struggling to prop up Myers’ often dark moods. One day, infuriated that there was no margarine for his bagel, only butter, Myers—who, according to several sources, said he suffered from hypoglycemia—stormed off the set. (Myers’ rep denies he is hypoglycemic.) “He was emotionally needy and got more difficult as the shoot went along,” Spheeris says. “You should have heard him bitching when I was trying to do that ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ scene: ‘I can’t move my neck like that! Why do we have to do this so many times? No one is going to laugh at that!'” To manage Myers’ moods, Spheeris put her daughter in charge of making sure he had whatever snack he needed at any given moment: “To this day, I have this image of her sitting on this little cooler, looking at me, like, ‘Mom, I f—ing hate you.'” In a statement to EW through his publicist, Myers says: “I’m incredibly grateful for Penelope Spheeris’ contributions on Wayne’s World. Some 17 years later, the movie is still a bright highlight in my professional career. I’m very proud of the work Dana Carvey and I did. It was wonderful to be able to work with Dana again on the MTV Movie Awards this year. He’s a hilarious, talented and great guy. I’ve missed him.”
Myers’ stress at the time of Wayne’s World was compounded by the fact that his father, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1987, was in failing health. Just before Wayne’s World had its first wildly successful test screening, Eric Myers died. The film became a sensation, grossing $122 million and launching Myers to superstardom, but the actor was devastated that his father had not lived to see it—a wound, say his friends, that would last for years. “Mike had this desire to make his father proud of him,” says Chopra. “I think one of his tragedies is that he was never able to do that because his father passed away before he became such a huge phenomenon.”
An unrequited need for love and approval seems to be a running theme both in Myers’ work and in his personal life. He has spoken of wrestling with low self-esteem, of an aversion to being touched or hugged, of being drawn toward characters who are ugly or awkward. Looking at himself on screen, he told an interviewer in 1999, “I see a guy with a really thick Canadian accent and acne scars—that’s about it.” Whatever issues he’s dealt with invariably end up refracted through his characters. “A lot of comedy comes from self-deprecation, from looking inside and representing things in a way that we haven’t seen them,” says Andrew Adamson, who directed Myers in the first two Shrek films. “That can be a painful process.”
If Wayne’s World was a difficult experience, Myers’ next film, 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer, was a torturous one. From the outset, Myers clashed with director Thomas Schlamme, at times holing up in his trailer and refusing to work. “I think Mike’s a visionary, but his way of getting what he wants is to emote and threaten and express anger,” says the film’s producer, Rob Fried. “It’s not healthy for personal relations.” (Schlamme declined to comment.) Axe Murderer flopped, grossing less than $12 million, and Myers’ next film, Wayne’s World 2, made less than $50 million.
With his career in a tailspin, Myers, who’d married Robin Ruzan in 1993, disengaged from Hollywood and waited for fresh inspiration to strike. One day, driving home from hockey practice, he heard Dusty Springfield’s recording of “The Look of Love,” made famous in the 1967 film Casino Royale, on the radio. He began sketching out a new character, a libidinally overheated spy named Austin Powers.
[pagebreak]Released in May 1997, Myers’ bizarro takeoff on Bond movies grossed an unspectacular $54 million. “People didn’t know what to make of it,” says Roach. “It’s weird: this guy with an English accent, hair all over his body, and bad teeth. It’s like a hallucination.” But, fueled by a bonanza of infectiously quotable lines, the movie caught a wave on video, spawning an unexpected franchise and redeeming its star in the eyes of even some of his fiercest critics.
“I hated that bastard for years,” says Spheeris, who believes Myers dissuaded Paramount from hiring her for Wayne’s World 2. “But when I saw Austin Powers, I went, ‘I forgive you, Mike.'” She pauses, voice choked with emotion. “‘You can be moody, you can be a jerk, you can be things that others of us can’t be—because you are profoundly talented. And I forgive you.'”
Following a detour into drama in the 1998 film 54, Myers reprised his role as Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me. When the film proved a massive blockbuster—grossing, as Dr. Evil might put it, more than 300 meeellion dollars worldwide—Myers earned the right to call nearly every shot on the franchise. “Mike is the chairman and CEO of Austin Powers,” says New Line production head Toby Emmerich. “He has a huge amount of control.” Myers’ clout extended beyond Austin Powers. Midway through production on Shrek, he decided the ogre should speak with a Scottish accent—an inspired notion that cost DreamWorks roughly $5 million in wasted animation.
In June of 2000, with Myers commanding a level of creative autonomy even the most powerful stars rarely attain—and a $20 million salary to go with it—the actor suddenly announced that he was postponing work on his next movie, a big-screen spin-off of his Dieter character he was to make for Universal, just weeks before shooting was to begin. In a statement, he said he could not “cheat moviegoers who pay their hard-earned money for my work by making a movie with an unacceptable script.”
Universal sued Myers for breach of contract, setting off a public relations firestorm. Imagine Entertainment, which was partnering on the project, sued Myers for $30 million in lost profits, describing him as “egomaniacal,” “irresponsible,” and “selfish.” Myers countersued Universal for $20 million, charging fraud and defamation and stating he had been “emotionally traumatized” by the studio’s “thug-like, outrageous, and reckless conduct.” After several months in the headlines, the suit was quietly settled, with the parties involved agreeing to make another film. In 2003, they did so, with The Cat in the Hat.
Fairly or not, the Dieter debacle cemented the impression among many in Hollywood that Myers had become increasingly resistant to creative collaboration, sealed off in a comedy bubble of his own making. “It’s his way or no way,” says one exec. Michaels says it almost has to be that way. “The word controlling pops up over and over when it comes to comedy, because comedy is about precision,” he says. “Mike is deadly serious about what he does, and that can come across as preoccupied or uncaring, I guess.”
Another exec who has worked with Myers several times puts it this way: “I’d describe Mike as impossibly smart—in there is his brilliance and also his undoing. He’s a great conversationalist. He’s fun to talk to. But it’s all brain. He’s not able to intuit anything real or natural about human experience. The truth is, for a lot of comedians there’s like a degree of Asperger’s syndrome. His just seems more acute.”
Around the time of the second Austin Powers film, Myers was asked by a magazine what he was reading. His list included Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Seat of the Soul, and Chopra’s Seven Laws of Spiritual Success. Intrigued, Chopra contacted Myers, and the two met at Chopra’s Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. “He spent a couple of days with me, and we just hit it off,” Chopra says. “He was much more serious than I expected him to be. He was very well-informed, not only about Eastern philosophy but about Western philosophical traditions.”
The meeting spawned a friendship that has borne professional fruit for each in unexpected ways. Myers had first tinkered with the character of Guru Pitka in the mid-1990s, but as his relationship with Chopra deepened, he became completely absorbed in it, listening to Chopra’s audiobooks to pick up his accent and workshopping material in private shows in New York comedy clubs. For his part, Chopra was inspired by Myers to write an inspirational novel called Why Is God Laughing?, the story of a comedian named Mickey Fellows who, like Myers, begins a spiritual quest after the death of his father. Myers contributed the foreword to the book, which was published earlier this month. The two are in “constant discussions,” Myers told EW. Chopra, asked if he has assumed a role almost as Myers’ personal shrink, laughs. “Whatever,” he says. “We’re friends more than anything else.”
According to Chopra, Myers’ spirituality has helped pull him through various personal crises, including the end of his marriage in late 2005. The unraveling of that 13-year relationship occurred, with painful irony, just as Myers was developing The Love Guru, and for several months, the website Gawker posted sightings of the actor looking bloated and despondent. (Myers, who has no children, is now said to be dating someone outside the industry.) “Over the years, Mike has dealt with deep existential doldrums in his life, whether it’s the loss of his father or his divorce or just the dilemmas we all face: our mortality and so on,” Chopra says. “Spiritually, he is extremely mature.”
Mixing spirituality and comedy, however, can be tricky, as anyone who’s seen Eddie Murphy’s Holy Man or Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith can attest. Discussing The Love Guru with EW, Myers laid out the plot in psycho-spiritual terms involving “shame cores,” “regression,” and “transference.” But first-time director Marco Schnabel says Myers was mindful of balancing laughs and life lessons: “Mike always talks about Flintstones vitamins—they’re yummy and fun to look at, but if they can also be healthy, why not?”
Whatever personal meaning The Love Guru may have for Myers, there’s no question it comes freighted with high stakes for his career. The actor has yet to settle on his next project; possibilities include a fourth Austin Powers movie and a long-discussed biopic of legendary Who drummer Keith Moon. If The Love Guru—which is opening directly opposite another high-profile comedy, Get Smart—falters at the box office, Myers’ tremendous clout may be on the line. “If the movie doesn’t work, it will be harder for Mike to get a new character-based movie off the ground,” says one exec. “For a studio to say, ‘We’ll give you $60 million, you keep $20 million and go make the movie,’ it’s going to be harder to come up with that situation. It doesn’t mean he can’t invent a new character and make a great movie. Woody Allen got cold, but it didn’t stop him from making movies.”
Katzenberg believes that, whatever the fate of The Love Guru, Myers will remain a vital force. “By definition, when you’re doing something original and unique, it has risks,” he says. “But I’d rather bet on someone who’s going to get up on the high dive and miss from time to time than on the tried-and-true, which often doesn’t work either.”
Talking to EW in April, spinning out philosophical and analytical ideas in a circuitous stream of consciousness that at times nearly overran its banks, Myers didn’t seem concerned with cold-eyed career calculations. For the moment, he said, he was content exactly where he was. “I’ve had every one of my dreams realized,” he said. “I wanted to be on Second City, and I was. I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live and I got to be on it. I wanted to create movies like the comedies my father loved—movies that were played in our house and, even if everybody was fighting, there was a truce and it even made the house smell nicer afterwards. This is what I’ve been trying to do. I’m in a really wonderful place.”
In his foreword to Why Is God Laughing?, Myers writes poignantly about the notion that laughter and spiritual growth are innately linked, that “‘ha ha’ is related to ‘ah-ha,’ the sound one makes upon the realization of truth.” He concludes with a line that, intentionally or not, could be read as a message both to his fans and to his detractors, as a plea to focus not on the artist but on his creation: “Deepak shows us that there is darkness in the world and that comedy is a candle,” he writes. “He encourages us to meditate on the candle and not the darkness.”
The Love Guru