Mike Myers is perched on the edge of his chair, in full counterattack mode. He has peeled off a cashmere crew-neck, rolled up his shirt sleeves, removed his high-gloss leather loafers and tucked up his stockinged feet.
He is dazzlingly literate when well and good ticked off.
"We dispose of our last monster by having him have a satori about his own weight problem," he says. A satori? "Illumination," he offers, for non-Japanese speakers. "It is a standard form in a James Bond movie to have the last monster in the denouement"--he says it delicately, "day-nu-mahn"--"disposed of using his own methods, that's the traditional way. Like Jaws, disposed of by electricity to his teeth. And Odd Job, he touches his metal hat and is electrified. There's that tradition."
Myers is delivering a brief exposition on the demise of his monster in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," the much-anticipated sequel to the 1997 hit comedy. You remember? Groovy spy? Bad teeth? Swinging sex? Myers stars, again, as Austin Powers, and as his nemesis, Dr. Evil, and also as the obnoxious monster in question, Fat Bastard, an elephantine, baby-eating Scot. In a kilt.
When he realizes that eating won't make him happy, he collapses under his own flesh.
"Fat Bastard has a satori about his weight problem. That," concludes Myers, "is smart humor." Pause. "Then he farts, because he's this big gross guy. It's this juxtaposition of lofty and base humor." (In a moment Myers will double back to footnote his Japanese reference: "Satori in Paris," a work by Jack Kerouac. Okay, okay, Mike. We give: Mike Myers is an intellectual.)
It is early evening, the very end of a three-day, nonstop press junket at the Four Seasons Hotel. Cold bacon is turning gray on a room service tray. A bottle of unopened cashews and a plate of warm fruit sits nearby. Myers, boyish, serious, has talked himself ragged. His pancake makeup (for the TV interviews) is starting to crack. He's so hungry that his stomach growls audibly throughout the interview. Still, he cannot help but be satisfied. The movie industry has declared that the new "Austin Powers"--his baby--will be one of the summer's huge hits. Perhaps it will be.
And yet. A reporter has respectfully suggested that the film somehow might fall short of the comic genius in the original. (This is a tactic that doesn't go over big at celebrity interviews. Nonetheless, we aim for the Truth.) We refer particularly to the bit where Fat Bastard has gag-inducing sex with the luscious Heather Graham (playing Felicity, a CIA spy). And also to the time-travel bits that don't make much sense (at one point Austin looks out at the audience and enjoins viewers not to think too hard about the plot details).
Myers is surprised. "Really? You're the only person in three days not to like the sequel more than the first one," he says.
The reporter may even have hinted, though very gently, that the rampant merchandising attached to the sequel--Austin's shagadelic mug plastered everywhere from Virgin Atlantic jets to towering billboards in New York and L.A. to milk ads to toy action figures--lends the film a vaguely commercial odor.
At this he is touched to the quick. Off comes the sweater, up go the sleeves, and Myers launches into his lengthy, considered and deeply didactic defense of the film's artistic origins. We discover, among other things, that "Austin Powers" is on a creative continuum with early-20th-century British pantomime, Monty Python and the actor's film school monograph: "Joseph Cambell's Cosmogenic Monomyth Cycle and 'The Spy Who Loved Me.' "
"The popular choice has never been my choice," he insists. He says he would have made the hero better-looking, for one thing. "Austin wouldn't have had bad teeth, he wouldn't have had a hairy chest." Pause. "Many people find it yaklike." (He says this without smiling.) "I would haven't made him so inappropriately libidinous--" here he catches his breath. "It's not the commercial choice. There is an assumption that one knows what the audience likes, and you really don't." A beat. "We kept adults away from the set."
Dr. Evil Returns to Earth
Okay. But almost no one who sees "The Spy Who Shagged Me" will guess where it started. The creative process began, says Myers, with the idea of resolving Austin's conflicting emotional and sexual impulses. You may also have missed that the freewheeling original was a love story.
"The first movie was about true love," Myers explains. "About the obstacles of true love versus lust. In the movie, true love triumphed." (He means, presumably, when Austin decides to marry co-spy Vanessa Kensington, played by Elizabeth Hurley.) He continues: "This movie is: Will Austin Powers find true love despite having his heart broken and despite yearning for the sexual revolution?"
Viewers transfixed by other elements in the film--Fat Bastard and Dr. Evil's 32-inch doppelganger, Mini-Me (actor Verne Troyer)--will be forgiven for not grasping all this. Myers agrees. "It's not a very playable, nor entertaining, idea. But it's a start. The movie goes from the present to the past. It's the idea of 'the cure,' curing oneself in the present by taking something that is missing from the old world."
After working for months on the screenplay with his collaborator, Michael McCullers (a pal from "Saturday Night Live" days) and director Jay Roach, who also directed the original, Myers still improvised about 40 percent of the movie on the set.
Here's how the sequel turns out: Dr. Evil returns to Earth from outer space with a scheme to annihilate the planet. To neutralize his archenemy, Austin Powers, he time-travels to 1969 and steals the cryogenically frozen Austin's "mojo." Mojo (no, it's not Japanese) is Austinspeak for life force. Sex drive. Or a pink liquid extracted from his private parts.
So Austin must recover his mojo, stop the end-of-the-world plot and find libido enough for CIA operative Felicity (Graham).
The high expectations for the sequel come not only because of the box office success of the original--it did a moderately strong $60 million and was a huge hit on video--but also because of the character's undeniable charm. Austin Powers hit a cultural chord across many age groups, reminding us of an innocent and somehow overlooked aspect of swinging '60s culture. The character has become a media favorite and wooed the likes of Madonna, Woody Harrelson, Tim Robbins, Elvis Costello and model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos to participate in the sequel.
No one was more surprised by this than Myers himself. "I was surprised people got it at all," he says about the whole concept. "I thought you'd have to have grown up in my house to have gotten it."
But Myers, 36, has a gift for creating original characters that somehow feel familiar, for investing them with comic gestures and dialogue that instantly slide into the popular lexicon, whether it's the "Party on!" of Wayne Campbell, "Like buttah!" by way of Linda Richman, or "Oh, behave!" by way of Austin Powers. What Myers offers up as parody plays like the real thing. Even Austin Powers, whose entire persona is a sight gag, wins us over because of the comic's light touch. Come to think of it, the weaknesses of the Austin sequel are a reminder of how effortless Myers's comedy seems when it's working--which is most of the time. With all due respect to his erudition, Myers is the essence of the instinctive comic.
'Not Funny. Can't Come In.'
He grew up steeped in the British culture his parents left behind in Liverpool when they moved to Toronto after World War II. British pantomime troupes would come through on tour; his father--an encyclopedia salesman--would wake up the kids to watch old "Pink Panther" movies and snack on tea and toast.
Humor was a household staple. Visiting friends had to be funny; his father would issue edicts: "Not funny. Can't come in." Myers, the youngest of three brothers, was left out of his siblings' skits. Mum didn't encourage him. "Michael," she'd say sympathetically, "you're not funny. You shouldn't try, really."
"I was always funny out of the house," he laments. "But I could never make the house laugh. I remember the day I made the house laugh. Then I was in. I was 11." He pretended to be Ringo Starr--he does a brief nasal imitation--"That was huge. Huge. In my house."
After high school he leapt from there to Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, where he was discovered by "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels. On the weekly show he created a stable of indelible characters, teen slacker Wayne Campbell, Eurotrash TV host Dieter, a hyperactive 6-year-old Philip and "Coffee Talk" yenta Linda Richman. Myers's first film hit came with "Wayne's World" in 1992. Later came "So I Married an Axe Murderer" and "Wayne's World 2," neither of which was successful. Myers recently stretched into dramatic work, winning critical praise for his portrayal of '70s disco king Steve Rubell in the movie "54."
But Austin Powers has been something special for Myers, a tribute to his father, who died a few years ago, a cheeky valentine to his youth and his roots.
It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Myers is protective of his creation. During a test screening of the film in Los Angeles recently, the film projector suddenly broke. Myers ran to the front of the auditorium and started doing stand-up until it could be fixed. "It was really brave," says an admiring Mike de Luca, New Line's head of production, who witnessed the scene. "He handled the crowd so well. He is so dedicated to the process of caring for this movie." De Luca hopes Myers will do a new installment every few years.
When his father died in 1991 after battling Alzheimer's, Myers went through a period of intense meditation. He took time to read voraciously and think about the ironies of life. He stepped off the entertainment merry-go-round for 18 months. His deeply serious demeanor seems not unrelated to all of this.
"It really was like a meteor hitting the Earth," he says of his father's unexpected death. "I just realized I can't make any plans. In the story of my life, the sharpest person I knew wouldn't get Alzheimer's. The proportion of how my career was going was in direct proportion to how he deteriorated."
The actor is still unsure what he'll do next--more comedy, more drama, more Austin, no doubt. He's trying not to make too many plans. "There are about five things I might do, some are comedy, some are not comedy. It's about what will speak to my heart."
He pauses. "I have many conversations with my heart--I seriously do. As corny as that sounds, that's what that year and a half taught me. That's what I got out of that."
Then he adds: "I don't aim for anything. I just write what I think is funny."
CAPTION: "The popular choice has never been my choice," says Mike Myers, starring as Austin Powers.
CAPTION: Well cured: Mike Myers and Heather Graham in the "Austin Powers" sequel.