Danny DeVito Had a Hell of a Time Playing the Devil
The renowned actor and leftist talks about his wild new animated show “Little Demon,” the SCOTUS tweets seen around the world, and his Penguin in “Batman Returns.”
“We all have our own demons,” says Danny DeVito.
The beloved actor, director, and trollfoot-owner, who will turn 78 in November, has been entertaining audiences for the past six decades. In the 1970s, there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and his Louie De Palma in Taxi. The ’80s gave us Terms of Endearment, Romancing the Stone, and Twins. As a child of the ’90s, I came of age during DeVito’s most prolific decade on film, relishing his turns as The Penguin in Batman Returns, Martin Weir in Get Shorty, slimeballs in Matilda (which he also directed) and Space Jam, and as a morally bankrupt tabloid reporter in L.A. Confidential. Since 2006, he’s embodied Frank Reynolds, the hedonistic, wildly mischievous dad on FXX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, yet has bafflingly been denied so much as an Emmy nod for his uproarious performance. He’s also produced a number of celebrated films under his Jersey Films banner, such as Reality Bites, Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, Gattaca, Out of Sight, and Erin Brockovich.
DeVito’s latest is Little Demon, a demented animated comedy that’s now playing on FXX (and streaming on Hulu). From creators Darcy Fowler, Seth Kirschner, and Kieran Valla, the series features the voice of DeVito as Satan, a seductive fellow whose underworld is turned upside down when he learns that he has a 13-year-old daughter, Chrissy (Lucy DeVito, the actor’s daughter) with a tough-as-nails woman (Aubrey Plaza) he impregnated way back when. While mother and daughter try to navigate teenagedom in suburban Delaware, DeVito’s Prince of Darkness keeps trying to lure his spawn back to the bowels of Hell. It’s a rowdy R-rated romp featuring more bloody violence and nudity than any other animated show on television.
In a wide-ranging conversation, DeVito—who is also a staunch leftist—opened up about his wonderful career, including the 30th anniversary of Batman Returns and 20th of Death to Smoochy, his fun time as Satan, and the chaotic state of the world.
How have you been passing the time during the pandemic?
Well, you know, I can’t remember exactly the date when Lucy called about Little Demon. I might have been in London doing some movie, and she said her friends—she’s friends with Darcy [Fowler], Seth [Kirschner], Kieran [Valla], and Aubrey [Plaza]—had this idea, so we started it way back when, and everyone knows animation takes a lot of time. So basically, to answer your question, the pandemic, as horrifying as it was, we kept working [on Little Demon] throughout the whole thing. We were on the Zooms with the Demons—we call Seth, Kieran and Darcy the “Demons”—and all got together. I think we did a season of Sunny in one of the lulls. You’re a journalist so you sit at the computer a lot anyway, but I did a lot of blabbing.
Did you pick up any hobbies during the pandemic? I know some people got really into making bread and shit.
I’ve always tampered with directing and having Lynzee Klingman be my editor and doing my movies, but I also like to play with Final Cut, and Adobe Premiere, and a little bit of After Effects. I always called it “knitting.” I remember stories about Rosey Grier, a football player who calmed himself by sitting in the corner knitting, and so what I do is I’ll go on and edit, play with stuff, watch YouTube, and learn some tricks about how to navigate the programs.
That’s a lot more productive than what I tend to do, which is watch trash reality television. I have watched so many hours of Below Deck.
Oh, I do that too. I’ll go into movie mode and watch Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Battle of Algiers. I’ll go onto Criterion and watch. So, I did that too—the wonderful couch potato thing where you make that bowl of popcorn and watch any documentary that I can get my hands on, because I love documentaries, or revisiting the movies that you love so much. How many times can you see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Dr. Strangelove? I did a lot of that. And I do a lot of random FaceTimes with my friends, so that’s kind of fun.
Now I’m picturing you and Jack Nicholson FaceTiming.
Jack and I talk on the phone. But Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and I do random FaceTimes. [In Arnold voice] Why don’t you put your clothes on?! We do that kind of thing a lot.
What attracted you to the role of Satan in Little Demon? He’s one of the more mischievous fellows you’ve played.
I like playing the characters with a lot of duality. Characters who have secrets and are diabolical sometimes, like Oswald Cobblepot [in Batman Returns]. Ruthless people. And this character is very complex. He’s all-powerful, but he has so many roadblocks. It’s like Tony Soprano where there are so many people coming after him and who want to take him down, and then the blessing of having met Laura—Aubrey Plaza—and having her carry my child, and then to have my offspring. Of course, Satan being the way he was, his mindset was that it was going to be a boy, but it turns into a glorious revelation. I’m the first person to say: The future is female. So now, added to running the metaphysical realm, Hell, and all the temptations I need to take care of on Earth, I’ve got the family unit to deal with. I’d like to spend time with my daughter and have a wife who’s become quite the force to deal with. But they did give me visitation rights every other weekend.
Your Satan describes Hell as “Port Authority with much, much, much more urine and fewer bomb threats.” I know for New Yorkers Port Authority is pretty damn close to their personal Hell.
Yeah, it’s pretty damn close—especially in the days I went to New York in the ’60s. I’m from New Jersey, and when I went to New York in the early ’60s and into the ’70s, man, New York went through a hell of a hell. I mean, it was pretty bad. And I’d ride that bus from Asbury like 60 miles to Port Authority, which is where I got off. Before I moved to Brooklyn or Manhattan, I was riding the bus from Asbury to the city to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and so Port Authority was a special place for me. In the early days—I haven’t been there in a while—you’d have to pull your hat down over your head, hunch over, and try to get through it before somebody comes out of the shadows—not to give Taika Waititi a plug, who I love! But it’s a Hell. It’s that gnawing spot in your life that you can’t get over; that hurdle that’s there, and it can be so uncomfortable. But I like to dress it up as Satan in Little Demon, because I want you to come. There’s nothing that makes me happier than racking up souls!
What would your idea of Hell be—and who would be there?
The Danny DeVito that you know, and the Danny DeVito that is hidden behind this mask, I mean, I could think on it, but I certainly don’t want to go there. It’s really not a pretty place. We all have our own demons. A friend used to say, “I get up in the morning and every day I look in the obituaries and see that I’m not in it, I think it’s going to be a good day.” Not to be frivolous about life and death, because we’re all struggling in this world—some more than others. We have a Hell on Earth right now that we have to deal with. There are certain elements that are playing right into the hands of the evil forces, and it’s hard to figure out why. It’s difficult to understand why people make certain choices in the world, and why they choose to have no compassion and no humanity.
I interviewed you and Lucy about Curmudgeons, the touching gay love story you made about two older men in love, and one example of what you’re talking about is the demonization of the LGBTQ community we’re seeing now primarily by those on the right.
Yeah. There’s kind of this misdirect. I always look at it in the broader sense, where you go to a magic show and there’s this magician who always has this assistant, who’s usually scantily clad and there for a reason. She drops a prop, we all look over there, and the next thing you know the magician is doing his trick. It’s using the LGBTQ community and minorities as a scapegoat. There’s always a scapegoat. There’s always something that’s used as the tool for the military-industrial complex, just so they can spend trillions of dollars on fearmongering. That’s what the wars are. We have this horrible nugget of faulty DNA where we, as a human race, feel inclined to want everything—at all costs—and the only way we can do it is to have a scapegoat. Like, let’s blame all the immigrants that are coming in! Let’s blame all the African Americans that we brought here in chains! Let’s keep them down! Why not live? Why can’t we live together? Because there’s greed and evil in the world. And we have to combat it at every turn.
War is not the place to go. That’s off the table right away. If I’m the devil, I would abolish it. Did you ever see the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still? The Robert Wise one? Michael Rennie is shot and Gort immediately melts all the weapons with his beam. I would do that.
You are responsible for, in my opinion, one of the greatest tweets of all time. And that is, “Antonin Scalia retire bitch.”
[Laughs] Yeah. I was angry. I try to curtail myself. I remember my first tweet was, “My balls are on fire.” And then I tried to figure out where to go from there, and I started tweeting pictures of my foot—trollfoot—but every once in a while, you need an “Antonin Scalia retire bitch” or “Supreme Court my ass.” Like, what is that all about? What are you talkin’ about? People are so full of bull. They’re job junkies, is what it is. They can’t do anything else, so they need to raise money, and they need to demonize somebody, and they go and take women’s rights away? Come on! Let’s root for Chrissy! Come on, Laura! Come on, Chrissy! Come on, Little Demon! Let’s revolutionize the world and put a stop to all this nonsense. Let’s have some fun.
You know, I went to the movies the other night for the first time in I don’t know how long. I’m not gonna say what I saw, but it doesn’t matter. I ate a half a box of Raisinets! It was great! We gotta get back to the movies. I love watching TV, and I know that Little Demon is coming to FXX and is gonna stream on Hulu after that, but boy, can we go out to the movies, please? I miss going into that big room and having everything go dark, and we escape. I’m all for it, man. I’m all for escaping, having a box of Goobers, and a box of popcorn—although they didn’t have Goobers, so I got Raisinets. It’s a joy, Raisinets.
Do you put the Raisinets in the popcorn?
Yes, you can do that. You do that? That’s your style?
Not always! Only when I’m feeling particularly… self-destructive.
The sweet and the salt! I like that too! Getting ready to touch the inner self.
You said before that “the future is female,” and I’m curious if you can expand a bit on that in the context of Little Demon.
I feel like… independence and freedom. We should be allowed to be ourselves and be in touch with ourselves, always. And respect each other. And allow everybody to be themselves. Chrissy is 13 years old, and she’s going through something. Boys go through this cathartic thing. People go through it—whatever it is, however you feel. What do you feel like inside? We want to be in touch with that. Well, why wouldn’t we allow somebody to be in touch with that, however or whatever it is? Look outside at the clouds, the sun, the grass, the creatures, and let’s embrace it. We’ve got this beautiful planet we’re driving into the ground. OK, so we don’t use straws. Great. Let’s not fill the ocean with plastic. But let’s see if we can get some of these bozos to make bigger moves. I’m off onto the environment now.
Hey, I couldn’t agree more. You mentioned Oswald Cobblepot earlier, and this year marked the 30th anniversary of Batman Returns, which remains one of my favorite superhero pictures. I think it’s held up remarkably well.
Tim Burton, I’ve worked with him four or five times now, and it’s a wonderful experience working with him. We keep in touch, and hopefully we’ll do more together. I can’t remember how long it took us to make the movie, but it was a glorious time. As soon as I got into that suit that he devised and the makeup, Ve Neill did the makeup, it was liberating. He’s a good director, and you watch him paint on the set. I was really happy with Oswald Cobblepot.
I read that Jack Nicholson talked you into doing it, and you were so immersed in the role that you stayed in character between takes.
Yeah. I think I talked Jack into Terms of Endearment, and he not so much talked me into it, but said, “You should definitely do this.” And once I got into the costume of Oswald, I got into it.
Did you see Colin Farrell’s Penguin in the new Batman movie?
I did. I dug it. I thought it was good. It’s totally different, but Colin is a terrific actor and a good friend. I saw it and heard they’re doing a series. If I were to do Oswald again, it would be on Broadway.
As a musical? I’m picturing dancing penguins.
Let your mind be free! [Laughs]
I read that the penguins on Batman Returns were treated like royalty. Tim Burton apparently flew them in from England and gave them their own temperature-controlled trailer.
Oh, they were. I don’t know where they came from, but my lair that Tim designed was freezing. They had air conditioners the size of somebody’s house adjacent to that stage, and I was the only one in that room who was comfortable besides the birds. The water was ice-cold—and it had to be, because it was their environment—and we shot that scene on a big stage. I went in there with pounds of padding, so I was warm, but everyone else had parkas on like they were in Antarctica. Those penguins were really comfortable. We got to watch ’em play and everyone treated them very great.
I am a child of the ’90s, so Michael Keaton will always be my Batman. But I’m curious what it’s been like for you to see so many Batmans after him.
I watch ’em all. I just watched The Dark Knight again three nights ago with [Heath] Ledger and Gary Oldman and the whole crew. I grew up with that as a kid. I was a comic-book kid. I was not only into Green Lantern, Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and the superheroes, but also was a cartoon kid. I loved all the Warner Bros. cartoons and all the Disney stuff—Mickey, Donald, Goofy. There was a candy store in Asbury that had a soda fountain, and at night the train would come down from New York and drop off the morning papers. So, late at night you’d go down to get The New York Times or the Post or whatever your family was into. I would drive down with my parents as a kid, and they had a comic book rack that was like you died and went to heaven. I would always come back with a half-dozen comics.
I was a comics kid too. I saw that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez live in your old Beverly Hills home, and I also saw that it had a hair salon inside it. I’m curious if you put that in there, given your early days working at your sister’s hair salon.
That property went through a lot of changes. We sold it a while ago. The kids were raised there in the middle of Beverly Hills, but they split [the property] up into three things and sold it off to three different entities. I think Jennifer and Ben live in the one that was mine. I haven’t been back to the house, and I don’t know whether someone else did that. I didn’t have a hair salon. We did have a room that the kids called “The Art Room” which I did for them to just not worry about anything—paint on the walls, anything goes—and in that room there was a shampoo sink with a little dip in it, but Rhea and the girls used that. I never used it. I left my hairdressing days in Jersey when I went to New York in the early ’60s. That was the last of my beauty-parlor days.
Do you ever think about that? That there’s this alternate history where you’re in Jersey running a hair salon?
Oh, absolutely. I’m the baby in the family, so my sisters were 10 years older than me and 16 years older. My uncle John was a stylist, and when I was a kid, I used to watch him do finger waves—like tiers [in the hair]. That was an art. But I think about it because it was a good time. I really enjoyed it. I was a teenager when I did that.
I read that you were considered to play George Costanza on Seinfeld. Is that true?
No. I never did. After Louie [on Taxi], no. I don’t remember that at all. Jason [Alexander] did great in that. I was offered the part of Joey on Friends.
No! [Laughs] I’m only kidding.
Now I’m picturing you saying, “How you doin’?” That would have made the show more interesting, in my opinion.
[Mimics Joey] “How you doin’?” One part I did miss was in Thelma & Louise, I was supposed to play the Brad Pitt part. That’s another joke!
By the way, I’m a Death to Smoochy defender.
Oh, baby! It’s a great movie!
Just an incredible Robin Williams performance.
Robin is great, and Edward [Norton], and Catherine [Keener]. We even had Jon Stewart in there! He always says he’s the fourth lead in Death to Smoochy. He’s great in the movie. Harvey Fierstein. And Pam Ferris, who plays the mobster, was also Trunchbull in Matilda. That part was originally written as an Irish mobster guy named Tommy, but I made it a woman named Tommy, and she was great in that. That was a lot of fun.
It’s now got a cult following, but at the time was treated very harshly.
There are a lot of people who like it. I don’t blame the public. It wasn’t the public so much as the studio. I say that the studio buried it. That was a Warner Bros. thing, and at the time, the studio was run by people who didn’t really appreciate it. Robin was great in it. Michael Rispoli. Danny Woodburn. And Edward gives a hell of a performance in it. If anyone wants to do a screening of that I would definitely show up.
You, Jon Stewart and Edward Norton should host a Death to Smoochy screening.
I’m in. Jon’s a talented comedian and was great on [The Daily Show], but he’s also good in the movie. And I tip my hat to him for all the work he’s doing for veterans and 9/11 first responders. It’s a really important thing to have somebody with that much passion standing up for you.
Have you seen this fanny pack online called Fanny DeVito?
I’m not sure. Maybe I’ve seen Fanny DeVito. But I’ve seen all the tattoos that people, God bless them, get of Frank on Always Sunny, and Ongo Gablogian. And I’ve seen the Danny Dorito.
This is Fanny DeVito. It’s a fanny pack and… I own one.
Fanny DeVito! That’s terrific! It’s great. I love it. I tell people that anything you can think of to put a smile on people’s face, do it. No matter what. We’ve got to lift up people’s spirits. That’s what I love about the job we do.