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Robert Davi on ‘The Great Chameleon,’ and How It Pushes the Boundaries of Political Correctedness

Robert Davi has been in some of the biggest movies of all time, and you might not even know his name, or even remember his face right away. A long-standing character actor with an impressive résumé, Davi has made memorable turns in mainstream hits like “The Goonies,” “Die Hard,” and even played the Bond villain in “The Living Daylights.” Born in New York, he was trained by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, the husband/wife team that honed the likes of Brando, Pacino, James Dean and generations of Oscar-winning thespians.

So, what’s a guy like that doing in a film that starts out with a man taking a poop on a restaurant floor while pretending to be mentally disabled in order to steal a hamburger? Davi was in town to talk about “The Great Chameleon,” an offensive-to-the-max comedy that elicits few laughs.

Moviefone sat down with Robert in a Toronto hotel bar, and was soon joined by the film’s writer/producer/star Victor Altomare, hours before their film’s premiere.

Moviefone: Were you friends with Victor before this project began?
Robert Davi: We became friends. I looked him up online, thought he was pretty zany and had a lot of talent. I have kids that watch the Adam Sandler movies, “Borat,” all of that stuff. I wanted to do something that was absolutely politically incorrect and go crazy.

I get a little upset with being too politically correct. You can’t tell a woman she’s got a nice set of wheels — she gets offended. In the old days, all of those [Rat Pack] cats could make fun of each other.

What couldn’t they make fun of? Where’s the limit? What do you think is inappropriate?
RD: Oh, there is a limit. For me there is.

So what is your limit?
RD: Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that breaking the limit in the film. I look at it like this: remember Picasso with cubism and Beethoven when he first came out? People couldn’t understand the dissonance. Not that I’m comparing it to the high arts, but still, it’s shocking. There’s an attempt to try to shake up the egg and that’s what it is.

As the writer and as the principal performer, how did you choose between funny as opposed to strictly going for offensive?
Victor Altomare: I actually didn’t know, to be honest with you. These are characters that I studied over the years, Jamaican friends of mine that I took a character from, an [Asian] that I took from.
I hear some of that stuff [charges of racism] and it hurts my feelings because I’m not racial. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and they say that I’m stereotyping. These are real guys that I studied and I admired their characters and I took them and I put them here.

I’m an artist and I didn’t do this to hurt anybody. We went a little far, a little over the top, but I mean, you know, it’s a lot of fun, I’m not here to hurt anybody.

RD: You have a guy like Goran [Kalezic, the director], who likes mayhem, the more mayhem the better. And that’s what he pushed. He’s like Mephistopheles, he’s nutty. We were pushing the envelope.

VA: We wanted to shrink the tone down and Robert was constantly helping me throughout the whole thing. He was being hard on me, which was hurting my feelings, but he was saying you need to do this, to shrink all of that mayhem and cut and don’t push it to those places, you’ve got to be careful.

RD: It wasn’t just a paycheque or a job, it became more wanting to help a talent that’s been in Toronto for how many years and I think not recognized, a guy that has an ability to play these characters.

Did you see the film?

I did.
RD: What is your response? Honestly.

I saw at certain times it went further than I personally thought it should have gone, not because I was offended by the topics, but because for me it veered into indulgence. What do you guys think of the film? Can you watch it all the way through and still laugh at the jokes?
VA: I can criticize it until I’m blue in the face.

RD: Don’t lie. He’s a liar. He’s full of shit. He will laugh at his stuff.

Who better to criticize it than the guy who wrote it and starred in it and produced it?
VA: I criticize it constantly because I’m too close to it, to be honest.It was hell because I had to go back into it and restructure it to make it a story and it was mayhem.

RD: That’s where I tried to help you, because it was amorphous.

VA: I created a beginning, a middle and an end and that’s what Richard was pushing me to do. Three editors differed, and at the end I hadn’t slept for 30 or 40 days. Hopefully, there’s some sort of story there.

Given the critical reception, is there anything you would have pulled back on?
RD: I didn’t want the defecation. I fought against it, I thought it was in poor taste. What I did do, I said to [Victor] you’ve got to set up that you want that hamburger really bad, because there was no setup for the hamburger. We should have started talking about the hamburger early on.

Now you guys are friends — are Hollywood friendships different than normal friendships?
RD: There are friends of yours that you can get in Hollywood that are fraternal. For instance, James Franco. Years ago, I did a show called “Profiler” for NBC and he was a guest star on that. He was on Howard Stern a few months ago and he talked about how during “Profiler” he got the script for “Freaks and Geeks” and I helped him with the audition.

All these years later I see him in New York, we had a big hug and now I’m doing his next film. I’m friends with Sly Stallone, but I’ve never worked with him. I was supposed to do “Rambo,” but I did “Goonies” instead.

Looking back at your career, are there performances that really stand out that you wish to highlight that people have missed? Clearly working with Sinatra was a huge influence.
RD: There was no one bigger than Sinatra, nor is there nor will there ever be in terms of entertainment. He tackled everything from film to TV to records to voice, the gamut of entertainment. People ask what [my] favourite film is, but I haven’t done it yet.

“The Great Chameleon” has a limited run at the Royal Cinema in Toronto.

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