Gabriel Jandali Appel
An in-depth chat with the comic legend Mike Myers.
The day Mike Myers completed high school, he was offered a job as a comic performer for the feted Second City Theatre Company in Toronto. Abandoning plans to study film at university, Myers accepted, and of course, has retained the title of comic performer to this day. Myers is that rare funnyman who’s characters have managed to eclipse him in fame, creating two of the most successful comedy franchises in history with Wayne’s World and Austin Powers, and anchoring the most successful comedy franchise in history by lending Shrek his Scotch burr (introduced to the world in 1993’s So I Married An Axe Murderer). I spoke to Myers about his work, ranging from his teen years touring Wayne Campbell in clubs across Canada to his Netflix show The Pentaverate (2022), a British limited series in the classic mold, taking place inside the secret lair of a five-member society responsible for guiding the path of humanity. Along the way, we touched on Myers’s method for developing characters, his love for Canada, his thoughts on current-day American culture, and his feelings on fatherhood. Ahem, “Yeah, baby.”—Gabriel Jandali Appel
Mike Myers performing at the Tunnel, London, 1986
GABRIEL JANDALI APPEL: We might as well begin at the beginning; you started performing full-time when you were quite young.
MIKE MYERS: I started at Second City in 1982—this is the theater that Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, and John Candy were actors at. I’d just turned 19, and it was my last day of high school: my last exam was at 9am, I auditioned at 12, and by three o’clock I was a member of the Second City touring company—the junior company that goes to all the towns around Toronto, not the Mainstage company, which is the one at the theater. I don’t think I was ready yet. I was very young. I was watching my friends in The Kids In the Hall, especially Dave Foley, who were working in the ensemble. I thought what they were doing was brilliant, and I wanted to be in that troupe.
But they weren’t going to promote me to the Mainstage, so I moved to England. I formed a classic comedy double act with a guy named Neil Mullarkey, “Mullarkey and Myers,” doing very fun and cool work. And getting hired! We were going to do a BBC radio series, all these things. We did that for three, four years. Then my dad got ill, and I came back to Toronto. I would have stayed in England, to be honest, had my dad not gotten sick... Then I got hired for the Mainstage of the Toronto Second City; I moved to Chicago [Second City], did that for a year. I loved my time there. And then I got hired for Saturday Night Live in 1988, which was crazy and out of the blue. Martin Short, the producer Pam Thomas, and Dave Foley all said to Lorne [Michaels, SNL creator and producer], “You should probably hire this guy,” which was great. I didn’t audition—if I had auditioned, I don’t think I would have gotten in.
GJA: You were doing Wayne Campbell the night all those people called Lorne and said, “You should hire him,” correct?
MM: Yes. It was the 15th anniversary of Second City Toronto, and on a technicality I was allowed to be in the show. It was just one of those magical nights, it killed with this crowd.
GJA: Was Wayne the first sketch you performed on SNL?
MM: No, I was put in a sketch called “You Mock Me” with John Malkovich. A really funny sketch that Al Franken wrote. The premise was that he was a king, and anything anybody said to him, the king went, “You mock me, and I will not be mocked”—you know, in that Malkovich way. I was terrified. Because it really is live TV, and it is actually quite terrifying.
Now, I’d done Canadian TV; I did a sketch called “Wayne’s Power Minute,” on a show called It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll, which had gained a bit of popularity—that’s what Loren saw as well. But I didn’t do “Wayne’s World” on SNL until my third show. I had no idea whether anybody would like it. It was the last sketch of the night, and then it just kept getting on, which was great.
GJA: One of my favorite jokes from an early Wayne’s World sketch is when Wayne and Garth are doing movie reviews, and everyone is “It sucked!” or “I liked it… not!” Then Wayne gets to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and says, “I thought it wasn’t so much a movie as it was an essay of man in society. And though the topic of free will versus determinism is fascinating, I would hardly call it entertainment.” The fact that you’re a cinephile carries through all of your work. You were originally planning to study film at Toronto’s York University; in what capacity would that have been?
MM: There was a choice of film studies or production. I thought, well, I’d already done TV commercials as a kid, and I’d read many books about the more technical aspects—if you want to be a director, the more logistical arts of it can be learned. Plus if you work with fantastic people, great cinematographers, lighting people… But what I wanted was a very classical and full film-history education.
In Toronto, we had great second-run theatres and I’d go three times a week. You could see Truffaut, Godard, Cassavetes, Louis Malle, Bergman… but also you could see Young Frankenstein (1974), and every now and then a Burt Reynolds movie, which I liked, all these guys getting along, having fun.
I had friends like Dave Foley, we’d have debates about Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Foley really got me into Buster Keaton. I ended up using a lot of my love of Keaton in the Austin Powers movies, where there were bigger gags, like a steamroller chase, wide shots… The penis-blocking scene, the 27-point turn [with the luggage cart], all stuff that isn’t “page funny” but is “scene funny,” hopefully.
And documentaries—that’s what I actually thought I was going to be, a documentary filmmaker. Because I loved improv as well, I thought I had a possibility of being a John Cassavetes, a John Sayles, or an Alex Cox, who directed Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986)—that I was going to be like an underground punk rocker filmmaker. I thought I could create the Canadian New Wave, you know?
Shep Gordon and Mike Myers attend a screening of Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, New York, 2014
GJA: Though you did actually become a documentary filmmaker, in 2013, with Supermensch. How did that come about?
MM: Supermensch was a documentary I wanted to make for 20 years. When I first met Shep Gordon, he was Alice Cooper’s manager—he still is—and he’s just a really lovely, decent person. He is ubiquitous. He is the man behind the curtain. I’ve always been interested in people like Lorne Michaels; Derek Taylor, the publicist for the Beatles; the people behind the people… But he’s very modest, our Shep. I just harangued him so much he eventually said yes.
The film is really about two things: it’s about the toxicity, that fame is the industrial disease of creativity. It’s not an end in itself. It’s the toxic sludge of making stuff, and it’s lethal. I had seen Chris Farley pass away, and my very close friend Phil Hartman. I’d seen a lot of people get messed up with drugs and stuff like that. I thought, Shep’s shown a path of how to go through that and still just be a person. Also, what I don’t even think he realized, is that being a father was actually his greatest aspiration. He ended up having a baby. He’s now a dad, even at his older age. But he had Lamaze birthed all these other careers. In a weird way, I think his creating and birthing these careers was a synthetic version of what he truly wanted in his heart: to make a human. Which he did.
GJA: Do you feel like you have done the same?
MM: Yes… In many ways, everything you do is autobiographical, even if it’s a biography of somebody else. I realized probably what drew me to Shep’s wanting to have kids was really I wanted to have kids. I recognized in him something that was yearning in me. In my twenties, I was very immersed in my career, and in making stuff, just make, make, make. I still am working on many things, but I have three kids under the age of 11, and the last 16 years has been me just learning to... That’s been the happiest time of my life, actually, prioritizing trying to get healthy and taking care of these kids. Still making stuff, but with the correct priority.
GJA: We’re going to talk about that stuff, if you’d be so kind. But I want to ask you first about directing, because, at least according to the internet, Supermensch is the only film you’ve directed.
MM: I directed a music video, too. And one of the things in comedy… if you’re the main comedic voice—when I wrote the Austin Powers movies, when I wrote Wayne’s World—you end up having much more say than in any other film narrative. Especially if there’s physical jokes, cinematic jokes, like the picture’s juxtaposed, it’s not just words. Being a comedy actor is much more like being a stuntman than it is just being a dramatic actor. And there’s an element of direction in that, because it’s your comedic vision that needs to be realized. You know what key shots are needed to tell the story of the joke.
But ultimately, Jay [Roach] is the director, and Penelope Spheeris was the [Wayne’s World] director. For me, Jay made manifest the Austin Powers world. He made the dream happen. He kept the heart alive, he kept the story alive, and did a spectacular job… I always feel the number one job of directors in a comedy is to record a comedic performance. The second job is to tell a story. And the third is to have style. I’ve always wanted to have all three.
GJA: When you say "have style" as a director, what is that? What does that mean?
MM: Style is knowing the tone. Style is bringing it up off the page. In the case of Austin Powers, Jay was very much the keeper of the world Austin lived in, that it should be Coca Cola reds, AT&T blues, Kodak yellows, and soft, everything soft. Whereas Dr. Evil’s world was going to be gray, black, silver—and everything can kill you. So there’s staircases that don’t have railings. Everything is pointy and sharp; the table, you could poke an eye out with that table. Even around the pool where the sharks have laser beams, there was no railing; everything was potentially dangerous, cold. In the stone soup where everybody puts an ingredient in, this was one of Jay’s greatest contributions. So the style is in support of the dream.
People often say dreams are private movies and movies are public dreams—this is a rephrasing of Joseph Campbell talking about myths, that our dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams. I think that way about movies. I love to be transported, I love that sensation when you come out of a film—you know, seeing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and then coming out onto Yonge Street in Toronto—and you have to readjust to life after having been in a complete, immaculate universe. I think that’s the ultimate special effect, what André Bazin called “presence,” when you no longer see the frame and you’re in the dream. You don’t see the proscenium, you don’t see the rectangle anymore, you’re just inside of it. It’s a very pleasurable place to be, and educational, all the good things.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)
GJA: Austin Powers, Wayne’s World, So I Married an Axe Murderer—these are all Mike Myers movies; you are the main creative force, even though they’re directed by other people. How is that process different when you’re in a supporting role, say your recent turns in Amsterdam (2022) or Inglourious Basterds (2009)?
MM: In a supporting role, I feel my job is to serve, you know, to serve David O Russell’s dream, Tarantino’s dream. I come in and I offer: is it this? Is it this? In the case of Inglourious Basterds, I first spoke to Tarantino—it was supposed to be a two-hour conversation, we spoke for something like six to eight hours about this character. But I had ideas for the make-up, and I thought, “Let’s do a make-up test, to see what it is.” The make-up guy came with pieces already made, a whole vision, and I was like, “But—” In the nicest possible way, he said, “No, this is what Quentin wants, right?” And I was down with that. Is that what he has in mind? Spectacular. I’ll do my best, I serve at the pleasure of the President.
GJA: On the topic of make-up, is it true you’ve worked with the same prosthetics person since Saturday Night Live?
MM: I worked with somebody else on 54 (1998), on Inglourious Basterds, and somebody different again on The Cat in the Hat (2003), but everything else, it’s been Louie Zakarian, who is an unbelievable genius and amazing collaborator. You know, the essence of improv is to agree and add, and his adds are always spectacular. And he’s a problem-solver, too. So much of this stuff is crafty, it’s more engineering than we’ll just go out there and make art [toffy accent]. There’s tons of practicalities. It has to be makeable make-up, and that’s Louie Zakarian. [Praise hands]
GJA: Your most recent collaboration, The Pentaverate, was a huge job for Louie. You play a lot of characters.
MM: He loved the challenge. He and I designed seven make-ups—we actually had an eighth that we ended up not doing. Each [character], we designed kind of like Mr. Potatohead; one guy is bald; one guy has long hair… They all had their own unique silhouette.
GJA: I wasn’t going to ask this, but as it’s relevant to the conversation... In the last episode of The Pentaverate, you appear naked, for what I believe is the first time on film.
MM: No, that is a prosthetic penis.
GJA: That was going to be my question.
MM: Yes. That is a prosthetic penis. We were trying to go for “the button in the bush” penis look.
GJA: You were successful.
MM: Thank you.
GJA: Keep in mind, I’ve had 20 years of watching you be artfully abstracted. It was quite a shock.
MM: Actually that was an expensive shot, because to keep the prosthetic penis in place, I had to wear a nudie belt, which is like underwear that is Caucasian flesh-colored, if you’re Caucasian, and then each frame has to be painted out. We wanted to shock. Also, to sort of comment on HBO and all those shows where you have to see their bits and pieces. [Director] Tim Kirby was very keen it be the ugliest penis imaginable. There were a lot of penis meetings.
GJA: What you were saying before about the Buster Keaton–inspired set pieces in Austin Powers, The Pentaverate has these, too. It was the first TV show—or movie, really—that I’ve seen in years to have these ambitious comic set pieces, which I really miss, I was happy to see them back.
MM: Yeah, I was like, “What aren’t people doing right now?” There’s a contraction of everything in filmed entertainment at the moment, no matter whether it’s Hollywood or streaming... But I wanted to make sure the show had a science-fiction feel. I wanted it to be weird. To not explain too much, to be silly at the same time. I got to shoot in England, which was a joy, and during the pandemic—not at its worst, just as it loosened up. There were still a lot of shackles on where we could go for locations. We got shut down a couple of times. It was challenging, but I had a great experience.
The Pentaverate (2022)
GJA: The Pentaverate is inspired by some of the conspiracy theories in So I Married An Axe Murderer, but it comments on American political culture a lot more than that film, or any of your other work. Specifically, the grip conspiracy theories have recently held over so much of our population.
MM: Well, I grew up very working class, but my parents were relentlessly self-improving working-class people. I grew up in a country that is actually a very good level playing field: I had a great school; our teachers were spectacular. I grew up in government-assisted housing, so I’m the spectre of what good effective government can be. Conspiracy theories, to me, are a threat to all that. It angers me, for working people to be led astray; it’s good to be skeptical of the government, but not defeatist… But when you are holding on to the unlikely for whatever reason, everybody is harmed.
I thought I could do a serious movie about it—or I could do a sillier, more British limited series, rather. The other thing was a much more sobering statistic: the Holocaust, the highest skepticism of it, was about four years ago. And my parents fought in World War II, my dad was in the Royal Engineers of the British Army, my mom was in the RAF... I know it sounds heavy to go, “The comedy series was based on the Holocaust,” but that disinformation was the last straw for me... I have three kids. What kind of America are they going to grow up in? It starts to get kind of real and horrible, you know?
GJA: To try lighten things up here, I’ve written, “Are you familiar with the images of Ivanka Trump gazing at Justin Trudeau?”
MM: I think he’s dreamy, and I’m super proud of having such a dreamy Prime Minister. I actually just saw him a couple of days ago in New York. We watched about 20 minutes of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay game at the Canadian consulate, and he gave a spectacular speech about the global citizens movement. I couldn’t be more Canadian than at that moment.
GJA: What urged you to write your book Canada, in 2016?
MM: Mike Myers’s Canada—because I didn’t think to write a book about Canada as if I were the last word. The thing is, I’ve lived more not-in-Canada now than I’ve lived in Canada. There’s no one more Canadian than a Canadian who no longer lives in Canada. You become sentimental for many things.
In Canada, most of our founding literature is man versus nature. It’s what’s called the stockade mentality. We have a common enemy in winter. You tend to think more as a community of how we’re going to survive; I wouldn’t say socialist, but socialized… We’re a pluralistic democracy, we’re a very fragile big idea: all of us from around the world—all of us should live together, and what will bond us is good government, peace and order, prosperity and safety. It’s not terribly sexy, but I do miss it. So, I wanted to write a book. Also, Canada was turning 150. It was a way to have an autobiography without it being about, you know, me, so much.
GJA: And your work is getting more Canadian. At least superficially—I say superficially because I don’t portend to understand the soul of your nation. But The Love Guru (2008) is set in Canada. And I think Ken Scarborough [from The Pentaverate] is your most Canadian character yet.
GJA: Is this a conscious effort to try to go back home?
Mike Myers endorsing Justin Trudeau on Last Week Tonight in 2015.
MM: I think so. I think there’s a yearning there. There’s a famous quote from [a song covered by] Elvis Costello, which is “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?” That’s how I feel about Canada. I try and go as much as I can... When I get to Toronto, my jaw unhinges, my shoulders drop down to my hips. It’s a very easy place.
GJA: I first learned who Burt Bacharach was from Austin Powers, just as I first heard “Bohemian Rhapsody” watching Wayne’s World. Can you talk a bit about music in your films?
MM: Well, some of my training is with Del Close, one of the founding members of Second City way back when, in Chicago. He taught that all creative pursuits feed off each other. For example, I paint now, it’s a hobby. But he’s the person that said if you want to write, paint, pick up an instrument, you should! Because they’re all connected. So one of the things I would do when creating a character is imagine they came from a country, and that it had a national anthem and a flag. For me, Austin Powers’s national anthem was “The Look of Love” by Burt Bacharach. For Wayne, it was “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and for [SNL character] Linda Richmond it was anything by Barbra Streisand. For Wayne, the flag would be made of a black T-shirt. For Austin, it would be crushed blue velvet. For Linda, a brocaded sweater. If you start to see it that way, everything is aligned… I didn’t call it The Wayne Show, I called it Wayne’s World, because that was something instilled in me by Del Close, to create not only the fish, but the water the fish is in. One of the things Jay said was that Austin is not a fish out of water; Austin is a fish who brings his own water to the ’90s.
Music has been everything. Even with Amsterdam, it was military music I played. With my character in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), it was ELO, because I wanted the guy to look and feel a bit like Jeff Lynne. That was the anthem, but also the poems of John Cooper Clarke, a poet from Salford, close to Manchester: [goes into thick Mancunian accent] Like a nightclub in the morning, you’re the bitter end. Like a recently disinfected shithouse, you’re clean round the bend. Everything’s musical.
GJA: Is that how you created Shrek?
MM: Shrek would be bagpipes, but the [anthem] would be “Mull of Kintyre” [by Wings] because it has a lot of heart and sweetness. Initially I did Shrek with a Canadian accent, but I didn’t think it was team completion. Eddie [Murphy] brought an African American voice to fairy tales, which are a Eurocentric form; John Lithgow brought an English upper-class [voice]. I thought the Canadian accent would clash too much; it sounds too much like Fiona [voiced by Cameron Diaz]. To make it more medieval, I thought I’d do it as this character I did called Lothar of the Hill People. That was a disaster, it roached my throat! I could do 15 minutes, then had to stop. So I said, “What about Scottish?” Jeffrey [Katzenberg] was against it at first… But Steven Spielberg loved it, Steven being part of the team at DreamWorks. And that’s how Shrek became Scottish.
GJA: I assume you saw Get Back (2021), the Beatles documentary?
MM: I did, yes. I want to watch it again. And I understand there is an even longer version.
GJA: I would watch 20 hours.
MM: Me too. I didn’t want it to end. Next time Dana Carvey and I get a chance to be in the same city, which is been almost impossible, we’ve vowed to clear six hours, close the drapes and just get locked into that. That is our ultimate. For Dana and I, the Beatles is 70% of what we talk about.
GJA: I’ve kept you a long time already, but I haven’t asked about The Love Guru, and we’re at a 10-year anniversary. Looking back at that film, what do you feel?
MM: I wanted to make a movie about spirituality. And I want to make a movie about hockey. That’s really all I can say. That’s what came out, know what I mean? I had fun making it.
Gabriel Jandali Appel is an editor at The Metrograph Journal.
Mike Myers presenting a screening of Shrek at Metrograph in April 2023