When an actor is pushing his new movie, and that actor happens to be Robin Williams, your standard-issue celebrity press conference has a way of turning into comedy central. A reporter praises Williams' impressive body of work, prompting the Oscar winner to fondle his chest like a Playboy Bunny. When another asks him why he wears a beard for certain roles and shaves it for others, he blurts out, among other, more risque sound bites:
"If it helps the character I'll lose weight, I'll gain weight -- I'll get breast implants. I'm not afraid."
(Pause. General laughter.)
"A beard helps in many ways, and it's easy because I can grow hair like a Chia Pet."
Williams joined the star-studded cast of the 24th Toronto International Film Festival to launch his latest film, "Jakob the Liar," which opened Friday. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a Jewish man in Nazi-occupied Poland who spreads false news of Allied victories to lift the spirits of fellow ghetto inhabitants.
Expectedly, "Jakob" has drawn comparisons to Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful."
"I don't think we should say that ('Life Is Beautiful') is the only film that has to be made. The subject is quite similar, but I think our approach is totally different," said director Peter Kassovitz, a Budapest native whose parents survived concentration camps while their son hid with a Catholic family.
Benigni's movie "is definitely a comedy," Williams added during a straighter moment. "Ours is a drama with moments of humor." The actor joked that, like Benigni, he follows "in the great tradition of gentiles playing Jews going back to Charlton Heston."
"And now he's going out on the road with Guns and Moses."
Based on a book by concentration camp survivor Jurek Becker, "Jakob the Liar" was first adapted for the screen in 1974 by a German production company. The new version was shot in Eastern Europe, beginning in Piotrkow, the location of the first Jewish ghetto in Poland.
"I didn't have a very personal relationship to the Holocaust or World War II, although I'm Jewish and Polish," said co-star Liev Schreiber. "But getting out of the car at Piotrkow, and walking through the streets of that ghetto, and seeing those bullet-riddled buildings and whole neighborhoods devastated by bombs that still haven't been redone? That certainly helps with character."
At a Berlin screening of "Jakob," Williams was introduced to one of the handful of survivors from the Piotrkow ghetto. "It was extraordinary to meet someone who had been in that place, who had survived that very specific place. He was talking about the street where he was confined after the liquidation of the ghetto. It's beyond making a movie when you're meeting history."
For a moment, the serious Williams took over, the same straight-faced Williams who earlier described "Jakob" as a drama interjected with bits of humor.
His press conference, however, played like a comedy that occasionally lapsed into drama.
At one point, a reporter prefaced his question with "Oh captain, my captain," the salute from "Dead Poets Society."
Williams told him to do it the right way: Stand on his chair, just as Ethan Hawke did.
The student journalist sheepishly did as he was told, then returned to terra firma. To what, he asked Williams, do you attribute all your success in Hollywood?
"I've done so well in Hollywood by living in San Francisco. It helps to have a distance from Hollywood.
"It's kind of like being in Switzerland during a nuclear war -- you can go, 'What was that noise?'
"When I lived in Hollywood I felt like a hemophiliac in a razor factory."