Billy Crystal talks about his big-screen return in ‘Parental Guidance’

Movie Talk
Parental Guidance
Parental Guidance

This Christmas, Billy Crystal is headed back to the big screen after nearly a decade away. "Parental Guidance," which Crystal stars in, produced, and co-wrote the story for, is his first leading role since 2002's "Analyze That." (He did have an uncredited cameo in 2010's "Tooth Fairy.")

This new movie pairs Crystal with Bette Midler as a couple of grandparents called upon by their adult daughter to watch over their three young grandchildren.  The problems start when the older generation's notions of child rearing clash with the new methods that are popular today.

I spoke on the phone with Crystal about how his relationships with his real-life kids and grandkids inspired his new movie. He also explained why he's been largely absent from movie screens as of late, and whether or not he's planning on hosting the Oscars again anytime soon.

Matt McDaniel: How did the idea for 'Parental Guidance' come about?
Billy Crystal: The idea started for it when my wife and I had our granddaughters here for five days, when my kids went away. And on the sixth day, I rested. I came into the office and I said, 'Okay, here's the movie: it's old school/new school. It's trying to follow all the rules that my kids had about how to take care of the girls. And it could really be a movie for everybody; a family movie that could be really funny, which it is, and very touching, which it is, and have lessons learned, which it does.  It took a long time to get this made, but here we are.

MM: This is your first leading role in a decade, since 2002's "Analyze That." Was the long development a factor in your time away?
BC: It's a combination of a lot of things. Most of that time I was preparing my Broadway show, "700 Sundays," and then touring with it. And then, the process of making this movie and getting it done was all I was focusing on.  And there wasn't anything I was getting that I really loved, and I'd rather not do something than to do something that wasn't very good. So that's where we are. And I'm thrilled with this movie, and working with Bette and Marissa and these kids was really fantastic. It's everything I wanted it to be.

Watch the exclusive trailer premiere for 'Parental Guidance':

'Parental Guidance' Theatrical Trailer

MM: How did you decide on Bette Midler to play your partner?
BC: When it got really close to Fox saying 'We're going to make it it,' then you start getting serious about casting. When we were writing, we really didn't think about any one person until we started to go, 'All right, we're really going to make this.' And then Andy Fickman, who directed the movie -- beautifully, I have to say -- we started talking about Bette. He used to be head of development at her company. And he said, 'You two together would just be so perfect.'

Bette and I have known each other for a long time -- over 30 years. And we always talked about 'We've got to do something together,' because our sensibilities are very similar. When this came up, we met, she loved it, and the studio loved the idea of the two of us together, and there we go. And every day on the set we were like a couple who had been married for a long time. We knew what to say, when to say it, when not to say something. Our timings were great. We cared about each other, and each other's performances, and it shows in the movie, and also in our relationship to the kids. It was really a great coup to get her, and a dream to work with her.

Parental Guidance
Parental Guidance

MM: Were there real stories from your life that made it into the movie?
BC: There are a couple little moments that are [taken from real life]. When the first writers, Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, wrote the screenplay, they were a young married couple with kids. So we would talk about our experiences. My as a parent, theirs as a parent, how that has changed.  And then things that I had started to experience with my grandchildren; I now have three. I think a lot of that filtered in.  It's very accurate and it's very personal that way.

MM: What do you think parents today get right and what do they get wrong?
BC: I don't know what they get wrong. I think the thing you come away with is there's no one way to do anything, and that there are different ways of handling certain situations and how you talk to kids and how you try to understand them instantly. And that's the thing: it's all instantly. You really have to be on your toes. So I don't think there's any one way. What you learn is, over time, to follow your instincts and usually they're right.

MM: I personally have two daughters, a two-and-a-half year old and a seven week old. Do you have any advice for new parents who are dealing with grandparents and have these sorts of conflicts?
BC: I think you have to, in the right way, talk to them about how you're raising the kids and they have to respect that.  More often than not, they're going to disagree with you. But I think you have to stick to your guns, and don't be confrontational with it. And get a baby nurse.

The key to being a good grandparent is being a good parent first. It's not necessarily right, just because it's the way things are done now, but you do have to respect the fact that they're not your kids. So I think that's a really important thing, is the time that you have with them has to be special. And it has to also be non-threatening and understood that you're an extension of the parents. And then when nobody's looking you spoil them.

MM: Was there something about the film process that you missed while you were focused on performing live?
BC: No. [Laughs]  If anything, I so loved my time on stage in the almost 4-5 years I was involved in my show -- I don't have to wait when I'm on stage. I don't have to have anybody say, 'Oop, cut, the sound was bad. Oop, I missed that shot. Oop, we have a plane and we have to do it over.' It was just me and the audience every night. Me and 2,000 people and I loved the odds.

The slowness and the exactness of making a movie was tough for me to get back into. But we had such a fun time it was worth every second of it. But I still prefer the stage.

MM: You hosted the Oscars last year after another extended absence. Are you thinking about hosting again?
BC: I don't know. We'll see what happens. I have a really busy year this year. This comes out Christmas Day, and "Monsters University" comes out in June. And I'm writing a book that's going to be published in March. So this is an incredibly busy year that I'm really excited about, so we'll see.

"Parental Guidance" opens nationwide on Christmas Day.