The star of comedy Meet the Fockers shares his thoughts on childhood Christmases, studio executives and talking to the animals.
Merry Christmas! Do you celebrate it…?
We hedge our bets by celebrating Hanukah and Christmas. You have to celebrate Christmas in some fashion because that's when things close up, and when the kids get out of school, so we always celebrate. We are a tight family and now, with all the kids out of the house, it's the one time we can get together. But I never forget to tell my Christian friends that word has it Jesus Christ was really born in the summer, and that the merchandisers changed it…
What were your childhood Christmases like?
There was some tension. My father was a salesman and when he came home and he hadn't made much money, the place was electric with negative vibes. But we didn't know the difference. And if my memory serves me correctly, he was wonderful on Christmas morning - we did celebrate and there were presents around the tree.
We'd see the best of him and the worst of him though because he was obsessive-compulsive to say the least, so the wrapping paper had to be folded in such a way and put in the waste paper basket immediately and you had to look at the toy, then put it back in the box and in a corner - so it rather killed the spontaneity.
Are you like that yourself?
Someone said we mock what we are soon to become ourselves, and whether it's bred into us or in our DNA I don't know, but because I grew up with it, I fight it. If there's a mess I sit there and say "It's alright, don't worry - it will get cleared up in time".
You used your father as inspiration when you played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman?
My father always felt he was a failure - and in one sense he was, because he didn't rise to where he wanted - and I was nervous when my parents came to New York to see the play, and he came backstage and I asked "What did you think dad?" and he said "Boy, that guy you play, he's some loser". An extraordinary moment. He didn't recognise himself.
You seem to be choosing more light-hearted movies to work on these days?
Some people say everything you choose is autobiographical. Others would say you're choosing because you're philosophically connected, but I say "If it's a good script and you like the director and the cast, do it".
No one's going to give me Midnight Cowboy now, and there's no studio that would do it. There are plenty of films I see which I wished they had asked me to do. I would love to have had the Alan Arkin part in Little Miss Sunshine.
So has Hollywood changed since you first started acting?
"Hollywood is the only place where euthanasia is legal" - it's a good line isn't it? They say Jaws was the turning point - they carpet bombed the nation in 2,000 theatres. Now you have to be in the top three [highest-grossing films] in the first weekend. Everything is the first weekend.
But film studios never were your friends. That came to me years and years ago and they're no different today. The Marx brothers were the most gifted comedy team in the country and the studio didn't want them to do a comedy called The Big Store - "this is not a funny concept". And it has never changed.
Does that mean the people in charge aren't too bright?
There's an arrogance that I don't think we creative people share. We know what we can do, and we may make mistakes, but we make our living being creative and we freely admit we don't know dick about business. But they're not like that. They know about business, but they think they know equally about creativity. And I've never been able to figure out why they think that.
After you were given a lifetime achievement award you didn't act again for three years. Why?
Wow. A shocker. That hit me. I thought "My good stuff has gone and I've lost my fast ball". Usually when those things happen you don't know it. You put on your cardigan and walk around the house, and you don't know you're in a state of depression. I didn't. It was depression, and I didn't know it.
Did you have therapy?
I'm one of the foremost believers in therapy. I'd like to be buried with my therapist.
You've won two Oscars but what's your opinion on them?
They're not pure, and we treat them as if they are. Every year there are five nominations, but what if there are ten wonderful pieces of work? And how do you say one is better than the other?
Also, not everyone votes and there's no rule that says you have to see all the movies. I don't think it's "bought" though. In the old days people worked for a studio and you'd better vote for that studio! I leave the voting card blank if I haven't seen all the movies, but I know others who don't.
On a completely unrelated subject, we hear you're something of a Doctor Doolittle?
More than ever. I had a guinea pig and now a tortoise that I was given by Jenna, my 36-year-old daughter, and I named it Seventy. And two Labradors, Lewis and Murphy. Something tells me that the dogs miss the guinea pig sometimes - and that Seventy doesn't at all.
As a kid I always talked to animals. I know they can't talk in the way we do - but I'm positive they know what I'm saying. I ask them how they're doing, tell them I wish I could spend more time with them but I have to go to work - "I know you'd like to go to the park Lewis and Murphy". They want to go to the beach all day. I tell them I'm going away and they get morose, and when they see suitcases in the hall they practically have a nervous breakdown…