Danny DeVito: ‘Do all you can to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t become president’

How social-media activism (and an oddball sitcom) introduced the 80s star to a millennial audience

Danny DeVito is scrolling through his Twitter feed, looking at pictures of his own foot. Hes been sharing them under the hashtag #Trollfoot, which, for the uninitiated, is somewhere between a performance art project and a very public private joke: images and videos of the 71-year-old actors bare trotter held up against a variety of backdrops, gifted to his following of almost 4 million. Its kinda fun, DeVito says, speaking with the Guide over lunch in Manhattans Upper West Side. Theres no explanation, except its me and my foot. And you guys will look at it!

In a way, #Trollfoot resembles a classic DeVito character: grotesque, oddly engaging and, yes, impossible to stop looking at. Many of the diminutive actors most memorable creations are incorrigible, morally dubious types imbued with fizzy gusto and unabashed peculiarity. Consider his Sam Stone in dark comedy Ruthless People (1986), a millionaire businessman bent on murdering his wife (Bette Midler); Gavin DAmato, the super-sleazy lawyer in pitch-black marital farce The War Of The Roses (1989), which DeVito also directed; or the wickedly entertaining villain the Penguin in Tim Burtons Batman Returns (1992).

Fast forward two decades to DeVitos latest role as the hapless Dave Schmerz in Todd Solondzs tragicomedy Wiener-Dog. The darkness is certainly there but the fevered whimsy is lacking. In fact, its alarming to see DeVito portray a character so utterly devoid of spirit. Schmerz is a New York university screenwriting professor who, when not languishing in his boxy apartment, fruitlessly attempts to hawk his screenplay to disinterested agents. His existence comprises a string of indignities: hes warned by his doctor that hes a ticking time bomb on account of his diet; hes disciplined by a superior for his performance at work; and, most gallingly, he is publicly humiliated by a former student, now a cocky, irritatingly successful young director.

So what was it like for DeVito to play such a sad-sack? Todd is a very serious film-maker, and I feel like I gave him what he wanted, he says in a gruff New Jersey drawl. A very weighted, depressed individual, pretty grim. But a lot of his movies have those elements. Hes not wrong: Solondzs blackly humorous filmography is riddled with grave themes, from dark sexual urges (Happiness) to teenage suicide (Palindromes). Then DeVito pauses. Did you feel bad for Dave? he asks, peering over his black horn-rimmed glasses. Yes, I say, and he looks relieved. Its true: he is genuinely touching in a film that sometimes traffics in juvenile misanthropy, most notably in the spectacularly ill-judged finale of its last segment.

Daves bond with Wiener-Dog is particularly poignant. The dachshund is the constant presence across the films four otherwise unrelated vignettes, which include a portrait of an unhappy family, a fraught road trip undertaken by Dawn Wiener a character from Solondzs 1995 Welcome To The Dollhouse who went by the nickname Wiener-Dog (here played by Greta Gerwig) and the painfully awkward reunion of a woman and her grandmother. It would be wrong to spoil the surprise here, but the unsuspecting Wiener-Dog also plays a starring role in Schmerzs cracked plan to escape his bleak circumstances. In real life, it turns out the mutt was actually three dogs named, in stark contrast to the themes of the film, Faith, Hope and Charity. I dont know which one I was with, ever, confesses DeVito. Todd had his hands full trying to get them to sit still, but they hung out with me.

Danny DeVito in Wiener-Dog. Photograph: Linda Callerus

Maybe the dogs were becalmed by DeVitos aura of experience. He began his acting career treading the boards in the 1960s, and met his future wife, Cheers star Rhea Perlman, while appearing in an off-Broadway play in 1970. (They wed in 1982, separated in 2013, and reconciled a year later.) He made his film breakthrough as a wide-eyed asylum inmate in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975) then, buoyed by the success of his recurring role as hot-tempered dispatcher Louie in sitcom Taxi, ascended to the status of Hollywood royalty. Hes starred in various blockbusters, co-produced cred-heavy hits such as Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty and Erin Brockovich with his company Jersey Films, and directed box-office successes such as Matilda.

Recently, though, DeVito has circled back to TV comedy, starring as Frank Reynolds in the gleefully tasteless US sitcom Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Frank is a quintessential DeVito creation: a deeply un-PC, gun-toting misanthrope who somehow manages to be weirdly likable. Hes also evidence of DeVito building a new, younger audience see also: his appearance in One Directions Steal My Girl video, the widely shared footage of him wigging out to techno at Coachella festival and, of course, #Trollfoot.

Indeed, DeVito has been an enthusiastic adopter of social media, using it to support the leftwing Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. He has referred to Sanders as the USs Obi Wan, and starred in one of his campaign ads. DeVito is passionate, too, about British politics, and sees Jeremy Corbyn as Sanderss UK analogue: Jeremy and Bernie are the only shining lights we have right now. He describes the UKs decision to leave the European Union as a tragedy; a harsh thing.

DeVito as Martini in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest. Photograph: Moviestore Collection / Rex Feat

Yet its clear DeVito is most concerned with the current state of the US, about which his outlook hits Dave Schmerz levels of despondency. Everything is bought and sold here, including our duopoly, he sighs. We have two parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, and theyre both the same. Our Congress, our House of Representatives and our Senate, everything is sewed up. Theyre paid by lobbyists, so its all about money.

Like many Sanders supporters, DeVito is no fan of Hillary Clinton, who beat the Vermont senator to the Democratic nomination last month. When I ask whether he thinks shed make a worthy successor to Barack Obama, he places his fork in his big bowl of salad, dramatically throws back his head and cackles mirthlessly: Oh gosh! Im trying to keep my mouth shut. Yet the alternative, it seems, is too much to bear. He describes Republican candidate Donald Trump as horrendous and shameful. As for a Trump presidency? [We] cant let that happen. Cant have that xenophobia and building walls and kicking everybody out. Do everything you can to make sure that Donald Trump doesnt become president.

Were in a mourning place right now, he continues, citing a lack of progress on gun control legislation in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, mass incarceration of people of colour, and fracking. He rails against recent attempts by many states to defund Planned Parenthood, and the (fortunately failed) efforts by the state of Texas to shutter its abortion clinics. I dont understand how people can be so narrow-minded, he exclaims, exasperated.

Danny DeVito in Twins with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/UNIVERSAL

Once DeVito gets started discussing issues of social justice, he quickly gets on a roll. I dont understand why we have to oppress people, why we have to move people off their lands. Why we gotta be terrified of everybody? Ease up a little bit. Come on. We can all live together. Its a big beautiful world. Suddenly, he adopts the nasal whine of a naysayer mocking him for his bleeding-heart sincerity. Youre not gonna get by with that attitude. Its a dog-eat-dog world. You gotta be cutthroat. Just as abruptly, hes back to his earnest self. Come on. You dont have to be. You can do it.

With all the politics chat, it can be easy to forget that youre talking to an actor whom youve grown up watching. For me, it was his memorable partnership with Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom he starred in two much-loved high-concept comedies Twins, where the pair play unlikely fraternal siblings, and Junior, in which Arnie gets pregnant that particularly resonated. The pair considered making a sequel to that former film, Triplets, but progress has stalled. I love those movies. We had a great time, he beams. Arnie was the kinda guy who would talk to you about physical fitness all the time I always struggled with my weight and then hed bring you cream pies for lunch. That was Arnold. Always teasing. So what did DeVito make of Arnies stint as the Republican Governator of California? It was a mistake, right? I guess he had a good time.

Has DeVito ever thought about entering politics himself? A firm no comes the instant reply. But hes considering how he can make a positive impact. Social media is letting us down, he says. You think youre communicating with everybody but youre not. You gotta get out on the street. Non-violent activism is the only way to go. It got us out of Vietnam. Weve got the communication, weve got a lot of people but we dont have a lot of education. We gotta marry the two.

A wry smile creeps across his lips as he ventures his solution: Maybe its #Trollfoot.

Wiener-Dog is in UK cinemas from Friday 12 August

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