The actor: In recent years, Adam Scott has become a “Hey, it’s that guy!” of the comedy world, thanks to small-but-memorable performances in Eastbound & Down, Step Brothers, and Knocked Up. But his current familiarity—bolstered by a starring role in the short-lived but notorious Tell Me You Love Me—comes on the heels of years of relative anonymity, in which he bounced between unremarkable television and film roles. That early part of his career is reflected in his current role on the low-profile but hilarious Starz comedy Party Down as Henry Pollard, a never-was actor who bowed out of the industry after a one-shot commercial role pigeonholed him into obscurity.
Happily, things are going much better for Scott than for his character these days: Party Down, which starts its second season April 23, is a critical favorite, and his growing profile has led to a role on the hit NBC sitcom Parks And Recreation, beginning this season and extending into the next. Scott recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his roles past (who knew Hellraiser: Bloodline wouldn’t rocket him to superstardom?) and future (this summer’s ultra-bloody popcorn flick Piranha 3D).
Party Down (2009-10)—“Henry Pollard”
Adam Scott: Rob Thomas, Paul Rudd, Dan Etheridge, and John Enbom created Party Down years and years ago, and we’re all buddies and have been for years. When Veronica Mars got canceled, Rob and John and Dan found themselves with time and a crew on their hands, so they just asked me to come and play this part. We made a homemade pilot in Rob’s backyard—literally. And that was the summer, the beginning of summer ’06 or ’07, I guess. And so we did that and it was fun, but the result was just okay. It wasn’t great or anything, even though we had a blast. We just kind of all loved doing it, but were unsure of what we had done. Like, I wasn’t that good in it. It was just kind of whatever, but it was a blast.
But then, like, a year and a half later, Starz picked it up. So we all kind of trepidatiously marched into it, and around the third or fourth episode of the actual real thing, we re-shot the pilot we had done in Rob’s backyard. We re-shot that as the first episode with some new cast members and slight changes, but basically the same thing. But then, by the third or fourth episode, we all felt like there was something kind of special happening, and all got really kind of gay for each other and just loved it. So it was apparent pretty quickly that it was a special blend of people and material, and we all just fell in love with it and never wanted to stop. I think it remains everyone’s favorite job.
The A.V. Club: Is it true your part was originally intended for Paul Rudd?
AS: Yes, they had shopped it around—at one point, I think it was even going to be on HBO. I think HBO had bought it at one point, with Paul in my role and Steve Carell in Ken Marino’s role, and something happened. They passed. FX passed. I mean, FX passed on the one I did, but I know for a while it was living at HBO. This was, of course, before 40-Year-Old Virgin and stuff, but it was Paul, Carell, Jane Lynch, and I think they wrote Martin Starr’s part, Roman—that was intended for me. And we were all going to do this
AVC: How has it been bringing in Megan Mullally to replace Jane Lynch after she left to do Glee?
AS: She just jumped right in. It’s kind of a double blessing, as far as that goes, because we got to see Jane go off and have the success she’s always so richly deserved. We were sad to see her go, but we got to see that happen for her, which is wonderful. But then we get Megan Mullally to come in and make the show even better than it was before. She really just swooped in and was so funny and weird—not weird personally, but in the role—just making such great, odd choices, which is so exciting to watch. She’s so cool. I kind of knew Megan before, but it was really fun becoming good buddies with her. She just kind of blended in immediately, and everyone loves her.
Parks And Recreation (2010)—“Ben”
AVC: It was recently announced that you’re going to be a regular on Parks And Recreation next season. What can you tell us about that role at this point?
AS: I play a state auditor who comes into Pawnee to cut the budget of the Parks And Recreation department and possibly fire people. I just kind of scare the shit out of everyone.
AVC: So are you done with Party Down?
AS: Well, if Party Down gets picked up for a third season, which I really hope it does, I can continue to do up to three episodes. I believe that’s what I’m allowed to do. So we hope that it gets picked up, but Starz didn’t pick up Party Down in time to save cast members. We gave them chances, but they wanted to wait to see how it does when season two airs. So we had to take other jobs. We couldn’t pass up these opportunities. I know Ryan [Hansen] got a pilot. So we’ll just wait and see. I think Party Down can easily survive without me in it, speaking as the least talented member of the cast. I think it, kind of by design, can withstand the revolving door of characters. I think it’s perfect for that.
Eastbound & Down (2009)—“Pat Anderson”
AVC: At what point did you realize you were good at playing a giant dick?
AS: Well, thank you, first of all. I don’t know. I guess by the ninth time I was asked to play a giant dick, maybe, I thought there was something there. I think Eastbound & Down is one of the great television shows, ever. And I thought that the structure of it, how each episode begins just minutes after the last one ended, it’s like watching a three-hour movie. A hilarious movie. So I was so excited. It’s funny how much more excited I was to be asked to come do one scene of Eastbound & Down than I’ve been about some of my other jobs. I mean, I was just over the moon to get to go and work with those guys. Holy shit, it’s so good. It’s so funny. I think that’s a great show, and just so, so dirty.
AVC: Especially your little spiel in it.
AS: I know. It’s so funny. I end up ruining Kenny Powers’ life, but the fact that he buys into it, the spiel from a guy who, in the first 30 seconds has to apologize, like, four times for shit he says about children—weird sexual things. It’s like, “Of course this guy is full of shit.”
Step Brothers (2008)—“Derek”
AS: I just love that movie. I think that [Adam] McKay and Will Ferrell and John Reilly and those guys, that’s truly what subversive is. It’s coming up with really high-absurdist insanity and putting it on 3,000 screens and actually having a big hit. I mean, you look at that movie and just how fucking weird and absurd it is, and to think that that’s been embraced by enormous amounts of people, that is really incredible. I think that’s a great movie. I’m so proud just to be a small part of it. And that one-man show they did with George Bush, You’re Welcome, America, that’s another thing. It’s like, “What a great thing to do with your time and the capital that you have, the capital of celebrity or whatever, just to put on a show about what a piece of shit our president was.” I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to admire.
Step Brothers itself, when I did it, I don’t know if I had any idea that it would become a defining moment in my career and life like it has, and I’m really happy that that’s the one that ended up being that for me. There have lots of moments where I thought maybe something would be that, and it just didn’t happen, and I’m happy that it didn’t, because those things ended up being really lame. But this has kind of ended up being that for me in a lot of ways, and I’m happy for that, because it’s so crazy, and such a cool movie.
AVC: Are you aware of all the YouTube videos reenacting the “Sweet Child Of Mine” scene?
AS: Yes! Yes, I’ve seen those. My wife and I discovered them six months ago. I don’t know how. I think somebody e-mailed one of them to me, and you watch one of them, and there are dozens of other ones. It’s crazy. It’s really flattering.
The Vicious Kind (2009)—“Caleb Sinclaire”
AVC: Again, kind of an asshole, but a sad asshole.
AS: Yes, yes indeed. Quite an asshole.
AVC: Was this your first starring role in a feature?
AS: I think, for all intents and purposes, yeah. It’s something that actually got somewhere and turned into something. I’d done a couple of things, roles that were kind of prominent, but they never went anywhere. So for all intents and purposes, yeah. Again, I’m very proud of that movie as well. I just kind of lucked out, because the kid, [director] Lee Krieger—I call him a kid, that’s so stupid, but he’s younger than me, so I call him a kid. But Lee Krieger wrote and directed it, and he just happens to be a really cool, talented guy, so he was able to guide me a little bit and not make me look like a complete idiot, which I easily could have. You can see that role being—I easily could have done a terrible job. Not to say that it’s a great performance, or a perfect performance, but I think Lee guided it in a good way where it wasn’t embarrassing. He’s a really good director. But it was a total fluke. We didn’t have distribution or anything. Out of nowhere, it got the Independent Spirit Award nomination, and we had no idea anyone had even seen it. So we really kind of lucked out.
AVC: That character rapidly goes back and forth between being hilarious and really depressing, without seeming schizophrenic about it. How did you work that out in your performance?
AS: You know, I really kind of tried to work it out like a math problem. I mean, it was the first time I had ever had a role where if I sucked, the movie would suck. Usually, I can easily screw up and the movie will be just fine. That’s what I’m used to. So I think it was just the night or two before we started shooting when this actually dawned on me, that this was kind of on me to make this thing work. There’s a lot of other elements going in, of course, but I really needed to show up. So as far as approaching it, I used the script as a guideline and tried to play it as it was written, because it was written very well. And we tried not to get too crazy and histrionic with it, and just tried to keep it grounded and not ridiculous. I know it does get ridiculous sometimes, but hopefully not so much to take you completely out of the movie.
Piranha 3-D (upcoming, 2010)—“Novak Radzinsky”
AS: I just had dinner last night with the Piranha 3-D cast, actually. We had a really good time. It was 115 degrees in Lake Havasu, Arizona, where we were working, and the entire movie takes place outside during the day. So it was miserable, but it was really fun because they were cool people, like Paul Scheer and Elisabeth Shue and Jerry O’Connell. It was really fun, but the movie itself—apparently it’s the bloodiest movie in history, which is easy to believe, because at the lake we were shooting at, they had a tanker truck filled with fake blood that would just pump into the lake continually during this one massacre scene. So apparently gallon for gallon, the bloodiest movie of all time. So take that information and either come see it or avoid it.
AVC: You’re a part of history.
AS: There you go. I am now a historic actor.
AVC: Did the 3-D element affect anything on your end?
AS: No, it’s one of these conversion ones, where they shot it on regular film and they’re going to turn it into a 3-D movie.
AVC: So they didn’t have you throwing stuff at the camera?
AS: [Laughs.] No, they didn’t have me lean in and say my lines into the camera. Every shot, they had to shoot without us in the shot. So they would shoot it and then they’d shoot the effects scene without us in it. I guess that’s a pretty boring factoid.
AVC: The director, Alexandre Aja, has been quoted as calling it a “guilty pleasure” movie. How do you feel about the concept of the guilty pleasure?
AS: I tend to be a little too old to feel guilty about watching anything. Like, I watch Survivor every week. It would have to be really bad for me to feel guilty, because I love watching stupid shit. I think Piranha won’t be in the guilty-pleasure category, because it’s gonna be—well, yeah, maybe for some people. From what I’ve seen, it has a sense of humor about itself, and it’s also really scary and really, really violent. I would call it a popcorn movie from the planet Popcorn. It’s just all boobs, blood, and—I don’t know, what’s the other “b”? Barbecue.
Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)—“Jacques”
AS: Wow. You really scrolled to the bottom of the IMDB page. That was my first real job, my first real movie that I got, so I was so excited. I thought, “Well, this is it, bro.” Like I was blowing off my friends and—no, I don’t think I was, but I really did think, “Well, this is it.” And it wasn’t it. It was Hellraiser 4. I mean, what can I say?
AVC: Did you take anything positive from the experience?
AS: Well, like I said, it was my first real movie job, so I got to set and the PA brought me over to my chair and I was like, “Wow! I get a chair with my name on it. That’s insane. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid.” And then he brings me over to this chair with a piece of duct tape on it with “Adam Craig” written on it. Welcome to Hollywood.
Tell Me You Love Me (2007)—“Palek”
AS: From the beginning, it was kind of scary, because you have to negotiate the contract, and the contract was like, written in a very specific language—they wanted to see penis. And I was just like, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know. That’s a whole different thing.” So we had to negotiate in to use fake penis, and so there are these scenes now in that show, where I’m using this fake penis that Sonya Walger, who played my wife, would—it was a fake penis. Then there’s a props guy behind the couch, and it shoots hair conditioner out. It was absurd.
AVC: The sex and nudity always seems to be the first thing people talk about with that show.
AS: Yes, which was frustrating for us at the time, because we thought what we were doing was really unique and special, which I do think it was. I don’t think anything has been done like it since. But it was frustrating at the time, because I thought the emotional content was much more, you know, challenging and scary than the physical, but, of course that’s all anybody talked about. And it’s understandable why. So I am proud of it, but I’m also—it was pretty intense. It took so long do it and get through it. I think it’s a really great show, but I’m kind of glad it’s in the past, in a way. It’s a serious show, but all of that stuff where we were using fake boners and stuff, we were just laughing the whole time.
The Aviator (2004)—“Johnny Meyer”
AS: I still can’t believe I’m in that. That’s so weird.
AVC: Earlier, you mentioned how you thought a bunch of roles would be your defining career moment and then weren’t. Was this one of those experiences?
AS: I guess I never really thought that, because it was a small role, you know? But it was in a Martin Scorsese movie, so for me, it was The Role. I grew up idolizing him, as many people in show business do. I had pictures of him on my wall as a teenager and stuff. I was a pretentious teenager, so of course I had, you know, Raging Bull posters and all of that. Raging Bull is not a pretentious movie, but me having the poster was a pretentious action. I even grew a goatee and had a Knicks cap, because I thought I wanted to be like Spike Lee. [Laughs.] What a douchebag.
So getting that part, auditioning for him—It was kind of this rigorous audition process. It was crazy. For good reason too, because you’re on his set, and it’s really challenging. Like, I was in that scene that’s me, DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, and Jude Law, and we’re all sitting around this table, and between takes—this is a scene with like, 400 extras in this room—and between takes, you can hear a pin drop. It’s just silent. I’d never been on a set like that before, all this respect for this guy. He wants a quiet set, so it is dead quiet, and for good reason. We all had to focus, because we were all playing characters, we all had voices, different mannerisms. It was really kind of head-to-toe. Like, we were working hard. We had a five- or six-page scene that we took three days to shoot, which is a long time to work on something, so we were all just spent, but in the best way possible. I mean, I will never forget a second of that experience, of auditioning for it, getting it, going there for the summer and working on it. Every little interaction I had with Scorsese is forever tattooed on my brain. It’s just a special experience, special moment in my life, let alone in my career. Talk about a pretentious douchebag. Tell me to stop talking.
AVC: Most people would probably have a similar reaction to working with Scorsese.
AS: Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. I would hope so. I mean, he’s a really lovely man, so it makes it all—like if I showed up and after all of that he wasn’t a lovely man? Well then, fine. He’s a great filmmaker, and this is a privilege. But the fact is that he’s this terrific guy, and a month after the movie and the release, he sends cool little gifts and notes thanking you. He’s just the greatest guy.
Veronica Mars (2005)—“Mr. Rooks”
AVC: Did you know Rob Thomas before Veronica Mars?
AS: Yeah, we’ve been friends for years. Actually, I met Rob before he was even in Hollywood, when he was still a public-school teacher. I was with Paul Rudd. He was shooting a movie in Houston. This was ’96 or something. He was shooting a movie in Houston, he and some other friends of mine, and so I just went down to visit, and on a break from that movie, we went to Austin to like “party,” or whatever you do when you’re in your 20s. So we went to Austin for like three days or something, and we were in a bar, and we met Rob just randomly. We were all drunk and started hanging out, because he lives there in Austin. So we just kind of hung out, kept in touch, and he came out to L.A. to try writing, and he had a show on the air within six months. It was infuriating. I think Veronica Mars was his third show that he had on the air. So we were trying to figure out a character for me to play, and I couldn’t do a couple of them. And then that one came along, the teacher that’s screwing around with his students.
Knocked Up (2007)—“Samuel, male nurse”
AS: I was just kind of around, because Paul was working on it, of course, and then my friend Shauna [Robertson] was producing it, so I was just kind of around that summer they were making it, and they asked me to do the nurse role. I was like, “Yeah. Of course.” It’s funny, looking back on stuff like that. Now you look back on Knocked Up and what a big moment it was. I guess 40-Year-Old Virgin was the real beginning, or Anchorman even, but Knocked Up is another kind of real solidification that this train isn’t stopping, and this is kind of where comedy is going right now. At the time, I just thought, “Yeah, it’d be fun to go play that.” I didn’t think of it as being anything significant at all. I figured it’d just be a little thing in Paul’s movie, and it’d be fun or whatever. I kind of forgot about it, but then it’s Knocked Up. And that really helped me get the role in Step Brothers, because Judd Apatow produced Step Brothers. It’s just weird when you’re doing stuff like that, you don’t really think of the bigger picture, because you don’t know what the bigger picture is going to be, but as it turned out, it ended up being pretty significant.
AVC: Your filmography is largely either comedy or drama, with some action and horror sprinkled on top. Is there one genre you prefer?
AS: You know, it looks like I have a varied résumé or a varied career, that I’ve made interesting choices, when the truth of the matter is, in a way I’ve just kind of piecemealed a career together, you know? I’ve just been taking jobs as they’ve come, and it hasn’t been until recently I’ve been making choices, just for the past couple of years. For years and years, I was doing extra work and guest spots and anything I could cobble together. It now, looking back on it, it does look very—like, I’m in Torque and Monster-In-Law. It’s not on purpose. I fought like hell to get those parts. And on the résumé, it looks like a bunch of eclectic, not-always-cool roles, but the truth of the matter is, I’ve just been trying to keep things going.
AVC: And now you’re at the point in your career when you’re being offered parts, rather than having to audition.
AS: Here and there, which is really surreal when it happens. It doesn’t always happen. I still audition for stuff, but sometimes they do just ask me to do things. I’m still in the guest-star mentality, where I’m just grateful. Like, on the Parks And Rec set, I still feel like I’m a guest star. Being a fan of the show, it’s really surreal to be on the set and see that it’s not real, and getting to know the actors and they’re not their characters. I’m still kind of in that mindset, most of the time.
Boy Meets World (1994-5)—“Griffin ‘Griff’ Hawkins”
AS: Oh yeah. Jesus. Why did I stay on the phone? It’s weird, because I think only did four episodes of that, and only three of them as Griff. The other one, I just played “Senior.” I was just a dude with a ponytail and a guitar, and then I came back as Griff the next season. I mean, that was one of my first jobs too, but it’s weird because at the time, Boy Meets World was a show for children, a show for 11-year-old girls. So it’s not like it had any real meaning. It was a job I had. I made friends with a couple of people on the show. So no one I knew watched it or even knew what it was. It’s only in the years since, when all the 11- and 12-year-olds that watched the show when it was on are now in their 20s, it’s become some sort of a reference or anything. At the time, it was like being on a cartoon at 6 in the morning on a Saturday. It had no significance whatsoever. For me, it was exciting because it was a job on a TV show, but as far as a career thing, it was meaningless.
AS: You know, Monster-In-Law is another one, where at the time, that was a great job for me, and I really needed it. It was cool working with all those people, but now maybe it’s not the kind of thing I’d do. You can hear me trying to come up with a way to answer this. I mean, it’s cool to be able and sit there and ask Jane Fonda about Klute and Coming Home, but again, it’s not the sort of thing I would do if I had the choice now. But Will Arnett was in it too, and he’s awesome. He doesn’t embarrass himself quite so much in the way I do in that movie, so he doesn’t really have to worry. You know what, I can’t be embarrassed, because I did it, but I don’t know—fuck. How do I answer this and seem cool, but also not be a dick to the people that hired me?
Torque (2004)—“FBI Agent McPherson”
AS: Well, I actually love Torque. I think Torque’s hilarious. It’s great if you’re stoned. It’s really weird if you’re stoned, like in a good way, but also in a, “What the fuck, who made this?” way. I think it’s this weird confluence of the studio wanting to make a Fast And The Furious movie and a director who wanted to make fun of Fast And The Furious movies, and those things kind of colliding. It’s just so fucking weird, but it was fun. It was fun for me because I got to run around with a gun and drive a car. It was super-fun.
AVC: You got to be an action hero.
AS: Yeah and that’s like—like that Piranha thing, I got to do that stuff, and it’s really fun as long as you don’t make too much of a moron of yourself. It’s just fun, because we all started when we were kids watching Star Wars. Of course that’s fun. But I love Torque. I haven’t seen it in years, so maybe I should rent it. I think it’s hilarious.