In a career that spans nearly 25 years, Curtis Armstrong has had memorable parts in everything from Moonlighting to cult classics like Better Off Dead. Most people, however, will always remember him best as Dudley "Booger" Dawson in Revenge Of The Nerds. Yet ever since his revelatory turn in Ray, there's been a newfound interest in Armstrong as a dramatic actor, leading to a recent run in Sam Shepard's play The God Of Hell and supporting roles in upcoming films Southland Tales and Smokin' Aces. When he's not performing, Armstrong pursues varied academic interests, chief among them a fascination with late singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, on whom Armstrong is considered one of the world's leading authorities. (Armstrong even wrote the liner notes for a series of recent Nilsson reissues.) He spoke with The A.V. Club about his work on the recent Nilsson reissues, his new life as a dramatic actor, and coming to terms with the role that will forever define him.
The A.V. Club: How did your interest in Harry Nilsson lead to you becoming one of the world's foremost authorities on him?
Curtis Armstrong: I had been a fan since the late '60s, and from the first songs of his that I heard, I just had a connection. By the mid-'70s I was obsessed. I wrote him a letter in 1976 offering to write his biography. Which is kind of ridiculous, because I was a penniless actor living in New York at the time, and I had no business writing anybody's biography. I then decided I wanted to do a documentary on him, and I contacted the RCA/BMG archive in New York looking for certain archival footage. It turned out that the man in charge was a fan as well, and they were planning on re-releasing his albums, so he asked me to pick out bonus tracks. Then they called me up asking if I would do the liner notes as well, and gave me a co-producer credit. Obviously I didn't set out to become the world's leading authority—not that I'm claiming that. I just wound up in this position.
AVC: Why do you think he's being rediscovered posthumously?
CA: Sometimes a person has to be dead a while before people can appreciate what they did when they were alive. Nilsson went through the bulk of his career getting no attention at all—except the Beatles business, with him and Lennon getting thrown out of the Troubadour in '74. But he didn't really give a lot of interviews, and he didn't pursue fame in the way that he could have. He didn't perform live, and so there is the feeling of this secret, unknown person who wrote all this beautiful music.
AVC: Have you heard any of the contemporary Nilsson covers, like the remake of Pussy Cats by The Walkmen?
CA: I listened to it the other day, actually, and some of it's quite good, and some of it's just awful. I think they did a great job, but I just for the life of me couldn't figure out what possessed them to do it. I wasn't familiar with their work before, so I only bought a copy because people kept e-mailing me. It's just such a peculiar idea.
AVC: Can you verify the oft-repeated story that Nilsson visualized The Point [the Nilsson-penned 1971 animated children's film] while on acid?
CA: I can only confirm that I have interviews with him where he says that. I have no reason to suppose that that's not exactly what happened. It was about the right time, around 1970. He was living in Laurel Canyon, and he dropped acid, went for a walk, and he noticed that all the branches and all the leaves had points. It was one of those great acid revelations—which isn't much of a revelation when you think about it.
AVC: You probably have somebody call you "Booger" every day of your life. Do you ever find yourself wishing you'd never made Revenge Of The Nerds?
CA: Never. I owe a great deal to that movie and I loved making it. But I've said this a lot: That character is as far from me as it's possible to be. People feel like they know who he is, and when they see me they just assume that I'm going to be like that guy. For me, to be that kind of anti-social misfit was something that I found to be a real challenge.
AVC: You made your mark in the '80s but it seems like you're busier now than you were then.
CA: I guess I am doing more work in general than when I was starting out. There's also been a change in the last few years—mainly because of Ray—as to how I'm perceived. Akeelah And The Bee has also helped, and I've done some runs on Boston Legal, Grey's Anatomy, and Las Vegas. I'm at least getting my foot in the door as far as doing straight dramatic parts, which no one would have ever considered me for in the '80s. I never objected to that because I love doing comedy, and I'm not the kind of actor that insists that unless you're doing a serious dramatic role, you're not acting. But it certainly is great getting to do something like Ray or Akeelah, because it stretches you.
AVC: You made a career out of playing guys so lacking in self-consciousness that they're borderline repellent, yet the people in the audience were most drawn to them. How do you explain that appeal?
CA: As an actor I'm part of a long line of character people you can take back to the silent movies. There's always the little guy who's the sidekick to the tall, good-looking guy who gets the girl. People tend to not think of themselves as Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis. The leading man is something that they might like to be, but they aren't. The sidekick is somebody that they feel a little closer to, because the sidekick has the same human failings that they do. You tend to see more of yourself in the character than you do in a leading man—unless you're a real asshole. There's something about the way of playing a repellent character, that if you can play him with a certain amount of charm, you can get away with a lot.
AVC: It seems like all of your most memorable characters, beginning with Miles in Risky Business, shared that "sometimes you gotta say what the fuck" mentality, and that's an almost Zen state of being that people find attractive.
CA: I can sort of see that.
AVC: Do you share that philosophy?
CA: The "what the fuck" philosophy? Oh God no!
AVC: So what's the Curtis Armstrong philosophy?
CA: These days it's, "If anything can go wrong, it will." [Laughs.] I try to work and enjoy life, and that's about all. I certainly never bought the "what the fuck" mentality, and I was never a particular rebel. I was never a misfit, beyond being sort of the traditional theater geek. I had those kind of nerdy qualities, but I don't think that I had any of the other qualities that I'm apparently famous for. I'm not a nerd, I play one on TV.