David Krumholtz on 10 Things I Hate About You and the role that almost killed him

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David Krumholtz on 10 Things I Hate About You and the role that almost killed him

Graphic: Nick Wanserski
Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: An actor since he was 13, David Krumholtz has been blessed with a number of phases in his Hollywood career. First, there was his kid-star phase, in which Krumholtz hit it big with roles in movies like Addams Family Values and The Santa Clause. In the late ’90s, he transitioned into being a teen actor, popping up in movies like 10 Things I Hate About You and Slums Of Beverly Hills before making a run at a number of television series, including ER and the Rob Lowe vehicle The Lyon’s Den. He found a solid TV gig in 2005, when he was cast as math genius Charlie Eppes on Numbers, marking yet another phase in his career. Recently, Krumholtz has become best-known for his work in a number of offbeat, somewhat dirty comedies, including this summer’s Sausage Party and Ghost Team, which was just released on VOD. The A.V. Club talked to him about some of his biggest—and smallest—roles, but considering Krumholtz’s wide body of work, don’t be surprised if you see another Random Roles interview with him again in a couple of years.

Ghost Team (2016)—Stan

Photo: Tandem Pictures

The A.V. Club: Let’s start with Ghost Team. How did you end up involved in that project?

David Krumholtz: Ghost Team approached me. They said, “Hey, it’s mid-October, do you want to go shoot a movie on Long Island for three weeks about stupid people chasing ghosts?” I had never done anything like that before. It’s kind of a mock-horror movie. What I didn’t realize was the whole thing takes place at night, as a horror movie should, and so I didn’t realize that we’d be working until 6 in the morning every night, or morning. So it was a little harder than I initially thought it would be.

It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed working with everyone on the cast. We knew we were making a pretty weird movie. It’s cool, sometimes, because the freedom of knowing that you’re doing something off-kilter is liberating. It was super low-budget. We all shared a little room that we all sat in, and no one had trailers. We bonded over being trapped out in the middle of butt-fuck mountain. There was one restaurant that we went to every night. It was kind of sad. It’s strange, because Long Island is still New York, but the farther you go out on Long Island, the more creepy it gets. It’s kind of a perfect setting for the movie. Anyway, we had a blast, and the movie turned out really, really funny.

AVC: The trailer makes it look like a ghost movie, but with a comedic twist.

DK: It’s an ensemble comedy. It’s about people who are searching for meaning in their lives, and they end up doing this stupid thing after they’re inspired by one another. It’s basically about people who have nothing to do, and so they do something really silly and stupid. It’s about the nature of nothingness, how people deal with that, and how sometimes going down a rabbit hole of your beliefs can put you in some serious trouble. It can also free up a side of you that has been repressed. At the end of the film, they’re all disappointed, but they’re also jazzed that they got to know each other.

Amy Sedaris plays a Miss Cleo-esque character—Miss Cleo just died, so that’s kind of timely—but she plays a Miss Cleo-esque TV psychic who’s also kind of a bullshit artist. One of the most triumphant character turns in the movie is when she realizes that even though she’s a bullshit artist, she does have something to offer. She helps save the day at the end of the movie.

She’s awesome to work with. She’s an amazing person. She makes her own line of catnip toys, and she gave me a bunch for my cat. It meant the world to me. She also got me stuff for my daughter, but I was more enamored with what she gave me for my cat.

AVC: She’s very creative. She probably has a lot more energy and drive than most of us.

DK: She probably can’t sit still, that type of thing. She’s a force to be reckoned with.

Sausage Party (2016)—Vash

Image: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Releasing

AVC: You are also in Sausage Party, with about a million other actors. Can you talk about how that came about?

DK: I’ve been with that project since its inception, since they wrote the script. Well, since the first table read, I should say, about seven years ago. It took them four years to get anyone to make the movie, because it was so filthy and there was this firm belief that there wouldn’t be a market for an adult animated film, even though 10 or 15 years prior, South Park [Bigger, Longer, And Uncut] did really well. It had been awhile since anyone had made a movie like that, and it took them a long time to get anyone to agree to do it, because they were unwavering on the tone of the movie being so ridiculously filthy. Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], for as successful as they are, this was their passion project that they couldn’t get off the ground. They finally convinced a company to finance the film and Sony to distribute it.

I’ve always played Vash. I played him at the table read. We probably did five or six table reads over the course of the first five years of trying to get it made and finally getting it made. I saw a lot of actors come and go, but I stuck around, so I guess they were happy with what I was doing. No one could play a lavash wrap like I could.

I’m so proud of it, and I’m so jazzed to be in it. It’s so cool to have been in something from such an early stage, and then to finally see it through to fruition.

There’s nothing I could say that would make it so anyone is disappointed when they see it. In other words, I can trumpet it all I want, but it’s just that good. It’s a really layered film, strangely enough. On the surface, it looks like a silly talking food movie about hot dogs and buns and sexual innuendo, but it actually has a few more levels than that, and it has a lot more substance. It has pertinent social commentary in it that I think plays well. And the film is well orchestrated. It scores. It scores on every level.

AVC: How did you meet Seth and Evan? You’ve done a few projects with them.

DK: I did a pilot for Judd Apatow when I was 20 years old, so 18 years ago. The same year that he did that pilot, he made another pilot called Freaks And Geeks. My pilot didn’t get picked up, and Freaks And Geeks did, and Judd felt bad for me because I was living in L.A. by myself. Not only did he put me in an episode of Freaks And Geeks, but he was like, “Hey, just come hang out. I’m on set, getting to know everybody.” And that’s what I did. I started hanging with everybody, and they were all either my age or a little younger. Seth and I just got along really well—Jason Segel and I, too—and before you know it, it was a really strong, solid group of friends.

We smoked a lot of weed together. Lonely potheads will literally spend every day with each other until they get a girlfriend. That’s essentially what happened. It was just like, “What am I going to do today, in L.A., as an actor? Well, I guess I could go to Seth’s apartment and smoke weed and hang out.” And that’s all we’d do. We’d smoke weed, hang out, play video games, and talk.

Seth had written a script with this guy, Evan, who none of us knew, and he was prepared to move to L.A. to try to get a script made. It had no title. I actually gave them the suggestion of naming it Superbad, which they did. I just thought it was a weird, interesting name for it. Evan came to L.A. to live with Seth, to be his roommate. It was kind of like, “Who’s the new guy?” Within days, we all loved Evan. Long story short, both of them were groomsmen at my wedding. We essentially spent our college years together, so those were the kind of lasting friendships and the bond you form during those years, and those friendships last a really long time.

We’ve always wanted to work together. That was the whole point. We talked about it actively, and then we finally got the opportunity to do that, over and over again. It’s kind of a dream come true. I think we all feel lucky, or at least I feel lucky, to get to be in their movies, and I’m not going to lie, I’ve nudged them. I have actively called them, and been like, “Will you put me in your next movie?” But in this case, I don’t know why they thought I would be a good lavash wrap or I would do a good Middle Eastern accent. They just assumed I would. They called one day, and they’re like, “They’re doing this read-through for Sausage Party, and you’re going to play a lavash wrap in it.” After I looked up what a lavash wrap was, I was like, “Oh, cool.”

AVC: Have you ever eaten one?

DK: I tried one, just because, I was like, “I should know what it is,” once I got the part. And it’s all right. It’s like if a matzo and a flour tortilla had sex and had a baby. It’s a dry flour tortilla. Personally, it’s not my thing, and I don’t love it. But I have a soft spot for it now. Who knows? Maybe the lavash market will explode after this movie. Lavash will become an everyday thing for people.

AVC: Or at least more people will learn what it is.

DK: Exactly.

Life With Mikey (1993)—Barry Corman

AVC: Your first movie was Life With Mikey. How did you get cast in that?

DK: This is like a fucking retrospective! [Laughs.] I was doing a Broadway play, and I was really new to this business. The Broadway play was my first job, literally. The play next door was a musical called Falsettos. The director got hired to direct this Michael J. Fox movie and was looking for a kid who could play brash and salty and mean. The play I was doing, I was playing an obnoxious, outspoken kid, so he saw me do the play, and he was like, “That’s what I’m looking for.” I tested for the part. Back then, I used to do screen tests. I mean, they still do every once in awhile, but it was a big deal.

That was pretty cool. Michael J. Fox at the time was huge. I was like, “Whoa, he’s a real bona fide movie star!” I was a kid. It was a huge deal. That’s kind of it. We shot it in Toronto, and a little bit in New York.

At that time in my career, everything ended up moving so fast, honestly. Within the first five years of my career, I think I did two TV series and four big movies, and I’ve never been that hot again in my career. But I had no idea I was hot. I was just like, “Oh, this is normal. You make two movies a year. This is easy.” And of course, I have since learned that acting has its periods of unemployment, and ups and downs. The first five years were really good to me.

Addams Family Values (1993)—Joel Glicker
Law & Order (1993)—Scott Fisher
The Santa Clause (1994)—Bernard The Elf

AVC: All of a sudden, you’re in Addams Family Values and on an episode of Law & Order.

DK: Addams Family blew my mind because it was the first time I was in L.A. and Hollywood, and I grew up a huge fan of movies. That’s basically what I did every weekend when I was a kid, just go and see two movies per weekend. So to go to L.A. and be on the Addams Family set? It was beautiful production design and an illustrious set. I’m focused on never losing that sense of privilege. I’m still like, “I’m super lucky.”

Sausage Party is my first animated film, and there’s a doll of me. There’s a doll of all the characters. There’s a doll of me, and I found it on Amazon. It just came out. I ordered it, and I just got it the other day. I was like, “I’m going to order 25 more of these.” My daughter really loves it. There’s going to be a Halloween costume. The whole thing is just so ridiculous. It’s nice. It’s silly, and it’s surreal.

Gigi Does It (2015)—Gigi

AVC: Let’s talk about Gigi Does It.

DK: I’m glad someone’s fucking heard of Gigi Does It. My god. That kind of came and went.

AVC: What did you learn from that show?

DK: That’s a really good question, because basically we learned not ever to do a show like that again. That took me to a limit that I didn’t know I had. First off, I show-ran the show and was the head writer. I had never done anything like that before. It was an immense responsibility. We had very, very, very little money to make the show. We shot every episode in two days. It was non-WGA, non-DGA, so we couldn’t write anything. The whole thing had to be improv.

It was so hard. On paper, that formula is almost impossible to create a winning show with, but then you add four and a half hours of prosthetic makeup every morning, three-inch nails, acrylics, the whole thing, and it nearly killed me. I mean, it really did. I put on even more weight. It was so hard. The only lesson I really learned from it was that I shouldn’t bite off more than I could chew. I’ve written a bunch of scripts and stuff—every actor has—and that was the first thing that got made.

I’m not sure I enjoyed doing that. I’m cool with just being an actor. If anything, I learned to be proud of being an actor. I got scared away from the whole writing and producing thing, because of how really, truly difficult this was. I would do prosthetics again, but not on a schedule like that. It was grueling and brutal and it almost killed me. That show almost killed me.

Still, at the end of the day, I was really proud of it. I wish more people had seen it. I wish it was more available, so people would see it now. I wish that I had gotten a chance to do another season of it, to see if I could explore the story more, or the character more, and also find an easier way to make the show. We never got that opportunity. But I’ll always be super, super proud of it.

I’m surprised you asked about that. It flew so drastically under the radar. I kind of hold it in my back pocket as this thing that I got the opportunity to do that no one really knows I did and that I’m really proud of.

AVC: The modern media landscape has a tendency to cut both ways. There’s so much stuff out there that things can get ignored, but they can also live forever. Someone could stumble across Gigi Does It five years from now because it won’t be as impossible to find as a canceled TV show from the ’80s that doesn’t exist on DVD.

DK: I’m sure in less than 10 years there will be several streaming services or whatever you want to call them that are dedicated to retro television, like rare retro television, and maybe we’ll end up doing something with that. Maybe Gigi will find popularity there, because it was fun, it was kitschy and very stupid and very dirty. But it had heart. I hope people will watch it one day.

Hail, Caesar! (2015)—Communist screenwriter #4

Krumholtz and the rest of the movie’s fictional writers (Photo: Universal Pictures)

AVC: How was the Hail, Caesar! shoot?

DK: That experience ruined me for all future experiences, because the Coen brothers are the best. They’re arguably the greatest of all time, if there is such a thing. And everyone that works under them, in every department—makeup, hair, production design, wardrobe, so on and so forth, grip, lighting, tech, everything—they’re the best. So to be on a set when you’re working with the very best in the industry was a real privilege.

It was the most fun. It was easy and fun, and I think it’s easy to be intimidated by the Coen brothers, because they’re quiet. They don’t heap praise, especially upon themselves. It’s not like they’re walking around thinking they’re the greatest thing on Earth. In fact, one of the funny stories from that set is we were shooting my scene, and around lunchtime, Terrence Malick shows up on set. He was uninvited and no one knew who he was. But I knew, just looking at him. I was like, “Holy moley, that’s Terrence Malick!” So I went and told the PA, “Hey, Terrence Malick is here, and I think he wants to see the Coen brothers. He wants to talk to Joel and Ethan.” He just showed up unannounced, uninvited, and I guess they spent their lunch hour with him. Afterward, I went up to Ethan and was like, “Whoa, Terrence Malick! That’s crazy that he just showed up to talk to you randomly.” And Ethan said the most interesting thing, which was he wasn’t that impressed anymore by filmmakers. At first, I was like, “Oh, because he thinks he’s so great, it doesn’t really impress him.” But really, it’s what the movie is about.

Hail, Caesar! is about, in my opinion—I love that movie—but I think it’s about the idea that as glamorous as the business is, and for as much hoopla that surrounds moviemaking, ultimately it’s just a job. If you focus on it, you can do it really well, and it takes a lot of hard work. It looks glamorous and wonderful, but it’s a job like any other. And I think that’s their humility coming through, Joel and Ethan’s humility. I think they really believe they are tradesmen, craftsmen, and they’re just pursuing their trade, their craft, and doing the best they can with it. The rest—all the hoopla, the acclaim—doesn’t really matter a lot to Joel and Ethan. They just want to get the chance to continue to work. And that blew my mind. To be at that level and to have that humility, it was eye-opening and inspiring. So I came away from that set super inspired, and like I said, it ruined all future endeavors. I’ll never have as good an experience as that.

AVC: To me, that movie is also about the range of projects in Hollywood. Yes, everyone’s in Hollywood, but they might be making Nickelodeon sitcoms or Terrence Malick movies. There’s this whole range of items, and people are, like you said, just trying to work.

DK: That’s what it is. There’s this cornucopia of potential, and it can’t be realized until someone works their ass off for it. Like you said, even on a Nickelodeon sitcom. Someone is spending their life and their passion and their ingenuity on something that’s seemingly potentially trite. But it’s what they’re doing, and it’s what’s important to them and what’s beautiful to them.

The Josh Brolin character in that movie, he’s given a choice to leave, to do something where he wouldn’t have to work as hard. And he’d rather work and deal with the madness of what he’s doing because it thrills him, because it gives him meaning. Ultimately, I think the movie’s about working as a means of finding meaning in your life. It’s about the lesson, the great lesson, of just working, working and being productive.

Numbers (2005-2010)—Charlie Eppes

Peter MacNicol and Krumholtz in a scene from Numbers (Photo: CBS)

AVC: Speaking of working, you did 119 episodes of Numbers, which is a lot of time to spend on one show. What did you learn over the course of that show and what have you learned from hindsight about that process?

DK: First of all, it was wonderful to have a home. Consistent work when you’re a journeyman actor, when you’re a character actor, is really hard to come by. When you can get it, you have to cherish every moment of itcherish the crew, cherish the cast, cherish the stage, cherish everything. Because when it’s over, it’s really hard to get back. I think ever since Numbers ended, I’ve been trying to find a way to get back in a situation like that. It was lovely to drive in traffic with other people going to their jobs every day. It made me feel like a real person instead of a guy who shows up for two days on a movie, does some funny stuff, and then doesn’t see anybody until the premiere.

Halfway through Numbers, I got really jaded, and I had these unrealistic expectations about what Numbers could be. I thought it should be Emmy-nominated. Mind you, I was in my mid-20s, so I was kind of shortsighted and silly. And what happened was that none of that really happened. Numbers flew under the radar, and so around the fourth season, I got really jaded and I wanted to quit. Right at that time was the writers’ strike, and it shut down our show for a few episodes. I ended up sitting at home a lot, waiting for the writers’ strike to end.

Around that time, Ricky Gervais had made his extra special series finale of the show Extras, and it was about a guy who had his own TV show, but he hated the show that he created and he was the star of, because he felt it was being received by a lesser intellectual audience than he wanted it to be received by, and he quits. His career goes to absolute shit, and he ends up realizing that he was a dick, he was jaded, and that he blew his opportunity, so it was perfect timing for me wanting to leave Numbers.

After the writers’ strike, I came back with my tail between my legs and apologized to everyone. I had been telling them I was going to leave, and I said, “I’m never going to leave,” and that I’d stay with them as long as I can. And I really enjoyed the last two and a half seasons of Numbers more than before. It was a frying-pan-to-the-face moment for me where I had to get humble and really cherish it. I was really sad when it was over. I’ll just say that. Really sad.

10 Things I Hate About You (1999)—Michael Eckman

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Krumholtz (Photo: Touchstone Pictures)

AVC: What do you remember about working on 10 Things I Hate About You?

DK: That was the most fun I ever had making a movie. Everyone got along really, really well from day one. It was like summer camp.

I remember at the time, there were all these teen movies being made. It was this resurgence of John Hughes-esque teen comedies. I was sent a lot of them to audition for, and a lot of them at the time didn’t really impress me. I remember I was sent one called East Grand Rapids High, which ended up becoming American Pie, and I didn’t like it. Although I think I did audition for it.

Then I was sent this thing called 10 Things I Hate About You, which I thought was really sweet and female-centric and kind of cute and smart, with a really smart script. So I auditioned for it and got it, and I’m really glad I did, because the movie has a life of its own. It keeps popping up, and it’s become a go-to film specifically for adolescent girls who are trying to find their voice, which is a really important thing, and the characters in the film, the two sisters played by Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik, they became archetypes for young teenage girls to look up to and emulate.

I don’t know when we made it that we ever thought it would last in popularity as long as it has, but I think that speaks to the strength of the bond of the cast when we were making it. I think you can tell that we adored each other and that we were real friends. To this day, Joe Gordon-Levitt is a good friend, and obviously Heath [Ledger] was a great guy. Anytime I see any of those people, it’s always lovely. More than a year ago we did a reunion show for the 15th anniversary. There was a screening, and we all showed up and did a Q&A, and most everyone was there. It was a small event, but it really thrilled the people in attendance.

AVC: I think the reason that movie rings true is because it’s not overdone. One of the characters is this bitchy punk girl, but she’s not done in an exaggerated way. She’s not in knee-high Doc Martens and wearing Manic Panic extensions. It’s relatively subdued compared to so many other teen movies.

DK: It’s a smart and grounded film about a real, well-rounded girl. I think the only other teen film that came close to getting that right was Can’t Hardly Wait. [Lauren Ambrose’s] character feels real and unexaggerated and becomes sort of a heroine archetype. I think that was cool. It wasn’t in every one of those comedies. Obviously it wasn’t in American Pie, which was a movie about some teenage boys.

AVC: It’s funny, because when you say you auditioned for that, it’s easy enough to picture. They wanted you for the brown-haired secondary character that was a trope in pretty much every teen movie at the time.

DK: [Laughs.] Yeah, that’s right. That was long time ago, man. I haven’t really talked about it, but I’m really proud of it.

AVC: You have worked for a long time, which is really amazing.

DK: I feel like I’m just starting though, man. It’s weird, because I like feeling like I’m just beginning. I hope I feel that when I’m 75 or 80. I hope I’m not sitting on a bench in a retirement home talking about what was: “Oh, I worked with this guy and that guy.” I hope I’m still doing it for a really long time.