Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: After spending more than a decade as a go-to comic character actor on TV and in movies, Jeff Garlin had a career breakthrough when he convinced his friend Larry David to create the HBO sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. Garlin's performance as David's morally flawed manager raised Garlin's acting profile, and his efforts as a CYE producer and director earned him the clout to write and direct his first feature film, the sweetly off-kilter romance I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, which IFC Films is opening in select theaters in September. In October, John Waters: This Filthy World—a Garlin-directed film of Waters' one-man show—will be available on DVD from MPI Home Video.
Little Big League (1994)—"Opposing Little League Manager"
Jeff Garlin: I was cast out of Chicago. I hadn't done a lot of movie roles, so it was fun, even though it was small and there wasn't a lot to do. I just liked being on a movie set. I was there for probably a week. I've never seen the movie. Which is really… I mean, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, I'm an executive producer, so I see all of them, but for the most part, unless it's my project? Something like, where I'm a producer? I don't watch it.
Mad About You (1997-99)—"Marvin"
JG: I had just gotten done telling my agent that I didn't want to do any auditions unless I had more time to prepare. I didn't want to go on any more same-day auditions. So they call me for a same-day audition for Mad About You, and I don't know why I said yes, but I did. It was this pretty big role, and I auditioned. Had a great audition, got the part, and when I went to report for work the first day, the character was down to one line. They said they were sorry, and—you never hear of this happening, but they were more than happy to pay me and cast somebody else, because they didn't want to insult me. But I wasn't any big deal, so I said, "No, I'll stick with it, what the heck." I wasn't doing anything else. And the producers, when they were watching us rehearse, they said, "We feel like we've got some sort of chemistry here, so we're going to come up with more for you." And they came up with a lot more. From this one little part, one line, one time only, I ended up being on the show for the last three years.
The A.V. Club: Did that do a lot for your career at the time?
JG: I was working. [Laughs.] That's really all it did for my career. I gained experience, and it was a very pleasurable experience. But it didn't do much in terms of the industry taking notice, if you will. I didn't get recognized a lot from it.
AVC: Have you found in your career that you have to do more for yourself than others will do for you?
JG: I've never heard that before, but I'd say that's 100 percent true. You gotta make your own bed. You can't wait for somebody else to do it. Agent, manager, friend…it doesn't matter. You really have to do your own thing. But also, the flip side of that is that nobody gets anywhere without somebody sticking out their hand and offering to help. So yes, you are responsible, but you also need luck and help.
Full Frontal (2002)—"Harvey"
JG: Great fun, for the most part. I got to work with Steven Soderbergh, and that was amazing. I remember I got, I think, the only big laugh in the movie. Toward the end, there's a party scene, and we're at a table. We improvised the scene, and Julia Roberts says "Let's play the game where you figure out your porn name." You know, the street you grew up on, and your first pet. And immediately when she said it, I thought of the best joke. And all I'm thinking is, "Please, nobody have this joke." Looking back on it, it was ridiculous, because there was nobody comedic for miles around. You know, David Fincher, he's not going to come up with anything. So when it came around to me, I said my name was "Baron Von Hugecock." Then I said, "What? I grew up on Von Hugecock Avenue, and my dog's name was Baron."
AVC: Did the cast break out laughing?
JG: Everyone laughed! And because we're in this scene where you improvise, it made the cut.
The Michael Richards Show (2000)—"Ed"
JG: That was, ah, not very enjoyable. I kind of clashed with Michael all week, because when you're an actor, you make choices, depending on your part, and I'm a pretty naturalistic actor, and he kept telling the director to tone me down, which I found very strange. Because I was getting laughs, and he didn't like that, I don't think. When we were done with shooting, I remember him getting up and thanking me for coming, and he hoped I'd had a good time. And I was rather shocked by that, and then I found out later that somebody told him to go do that. [Laughs.] Now, that being said, I also want to say that I saw him do stand-up numerous times. I'm a big fan. I was a big fan of his on Seinfeld, and a lot of his stand-up was really, really funny.
AVC: Just not on the night of the infamous rant.
JG: You know, I had stopped playing that club a while before that happened to Michael. I'd been on the same bill with him before at The Comedy Store, and two months before he had his problem—I'm not even making this up—there was a night when the audience was 90 percent underage Korean kids. Now at the time, I'm probably a 43-year-old Jewish man. What living experience do I have to share with a room full of drunk Korean kids with fake IDs? As they say in Sweden, it's just not my audience. I'm having trouble as it is, and then behind me, one of the kids gets up onstage and starts taking pictures of his friends, from the stage. I felt something behind me, I turned around, and I came so close to punching this kid, just out of reflex, you know? But instead of punching him, I did what Michael Richards should have done. I put the mic down, and I walked out, and I never went back. When you allow 18-year-olds in the club, you know there are 16- and 17-year-olds there too, so you know that's not a good place to do comedy. So when Michael went up there, I'm sure he was very frustrated, and thought he was being interesting with his choices. I don't know that he thought he was being funny, but he thought he was being interesting, and obviously said the most ignorant things he could possibly say. And now he's out of show business.
After The Sunset (2004)—"Ron"
JG: I had met Brett Ratner before, and he called and said, "Would you come down? This movie's not as funny as I thought it would be, and I want you to be in the beginning of the movie and try to help to liven it up." That was one of those moments when a director just says, "Do whatever you want, have a good time." Which I completely did. And I was taken aback by what a really wonderful guy Pierce Brosnan is. Really a great guy. Every bit of my comedy—every nuance—he was totally hip to what I was talking about. 'Cause I was really just fucking around.
AVC: Ratner is one of those directors people love to hate.
JG: People love to hate him! Because you know, in honesty, he's a big bowl of enthusiasm. And I think he's probably as good a director as the script you're gonna give him. If you give him a shitty script, he's going to be enthusiastic and do the best that he can, and it probably won't turn out so great. If you give him a great script, I betcha he could make a great movie. He's really fun to work with, as much as people can't stand him. Generally, I'm not going to run out and see Rush Hour 3, but he's really fun to work with. And his movies make a lot of money. Those two things make him completely employable.
Baywatch (1994)—"Larry 'Loomin' Large"
JG: I was at a wedding, and one of the producers of Baywatch was an uncle of the gal getting married. I mean the girl getting married. [Laughs.] "Gal." I sound like I'm 90. Anyway, he said to me that he produced Baywatch, and I said, "I love that show! Pretty colors and bosoms, what more do you need?" And he said "Would you ever be on it?" And I said, "I'd love to be on Baywatch!" So they wrote a part for me as an evil disc jockey who takes over the beach, and I worked with Pam Anderson. I remember I had to do a fantasy sequence with her, and I was supposed to kiss her. It was the first day of working, and I also had just gotten married the week before. And I moved out to L.A. just that week. And here I am, on a beach, in a Baywatch bathing suit, running in slow motion on the beach, with Pamela Anderson. And we're supposed to kiss, and she didn't want to kiss me. But at the end of the week, she goes, "I really like you, I'd so totally kiss you now." [Laughs.] I'm actually happy the way it worked out.
Daddy Day Care (2003)—"Phil"
JG: I was in my late 30s, and I'd done Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I was sort of settled into the way my career and life were going to be. And I'd had some health problems. I remember driving and seeing a big billboard in L.A. for an Eddie Murphy movie, and thinking, "Wow, I guess I'll never be able to star in a movie with Eddie Murphy," you know? And then a year later, I found myself on a set co-starring with Eddie Murphy. And he let me do most of the funny stuff, which surprised me. He was really generous. And I think he's the funniest person I've ever worked with. What I mean by that is: I'm very confident in my comedic ability. I think I'm very funny. And something would happen on the set, and I'd think of something funny to say, and before I could say anything, around the time I would think it, Eddie would say something. And I'm not exaggerating when I say this: A hundred out of a hundred times, what he said was funnier than what I was going to say. There was not even once where I went, "Oh, mine was funnier." No, he was funnier every single time. That really blew my mind.
You know, my memories aren't often based on how good the films are. It's just based on my experiences. When I said I don't really watch the movies—I do a lot of the time. But sometimes, you do things just for the money, or for the experience. Certainly if I was in a Scorsese movie, I'd want to watch it, you know? Or the Coen brothers. But not everything can be that.
AVC: You chose not to do the sequel, Daddy Day Camp.
JG: Yes. And I have to be blunt. They wanted me for the sequel, but they didn't offer me enough money. And if I'm gonna be in a big piece of shit like that, I'm gonna need a lot of money. By the way, if they had offered me a lot of money, they could have made the movie even stinkier, and I still would've done it.
Arrested Development (2005-06)—"Mort Meyers"
JG: Years and years ago, I had a deal with a company called Witt-Thomas to do a television series for Fox, and they were going to team me up with Mitch Hurwitz. You know, I'm a young comedian, he's a young writer, and they were going to team us up to create a TV show. I had specific ideas of what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to write a part for my friend Amy Sedaris, who nobody knew at the time. And Mitch, God bless him, said, "Yeah, let's do it. Let's write it together." I go, "Together?!" Because back then, people didn't do that. A writer wrote it for you, and that was it. And when he said that, I think the studio freaked out, and they split us up. They put him on Golden Palace, which was the sequel to Golden Girls. And then they put me with this other writer who didn't see things my way, and it was really a horrible experience. So it took all these years later before I got a phone call asking if I wanted to be on Arrested Development. When I got the phone call, I still hadn't seen Arrested Development. I went out and got the DVDs shortly thereafter, and I became a freak for the show. It's still one of my all-time favorite shows, and the idea that I was on that show is amazing to me. What an honor. And God, I loved every second of it.
Run Ronnie Run (2002)—"Birthday Woman's Friend"
JG: That was my friend Bob Odenkirk's movie, with David Cross. They had a tough time making that, and it wasn't what they had hoped. But I was in a pool scene with Laura Kightlinger, a party scene by a pool, with porn stars and friends of Bob's and David's, all these interesting people. It was a load of fun to do, but I don't even know if I'm in the movie, because I never saw it.
Fun With Dick And Jane (2005)—uncredited
JG: Fun With Dick And Jane, I don't look back on fondly, though I got to meet Téa Leoni and hang out with her, and she's one of the coolest people I've ever worked with. I signed on to play Téa Leoni's old boyfriend, and we filmed a few different scenes, and they showed it for test audiences, and the audiences liked my character, so they were upset when Dick and Jane robbed me. And I thought, "Well, when they rob people, you should be upset. They're desperate." But they decided to make me do re-shoots, which were unpleasant. They wrote the part for me originally, and it was supposed be fun, but it ended up being a huge pain in my butt. And it became, of all things, a huge hit.
AVC: The IMDB lists your part as "uncredited."
JG: Well, I asked for "uncredited." Because I felt like it was going to be crappy. I actually would love for everything I do to be uncredited. If I had the choice. So long as the check says "To Jeff Garlin." That was one you do for the money, and then, you know, look what happens. I was shocked, it was a huge hit. It just goes to show you that nobody knows anything. I don't know anything.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-?)—"Jeff Greene"
JG: Originally, I approached Larry David with the idea for the show, and my intent was to direct it and not even be in it. He's the one that insisted that I play his manager and be an executive producer. It totally has changed my life, and I'm indebted to him forever, and every time I work on that show, not only am I lucky, I laugh my ass off and I have a great time. And it's probably the most fun I'll ever have as an actor, ever.
AVC: Since you're so heavily involved with the show as a producer and actor, and since it's so improvisatory, is that character closer to you than other characters, or is it still just a character?
JG: Well, you're assuming that I look at everything as "a character." I just go to work and say my lines and go home. I really don't overthink any of it. I come from the Spencer Tracy school. "Know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." Yes, we improvise on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it's not like I have a fondness for one character over another. That's a very actor-y thing to say. "I loooved playing that character." [Laughs.] You know, it's not like I'm playing James Bond. But even if I was playing James Bond, I'd just, you know, play it real, play it grounded, and know my lines, and don't bump into the furniture. I don't overthink any of this stuff. I look back fondly at being involved in something as great as Curb Your Enthusiasm, but not in terms of how great the character is.
I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With (2007)—"James Eric"
JG: See, here's the thing. Even though I'm a writer of I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, and I could do a compare-and-contrast with Jeff Greene and James Eric, I don't approach those characters differently. I just follow the writing. You know, Larry David writes my character a certain way, or he writes what my character does, and I just play it true to that. I wrote my character a certain way in I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With, and I sort of follow. My opinion is that an actor is just a conduit to tell stories to an audience. So my responsibility as an actor is to tell whatever story the writer has. The difference on Curb Your Enthusiasm is that I'm writing my own dialogue because I'm improvising, and in my movie, I wrote the dialogue in a script. So those are much more creative for me, and a lot more interesting. But you'll never hear me say, "Oh, I'm so very fond of that character. That character is one of my favorites." None of these are "characters." Which maybe shows my limits as an actor. [Laughs.]