As one of the members of The State and one of the stars of Wet Hot American Summer, Joe Lo Truglio gets an automatic pass on anything he does for the rest of his life. Luckily for him—and us—though, he hasn’t needed it so far. He’s done serious fare like The Station Agent and butt-baring scenes in Wanderlust. He’s in Chicago this weekend behind two movies playing at CIMMFest—Queens Of Country, in which he plays a Penny, a transgender woman, and High Road, an entirely improvised movie directed by Matt Walsh. In preparation for all that, The A.V. Club talked to him about wigs, sharks, and—of course—Wet Hot American Summer.
The A.V. Club: In Queens Of Country, you play Penny, a transgender gal. How did you land that role?
Joe Lo Truglio: The script came to me, and I took a look at it and it just seemed like such a great part to play. She seemed really sweet and said what’s on her mind, which are both very attractive qualities. And I thought I had pretty good legs and could carry it off. [Laughs.] So that’s how that worked.
AVC: You don’t make a bad-looking lady. The wig works. It’s flattering.
JLT: It’s a very flattering wig. They found a wig that really framed my face well. I’ve learned all of these kinds of phrases [from this movie] that kind of describe true beauty. And one of them is that the wig must frame your face very well. That’s what I learned.
AVC: What was it like working with Lizzy Caplan? You were essentially in love with Caplan’s character in the movie. Did you know her before filming started?
JLT: I did know Lizzy before. We had worked together on Party Down, and we both had a couple of mutual friends. You know, she’s easy on the eye, so it’s not hard to find yourself affectionate for someone like that. She’s great. We’re really good friends, and it was great to work with her for so long in Arizona.
AVC: She’s in the other new movie that you’re in too, High Road, with Matt Walsh, who also directed it.
JLT: She is. What happened was on the set of Queens Of Country, Matt had already been working on the idea for High Road with Josh Weiner, the other writer. He was telling us about it. I don’t know how far along they were in terms of the story and the parts we ultimately ended up playing. He did mention that he was going to be directing a movie and that it was an improv movie, and that’s where we were kind of brought onto it. Because in Queens Of Country, we were on location in Arizona, so we were all spending really all the time together. Ron Livingston, as well. So we all became very tight, and Matt mentioned that he was doing this movie, and that’s how Lizzy and I came aboard.
AVC: So how did that work, doing an entirely improvised movie?
JLT: It’s funny, it’s very similar to the work I did on Reno 911, which was [that] they had basically a paragraph of what the scene would be. In Reno, I actually looked at the paragraph and it set up the joke and the scenario. In High Road, Matt kind of just told us what was going to be going on in the scene and certain plot points or story points that that we should try to hit as we improvised through the scene. We often talked about what scene was before, so we knew where everyone was in the scene that we were in. And it kind of just went from there.
AVC: Do you think it’s easier to work with people that you know in that respect where you know what they think is funny and what they’re going for?
JLT: Yes. There’s shorthand that happens when you work with someone you know where you can almost finish each other’s sentences. There’s just a certain back and forth that becomes much easier with someone you’ve worked with for so long. That’s why it was so great on High Road.
AVC: There’s an idea that all the guys from The State and the guys that did Wet Hot American Summer just live on the same block in a big apartment building and hang out together.
JLT: [Laughs.] Yeah, we live in a big building in Brooklyn; it’s kind of like Sesame Street. We all live on that block.
I think that comes with the two decades that we’ve spent with each other. It comes down to really you trust these people because you’ve known them for so long, and also because you know that they’re so wildly talented. You know that because you’ve known them for so long. And you want to continue to keep working with them.
The people from The State are close friends, but also some of the most incredibly funny people I know. And we all kind of went through a comedy boot camp when we were 17 or 18. We are comedy war buddies, almost. You’ve just gone through so many different phases of your own—oh my God, gag me with a spoon—artistry that you really appreciate that someone else has done it as well. I think that’s why many people feel like we are family because in a certain sense, we very much are.
AVC: With The State, you guys were so young. Do you look at that material now and think, “People are judging us on stuff we made when we were 22 years old”?
JLT: It’s really amazing that the work stood up that long, at least some of it. It’s crazy. It’s kind of like really having really well produced home movies of yourself and your friends with all these hip ’90s songs on it. It’s a really strange feeling because I will see an episode or a sketch and the first thing that comes to mind isn’t even if it’s funny or not. It’s like, “Oh my God, we were so young. How were we able to do that?”
AVC: Are you ever surprised by the success of that Wet Hot American Summer? It’s kind of crazy that you guys are still doing readings 10-odd years later.
JLT: Yeah, a little bit. I’m a little surprised. When we did it, we certainly had this feeling that we were making a really funny movie that was going to be really well received, but I think part of that expectation comes with youth and the arrogance of youth—thinking that we’re going to make a movie that’s going to make a lot of money. Then when it wasn’t really received well both at Sundance and theatrically, suddenly things were dashed and we were like, “Okay, then maybe not.” And then now, I look at it and feel like I was right. [Laughs.] It was a good movie, and I knew that someday people would come to appreciate it.
None of us really knew that everyone would become so gigantic. Although, in retrospect, everyone was wildly talented, [so] it’s not that surprising. We were just so psyched to be making a movie. It was the first movie any of us had made. So we were just psyched that we were getting money to do this movie. And I think that energy of like, “Holy shit, we get to make a movie in the woods for six weeks,” that energy kind of just transferred to film. We didn’t really think it was anything more than that.
AVC: We see your butt in Wanderlust, you do a really high voice in I Love You, Man, and you wear weird costumes in Role Models. You made all these movies with your friends. When you get direction to do that kind of stuff, are they pushing you, or do they just know that you’ll do anything?
JLT: I hope that I have gained the reputation of being someone that would do anything. I think that that’s an admirable reputation to have if you’re an actor. [Laughs.] What was the question?
AVC: Are they like, “Well, he’ll do anything,” or are they pushing stuff on you? Do you ask, “Do I really have to take off my pants?”
JLT: No, the former. I think they know I’m game for anything. There’s not much that I won’t do. It’s like my game of... Life cereal, like, “He’ll do anything.” I think they know that I’m game for whatever they throw at me.
AVC: Your bio says you saw Jaws and then later, you became interested in horror movies. When you were little and saw Jaws, did you know you wanted to be in movies, not that you wanted to be a marine biologist?
JLT: No, but actually marine biologist was on my list at that time. I grew up down in Florida and in the Keys, there’s this place called Sea Camp which was not unlike Space Camp, except you explored the sea. And so that kind of whetted my appetite for that. But then I ended up swimming in a lagoon full of Cassiopeia jellyfish, and that quickly quashed that desire to be a marine biologist.
With Jaws, it was such a strange obsession that revolved around the shark itself, but also it was the first movie that made me want to figure out what was happening to me. In other words, how are they doing this? How are they making this happen, this shark and these people and the story? I was able to kind of step out of it for a moment and wanted to figure out how to make movies. That’s what really got me into wanting to make movies because I didn’t understand how this thing that I can watch on this small screen can have such an impact on me.
AVC: And then horror movies. You were working on one with Ken Marino; is that something that you still want to do?
JLT: Oh, certainly. Horror movies are really the first genre that I fell in love with. I was—and still am—a big Stephen King fan. I’d watch any horror movie that was on HBO at the time and sneak into whatever horror movie I could get into at 13 in movie theaters. Horror has just always been there for me. I wrote horror stories when I was a kid, and that was something I’ve always wanted to do and will do. Ken and I, we’ve both been working on a lot of things, we both hope either that movie, Burnt, or another werewolf movie comes to light.
AVC: You’ve been on a couple of TV shows that were canceled. How do you deal with that kind of disappointment?
JLT: You have to realize that the business is absolutely bonkers, and really has no rhyme or reason. The hardest thing to accept in this business is that it’s not a meritocracy. So as soon as you realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re good, or the show that you’re on is good, or the people that you’re working with are good, that doesn’t matter because that won’t make the show last. It’s really viewing numbers and ratings and box office. As soon as you realize that, it makes it easy to swallow.
Although that might be somewhat disappointing to realize, it actually relieves the burden of feeling that you’re worthless, because you realize that it has nothing to do with your merit or talent. So in terms of canceled shows, you just become grateful for the relationships that you make on it, the new people that you get to work with, the new producers, actors, and writers. And you keep that relationship and you move on to the next thing. You have to learn to self-generate a lot, and that keeps you from going insane. I find the people that don’t make it usually just end up waiting by the phone waiting for the calls.
AVC: Where do you see yourself 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now? What do you ultimately want to do?
JLT: I want to become the world’s most incredible marine biologist, like a second career. I’d like to direct, certainly. I think I’ll always be acting. I hope to have a good career as a character actor. I think directing and producing are two areas that I’d like to concentrate on. Maybe an animation show, but certainly a horror movie.
It’s hard to think that far ahead. [Laughs.]