The actor: A standout in the Christopher Guest films Best In Show, A Mighty Wind, and For Your Consideration, John Michael Higgins has made a career out of playing cartoonishly uppity comic-relief characters. And boy, have there been a lot, including Ally McBeal, Arrested Development (“I shall hide behind the couch”), Community, and Kath & Kim, plus a voice role on Harvey Birdman: Attorney At Law. He can currently be seen on TV alongside Fran Drescher in the new Happily Divorced, and in theaters in Bad Teacher and the upcoming Cameron Crowe film We Bought A Zoo.
Bad Teacher (2011)—“Principal Wally Snur”
John Michael Higgins: I worked with Jake Kasdan before. He was the director of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story—I love saying that out loud, Dewey Cox. So he tapped me for Bad Teacher. I really only worked for a day on Walk Hard, and Bad Teacher is a more traditional role. More heavy. For some reason, lately I’ve been playing a lot of “the guy that people are hiding things from.” [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s a function of age, but probably. I feel like in the past five or six jobs, my character keeps saying things like, “Wait a minute, nobody told me that…” Or, “X, what are you up to?” That kind of thing. It turns out people like Cameron Diaz, who we think of as a talented model, or Justin Timberlake, somebody we think of as a talented pop star, are really just talented comedians. That made the job pleasurable. And Jason Segel is a talented comedian, so I expected it from him. But the other two, I just thought they were so impeccable with their timing and such.
The A.V. Club: When you came on, were they already on board?
JMH: I remember doing a reading before Justin was on. Maybe he had other things to do. Cameron was definitely in it when I signed in.
AVC: So they cast you to complement her?
JMH: Yes. That was part of Jake’s algorithm.
AVC: How do you manage to maintain humor in a role where you’re out to ruin other people’s fun?
JMH: I’ve been doing it a lot. I just did another movie where I was out to ruin everyone’s fun. I guess I’ve just tried to have fun with it. [Laughs.] As I’m ruining their fun, I’m trying to make my own. It’s not the best of comic situations for a comedian; you want to be the one under attack, the one with the neurosis. But it can be done. If you think of Charlie Chaplin movies, or you go back as far as you can, it’s always the little tramp vs. the guy in the mustache raising his fist in the air saying, “What are you up to?!” I’ve been playing him a lot lately. The guy in the mustache. Another thing is, in dramas, I generally play heavy, like bad guys, I think because I speak well. And in Hollywood—or, well, America in general—there’s a great deal of suspicion put on people who speak well. [Laughs.] The classic would be in some action movie, when the bad guy is going to be English and he speaks in nursery rhymes or something. He gets on the phone and is like, “Hickory dickory dock.” And then the heroes are like Forrest Gump. Literally retards. Literally idiots. That’s our culture, I guess.
AVC: Are these things that have been articulated to you? Or are these things you’ve surmised because of the types of roles you’ve done?
JMH: Oh, I think it’s sort of a long haul for me. My career has [been odd]. I was a stage actor for 20 years or so; I was leading men in classical things. Shakespeare, you know. And now, I never play leading men. I’m that kamikaze comic that comes from the left, turns the table over, and leaves, or the hyper-intelligent, yuppie scumbag if it’s a drama. It’s somehow how I’ve been branded or labeled in Hollywood. It happens to everyone, but I’m very surprised to find that I’m considered just a comedian. I never saw that coming.
The Late Shift (1996)—“David Letterman”
AVC: You’ve mentioned that after The Late Shift, you were offered a bunch of comedic roles for the first time.
JMH: It’s a strange anomaly of that role, which I never considered to be a comedic role at all. In fact, if you go and look at it, there’s nothing, nothing comedic in what I’m doing. There’s not a single funny line that I say, except as a character line. I don’t know, he uses spicy language. But I considered that a dramatic role, and was shocked that after that happened, for a while in Hollywood, they wouldn’t cast me at all, thinking I was an impersonator. And who wants that? Somebody who should be at birthday parties or conventions, you know? It was a weird one, because he was a famous person. He was very much alive. On the air. You can flip back and forth to see if my imitation was any good. There were a lot of difficult bars to hurdle in that role, and I think the fallout, which was many years ago—and I still talk about it, I have to talk about that almost every week.
AVC: Mostly interviews?
JMH: Yeah. People in the business, too. People I work with. If I sit down at a table to read a script, people will say, “Tell me about The Late Shift.” So there’s something about the project, at least inside the industry. I don’t think the public cares anymore. They’ve moved on. But because it was an industry story and depicted people within the industry who are alive and well, to this day, it’s one of those, you know? If it had been a story about bond traders—same script, different industry—none of this would be a problem. I would just be a guy who played a dramatic role, and I would probably be doing episodes of drama instead of talking to you about Fran Drescher and Bad Teacher.
AVC: It seems nowadays, actors are universally praised for disappearing into roles based on real-life people. No one thinks of them as merely impressionists.
JMH: [Laughs.] Yeah. I didn’t relish doing it at all. They had trouble casting it. Most people were too protective of their careers to do it. And I wasn’t. I needed to fix the steering column on my Subaru. That’s really the only reason I did it. It was a nice opportunity, but I was in no position to turn something like that down. I knew it was very, very dangerous. I actually had a talk with Michael Chiklis, who did John Belushi [in 1989’s Wired], which was a very good thing for him. He strangely didn’t have the problem I did. Belushi, he’s his own comedian, and no one was saying to Chiklis, “You’re a comedian” after that. So I couldn’t figure out what happened there. I mean, I’ve always been comfortable with comedy, and I like it, and I did a lot of it onstage, but it was a very small percentage of what I was doing.
Best In Show (2000)—“Scott Donlan”
A Mighty Wind (2003)—“Terry Bohner”
For Your Consideration (2006)—“Corey Taft”
AVC: Once you appeared in Christopher Guest’s films, your fate was pretty much sealed as a comedian, right?
JMH: Not even the three, it was the one. After Best In Show, my fate was sealed. In a few ways, because the other odd cul-de-sac I find myself in is the gay one. Just because, again, this is the way Hollywood works. You do something that people like or respond to, and they want you to keep doing it. If you have a family, like I do, you gotta do it. I first worked with Christopher in a pilot that he and Eugene Levy did for HBO, and this was between Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show. It was very similar to what became For Your Consideration, with Eugene and Chris playing agents. I played a gay agent who was pretending he wasn’t gay, and I don’t think Chris wanted that—he’s done Corky Sinclair, so he wasn’t interested in doing that thing anymore. HBO decided to not do the series, but shortly after, Chris called and said, “Would you like to come and do this movie about dogs in Vancouver?” And I said, “Sure! That sounds great!” And he said, “You’re going to play the gay Shih-Tzu handler.” Mostly, I was thrilled he called at all, but I hesitated, because I had done almost two years of a gay character on Broadway. So I just thought about career management. “Is this a good idea?” But, well, this was Chris calling, and he made the funniest movie ever. Two of ’em. I guess Rob Reiner made Spinal Tap, but for God’s sake, when he calls, you go.
AVC: How much of his movies are made with the entire ensemble in tow, and how much is you in isolation, improvising?
JMH: There’s a bit of that. It’s evolved over the years, over the last three movies we’ve done. Chris has a more streamlined version of the way he does them, and the process remains kind of a party. We have come to know and love each other as colleagues and friends, and there’s really a great deal of burden put on us to produce the dialogue on the spot. There’s nothing written down. So as a result, a number of things happen. It can either become kind of a playground, or you end up with a foxhole mentality. Like, “Oh gosh, we better get this thing off the ground, or it’s not going to be in the movie.” There’s a healthy combination of fun plus fear and competition, which is a decent working definition of improvisation.
AVC: What was your experience with improv prior to those films?
JMH: Well, I had a varied career as a child actor. I started as a mime, strangely enough, and did a lot of improvisation and a lot of—you name it. Everything.
AVC: You don’t really meet a lot of kids who were mimes.
JMH: No you don’t. I was, though. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know why. I will say this: I try not to talk about mime because it’s got such bad connotations for everyone. But there is not one single job that I do in my career where I’m not using whatever I learned as a mime. Without question.
AVC: Like what?
JMH: The answer has to do with your body and space. An actor stands in front of a camera onstage, and he controls time and space for the audience. He tells them how long this will take, where to look, when to look, what to think about it. And good performers should be able to do their part with the sound off. Similarly, good performers should also do their part with the audience’s eyes shut. You should be able to get it. And if you get both barrels firing well, then you’re a shotgun. You’re a hotrod. You’re incredible. And performances that don’t work, generally one of those barrels is not firing. That’s just my observation over the years. I think mime is something they—well, physical life at all is just something that is relegated in our culture to comedy. It’s not accessible in drama. They don’t like it. They think it’s too artificial or something. It isn’t. Just watch a person go down the street. There’s nothing artificial about that, it’s like a thousand pieces of information as you take a step. That’s what mimes do. Of course, when I say “mime,” you’re thinking about a guy with a white face and little black dots under his eyes with a sad face walking against the wind and all that shit. Well, the whole point of pretending there’s a wall in front of you is that you’re able to create space and time without any props. That’s all. It’s not the party trick of making a wall. It’s the idea that you can pool an audience and make something rhyme so much with reality without any reality that now you’re just a good actor. That’s what all actors do. But you can throw that whole answer out. In fact, just scratch the entire page. [Laughs.]
I’m actually not that big of a fan of improv as an end in itself. It’s a useful tool to find something that may not be available immediately. So you get in there and push it around a little bit, and you see what’s in there. Improv is really good for that. It’s basically a rehearsal technique. I’m not a huge fan of improv theater or improv sports or whatever, because it still just looks like a tool. It looks like a technique to me. Chris is an exception. He has improv working in a way that it is not a party trick or a point-scoring mechanism, but it’s a way to keep the audience—to use a cliché—on the edge of their seat. They see us on a film and they know somehow that we are, somehow, going to be as surprised as they are. The audience gets the feeling because they can see it in our face, frankly. They can see panic or joy in our face, of “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” That’s really exciting. That’s really the engine of those movies. In addition to that, the movies have a lot of heart. They’re not mean movies, which is the default position for comedians. So there’s something odd about them. You look at them, and this is so alive, and it doesn’t sound or feel like any comedies I watch on television. It’s making me smile even when it’s not funny, and that is the heartbeat. Chris is not mean about his characters. He doesn’t show up to shoot peas at them. It’s not a shooting gallery, like most comedies are. Most comedies are very mean-spirited. It’s this sort of faux irony, and all this layered sideways irony, and it’s great for a joke or two, but as the engine, it starts to rush and goes to hell. And the audience can smell it on you like liquor.
AVC: Have you worked on projects you felt were mean-spirited comedies? Or do you try to avoid them whenever possible?
JMH: I try to avoid them. It’s just not funny enough. It doesn’t remind you enough of life, strangely, it just looks put-on. It’s the way teenagers are. It’s like, “I’m tough, I’m funny, I’m ironic, watch this.” It’s not fully adult. Adults beat each other up too, but they also have this self-knowledge of weariness, world knowledge. It’s the difference between an adolescent performance and an adult performance.
Arrested Development (2003-2006)—”Wayne Jarvis”
JMH: Arrested Development is an interesting case, because—well, Jerry Seinfeld talks about Seinfeld and says these aren’t characters. It’s a very wise thing to say. They are entities upon which situations are carried. And it’s not like Ralph Kramden or Archie Bunker, where you get this real sense of anatomy. They’re these vehicles for the stray thought of Larry David saying, “What if my cubicle were 2 inches bigger?” Then they explore it, almost like an essay, in a grammatical explanation. Arrested Development has that quality, to a certain extent. It’s like, “What if a family only had so much money that they had to use their own plane-loader as their vehicle, their car?” These giant comic gestures that are boldly inhuman, in a way. It’s like the craziest comic idea you would throw out immediately with your friends, having pizza and beer. But for some reason, because Mitch [Hurwitz] had made it a family that loves and respects one another, it works as drama. It’s very strange. I’ve never seen anything like it. I love that show. My guy, he’s clearly a heavy of some sort, and I think the fun of playing a heavy comes from the surprise, basically, and the otherness of him. The alien quality of him. So when he says something and he doesn’t respond in quite a human way, it’s surprising, and that’s what amuses you. The lines are quite funny, which helps.
I love this idea Mitch had once. He said, “ Wouldn’t it be great if we followed Wayne Jarvis out the door, and we saw where he went when he finished the conversation? He gets down the street and he puts a mask on, just around his eyes, like he’s the Green Hornet”—this was before the movie—“and he gets in the car, and he’s got this little Japanese sidekick. And he puts a cape up and sits in the car and they drive away.” [Laughs.] “And then there’s some giant subterranean life happening with Wayne Jarvis. This very strange, robotic man.” We were both very amused by that, then eventually, he gave me a Japanese sidekick. We didn’t wear masks or anything, but I do remember doing a number of scenes where it was some sort of deposition, and for some reason I had a Japanese sidekick. At one point, I turn to him, I bare my teeth, and I say, “Cool your Japanese jets!”
Kath & Kim (2008-2009)—“Phil Knight”
JMH: That show came from Australia, of course. And this is something that’s come up a number of times in my career: The first thing I do is not watch the Australian show. If I go back to Letterman, the first thing I did for David Letterman was to not ever look at a frame of David Letterman doing anything, because whatever picture I had in my head of David Letterman is going to be so much stronger and sturdier than any imitation I’m going to do of him. In other words, whatever truth I’ve got about Letterman in my head is a much stronger key for me than an imitation of his vowel sounds. And in fact, the more I imitate his vowel sounds and the way his fingers move, the more it looks like an imitation. The more the audience sees the difference. And the more they suffer for it. It’s a weird paradox of performing, and that certainly was true for Kath & Kim. I knew the Australian show had a real quality about it. People really love it. Then I heard why they loved it, and I immediately knew, “Don’t look at it. We’re not going to be able to do that, whatever it was.” I still haven’t watched it. And the audiences in America haven’t seen it, so they don’t care about it anyway. Molly [Shannon] is great. I’m a huge fan of Molly’s. She’s a dear friend. It seemed like troubled waters at the network, really. You never know really why these things show up and disappear. You can guess, but you never know.
AVC: At the time, were you hoping for a bit more regularity with your schedule?
JMH: You’re putting your finger right on something. It’s the push and pull of my career. Every day, I’m at home and I’m like, “Goddammit, why can’t I do some type of long-running gig like these other people?” Then I think it’s because I don’t want a long-running gig. [Laughs.] I could’ve had one a long time ago if I had gone after that sort of thing. You can engineer your career to some extent. I think it’s because I don’t want it. I feel like I’m very Catch Me If You Can. I don’t want to get pinned down. Now we’re on the therapy couch. There’s something at the heart of how I’ve become a real character guy. I do like showing up in different guises all the time. Maybe it keeps me from getting bored. Keeps me alive as a performer. It’s as if I have a whole new set of problems to solve with every role, because every role is a whole different enchilada. There’s no method that you can bring. I think the whole method, or the notion of some method in your acting, is boondoggle. Every film demands its own method—except if you’re doing a standard four-camera sitcom or a single-camera comedy. But even then, that demands some other method. And now, of course, I’ve just started a four-camera comedy. But the push and pull is that I have a family now. You want a desk job. I want things to be a little more predictable, because my attention is, frankly, on my children. The subject of myself is waning quickly in my life. [Laughs.] My work is changing; it’s still very varied, though.
Community (2009-2010)—“Professor Whitman”
JMH: It whipped up out of the blue. They asked me early on, and I’ve showed up a few times since. They had this silly idea of a “carpe diem” professor who was some sort of throwback to Dead Poets Society. And then I did my own spin on it. I had a great time. It’s a very well-written show. This is the occupational hazard of being known as an “improv guy.” I’m often hired, and the first thing they say to me is, “Just do whatever you want. Go crazy!” And my heart sinks. I’m like, “Oh, God. Just hand me a script, and we’ll do it from there.” I have Christopher Guest to blame for that. My work on his movies is improvised, so everybody wants me to improvise all the time. And again, I don’t mind it if it’s a process of some sort to finding something, and I have done extended improvisations that have been wonderful that weren’t Chris’ movies, like The Break-Up. It’s really fun if it’s in small bites. Community was a little like that. But once you get on the set with a television show—television, she’s a harsh mistress. She wants you to come in, loaded for bear, say your stuff, and move on, because there aren’t going to be many takes, and we can’t hold the crew past X o’clock. There’s not much room for improv. And strangely, that’s why I’ve really been enjoying doing this show with Fran. The comedy is where literally every line is numbered. You know, line number 16. “I’ll get it!” Line number 17: “It’s your mom.” You can’t mess with that. On the other hand, I’ve found Community very refreshing too.
AVC: Is there an immediate sense of camaraderie when you see Jane Lynch—like, as part of the Christopher Guest fraternity?
JMH: Oh yes, totally. These are really deep friendships and professional relationships. We just love seeing each other. I didn’t even see Jane when I went to do the Glee thing. Strangely, I was working with Molly Shannon that day. But yeah, we see each other all the time—or we try to, it’s hard because of schedules. I have a little singing night; I’m a vocal arranger, and I invite people over. A lot of those people—Jane is certainly one of them—are people who just love to sing and work it out. Eugene does it. Harry [Shearer]. Catherine [O’Hara], great part singer. I feel a real kinship with them. Like somebody you went to high school with, or college. You’ve been through something with these people, you know? Great affection.
AVC: As somebody who’s had a lot of small comedic parts, do you ever feel like a mere cog in a machine?
JMH: Yes, I think that’s correct. These small comedic parts, in films in particular, are largely texture. There’s a rhythm that comedies have, and you feel this thing happening when you need the film to bust out of that and make people laugh a bit, mindlessly. Get off the plot for a second. And for some reason, I’ve become a go-to guy for that. Functionary, like you’re saying. It’s fun, because it’s not like I’m the piece of texture like the police detective who shows up and frightens everybody. I’m the one who shows up and makes the audience laugh for a few minutes because that’s what’s needed there. If I have the skill, it developed as a function of the long and range-y set of jobs I’ve had, where I’ve had to put something up quickly, and it has to work in a big way. I’ve gotten good at it. It may even have larger connotations. I’m a Navy brat. You find that a lot of stage actors are Army or Navy brats, because they have the ability to make a big impression, make friends, and then leave just a few months later.
AVC: You were a Navy brat?
JMH: Yes. I moved every year. I do run across a lot of Navy and Army brats, and I do find it’s what you’re talking about. It’s this thing I do in my work, too, which is show up, make a big impression, then leave.
AVC: What drove your diverse theatrical interests? Was it simply finding a new theater in each place?
JMH: That’s right. My parents were not at all backstage parents. We had none of that in the family. It was just very clear right away that I was an actor, even from 4 years old. I’ve never waited a table. I taught some—I’ll teach classes in improv or Shakespeare, but there’s some motor in me that needs to do that. There always has been. I’ve always been able to stand up in front of people and tell them a story. I don’t know why.