The actor: Johnny Galecki, who at 35 has more experience in movies and television than some actors twice his age, including extended stints in two hit sitcoms: Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory. The latter has its third season finale Monday, May 24th.
The Big Bang Theory (2007-present)—“Dr. Leonard Hofstadter”
Johnny Galecki: The success of this show has been entirely unexpected and unforeseen. This year especially has just been a roller coaster. None of us, I don’t think, had any idea how protective an audience was going to feel toward these guys. But they do, fortunately, and I’m loving it. Like anything else, the job is as good as the people you’re surrounded by, and it’s a really great group over there, so I’m having the time of my life.
The A.V. Club: Some weeks, the story is mostly about your character, but other weeks are more about Sheldon, or someone else. What do you feel like you have to bring to the table on the weeks where you aren’t the focus?
JG: Those are often my favorite episodes to work on, honestly, because there’s some challenge there. I might not have a joke that’s been set up for me in the writing, so I want to try to find the funny, to dig and mine for it. It can be there in character. “Hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you” can be funny in context, so I approach it that way. I really enjoy that. Comedy is similar to hockey… in only one way. [Laughs.] You get a lot of credit for assists. So I try to serve whatever the intention is, be it the joke or the story or the scene or the moment or the kiss, even if it’s not my joke or moment.
AVC: When we interviewed Jim Parsons last year, we asked whether he has any proprietary feeling toward his character on Big Bang Theory. What about you? If the writers came to you and said, “Now in this scene, you’re going to do this,” would you feel comfortable disagreeing, saying, “I don’t think Leonard would do that?”
JG: That’s never come up. We’re very much on the same page. In a series, you really need to stay open-minded. It’s not like a play or a film, where you can create and fully commit to your character’s backstory. These characters are apparently going to be here for a few years. We still have a whole lot to learn about them. You might all of the sudden learn that your character’s father was an alcoholic. We just did a flashback episode in which you see how Sheldon and Leonard met. There were a lot of surprises there. You can’t really claim too much ownership of your character. They really do belong to the writers, and in many ways, you’re just their puppet.
Vanilla Sky (2001)—“Peter Brown”
JG: That was a blast, because I got to hang around New York for three or four weeks and play Boggle with supermodels. Cameron Crowe wouldn’t give out scripts, and I’m a homework guy, so I called him and I said, “You’ve got to tell me something. Give me something I can invest myself in so I feel prepared when I show up in the morning.” He said, “Listen to The Beatles,” which was, you know, not much of a help at all. I think I may have hung up on him. [Laughs.] But he wouldn’t give out a script! So every day I would show up, and there’d be a couple of pages in my trailer. A line or two, or no lines. I never knew how big or small my role was going to be. I just showed up every day. I did invest myself in listening to The Beatles, because I had nothing else to work with, and I learned that he had based a lot of it in The Beatles. My character’s name, Peter Brown, was the name of the assistant to John and Yoko, and I think he appears in the lyrics to “The Ballad Of John And Yoko.” But it was good fun. Tom Cruise was amazing—a really, really nice guy.
AVC: Cameron Crowe is known for his writing. It’s strange that he wouldn’t have a script for you.
JG: I think he was writing as he went. He was painting as he worked. But can’t complain about spending a month in New York playing Boggle with Shalom Harlow.
AVC: Had you seen the Spanish original, Abre Los Ojos?
JG: I had, even though Cameron asked me not to. I did watch it. I was blown away. That’s one hell of a film. I had to keep switching back to cartoons so I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack.
AVC: So you cheated on your assignment.
JG: I did. He wouldn’t give me a script! [Laughs.] I was trying to glean anything I could from anywhere.
Bounce (2000)—“Seth” / The Opposite Of Sex (1998)—“Jason” / Happy Endings (2005)—“Miles”
JG: Bounce was interesting, because [writer-director] Don [Roos] admitted he wrote that role for me, which is basically a big gay Jiminy Cricket. He’s the conscience of the Ben Affleck character. But Don was very reluctant to call me in for it. So they did months of casting, until the casting director finally convinced him to call me. Don freely admitted that it was his own homophobia that was keeping him from calling me. He didn’t want to ask me to play another gay character after The Opposite Of Sex. Then he realized that he didn’t really care at all if it ruined my career. [Laughs.] And he still made me come in and read for him, even though he wrote the role for me! He has yet to do a film without me, but he makes me read every single time.
AVC: Were you friends before The Opposite Of Sex? Did you know each other before then?
JG: We didn’t, no. I went in and actually read for a smaller role in The Opposite Of Sex, and he offered me the role of Jason. On my first day, we shot a scene where my character is giving an interview to a local news channel, and it wasn’t scripted, so it had to be all improv, about the sex he was having with this teacher he was trying to blackmail. That was really intimidating to do for your first day on set. And I had a very specific idea physically of what I thought the character should look and behave like, and he hadn’t seen me do it yet. So to add really graphic improv to that was terrifying.
AVC: Did your take on the character mesh with what he wanted from you?
JG: Apparently. He won’t do a movie without me now. With Happy Endings, he called me a couple of days before they started shooting and said, “I’m starting a movie, and I realized that I haven’t done a movie without you, and I got really nervous, so will you come down and play guitar in the film?” “Eh, sure.” That one I didn’t have to read for, fortunately.
AVC: So you’re going to be the John Ratzenberger to Don Roos’ Pixar?
JG: I would hope so. That would be lovely. I think he’s one of the most talented film writers we have out there right now. Happy Endings, especially. I called him right after I saw it, and I said, “Well, that’s just a big middle finger to every other writer in the industry right now. You have about five films worth of story, but you put it all into one to show how deep your well is.”
AVC: Given that, were you then upset that he didn’t have a larger role for you?
JG: Absolutely, always.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)—“Max Neurick”
JG: I don’t remember really how that came to be. I used to know Jennifer Love Hewitt. We lived in the same apartment building when I was about… jeez, I guess it was when I was doing Christmas Vacation, so I was about 13 or 14. She and my little sister were friends, so I knew her a little bit. I think she suggested me for that role. It was a pretty cut-and-dried gig. I remember doing a body cast for a scene where they open a trunk, and my dead body is in it, and there’s a crab crawling out of my mouth. I got a call that production was shut down, because Jennifer was so upset by seeing this image of me with a crab crawling out of my mouth. [Laughs.] They were asking if I would call her and reassure her that I was very much alive.
AVC: Do a lot of gigs come to you that way, where someone recommends you? As opposed to going on auditions in the more conventional way?
JG: I’d say probably. This is from a perspective of 20 years in the business, so I do have some relationships that have led to more jobs, so yeah. I guess work always begets work. I’d say about 50/50.
AVC: You said you were living in an apartment complex with Jennifer Love Hewitt. Was that a coincidence, or were there a lot of showbiz kids in that apartment complex?
JG: This was an apartment complex called The Oakwood, and I guess they’re nationwide now, but this was the Burbank location of The Oakwood, which is a very odd locale. You have, for whatever reason, a lot of child actors there that the studios house, and you have a lot of recent divorcés that live there, because they’re furnished apartments, and you can move in with an hour’s notice. They have plates and spoons and whatnot. [Laughs.] For when you don’t know if and when the wife is going to let you back into the house, I guess. There was a very odd child-actor-slash-swinger vibe going down by the pool.
AVC: So if you’ve just moved to L.A. and are interested in getting into the business, should you consider getting an apartment at this place?
JG: Staying at The Oakwood? No, I wouldn’t recommend it. Whatsoever.
Suicide Kings (1997)—“Ira Reder”
JG: That was the one I slowly auditioned for, I think many times, actually. I had a really specific idea of what I wanted to do with it. Fortunately, they agreed. Auditioning can be really rough when you’re desperate for a job, but I think at that time, I was still working on Roseanne. And at this point, too, I’m reading for films. It’s a welcome opportunity to work on so many different things at once. That was a blast, because I worked onstage when I was 10 years old with Jeremy Sisto and Laura Harris, who was my girlfriend at that time. It just felt very much like family.
AVC: You were in that movie with Denis Leary, Christopher Walken, and Jay Mohr. How do you match that level of testosterone?
JG: There was a lot of improv in that film too, and I don’t consider myself an improvisational actor. I think if they’d told me beforehand that’s how it was going to go down, I probably would have clammed up out of nervous energy. But that was just organically how it happened on the set. That has a lot to do with Walken, how he likes to work. Basically, you just do and say anything you want, and work in the dialogue that’s written when it’s appropriate, and let them cut the rest out. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
AVC: As someone who obviously likes to prepare, are you okay with that? Do you feel at least somewhat comfortable doing it if you have to?
JG: Yeah, if it happens organically. If it feels natural in the environment. The key is just knowing your character and knowing the intention of each scene. If you know that, then you can take any route to get there.
AVC: Have you ever been in a scene where someone’s improvising and you’re inwardly rolling your eyes, thinking, “Come on, man. Get back to the script”?
JG: Well, we can’t really do any improv on The Big Bang, because we don’t understand a lot of what the dialogue means to begin with, because of the physics jargon. You can go off on a riff, but how the hell do you get back to the Bourne-Oppenheimer Syndrome? [Laughs.] In movies, it becomes apparent very quickly when another actor is uncomfortable with improv. As they say, there are two rules in improv: Never say no, and never ask why. When another actor asks “Why?” or says no to something you’re suggesting, then it’s very clear that they’re putting the onus on you, because they’re not comfortable with it themselves. But films are especially susceptible to happy accidents. And Jim and I used to do that on Big Bang too. Early in the first season, they’d call “Action!” and we’d just say a sentence or two that wasn’t scripted, even just talking about the weather that day. It infuses the rest of the conversation with a very natural feeling.
AVC: Do those lines ultimately get cut?
JG: They should. [Laughs.] There’s nothing interesting about the weather in Los Angeles.
JG: I think I read for that too. Sometimes the scripts change a lot, and this was the case for Hancock. Both Thomas Lennon and I read for our miniscule roles in Hancock. There were a couple of great scenes that we had initially. Then the script was rewritten after they’d cast us, and after they’d negotiated our contracts and everything. I think I’m like fourth-billed in that movie. Will Smith, Charlize Theron, Jason Bateman, and me. And yet I’m a glorified extra. I really have no lines whatsoever. Neither Thomas nor I knew that until we got to the set and saw the new draft of the script.
Honestly, the impetus to that gig was to work with Peter Berg, because I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. There was one moment early on the first day where Thomas and I looked at the new draft and thought, “We don’t have any lines anymore.” [Laughs.] “Should we go home?” Jason Bateman kept looking at us going, “What are you guys doing here?” We were extras. But I very much wanted to be on a Peter Berg set.
AVC: So you didn’t call your agent and say “This is bullshit!”
JG: I was disappointed. I sure would have loved to have a bigger role in that movie, but happenstance happens.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)—“Russell ‘Rusty’ Griswold”
JG: That one, I read for. I was still living in Chicago with my family. I was 13, and I read for that role on tape. They flew me out to read with Chevy Chase. They must have been really hard up; I’m not sure why I got that role. I was fresh off the stage in Chicago. I had never done anything comedic before. I don’t consider myself a comedic actor now, but I certainly wasn’t then. [Laughs.] I think I have a good idea, a good notion, a good inkling maybe of what’s funny and what isn’t. I think I can serve a good joke pretty well. But I wasn’t bringing much comedic to the table whatsoever at 13.
AVC: You were stepping into the shoes of Anthony Michael Hall, as well.
JG: Exactly, exactly. How can you beat that?
AVC: Did you move out to L.A. after doing that movie?
JG: During that movie, yeah. My whole family moved out here, and about nine months in, we all decided that we didn’t like it at all. So they decided to move back to Chicago, and, in the meantime, I ended up getting a steady job, so I stayed. It was supposed to be for about three weeks. That was 20 years ago.
AVC: And you were 14 at the time?
JG: I was 14, yes. I was staying in the swinger/child-actor Oakwood. [Laughs.] In a studio apartment there.
AVC: So you didn’t have any adult supervision?
JG: I did not, no.
AVC: Was that fun?
JG: It wasn’t fun at all, no. It was actually quite intimidating and lonely, to be honest. But I’ve always been happiest when I’m working, so… My family and friends, for good or ill, are very privy to that. For good when I’m working, for ill when I’m not.
A Night In The Life Of Jimmy Reardon (1988)—“Toby Reardon”
AVC: There’s apparently a well-regarded director’s cut of that one that’s never been officially released.
JG: Really? I would love to see the re-cut version, because all of my stuff was pretty much cut from the actual version. That was my first movie. In hindsight, I think River [Phoenix] was so close with his family, and he probably missed his little brother so much, shooting this film in Chicago, so he really took me in. He was the first one who taught me how to play guitar. He was just incredible. That was a hell of a cast, too, with River, Matthew Perry, and Ione Skye. It was a really good time.
Speaking of comic roles, I remember I had these scenes in which I was supposed to be very angry. I was probably 10, maybe 11 at the time, and I played those scenes very angry and very proud. I remember the crew cracking up. I thought it was because I was so bad that they were laughing at me. But it was actually a good lesson: If the writing is good, if the writing is comical, then you just have to play it naturally. You play it as genuinely and sincerely as you can. The funny’s already there, if it’s written well. I’m still trying to do the same thing, trying to play it as natural as possible.
AVC: Did you ask River Phoenix for any advice about being a young actor?
JG: I don’t think so. That would’ve been interesting, wouldn’t it?
AVC: You mentioned that Jimmy Reardon was your first movie, but you did some TV before that, right?
JG: Did I?
Time Out For Dad (1987)—“Matt Kowalski”
JG: Oh! [Laughs.] That was a pilot for NBC. Dick Butkus and Harriet Nelson. A comic team that should have been welded decades before! Yeah. It’s not good. [Laughs.] In fact, it was shit-poor. But I learned a lot from doing it, and I think it was NBC’s tax write-off for the season.
AVC: Were you involved with it because of the Chicago connection? The Dick Butkus connection?
JG: No. That was another one that I read for out in Chicago on tape. It was really difficult to do. I don’t know how New York guys do it at all. You’re not in the room with the people that have a specific vision and can direct you. You take your shot in the dark and hope that it sticks to the wall once they FedEx the tape out there.
Roseanne (1992-1997)—“David Healy”
JG: That character was interesting, because it really grew organically, just in playing it. Initially, it was only supposed to be a couple of lines. Rose and I had worked together on a TV movie. She got me an episode, to do one scene on the show. There wasn’t much there to do. Kind of rile things up with Sara Gilbert. It wasn’t a whole lot to study or create or crawl into. But after that one episode, she asked me to do three more episodes, and then she asked me to do three years. You’ve got to understand: I was a massive fan of the show. I remember watching the pilot with my family in Chicago, when I was a kid. That show’s time slot really governed when my family ate dinner. So I was very intimidated, being on that set, surrounded by television heroes of mine. That scared little rabbit that I was, observing all of this from the shadowy corners of the stage, was something the writers were brilliant enough to observe and inoculate into the character. Eventually, that became something. The way they wrote it and the way I played it. And it fortunately played so well off the Darlene character, too. My spinelessness and her strength.
AVC: You worked with Sara and Laurie Metcalf on The Big Bang Theory, as well. Did you have any say in them coming on that show?
JG: Well, Chuck Lorre, the creator of Big Bang, worked on Roseanne, too. The Sara thing… Initially, there was another actress playing that role that I think dropped out because she got a film or something. That was not as premeditated as it seems. There was a concern—I had a concern—that it would come off as gimmicky. Chuck and I talked about it, and the truth of the matter is that life’s just too short to not work with people that you adore working with and spending time with. So she came on. And Laurie, I’d take any opportunity to work with. Laurie is one of the top three most talented actresses alive right now. She’s incredible.
AVC: How much were you and the rest of the cast affected by all the backstage drama that was going on at Roseanne? Did it spill over at all onto the set?
JG: It really didn’t. I think about this sometimes. I’m still impressed by how little it affected things in the workplace, other than maybe a bit more security onstage after, say, the “Star Spangled Banner” debacle. But otherwise, no. The Catholic stuff, the divorces, the lawsuits… It really didn’t get back to us. Rose was very protective of the work environment, and I think most of that had to do with her respect for how John Goodman works, and his process. He’s a very, very disciplined actor.
AVC: Had there been too much spillover, Goodman might’ve bailed?
JG: Eh, I don’t know if he would have bailed, but it certainly wouldn’t have been an ideal environment for him. [Laughs.] Looking back on it, it’s amazing how that was never a distraction to what we were doing there, and most especially to what Rose was trying to do there. She had a very specific vision of what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it.
AVC: Do you feel like Roseanne has gotten its due? In its time, it was acclaimed, and it’s still on the air in repeats, but it doesn’t seem to get mentioned as often as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, or other shows from roughly the same era.
JG: I don’t think that show ever got its due, and I say that not as a person that was involved in it, but as the fan I was before I was involved with it. I believe this is true: I don’t think the show itself was ever nominated for an Emmy, which is crazy. It was a groundbreaking show. We pulled in Super Bowl numbers every week. We were bummed if we got under 30 million viewers. And yet for the Academy to never acknowledge it at all was pretty shocking. Whether you like it or not as an individual, you have to admit that with 30 million viewers a week, it’s striking a chord with a whole lot of folks.
AVC: John Goodman was nominated a couple of times.
JG: I know Laurie won a couple of times.
AVC: And Sara Gilbert was nominated.
JG: I think Rose won once. But I don’t think the show itself was ever even nominated.
AVC: [Checking.] Nope. Never “Outstanding Comedy Series.”
JG: That’s pretty crazy, right?
AVC: Especially given the era. It’s not like that was a time like now, where there’s an explosion of quality sitcoms.
JG: I think at the time, what was still winning them was Cheers.
AVC: Cheers and then bleeding over into Seinfeld and Friends.
JG: Yeah. But you would have thought it would have at least been nominated.
AVC: That brings us back to Big Bang Theory, another show that’s been phenomenally successful, but doesn’t get the awards, and isn’t considered “hip” like a 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm. Does that bother you at all?
JG: I guess it depends on my mood, to be honest with you. [Laughs.] That’s really far away from what my job is. That burden lands on the desks of the people over in CBS publicity and marketing. That’s really about perception. Take a show like Gossip Girl, which I think gets 2 million viewers a week, and the perception of that show is that it’s just a phenomenon. And we seem to be, with 15 million viewers a week, this sleeper hit. But those folks over at CBS know a whole lot better than I do about such things. I think that some shows have a longevity that the shows that are seen as phenomena do not have. I just want as many people to see it as possible, because I’m proud of it. I see how hard the few hundred of us work on it every week.