Actor Michael Hitchcock is adept at portraying characters whose interactions with the world betray a secret longing. Sometimes this is played for pathos (his recurring character on Men Of A Certain Age is a financial success who envies Scott Bakula’s struggling actor and his bachelor lifestyle); sometimes it’s played for laughs (as in Best In Show, where he’s one half of a nouveau riche, show dog-raising couple who love their prize weimaraner more than one another). If Hitchcock himself has any secrets to divulge, he can do so onstage in Austin this weekend—he’s the guest for a special, fundraising Q&A session for The Institution Theater on May 7, where he’ll provide the “A”s to “Q”s from Institution founder Tom Booker. Before coming to Texas, Hitchcock spoke with The A.V. Club to share his feelings on being interviewed, describe doing improv for U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, and take a Random Roles-style trip through his work in the films of Christopher Guest.
The A.V. Club: Do you have any idea what the conversation with Booker will entail?
Michael Hitchcock: I hope it’s not a lot of, “Why did you write Problem Child 3?”
AVC: Would you like to answer that question right now?
MH: No. You have to pay money, good money, to find out. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are there any words of wisdom on improv and acting that you’re hoping the audience will take away?
MH: With improv, the biggest thing I love to get across is 90 percent of it is being totally committed to whatever you’re good at. You can forget the rules of improv; you can deny, deny, deny—but as long as you commit, you can get home safe.
AVC: Is there any chance that you’ll be able to perform while you’re in Austin? Or will you just be doing the Q&A?
MH: No, I think I’ll just be doing the Q&A—and we’re going to, at times, also do some character work with the people that are there. People are going to improvise for me, which will be fantastic. I can just sit there and judge. [Laughs.] I’m kidding.
AVC: Are you a fan of being interviewed? Do you like to talk about the craft of acting and improvising?
MH: I’m not a fan of being interviewed. I certainly like to jabber. Usually I like to jabber about things like, you know, what was on Judge Judy yesterday, or Celebrity Apprentice, but not a whole lot of pontificating. I think people go, “Oh shut up, already.”
AVC: According to your Twitter feed, you’ve been really into Celebrity Apprentice this season.
MH: I really have been. It’s a great ball of craziness, so I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I was catching up. I just got back from Chicago, so I was catching up on last night’s episode.
AVC: What happened last night?
MH: Well, Osama [Bin Laden] died, Trump got trumped last night, so that’s good, I guess. Can you imagine being President Obama, having to put up with that birth certificate shit in the same week that you’re planning Osama Bin Laden’s death? [Laughs.] It’s just so crazy. To think that’s what he was having to go through during that whole week of super-planning. So, we’re going to get into political discussions during my little Q&A. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve traveled to Iraq and Kuwait during the holiday season the last four years to entertain U.S. troops stationed there. How would you describe that experience?
MH: I go with a group of performers from the Groundlings Theater here in Los Angeles. So since I know all of them, it kind of turns into one long, weird slumber party. It sounds odd, but I laugh more during that week in Iraq than I do all year long. You know, you’re with friends, and sometimes you’re terrified, and you’ve got that nervous energy going. But it’s really fun and exciting to get to perform for the troops, especially in out-of-the-way locations where they normally don’t get entertainment. I enjoy that part of it very much.
AVC: The audiences at those bases are probably much larger than the typical improv audience.
MH: It depends. We’ve done it for several hundred people, and we’ve gone to one base where we had maybe 70. We’ve played big bases, and we’ve played literally in a tent that’s set up as cafeteria kind of a thing, so a little bit of everything out there.
AVC: Do you find that it’s harder to get the performance across to a larger group like that?
MH: Well, you have to do it differently in a sense of microphones and things that we wouldn’t normally have to do at the Groundlings Theater or most improv places. Also, it’s a rowdy audience—it’s soldiers. [Laughs.] So you have to keep that in mind. You get a lot of suggestions about, I don’t know, “She’s a whore!” You’re not going to say, “No, we’re not going to take that. We’re going to take librarian, and you should know better.” They’re fighting a war, for God’s sake. We’re going to give them what they want for the most part.
AVC: So, we do a feature on The A.V. Club’s national site called Random Roles, where we speak with actors, like yourself, with extensive résumés, and have them talk about roles they’ve played in the past …
MH: Are you just bragging that you’re doing this with other people and I don’t get to do it?
AVC: [Laughs.] Well, I would like to do a mini-Random Roles with you, focusing on the films you’ve done with Christopher Guest.
AVC: Starting with Steve Stark in Waiting For Guffman: Had you worked with anyone in the cast before making that film?
MH: No, I hadn’t. So many of them were my comedy icons, and I was scared to death, but also thrilled to be a part of it. I remember sitting at a table in Austin, as we shot Waiting For Guffman outside of Austin, in Lockhart. And we were eating, and we were looking at the bats and everything, and I just said, “I can’t believe I’m sitting at a table with Christopher Guest and these people.” I mean, I’m sitting here, listening to them, and laughing—it was a very strange experience. I remember thinking, “Oh, I hope Catherine O’Hara isn’t a bitch.” And she wasn’t. She’s fantastic.
AVC: Was there a feeling as the shoot went on that the cast was gelling really well, and there was potential for this to become on ongoing thing?
MH: I didn’t think that at the time. Although I did marvel at how good—Christopher is just an amazing comedy director in every sense of the word, because he lets you go to places you didn’t think you could go. We got to help pick out our costumes; I got to name my character in that movie. It was sort of an in-joke, because one of my best friends growing up, that I went to college with, is named Steve Stark, so I named it as an homage to him, so when he saw the film he’d laugh. And that’s the type of thing that just doesn’t happen in ordinary films. I didn’t know that it would become a cult classic or that it would spawn other ones, but I know that it was a special experience in terms of all the things he let us do as actors and improvisers.
AVC: When Best In Show came about, was that a situation where Christopher called you up and said, “Hey, we’re doing another one of these movies”?
MH: When it got to that stage, it’s sort of like, “You want to be in another movie?” And you’re like, “Of course.” You have to remember with Christopher, besides just the cast, he brings back a lot of the same crew and everything, too. So it really is a family affair once it gets going. You really feel at home, and it’s easier to improvise. He doesn’t allow agents to come [onto the set]. So there’s no men in suits with their arms folded, staring at you. It makes it a much easier, creative way to work.
AVC: What do you remember about the development of your character, Hamilton Swan, in that movie?
MH: Lots of stuff. Parker Posey and I, once we found out we were going to be working together, we would hang out in Starbucks, because it was in the script that we met in Starbucks. The script, which people may or may not know, is really mostly an outline. It’s only about 15 pages long, and everything else is improvised. But we knew at the time that our characters had met at Starbucks and that we were avid catalog shoppers. So we sat in Starbucks, picking out things we’d love to buy. And Christopher, in his genius way, let us talk with the person who was doing the set dressing, and we literally went through, like, Sharper Image and Frontgate, and those kind of catalogs, and picked out things that were later in our home that we thought that these people would like.
The braces idea came from Christopher. Something most people don’t know about my character—I don’t even know if Christopher even knows—is that when I went to meet with the hair people for the first time, I said, “I think Hamilton Swan thinks he looks like Matthew Perry. So my hair, we styled it to look exactly like what Matthew Perry’s hair looked like in Friends that season. We dyed it the same color, we cut it the same—and it’s just little things like that that no one knows, which is super fun.
AVC: Your characters in Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show have these moments near the end of the films where they snap. Steve’s break is a positive revelation, but the freak-out that Hamilton has before the dog show is more negative—but really interesting and really funny. How did you arrive at that?
MH: It just happened. By that time, our relationship went there organically. That’s sort of where it went. That freak-out was the very first thing we shot of the movie with all of the background players that, in real life, were real show-dog owners. The producer was afraid that they were going to think the whole movie was these awful people that were making fun of show-dog owners. Afterwards, Parker and I both went around and said, “Hey, the whole movie isn’t like this. It’s just our characters,” so that these people wouldn’t quit the movie.
AVC: Moving on to A Mighty Wind and Lawrence E. Turpin, stage manager for the climactic concert: In the scene where you’re showing Bob Balaban the stage setup, and you bop him on the head, did he know that was coming?
MH: No, he didn’t. I remember at that time I didn’t want to yell at him. But I was at the point where I was like, “I can’t hear him talk anymore,” so I just gave him a slap, and everyone started laughing. I never thought that would make the movie, because the crew, and Christopher—and Bob, too—everyone started laughing. You’ll notice they cut away very quickly after the slap, because everybody broke up. He just kept talking and talking, and I wanted to be nice to him, but I just couldn’t anymore. And I don’t mean Bob—I mean his character. That’s what’s also brilliant about Christopher. I had no idea until we started the scene that Bob was ever going to be like that. I thought, “Oh, my character will be nice. I’ll be pleasant this whole movie.” And then Bob started nitpicking everything. And it started getting under my skin, and he just wouldn’t stop talking about every little thing. So none of that was planned; I had no idea he would do that.
AVC: Then, in For Your Consideration, you play one of the critics on the show-within-the-film, Hate It. You also played a critic on an episode of Entourage. Is there any thrill to being on the other side of the critic-actor relationship? Do you feel like you get to avenge any bad reviews that you or your cohorts may have received?
MH: I’ve never received a bad review, so I don’t know what you’re talking about. [Laughs.] No, I received several. I like playing slightly evil people anyway, and I certainly consider critics to be that at times, so it is sort of fun to get to play the dark side.