Nat Faxon has been a supporting player for much of his career: An alum of Los Angeles’ Groundlings comedy troupe, he adapted quickly to roles on short-lived ensemble TV series like Grosse Pointe and Happy Hour, later putting in brief but memorable turns on Mad Men and Party Down and in the big-screen efforts of Jake Kasdan and Broken Lizard. As one of three Oscar-winning writers of The Descendants, he was neither the highly regarded filmmaker (that would be Alexander Payne) nor the guy who regularly dons flamboyant outfits on Community (that’s Faxon’s longtime writing partner Jim Rash) among the honorees. But while the new Fox comedy Ben And Kate is more of a group effort than its title implies, the show technically elevates Faxon to marquee status. As Ben Fox (a character named after and based on the brother of creator Dana Fox), Faxon plays the free-spirited yin to the responsible yang of Dakota Johnson’s Kate, a rudderless sort who finds direction by assuming the duties of watching after Kate’s young daughter. The A.V. Club spoke to Faxon about living up to his character’s seemingly larger-than-life inspiration, the proper time to improvise off of someone else’s script, and why Ben And Kate is resistant to rolling eyes and raised eyebrows.
The A.V. Club: Have you met Dana’s brother yet?
Nat Faxon: Yes, I have. Awesome guy. A guy that you could drink, like, 48 beers with in one night.
AVC: Did the two of you have a memorable, 48-beers-style experience?
NF: No, not enough, not enough. We definitely shared some beverages together, but I need to get more. We need to do more. We had a good time, but it was in New York during the upfronts and things were sort of being jostled around. We’re due for a big night out.
AVC: The show’s panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour built the real Ben Fox up as something of a legend. Do you feel pressure to do right by this outsized character?
NF: Absolutely! I feel like I’m not so far from him in many ways. I also grew up with a guy that’s very much like him, so I feel like between my own life, [Ben’s] life, and my best friend’s life, there’s a lot of glean from, in terms of creating the character. But I don’t feel a ton of pressure, just because he’s such a good guy and I think he would roll with whatever.
AVC: You and Dakota Johnson show an immediate spark in the pilot—it’s as if you’ve known each other forever. How soon after you met did you feel that vibe?
NF: I know—it’s been such a pleasure to get to know her. She’s one of those women that is well-rounded and laid-back and has a good head on their shoulders, and so there’s good give-and-take where you’re messing with each other, and there’s a nice lack of sensitivity so you can push the envelope a little bit without being scared, like, “Oh, no, I’ve offended you.” So it’s very playful and very fun, and it’s been that way since the beginning. She was brought on at the last minute. She’s like the last piece to the puzzle. So there wasn’t a lot of “get to know you” time, and so we just started shooting, and it was an organic, natural rapport that we had. It felt very natural to me. It wasn’t something you’re trying to force just because you want it to come off that way onscreen.
AVC: The organic nature of that rapport—does that speak to you as someone with an improv background?
NF: Yes. I feel like I’m pretty easygoing and, much like Ben, free-spirited, extroverted, and social. So I usually don’t have a problem getting to know people. But being able to improvise and have fun with people and joke back and forth makes it feel like it progresses things quicker than if you were just not doing that.
AVC: It seems like that type of dynamic is encouraged on the set.
NF: It is, yeah. The writing is fantastic, but having Dana and [executive producer] Jake [Kasdan] and those guys be open to and completely supportive of any improv or ad-libbing is really nice. You then feel the freedom to do it. But I don’t take it for granted, in the sense that I’ll never go on some long, improvised rant that has no bearing on the story. Nowadays you can see that way ahead of time in movies. You feel like, “Oh, that was a big, improvised moment. It was kind of funny, but it had nothing to do with what was going on in the scene or the story.” And then they just kind of move through it. It stands out. So I’ll try never to do that. I think if it’s within the realm of what’s happening, and if it’s adding something at the end, or doing a take that’s a little bit different, but never so much that it disrupts the story.
AVC: And being a writer yourself, you want to respect what’s on the page.
NF: Yeah, exactly. And there’s so much good stuff on the page, so it’s not like you’re really like, “Oh, I’ve got to improvise the crap out of this to make this funny.” I never experienced that on this show at all, it was more of just my own background and my own training to sometimes do that, just because that’s what I’ve always done—but never at the expense of what’s happening.
AVC: We’re in a heyday in television comedy where the boundaries between writer and performer aren’t as defined as they once were. Can you see yourself ever writing a Ben And Kate episode? Is that something you’re interested in at all?
NF: I think possibly, yeah. If it ever happened it probably wouldn’t be for a bit. If there’s an idea that Jim and I came up with that suited the show and we had the time to do it, it would be so much fun to do. But I think the show deserves the attention of the staff that’s there, and the writers’ and Dana’s vision should get its legs under it a little bit and determine the direction of the show first before I would feel comfortable ever coming in and being like, “All right, this is what we’re going to do.” It takes a little while for a show to find its groove and where it’s going to live, and I have the utmost trust and respect in those guys to do that.
AVC: When Dana talks about Ben And Kate, she transmits a confidence about what she wants the show to be. Did that clear, assured vision attract you to the show?
NF: She’s a little ball of fury, and it’s the most positive, upbeat fury you’ve ever seen. It’s just goal-oriented positivity. As a performer, that’s very attractive because you’re under their leadership. It’s their creation and they’re guiding you in terms of the direction that the show and the characters are going to go. And so you have to trust them in that direction and I do, implicitly. She’s not only a great writer but she’s a great person, so therefore you trust her even more. Because you feel like she has a clear sense of what she wants to do, and I’m all for the ride and letting myself go wherever she wants to take us.
AVC: The way production on a network series goes, there are long stretches of time between the filming of a pilot, receiving word of a pick-up, and going into production. When you returned to set at the end of the summer, how did it feel to be with this cast and crew again for the first read-throughs? Was the vibe that was captured in the pilot still there?
NF: Yeah, it was nice. It was really nice. We were fortunate to have sort of a pre-read so that we could get all the kinks out, just because it’s been a few months since we’ve all gotten together and performed these characters and performed with each other. It was a nice way to practice, and then the actual table read I thought went really well. It seemed well-received, and I think that little tune-up was a good idea, because it got us back into the swing of things. It reminded us all how much fun we had doing it and how much fun hopefully we’ll have continuing to do it.
AVC: Speaking in a previous interview about the roles you typically receive, you said, “I’m always the really hot guy’s best friend.” How does it feel to have your character’s name in the title this time around?
NF: It feels really gratifying and really exciting. That old quote is true: I’m not usually considered for the leads. Usually it’s the second or third roommate that comes in and says something silly and then you see them at the end of the show and there’s another silly line, and then that’s it. So it’s one of the things that really attracted me to the part, obviously, just because it was a really fun character who’s also one of the two leads of the show. And I never get presented with opportunities like this—it’s going to be a ton of work, but it’s something that I look forward to.
AVC: Has Dana or Jake said what it was about Ben that said, “This will be Nat Faxon’s big leading role”?
NF: No, I think it was just a good fit. I auditioned, and I think I was able to grasp the character enough—just embodying this sort of silly, free-spirited character—that they decided to give me the shot. And I applaud them for putting someone like this in the lead of the show, as opposed to just, like I said, the second or third friend. Not many people are willing to do that. And not many networks are willing to do that. So I have to give the credit to Dana and Jake and [executive producer] Katherine Pope and those guys as well as Fox, for putting something like this on the air where it’s not a super heavy-duty model that’s playing Ben, but me. [Laughs.]
AVC: The whole ensemble is like that. There’s not one character that you can point to and say, “That’s the straight man.” Everybody has absurd edges.
NF: Yes, yes. Which is also something that I applaud, because having read many scripts over the years, it’s hard not to have that person who is the straight man, so to speak, to give all the eye-rolls and eyebrow-raising looks, going, “Huh. Who are these people?” So it’s really fun to be part of an ensemble where everybody has a distinct voice and a character to play that is grounded, yet slightly askew.
AVC: Have you and Jim Rash ever gone through the process of selling and developing a pilot as writers?
NF: Yeah, we have. The first thing that we ever got made was a pilot that we wrote called Adopted, and it was something that we did with 20th Century Fox for ABC. And we did an episode with Bernadette Peters and Christine Baranski and it was something that we, at the time, had written for ourselves, because we had read a lot of scripts and weren’t really getting the opportunities we were hoping for in terms of acting. We were getting stereotyped and pigeonholed into playing certain things, and really wanted to do more and expand, and that was the impetus to write a pilot. And it made its way around town and got some attention—we got ABC interested and they were the ones who eventually bought it. And ultimately we weren’t allowed to be in it. [Laughs.] And not wanting to disrupt the process or lose the opportunity, we acquiesced to a couple of other actors—but the show didn’t make it to series. But it was certainly an incredible learning experience, and we developed shows for a bunch of years after that at different networks, but still, never having been able to get the success of having something go to series.
AVC: How does an experience like that compare to being an actor on a show that goes to series?
NF: You realize when you’re going through that process, how difficult it is. There are a lot of people involved, and there’s a lot of micromanaging that you have to navigate because you have a studio that’s involved, and you have a network that’s involved, and oftentimes they have different ideas and different thoughts. It’s a hard, arduous process to go through, because the biggest thing you’re trying not to do is sacrifice the integrity of the work that you’ve put out, and the thing that attracted these people, probably, to your work in the first place. That’s something you don’t want to lose or give up. So it’s a difficult thing that you’re trying to balance: the notes from the people that are able to put your show on the air and not losing too much of what gave your show its voice.
Having now gone through this a few times as an actor, and having had the shows get picked up, it’s something that is not lost on me and something that I don’t take for granted whatsoever. I know how difficult it is to write the show, go through the whole notes process, get it picked up so that a pilot is made, and then get the show to go to series. All things have to align, and it takes a lot of work to get it to that. And so I feel so fortunate that this one did, because I know how uncommon that can be. It’s a really hard thing to do, and so when you’re on a show, as a creator/writer or as an actor, it’s so awesome and exhilarating and gratifying when a show goes to series, because it allows you to tell more stories.