Neil Flynn on The Middle, switching from drama to comedy, and his many Cop #1 roles

Neil Flynn on The Middle, switching from drama to comedy, and his many Cop #1 roles

Hard as it may be to believe, Neil Flynn began his acting career doing more drama than comedy, even winning a Joseph Jefferson Award for his performance in a production of The Ballad Of The Sad Café with Chicago’s Absolute Theatre Company. After early efforts to make a breakthrough in Hollywood failed, however, Flynn returned to Chicago and discovered his aptitude for comedy, which he has displayed regularly throughout eight seasons of Scrubs and four seasons (thus far) of his portrayal of Mike Heck on The Middle. Just before he and the cast and creators of The Middle took the stage for their panel at the Television Critics’ Association winter press tour, Flynn sat down for a chat with The A.V. Club, where he discussed the underrated nature of his series, his history with Del Close, the amount of ad-libbing he was able to do on Scrubs, and some surprising credits from his filmography.

The A.V. Club: There’s a recurring theme in most pieces written about The Middle—including a few on The A.V. Club—that it’s the most underrated sitcom on television. 

Neil Flynn: Oh, yeah? Huh. Well, that might kind of be true. I know it’s not overrated. [Laughs.] That’s a weird area to get into, talking about how much attention you deserve. That’s all subjective. But, yeah, I think it’s definitely under the radar. But I think it has a steady, loyal following that I think is growing. I think syndication’s gonna help as well. But, yeah, if that’s true, I think that’s a nice position to be in, having people call you the most underrated. It suggests you’re underrated, which seems wrong, but to be the most underrated? It seems like [you think] you’re deserving of something

 AVC: It’s also one of the most economically realistic sitcoms on television at the moment. 

NF: Oh, you mean as far as money in the pocket? 

AVC: Yes, but also just that it focuses on a family that’s dealing with things that real families deal with, as opposed to nonstop plot contrivances that only ever seem to happen on TV.

NF: I think so, too. I think that’s the strength of the show: It’s very spare, in a realistic sense. It’s sort of small, too. They live in a small city in a small-ish house; they have small problems. But that’s what everyone has. I was talking to a couple of people from New Zealand yesterday—a couple of reporters—and the show apparently does very well there. I think that tells you that families aren’t that different. I mean, you have your outliers, but the bulk of ’em? I think it doesn’t matter where you live in the United States or where you live in the world: A family’s a family. And I think this show reflects that well. 

AVC: It’s such a tightrope-walk for a show to portray the realities of the economynot only is everyone not rich, but some people are actually struggling from paycheck to paycheckwhile still managing to make it more funny than depressing.

NF: Yeah, I think you’ve gotta go back to The Waltons to find another one. [Laughs.] I don’t know if there’s one that’s aired since then. But I don’t think we really harp on the financial situation, because they’re not poor. They’re just like so many people. I don’t know if you’d call them middle class, though. Maybe lower middle class? That might be closer to accurate. And I’m familiar with that upbringing. Money and lack of it is a constant presence, but it doesn’t dominate your moment-to-moment life. People are just living their lives. So you don’t… have good stuff. Actually, I was just about to say, “They don’t got good stuff,” but I’ll switch that to, “So you don’t have nice things.” 

AVC: “They don’t got good stuff” sounds much more like something Mike might say. 

NF: [In a crisp British accent.] “We have nice things.” I don’t know, it kind of makes life simpler when you don’t gotta worry about getting stuff on your $400 shoes. 

AVC: You mentioned the small, spare nature of the show. If anything, the universe of The Middle has gotten even smaller as it’s progressed. It’s always been a rarity to visit Mike at the quarry, and now that Frankie’s no longer working at Ehlert’s, the focus of the show is completely on the family.

NF: [Hesitates.] This is not verified, but my conjecture on that is that early on, they had to cast as wide a net as possible in case they needed the wide net, in terms of plot, character, and so on. So Frankie had a workplace and Mike had a workplace because they didn’t know what was going to work. And I think what they found was that you rarely have to leave the house, and I think that’s good news. But they had to be prepared to spread the story around just in case. I think my favorite scenes are usually in the car, and that’s about as compact as you can get. [Laughs.] Just the five core characters, packed into a crappy car. But, again, I think those are relatable scenes. The writing, I think, shines in those situations. 

AVC: As evidenced by the fact that the show was nominated for a Humanitas Prize for the opening scene in “The Map,” when the family was coming home from Aunt Ginny’s funeral. 

NF: [Shocked.] Were we?

AVC: Apparently so. Patricia Heaton mentioned it when I spoke to her.

NF: [Still in shock.] Was that… recently?

AVC: Well, she mentioned it sometime this past summer. The awards are actually given out in September. Unfortunately, you guys didn’t win, but given the concept behind the Humanitas Prize, that really is a case where it’s an honor to be nominated.

NF: Yeah, that’s nice. Is that the first and only thing we’ve ever been nominated for? [Laughs.]

AVC: No. Don’t forget you guys got the Emmy nod for Outstanding Makeup for a Single-Camera Series. 

NF: Oh, yeah! Yes, that’s right! Tyson [Fountaine] was nominated for an Emmy. Right. Well, maybe we are the most underrated sitcom on television. [Laughs.] You know, I was looking at the numbers—and I know they don’t mean anything and that the numbers that run in the paper aren’t the ones that the executives are looking at, because I guess that’s broad viewers—but [The Middle] holds steady where it is. And there actually aren’t all that many sitcoms on, are there? I mean, I guess there’s more than there were a couple of years ago, but I think I saw something where, after Modern Family, we’re ABC’s second most-watched sitcom. So, that’s not bad. 

These days, viewership is spreading out so much. I was just reading about the talk shows, because of [Jimmy] Kimmel moving, and they mentioned this other one that’s on FX that Chris Rock is executive-producing [Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell]. I’d never even heard of it! [Laughs.] They’re just proliferating left and right. There’s so many stations… Is it stations or channels?

AVC: I guess it depends on how old you are. 

NF: [Laughs.] I guess so, too. But I don’t want to drift off your questions here. Is there something else you want me to talk about?

AVC: Well, let’s talk about Mike specifically. We probably know less about him than any of the other characters, just by virtue of the fact that he says the least, but it has been established that his favorite movie is Reservoir Dogs

NF: That’s right!

AVC: Is that actually your favorite film, too, or is it just Mike’s?

NF: You know, we were just talking about Tarantino yesterday because of Django Unchained, which I still haven’t seen yet, and people were talking about whether they’re a Tarantino fan or not. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of Tarantino, per se, but I like several of his movies very much, probably Reservoir Dogs the most of them. That was the first one that I saw, and… well, it was his first movie, so that’s why, I guess! [Laughs.] It’s a great movie. Very much a “guy” movie. Somebody pointed out that they call it Reservoir Dogs and asked, “Why do you stress ‘Dogs’ when you say it?” I didn’t even know I did that. I don’t know why I do that. It probably should be the other way. Who knows what the title means, anyway? Do you

AVC: Not offhand. 

NF: Huh. Anyway, there’s a couple of brilliant pieces in there. Great movie. And apparently Mike likes it, too. [Laughs.]

AVC: On several occasions you’ve gotten the opportunity to work with Norm Macdonald, who plays Mike’s brother, Rusty.

NF: Yep. I always love it when Norm’s on. These people now, as the show goes on and we do more and more episodes, they keep coming back. We get to see them a couple of times a year, and it’s always nice to see them, because you gradually become better friends with them, so it shows when you’re playing a scene with them. It’s true with all of the extended family on that show. Norm’s really great to have around, though. Norm’s got a totally different energy. The vibe of his character is—as is Norm himself—is a little bit off… the straight and narrow? [Laughs.] I’m not sure how to say it, but he plays it so funny. Like in the one with the stolen furniture? [Doing a Norm Macdonald impression.] “Yeah, Mike, those people… don’t you hate those people who take and take and take?”

I like playing more or less taciturn. In the beginning of the series, I think they leaned a little more on Mike being a man of few words. But you have to establish these things, these sorts of archetypes, early, so people know what they’re looking at, or maybe so the network understands your pitch. There’ve been a couple of occasions where Mike’s a little more open, not too often, though, come to think of it. 

AVC: His soft side comes through with Sue on occasion. 

NF: There you go! Maybe being with the kids here and there, he’ll soften up. I think that’s a fairly realistic depiction of a Midwest father. There’s an episode coming up where Sue starts to date, and Mike’s less than thrilled with her choice. Not to mention her dating at all. [Laughs.] I don’t have a daughter, but I’m sure I would find that difficult. It’s been making the world go ’round for a long time, yet I’m sure fathers have been uncomfortable with it pretty much from the beginning.

AVC: Speaking of Mike’s relationship with Sue, it varies somewhat: Sometimes he’s extremely softhearted with her, while on other occasions, he all but cringes when she’s trying to forge a stronger bond between them.

NF: Right, like with the “Summer of Dad” thing. [Laughs.] That was the first episode this season. The good thing about Sue is that she’s a sweet, good-hearted girl, but she’s not a delicate flower. In fact, you can’t knock her down. She cannot be discouraged. And I think that’s nice to see for a TV character, especially for a young one. I don’t know what young kids are being influenced by, but I think if Sue rubs off of any of ’em, I think that’s a good thing. Things happen that you assume would destroy her, but they don’t. She always finds a bright side and a reason to try again. I like that about the character. 

AVC: It seems like the consensus is that if someone from the cast is going to get an Emmy nod, it’s going to be Eden Sher for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy. 

NF: I would have no problem with that. In fact, if I had to put money on it, that’s where I’d put my money, too. And I think it would be deserved. There was an episode a couple of weeks ago—maybe the last one before Christmas—that had to do with the anniversary, where the kids were planning an anniversary party, although Sue was doing all of it. I thought the kids were all excellent in that episode. They carried it, for the most part. I just thought, “Look at what I’m watching here. These young actors are really good!” But with Eden, I think that all the time. She said something about how she doesn’t watch herself anymore because it makes her uncomfortable or something. That’s her choice, but the next time I watched the show, I did it particularly watching her, to see what might bother her, and she’s clearly just crazy, because she’s excellent on that show. She does a hell of a job. 

AVC: All of the kids have really grown into their roles over the course of the show.

NF: Oh, very much so!

AVC: Atticus Shaffer deserves particular kudos for battling his way through his voice change this season. No kid should have to go through that on prime-time television. 

NF: [Laughs.] Yeah, I know. I guess we’re lucky he didn’t drop into a basso profundo or anything. That would’ve been odd. But, yeah, it was bound to happen, and he’s doing fine. Maybe not completely in the first season, but by the beginning of the second season, the writers had found the strengths of the kids’ characters, and they really ran with them. 

Like, Axl went from kind of a nondescript brat to a… descript brat? You know what I mean: They found his style, as far as writing his character goes. I think that was a nice jump forward for the show. Because you knew what Brick was going to be, and Sue started by being someone who tries out for cheerleading, but that’s pretty much all they knew about her from the pilot and the second episode. They just hoped it would work. And, as we were saying, I think it’s worked beautifully. 

So, yeah, the kids are a real strength of the show. We’re lucky to have that. I don’t know how many shows you can say that about. Not so much what’s on right now, but ever, really. Maybe I’m just not thinking it through, but where the children are a real strength on a show about a family, I don’t know if that’s very common. Maybe Roseanne? Actually, yeah, I should’ve thought about that earlier when we were talking about the economics. The show’s been compared to Roseanne before. 

AVC: Which makes sense, given that DeAnn Heline and Eileen Heisler (the creators and executive producers of The Middle) both used to write for Roseanne.

NF: Oh, that’s right! Well, there you go. But even those kids, they were solid characters, but the show was still pretty squarely about the parents. 

Yesterday, someone on the street shouted, “Aren’t you on TV?” I said, “Yes,” then I asked her if she knew what the name of the show was, and she said, “Malcolm In The Middle?” That happens a lot. I said, “You’ve got it half right.” She says, “Malcolm?” [Laughs.] Okay, hasn’t it been, like, 10 years since that show was on the air? Because I still get that a lot. Or sometimes they’ll just say, “Hey, you’re on In The Middle!” [Shakes head.] Nah. But whatever. I guess as long as they’re watching us, it doesn’t matter what they call us. 

AVC: Okay, let’s step back from The Middle for a bit—way back—and talk about some of your earlier credits, specifically your experiences working with Del Close. 

NF: Oh, yeah. How do you even know who that is?

AVC: Well, he’s pretty legendary. 

NF: [Laughs.] Fair enough. Well, Del and I were both in a production of Hamlet in the mid-’80s with Chicago native Aidan Quinn starring as Hamlet. Del was Polonius, and that was pretty much his crowning glory, although he still had more than a decade left to live. In fact, I can’t be proven wrong by him now, so I’ll say that it was probably the thing that he was the most proud of. And rightfully so: He was excellent. 

AVC: Who were you in the production?

NF: Well, it’s nothing to brag about, although it was interesting. I played the non-existent part of the king’s bodyguard. It was sort of an updated version, so I was like a CIA sort of bodyguard for Claudius. I never spoke, but it was the best experience onstage I ever had in my life, because I spent almost a year just observing Hamlet being rehearsed and then performed. Not a lot of work, but a great experience nonetheless. 

Anyway, Del and I knew each other from that, and I knew he had this improv theater, but that wasn’t my thing. I was Joe Dramatic Actor. Then I came out [to Hollywood] and didn’t find any success for about five or six years, so I moved back to Chicago, more or less starting over. And with nothing to do on a Wednesday night or whatever, I passed by this sign that said “ImprovOlympic,” and I remembered that. So I went in and saw the show, and I realized, “Oh, this is Del’s place!” And I ended up signing up, pretty much for a lack of nothing else better to do, and… as I’ve said before, it was probably the single best professional decision I ever made. Before the year was out, I was playing with the house team, having the best slot: Friday and Saturday night, every week. Those people went on to be the Upright Citizens Brigade. And Adam McKay, who’s now… a somewhat successful writer-director. 

That was 20 years ago, but you look at that group and we just happened to be… I suppose you could spread some credit around the performers, if you wanted to, but mostly I give the credit to chance. You had a bunch of people in the same place at the same time with the same interests and approximately the same skill level who knew each other better. Some went to Second City, some didn’t. But an alarming number of people from that short chunk of time ended up having success in TV or movies. Amy [Poehler], Tina [Fey], Horatio Sanz… And a number of people became writers. I mean, I’m not talking Tom Cruise-level fame or anything, but just the number of people who’ve gone on to successful careers in comedy? It’s not a very common thing. 

That was the most important chunk of time in my professional career, even though… Let’s just say that if you remove making money from your definition of success, then those were my most successful years. Building those friendships and getting that experience. Because before that, I’d never done anything funny. I’d never really even tried to be funny. 

AVC: You were working at places like the Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters, right?

NF: Yeah, and Galileo with Brian Dennehy was not the laugh riot of the season. [Laughs.] But the acting business is so difficult that it’s never a bad idea to develop another side to your abilities. It’s like learning to switch-hit or something. Carry a catcher’s mitt and a first baseman’s glove, ’cause you never know which one you might need. It was a good idea that I tried it, and it was good fortune that it turned out that I could play comedy. Not that I didn’t think I could. I mean, I’d done it in my life. I just wasn’t considering it in my career. But it turned out that that’s the door that opened, and I feel very lucky. 

[pagebreak]

AVC: If nothing else, you still would’ve had the Cop #1 roles to fall back on. There’s always a need for those. 

NF: There is always a Cop #1. And if things get bad enough, I’ll even do Cop #2 or Cop #3! Although I will say that one of the few times that I stood up for myself, if you can call it that, was when I auditioned for Seinfeld for the role of a cop, and they called back and said, “They want you to do Cop #2.” And I said, “Tell ’em no. It’s Cop #1 or nothing. This is me drawing a line!” [Laughs.] They called back within three minutes and said, “Okay, you’re Cop #1.” I suspect they told both of us we were Cop #2 to see if anyone objected. All you had to do was mention it, and you could be Cop #1. So that was a big moment for me. “No more pushing me around! I’m Cop #1! I’m the one with two lines!” And the day may well come around where I’m playing cops again. But that’ll be fine.

AVC: You still keep your improv chops up, though, with your own group in L.A. called Beer Shark Mice

NF: Actually, we did a show a few weeks ago, which was our first one in a couple of years, I think. It was fun. It’s always great to get up with those guys. And I feel very lucky to have been on Scrubs and now The Middle, and in a different sense I feel proud to have been part of that family in Chicago and also Beer Shark Mice, both of which have been influential in their way, for people who were witnessing it with an interest toward doing it themselves. Like students who were seeing what was possible with practice and experience. For some people, that means something. And I’m glad to have done that. 

Beer Shark Mice lasted—not that it’s dead, but we don’t revive it as often as we used to, because we’re all so busy. It probably started 10 years ago, which is just amazing to me. But it’s just really fun. I was so intimidated by the thought of improvising back in the ’80s when I was in Chicago. I think the opportunity only even came up once that I can recall, and I turned down the offer. It was to go improvise in some club in the suburbs or something. Good god, I couldn’t think of anything more frightening than to get up there without a plan. But it’s nice now. Not only am I not afraid, but I enjoy it. That’s nice. Something about facing your fears, I guess. 

AVC: To bring it back to Del Close again before shifting gears, how valuable is his “Harold” method of improv to what you do now with Beer Shark Mice?

NF: Um… if I tried to do “Harold” now, I would fail at it. [Laughs.] It’s been a very long time. I haven’t done a “Harold” in so long. What it is… even though it’s a perfectly legitimate form of improv, it’s a little bit of a starter’s form. Because it gives you a structure that you can hang onto rather than just a wide-open space to do whatever you want in. It exists because it was the first—as far as I know—long-form improv structure. There was no such thing before that. You couldn’t just, say, improv for 45 minutes. It didn’t make any sense. There was no way to do it. So they put in this structure so it could be done, and so the performers wouldn’t get lost. That’s my thinking on it, anyway. So even though it’s an absolutely legitimate form, it’s possible to take those training wheels off, if you will, and just go freeform for 45 minutes or an hour. People have gotten so much better at long-form improv that it’s no longer necessary to have those rules. 

AVC: You brought up Scrubs a bit ago. The running joke used to be that Bill Lawrence would just write in the script for the Janitor’s lines, “Neil Flynn says something funny.” How close to accurate was that?

NF: Um… that did happen, but only twice that I can remember. And probably not until season five or something like that. But there was once in the script where, for the Janitor’s line, it said, “Whatever Flynn says.” And then a second time a while later said, “Take it, Flynn.” [Laughs.] That was a real joy, to do that. Sometimes people say, “Is it true you improvised most or all of your lines?” No, because that would be crazy. There was a script, you know. And some of the times, I’m sure, there were scenes where it was word-for-word was what written. 

But one of the great joys of doing that show was knowing that you could offer alternate lines as the joke or one of the jokes in the scene. Most of the time it was the button in the scene, the last bit, just to say something that gets you out of the scene with a short little laugh. Because I didn’t have a very big part and was rarely relied upon to supply any plot, it was great to just have that freedom. Bill always said he didn’t mind what I said, as long as it was funny, because people would think he wrote it, anyway. [Laughs.] And, of course, oftentimes it was the writers’ jokes.

A lot of times people will ask me if I do that on The Middle too, but no, there’s no need for it. And it’s a whole different bird, y’know? Actually, there’s not many parts where you can just improvise like crazy, but the Janitor? God knows what was going to come out of his mouth. It could be some wild lie or a statement of truth that’s disturbing in some aspect, so it was much easier to say something odd. 

Bill was just telling me the last time I saw him about some bit of mine that I think was half-written and half-improvised… something about fighting a duck. I was telling Ted the Lawyer something like, “You gotta do something nice for her. Give her something. Like, I gave Lady a duck I killed. I actually didn’t mean to kill him. We were driving along, fighting about the song on the radio or something, and that was it. We got out, we’re on the side of the road, shirtless, figuring out what’s what, and, y’know, the bird got the worst of it.” And that actually stayed in the show. [Laughs.] It’s like, “What are you talking about? Going mano a mano with a duck on the side of a highway…?” What? And who knows whether he was lying. But that’s obviously what made it fun.

That show had such an absurd quality to it. I love that stuff. Maybe someday I’ll go back to that kind of thing. The closest thing to a character who says stuff like that now would be Tracy Jordan on 30 Rock, and now that show [has bowed out], which is kind of sad. I really like that show. I’ve seen every episode. The writing is so good on that show. And Parks And Recreation, too. But with 30 Rock going away, I’ve got to come up with a different show to watch now. Well, I watch Modern Family, too. When people ask me what shows I watch or like or whatever, I usually lead with 30 Rock and Parks And Recreation, but they’re on another network, so I was thinking, “I should probably come up with an ABC show…” [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve got personal connections to 30 Rock and Parks And Recreation, too.

NF: Right. I guess I started watching just because of knowing Tina and Amy. But that absolutely turned out to be for my own benefit. That’s really my thing, the type of humor that I got to do with the Janitor. It’s obviously not exactly what 30 Rock did, but I think in a way the people I know from Chicago back in that time, we all share a certain kind of… not the exact same sense of humor, but we’re all kind of on the same hallway. If Tina’s gonna write a joke, it’s very likely going to be something that I think is funny, or something that maybe I would’ve written if, y’know, I was actually a writer. Which I’m not. 

AVC: Mean Girls must’ve been a pretty easy project for you to step into, then. 

NF: Yeah, but I wasn’t exactly funny. [Laughs.] The movie was, but I just sort of served a purpose as the dad. And that was just luck that I got that part. Because of knowing Tina, I was at the table read, and the guy they wanted to play the dad had gotten into some sort of difficulty and couldn’t do it, so it was like, “Oh, well, how about the guy who was at the table read? He was good.”

Someone told me that that movie is now a touchstone for twentysomethings, that they quote each other lines from it all the time. It seems to have lasted… I don’t know, like Animal House was for me, or something. I saw Animal House in the theater the night before I left for college. And for better or worse, it made an impression. Within a week, I was in a fraternity myself. [Laughs.] A little more well-behaved than those guys were, but… 

AVC: Speaking of people from Chicago, you were originally in Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, although Adam McKay ended up cutting your scene in the end.

NF: Well, I guess the character was authentically in the script, but really it was just a favor by McKay to cast a friend. I guess, based on my extensive background of playing Cop #1, he felt that it was in able hands to have me play the trooper, or whatever my character was. [Laughs.] Of course, a lot of things end up on the cutting-room floor, so it wasn’t particularly upsetting when I got cut from the proper film. 

Also, from the way I understand it, and this may or may not be true, but because Jack Black punts the dog off the bridge and Ron Burgundy’s very upset. I’ve never actually seen the film, but I guess the studio or whoever’s in charge of these things said, “The dog lives.” Adam’s like, “No, it doesn’t.” “No, you don’t understand: The dog lives.” I don’t know if Adam got his way or not, but I know they filmed a scene where he finds a Great Dane or something, and he goes, “Baxter!” And it’s obviously not the same dog, but he believes it is, anyway, even though Baxter was chewed up by machinery in the river or whatever happened. Anyway, the note from the studio was, “The dog lives,” so there went me and Pat Finn and our parts in Anchorman.

AVC: We keep coming back to this Cop #1 thing, so let me ask a question that I may never have asked anyone before: Do you have a favorite Cop #1 role in your back catalog? 

NF: Well, if there’s ever gonna be a good excuse to ask someone that question, now with me is probably about as good as you’re gonna get. [Laughs.] I might have to go with The Fugitive. That’s probably the best movie I’ve ever been in. I’ve only been in a handful of movies, but that’s a good one. It holds up. And it was my first time working with HaFo. You probably call him Harrison Ford. I call him HaFo.

AVC: I’d call him Mr. Ford, if I called him at all.

NF: Well, due to our extensive track record together, I have a nickname for him. [Laughs.] Yeah, I, uh, had one scene in [Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of] The Crystal Skull, and people ask me, “Did you mention The Fugitive to him?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? No!” It wasn’t worth discussing. Plus, for all I know, I tell him that, and suddenly Spielberg calls me up and says, “You were in that with him? Well, then, you can’t be in this! That’ll take people right out of the picture!” So I just kept my mouth shut. 

AVC: How did you end up in Crystal Skull, anyway?

NF: I auditioned. With some scene from some unknown movie. I have no idea what it was. Some scene of a cop interrogating somebody. As I recall, it was like a month later when my agent said, “Do you want to be in it?” I said, “Sure! As what?” They said, “That’s not the question. Do you want to be in it, yes or no?” I said, “Oh. Well, then, yes.” “Great, because that’s the deal: There’s no negotiation, there’s no further information for you on which to make your decision, it’s just yes or no.” So I said, “Okay, sure,” and I ended up playing that part. I’m not saying I did it particularly well, but I’m glad it was that part. Having said yes under those circumstances, I could’ve ended up as the third spear-holder from the left.

AVC: Or a tall Nazi. 

NF: The Nazi in the back row. [Laughs.] But, yeah, that was fun. And pretty much anybody would want to work with Spielberg, given the chance, so even though that was only just one day for me, it’s still a nice notch on the belt, so I can always say, “You know, I worked with Spielberg…” There are just some people that everyone wants to work with. Tina found that out on her show. She could basically have anyone guest star on 30 Rock that she wanted. 

AVC: And she did. From Oprah on down. 

NF: Right! Famous people watch TV, too. And movies. They’ll do ’em. McKay gets it with his movies. He’ll have these crazy guest stars. Like in the one scene in [Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of] Ricky Bobby, where, for really no reason, it’s like, “Who’s at the picnic table? Why, it’s Elvis Costello and Mos Def!” [Laughs.] Why were they there? You get the feeling that they just happened to be visiting the set that day or something. Maybe they were playing Celebrity, putting names in a hat, and just going, “The first two we draw out, we’ll ask ’em to be in the movie, and if they say yes, we’ll find a way to put ’em in.” That must be fun to be able to do that. 

AVC: Not that you’re in it for more than the blink of an eye, but how did you end up in Magnolia?

NF: I’ll try to be brief, but it’s still gonna be longer than my appearance in the film. [Laughs.] I read for some part with P.T.A., Mr. Anderson, and I didn’t think I had much of a shot at it, but this went on for weeks, my agent saying, “No, he says he wants to give you something. He wants to use you.” And eventually he did put me in there, which I was thrilled about. Especially because, at the time, I was just working week to week, month to month, actor for hire, where you take pretty much any old job you’re offered. 

Now, as it turned out, the part was one scene in which I don’t speak, and my face is obscured in shadow, and it’s black and white, but, hey, I’m not lookin’ a gift horse in the mouth. And sometimes I’ll get a fan letter that’ll say, “Mr. Flynn, I’m a big fan of yours, I enjoyed you in—” And they’ll list a couple of things. Sometimes Magnolia is one of those things. That’s when you can tell they just looked at IMDB to grab something, anything, to give them credibility. I’m always tempted to write back, “Oh, so you really liked my non-verbal black-and-white performance for seven-eighths of a second? Well, I’m glad, because I’ll tell you, I did more with that fraction of a second on screen than someone much more famous could’ve possibly done.” [Laughs.]

I should point out, though, that there’s a punch that occurs when Pat Healy, who’s playing the druggist, gets murdered, that is my fist striking him. So one side of my face makes an appearance in the film, as does my fist. 

AVC: Did you get paid extra for playing two parts?

NF: [Wistfully.] No. No, I did not. 

AVC: Hollywood is a cruel mistress. 

NF: As we actors learn over and over again. [Laughs.] So I just happened to be in that film, but at the time, because I was such a fan of Boogie Nights, he appeared to be one of those directors who uses the same actors over and over, using a certain pool of actors, and I was hoping to make my way into that pool, which is why I would’ve swept the floor to be a part of Magnolia. But I haven’t heard from him since, so, uh, that plot did not work out as well as I wanted. But I was glad to do it, anyway.