Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Patton Oswalt has reigned as one of the funniest, most acclaimed stand-up comedians for more than a decade. But over the past five years or so, he’s established himself as a major force in television and film as well. His acting career began with bit parts and a lengthy supporting stint on the hit sitcom The King Of Queens. Oswalt lent his voice—along with much of his personality and even his mannerisms—to the lead character of Brad Bird’s 2007 animated masterpiece, Ratatouille, about an epicurean rat who dreams of becoming a chef. And in 2009 he tackled another meaty lead role, this time of the live-action variety, in Big Fan, a pitch-black but very funny character study that casts Oswalt as an obsessed football fan who faces an ethical crossroads when he’s beaten up by one of his favorite players. Two years later, Oswalt delivered a heartbreaking lead performance as a battered and bruised but resourceful survivor who strikes up an unlikely but profound friendship with a self-loathing narcissist (Charlize Theron) in Jason Reitman’s dark comedy Young Adult. Oswalt can currently be seen playing another obsessive, this time a camping-crazed über-scout leader in the comedy Nature Calls, and will soon be assuming a recurring role on Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. He recently spoke to The A.V. Club about playing obsessive characters, working with Paul Thomas Anderson, and his landmark 3-D achievement.
Nature Calls (2012)—“Randy”
Patton Oswalt: I had seen [director] Todd Rohal’s earlier films. He has an almost unique-to-a-fault view of the world and filmmaking. With this film, I think he was trying to do something a little more mainstream. But that attempt, when put through his filter, made it so much more bizarre. I was intrigued by the idea of being the calm center in the middle of a lot of hysteria from other characters—from both my enemies and my allies. The other thing that seduced me was that there was a Bad News Bears feel to it, and I thought maybe it would find a way to filter through the film. I don’t know how successful they were at doing that, but I would always rather shoot for something unique and fail than do a script because I feel like they’re hitting all the right mainstream beats. It certainly wasn’t a boring experience for me.
The A.V. Club: One thing the character shares with a lot of the characters you’ve played is that he’s unhealthily, almost pathologically obsessed with something.
PO: That is something that I’m starting to see a pattern with. It’s not that they are unhealthily obsessed; it’s more that the obsession is the only thing keeping them healthy. That’s the only thing keeping the blood pumping in their veins. Would they even exist without their obsession? I don’t know. That’s something for me to look at 20 years down the road. It was also really interesting to work with this group of kids, because I have a 3-year-old daughter. And she has a lot of different friends, and you see a lot of different styles of parenting and how it’s affecting some of the kids. With acting, you see some of the kids are literally just off the street, untrained, and they are great. And others are off the street, untrained, and kind of horrible. [Laughs.] And you can see early on that some of the kids are going to end up being bad people. There were other kids who were total show-biz kids, and their parents were giving them a full life with real experiences. And then there were show-biz kids that were just [singing] “show biz kids,” and you knew that they were not being allowed to have a childhood. So, seeing all this, it was like having my own personal 7 Up film, but I was seeing it from the beginning. But for the most part, the kids were great. There were just a few who I would look at and think, “Oh boy, I hope you get some help.”
AVC: What was it about them? Were they mistreating woodland creatures?
PO: They were just sort of bad kids. I didn’t really see any bedwetting, fire-setting, or animal torture. But I did see some bullying of smaller kids and playing mind games with adults. These kids were way too young to be playing mind games, but they were already doing it. They were taking pleasure in being mean. Growing up there are always those kids who are only happy when they are making someone else upset. That is unfortunately just how some people are. And their parents were fine. Some people are just born with bad wiring.
AVC: That’s one of the interesting things about child actors: They’re doing the work of adults.
PO: Yeah, they really are. When you’re that young, “pretend” should be play. That’s why some people say to actors, “Children do what you do.” Well, no, they don’t. They do pretend games in a playful, non-linear way. When you act, you’re being asked to pretend in a very rigid, controlled environment. It’s very un-childlike. So a lot of times, when you put kids in that situation, you hope they have a better support system outside of what they’re doing to bring them back to reality at the end of the day and to keep them well-rounded.
Small Doses (1994)—Unknown
PO: Small Doses was this thing where Comedy Central went to my management and said they were looking to do an anthology show of short comedic films that would be a narrative. We were still in the aftermath of MTV’s Liquid Television, which launched Beavis And Butthead and Aeon Flux. So Comedy Central was thinking about doing a live-action version. They had one Claymation thing and then a bunch of little live-action things. So me and Blaine Capatch wrote a thing together called Food For Thought where we played a couple of guys working the night shift at a supermarket. We were both fascinated with the Mike Leigh film Naked, where [David Thewlis] just talks all night to a security guard. So we wrote six episodes of the script, and [the network] liked them. So we went to New York and shot the whole thing in a grocery store all night when it was closed. All six, just bam, bam, bam, done. We got this amazing comedian/ex-National Lampoon writer named Chris Rush to play our manager. The character was like a bald ex-hippie with a really unique point of view. It was a great experience. Nothing ever came of it, of course, but we got these really great six short films. I think a couple of them went to festivals.
AVC: Was that the first time you’d acted?
PO: Yeah, I think it was the first time I was ever paid to act. We did that in the spring, and then later in the fall I did Seinfeld. Now that I’m thinking about it, back in college I did a film called Student Loans And You. [Laughs.] Me and another guy named J.C. Shakespeare and an actress played three comedians just doing jokes about college and college loans. I’ve never seen that film. It’s floating around somewhere. But that was really my first time being paid to act.
AVC: Did you think of yourself as a comedian who was breaking into acting?
PO: In my mind, I was always a comedian who was going to branch into writing. It was a little frustrating working with a director who had a different view of comedy. So after that first experience I thought, “Okay, if I do this again, I should probably direct it.” And then I veered into acting a lot, and away from the dream of directing. So hopefully I’ll get back into that at some point. I was just shooting an episode of Justified, and Jere Burns was hanging around the set to learn about directing. He acts all the time as a way of getting ready to direct something.
PO: Yeah, that wasn’t really a performance. I went in and auditioned for Larry David and Jerry, and it was just two lines. I was really bad at auditioning. They told me that every time there was a period in the dialogue, that’s the end of the thought. And even though it was a two-line audition, that little bit of acting advice is what got me that role. Sometimes you have to do work, even if it’s only two lines. And I’ve expanded that to other bigger roles. Even lead roles. It’s obviously not something new that nobody has ever thought of before, but it’s like being a chef-in-training. You have to be able to do the potatoes before you can do the filet mignon.
AVC: There seems to be a similar arc in stand-up: You’ve got to do your time opening and then middling before headlining.
PO: Yeah, it’s like, “Let’s just see you handle this stuff.” As a comedian, unfortunately I started just as the boom was ending, so I worked really hard to become a good emcee. I had a ton of work as an emcee for a lot longer than I wanted to, because there just weren’t a lot of emcees around. These club owners would be like, “Oh, this guy can’t open the show. He’s not any good.” So you’re giving him more time and more money? It was crazy.
MADtv (1995)—“Crip In Wheelchair”
PO: It was a sketch I wrote about making the Crips and Bloods more racially diverse. That skit was about the Crips wanting to have a handicapped person. So that wasn’t really a role; I just sat there and filled the space.
AVC: On Saturday Night Live, the writer often appears in the sketch. That wasn’t usually the case on MADtv. You wrote for them for a few years, didn’t you?
PO: They had a really good cast. No one was saying, “Hey, we’ve got to put the writers in.” Also, I was such a snot rag when I worked there. Mr. Show [With Bob And David] was going on at the same time, and I was just dealing with the fact that we had all these network notes while we were watching the best sketch comedy I had ever seen being done. I was like, “We could be doing what they’re doing!” Well, no, we couldn’t, because the network was fucking us over. Every now and then, a brilliant sketch would get through because the network was too busy dealing with some other dumb note. That was very frustrating for me.
I never wrote for [Mr. Show]. I did some background stuff in sketches, but I never wrote for them. I wanted to be working for Mr. Show and, after they didn’t bring me back to MADtv—rightfully so, because I was such an asshole over there—Mr. Show asked me to submit a packet. So I rushed and wrote a packet overnight and turned it in, and it just sucked. It was not good stuff. Bob and David were so nice. They were like, “We can work with you, not this season but maybe next season.” And that was their last season. I was going to be on the fifth season of Mr. Show, but, of course, that never fucking happened. [Laughs.]
Down Periscope (1996)—“Stingray Radioman”
PO: I got that role right before I was hired on MADtv. They established me in the background very early on. I was over at Fox shooting this movie. I was just sitting in the background. I only had one line, which I think was partially said off-screen. And I finally went to the director and was like, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to lose this other job if you have me here for another month.” And he goes, “We’ll take you out in the next scene.” If you watch the movie, they win the war game and everyone is clapping, and I just get up and walk down the passage. What, do I leave the sub? I don’t know, but I just vanished from the movie.
The Weird Al Show (1997)—“Seymour”
PO: Yeah, that was another one that I forget how I got that part. I went on and did this weird scene about guys trying to conform. It was a weird parallel between what was going on in the alternative scene. The alternative scene became just as exclusionary and elitist as the people we were originally making fun of. Nobody becomes a better excluder than the formally excluded. If you look at Andy Warhol’s Factory, they were excluded and then they started to exclude. So I was able to bring a lot of that to that character. I worked on it for half a day, but years later I went to see a movie—I think it was Alien Resurrection—and I was standing outside. And Weird Al and his wife walk past me, and he was just like, “Hi, Patton.” He remembered me from just talking to me for a few hours several years before. He is as cool as everyone thinks he is.
AVC: He’s got that crazy computer brain that takes everything in and stores it for later use.
PO: He’s also not inside his own head. He’s very aware of the world. I was like, “Uh, I’ve got to be more like that and less narcissistic.” It was one of those exceptions that proves the rule when people that you really like always turn out to be douchebags. He’s someone I really liked and I met him. Now I like him even more. It was one of those happy things.
Magnolia (1999)—“Delmer Darion”
PO: Delmer Darion. God. I was doing a show one night, and I went back in the kitchen and was hanging out, and Paul Thomas Anderson was there. We were just talking, and he was like, “I’m doing this movie if you want a part in it.” I said, “Yeah, sure.” So they called me the next day and said I needed to come in to be fitted for a wetsuit. I said, “Can I see the screenplay first?” And they were like, “Nope.” So I went in and got this custom wetsuit made, and they gave me two pages of the script and flew me to Reno. We shot this scene and then hung out all night drinking. And a week later, we were shooting and I was in the wetsuit. It was so hot to the point where I wasn’t even sweating anymore. And Paul was dumping bottles of water on my head to keep me from passing out and I was like, “Paul, what are we doing?” He said, “I can’t say right now, but I’ll just say that you are the first frog that falls out of the sky.” And I went, “Okay.” So that’s what working with PTA is like.
Man On The Moon (1999)—“Blue Collar Guy”
PO: I was in the makeup trailer in the morning and they were cranking AC/DC, and Jim Carrey comes in and said, “Hi, I’m Jim, welcome to the movie. I just want to let you know that I’m going to go into my other persona, and I probably won’t answer to Jim.” Then he went to go get in his makeup. Then my manager came by, who was friends with Jim, and he was like, “Hey, Jim.” Jim was like, “Who’s Jim? Jim’s not here.” And they were doing all this stuff with him and Danny DeVito, and he was so fucking into it. So when it came time for my part, it was just one line, and I was supposed to say, “Hey, you’re Kaufman!” but instead I said, “Hey, you’re Jim Carrey!” And they said, “Cut.” And I was like, “Fuck, I’m fired.” And Jim started laughing, but laughing like Andy Kaufman. Then I did it again, and we got it. It was set in the ’70s, and they had me playing all of the ’70s in one character. I could not have looked more ’70s. Oh my fucking God, it was so funny.
Zoolander (2001)—“Monkey Photographer”
PO: Yeah, I had become really good friends with Ben Stiller at that point. We had written stuff together for an awards show. We did a thing for the MTV VMAs. And I also wrote the acceptance speech for him that Will Farrell was in. So we were really comfortable working together. And he just said, “Come out to New York, and do this quick thing in this movie.” So I went and picked out my own wardrobe, and they shot me with this crazy fisheye lens. And at the beginning, I was in the background just screaming at an actress who was playing my assistant. I was just playing every angry New York photographer. Doing stuff in Ben Stiller’s movies is always really fun. Even if it’s just a second, it’s going to be really fun.
Run Ronnie Run (2002)—“Dozer / Editor #1”
PO: I was over at my office at Dakota Films and was asked, “Just sit here and be one of the editors.” That was kind of a bummer. I went to one of the earliest table reads of that script, and it was really good. It was what a Mr. Show sketch should have been. And then—I can’t speak for Bob and David—I hate to say it, it’s yet another good movie that got fucked over by the process. It’s depressing that that’s not an amazing story. When you do a movie, it’s like a scratch-off lottery ticket.
AVC: It seems like at every stage, there are a million different ways to make a movie more generic, more homogenous.
PO: Yeah, I was reading an interview with Sylvester Stallone. And he acknowledged what we were saying. He said of sequels, “Yeah, it’s a filmed deal.” But he also said, “When you make a movie, it’s like getting dressed for prom in a dark closet. When you walk out and you look good and it works, you’re like, ‘Fuck, let’s do this again!’” You don’t want to go back in the dark and get dressed again. It comes out of fear. The process of making a movie is such a roll of the dice. It made me understand why people would want to do sequels. As much as I put them down, as a film buff, I’ve been in so many movies that the things I used to think about movies when I was in my late 20s, I now realize that I didn’t know what I was talking about. Now I know why it’s possible for so many talented people to get together and make something shitty. Or when you’re in something that seems shitty and low-budget, you see that everyone there is still busting their asses, hoping it might be good. Every movie—even the crassest piece of shit—is birthed out of goofy optimism. It really softens you. You know what people went through to get that thing done.
AVC: It seems like as people get older, they become less inclined to judge people harshly.
PO: Yeah, I’ve been in situations where someone is breaking their ass for a scene and you’re just watching and thinking, “This isn’t working, even though everyone was giving 100 percent.” Sometimes it just doesn’t work, even when everyone is trying to get an A+ that day. It happens.
Zig Zag (2002)—“Shelly”
PO: I had become friends with David Goyer and he had written all these movies—man, that guy came up through the fucking ranks. You should talk to him sometime. He has the funniest “meeting Steven Segal” story I’ve ever fucking heard in my life. He has come up through the trenches. When he wrote Blade and finally got some cachet, he auctioned a novel that he wanted to direct called Zig Zag. It’s a movie that doesn’t quite work. It doesn’t come together like it should. But Oliver Platt’s performance is fucking awesome. It’s one of those great performances in a not-great film. He plays a character called “The Toad” and holy shit, he’s so good it literally hurts the movie. Because viewers are like, “Can’t we just go watch him?” It’s like Martin Short’s character in The Big Picture. It’s still a pretty good movie, but he’s on such another level it makes the rest of the movie seem like a booger.
The Man Show (2002)—“Weepum Buzzkillus”
PO: Oh, that was just a quick thing. They were doing a “Museum Of Annoying Drunks,” and I was the guy who just cries all the time. I was in that sketch with Dane Cook. It was right before he exploded. He had just done Simon Sez with that basketball player. Dennis Rodman? And he was like, [unimpressed voice] “Yeah, I just did that movie.” And I was like, “But you got to go to Europe and ride around on motorcycles; that must have been fun.” Those were the first moments when I was able to give someone else some wisdom. I had always been very negative about bad movies. But that was the point when I realized that even if it was bad, it was always fun. We get to go to other countries. It’s pretty cool.
AVC: You’re able to have more perspective.
PO: Yeah. I’m sure he has perspective now, too. You have to go through it. You have to have some success and some failure. And then you realize, “Hey, what I do for a living is fun. I really lucked out.”
Crank Yankers (2002-2003)—“Boomer”
PO: Yeah, Jimmy [Kimmel] came out of the morning-zoo trenches. And we both have a big love/hate thing with the morning-zoo mentality. So we were just playing the worst morning-zoo guys you could cobble up. It was just, go to Vegas, hang out for a few days, and that was it. It was perfect.
Calendar Girls (2003)—“Larry”
PO: Well, that was a British production and they shot a few scenes in L.A., and for some reason they picked me. They also had the band Anthrax just hanging out. And they shot it up in Hollywood at the Renaissance Hotel. All I remember was that the British crew kept talking about how amazing American breakfast burritos were. They were like, [British accent] “This is brilliant. I can walk around and have my breakfast in my hand.” I met Helen Mirren and told her that the first R-rated movie my dad took me to was Excalibur, and she was like, “Did you enjoy my breasts?” I was like, “Yes, yes I did.” She is amazing.
See This Movie (2004)—“Felix”
PO: That was a little indie thing with Seth Myers. I only shot one scene. It was a graduation scene. And it’s clear that my character had a weird unspoken crush on Seth Myers, so I just riffed it and made Seth really uncomfortable. [Laughs.] It was just one of those “let’s just fuck around here” things and it ended up being fun.
AVC: Do you tend to see the movies that you’re in?
PO: Some, but sometimes I’m working so much and sometimes it takes a long time for them to get released or they have odd screenings, and I’m either shooting or on the road. So there will be movies that I’ve shot and they do a première, and I can’t be there. There were some screenings of Young Adult that I didn’t get to go to because I was somewhere else promoting Young Adult. It gets to be kind of crazy. And I know that there are some actors who just don’t want to watch their own movies, but I’m just too fucking busy. So I never actually saw that one.
Blade: Trinity (2004)—“Hedges”
PO: Oh, Christ. That was the third Blade movie. And there’s a scene where Blade goes in and confronts this guy for harvesting humans. That scene was supposed to be the whole basis of the film. Blade is fighting for the last shred of humanity. But they thought that it was just so fucking grim, so they decided to just have Blade fighting Dracula. It was just one of those; it was a very troubled production. Wesley [Snipes] was just fucking crazy in a hilarious way. He wouldn’t come out of his trailer, and he would smoke weed all day. Which is fine with me, because I had all these DVDs that I wanted to catch up on. We were in Vancouver, and it was always raining. I kept the door to my trailer open to smell the evening rain while I was watching a movie. Then I remember one day on the set—they let everyone pick their own clothes—there was one black actor who was also kind of a club kid. And he wore this shirt with the word “Garbage” on it in big stylish letters. It was his shirt. And Wesley came down to the set, which he only did for close-ups. Everything else was done by his stand-in. I only did one scene with him. But he comes on and goes, “There’s only one other black guy in the movie, and you make him wear a shirt that says ‘Garbage?’ You racist motherfucker!”
And he tried to strangle the director, David Goyer. So later that night, Ron Perlman was in the city. Everyone who makes movies in Vancouver stays in the same hotel. It’s like an episode of The Love Boat. Every time the elevator stops, you’ve got a different celebrity getting on. Like, [announcer voice] “Hey, now we’ve got Danny Glover!” So we went out that night to some strip club, and we were all drinking. And there were a bunch of bikers there, so David says to them, “I’ll pay for all your drinks if you show up to set tomorrow and pretend to be my security.” Wesley freaked out and went back to his trailer. [Laughs.] And the next day, Wesley sat down with David and was like, “I think you need to quit. You’re detrimental to this movie.” And David was like, “Why don’t you quit? We’ve got all your close-ups, and we could shoot the rest with your stand-in.” And that freaked Wesley out so much that, for the rest of the production, he would only communicate with the director through Post-it notes. And he would sign each Post-it note “From Blade.” [Laughs.]
AVC: There’s a rumor that he tried to stay in character the entire shoot.
PO: Oh yeah, he did. When I met him I was like, “Hi!” And he was like, “I’m Blade.” And also, Natasha Lyonne was on that set, and she was going through some kind of mental breakdown. Wesley is all boundaries, and she has no boundaries. She played a blind computer expert. So the first scene they had together, she put her hand right on his face, and he just recoiled. It was awesome.
AVC: If you were trying to be in character all the time as a vampire killer, being high all the time might not help.
PO: A lot of the lines that Ryan Reynolds has were just a result of Wesley not being there. We would all just think of things for him to say and then cut to Wesley’s face not doing anything because that’s all we could get from him. It was kind of funny. We were like, “What are the worst jokes and puns that we can say to this guy?” And then it would just be his face going, “Mmm.” “Smiles are contagious.” It’s so, so dumb. [Laughs.] That was an example of a very troubled shoot that we made fun. You have to find a way to make it fun.
AVC: In a weird sort of way, it sounds like Wesley Snipes united the production against himself. Everyone had a common enemy.
PO: Everyone was just like, “This is going to be such a great story.” I’m in this business for two reasons: the money and the anecdotes. That’s all I want. I either want to do the best films or the fucking worst films. I don’t want to do the “eh” film.
AVC: Well, the second Blade movie is great.
PO: Yeah, the first Blade is fucking genius. That, more than anything, is what really put forth the idea of vampires as exclusive, high-tier night-clubbers who are young and beautiful forever. They took that idea done clumsily in Lost Boys and really made it amazing.
Failure To Launch (2006)—“Techie”
PO: Again, one scene. Me and Sarah Jessica Parker. She was a delight. I remember doing the table read with Matthew McConaughey before she was cast, and his dad was not played by Terry Bradshaw. It was Paul Dooley. He was the best. I said, “You are my favorite movie dad.” He was in Sixteen Candles and Breaking Away. And I think the mom was played by Kathy Bates, who was also amazing at the table read. Then McConaughey shows up in bike shorts and no shirt for the table read. I was sitting across from him, and I could see his right testicle.
AVC: He literally was shirtless for a table read?
PO: Yes. If I looked like that, I’d be shirtless, too. I think he showed up on his bike, so he legitimately had been out biking.
Sex And Death 101 (2007)—“Fred”
PO: That was written by the guy who wrote Heathers [Daniel Waters], and it was directed by him, too. It was a super-low-budget production. I just have a lot of respect for that movie. It goes to the weirdest fucking places. It’s just as weird and ballsy as Donnie Darko. But for some reason, it didn’t build a cult following. And what I’m realizing as I get older is that a movie’s mainstream success is just as unpredictable as a movie’s cult success. Plenty of movies that are truly odd and deserve cults, don’t have cults. It’s just as much of a crapshoot to be a cult hit as it is to be a mainstream success. Isn’t that weird?
Reno 911 (2004-2009)—Various characters
PO: The show and the movie were as fun as you would think they would be. Those guys are open to anything. What was brilliant about that show was that with improvisation, you’re supposed to say “yes, and…” instead of “no, but…” But in Reno, they turn that around. And not only are they saying “no, but…” they are also saying, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll mace you.” The scene is based on them trying to shut people down. It’s so brilliant. As the series went on, they would talk to off-duty or retired cops, and [the cops] would tell them stories about even-crazier shit than they had on the show. It got to this point—as ridiculous as the show is—that they realized that Reno 911 actually clings to the reality of police work, which is just drudgery and dealing with lunatics. We shot the movie in Miami, with the final helicopter standoff. And for some reason, I got the worst food poisoning of my life. So the helicopter was hovering, and I was running into this house and puking my guts out, then running back out to do a take. I was amazed I got through that scene.
The King Of Queens (1998-2007)—“Spence Olchin”
PO: I lucked out getting that role. That’s where I learned how to act. Hanging out with Kevin James; he’s just an amazing comedic actor. Especially in terms of TV acting, which is really hard to pull off in a sitcom format. Also Jerry Stiller, who is such an old pro. He would go over the lines a million times like he thought he wouldn’t get it, but then he would nail it every fucking time. That’s where I first met Bryan Cranston, who was a regular for a while. And Jere Burns was there. For some reason, they didn’t fire me after the second season, when they were thinking about writing my character out because I was just such a shit actor. I just got to go down and watch Kevin doing his scenes and learn that way, and luckily I didn’t lose the job.
AVC: You were able to learn on the job.
PO: I did. It was learn or get fired.
PO: They had a lot of different people read for that role. And Brad Bird was driving around one night listening to satellite radio, listening to a comedy station and they played a cut from my first album. So he took the track in to Pixar, and they did a pencil test of Remy doing that bit. And they brought me up, and I was a bit of a foodie at the time so we bonded about how chefs work and how restaurants work. We really got along. We’re still friends. I see him all the time because we share all the same interests. I thought I was going to read for one of the random rats. It took me a day to realize that they were having me read for the main guy. Then the next day, I got a call from my manager saying, “They’re making you the lead.” That was in 2005, and it came out in 2007. And I wanted to surprise my fiancée, so I didn’t tell her what I was doing until they sent me a copy of the trailer. Brad and his wife took us out to dinner and my fiancée was still pitching to Brad, like, “He would be really great for this movie.” So I had to tell her I was the lead.
AVC: That was your first lead role in a film, even if it was a voice role.
PO: Well, they had some guys come film me doing stand-up, and they put a lot of my mannerisms into the character. So there are a lot of scenes that even though I’m not talking, Remy is acting and walking the way that I do. They wanted to put that in the character. But the animators at Pixar are also amazing actors.
Big Fan (2009)—“Paul Aufiero”
PO: That was another one where they brought me the script. Robert Siegel wrote The Wrestler. But before that, he wrote Big Fan, which was originally just called Paul Aufiero. And nobody would do it. Then The Wrestler got him all this cachet, so he used the money to shoot the film. He wanted to do a low-budget thing. And that’s how I’ve always thought movies should be made. If he’s putting up his money and time, then I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, too. I stayed in Staten Island for a month. It was pretty intense. There were no trailers, no catering. We just went out and shot stuff. And it turned into something really amazing. It’s just absolutely his vision and his writing. And he picked the best cast. Marcia Jean Kurtz is my mom. She was amazing.
AVC: After Big Fan it’s hard to look at soy sauce the same way ever again.
PO: [Laughs.] I can’t say enough great things about that movie. And about a year later, I was doing a thing for Funny People with Judd [Apatow], and we did a show as a bonus on the DVD. And Adam Sandler was talking and he was like, “I almost did Paul Aufiero back in the day, but I thought it was too dark.” They really offered it to everybody. But the actors kept falling through.
AVC: Were you intimidated to be carrying an entire film by yourself, especially with such an intense role?
PO: I was more intimidated by… It wasn’t, “Oh, a studio is putting all this time and money into this, and it’s on my shoulders.” What I was intimidated by was I had been given this amazing script. It’s mine to fuck up, and I don’t want to fuck it up. That’s the thing that intimidated me. I wanted to preserve the writing and make sure this guy that busted his ass on the script had somebody who was going to work hard to deliver it. So that’s really what I focused on.
AVC: Were you into sports when you made Big Fan?
PO: No, no. It was more like, “Okay, find an equivalent obsession in my life, because it’s the same spark.” It’s just different fuel that creates these kind of engulfing infernos of obsession in people, so I put a lot of my pop-culture, science-fiction, apocalyptic obsessions into this guy’s, which is the rising and falling fortunes of a football team.
AVC: Did you listen at all to sports radio?
PO: No, no I didn’t. I didn’t listen to any sports radio, because I don’t think this guy listened to a lot of sports radio. I just think he listened to his own voice; there’s nothing penetrating that bubble. And if you notice at the end, the entire movie he speaks to the world through a telephone and he has one best friend, Kevin Corrigan. In the final scene he’s talking to his best friend on the phone, so he’s finally completely shut off.
Observe And Report (2009)—“Toast A Bun Manager”
PO: [Laughs.] That’s one of those movies I think will get the Office Space, Zoolander cult treatment a few years down the road; it’s just going to take some time. It’s so fucking good, and it’s so weirdly realistic. What’s really kind of creepy is, this guy is a little bit unhinged, and takes it into his own hands. It’s not that the same level of horror, but, like, the Trayvon Martin case reminds me a of a guy that’s like, “I’ve gotta just step the fuck up here!” You know what I mean? How many more of these incidences are we going to have? You look at this admittedly goofy comedy, but there’s so much darkness in it. I think it’s based on the guys [writer-director] Jody Hill grew up with.
The Informant! (2009)—“Ed Herbst”
PO: Oh, yeah. My manager/agent called and said, “Yeah, [Steven] Soderbergh is doing this movie.” I read the script long before I even heard that they were casting it, and I loved the script. I love the conceit of a guy who wants to be in a John Grisham thriller, but unfortunately he’s in our reality, which is just drab and boring. [Soderbergh] wanted all of the serious roles to be played by comedic actors, so he just gathered up all these comedians from L.A. and had us come in and just basically assigned us different parts. Then Matt Damon is playing who he thinks… I think the performance is so brilliant; he has the rhythms of a guy who is being very serious, but everything he’s saying is so farcical. It’s kind of extraordinary.
Caprica (2010)—“Baxter Sarno”
PO: That was very frustrating, because I got a glimpse of what the second season of Caprica was going to be, and the stuff they had planned for that show was fucking amazing. Beyond the stuff I was going to be getting to do, what they were going to do with that world, and with its darkness, would have been so thrilling. But I love the fact that even in a show as dark as Caprica—and in a lot of ways, that show was as dark as Battlestar Galactica—[Sarno] was very aware that people want their fucking distractions. Even in a future science-fiction world like Caprica, they’re going to want their Jon Stewarts, they’re going to want their Bill O’Reillys and their Rachel Maddows and their things to get all up in arms about, their Jay Lenos and their Lettermans. So I was playing that role, and I would talk to [series creator] Ronald D. Moore about what happens to a guy like this who is kind of aggressively shallow in a lot of ways. When he’s engineering that whole fight between Eric Stoltz and Stoltz’s rival, it’s not because [he cares] about technology and where humanity is going; it’s great fucking ratings. So what happens when the shit comes down? It reminds me of that moment in Cabaret when they’re singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” and they cut to the Emcee from the Kit Kat Club just smiling and nodding in his dressing room, you’re like, “What happens to that guy when the Nazis rise to power? Why is he smiling? Why is he nodding?” That stuff is really intriguing to me.
The United States Of Tara (2009-2011)—“Neil”
PO: Oh man. That show. What was amazing about that show was not only getting to work with Rosemarie DeWitt, who is such an incredible actress that when she’s up getting her Academy Award, I’ll be thinking, “Yeah, I did a TV series with her.” But it was Toni Collette, when we did the table reads… For the show itself, they cut back and forth between her and her alternate personalities, but that was done with camera angles and makeup. But we’d be sitting at the fucking table reads, and she’s got a Starbucks drink in front of her, and she’s got the script in front of her and her presence would go into five different personalities, even when we were cold reading the script for the first time. Getting to see that was remarkable. I don’t know why they never filmed that as a DVD extra because witnessing that was so un-be-fucking-lievable! Just have her sitting in a chair and doing that. I will always, always be so grateful that Diablo Cody thought of me for that. When they sent me the script, it said, “Neil, an affable Patton Oswalt-type.” Like, what? And they said, “Well, we wrote ‘Patton Oswalt-type.’ Can we just see if he’s available?” And then they called me, I went, “Toni Collette, are you kidding? I’ll do this!”
Young Adult (2011)—“Matt Freehauf”
PO: I went in because I’d become friends with Jason [Reitman], and we bonded over the fact that we’re such movie buffs and we both own French bulldogs. So he said, “Can you come in and just read this script that we’re trying to figure out, as a favor?” He did say there’d be some cold readings with three different actresses who were being considered for the lead, and I was there for each. And he kept asking me to come back, and then they had Charlize [Theron] come in, and she really wanted to do it at that point. He said, “Why don’t you come back and read for this role again,” and we just clicked. There was something about it, we just started making fun of each other in between the read and just got along, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s it. You guys are doing it.” I saw how amazing Charlize was just sitting at the table read that that’s the first time that I ever hired an acting coach and really started doing the fucking work. That was a huge evolution for me because that was about the time that I was going back to see more Broadway shows, and was really getting into Breaking Bad and watching Bryan Cranston. And I realized all these actors that I really liked are the types where they’re like, “Let’s just get the highlighter pen and do the fucking work and make this great.” That’s so much what Charlize was about. “Let’s do the work and make it great.” So I thought, “I’m going to show up with the work fucking done and ready to go.” I have some projects coming up where it’s like, “Here’s your script; you better go sit down with your coach and be ready.” And I’m so glad that Young Adult gave me that experience.
AVC: Did Young Adult give you more confidence in yourself as an actor?
PO: It didn’t give me the confidence to say, “I can do it.” It gave me the confidence to say, “I can put the work in,” which, weirdly enough, a lot of people don’t. And for a long time, I didn’t really have the confidence to do that either, because I had come up out of that whole alternative scene, which was all about, “Don’t try it, man. Just go up and wing it.” I think a lot of that comes from insecurity. It’s that fashion of improv and amateurism that comes from the insecurity of saying to the audience, “Well, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well, because I didn’t even try that hard to begin with.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s why you’re not [trying]. If you actually tried hard and it sucked, then you’ve got to blame yourself.” So that’s what makes it hard for some people to sit down and actually just do the fucking work, because doing the work means you’re making a commitment. I’m giving this my all. Now my all might not be good enough—and I’m just now seeing that with some movies I’ve done—sometimes your all is not good enough, but that’s a scary risk to take. That’s what Young Adult gave me the confidence to do, and working with someone like Charlize, who just gives her fucking all.
AVC: It takes real humility to say, “I’m going to work doggedly at my craft because I need to.”
PO: It’s real humility and not that false, “I’ve been doing this for 22 years. How hard could this be?” Just think of yourself as starting from zero every time. That’s what I do with every new role. I’m at zero, and I’m going to do the work.
The Heart, She Holler (2011)—“Hurlan”
PO: That came about when I was in New York a few summers ago. Vern Chatman and John Lee, who I’ve known for so long, were like, “Can we take you to breakfast and pitch an idea to you?” And it took me about five minutes to be like, “Yeah, I love this idea.” It was essentially seeing what the worst hipster in Brooklyn thinks the South is. The levels of satire in that show are fun to play. And in that initial meeting, I brought up a book by Michael Lesy called Wisconsin Death Trip, and they said, “Oh yeah, that’s kind of the basis for the whole show.” And then I was doubly in. I couldn’t have been happier.
AVC: It seemed vaguely inspired by an episode of Wonder Showzen called “Horse Apples.”
PO: “Horse Apples,” yes. If you can imagine that “Horse Apples” could be even more mutated, that would be The Heart, She Holler.
Bored To Death (2009-2011)— “Howard Baker”
PO: I played a guy running a spy shop in Brooklyn. I was a right-wing holdout in this neighborhood of hipsters. Zach [Galifianakis] and I had known each other for a while and it wasn’t in the script, but we just started being really vicious with each other. Then they just kept bringing me back to have these scenes where Zach and I are just at each other’s throats.
Community (2011)—“Nurse Jackie”
PO: I had known [series creator] Dan Harmon for a while, and I’ve always been a fan of his writing. Back when he had a MySpace blog, his blog was 10 times more entertaining than most shows. He would wrestle with his life in a hilarious way. And it was just a MySpace blog, for Christ sakes. Community and Louie were on at the same time. And Louie was a perfect documentary of how life in New York was in 2011, and Community was a perfect snapshot of life on the West Coast, especially L.A., in 2011. In Louie the world is just assaulting him and breaking into his person bubble constantly. And Community is about people sealed in their own post-ironic pop-culture bubbles and trying desperately to reach each other. Dan is oftentimes sealed in a bubble of references and irony and postmodernism. To see the humanity in that is a really hard thing to do, bringing humanity to those characters. And when he wrote the character for me—if you look at his nametag, his name is Nurse Jackie—I got to be another part of Dan Harmon’s amazing gallery of over-reaching C-minus people. [Laughs.] It’s totally a pop-culture reference, but it also gets to the heart of this guy’s tragedy. He does sort of see himself as past the expiration date. Everyone else on that show has so much more import. But these are all very damaged people trying to reach out to each other. That’s why [Dan Harmon’s] Community was so amazing week after week. They would do these very complex constructs and time streams—the claymation episode, the videogame episode—and get a human arc in each one of them. It was kind of beautiful.
Dollhouse (2009)—“Joel Mynor”
PO: Oh man. I wish I had some cool story. I got the offer to go audition, and I’d been a [Joss] Whedon fan for so long. I think I worked on that scene for about three days straight. And when I went in to do it, I just really went for it. It was the first time I had done anything that deeply dramatic, now that I think about it. That was just before I did Big Fan. But he wrote it so that the monologue was both funny and tragic. And I am just so fucking flattered that he hired me and that we’ve become friends. We email all the time. He’s just really engaged and effortlessly intelligent.
AVC: Could you talk about the character that you played?
PO: He’s doing a villainous thing for a heartbreaking reason. He was a computer developer who was always a step behind things like Google and Facebook. And he looks like me. In his past, he met a woman who was way beyond his pay grade in terms of looks and intelligence and grace and wisdom. But she saw something in him. And before he could finally break through, she died. Before he could show her the house that he had bought her. So once a year, he re-creates the moment that would have taken place when he showed her the house. He’s still hiring a brainwashed girl, but it’s to relive something that is very beautiful. But that’s Joss Whedon in a nutshell: The heart is still attached to other parts of the body that are not as poetic, and he is very aware of the push/pull between them.
Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (2010)—“Dr. Demento”
PO: Funny Or Die called me up. It’s weird how back in the day, American International was the breeding ground for new talent, and now it’s Funny Or Die and Five Second Films. People are just working and learning how to make movies by making them. And God, did Eric Appel nail the Oscar pace of those trailers that come out in the fall. It’s like, “Oh, time for the Oscars.” That can be applied to any subject. And getting to work with Aaron Paul was great. I grew up listening to Dr. Demento; that’s where I first heard Weird Al. I knew all of his vocal rhythms. Those just drilled themselves into my head growing up.
AVC: You definitely nailed his cadences and his personality.
PO: Weird Al would never take credit for this, but he has been weirdly influential on comedy in the early ’90s. Especially sketch and parody. When I was growing up, there were certain R-rated movies that my parents wouldn’t allow me to see, so I’d read the Mad magazine parody and feel like I saw it. They nailed every memorable detail. If you’ve never seen Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” but you’ve seen “Eat It,” you actually have a pretty good sense of what the “Beat It” video was. If you look at the stuff that Mr. Show did and the stuff that’s on Funny Or Die now, they just nailed the absurd details. And I think a lot of that comes from watching Weird Al videos.
AVC: He was a prescient comic personality, a linking figure between vaudeville and the comedy world we live in, which is pop-culture obsessed and very self-referential. Weird Al has a gift for being ahead of the curve.
PO: And what’s so amazing about the Weird video is that it’s not about making fun of Weird Al; it’s about making fun of movies that are trying to get an Oscar. So there’s a whole other level. That last shot of me as Dr. Demento, it’s like Dr. Demento seems like a hero, but really he’s just a guy making fart sound effects. They do that pull-in with the music swelling, and it makes you realize that anyone can look like a hero.
Flight Of The Conchords (2009)—“Elton John Impersonator”
PO: [Laughs.] I’d always loved those guys, and I’d always loved that show. They asked me if I wanted to do it, and I was like, “Fuck yeah.” Me playing Elton John seemed like a no-brainer. Especially an older, bloated Elton John. We were doing it as a goof, but it’s a serious thing. Bono’s impersonator actually plays Bono in some public situations. And he was telling us some pretty fucking hair-raising stories about it. People are very snobby about the best period for Elton John impersonation. Same thing for Elvis. No one wants to be the bloated Elvis.
The Batman—(2006-2007)—“Cosmo Krank” / “Marty Slack” / “Toymaker”
PO: I was very happy to get to do that, but I was torn. It was one of the few animated things I’ve recorded where the entire cast was in the room going back and forth. I was bummed that I didn’t get to play an established villain. They made up a new one specifically for the series. I wanted something from the comic books. At first I was like, “Awesome, I’m going to get to be the Penguin or something.” But I was a fucking new guy. Goddamnit. [Laughs.] I still had a lot of fun, though. Having everyone in the room for an animated series is pretty rare.
Balls Of Fury (2007)—“Hammer”
PO: I was friends with [writer] Tom Lennon for a long time. We had kids just a few weeks apart. And we met on Osmosis Jones like a million years ago. We have all the same interests in movies and music, so we became friends. And they just told me to go for it, so I was just fucking around on camera, and they used it. It all worked. When you riff at work, sometimes it’s death, but that one worked, and damn if they didn’t use it.
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)—“Santa”
PO: I was in New York doing something. Or maybe it was Chicago. But I got a call asking if I wanted to go to Detroit and film one really fun scene where I was a Santa Claus selling weed. I knew the writers. So I just said yeah. I blew the second 3-D puff of pot smoke in film history. Someone needs to add that to my Wikipedia. [Laughs.]
Two And A Half Men (2012)—“Billy Stanhope”
PO: They are kind of making me a semi-regular on that. It’s five minutes from my house. Getting to work with Jon Cryer is great. Anything that keeps me out of airplanes is fine with me. I can get up in the morning and take my daughter to breakfast and school. All my friends are working over there, too. So I just go hang out with all these people I like, and then I do a few lines and have a snack and go home. It’s perfect.