Although the part wasn’t written specifically for him, the Mr. Walters role in 21 Jump Street might as well have had a script note for a “Rob Riggle type.” Writer-star Jonah Hill may have even been thinking that, at least unconsciously, when he had Riggle come to a table read for the script before Riggle ended up auditioning for it. Mr. Walters, a coach at the high school where Hill and co-star Channing Tatum are undercover, fits the buffoonish coach archetype perfectly, and Riggle plays him with the kind of goofy enthusiasm he’s brought to other comic roles over the past decade. Most people first became aware of the actor/comedian/writer when he joined The Daily Show in 2006 after a one-season stint on Saturday Night Live. Since then, Riggle has frequently popped up in everything from Human Giant to The Hangover, 30 Rock, Funny Or Die, and the family film Big Miracle. Riggle, who got his start in the military and remains in the Marine Corps reserve, spoke to The A.V. Club a couple of weeks before 21 Jump Street opened about getting the role, what makes a good improviser, and why he still has to sing for his supper.
The A.V. Club: You were in high school when 21 Jump Street, the series, was on. Do you have any memories of it?
Rob Riggle: I wasn’t a hardcore fan or follower. I wasn’t hitting it every night, “Oh, Friday night, I gotta get home!” But I’ve seen a couple episodes. I remember watching it from time to time and thinking, “Oh, this is kind of a cool, original concept.” I liked it, I liked the cast, so I definitely had appreciation for it.
AVC: How did you end up involved with the film?
RR: Jonah had reached out and asked if I would do the table read as they were developing the script. So I said, “Sure” and went in and did some table reads for him, and then got an audition. I went and auditioned. I think I was a little stiff, and Jonah was just like, “Hey man, drop the script. Let’s just play.” And so I started improvising with Channing and Jonah in the room, and the directors, and we started cracking each other up, and it worked.
AVC: In that script that you read, were you still leading “Dads Against Drugs?”
RR: I think so. I hadn’t even thought about that. Yeah, I think so.
AVC: I read that the original incarnation of the character was that you had a facial scar or something.
RR: Yeah, that was early on, though, in an early table read. I remember that.
AVC: How much did the character change when you came on board?
RR: He morphed a little bit. I think he got heightened a little bit, and then I made some choices about how to play him that were my own. But other than that, it was right there on the page.
AVC: What kind of choices?
RR: Well, I don’t want to give away too much, but there were some choices I had to make about who he ultimately became, and how I wanted to play him up until that moment. I know that’s cryptic, and I’m sorry.
AVC: You mentioned “goofing around.” You studied and taught at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York. What do you think makes a good improviser in those kinds of situations?
RR: I love improv so much. Listening. I think that’s the key. When you improvise, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to create, and to be generating information, and trying to be funny, but if you just listen to what’s being said to you, and then react honestly, you generally get better results. It’s the people that come out blazing, that aren’t really hearing what’s being said, who miss stuff. And if you’re an audience member and you’re watching that, it kind of jumps out at you, like, “Why did he just say that? Because he just said that. You’re not listening to him.” So listening is probably the biggest thing. And it’s the first thing that always gets overlooked.
AVC: Because of the rise of Judd Apatow, audiences are much more aware of the concept of improvisation in films, especially comedies. But even with your background, are there times when you prefer to stick to the script?
RR: I always try to stick to the script because I want to respect the writers, and I want to respect the director. But if the director and my fellow actors are okay with me playing with it a little bit, then I definitely want to play with it. I definitely want to do that, because I tend to… when I put things in my own words, it comes out way better. It flows naturally, it just feels better. I can put some weight into the words. Even in comedy, it just comes better. So I definitely enjoy changing up the words and doing things that I think my character would do that might not be there. It all depends on the people you’re working with, because to just assume things and take big moves and do things like that, I think, is not very professional. I think it’s kind of rude.
AVC: How much did you go off-book when you were shooting?
RR: Well, we had a great script, so it was kind of nice, because we stayed pretty close to the script. What I found was, we weren’t improvising whole new scenes and doing all that stuff, but we would run the scene a couple of times, and once we got comfortable in it, we would stretch our legs a little bit and try things. If something occurred to us, like, “Oh, you know what’d be good in this? What if I tried this?” And I would throw that out, and we’d go for it. Or if they had an idea, “Or we’ll do this. Oh, I like that.” So it was just playing. You do a scene, and you just react in the moment, and sometimes those things work. The first time my character meets Channing and Jonah, I just start shoving [Jonah’s] tongue back in his mouth. That’s not on the page, but you just start doing it because that’s what you feel needs to be done.
AVC: How much input did you have into the character?
RR: The character was on the page. It was written, it was prepared, it was done. I stepped into it. So not a whole lot, but again, I think any actor that takes on a role has to put their signature on it in some form, so I brought what I could to it.
AVC: Did you create much of a backstory for him in your mind?
RR: I didn’t necessarily have a backstory, but I definitely had an amalgamation of people I had known: coaches I had, teachers I had. I went back and started thinking about the people in high school that I encountered, certain alpha males that I’ve dealt with in my lifetime, and kind of slammed them into a Mr. Walters-type character. [Laughs.]
AVC: The high school coach is such an archetype. They always seem kind of buffoonish.
RR: Yeah, it is. Maybe that’s because they’re out there, and they’re real, and we’ve all experienced them on some level. Those stereotypes don’t just fall from the sky. They’re there for a reason. [Laughs.] Yeah, just busting balls for no reason. Exercising authority that doesn’t need to be exercised. That’s the ugly side of that. [Laugh.]
AVC: He’s always complimenting Tatum’s character, Jenko. Do you think that’s a man-crush, or is there something more to it?
RR: I think it’s a man-crush. You could read whatever you want into it, but I thought it was just a man-crush. He was just impressed. “This guy’s so young, but he’s already a man!” From a selfish point of view, the way I read it in some of the earlier scripts was that he got a bonus if they won the track event. “Boy, I get 500 cool ones if we win at state! So I need you, my man.” He was looking at him like a racehorse that he was gonna make a lot of money on. That was in the original. That’s probably where that comes from.
AVC: What was the division of labor like with both Phil Lord and Chris Miller directing?
RR: It was almost like a three-legged race. They were totally moving together. They were both at the monitors, they would both come out and talk to the actors, and then they would go back and talk to the DP, and then they would look at the set. But they were moving in this wonderful synchronicity, so what I saw was a well-oiled machine. It seemed like they knew exactly what… and they would both see things. They would do a scene, and one guy would go, “Great!” And the other guy would be like, “Wait, wait, wait. The bag was out of focus.” And they’d go, “Playback. You’re right.” I just thought they worked well together.
AVC: You’ve done a fair amount of writing, for Funny Or Die Presents and the Booking Agents pilot that wasn’t picked up, but not anything longer-form. Do you have any desire to do more writing?
RR: Yeah, well, I’ve written several pilots that haven’t gone, so that’s why you haven’t seen any. [Laughs.] But I wrote a screenplay with Nia Vardalos. I wrote a pilot last year for CBS with Robert Smigel. So I do write, I enjoy it. But I like acting. I wanna be in front of the camera as much as I can as long as I can, so I’m still pursuing that. There’s just a lot going on. I write standup, so it’s just a matter of time. I just need more time!
AVC: You go on the road about once a month, roughly?
RR: Yeah, that’s a good average. I’m picking up the standup pace a little more. I’m gonna try to build a new set, so therefore, I gotta get out on the road and exercise that muscle more. ’Cause that’s pushing a rock up a hill, especially when you’ve got your set, you’re comfortable with your set, you know what works. And then, to build something new, you have to do it in little five-minute chunks. Then you have to do it four or five times before you get that tight enough for it to be worth anything—actually, you need to do it way more than that. You need to do it four or five times to see if it’s even worth keeping. [Laughs.] And then, you need to work it for another 20 times before you can even start to say, “Yeah, it’s getting there.” So you just have to have a lot of stage time.
AVC: Do you like to work it out in smaller clubs first, or do you just pepper new stuff into your sets?
RR: Right now, I’m living in L.A., which is hard to get around. I live way out in the suburbs, it’s hard for me to get to town. You get five minutes here, then you gotta drive a half hour to the next one. New York was so much easier for standup because you could hit five clubs in a night. Just jump in a cab, pop. Boom, boom, boom. And you could walk to some of ’em, and work out stuff on the way. You can really get some more traction out there. You could work new material easier out there, I thought.
AVC: What’s your ideal work situation now?
RR: If I could script-my-own-life-type thing? I’d love to have a television show on HBO, and then on hiatus, make a movie—just one. And then spend the rest of the time with my family. I wouldn’t ask for anything else. That’d be all I need.
AVC: It seems like the regular schedule of a TV show can be really attractive.
RR: It can be, especially if you have kids. I wanna be home. I wanna see my kids.
AVC: So what do you have coming up?
RR: I have an independent film that’s coming out, a little indie that I shot last summer with Johnny Knoxville and Patton Oswalt called Nature Calls. They just changed the title on us. It’s gonna premiere at South By Southwest in a week or two. And the late Patrice O’Neal is in it. It’s the last thing Patrice did, I think. So anyway, it’ll be fun. That’s coming out, like I said, at South By Southwest. Other than that, I’m on the road, I’m writing, developing a show for HBO. We’ll see what happens there. I’m just trying to get a job, man. I’m just workin’, trying to get a job. That’s all it is.
AVC: Because you’ve done so many pilots, do you have it down to a science at this point?
RR: Well, I did network pilots, so that’s a different beast. That’s a whole different gauntlet to run through. But you just keep pounding away. That’s all you can do. You just keep pounding away and learning from each one. And hopefully, you get it right, and hopefully, somebody believes in you and says, “Okay, I’ll go along with you.” And then, you get to work again another day. ’Cause it’s tough right now. They’re not making movies right now. Everything’s slowing down, everything’s grinding to a halt. The people that have the money are clamming up, they’re not spreading it out so people can make movies. Things have just gotten tight. It’s the recession, you know? It hits everywhere. So when I say that I don’t know what my next thing is, I don’t. I’m just gonna read scripts, and if I see something that jumps out at me, I’m just gonna call my agents and say, “Please get me in so I can audition for this.” [Laughs.] You gotta sing for your supper. It never stops.