In his recent movies, Chicago screenwriter Steve Conrad implies that it's okay to have dreams, but it's even better to give up on them. In 2005's The Weather Man, Nicolas Cage plays an angst-ridden Chicago weatherman who hopes for a better career, but sees his life falling apart as he tries to get there. And 2006's The Pursuit Of Happyness finds Will Smith in a true story of a San Francisco salesman who pulls himself up by the bootstraps against impossible odds. Conrad's upcoming directorial debut, the comedy The Promotion, is set in an even more vicious and blue-collar backdrop: a Chicago-area grocery store that's about to open another location elsewhere in the city. John C. Reilly (Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby) and Seann William Scott (American Pie, Mr. Woodcock) star as competing mid-level employees aspiring for the coveted manager title at the new store. With the movie slated for release Friday, June 6, The A.V. Club spoke to Scott and Conrad about being in films that suck, the mysteries of Southland Tales, the problems with grocery stores, and achieving peace and happiness in the land of little champions.
The A.V. Club: Seann, after American Pie, you expressed a fear of being typecast. Is that still the case?
Seann William Scott: No, not at all. When you do three of those films, there's always a risk of that. But if it wasn't for that movie, I wouldn't have a career. The really beautiful thing is that for whatever reason, kids liked that character so much that it established a strange connection with the audience. There are certain filmmakers I'd like to work with that I don't think would take a risk with me, because I could be distracting in their film. It'll take a couple films to prove to them that it's worth the risk. But no, I'm not so concerned with it any more.
I actually have people come up to me more about The Rundown, surprisingly enough, which didn't do very well in theaters, but had a pretty good DVD life. People want to talk about that film.
Steve Conrad: I wanted Seann for The Promotion really, really early. He's very good at making people laugh, which is beyond a knack: It's a skill. I knew my movie wouldn't go as broad as the things he'd done before, but if he could make me laugh in that setting, he could make me laugh in other settings for sure. He actually came recommended to me from Old School [director Todd Phillips], who said, "Look, he stole a scene from Will Ferrell, and that's not easy to do. You should take him seriously."
SWC: At one point, Jim Carrey was attached to John C. Reilly's part, and I think Jim Carrey wanted Tom Cruise for my part.
SC: The true part of that is—well, it's not true. That [Jim Carrey] part is true—we got kind of far down the road, but it just didn't happen.
SWS: Can you imagine Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey in this movie? That would be the weirdest movie ever. Honestly, I think it'd be so bad it'd be awesome. Jim Carrey could work in John's part, but Tom Cruise as my character? I don't know; I don't buy it. Unless you have some scene where he's running down the street with music playing, just like in all the Tom Cruise movies. That would work.
AVC: Take that, Tom Cruise.
SWS: [Laughs.] Take that, Tom Cruise. I got your part, buddy!
SC: John has to play the guy who's essentially the foil. [He] did wonders with it. I didn't know John would be available for that kind of movie, a smaller one, 'cause he's sort of blown up a bit the last couple of years.
AVC: Well, he still does Dr. Steve Brule on Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
SC: [Laughs.] There's a scene—and I gotta call Reilly about this. He doesn't repeat anything that he's ever done. He's very dedicated. He has a catalog of all his moves, and he's not an actor who pulls out the same moves twice. It's in his head; he's got a really big brain.
We have a fight scene in The Promotion, which is a really crummy fight. I wanted it to feel like a natural fight between two guys who don't know how to fight. So I asked Reilly if he could just throw some really, really crappy karate kicks that had no chance of landing. And he called me over and he had this weird [Chops arm sideways.] He called it The Slice. I loved it, and it's in the movie. But then there's an episode of Tim and Eric's show where Steve Brule freaks out. John almost does The Slice, and then he stops.
I know what he did: He started to do it, stopped, and thought, "Oh man, I can't do that move. I did that in The Promotion." So he cancels it with another weird chop. Steve Brule!
AVC: Seann, do you think people will be surprised by your subdued performance in the film?
SWS: I don't know. A lot of people, it's going to take something really extraordinary, you know, because there's a lot of Seann Scott haters out there. And you can't do anything about that. To turn them around, you're going to have to do something that works on every level and appeals to most people. But I think there's a chance to open people's eyes that I can do something a little bit different. I think it helps that it's still, I believe, funny. I'm not sure anybody's ready to see me in a drama. And loving movies so much, I've seen a lot of comics try to make that transition too fast, and it can be detrimental. And I don't think I've had as much success as I need in the comedy genre to open up those opportunities. I think there might be some people who could be a little surprised, and then there will people who are like, "Well, I still don't like him."
Most of the comedies I've done—I'm sure there are a lot of American Pie haters. And then Mr. Woodcock and The Dukes Of Hazzard aren't the best movies on the planet. So I haven't really done a lot of really cool films. If I wasn't an actor and I watched my films, I could easily be like "This guy's a clown," you know? I'm not Will Smith. I really haven't had the opportunity to do a lot of really, really cool films. As much as I really enjoy The Rundown and Road Trip, even though I don't really watch them, there have only been like three or four movies I think people could really like. There are a lot of movies I've done that come and go, and don't really establish a growing fan base. But I totally understand that, and it just drives me more to try and do some good films and change their minds.
AVC: Steve, how much research on grocery stores went into this movie?
SC: I didn't really do any.
AVC: You didn't even Google it?
SC: I don't think I did. I just think that movies are really fake; they should be fake. I don't think my way is any better than anybody else's way, but I know they're not real. I like to lean into the make-believe aspect of movies. That's why they're better than real life.
I think the challenges should be familiar. They should have some relationship to the feelings—like, if this movie's about being demoralized at work, it should feel familiar to people, whether you're a roofer or a lifeguard. But there's a million different ways to be demoralized, especially at work.
AVC: Sounds like you have something to get off your chest.
SC: [Laughs.] No, I was a waiter. That had its own brand of challenges. And then a roofer. That was really crummy and hot. Now I'm a writer.
AVC: How do you like that so far?
SC: It's the same, it's the same! [Laughs.] You can't really count on making a living, and then I've got kids, and you wake up every day and it's, "Oh. I've got to think of something someone might find interesting." It's hard to do. But all jobs are hard. And then you get reviewed, and those suck sometimes. But I'm not going to go back on the roof anytime soon if I can help it.
AVC: Not even to jump?
SC: Maybe. [Laughs.] One of the things I noticed about the world was—it's funny, in the movie business, you meet a kind of guy who has a lot of money, whether they came by it as an actor or film-studio owner, and you realize these people aren't any smarter than you might be, or any more decent than you might be. It's just this weird fate of the world that it broke one way for someone. I think squaring up success to equal money is silly, because it's so undeserved. And I started looking at work a different way. I thought, "Well, it can't be the only thing that can provide peace of mind. There must be another way to be contented."
AVC: How much of that do you think stems from being based in Chicago, and immersed in the Midwestern work ethic?
SC: It's really important to me. I was unemployed here with a child and couldn't get a job. And I went to Northwestern [University], which is a decent school. And still I couldn't route out a good way to make a living. Not even a great way.
AVC: Did either of you ever work in a grocery store?
SWS: I worked at Home Depot—but I didn't really work there. I didn't do anything. Any of the jobs I had before I became an actor, I did just [so] I could get a paycheck. My only experience close to the grocery store was Home Depot, which was so monotonous. The same people, the same smells, it was like Groundhog Day. I didn't do anything. I just walked around and made myself look busy. I don't think I helped one person.
I had a guy come in and ask for half-inch PVC pipe. I was like, "What about that one?" He was like, "Yeah, that would blow my house, man." "I don't know what I'm doing here, bro. I don't. They put me in the electric department and gave me an apron. I have no fucking clue what I'm supposed to be doing. Goodbye." Then I just walked away.
AVC: Was it odd, then, playing a more responsible role in The Promotion?
SWS: A little bit. Honestly, my main goal was just not to screw up takes and laugh. I've always played the guys that end up having the wisecracks. The American Pie movies were fun, because the character was such a nut that I was just trying to rewrite stuff and come up with things to make the other actors crack up. In this movie, I play this very straight, boring, normal guy.
AVC: Steve, a lot of your movies have those kind of Everyman, down-on-their-luck protagonists. What attracts you to that?
SC: The people around whom I've lived most of my life, they're similar. They have these expectations of life that aren't exaggerated, they could be accomplished, they could get what they want. But they could not, too. It's not to be taken for granted. Even getting by, and being satisfied, barely, is hard. It's so hard.
AVC: Your films touch on how the American Dream isn't really all it's cracked up to be. How do you think it's changing?
SC: Well, first of all, I think it's a myth. It's an absolute myth that early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Of course it doesn't.
AVC: Take that, Ben Franklin.
SC: [Laughs.] I just don't believe that that's true at all. And I also don't believe that hard work equals success. It can, and maybe it should, but I know that it doesn't. There's a very slight relationship between the two.
I think fate is massive, and it's never really had its place among forces we respect as having control over us. I think the other aspect of being an American that I've noticed is that we're in such a race. You wake up and you realize you're in the middle of a race, and some people are running right by you. It's not my place to say whether that's good or bad, but I don't take for granted that good intentions and hard work will allow someone to come by peace and happiness. I think there's some other weird function to get that, and it has to be personal. But you're also born aiming so high—boys want to play in the major leagues, girls want to be princesses. We're cultivating little champions. It's like the land of little champions.
AVC: But even before that, too. When women are pregnant, they've got to be listening to classical music.
SC: It's true. And Baby Einstein? Your baby's not going to be Einstein.
AVC: Speaking of mothers, Seann, how does it feel having introduced the concept of MILFs into the mainstream vocabulary via the American Pie movies?
SWS: I don't even know. I'm so out of touch, bro. I think it was just shockingly foul. Those movies came out so long ago, and people still really like them.
AVC: Are you disappointed about not being cast in those direct-to-DVD American Pie sequels?
SWS: I never watched them. Actually, I did catch one, I think the first DVD they made with the character who played [Steve Stifler's] brother. It was weird to watch. He did a really good job. But it was so bizarre, 'cause everybody was like, "Is that really your brother?" Some people can't distinguish what's on film and what's reality. But no, I haven't really watched them.
AVC: Is that part of what attracted you to Southland Tales? A chance to do something different?
SWS: Yeah. If that movie had appealed to most people, it could have opened up some opportunities. But it was nice to try something a little bit different. You do Mr. Woodcock and The Dukes Of Hazzard, and they both suck. But they get seen by a wider audience. Southland Tales was a really good opportunity for me, because it was worth the risk. Though sometimes you don't want to have to watch a movie three times to be able to figure out what the fuck is going on, right?
AVC: Having been in Southland Tales, do you know what the fuck is going on in that film?
SWS: Not so much. [Laughs.] No, not so much. What I really liked about it is that [writer-director Richard Kelly] said, "I don't give a shit. I'm going to do what I want to do. Maybe I'll fail; maybe I'll succeed."
AVC: Did playing one of the central characters give you any theories into the film's mysteries?
SWS: I don't even know if I played one of the central characters. There was such a huge cast. A lot of the stuff, we made up on the day. The whole experience was really unique. There were times when I would see Jon Lovitz with the bleached-blonde hair, doing a Dirty Harry impersonation, and I was like, "Man, I don't know what's going on in this movie."
AVC: How was it, being intimidated by Jon Lovitz in Southland Tales?
SWS: [Laughs.] That bleached-blonde hair was intimidating. Every day was just, like, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did The Promotion change your view of grocery stores?
SWS: I just feel bad. Two days ago, I went to this grocery store next to my house and I just looked at everybody, man, walking around getting yelled at. Same thing, same customers come in. I don't think I'll ever look at a grocery store the same way. I really feel for them.
SC: Yeah, it's funny, I always really disliked going [to grocery stores] just because I don't really like to be around other people so much. It's so depressing to realize that you eat the same stuff, like, "Oh, more Pringles?" It sends this weird little message to yourself, like, "So tomorrow I'm going to have more cereal."
I don't know. I find it a really interesting place, but the thing that fascinates me about them mostly is that for some reason, they put up the photos of the management staff. They want to familiarize them with you.
AVC: You said you have an appreciation for people with impossible jobs.
SC: That's part of it, but I also have this kind of fascination with Don Quixote, kind of like wanting something you're not going to get. I like that a lot.