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Chris Pratt kicked around Hollywood for a few years following an inauspicious debut in the 2000 horror film Cursed Part 3, but in 2002, he got his first regular television gig, co-starring as Bright Abbott on Everwood. After a handful of other roles, he landed a high-profile gig as Ché on The O.C., but he found a whole new audience of comedy fans starting in 2008. In addition to bigger movie parts, he landed the choice role of Andy Dwyer, Rashida Jones’ hapless ex-boyfriend on NBC’s Parks And Recreation. Pratt recently spoke to The A.V. Club about why Andy is so hard to hate, how the digital-video format has changed comedy, and what it’s like to live the American dream.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on Parks And Recreation getting picked up for a full second season. Did you get the news in advance?
Chris Pratt: I actually found out later than everybody else. My phone has kind of been crapping out on me, and I came home, and my wife was all “Honey, yay!” I thought she was just excited to see me or something.
AVC: Do you think the chances are good it’ll go to a third season?
CP: Gosh, you know—you eventually learn to get cynical in television, and not believe the rumors. There’s really no way of telling; you just have to keep on doing good work and hoping people will notice it. Our ratings haven’t been great, but as the new episodes have come out, they’re getting better. We’re hoping that trend continues, but it’s really just all speculation. You could be getting great numbers and still get told it’s over.
AVC: Andy Dwyer has become the show’s breakout character; it seems like the more of him we see, the better the episode. Did you have any inkling when you got the part that it might work out that way?
CP: No, at first it was given to me as a guest-star role for six episodes. I had a pretty good idea that by the end of his run, Rashida’s character would break up with him, so I thought I could just have fun with it, and that would be that. There were no guarantees. But they told me if the show got picked up, and if they brought Andy back, it would be as a regular; I guess that was kind of the carrot that you dangle in front of the actor. “Hey, there’s a chance you can come back as a regular!” But they didn’t have to, so I was just assuming they wouldn’t bring him back. As the episodes went on, though, it was more and more apparent that they were writing really funny stuff for the character.
AVC: Do you think it was their plan all along to give Andy more screen time, or do you think it was because of how the character was received?
CP: I think it’s a testament to Greg Daniels and Michael Schur, who created the show, that a lot of what they planned gets thrown out the window when it becomes clear how things are developing. We’re obviously working from a plan, but they’re very willing to just throw everything out there, see what’s working, and see who has chemistry. With a cast like this, too, you see a lot of freestyling, a lot of improvisation, and they really swing with it when they go forward. So there just happened to be this ridiculous character, Andy, who kept getting laughs, and that’s been why he’s gotten more scenes. And I think that’s going to happen with more and more characters—I think everyone’s going to get their moments and find their groove, it’s just a matter of letting it work itself out. It’s not something that’s possible to plan, but it wasn’t planned with me, either.
AVC: Nick Offerman doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, but he kills whenever he’s on.
CP: Nick Offerman is my hero. He just cracks me up. He’s so funny, but he’s a true actor, too—he’s bringing so much when he’s onscreen. I just love watching Ron Swanson groove.
AVC: How much of the show is actually improvised? It has a very loose feel, but given the format, it’s always hard to tell how much of that was present in the script from the beginning.
CP: I wouldn’t say it’s an improv show at all—we’ve got really great writers, and they turn out really funny scripts. The majority of the jokes you’re laughing at are the result of this brilliant think tank of writers that we have. But because we’re shooting in a digital format, and because we’re shooting everything on a stage that’s pretty well-lit, we have ample time to screw around with it. We can do 10 takes that are directly from the script, and still have time to do 10 takes that go off-book, and allow it to evolve into something new. That’s how you’ll get an occasional improv bit into the finished show, even though 90 percent of it comes straight from the script. When you’re working with film, you can only shoot one angle at a time, and then everything has to stop, and you re-light it and shoot everything else from the opposite side, so it’s really important that you stick exactly to what’s written. But with the multi-camera digital setup, you’re getting both sides of the scene at the same time, so it gives you that freedom to go off-book. That’s how you end up with the occasional improv line, or a really good reaction shot that can make a scene work better.
AVC: Who wrote the songs for Andy’s band, Scarecrow Boat, or Mouse Rat, or whatever they’re called at the moment?
CP: A brilliant guy named Mark Rivers, who plays the drummer in—I think it’s Mouse Rat now, but I’m sure it’s changed. He wrote three of the four songs, all the full-band songs with the big fake Hootie And The Blowfish crappy rock sound; he just pounded those out in about 20 minutes. We rehearsed all those songs with the band and then played them live when we shot it. And I wrote one of the songs, which is “Ann,” the sort of quiet acoustic love song to Ann.
AVC: Will we be seeing any more of them?
CP: Man, I sure hope so. If it was up to me, Andy would team up with Ron, playing Duke Silver—he’d be blowing the saxophone and Andy would provide the guitar and piano, and they’d go on tour together. Of course, I always pitch stuff like that, and the writers just look at me and go, “Uh, yeah, I don’t think so.”
AVC: Andy has that sort of fake Pearl Jam voice that every alternative band in the late ’90s used, just overprojecting everything.
CP: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was a combination of some actual musicians that I’ve met and this sort of Eddie Vedder, Darius Rucker… [Overwrought crooning.] Sort of chewing on the words. I’m not a great singer, but I can do those sorts of impressions, so I was just trying to cut loose and give it that sound.
AVC: You hadn’t done a lot of comedy prior to Parks And Recreation, but you had a reputation as a funny guy. Was it hard to finally make the transition to full-on comedy, or were you just waiting for the right role to come along?
CP: It’s interesting—I always thought when I was doing more melodramatic stuff like Everwood that the directors were constantly reeling me in and stopping me from being funny. [Laughs.] Like, “Chris, please. You need to find a more emotional center.” I’ve always tried to find a funny angle on things, and 99 percent of the time, it just doesn’t work. I’ve finally stumbled on a show that really caters to those strengths, and I’m happy about it. I mean, I’m happy to try any genre, from drama to comedy and anything in between, but this sure is a lot of fun. Maybe I do feel like I was waiting for that one great role to come along, although, to be fair, for most of my career, I’ve been at the mercy of what people are willing to put me in.
AVC: Andy is a really emotionally open character; he’s difficult to dislike even when he’s lying or delusional. What do you draw on to get a handle on that?
CP: For me, I feel like that’s just it—you said it, it’s easy to forgive that kind of behavior in someone when they’re so emotionally vulnerable. What I draw on is that childlike innocence, and this undying love for Ann. Everything he does, he does because he’s in love, and that’s an admirable quality, so it makes his antics more forgivable. He often goes about things in a sort of boobish way, but he’s never a cock. He can be dumb and foolish and laughable, but I try to focus in every scene on the fact that he’s got a big heart. He means well.
AVC: Is there anything else different about the way the show is made, compared to other series you’ve worked on?
CP: I think all of it stems from the difference in the format of the show. We shoot 55 hours a week for what comes down to 21 minutes of airtime. It boils down to about a minute a page, and it can be strange to see the episode when it airs and realize how much of it got cut to make that limit. You have to learn to get in and out with your jokes; you can’t spend a lot of time dancing around. Another thing is that I’m getting older, and I’ve maybe put on a few pounds, which is just something that happens, and when the first couple of episodes came out, I looked at them and thought “Oh, my God, Chris! Dude, hit the gym already!” And then I heard people laughing, and all of a sudden, I thought, this is kinda cool. It’s not like being on a WB show where it’s all “edgy,” you know? It’s almost like it’s the first time I’m playing a man and not a boy.
AVC: Andy might not work if he was super-thin and handsome. Part of what’s funny about him is that he’s this type of guy that everyone’s met, this sort of band schlub who mooches off his girlfriend, he’s not too good-looking…
CP: I think if Andy were super-fit and buff, people would really hate his guts. That’s another reason that he stays likeable—he thinks he’s really handsome, but he’s just this dude with a double chin and a belly, who sits around and drinks beer and eats pizza and doesn’t really work toward anything. It was Nick Offerman who told me this first, and I really liked it: he said “Andy is living the American dream—the new American dream, which is do as little as possible and get as much in return as possible.”
AVC: Speaking of living the American dream, you’re married to Anna Faris. Do you two talk shop a lot? Beyond just discussing roles, do you ever talk about comedy around the house?
CP: One thing I’ve found that’s really helpful in our relationship is that she’s very normal. And I don’t mean ordinary—I mean, she doesn’t act like a big star or a comic icon or anything like that. She’s really down-to-earth and sweet, and we do talk about comedy, about movies, about our careers and possible projects, but it’s not in this sort of “Oh, okay, Mr. Hollywood, let’s talk about movies” kind of way. It’s really nice to have someone who’s intelligent and articulate to talk to about what you’re doing, because it’s a big part of who we both are. We’ll end up bouncing lines off of each other, rehearsing jokes, and I’ll think “Oh my God, it’s so perfect being with someone who knows exactly what I want to do.”
AVC: Without giving too much away, what’s in the future for Andy?
CP: We’re a few episodes ahead in production of what’s aired, so I do know a little of what’s going on. You’ll see more of Andy around the Parks & Rec Department—I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say he gets a gig inside the building. I personally see him working his way to the top. [Laughs.] He’d be a perfect politician; he’s affable, he can memorize lines and smile and shake hands, and he’s just dumb enough to let someone pull his strings. He’ll probably end up being mayor of Pawnee.