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Creed Bratton is best known as the endearingly creepy paper salesman at Dunder Mifflin on The Office, but with the show on hiatus, Bratton is taking the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles in a few offbeat indie films. In Terri, which opens this week in New York and L.A., he plays a man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who’s struggling to hold on to a semblance of his former self and take care of his teenage nephew, who all too often takes care of him. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Bratton to talk about his role in Terri, his time playing in the folk-rock band The Grass Roots in the ’60s, and how that experience shaped his namesake character on The Office.
The A.V. Club: What drew you this role in Terri?
Creed Bratton: I took the part of Uncle James because the script’s so well-written, and then when I heard that John [C. Reilly] was on board, that got me all excited. He’s one of my favorite actors. I met Az [director Azazel Jacobs] and thought he was great, but I told him the trepidations that I had were that people would look at me, because of the Alzheimer’s thing, and think it was a “Creed character” and laugh at the wrong places. I really didn’t want that, and he assured me that if I started going there, he’d let me know. Apparently I didn’t, and a lot of people who’ve seen it don’t even know it’s me. I feel good about that.
AVC: You look a lot older in the film.
CB: Yeah, I look and act a lot older. The piano part I did, I’m in character when I’m playing it. I realized that I’m drifting away as I’m playing it, and there are times where I realize I don’t know where I am in my own song that I wrote. I called it “Akika’s Canvas.” Akika’s the makeup woman who every day took pictures of me when she started out. She’d go turn me around, and every day I looked just the same. She’s brilliant. Sometimes I’d just scream her name out, “Akika!”, because I liked saying it.
AVC: How long did that transformation process take?
CB: It took about a half-hour to get that really old look, but it helps so much as an actor. You look at yourself and you go, “Wow!” Your body starts shifting and you just get kind of pathetic.
AVC: Your performance is nuanced, to the point that we’re not sure what this guy is suffering from.
CB: We never say it. I think the first time my face comes up, that defines the whole thing, because it’s so sad. I went “Whoa.” The only time I think we talk about it is when my nephew, Terri [Jacob Wysocki], doesn’t want to set up the mice traps, and I tell him if I do it, then I’ll forget to check them. That’s the only reference we make to it.
AVC: And there’s so much backstory.
CB: The real backstory, according to Az and Patrick [Dewitt, screenwriter], is that I was married to Terri’s aunt and when she died, he’s left with me to take care of, not even a blood relative.
AVC: But that never comes up in the film, except that there’s a sense of loss that permeates the scenes in the house.
CB: The house takes on its own—when you see that house, you go, “This is really something.”
AVC: The way Terri lives basically by himself in the back shed.
CB: That’s it exactly. If you think about Terri—and Jacob does such a marvelous job. It’s his first movie. He solidly carries the film. He and I hit it off. We met, and we started joking around with each other and laughing, and then Az would go, “Act!” Boom, we’d drop into character, and as soon as he’d say “Cut,” we’d bust each other’s balls again. We’d sit outside of the set, and I’d bring my guitar, and he’d play harmonica. We’d jam a lot. It was a lot of fun.
AVC: You began your career as a musician, right?
CB: Yes. I was in The Grass Roots with my buddy Warren Entner in the ’60s. We did four albums with them, and I now I do some music on The Office.
AVC: How did your character on the show evolve?
CB: I wrote him myself. I was working on The Bernie Mac Show, and Ken Kwapis came on the show. He found out from the first AD, Joe [Paul Moore], that I was in The Grass Roots. He loves The Grass Roots. It’s always amazing to me when people know all the songs. What a geek. [Laughs.] He’s such a smart and wonderful man. Once I found out he was going to direct the pilot of The Office—I loved that Ricky Gervais thing so much—I used one of my favors to say, “Please, I want to come on.” He said, “We’re cast, but let me talk to Greg [Daniels] and see if we can put you in the background in a suit, and I’ll do what I can to work you in.” That’s what he said to get me into the mix.
I’m there a week just in the background, and I watch and see all these talented kids. I thought, “We have a great cast, and I need to get noticed,” so I went off and wrote a monologue, a “talking head,” sitting in front of the venetian blinds with a tie and glasses on. I just wrote up this thing about what my character, Creed from The Grass Roots, would have done if he continued doing drugs and got really addled. I made this character really weird and ad-libbed a bunch of stuff and gave it to them. A couple weeks later, they came to me and said it was really funny. The next thing I know, they laid a script down with six and half pages with Steve Carell. My sphincter puckered right up. “This is it, man.” Luckily it turned out well.
AVC: Are you still involved in writing your character?
CB: Nope, but I’ll pitch ideas. Most people think we’re ad-libbing all the time, but we’re not. We’re a scripted show. Occasionally, I do see things that I just threw out and they kept it. I don’t consider myself to have the writing ability. I can come up with ideas, but to week after week, keep all that stuff in balance, that’s an amazing thing I can’t do.
AVC: When do you start shooting for the next season?
CB: July 25. Creed’s still the manager, so we’ll have to see how long they’ll keep that madman in there.
AVC: Do you think he has it in him to run a company?
CB: Does he have it in him to run his own life? No. He sleeps under his desk. My character that I wrote was much darker. He was a killer and a psychopathic madman.
AVC: Like a Manson family follower?
CB: Yeah, exactly. And I can pull that off pretty well, as you can probably imagine. He’s more PG-rated now, but he’s still got a weird vibe. I think he’ll go back to his desk eventually, because they don’t want to be around him all the time. He’ll just come in for pithy one-liners.
AVC: Do you think about striking a balance between creepy and normal?
CB: People just assume you’re playing yourself, but it’s a character. For a couple of seasons, we all perpetuated the “Creed cred,” because we liked people to think I was that guy. It was good for press, right? But I think the cat’s out of the bag now, with Terri, that I am an actor. I have to be careful, because directors will sometimes say, “Oh, that’s a little dark.” That’s one thing they’re told by Greg Daniels: “Remind Creed to back off, because sometimes he likes to go dark.” And I do. I’m not precious about my art.
AVC: Have you thought about exploring this darker side in a project?
CB: Yeah, if there are writers out there, sign me up. I just played a very bizarre character in The Ghastly Love Of Johnny X, where I play a being from the Planet X who comes to Earth to be a rock star, succeeds hugely, then dies and is resurrected to do one last concert. When he comes alive, his face is falling apart and deteriorating. I think it’s going to be a cult classic. It like Rebel Teenagers From Outer Space meets a ’50s rockabilly musical. It’s got its tongue almost bursting through the cheek. Its director, Paul Bunnell, has a very interesting vision of life that carries through the film. It’s bizarre. It’s still funny and not trying to square off with Christopher Walken or anything.
AVC: What’s your wildest memory from your days as a rock musician?
CB: Well, the funniest story is when I was onstage at the Fillmore West and dropped acid for the first time. I hit the first chords for “Let’s Live For Today,” and I look down at my hands, and there’s this vortex of color drifting like rainbow taffy. Then I hear [concert promoter] Bill Graham yell, “Plaaaaay!”, so I hit a chord, and honest-to-God truth, look over to the speaker and out of the speaker comes staff paper, like cartoon staff paper. The notes fall off the staff paper, and they crumble on the floor. I see this in my mind’s eye. I see it on the floor, and I walk over and start trying to pick up the notes. There are people who are wondering, “What the fuck is he doing?” [Laughs.] “What’s come over this man?” They’re yelling at me, and I can’t play. I try another chord, and then the neck on my guitar starts to bend. I’m grabbing it, and it’s not bending, but again, I think it is in my mind’s eye, and I think I can’t play. I had these big Chinese pants on, so I dropped the Chinese pants. I wasn’t wearing any underwear, so Old Blue’s out there. I let that pony dance in the breeze, and I walk off and sit next to a stagehand cross-legged—they don’t want to see that—and start telling the meaning of life, but that’s another story.
AVC: Do you get flashbacks now?
CB: You know, I did a lot of acid, and I paid good money for that acid. I should have a flashback. I deserve one, but no. I feel kind of cheated. A lot of people keep saying, “I got these great flashbacks.” Give me some flashbacks.
AVC: Speaking of limited memory, let’s get back to Uncle James in Terri. On a serious note, was there originally more written for your character that eventually got pared down?
CB: No, it’s exactly how it was when I went to read for the audition. He didn’t change much at all. Az is just a very light-handed director, and to his credit, I think he knew the subject so well. He could instinctively tell if there was anything false, or if it was drifting into a saccharine or maudlin sensibility, and he never let it go there. That movie could have easily gotten very weepy. He gets his point across, but he certainly doesn’t pander to anybody.
AVC: There’s a scene when you see the mice that were caught in extra traps that Terri set up in the forest outside your house. What was going through your head in that moment?
CB: You worry, but it’s like John’s line later about bloodlust. As a guy, I get it. I know what it’s like to experiment in cruelty, and you either get through with it or you don’t. At that moment, I was going, “I don’t want to judge. I’m disappointed. I’m sad for myself and for kids in general.” You see this theme of how cruel kids can be, manifesting throughout the film. I was disappointed in him and me and the situation we were in. Another thing I felt was sad deep down that he was taking care of me. I think that’s probably the main motivation for the whole thing. There’s a part of James that knows that he’s out of it, but since he’s out of it, he can’t really know. Part of him knows that Terri’s taking care of him because he’s become the child.
AVC: There’s a scene later on when Uncle James’ illness overtakes him, and he lashes out at Terri’s girlfriend. Was your preparation different for that?
CB: I walked off by myself and thought about it. I didn’t want to joke around with Jacob, and they all respected that, and it was flat. I went back to Az and said, “I’m taking it too serious.” He asked me what I wanted to do, and I went back to joking around with Jacob. The very first take is the one they used. Apparently, I don’t want to take myself too seriously. That’s my lesson to myself.