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Though he’s only 27, the eternally boyish Jay Baruchel has been in front of the camera for more than half his life, including a stint as co-host (with Elisha Cuthbert) on Popular Mechanics For Kids. Raised in Montreal, Quebec (where he still resides), Baruchel won a small role in his late teens as a reedy, spastic Led Zeppelin fan in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and made enough of an impression to get an audition for Judd Apatow’s short-lived but beloved 2001 Fox sitcom Undeclared. Baruchel’s work as a sweet, woefully inexperienced college freshman in Undeclared set the tone for a career that’s played off his innate likeability and self-deprecation. Throughout the ’00s, Baruchel balanced supporting roles in several major studio comedies (Knocked Up, Tropic Thunder, and Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist among them)—not to mention an unexpected dramatic turn in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby—with appearances in independent films in the U.S. and Canada.
With She’s Out Of My League, Baruchel steps out as a Hollywood-movie leading man for the first time, but he doesn’t stray far from the ingratiating awkwardness that’s long been his stock in trade. Baruchel stars as a young man content to live at home and log time as a TSA functionary at the Pittsburgh airport. When a smoking-hot blonde (Alice Eve) expresses romantic interest in him, Baruchel lacks the confidence to trust her intentions, and his loser friends (Nate Torrence, T.J. Miller, and Mike Vogel) only deepen his insecurities. Baruchel recently spoke with The A.V. Club about pleasing Clint Eastwood, the vagina stick of crude comedy, and why he wants to be David Cronenberg when he grows up.
The A.V. Club: The filmmakers involved in She’s Out Of My League talked about casting actors with experience in stand-up and improv. How did that figure into the final product?
Jay Baruchel: I’m a chronic ad-libber. So whoever hires me, often to their chagrin, should know that I will be talking a bunch of smack. My introduction to acting in the States was on a show called Undeclared, so I was Apatow-ized from the beginning. I started acting when I was 12 back home in Montreal, and in kid acting, there’s no ad-libbing. So it spoiled me. They don’t always want you to ad-lib. But on a movie like this, I think just granted the fact that T.J. Miller and Nate Torrence and I are in the same room together, we’ll all be ad-libbing. It’s never that we needed to, because the script was strong. Everything was there. But it’s almost like the script is a coloring book, and the improv is the shading. It’s like adding little flourishes in moments here and there. It was so nice, because we all find each other very, very funny, so we were always trying to make each other laugh. We also all really like each other and get along together, so in those moments, it’s real, pure friendship. It makes it real. I think it translates to fun stuff in the movie.
AVC: You hadn’t known each other before, though, right? It’s sort of like a mating in captivity.
JB: T.J. and Mike knew each other, because they had made Cloverfield together, but that was it. None of us were from Pittsburgh, so we were all together there for two months. At the beginning, there was like a week off where we’re just kind of rehearsing, and we became fast friends. I’m going to be real corny here and say that I count them as some of my best friends in the world. That, to me, is the legacy of this movie, that I got to meet and become friends with awesome guys and then have fun on set every day making them laugh and vice versa.
AVC: You once compared Judd Apatow’s moviemaking process to Wong Kar-wai in terms of how he goes about influencing and shaping a movie as it goes along. How was this similar and how was it different?
JB: The thing is, I guess, that Judd’s put his time in, and he’s been slogging it out for a while. He’s earned the ability, I think, to effectively have a blueprint for a script and then just let us play and do almost like a choose-your-own-adventure story, shoot so many different versions of different scenes. In this one, it was amazing, because Jim Field Smith, this was his first at-bat as a feature director, but he was coming from the world of sketch performance in England. He came from comedy troupes. So he always knew that often the best stuff is in those moments. With this one, we had lines. It was far more developed than just a blueprint, but still, he always was cool enough to allow us to try to find our own version of things and our own voice in things. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, because a lot of the random stuff we said on set ended up in the movie.
AVC: When you’re in a situation where it’s a blueprint, where it’s an Apatow-type thing—
JB: Or Ben Stiller. He’s the same way as well.
AVC: They’re relying so much on you to come up with things. Are you coming to set with ideas in mind of what you’re going to try to do?
JB: A little bit, but I think that can screw you over. Rigidity is the enemy of acting. And I think that people who stay up all night focusing on every beat they’re going to do the next day always end up getting screwed. I’d say that the No. 1 attribute you need as an actor is to be malleable. You need to be able to change and tailor what you’re doing to what the situation dictates. So I guess I always have sort of general ideas, but the best stuff would be the stuff that came to us in the moment, always. Always, always, always. The funniest moments in Undeclared, the funniest moments in Knocked Up, the funniest moments in this movie, I think were a bit more spontaneous and figured out in the moment. I’d look over the script, and I’d try to find jokes maybe where there weren’t any, in certain moments, but for the most part, I just kind of like doing it as I’m going.
AVC: In order for She’s Out Of My League to work, you have to believe that whatever chemistry exists between yourself and Alice Eve’s character would have to transcend this distance between her being a 10 on the desirability scale, and your character being a 5. How did you go about developing that chemistry with her?
JB: We just hung out a lot. When we both got to Pittsburgh, we had about a week of rehearsals before we had to shoot, so we had the virtue of time. We were able to chill a lot. We were like, “We gotta fall in love in this movie, so we better have some kind of rapport of some sort, you know?” Also, it’s just not hard to be attracted to Alice. I don’t know what she did to find herself attracted to me. She somehow convinced herself. But no, she’s a beautiful girl, it’s easy to fall for a chick like that, and we just hung out so much that we had a shorthand and a connection that you can only get by doing that.
AVC: Parallels are certain to be drawn between this movie and something like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where you have three friends, the inexperienced guy, the bad advice, etc. What sets this film apart in your view?
JB: Well, I think that… Wow, that’s a good question. I’m the star. [Laughs.] No, I think that our movie… I’m a momma’s boy, right? I live two blocks away from my mother, and I have a little sister. Nate has been married to the girl he’s known since he was 14, and they have two kids. Mike is married and has two kids and goes to church every Sunday. All of us wanted—we were convinced that we could accomplish what we had to accomplish without going for the obvious pussy joke, if you will. I remember somebody, I think it was Lindsay Sloane, who plays my ex-girlfriend in the movie, after the first table reading, she was like, “I feel like I just got beaten with a vagina stick.” It was a bit too crass, in other words. What we really desperately wanted was… you can be sort of crass and dumb, as guys are, while still having a heart and respecting chicks and all that stuff. So we wanted to make the movie accessible to guys but not alienating to girls. I think we’ve hopefully succeeded in that.
AVC: She’s Out Of My League and certainly the Apatow projects you’ve been in glean a lot of comedy out of embarrassing situations. What’s the secret to pulling that off? Is it possible to go too far?
JB: Very much so. My vanity and narcissism will never let me go too far. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve gone pretty far.
JB: Trust me, I know. Cat food doesn’t buy itself, my friend. [Laughs.] I know it’s going to sound like a cliché, but the key is to sort of keep it real and earnest and react the way that one would react in those situations. Where the disconnect between the movie and the audience would happen is if you go too big or too crazy with that stuff. I think that’s why those scenes work, because in the best-case scenario, the audience sees themselves in your shoes. The only way you can do that is if you try to play it as if it was happening to you. I have a premature-ejaculation scene where a dog licks my crotch in this movie, and, mercifully, neither of those things has happened to me, but I had to pretend they did for 12 hours and keep it real. It was one of the more humiliating days of work I’ve ever had.
AVC: Just dealing with the dog—
JB: To make him want to lick my thighs and my crotch area, they just kept putting beef pâté on my pants. Warm pâté on my pants for 12 hours, and the dog constantly licking it. There’s nothing cool about that.
AVC: You still live in Montreal. How do you manage your career from there? Have you sacrificed opportunities for not being in L.A.?
JB: When I first started work in L.A. 10 years ago, from the get-go I was always way more discerning than I had any right to be. I’ve just always felt that if I had to choose between sacrificing a potential opportunity in L.A. or sacrificing my life back home and my family and my friends—that city is my heart, and if ever I had to leave it completely, I just would have quit acting. Being home is more important to me. I have to say I have precious few regrets of the past 10 years that I’ve been working in the States, because here’s the thing: I wasn’t living in L.A., but I was always willing to fly down on a night’s notice. So if ever I got a call that there was an audition the next afternoon at 2 p.m., and it’s 5 o’clock in the evening right now, I was always willing to get on the plane first thing in the morning. That was how I reconciled it. I’m not paying rent in L.A.—I’ll spend the money on plane tickets.
AVC: You were a fairly popular child star, but very few successfully make that transition from between child star and adult actor. How did you make that happen?
JB: I almost didn’t, man. I started when I was 12, and when I was 17, that was probably… I won’t say the worst year of my career, but the least productive year in my career. No longer was I some sort of adorable kid, and I definitely wasn’t an attractive man, I was a gawky 17, 18-year-old. I was in school at the time, and I had always, even when I started… When I was 12, I promise you, in my mind my endgame was “I’ll make some money, put some money away as an actor right now, go to film school, and that’ll be that.” Because all I’ve ever wanted to do is direct horror movies in Montreal for the rest of my life. So I was researching film schools. I was getting prospectuses and applying to different schools when something out of a movie happened. I was playing videogames in my sister’s bedroom and the phone rings, and I pick it up and they say, “This is so-and-so from Allison Jones Casting in Los Angeles, and we’re doing a TV show called The Untitled Judd Apatow Project. We saw you in Almost Famous and thought you’d be perfect for it. Would you like to audition?” I was like “Fucking A.” Then they brought me down there, and so started the second chapter of my career. It was like the 11th hour. I had all but quit acting completely at that point, and then just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.
AVC: This dream of making horror films in Montreal, is that permanently deferred? Do you plan to return to it?
JB: No! Return to it? Not even return to it! That is the endgame. That is the ultimate motivation. Everything I do is an effort to get to that point. That’s all I want to do.
AVC: Really? Is this the David Cronenberg route?
JB: He is my absolute hero. He’s absolutely one of the biggest influences in my life. For me… Listen: acting has afforded my mother, my sister, and me a great, great, great life, and I get to do a job that a lot of people would kill for. It’s one of the best jobs in the world. So I am absolutely grateful for all that stuff, but it was never my raison d’être. Always, on all my days going to school and just being an average high-school kid and miserable as you are, I was just always making movies in my head. Every day I’d walk to the bus, and I’d literally just be framing, framing everything. So the acting, I don’t mean to do it a disservice by saying this, but it was always a means to an end. It was a way to afford me the opportunity to get to kill people on camera.
AVC: What do you have in mind stylistically?
JB: I have a whole bunch of ideas. I got a dozen movies, my dream movies, that I want to make if I get the chance. The first one, the one that we’re kind of working on right now, that hopefully I’ll finally get to direct in the next year or two, is kind of a re-imagining of a slasher film about a crazy white cop who chases four black kids throughout the ghetto on July 4. It’ll be subversive and controversial and polarizing, but that’s what’s best in horror, the movies that do that to people.
AVC: Would you find financing in Canada, or in the States?
JB: Whichever. I love the Canadian system, because our government always puts aside money to make movies there, and no matter what, I’ll be making it in Canada. Wherever the financing comes from… It could come from Germany; that would be fine with me.
AVC: With the government involved in the financing, do you think there’s a certain shyness toward genre material? You’d think that people would be reluctant to see tax money allocated to a slasher movie.
JB: We only green-light eight movies in English a year, but if you are in that eight, I promise you it is the most liberating experience in your life. Everyone I know who’s worked in that system, who’s gotten to make movies, have told me it’s not like a studio. You don’t have to humor notes. The government basically, if they like your script and they like the producer and the director, they say, “Here’s the money, go make the movie.” They don’t even ask for final cut. They’re just like, “When it’s done, give it back to us.” They wouldn’t have funded it if they didn’t think it was worthwhile. Look, David Cronenberg has been making movies there for 30 friggin’ years, and his movies get pretty crazy.
AVC: Undeclared was famously a victim of bad timing, premièring two weeks after 9/11. At what point did it become clear to you that the show wasn’t going to last?
JB: The whole time. The whole time, it was the sword hanging over our heads.
AVC: You didn’t think [the network] was confident from the start?
JB: They never were. I have no problems saying that they never understood what they had, that network. Because we didn’t have a laugh track, and that was an issue from the beginning. They thought we needed a laugh track because otherwise, how will the audience know where the jokes are? Stuff like that. We’d get notes like “We want it to be more like Road Trip,” whatever that means. So all of us, I have to say—every actor on that show, every writer and every director—we all, I swear to God, were like “This is the best show on television.” We were all happy to make the best show on TV. So there was an absolute confidence and pride in what we were doing. We were setting the bar higher than it was. And also, given the fact that we knew it was a ticking time bomb, that we were going to be out of work pretty soon, we sort of developed a bit of a holier-than-thou artist thing, like, “They just don’t understand us, so we’ll just do whatever the hell we want.” As a result, we yielded 17 awesome episodes of TV.
AVC: I was always curious about that shift, what happens to shows when they know they’re doomed.
JB: It’s an awkward mix of “God, this sucks” and “Well, fuck them, let’s just do whatever we want.”
AVC: We’ve talked about working in situations where you’re improvising a lot and doing a lot of different takes, but you’ve also worked with Clint Eastwood, who has a reputation for working quickly and moving on. Did that change your preparation or tighten you up?
JB: It just made me a happier man. The great failing of most actors is being overly analytical and hating everything you do. “Can I just get one more? Let me do it one more time. Let me do it one more time.” No matter how many times you do it, you’ll never be completely satisfied. On that movie is when I realized it didn’t matter how I felt about it, because I’m not directing it. It was like the first day of work on that movie. After every take, I’d say to Eastwood, “Was that okay? Was that okay, sir? Was that okay?” And he was always like [Affects gruff Eastwood voice.] “Yeah, it was fine.” And I was like “Oh, shit, they’re going to fire me.” Then Morgan Freeman leaned over and said to me, “If he doesn’t say anything, that means he likes it.” I was like “Oh! Of course! Because he’s the director and producer, and he’s editing it. Why would it matter how I feel about it?” And I swear to God, that was like the most liberating moment of my career. From that point on, I never felt the need to do anything more than satisfy what the director wanted. We’re his employees. We’re tools serving the story. If he sees that he got what he needs, then my job is done.