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Josh Gad isn’t a name brand, but he’s slowly becoming a more familiar face. After years of supporting roles in films like 21, The Rocker, and Love And Other Drugs, as well as sporadic TV stints as a correspondent on The Daily Show and minor parts on now-defunct shows like Back To You, Gad is currently playing the lead in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Broadway musical, The Book Of Mormon. Written in conjunction with Avenue Q co-creator Robert Lopez, The Book Of Mormon is a superbly foul-mouthed chronicle of two fresh-faced missionaries sent to Uganda to spread the good word. Opening to the public March 24 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York, the show has raised more than a few eyebrows for its blasphemous content and for its young breakout star. The A.V. Club caught up with Gad to discuss faith, film, and giving Broadway the proverbial finger.
The A.V. Club: The press has been talking about this project for at least three or four years. How early on did you get involved in the show?
Josh Gad: It’s been going on for six years, if you count the actual inception of the idea, with Trey and Matt first meeting Bobby Lopez and saying “We want to do a show about Mormons.” The actual workshop happened three years ago. That’s where my involvement starts. The guys had written a couple of songs and what kind of shabbily resembled the first act. It was probably about 45 minutes [of material]. They wanted to test it out in front of a live audience to see if it would even work, so they put together a group of live actors. I got a phone call three years ago from Bobby Lopez, saying “Hey, I’m working on this new project with Trey and Matt. I saw you in 21, and I really enjoyed your performance, and I listened to a demo recording that somebody gave me of you singing. I think you have a really great voice and you could do this.” Well it turns out that the recording was of somebody else’s voice, so I lucked out. It was one of those funny little moments: What if he had known it wasn’t me on that recording?
I came to New York. We did a two-week workshop, at the end of which we did a presentation at the Vineyard Theatre. At that time, nobody was sure if it was going to be a movie or if it was going to be nothing. The real test was, can you put the kind of words that were written on the page in the mouths of live actors and get away with it, as opposed to cartoon characters? That was what that whole experiment was about. Well, we quickly realized that there was something very special there, even if it was just a seed of an idea. For the next three years, and over the course of six major workshops full of revisions and improvements, the show just kept building momentum until it was ready for Broadway.
AVC: What attracted you to the part?
JG: I’ve always been a massive, massive fan of Trey and Matt. I grew up watching [South Park]. One of my top 10 favorite movies of all time was South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. Team America is a work of genius to me. I was just so in awe of them as comedians that even if I was standing in the background, I just wanted to be a part of it. I had seen Avenue Q and was so blown away… To me, the question isn’t really “Why would you want to be involved with this?” It’s “Why wouldn’t you jump at the opportunity?” Although when I first heard the demo, I did take a deep breath and go “Can you actually get away with saying these things in front of a live audience? Are people going to throw pitchforks? Are they going to get up and walk out of the theater?” It was a real question for me. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Nobody’s thrown a pitchfork yet.
AVC: How concerned were you about the content? The show has been touted as “potentially the most obscene production to ever grace the Great White Way.” It’s supposedly the first Broadway show to ever use the C-word.
JG: [Laughs.] Yeah… While I was concerned initially with whether you could say the kinds of things they have us say, it quickly dissipated. After that initial standing in front of an audience of 150, 200 people at the Vineyard Theatre, opening our mouths and singing “Fuck you, God,” I realized pretty quickly what they had accomplished. Because it’s such a thought-provoking piece of material that the craziness, the absurdity, the obscenities are supported by something much deeper, much grander, and much more faith-based than anyone would actually ever imagine before walking into the Eugene O’Neill. I think therein lies the greatness of the show, and that’s the reason why word of mouth has been so good and people are buzzing about it. They’ve done something that hopefully transcends the simple kind of potty-mouth humor that people are expecting.
AVC: What does the show say to you about faith?
JG: It really is a pro-faith show, in that it teaches us that people who are in dire straits, and people who are in desperate need of something greater because their lives are so wretched, and they have to dealt with such harsh realities, can find hope in a higher power, can find hope in something that is unexplainable, in something you can’t necessarily prove, but something you can believe in and hold dear to your heart, something that can give you the strength to carry on despite the hardships.
AVC: If you initially thought “Oh God, I can’t do this,” where was the turning point when you knew you could?
JG: It was definitely that first performance at the Vineyard. When I saw the audience’s response, I saw that audiences would give us permission, because [the subject] was handled so well and so delicately. At the same time, there’s no apologies for the material. I realized pretty quickly from that moment when we made that connection that “Okay, this is something that we can actually do. This is something that I don’t need to necessarily look over my shoulder and see who’s packing a gun. It really does have a lot more going for it than just those foul words.”
AVC: Have you been keeping up with reactions from the religious community?
JG: I’ve seen something even more shocking, which is support in some faith-based groups for the show, specifically the Mormon faith. I’ve been forwarded reviews from The Salt Lake Tribune, and there is a sense of openness about the show. From people who have seen it, I think they’re definitely offended by the words, because the words go against their faith, but they’re really amazed at just how pro-faith the show is, and just how sweet and heartfelt the show is. That’s the key, is that Matt, Trey, Bobby, and the entire creative team have done something remarkable, in that not only are people laughing their asses off every night at the theater, but I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say “I was actually choked up at times.” That’s the greatest compliment anybody can give us.
AVC: How does doing a project like this stack up to doing film or television?
JG: This is unfortunately the greatest job in the world, and I say unfortunately because as an actor, it’s the least-paying job compared to film and television, but it is just the most rewarding. It really is. It is so unbelievably electric to be up on a stage and to have to work your ass off to win an audience over and to get them to follow you along on this journey. Every night is different. There’s something so magical about that. While I love film and television and wouldn’t trade them in for the world, it is a whole different experience. When you’re on a set and you have a funny line, you deliver the line and there’s silence, because they can’t ruin the take. It’s great, and you’re like “Oh wow. Okay, I guess I nailed it. Afterward, I can speak to everyone, when they call ‘cut.’” But there’s something so much more visceral about actually hearing people react to what you’re doing and saying on both ends of the spectrum, whether it’s funny or emotional and riveting.
AVC: You also have your own web series, Gigi: Almost American, premièring on MyDamnChannel.com on March 23. How did that project get started?
JG: My idol growing up was Charlie Chaplin. I was obsessed with him. I mean, while other kids were watching Jim Carrey and the likes in the ’90s, I was watching Charlie Chaplin films, because I was a bit of a geek. I became obsessed with this idea of physical comedy. I feel like Jim Carrey is probably the closest thing to a true physical comedian that we have working today. A lot of people, especially lately, have gone to much more dialogue-based comedy, which I think [Judd] Apatow does brilliantly, and [Adam] Sandler does brilliantly. But I really wanted to challenge myself to go back and do some physical-comedy-based humor, so that’s how this whole thing sprung up. And I’m fascinated by foreigners. That fish-out-of-water thing has always fascinated me, and it’s always been something that piqued my interest: “How does this person fit in…”
A couple of years ago, I did a sketch about this guy who learns English by playing a tape of a disc jockey on a radio show, and he just repeats everything. The response was huge. People were like “Oh my God, that’s such a funny character. What are you doing with it?’ and I was like “Uh, I’m not really doing anything with it.” BBC [Worldwide Productions] called me up and said they really wanted to pursue doing a more episodic show around him. We got My Damn Channel involved, and we produced 10 episodes.
AVC: It is just 10 episodes, or will it be an ongoing project?
JG: We definitely left it open-ended. To me, there is a really great story taking shape. I just saw some finished cuts, and I am so happy. It’s not only funny, but again, it’s that idea of pathos that I think Matt and Trey have taught me so well, and watching Charlie Chaplin as a kid. It’s something you see in all his work, from Gold Rush to Modern Times: If you can have heart as well as the comedy, it takes you a lot further. I think that that’s what we were trying to do with Gigi.
AVC: What’s coming up for you after Book Of Mormon has closed?
JG: I definitely have my eye on a lot of things, but at the same time, I just want to enjoy this moment, because I feel like we’re about to do something really great. My focus is also on Gigi and making sure that that’s where it needs to be before it’s released. That’s it right now. I’ve got a great animated show coming out on MTV either in the summer or the fall, created by David Gordon Green [director of Pineapple Express, All The Real Girls, and Eastbound & Down] called Good Vibes. It’s going to be really funny. It’s with Danny McBride and Adam Brody and an amazing cast. It’s about basically my character, Mondo, who moves from Jersey to California. He’s a fat kid, so perfect casting choice, who gets caught up in kind of that surf mentality of the southern California scene. It’s kind of based on David’s sensibility, and they found the most unbelievable group of young writers I’ve ever seen. Every single episode gets funnier and crazier and more ballsy than the last. MTV is bringing Beavis And Butt-head back, and we’re going to air with them. That’s all I know right now.