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It's hard to believe that the baby-faced star of WarGames and Ferris Bueller's Day Off has been acting for 25 years now, but Matthew Broderick has grown into a durable, sought-after character actor on stage and screen, and in productions of all sizes. After establishing himself in the Neil Simon plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues (he reprised his role in the movie version of the latter), Broderick parlayed his early film successes into a career by dodging the pitfalls of young stardom. Rather than following through on the preening confidence of Ferris Bueller, Broderick has mostly succeeded in going in the other direction, specializing in put-upon schlubs and straight men in comedies like The Freshman, The Cable Guy, Election, You Can Count On Me, and the stage smash (and film less-than-smash) The Producers. He's been able to slip nimbly into roles on Broadway and off-Broadway theater, in Hollywood and independent film, and even on television, most recently in a hilarious turn as a government bureaucrat on NBC's 30 Rock. He also frequently lends his voice to animated films, including The Lion King, Bee Movie, and the forthcoming The Tale Of Despereaux.
In the new film Finding Amanda, written and directed by Rescue Me creator Peter Tolan, Broderick stars as a TV scriptwriter and gambling addict who heads to Las Vegas in a bid to rescue his niece (Brittany Snow) from prostitution and convince her to enter a rehab facility. Needless to say, the city presents a serious bump to his own road to recovery. Broderick recently spoke to The A.V. Club about about Tolan's gambling problem, finding his roles on the page, playing a series of schlubs, and the two reasons he doesn't actively seek out indie roles.
The A.V. Club: What led you to get involved in Finding Amanda? Were you a fan of Rescue Me?
Matthew Broderick: Yes, I was. And a fan of Peter Tolan, who I had all these meetings with for another thing. We always kind of stayed in touch, and then I read the script and thought it was a really good story and a good part. I guess this really kind of happened to him, so I thought that was interesting.
AVC: He had these sorts of addictions?
MB: He has a big gambling problem. He says it's not controlled by him, but by his wife. He can't use a credit card. He has no checkbook. She hands him some cash so that he can eat.
AVC: Did he talk about when he hit bottom, and all the checkbooks and credit cards went away?
MB: He wasn't too specific about that, except that he said, "All this happened." He did say he used to take checks out of the middle of the checkbook so she wouldn't see them. But he never got beat up by a pimp or anything, like I do in the movie.
AVC: And anything involving a niece who was a prostitute was made up, too?
MB: It wasn't a niece; it was a family friend, apparently. His wife got a call, and they said their daughter was having this trouble, and since Peter knew Las Vegas, they asked him if he could go and get her to go to rehab or whatever it was. Peter told me, "When I heard that, I had this instant thought like 'Of course, that means I can go to Las Vegas.'" He thought that was so strange that that was his reaction, and then it gave him the idea for the movie, and he wrote it like two weeks later.
AVC: Did this role require much research, or did you feel like you understood the character enough to do without it?
MB: I basically tried to just take it off the page. I guess some people would go to Las Vegas or meet up with gamblers, but I've never really done that kind of thing. Particularly since this is Peter being autobiographical, I have to assume he knows the language and what these rooms are like. So I took it from him. I took it from the script.
AVC: Is that how you work in general? You're not the sort of person to follow a cop around for a month, or something like that?
MB: No, but I admire that. I haven't quite had roles where that would help. I mean, I'm not sure what I would do for this one. When I did Glory, I did some research. I couldn't follow anybody around, obviously, but I did get to read a lot about the Civil War, and I got to hang around with these re-enactors, which is weird. That's the kind of a role where I needed to immerse myself in the time, at any rate. So I like reading about stuff, but to sit around with stockbrokers because I was going to play a stockbroker or something, I don't know, I would feel awkward. I would hope that the writer did that.
AVC: So what tends to be your process in the time leading up to playing a role?
MB: Well, I will read the script a lot and think about it. Then I think about scenes that don't make sense to me, and why, and if I have a problem with something, that's a good clue, because if I can figure out what my problem is, I can maybe figure out what I'm missing. Or I might have a problem with it, and I'll ask questions. I'll ask the writer, the director, I'll show it to friends, but I'll mostly think about it like I'm going to be part of a story, and how best to tell the story in an entertaining way. That's really what it is. If I have to learn to do anything special, like ride a horse or learn an accent, I'll do that. Other than that, I just take it from the material.
AVC: Take your character from Finding Amanda: As the film opens, you cycle through various addictions and settle on gambling. Even though it's never made explicit in the film, did you ever think about what the roots of his addiction might be? Do you think about or invent a character's history when you're preparing?
MB: I don't. I know I should. A lot of it, I think, can just be unconscious. Like if you connect to it and it makes you laugh, or you feel like you understand it, then I feel like you don't mess with it. I just think I kind of get it, and I don't know why. But the gambling addiction is pretty foreign to me. I'm not a gambler at all, and so I just sort of watched Peter. Since I did do research by accident, since I got to know Peter, I did follow him around, in a way, and I asked him a million questions about horses, and he took me to the track.
AVC: For him, was there much method to what he was doing? In the film, it seems as though there isn't a lot of technique in the gambling, that it's just absolutely reckless. Was Peter a more refined gambler?
MB: He's very refined, and I had some more refined scenes, but he cut them out. I had a scene where I had an extremely complicated horse bet, and he cut it out, and I said "Why?" and he said, "Because we know you're gambling, we don't need to see you do it. It just slowed it up." But I made some bets in that movie that were so complicated, I literally did not know what I was talking about.
AVC: Exactas and superfectas and whatnot? It seems like you can bet on just about anything at the track.
MB: Yeah, he loves all the detail. A friend of mine said, "When you win a bet, you think you've finally figured something out." There's this feeling of "I get it. I get the world for a minute, you know?" Like you outsmarted the world, finally. [Laughs.] But then if you're Peter, you keep at it until you lose every penny. Which is what Peter does. He always loses money, ultimately. He'll get ahead for a while, but eventually, he will overdo it. Peter lost $9,000 when we shot at the track, apparently, he just told me. So he can't even touch the stuff, you know?
AVC: Finding Amanda, the forthcoming Diminished Capacity, and Then She Found Me are all being released within a few months of each other. Is this just a coincidence, or are you more inclined to perform in independent work these days?
MB: It's a coincidence that they came out together, because they weren't shot together. I didn't mean to suddenly do a bunch of independent movies, but I did. I had done The Odd Couple on Broadway, and I had a real desire, which is rare for me, to do some film. I had done The Producers for a really long time, and the movie The Producers, which was even sort of like a play, and I started wanting to do something a little quieter, I guess, for lack of a better word. So I suddenly saw myself with some independent movie offers, and ones that I liked. Helen Hunt's movie [Then She Found Me], I thought was very good, and she's a dear friend of mine, so that seemed like a good thing to do. This one, like I said, I just really like Peter.
I'd be happy if they were big, high-budget films too. It's not that I thought "Oh, I want to do something where it's very rushed, and I don't get paid very much." [Laughs.] But on the other hand, independent movies are nice in a way, because people tend to be there because they want to, and not because they want to make a paycheck. So they sometimes have a nice spirit. Like, the crew tends to be nice, and people are more forgiving of mistakes. The bad thing is, you don't have very much time, which can also be a good thing, too. What you hope for, I think, in this level of movie-making, is to have some happy accidents, where your lack of time made you do something clever in the shooting of it, or in the writing. You just have to work faster, and as an actor, you have to be a little looser about it, which isn't bad, just different.
AVC: Could things go the other way, though? If you're working on something with a big budget, does it help to sit around too much?
MB: No, that can be disastrous. I've been in those, too. Where there's plenty of money to redo things endlessly, rewrite, and get more writers, fire people, try it a different way, and sometimes things just seem to get worse and worse. So I have been in movies where they probably would have been much better off with less time.
AVC: You've worked with many different directors on film, onstage, and on television. How do you like a director to talk to you and take you through a performance? What are some of the mistakes a director can make in that area?
MB: The directors I've liked are not all necessarily the same. Generally speaking, I feel that if I've been cast, if the director wants me to do it, I should mostly be allowed to do it, to tell you the truth. Which is not to say that I don't want somebody to tell me if I'm misunderstanding something, or if they think they can make me better, that's great. And sometimes they can. But I don't like a whole lot of micromanaging. And I honestly don't like a tremendous amount of talk, either. I would rather just work, and have a director say, "Oh, this seems like it's working. Let's not talk about it." [Laughs.]
AVC: So just the act of casting you is where it should end?
MB: [Laughs.] Well, that sounds uncollaborative of me, and I don't think I'm that bad. I hope I'm not. You know, it's a little bit like if you're at a dinner party and you're telling a story or a joke. You know, you just want people to think you're funny and encourage you and laugh at you and understand you. So I kind of want the same from a director. When you try and tell a funny thing that happened to you to people who don't want to hear it, or don't like the way you tell it, you're screwed.
AVC: You've talked about not being a terribly Method-y actor. You're one of only a handful of modern actors I could see being just as comfortable in vintage television comedies or old Hollywood musicals.
MB: Yes, I agree with that. When I was 19, I did Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is Neil Simon and took place in 1936, and I had no trouble. I'm very happy in the '30s. [Laughs.] And I'm very happy with Neil Simon's period of comedy, or Mel Brooks. I always liked watching old movies, even when I was a kid. Hopefully I can do modern things, too, but if anything, I'm less comfortable when something gets very modern. I think, "What's happening here? Why is this funny?" [Laughs.] I must have some weird old-fashioned bone in me.
AVC: Ferris Bueller is considered to be your signature role, but you've very rarely played characters since who are as self-assured and confident. Why do you think that is? Why was that role such a success and such an anomaly at the same time?
MB: I don't know. At the time, smartly or stupidly, I wanted to make sure that I could do other things, because [Ferris Bueller] was so successful that it worried me. I'm half-Jewish, you know, so I tend to do a lot of worrying. [Laughs.] I thought I was never going to be able to do anything else, and that something bad would happen. So I figured, "I've got to do something different," and I deliberately avoided those kinds of roles for a while. But then I seemed to get into a period of characters that were more wishy-washy, or schlubby. And on a certain level, I never understood it, because it seemed to me I did pretty well as a wisecracker. The Neil Simon parts were like that, too—a person who always had the right answer to everything, which is more like Ferris Bueller. I don't know why that was such an anomaly, because I thought I was pretty comfortable in that role.
AVC: Was your casting in Election in some way a comment on that earlier role? That it was the Ferris character gone to seed, in a way?
MB: It might have been taken in that way, but it certainly never occurred to me at the time. With Jim McAllister even in his youth, I doubt he was the class clown, or somebody people wanted to follow around. I always thought of him as more of a quiet, seemingly decent person. But I know some people saw it that way. When we screened Finding Amanda to an audience, somebody said, "Oh, it's Ferris Bueller years later, gone wrong." And I think you could look at this that way. This is a TV writer who is a smart-ass, and in a way, it could have been Ferris.
AVC: What keeps you coming back to the stage? When you perform something like The Producers every night and in matinees, what keeps it fresh and gratifying to you?
MB: Well that's the $60,000 question, isn't it? Or as Jackie Gleason called it, "The $99,000 answer." [Laughs.] It's very nice to be in something for a long time, because you hit a level of ease and in-your-bonesness that's very nice. I could almost go through The Producers and never have to think about it, in a good way. It could totally be unconscious. [Laughs.] On the other hand, my feeling is that about after six months, you start declining. For most parts, I think six months is probably a good amount of time. Less than that feels almost like you would want a little more. But beyond that, you start eating your own tail a little.
AVC: How much does audience reaction play into it? Does it help to hear that assurance while you're performing?
MB: Oh, absolutely. But that's the thing—when it starts to be too much, it becomes a game about, "How do I get this laugh?" Or, "If I lose this laugh, then why?" While that's important and interesting, it's not the most important thing. It becomes truly like a daily contest between me and the audience. [Laughs.] Like, "I'm gonna get that fucking laugh back that I lost." At practices, you say, "You know how you used to take a little pause before the thing " and then you try that, and that doesn't work. And that can get tiresome. With something like The Producers, the audience was so incredibly nice, and Nathan [Lane] was such a fun, exciting performer to play with. It was like having a Maserati to drive around in, although it was more like he was driving me. It was just very nice to come to work with him. The whole cast, really. It was just one of those very special periods that you get.
AVC: What can you say about the new Kenneth Lonergan film Margaret? [Lonergan also wrote and directed 2000's You Can Count On Me, which featured Broderick in a supporting role.]
MB: Well, it's wonderful, I can say that. I've seen it. But it's still being worked on, so I very much want it to come out and be done. Kenny is my dearest friend, and I want him to do more with me. It's a wonderful movie, and I'm looking very forward to it being done.
AVC: Why did he take so long to direct again after the acclaim that greeted You Can Count On Me?
MB: He had to write something that he wanted to do. That took a while. Then the movie is complicated, and it took a really long time to edit, to try and get it to the length he wanted, and that other people wanted. It was just a very ambitious, complicated movie, which I honestly think is wonderful, so I don't mean that in a troubled way. It's just like an enormously big meal.