Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Bob Balaban tells us what he can about the new Wes Anderson and learning “Smelly Cat” on the fly

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Bob Balaban was born into the movie business: His uncles owned the Balaban And Katz Theater group in Chicago, which ran both the massive Chicago and Uptown Theaters as movie palaces, and one of them, Barney Balaban, was the president of Paramount Pictures at the time of Bob’s birth. Bob Balaban’s father, Elmer, owned theaters like the Esquire in Chicago as well, and would later become one of the early players in the cable television game.

Bob Balaban has been active in television and film since he was 20, when he first popped up on a 1965 episode of Hank, a show about a college lunch wagon operator who sits in on classes in the hopes of getting a little smarter. Balaban also appeared in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy and 1970’s Catch-22 before taking on roles both on-screen and in the writers room on shows like Maude. He’s since gone on to write movies like 2001’s Gosford Park, and direct everything from episodes of Eerie, Indiana to Nurse Jackie and Strangers With Candy. We talked to him on the set of Condor, a fascinating TV thriller adapted from the novel Six Days Of The Condor by James Grady. The show originally premiered on the Audience Network, but its second season is currently in streaming limbo, but will hopefully find a place to land later this year.

Though we’ve talked with Balaban before for a Random Roles feature, it’s been a few years, and we thought it would be fun to get some of his remembrances on camera. You can read Sam Adams’ 2012 interview with Balaban here, and check out our more recent talk below. Some highlights from the latest interview can be found in the video above.

Condor (2019-)—“Reuel Abbott”

The A.V. Club: What do you like about playing Reuel Abbott, and what can we expect from him in season two?

Bob Balaban: Well, I’m the deputy director of the CIA and a complicated character, which is cool because I would rather be complicated. I would say I’m tough. I’ve got high principles, though other people on the show would disagree with that. I operate on my deepest instincts. I’m quite religious and one side of me is sort of horrible in the sense that I could kill you. On the other hand, we’re finding out this season that my character has a soft spot and is falling in love. My wife died in the first season after a long lingering illness. It was very sad, but life returns to Reuel Abbott a bit. I haven’t read the last two episodes, but I’m either about to undergo a giant character shift, which is really fun, or I’m going to go back to being just who I was at the end of the series. I don’t know.

The French Dispatch (2020)

BB: [Wistfully] Oh, The French Dispatch. Wes Anderson is one of my most favorite people, directors, and all-around guys. It was a wonderful time. I’m not sure what I can say. It’s tricky. I can say we did it in France. I can say everybody that I know who’s ever been in a Wes Anderson movie is in this movie. It’s a cast of 3,000 people.

It was in the beautiful city of Angoulême, which none of us had ever heard of. It’s the comic book capital of the world. And you wouldn’t notice it. It’s a medieval city and windy, twisty. We found a Michelin star restaurant. It was just a dream to be there. And it is so much fun to reunite with your friends from the old Wes movies. It just gets more and more fun, and then you meet a new friend.

AVC: What draws you back to working with Wes?

BB: I could put it another way. What wouldn’t draw me back to working with Wes?

AVC: Well, let me put it this way: Why do you think he likes working with the same people over and over again?

BB: I think it’s a comfort level, and he works in a very specific style or way, which anybody could adapt to. But I think it’s more that it’s just easier for him not to meet new people. And yet every movie there is somebody new in an important part that you didn’t meet before on his movies. It’s wonderful. It’s kind of like Chris Guest movies. You, the actor, get a level of comfort. The director gets a level of knowing he can talk to you this way or she can talk to you this way. You know, whatever little thing that you want to do it. It’s like working with the same DP over and over and over again. Wes has used the same brilliant DP, I think, for all of his 13 movies except one, when the DP was in jail. No, he wasn’t in jail. I’m kidding. He just couldn’t get out of something. He has the same production designer [Adam Stockhausen] every movie. Milena Canonero is always the costume designer. It’s great for a director who directs so often and with such rich visuals to have people in all departments to work with that he knows innately well. It’s just easier.

Mascots (2016)—“Sol Lumpkin”

AVC: How is a Christopher Guest set different from others? Is it easier to slip back into working with everyone than it might be on a new project?

BB: It’s different. It’s just like how Wes has his own particular set. Chris’ is magically different. I’ll give you a few ideas. One is you’re never told anything. You get an outline of what’s happening in the movie, and it might say, “This is the scene where blah-blah-blah talks about going into the play,” but it doesn’t say, “He talks about this, then he talks about this.” There’s no rehearsal. You don’t discuss it much. If you’re a pair of characters, like if you’re Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara in Waiting For Guffman, he sends you home and says, “Your character is going to have to come back and perform an audition.” That’s it. They got to choose what they were doing. We never saw it before we sat down. There’s no rehearsal. Chris will say, “The frame starts on the left over here where the door is, and the frame ends over there. Go where you want. Shoot. Go.”

The freedom, the excitement, the energy—that’s the difference. It’s not like anything you ever did, and Chris has an absolute desire to have you do whatever it is that’s truthful. You don’t have to be funny. If you’re funny, that’s fine, but there’s no pushing anything. It’s a delightful experience, and we all have become pretty good friends.

Pie In The Sky (1995)—“Paul Entamen”
Alpha House (2013-2014)—Director, three episodes
The Monuments Men (2014)—“Preston Savitz”

AVC: Speaking of friends, you’ve appeared with or directed John Goodman several times. What’s it like to work with him?

BB: Well, every great actor is their own type of great actor. John Goodman to me is up there in the pantheon. His ability to be present, to be different characters, to sit there looking like nothing’s on his mind and he’s just sort of humming, and then suddenly they go “Action!” and this light and beacon of truth goes on... It’s just a joy to be with him. He focuses more than any actor I’ve ever watched focusing, with brilliant results. Every time I’ve watched him say anything, whether I was directing him, which I did a few times in Alpha House or—I’ve been in two movies with him, actually. One was a long time ago—my friend Brian Gordon directed it. It was about an air traffic controller, I believe. But it’s always been exactly the same. You don’t think he’s going to do anything, and then they go “Action,” and this acting machine goes into effect that’s relaxed, that’s focused, and that can do anything. It’s a joy.

Oz (1998)—director, “Great Men”

AVC: You’ve directed a number of projects. When you get a call asking if you’d like to direct something, what makes you want to do it?

BB: I like to work. I mean, I don’t get asked that much because I’m not particularly known as a director, but I’m attracted to talent and to cast, too. Obviously also the script or the subject matter and who the people are. I’ve been asked by some pretty amazing people to do a job where they say, “We can’t show you the script, and we don’t even know what you’re doing. Would you like to be in it?” And the answer is yes, of course. In the long run I think you choose a director or a major cast member that you’ve been dying to work with, who you feel comfortable with, or that you respect a lot.

AVC: Would you want to direct an episode of Condor?

BB: Sure, though I don’t know if I’m qualified. I’d love to direct Condor. When you direct episodic—which I’ve probably done 20 hours, I haven’t done four million, and I haven’t done one for a couple of years—but they sit you down and have a tone meeting. You have to watch the show. For instance, I did the one that Barry Levinson produced with everybody in jail. What was that called, where they’re in jail and they were always killing each other and having sex with each other and it was wild and crazy?

AVC: Oz?

BB: Oz. Yeah. I had to watch the first season of Oz, ’cause I had never seen it before, and it’s like, “Oh, my god, you’re going to do this on television?” I was so excited to do it. They’re so adventurous, but you have to watch them all to get the grammar of the show.

When they say tone, they don’t really mean tone. They mean understanding the vocabulary of the whole thing. Some shows you don’t move the camera much. In Oz’s case, there were lots and lots of times when the camera followed people and then started following other people and then gradually honed [sic] in on the character. You’ve got to get familiar with all of them because they don’t use all the tropes in every episode and in every scene. But you’ve got to know the geography of the thing well enough so that you have easy access to how to make a show that looks like the show, but is your own show. It’s fun. And then they tell you things like “This actor, we don’t like when he rehearses. He gets worse on the second take,” or “Don’t listen to what they say. This one actor likes to talk too much, so don’t listen to them.” And then other people are like, “Anything you want,” and don’t tell you anything.

The Twilight Zone (2002-2003)—Director, “The Pharoah’s Curse” and “Future Trade”

BB: In those anthology things, it’s a kind of a new world. You can do anything basically. And I really did. I don’t remember my episodes too well, but there was one episode that I happened to see recently. We were doing things fast, cheap, and on the fly, and sometimes [that] makes you follow your better instincts. You know, I’m not always a huge fan of what I do. I’m mostly just glad I did it and tried my best. But there was one of [the episodes] I thought, “Oh, that was pretty good. I made some good choices. I had fun.”

Friends (1999)—“Frank Buffay Sr.”

AVC: A lot of younger people have come to Friends rather recently, which is such an odd phenomenon. Can you talk about what it was like when you were on that show?

BB: Well, I guess that’s because of the world of repeat and repeat and a thousand devices, so we can get everything. I won’t digress on it too much, but it’s like old movies. If you’ve been in a hundred movies and half of them are disposable, millions of people out there watch your stupidest movie that you did when you were 10 years old. It just never disappears, and it didn’t used to be that way. They had the Friday night movie on television, and you could see two movies a week. So it is a different world.

I love Lisa Kudrow. I’ve worked with her many times after that and always loved her before. I think she’s pretty much a genius, but I say that too many times. I suppose I shouldn’t say that, but she is. I loved the cast. I didn’t like my wig and then it was fine, you know. It’s nice when you don’t have hair to have any hair at all in a show. And it was amazing. I think I was in the fourth season, maybe. I can’t remember if it was well-oiled, because when I was on Seinfeld , I was in the first season of Seinfeld, but towards the end, and then I came back for a couple of episodes.

By the time I was on Friends, it was a huge deal, but I hadn’t watched the show very much. The script said, “And now he’s singing, ‘Smelly Cat.’” I said, “Excuse me, what does that mean? What’s this?” I had to memorize “Smelly Cat,” of which I think all of America knew all 20 verses and the melody. But I had to learn it and sing it to wonderful Lisa. They were a great bunch of people, and we don’t think about it that way, but these are ensembles. They don’t necessarily have to adore each other, but they have to work with each other quickly and with shorthand so they can get through the long hours and the sometimes no rehearsal or whatever with new scenes. And I thought Friends was a particularly wonderful ensemble.

Maude (1976)—“Ambrose Riley”

AVC: I have to imagine that’s especially true when you’re taping in front of a studio audience. You can’t do 100 takes.

BB: They do stop and start a lot, at least in my career of occasionally doing three-camera television shows. The first three-camera show I was on was Maude. I did a Maude episode, and then I wrote the stories for two more episodes and started trying to bifurcate my career a little bit by diversifying on Maude. It was like a play. We did two tapings: one afternoon, one evening. I don’t think we stopped or did anything. There were pickups maybe at the end for a closeup or something. But basically, the curtain’s up, the curtain’s down, and watching those other people work was... I mean, that’s part of the fun of being an actor, constantly having a new palette of a new world to be in with new actors, new everything in a new story.

But on Seinfeld we didn’t stop and start as much. That’s what I noticed. And on Friends, they were much more careful with line readings, and “Let’s re-block this a little bit.” It all comes out to be the same, and the audience [at home] gets the impression it’s all completely spontaneous. But I’m always amazed at technical skills when I see other actors that are impressive.

Broad City (2015-2019)—“Arthur Wexler” 

BB: I love being Ilana’s dad, and I love having Susie Essman be my wife. [Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson] are two women who, as we all know, started on YouTube and graduated full-blown into this wonderful world that they created by not changing, not upgrading, not getting better haircuts, and using the same grubby sets and horrible clothing.

I’m only on the show, I think, once a year when Susie and I are on. She may have been on it more. To work with them is really great. There are seriously good actors, as all really funny people tend to have to be. A lot of serious actors can’t be funny, but if you’re a funny actor, you’re probably pretty good at being serious.

I think Ilana just finished doing a feature actually. I can’t wait to see it because I think their futures are pretty unlimited together and/or separate, and I’m dying to work with them again. You know, I have a lot of things I like. I mean, if you asked me, “When did you have a horrible experience?” I probably wouldn’t tell you, and I don’t really have many of them. But I’ve had an awful lot of nice ones.