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.
James Urbaniak is upfront about the role he so often plays: some variant on the weird, nebbishy guy whose intensity can be a little overwhelming. From his early film days in the Hal Hartley ensemble to his recent work as an ingratiating polygrapher on Homeland, he’s always had an unblinking focus that makes him memorable. These days, he may be best known as the voice of Dr. Venture, the weedy, tense, mad-scientist lead of the perpetually expanding, always hilarious animated series The Venture Bros. To celebrate the show’s return, Urbaniak sat down with The A.V. Club to muse over his résumé, with its litany of “bespectacled creeps and weirdos.”
The Venture Bros. (2003-present)—“Dr. Venture / Phantom Limb / various characters”
James Urbaniak: I can tell you how it happened: For a couple years in New York, gosh, almost 20 years ago, I was roommates of a cartoonist named Bob Sikoryak, who is a fairly known guy in the alternative-comics world. And through being Bob’s roommate, I met a bunch of cartoon and animation people through the years. So Chris McCulloch, a.k.a. Jackson Publick, the creator of the show, knew me from around.
The A.V. Club: And you met him because you were doing voices for his live-cartoon event, where he’d project comic strips on a wall and have people read the dialogue?
JU: Yes, indeed. So that was my [Laughs.] proto-animation voice work. After one of those shows, Chris McCulloch, Jackson Publick, whatever his name is, had a little folder, and it was sketches and the treatment for the Venture Bros. pilot. He said, “Hey, I’m going to make this pilot for Adult Swim, and I’d love you to be this character.” And I thought, “Well, that sounds fun. Awesome.” We made the pilot, then lo and behold, they picked it up as a show, and the fifth season will be starting shortly. We finished that a few months ago.
AVC: Were you doing anything in the live comic-strip readings that approximated Dr. Venture, that made you seem right for the character?
JU: I just think my usual kinetic neuroticism that I give to other characters. [Laughs.] The character is cast to type. I do tend to play a lot of bespectacled creeps and weirdos. So Chris was definitely thinking in that tradition of, “This is James Urbaniak’s wheelhouse: a skinny guy with glasses who’s an asshole.” [Laughs.] I’m a pussycat in real life, Tasha, but you know. You go where the money is.
AVC: How do you feel when somebody calls you up for Sex And The City or American Splendor and says, “We have a bespectacled-creep role, so we thought of you”?
JU: [Laughs.] Those characters are usually pretty fun. Though it’s funny—I assume we’ll talk about Henry Fool. That was the first big thing that got me attention in terms of doing film and stuff, and that was a very internal character. I’ve played a lot of guys with an inward energy, when in fact I’m a chatty extrovert in real life. It’s pretty different. Although you definitely wouldn’t say that Dr. Venture is an introvert. He’s definitely an extrovert, just an annoying one. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the character-development process like for The Venture Bros.?
JU: I went in the day of the pilot, a decade ago, and thought, “Okay! Dr. Venture! So I’m going to do a old-professor voice!” I started doing a thing that I think was influenced by Billy West, this bilious, rubber-voiced character, Larry Fine-esque. [Does Professor Farnsworth from Futurama.] You know, he does this—there’s a cartoony, rubbery quality to the voice. [Normal voice.] So I was doing that, and Chris said, “Eh, you can pull back on that a little bit.” Then I did a little less, and Chris went, “Yeah, even less.” [Laughs.] Every time I said a line, Chris would remove more of that thing, until basically it was just my voice. Then he was like, “Perfect!” [Laughs.] Now and then, I’ll hear myself interviewed and go, “Shit, I really do sound like Dr. Venture.” But Dr. Venture is much more stressed-out than I am. I think my vocals in real life are much more relaxed.
AVC: He spends a good deal of his time almost squalling, with this falsetto-like quality of hysteria. Is that hard on your vocal chords?
JU: In every episode, he’s usually falling, or gets hurt at some point. That’s frequent. Or he’s running away from something frightening. So at the end of the session, we’ll do the screaming. It’s been years, and I always say to Jackson, “Don’t you just have a bunch of stock audio of me screaming and yelling?” But no, it’s always got to be a new yelp.
AVC: How do you feel about the way the character has developed throughout the course of the series? Or not developed, in some ways.
JU: In a way he hasn’t, but he also has. As the series has gone on, there’s been more emotional depth and nuance to the characters, which I like a lot. That’s Chris and Doc [Hammer]. There really is a two-man operation. They write almost every episode. But yeah, the universe has become so dense in that show. I can’t even keep up with it. There have been more glimpses of Doc Venture’s humanity, and these glimpses aren’t necessarily exculpatory. [Laughs.] But they give you a clearer sense of why he is the way he is. So that’s fun.
AVC: What can you say about what happens with him in the upcoming season?
JU: Well, I’ll say two things: One, the boys have a very firm policy about not giving away any spoilers. And the other thing is, by the time the show airs, I’ve forgotten everything that’s happened in the season. I started recording all this stuff, like, a year ago. And my process is, I get the script, I usually read it the day before the recording session, I go in and record my part, by myself, incrementally. Time passes, and by the time the season airs, I’m like a new viewer. The other day, I saw this little promo reel that Adult Swim posted that’s just little clips from the upcoming season, and I couldn’t tell you what was going on in any of those. I was like, “Oh, I don’t remember that. What is that?” [Laughs.]
AVC: Given the show’s rabid fan base, you probably have people coming up to you all the time saying, “Oh, it was so cool what you did in season two, episode three.” What do you say to them?
JU: I’ll either remember it, or I’ll just nod. [Laughs.] I do remember aspects of the show. It’s not all a blur. But I would totally fail the Venture Bros. trivia test, I assure you. It would be embarrassing.
AVC: You’ve voiced a lot of little random characters. You’ve said in other interviews that you really enjoy “Guard #2”-type roles—
JU: Oh yeah. I haven’t done so much in the last couple years. I always used to enjoy just “Cop.” [Laughs.] “Guy On Street.” Though the boys always gave me crap because all my voices sounded the same. Which I don’t think is true. They’d go, “The cop sounds too much like Dr. Venture.” [Laughs.] [Venture-type voice.] “He went thataway!”
“NYC 3/94” and “Opera No. 1” (1994)—“James”
AVC: Your first IMDB credits are a couple of shorts directed by Hal Hartley. Did you know him beforehand?
JU: Yeah, I met Hal probably circa 1992. I was a fan of his—I think the first film of his I saw was his second feature, Trust, starring the late, great Adrienne Shelly. Then I remember renting The Unbelievable Truth, his first feature, and then just loving his stuff. My background is, I started out doing downtown New York theater, and there was a great company back then called Cucaracha Theater, they had a big loft on Greenwich Street. They did original work, and Hal Hartley used to come to their shows, and many of his early actors were people he saw at that company. Martin Donovan, his leading man in the early days, was a founding member of Cucaracha Theater. So I started doing some stuff with Cucaracha, and it was a very social scene back then. We used to do those late-night comedy serial shows, and then we’d all hang out afterward; we’d usually go to someone’s apartment and have a party or something like that. Hal was always around, and Hal liked to socialize and hang out. So I got to know him socially in the early ’90s from hanging out for a couple years. Around the time when I started to get to know him is when Amateur was coming out. I think he might have been shooting it when I first met him.
When that came out, I knew everyone in the movie, and I was so jealous. I thought, “I should be in one of these films! I can do that!” [Laughs.] “I can be compellingly deadpan!” And he called me up one day, after I’d known him for a couple years, and said, “Hey, I’m making a short.” Comedy Central, in its old, mid-’90s form, asked various directors to do shorts with a musical quality—little musical-comedy shorts, just a concept thing. So Hal made this short, and it was me, Adrienne Shelly, Parker Posey, and an actress who was a friend of mine from downtown named Patricia Dunnock. “Opera No. 1.” You can find it on the Internet, it’s on some Japanese website. [Laughs.] But Hal writes music, so it’s just a humorous operetta where I’m a proto Simon Grim—I’m a bespectacled, internal weirdo—and Adrienne and Parker are two sprites, two magical angel chicks on roller skates who cast a spell on me to make me fall in love with this girl, played by Patricia. And in Shakespearean fashion, I fall in love with Adrienne because I see her first or something.
That was my first film ever. We shot that in, gosh, probably early ’94, and up until that time, I had been doing theater in New York. I had my own company. Very much a part of the Off-Off-Broadway world and quite happy doing that. I think I was about 30 when I made that film, and I think that was the first time I had done any movie. It was quite an introduction to do a thing with Parker and Adrienne. That was quite a day when I walked in and met the young Parker Posey 20 years ago. [Laughs.]
Henry Fool (1997)—“Simon Grim”
JU: And then one day, around, I don’t know, ’95, ’96, he called me and said, “Well, I have a script for a new feature, and there’s a part for you.” I knew people in Amateur, so I thought, “It’ll be like those friends of mine in that other movie. I’ll be, like, the funny waiter. The clerk in the bookstore. I’ll have one funny, Hal Hartley-esque scene.” I was very excited. I went up to meet him at the White Horse Cafe in Greenwich Village, and he sat down and said, “Well, there are three main characters in this feature, and I’d like you to be one of them.” And my head exploded. He gave me a hard copy of the script and I said, “Wow, I’d love to do it.” And he said, “Well, read the script.” [Laughs.] And I thought to myself, “Trust me. It’s not like I’m going to read the script and go, ‘Oh no, forget it. I’m not going to play the lead in a Hal Hartley movie.’” And it was an astonishing script. I’d seen all his films up until then, and it really had a different tone and texture and scope than his other films had. It was very exciting; it had this novelistic quality, where his other films took place in these very contained environments. It was thrilling.
He offered it to me that day, and then it took him, like, a year and a half to raise the money to make it. It was a very low-budget movie. It cost, like, a million and change, which is still really cheap, even in 1997. But still, some of his money people didn’t quite get the script, and it took him a while, so it kept getting pushed back. Every few months, I’d hear from him. I’d also keep getting new drafts of the script in the mail. At one point, Simon Grim had a girlfriend; then he didn’t. [Laughs.] And finally, we started shooting in the spring of ’97. Then suddenly I was starring in a movie, albeit a low-budget, arthouse movie, so that accelerated my getting an agent and auditioning for things. Then, in short order, I was auditioning and working with Woody Allen and meeting Robert Altman, who I never got to work with, but got to talk to.
AVC: What was that year and a half like for you?
JU: I don’t really remember. I really spent my 20s quite happily ensconced in the Off-Off-Broadway world, working with my company and other companies, and I always had a vague feeling when I was in my 20s, “Eh, when I’m in my 30s, I’ll start to actually make a living at this.” I worked a day job in New York for 10 years, doing theater at night. It pretty much happened on schedule. I was 33 when we made Henry Fool. My character was supposed to be a little younger, but I looked fairly young. [Laughs.]
AVC: What day jobs were you working at the time?
JU: I temped at offices. If this doesn’t work out, I’m still an excellent word processor, though I’m a little behind the times. I was an excellent typist and proofreader, and was often asked to go on full-time, which I occasionally did. But full-time—you get benefits, but you get paid less, and I needed flexibility, because I was still running a theater company and doing a million things. My last couple years as a temp, I worked for a great small law firm where my boss’ attitude was, “Look, I just need this stuff on my desk in the morning. If you want to take a three-hour lunch and work until 10 p.m., I just need this by tomorrow.” It was extremely flexible, and that was my ace in the hole for a couple years. [Laughs.] Lots of typing on typewriters, which they don’t do anymore!
AVC: By the time Henry Fool happened, between the short films and your stage career, did you feel equipped for it as an actor?
JU: That’s a good question. I was really happy with myself in Henry Fool. I had done two feature-length films before that. The first was Aphrodisiac, which is an obscure film because it never had any release, and it was beyond micro-budget. The crew was, like, the director and a boom guy. It was a feature-length film and a funny little movie, but nothing happened to it. Then after that, I did a cult film called The Sticky Fingers Of Time, directed by Hilary Brougher, which I did because a friend of mine auditioned for it, and she recommended that I audition for it; she felt it was a good part for me. That was also a very low-budget, ’90s, New York independent film. It’s a modern time-travel story. Very well done.
So I had done those two films and Hal’s shorts, but I was still relatively inexperienced in terms of film acting. I remember the difficult thing for me—it’s funny, because I was saying Simon Grim has such an internal pressure, and Henry Fool, his mentor in the film, was a real extrovert, very wordy and verbose. And I remember being jealous of Tom Ryan, because he got to play the verbose guy, and I liked talking onstage. [Laughs.] I always thought I was very good with words and big speeches, and I was more of an extroverted person. I think that was actually very good for me, because there was a pressure, a dynamic between my desire to actually be the one who’s doing all these purple speeches and throwing his energy out, and having to be the guy who barely speaks and is inarticulate. In a sense, it’s funny, because I’m typecast as that guy—I was for years. But I was actually cast against type. [Laughs.] I often played very energetic and gabby characters onstage. I did a lot of classical theater and stuff. I liked dialogue. I like talking. [Laughs.] I consider myself a fairly verbal performer.
AVC: As a director, how much input did Hal Hartley want from the cast?
JU: He loves actors. He’s very open to talking and to ideas. As anyone who’s seen his films knows, he has a very rigorous approach. Characters speak and move in a very specific way in his movies. I came from the downtown theater where I was used to being in loopy plays where the director would say, “Put a pineapple on your head and spin around three times.” [Laughs.] I was very used to acting in a grid, which can be freeing. If there are strict rules in a performance, it can create a dynamic that allows you to breathe and behave in a way I always enjoy, if I trust the person who is creating those rules, which I certainly did with Hal. The old thing of the constraint can actually be freeing in a way. I found his constraints freeing and exciting.
AVC: You’ve been in so many Hal Hartley projects—do you have a favorite movie of his, or role of yours in a movie of his?
JU: It would have to be Henry Fool, because that was just such a seminal experience on so many levels for me. I’m very proud of that movie, and I love that movie, just as a movie. I don’t think it’s because I’m in it. [Laughs.] I think if I wasn’t in it, I would still think it was remarkable.
Actually, he considered Michael Imperioli for that role. That’s the great what-if. If Michael Imperioli had become Simon Grim, and presumably Dr. Venture, and I would have been Christopher on The Sopranos. Pop culture would have been very different. [Laughs.] It actually makes sense, if you think about it. Michael Imperioli has a haunted quality. And he was in Hal’s circle of people for a while before he was famous. I just love that alternative version where Christopher is playing Simon Grim. [Laughs.]
Fay Grim (2006)—“Simon Grim”
AVC: What was it like coming back to that role 10 years later for Fay Grim?
JU: That was pretty fascinating. Time had passed. Faces had filled out slightly. [Laughs.] The old costume had to be taken out an inch or two. It’s all that prison food Simon was on. It was fattening. I remember one moment where we rehearsed a little bit; it was like getting the old gang back together for one last caper. Tom Parker was there. I remember just crossing in rehearsal and moving to the other side of the room while we were rehearsing, not even thinking about Simon Grim, and I suddenly realized I was walking like Simon Grim, like I just had this slightly hunched pressure to me. [Laughs.] I remember saying, “Holy shit, I’m doing it! My body is remembering this character!” [Laughs.] It was like getting back on the Simon Grim bicycle. That was pretty great. That was such a deep experience for all of us. And Hal conceives of that as a trilogy—I know he does want to make a third one. We’ll see what happens with that. That’s his Lord Of The Rings. [Laughs.]
Sex And The City (1999)—“Buster”
JU: That was season two, so the show had only been on a year. It was popular, but it certainly wasn’t the huge cultural thing it has become. That was one of my early post-Henry Fool gigs. I remember I didn’t have cable at the time. I got cable so I could see that episode. [Laughs.] Once I was in a bar and a frat-boy type, a big strapping bro, said, “Are you an actor?” “Yes.” “What’d you do?” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know, this and that,” and I mentioned things that maybe he’d seen, and he doesn’t know them. Then I say, “Sex And The City? Foot fetish?” And he goes, “Oh yeah!” [Laughs.] Then like the moment in Annie Hall where the guy is screaming at people, “Alvy Singer, right here,” the guy yelled to his friends, “This guy is the foot guy in Sex And The City!” and his friends just looked at him blankly. That was a great moment. [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s it like watching yourself simulate an orgasm onscreen?
JU: It’s a very non-naturalistic performance. I’m rolling my eyes; I’m biting my necktie. I’m not aware of any man who has ever bitten his necktie in an erotic frenzy. But I was pleased with that. I’d never seen the show, and I remember leaving thinking, “Oh, I hope that was okay.” Then I got cable, and I started watching the show. They often go for the broad stroke on that show—sometimes the comedy is played rather big. I remember thinking, “Oh, what I did was fine.” [Laughs.] “Eye-rolling, biting my tie, that will fit right in.” So I’m very pleased with the way those scenes came out.
AVC: What direction were you given? How much of that was, “Make up stuff, and we’ll edit it down to the funniest 20 seconds”?
JU: I don’t remember getting a lot of direction. [Laughs.] He’s not flirting with the girl; he’s just offering her a business transaction in a matter-of-fact way. It was just a fun thing where we had this montage of trying on different shoes and getting off on it. It was just, “Let the camera roll,” and “James”—this is me speaking to myself—“James, just come up with as many goofy ways to put a shoe on a lady as you can. Make it seem like you’re getting an erotic thrill out of it.”
AVC: What was the tone like on the set? What’s it like to shoot an episode of Sex And The City?
JU: Again, it was very early on, so it was just going in for a guest shot on this cable show that had been on one season, and had gotten some attention. I don’t think there was a sense that it was an institution yet. But it was shot in a real shoe store on Madison Avenue. It was pretty fun. I think I had auditioned for that show for a different part, and the writers told me that they wrote that shoe guy with me in mind, which is another case of—for some reason, people just think of me as these perverse weirdos. I’m wearing my old glasses in that, which I wore in real life, these little round glasses that look arty. That’s when I used to wear my hair in a short, spiky style. [Laughs.] Pre-’90s.
AVC: So it’s very authentic to your natural look at the time?
JU: Yes, yes. I own many glasses of different shapes and sizes with my prescriptions. Wardrobe designers and directors will often say, “Oh, I like your glasses. Let’s leave your glasses on,” because I often play guys who wear glasses. [Laughs.] Occasionally I won’t wear them to mix it up.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of TV. Instead of picking through every guest role one by one—what stands out for you?
JU: There have been some reoccurring roles. I did a ton of crime shows, and a friend of mine said I usually play “Dr. Red Herring.” But sometimes I’m the actual bad guy, and those are particularly fun.
Kidnapped (2006-2007)—“The Accountant”
JU: I was on a short-lived show called Kidnapped, a few years ago and I played a James Urbaniak-style hitman. You didn’t see it coming, because he looked like me. I’d show up in a suit and suitcase, and I’d pull a gun out and shoot a guy. They called him “The Accountant.” You’d cut to me on the cell phone saying, “The Peterson account has been closed,” in hitman humor.
Unforgettable (2012)—“Walter Morgan / Richard Simmons”
JU: Then about a year or so ago, I had a little arc, as the actors say, on Unforgettable, the Poppy Montgomery procedural on CBS, where I played a taunting serial-killer dude, and I ended up falling off a bridge, doing some harness work in a studio in New York, a little green-screen harness work, which was quite fun, to make it look like my body was falling. I’m actually whizzing through my IMDB now, trying to remember other fun TV ones.
Wizards Of Waverly Place (2011)—“Rob Robinson”
JU: I did an episode of Wizards Of Waverly Place a couple years ago, and then I did a midseason replacement that hasn’t actually aired called Friend Me, and those are the only times I’ve actually done a three-camera sitcom. The energy on those shows is very, very different. I’d like to do more of those. You get a much clearer sense of the environment of a TV show when you do one of those, because everything is out in the open in a way that’s not so much in a single-camera show. There’s an audience, and the day of the shoot is the day that they’re really making the show, so all the writers are there. You’ll shoot a scene, then they’ll pause, and the writers and directors will huddle while the warm-up comic entertains the audience, and they re-write it and give you the pages. There’s something about the spontaneity of being handed a re-write when you’re performing in front of a live crowd that I actually quite enjoy. [Laughs.] So that was particularly fun, just because it’s an environment that I’m not used to. I’m certainly used to theater and I’m very used to TV, but I wasn’t used to the conflation of those two elements, which is what a three-camera sitcom is.
The Office (2009-2013)—“Rolf”
JU: That’s certainly a big one. Just really, really fun. It’s a very relaxed environment there, in my experience. They are very friendly, a lot of those people, so it was just sweet. Rainn Wilson and I knew a lot of people in common in New York years ago, but we didn’t know each other that well. When I moved to L.A., he was actually very helpful to me—he helped me get that part on The Office. It was a memorable time. I did the first one, which was, like, the season-five finale, the company picnic, and I was Dwight’s insane friend who out-Dwighted Dwight, in terms of being an impossible asshole. [Laughs.] Again, James Urbaniak wheelhouse. Then I did a second one about a year or two later, which is the episode where Jim and Pam have their baby, but I got cut from that one. Time went by and I was like, “Well, I guess that’s it.” And then I shot a little cameo in the season finale. [Laughs.] If you’re an actor in L.A., that’s the gold standard—there are a few shows that you’re like, “Oh, that would be super-cool to be on.”
Side note, I did audition for the role of Dwight Schrute when they first had the auditions in New York. I love the British show; I was so obsessed with the British show that I stopped thinking straight. I went in basically dressed up like Mackenzie Crook in the British show. He wore a little holster for his cell phone, so I put a holster on. I combed my hair weird like him. He was a skinny dude like me, so I basically went in paralleling Mackenzie Crook, which looking back, was bizarre behavior. [Laughs.] Then I was actually called back, and there were notes from casting to my agent saying, “We want James to come back, but tell him that he doesn’t have to come in looking like the guy from the show.” That’s a classic case where if you know the person that gets it, you think, “Well, fair enough.” [Laughs.] “That was meant to be.” Rainn Wilson as that character was meant to be, but it was nice to be a satellite figure throughout the life of that show, and just to be associated with its history.
AVC: Do any other auditions stand out because you wanted the role so strongly?
American Splendor (2003)—“Robert Crumb”
JU: Well, there’s a happy version of that story, which is American Splendor, where I play Robert Crumb. As I mentioned before, my roommate was a cartoonist. Also when I was about 18 or 19, I thought I wanted to be a cartoonist. I had always loved the underground, alternative world, so I was a fan of Crumb; I was a fan of Harvey Pekar. My roommate in the ’90s had all the American Splendors, so I read all of those. When that audition came in—normally you go into an audition and you just think, “Well, I’ll do the best I can.” That was a case where I went, “That part is mine!” There was laser focus and complete obsession. It’s parallel to my feelings about the Office audition, but this one’s a different ending. I really felt like, “No one is more qualified to get this part than James Urbaniak. It would be a great injustice…” [Laughs.]
AVC: Did your agent put you in for it, or did they seek you out?
JU: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I hadn’t heard of the production, and I don’t know if my agent necessarily, with all due respect, knew who Robert Crumb was. The description probably said, “Skinny, eccentric, wears glasses.” Those are the parts they always send me. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who directed it, I think they’d seen Henry Fool, I think they knew, but they saw a lot of people for that. I was the first guy to read for Crumb. They said, “Well, I think that’s it, but I guess we have to see other people,” which is very sweet of them. I worked really hard on that. I watched the Terry Zwigoff documentary constantly. I also found some other footage of Crumb, some interviews from the ’80s. I found a radio interview he did where he talks about his time in San Francisco in the ’60s, and his tone in this interview is very gentle and wistful. Sweet. A quality you don’t see in the Zwigoff documentary, which is a masterpiece. But he’s very much aware of the camera in that, and he’s performing in that. He’s performing an idea of Robert Crumb in that movie.
The filmmakers of American Splendor certainly wanted to reference that archetype, this chilly, distant weirdo. But it was very helpful to hear him just speak gently and sweetly in an unguarded way in this other interview I found. That was very informative, because my scenes in the film are supposed to be him and a friend. It’s a movie where they’re not aware that they’re on camera. Although Bob and Shari still wanted that quality. I remember their one great note to me and Paul Giamatti was, “Guys, don’t look at each other. Don’t make eye contact.” So there are these great two friends, hanging out, and if you watch, we’re never really looking at each other. We’re two weirdos in our own world, the Henry Fool dynamic again: Paul’s playing Harvey, who has this dyspeptic energy, and I’m playing the very internal Crumb.
One other thing about that, a few years ago, a friend of mine sent me an email. Robert Crumb had published an autobiography, and my friend sent me an email saying, “Robert Crumb autobiography page 250.” So I go off to Forbidden Planet off Broadway, because I know they’ll have it. There’s the book. I open it up, and there on page 250 is a picture of me, and at the top of the page, it says, “I thought the guy was a washout as me.” And I really feel bummed out. I’m like, “Oh God. It’s a character in a movie. It’s not that man.” I’m upset, and I turn the page, and on the previous page, he starts talking about different portrayals of him. Apparently there had been a couple plays where actors played him. There had been a play in San Francisco in the ’80s, and he’s actually talking about that, at the bottom of the previous page. “A guy played me in a play in San Francisco,” turn the page, “I thought that guy was a washout as me.” I say, “Oh thank God. He’s talking about that other guy.”
Then he says, “There’s a movie called American Splendor,” and I don’t even know if my name is in the book, I think he just says, “And a guy played me, and my wife said she hated it, and said if I was anything like that, she would have never married me.” Then he just moves on to the next thing, but then I’m like, “Wait a minute. He quotes his wife, and he just tore this guy in the play a new one, but he doesn’t say anything about me.” So I took that to be high praise. His silence, I took to be him shrugging it off, like, “Yeah, you know.”
There’s one other addendum to this story, which is a couple years ago, Crumb came to L.A. He had a new book out: He illustrated the entire book of Genesis. It’s a remarkable book. And he did an appearance at UCLA. I’m sitting in the audience with my friend, and a guy in the audience goes, “So, what do you think about your portrayal in the movie American Splendor?” Then Crumb says basically the same thing he said in the book, “Well, I didn’t think it was really like me, but I’m me, I wouldn’t think anybody was like me, but my wife hated it. She said if I was anything like that, she never would have married me.” Then he adds, “But somebody told me that they saw that actor once, and he was blond and really athletic and wearing an open shirt.” It was a funny anecdote about how different the actor was from him. Now listen, I have certain attractive qualities, but blond, open-shirted athleticism is not necessarily what they are. But I just sat on my hands. It was Crumb’s night. I wanted to jump up and say, “It’s not true. I’m a skinny, brown-haired weirdo like you.” [Laughs.]
AVC: When you were playing the role, what were you thinking in terms of trying to bring him out?
JU: He has such a peculiar, specific way of speaking, and you have to imitate that, to a degree. In any drama, when you’re playing a real person, if they have very distinct qualities, you have to reference those. Then there’s a point where you have to remember that you’re not really that person. You’re playing a character in a movie, and that has its own rules. That character was basically there to tell us something about Harvey Pekar, and the filmmakers have certain ideas about his archetypal qualities. I just submerged myself in him. I read all his comics. He was a teenage fanboy in the ’50s, and someone published his journals, where he writes and talks about comics to his friends. They’re amazing, his adolescent journals.
But then you just have to let it go and play the character and say, “What’s this scene about? What does this character want in this scene?” One of my favorite little acting aphorisms is an old Alec Guinness aphorism, “Gather it up.” After you’ve done all your research and your rehearsals, and you’ve done all this work, just gather it up. Let things fall where they may. I’m very pleased with how that came out. I read an interview with Zwigoff where someone asked him about me, and he said he didn’t like me in that. [Laughs.] Which, if someone played my best friend in a movie, I’m sure I would feel it was absurd. You can’t really measure it by the yardstick of your own connection with someone. I like to think Crumb takes it for what it was, which is in a sense a caricature of him that tried to have a certain degree of nuance.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)—“Jack Lessenberry”
AVC: Did you happen to see the essay Jack Lessenberry wrote about the experience of watching you play him in You Don’t Know Jack, the Jack Kevorkian film with Al Pacino?
JU: I did. I enjoyed that very much. He’s very well known in Detroit. He’s not as well known nationally. He does a radio show. He has a different vocal quality than me, and I thought briefly, “Should I imitate that quality?” But that actually seemed unnecessary. What he did share with me was a certain wryness, a certain energy that paralleled my own. And there was enough superficial resemblance. He has brown hair, parted on the side. He wears glasses. [Laughs.] Has a square jaw. It was like, “There’s enough, it will work.” Then it was fascinating, because some Detroit reviewers wrote, “Oh! James Urbaniak’s uncanny imitation of Jack Lessenberry…” I was like, “I’m just doing my own voice, but I’m glad you felt it was like him, because I thought there were parallels.”
That was crazy, that job, having scenes with Al Pacino. That was amazing. He was a complete mensch. The first day, he walks into the table-read, and it’s like watching James Cagney walk in, just in terms of how iconic he is. [Laughs.] He’s clearly the superstar actor. It doesn’t make it any less genuine, but he clearly makes it a point to really connect, and be very open and appreciative of the day-players and less-famous actors who he’s working with throughout the day. He was a very generous person. So I got to know him a little bit. Any little thing he does takes on an epic quality, because he’s Al Pacino. I remember one day coming in, I was in a merry mood, and he was sitting there. So just to be goofy… He’s playing Kevorkian. I said, “Hey, Doctor K!” And he looked at me, winked, and gave me the finger-gun. “Peew!” And I thought, “Holy shit! Al Pacino gave me the finger-gun!” [Laughs.] You make a joke, and Pacino laughs. You’re like, “I made Pacino laugh! This is a great day!”
AVC: Does the fame get in the way of the work? I remember the first time I interviewed Danny Boyle, he talked about the difficulty of working with Leonardo DiCaprio at the height of his fame, because crowds would follow him everywhere, and extras would come into a scene and literally not be able to talk because they were overwhelmed.
JU: Well here’s the thing: He’s aware of that, and he just has the ability to put you at ease. So my first day of shooting was a scene in a diner where it was me and Pacino, and it was like “Boom!”, straight into the deep end. [Laughs.] No warming up, you’re just one-on-one with the master here. And he was just so open and so gentle, and I’m a showbiz freak, so I just start to bring up old films of his, and he’s more than happy to talk about them. So there’s a fleeting moment of self-consciousness, but in the scene, it was just enjoyable, and I was completely relaxed. But I think with someone like that, that is something they have to negotiate. People are going to be nervous and self-conscious. There was a moment in that first scene where he screwed up a line during the shot, he forgot his line during the cut, and yelled, “I went up!” in the actor parlance, and Barry Levinson came over and said, “It’s okay, we got good stuff,” and I said, “Were you nervous working with me?” [Laugh.] And then Pacino laughed and grabbed my hand, like, “Good one, kid!” That was like the first time I cracked him up, so I was very proud of that.
AVC: Have you ever worked with someone who left you completely starstruck?
JU: I don’t think so. I can tell you the most starstruck I’ve ever been in my life, but I wasn’t working with a person, I just met him. And I auditioned for Vanilla Sky and read with Tom Cruise. [Laughs.] God, I wish that video still existed, that’d be amazing. The two of us, the clash of the titans. No matter how you feel about Tom Cruise, when you meet him, it’s like “Holy shit, it’s fucking Tom Cruise!” [Laughs.] But I was very relaxed, doing that audition with him.
But a couple of years ago, I met Eric Idle of Monty Python. I’ve met a lot of famous people, and you usually think in terms of, “It’s just a peer. We’re all actors.” But it was partially generational, since I was 13 when I started watching Monty Python in the ’70s, and I was close to just being a babbling fanboy. In a working environment, it might have been different. I’m usually fairly at ease, but excited, in those situations. But I’m a showbiz geek, and I love the old pros, so I adore meeting the older actors that I grew up watching. It’s a never-ending source of pleasure. But also, I’m a weirdo who knows the credits of a lot of old character actors who are still around. So I’ll very happily chat with them, and those people are usually happy and appreciate when some younger guy knows their stuff.
Sweet And Lowdown (1999)—“Harry”
AVC: Speaking of working with legendary people.
JU: Oh, yes. Well that was an early post-Henry Fool gig. In fact, I got that audition because Juliette Taylor, Woody Allen’s famous casting director, had seen the trailer for Henry Fool the week before it came out. She said, “You’re very good in the trailer.” [Laughs.] Which I thought was very funny, because the trailer is basically just pictures of my character turning his head and looking at things, and I thought, “I do turn my head and look at things in a compelling way.”
She was casting parts for the guys in Sean Penn’s band, and you didn’t have to be a musician. She was like, “Do you play?” I said no, and she said, “Eh, it doesn’t matter.” And we just chatted, and she said, “Well, you have to come back tomorrow and meet Woody.” This is a whole new area that I’m in now. So I come back the next day, and he enters—this iconic figure, looking just like Woody Allen, enters and says, “I’m Woody.” And I just laugh, because it was funny and true. [Laughs.] So then I gave him my hand, and he gives me the limp-fish shake. He’s not a shaker. I hear he has people issues.
He gave me a scene to read. In the film, I barely speak. I’m just this figure in Sean Penn’s band. You hear me speak a couple of times off-screen, I think, but I’m in it a lot, because you keep seeing the band all the time. So he gives me this scene to read, and they were lines for the drummer character, which I didn’t play. I was going to read with Juliette, and Woody got up and walked to his offices, and just peered out so you could see half his face from a couple of yards away. It was very bizarre. I remember hearing about these things. You’re like, “Okay, what’s going on here? Is he distancing himself because he wants me to be more at ease, or is he uncomfortable being there when the actors read? Is he trying to get the filming perspective on me?” Anyway, it was weird. [Laughs.] But he’s a weirdo; we all know that. I’m not talking out of school here.
I play the bass player in Sean Penn’s band, and they sent me to a guitarist, a great guy named Bucky Pizzarelli. He’s an old New York jazz-guitar session-player dude in New Jersey, and I would go to this house in New Jersey every week for a month, and he would teach me the rudiments of rhythm jazz guitar. I had never picked up a guitar in my life. So I’m basically just feigning chords, essentially playing air guitar. It wasn’t a great acting challenge, but it was remarkable.
I worked through the whole shoot; I worked two and a half months on that movie. And just to watch Woody Allen and Sean Penn on set was pretty interesting. I got a lot of things out of that, in terms of how they manage their energy on the set, which is the best way I can explain it. Woody Allen has a very quietly forceful confidence on a set. And he’s very tied to the rhythm of scenes. Like, there was a fascinating moment, a really quick shot under narration where Sean Penn is talking about a gig, and the band is setting up its instruments on the stage, and then walking out. And I remember Woody Allen saying, “James, you come out first, then Dennis second, and so and so third,” one after the other. He says “action,” and then I come out, then the next guy comes out, and then a beat later, the next guy comes out. When that beat happened, where the other guy didn’t come out, Woody Allen thrust his body forward like, “Bup, bup, bup! Where’s the other guy?!” [Laughs.] It was so interesting to see he was physically connected to the rhythm of the moment. It was a very peripheral scene, and very musical, in a way. His body basically made the beat that the actor had missed. He had a very specific idea about the rhythm.
You think of his movies being very naturalistic, like the classic thing, this master-shot thing, where people enter, then exit, the frame. To see that the actual rhythm of those entrances and exits were so important to him was very interesting to me.
AVC: By comparison, how does Sean Penn manage his energy?
JU: Well I’m sure it’s different from film to film, but on that one, he was very pleasant and quiet. We sat together, and they’d say, “Come to the set, we’re going to shoot this scene.” And we’d all be there, and then the second before they actually shot, Sean Penn would show up. Which, you know, that’s the way it works. [Laughs.] He didn’t play guitar either. His part was much more complicated, he’s playing the lead guitarist. And we would sit around and show each other chords we’d learned. We were like, “Look, I learned ‘Free Falling’ last night.” [Laughs.] And we’d strum these very rudimentary rock ’n’ roll chords to each other, and sing little songs. I quite enjoyed it that me and Oscar-winner Sean Penn were on the same playing field in terms of beginner guitarists proudly showing off what we learned to each other.
I think sometimes an actor’s energy is related to the character they’re playing. He was playing a quiet musician guy, so he was quiet and musician-y on the set. I think it’d be different if he was playing a different character, and he’d need to get into that zone. But Woody Allen—I’ve met a lot of famous people, and they’ll walk in, and if they know who I am, they might be very open and warm. But Woody Allen was always distant. I’d come in, and he’d be across the room and give me a nod, like, “There’s that guy who comes in a couple of times a week.” When we wrapped, a friend of mine was in the band, and he went up to Woody Allen to say thank you at the end of the shoot, and when he first approached, Woody Allen gave him this startled, confused expression. Almost like, “Why is this guy saying goodbye to me? We’re not friends!” [Laughs.] He’s got some weird people issues.
AVC: As you say, your character isn’t hugely complicated—there’s not a lot for you to juggle there. What do you think about while inhabiting a character that’s quiet and not that central to the story?
JU: What I got out of that one was taking in that environment and just trying to execute the physical demands, like actually making it look like I was playing the guitar. I had a couple of people talk to me after that movie, and someone said, “So, was Sean Penn a good guitar player?” And the reason they asked was because they thought I was a guitar player. I was like, “Oh, I don’t know because I don’t play.” I have a friend who is a professional guitarist and I asked him, “So, what did you think?” and he said, “Eh, it was good.” [Laughs.] Meaning my guitar-playing, which was an obvious portrayal of him, didn’t look like what a guitarist looks like. But to a layperson, it looked fine. [Laughs.] I am one, so it looked fine to me. A real musician can tell.
Across The Universe (2007)—“Sadie’s manager”
JU: I auditioned for that, and [director Julie] Taymor was from the downtown theater community, so she knew of me, and I was certainly aware of her for years. In the script, I think the character’s name was Bill, and there was a thing in the script where it said he was “à la Bill Graham,” which was fun, because Bill Graham has a very specific energy, this specific New York accent, and a very raspy voice. I’m from New Jersey and I’m a veteran East Coaster, but you tend not to cast me as [New York accent] “New York guys.” [Laughs.] So I watched some footage of Bill Graham and thought, “Well, I’m certainly going to use this.” I went to a lower register with a little touch of a New York thing, and lo and behold, she cast me.
It was pretty remarkable—I’m the manager of this Janis Joplin-esque singer, and we meet at a café in the East Village. They had dressed a couple of blocks of the Lower East Side for the movie. They had repainted storefronts, and they turned a couple of blocks around Stanton Street into a set. They had these huge cranes. That was the most impressive big-budget environment that I had ever been in, and it was in my old stomping grounds. [Laughs.]
I was worried I might not be in that, because famously, during the cutting of that film, Julie Taymor had issues with the studio, and there was talk that about her not getting final cut. There was an interview where I think it was Joe Roth describing a B-story he wanted to cut, and it was obviously the one I was in. I thought, “If he wins, I’m not going to be in this movie.” But she ended up winning that battle, so almost everything I shot was in the movie, which is rare for a movie like that. I don’t sing in that, which is unfortunate or fortunate for the viewers.
It was fun. Bono was there—I was there for a party scene where he sings, and they did take after take. He almost got his teeth knocked out by a camera operator at one point by accident. They were following him with a Steadicam, and he turned around, and it was a very professional operation, but he almost got hurt. But that was like, “Hey, free Bono concert!” [Laughs.] One of the perks of being in show business.
AVC: Julie Taymor has a reputation for extravagance and lushness in her productions, but what’s she like with actors?
JU: Well, she was super-pleasant and easy with me. She’s known for fighting battles. She’s a fighter. But there was no battle with me. [Laughs.] It was all very pleasant and smiley and easy. It was certainly epic; it was very impressive what they had done with this neighborhood. But my experience was that she was very easy. I think the only note might have been, “A little pacier.” [Laughs.] But she let me do what I did, and when the director doesn’t say anything, you figure you’re doing okay. That’s the usual thing in filmmaking, and then if they do an adjustment, you try and honor that. But I don’t remember many adjustments from her. I was pleased with that one. One is not always pleased, and when you watch a film and you don’t like what you see, that’s it. It’s there to frustrate you.
AVC: Do you just feel pride when the director doesn’t give you feedback? Is there any sense of, “I wish I was getting more attention or input?”
JU: Film directing is an interesting thing. It’s very much about the environment the director creates, and you get a sense of how to behave in that environment. I was in a play once where the director gave no direction, and the actors were left out to sea. We didn’t need explicit hand-holding or anything, but that guy said very little and hadn’t created a palpable environment. We didn’t understand the rules of the world we were in. So a lot of film directors don’t say much to actors, they just create a world that has an energy, and you just get it. And if you’re out of it, they’ll carefully adjust something to get you in there. It’s mysterious, but it’s my experience that a lot of film direction is schedule. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of time taken to break down action in terms of acting. You just go with an idea, and if it fits and it’s right, they’ll let you do it. Of course in filmmaking, a big part of your performance is created in the cutting room, because as everyone knows, if you have a shot of a guy and you cut to another shot, what we read in that guy’s expression is informed by what we cut to. The performance is supported and colored by the environment of the film itself, the cutting, and all those other elements. In a sense, in filmmaking you’re providing the raw material for a performance, and the director and editor make something out of it, which is very different from the theater.
AVC: Do you find it to be different to TV?
JU: Somewhat, because there tends to be, even in a low-budget movie, a sense of breathing room. Where TV, it always feels more hectic and on the clock. It has a different energy. There can be great, subtle television, but the circumstances are a little different than in filmmaking. I always feel more of a sense of air and ease on movie sets, even if they’re very low-budget things that are being done very quickly. TV always feels like it’s much more rushed and hermetic. [Laughs.]
Television is weird, because usually on a set, the person least connected to the show is the director. I’ve often had recurring parts where the director will come up to me and ask, “Would your character do this?” They’re brushing up on the show, because they’re basically there to set up shots and make it look good, keep it pace-y, and get the information across. Which is a skill, I’m not belittling that, but it’s a weird thing. A film director is so inextricably connected to the film, whereas a TV director is being brought into a pre-existing institution. It’s just a different environment, a different way of working.
JU: That’s been a fun gig. That’s the guest-shot character where the most people I know have come up to me saying they saw that, because everybody watches that show. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying at the end of season two, they lost some actors. I’m pretty sure Larry the polygrapher was not in that room. I think he’s alive and well down in the basement with his polygraph machine, so I hope there’s some reason to bring him back. [Laughs.] But that first episode was really fun, because it’s the episode where there’s an internal investigation, so all the principals had to undergo a polygraph test, and I’m the polygraph guy with all the main characters, Mandy Patinkin, Claire Danes, and other people. Then that show became such a phenomenon. It was fascinating to be a part of, even in a peripheral role, to be connected to something that became a cultural phenomenon.
AVC: It’s strangely memorable for such a small role.
JU: Here’s the thing about TV I’ve experienced many times: Because of the nature of storytelling, most TV is cut for information and pace. A guest character may be written to land as a full-blooded person, and the scenes may have interesting dynamics, but those often will not play. Often guest shots I’ve had on other procedural shows could be played by anybody. It’s like, “Okay, let’s get this information out.” But this was a case where they really kept the idiosyncrasies of that character, and gave you little glimpses of his connections with the other characters. He had a history with Mandy Patinkin and it landed and it played, which isn’t always the case.
So that’s fun for an actor. I’ve had other roles where I thought I was doing something interesting—it was actually in the script, but they couldn’t include these little beats, they couldn’t cut it, so it doesn’t land. This was a case where it lands. And it’s cut a little bit, but that’s clearly part of why people respond to that show. There’s a certain depth and nuance and air in the scenes that let characters breathe and be actual people, even if you’re playing a small, supportive role like I was. And I’d say that’s a tribute to the creators of the show. That’s important to them, where some shows that’s not as important. It’s a different storytelling. So for an actor like me, a jobbing actor that goes from guest shot to guest shot on these shows, to be able to land as a character in a role like that is an extra pleasure.