In his seven-plus seasons as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, Jason Sudeikis has proven a versatile ensemble player. He can headline a sketch (as he did with Kristen Wiig in their recurring “Two A-Holes” bits), ground an outlandish gag in reality (like the too-informative, too-enthusiastic feminine-hygiene promos in the “ESPN Classic” sketches), or simply enhance the atmosphere of a recurring sketch (like the R&B-inflected talk-show parody “What Up With That?”) with a bad hairdo and some hot dance moves. He’s put his skills as a team player on display in series television and film roles as well, turning in memorable guest stints on 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia before teaming up with Jason Bateman and Charlie Day as underlings seeking revenge in the 2011 comedy Horrible Bosses.
In taking a role on the HBO series Eastbound & Down, Sudeikis joined a creative troupe—led by frequent collaborators David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, and Danny McBride—with years of personal history and two seasons of the series under their collective belts. Sudeikis joins the cast as Shane, the brash teammate and best friend of McBride’s self-absorbed resurgent relief pitcher, Kenny Powers. In anticipation of the new season of Eastbound & Down—new episodes air on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. EST—Sudeikis and The A.V. Club spoke about harmonizing with the show’s cast, his character’s sports-movie counterparts, and finding the persona of a persona-less presidential candidate on SNL.
The A.V. Club: How did you get hooked up with the Eastbound & Down folks?
Jason Sudeikis: I just auditioned, with one of the best in the biz—Miss Allison Jones—who they work with. She does a lot of Judd Apatow movies, The Office, a bunch of other stuff. I think I read with Allison first, and then Danny, and then Jody Hill—along with some HBO execs. Which was interesting, because executives are the same age as me now. Which is an exciting moment to realize. Executives, and also professional sports referees.
AVC: You are now The Man.
JS: Mm hmm. I am now The Establishment. There’s nothing I can do about it.
AVC: Did you feel a connection with Danny McBride in those early readings?
JS: Yeah. That has a lot to do with him more than my beliefs. He’s just a good dude. I’d met him a couple times, but we’d never worked together—but he’d worked with Andy [Samberg] and Bill [Hader] and a bunch of different friends. And I was a fan. And once we got in there and started joking around, it went pretty easy. It was more fun than hard.
AVC: How much of the character of Shane came out of the reading with McBride? How much was on the page?
JS: A lot’s on the page. They write the thing really well, they’ve got some good guys on their writing staff as well. But at the end of the day, I think it comes down to Danny and Jody. How much came out of that [audition]? Maybe the voice, or just the sort of back-and-forth. I mean, I haven’t watched it—and I don’t watch playback or anything. My feeling about it is, when you get hired to be on someone else’s show—whether it’s 30 Rock or It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia—getting asked to do something on there, you do what you do, and make adjustments based on what they want. So I was glad they were okay with the choosing of the voice.
AVC: Shane just always seems like he’s always had a presence in Kenny Powers’ life.
JS: Well, that’s nice. I’ll take your word for it. I assume you’ve watched other television, movies, so I’m going to assume you’re of discerning taste—and thank you.
All those guys—Jody and David Gordon Green and Danny, and that whole crew from the North Carolina School Of The Arts—they’re just good guys, and they’re naturally all very funny, very smart. The second we met, I was like “Oh, I would’ve been friends with these guys when I was 9 years old, I would’ve been friends with these guys when I was 15, I would’ve been friends with these guys when I was 25. And here I am getting to know them a little bit better in my mid-30s.” And then you get to say ridiculous, silly things. They’re the nicest guys in the world, so when they play or write or direct movies or shows where they’re playing assholes, it’s just the funniest thing in the world to me. Because there are really people like that. They’re not like that, but they certainly [Laughs.] can draw from the real world. And maybe assholes is too strong a word. Complicated. There’s complicated people out there.
AVC: You played basketball in high school and community college. Did you encounter a lot of people like that in your basketball days?
JS: I’m trying to think where, between my life in athletics and my life in the arts, you would find more ego. If anything, it might exist more in the artistic realm, for no other reason than people who make things and create things for a living spend a great deal of time inside their own thoughts, inside their own head. And maybe that’s where the ego lives, more than just in the body itself. I don’t know—I didn’t go to school. I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. I certainly knew dudes [in athletics] that were very puffed-up and walked with a certain stride and confidence and shoulders back, and yeah, that’s in me.
I was excited to do something athletic. I barely played baseball—I was never very good at it, I always had hay fever and I was afraid I was going to get hit in the head with a ball. That game’s so damn hard, too. I never realized until I shagged balls at batting practice at a Kansas City Royals game—it’s fucking hard as hell just to catch the ball, much less try to hit it when someone’s throwing it at you at 90 mph. Just standing back there, in the catcher’s area, being behind home plate, having someone swinging a bat—because we had real players, too, guys from Myrtle Beach’s team, or different colleges in the area, come in and play different players. Having that bat swung by your head or your hands—I’m like “Golly!” And the thing’s coming in fairly fast. Spoiler alert: Danny’s not as good a pitcher in real life as he is in the show. [Laughs.]
The most exciting thing—and I’m going off on a tangent here—you have a technical advisor, you know, a guy who knows what he’s doing [on the field]. And I’m left-handed, and [he told me] there is not a left-handed catcher in high school, college, or pro, because, when you have a right-handed batter, I can’t throw someone out at third. I’d have to make a big move to the right to throw a guy stealing from second to third. And I didn’t realize that. And so I had to throw right-handed on the show. Which I was so damn nervous about. I was like, “Aw, are you kidding me? The first time I play an athlete on TV or a movie, and they’re going to have me fucking throw with my opposite hand? They said, “No, that looks good. That looks believable.” Now, when I watch it, I’ll be like “I look like a 9-year-old girl.”
AVC: That never occurred to me.
JS: Blew my mind. And then my whole joke was like, “Why don’t I stay left-handed—we’ll flip the negative, everybody wears reverse numbers…” [Laughs.] Add like a hundred grand to the budget just to the budget just to cover my ego.
AVC: At least you’ve got that footage of you going up for the lay-up in the opening credits of SNL.
JS: Though you never know if I make it or not. That’s my buddy’s shoe that I’m going by in that video, and he’s like “Are you kidding me? That’s what has to play? You going by me every time?” And I’m like “Yep. That’s when I look my funniest.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Kenny and Shane see themselves as Maverick and Goose from Top Gun—though neither wants to be Goose. Does Shane also maybe see himself as Kevin Costner’s minor-league catcher from Bull Durham, “Crash” Davis?
JS: I think people who live in the worlds that movies are based on end up disliking them. Unless they’re from a different time and era. So I feel like Shane would be more into Major League, or maybe even The Natural. [Laughs.] If he thought he was “Crash” Davis—I love that movie, but Shane would think that movie’s… [Speaking as Shane.] “Nobody talks like that in the minor leagues. Nobody’s as good-looking as Susan Sarandon tryin’ to fuck our players.” I don’t think Shane’s anywhere near as good as “Crash” Davis. [Laughs.] Nor does he have that X factor that made him a natural team leader. I think he’s probably closer to, you know, Corbin Bernsen in Major League. Or the chubby kid from The Sandlot.
AVC: He definitely has that smart-ass catcher vibe. There’s a moment in the second episode where he taunts a batter by speaking directly into his crotch. He’s a smart-ass, but he’s not necessarily smart.
JS: I don’t think he has the philosophical understanding of the world in the macro view that Kevin Costner did in that movie. I assume that maybe that bit was improvised—talking to the crotch. I was busy this summer, I was running all over the place. When I end up watching the show, it’s going to be like a video postcard from summer 2011. I couldn’t pick Danny McBride out of a lineup until they started putting these posters all over this damn city.
AVC: In the SNL off-season, do you seek out a schedule that slows things down? Obviously that didn’t happen last year.
JS: I haven’t had a slowed-down summer in a while. My joke has always been that since we have a “school schedule”—September to May—you look around for lifeguarding or mowing lawns, or you’re fortunate enough to do a couple movies here or there. Then [Eastbound & Down] sort of filled the slot of doing a movie over the summer.
AVC: Do you relish the opportunity to sink into characters for longer than a single sketch or a single scene?
JS: I enjoy it. Do I relish it? I haven’t done it a ton. To me, there’s subtle differences to all the things that I’ve done—whether or not that comes across, that might be where my talent breaks down [Laughs.] between a thoughtfulness and a capability. My apologies to anybody that would prefer me to be better. Eastbound & Down was a lot of fun because they had set up such a great character world—sort of like what I was referencing in regard to 30 Rock or Always Sunny. Being a fan of those shows or the voice they’ve created on those shows or allowed themselves to go makes it even easier for someone to come in and push it as far as they can. So the big broadness—just the shenanigans that Kenny Powers and Stevie and everyone on that show has allowed themselves to get into—to match that, it does make it a little bit more fun. Hopefully you blend in instead of stick out.
AVC: They’ve built a big sandbox, and they’re inviting you to play in it.
JS: Indeed. And they have all sorts of Tonka trucks and pails with shovels, and there’s a water source nearby so you can build up a wall and a castle. It’s a good sandbox. It’s well-designed.
AVC: Can you talk a little bit about the ridiculous truck Shane drives?
JS: That was all them. That’s exactly what I mean—they had this all figured out ahead of time, and I just come in, and it’s like “Yeah, that’s great. It’s great.” You just take little bits and pieces. The biggest thing you take from it is everything they did in the first two seasons, and you just try to harmonize with that. I don’t feel like a solo artist—I feel like, when being asked to play with other people, you want to be like a really good addition. It’s like the Foo Fighters lose a couple of drummers, and then they finally get Taylor Hawkins, and it’s like he’s been in the band forever. Him and Dave Grohl seem like soulmates, and you’re like, “What a great fit.” You hope to be that for the people that hired you.
That’s what I tried to be here at SNL, that’s what I tried to be at the other shows I worked on—and obviously films. The opportunity to be in those films—all of them, I’ve either been paired up with someone, or playing along with an ensemble or a group. But yeah, that truck is a perfect example of them being like “All right, this is your truck,” and I’m like, “Good—clocked it. Got it. Love it.” They put the Lamborghini doors on there, and on the back of the trailer hitch, there’s a pair of steel nuts. I don’t know if there’s a close-up of those in the show. There certainly is on my iPhone. I took lots of pictures and sent them to friends and said “This is what your friend Jason’s into this summer.”
AVC: Are you curious to hear real-life baseball players’ reactions to your performance?
JS: I just want them to say, “Hey, that kid throws pretty well for an actor.” And I’ll be like “Oh yeah, well, guess what? I was throwing opposite-handed.”
AVC: You’re playing Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney on SNL now, and as he’s been presented on the show, his defining characteristic is that he has no defining characteristic. How do you approach that as an actor?
JS: That’s mostly approached in the writing. I think he’s got a very interesting voice. The thing I find interesting about him is, I think he has the same voice—if you were to listen—as George Clooney. Like, he has the same timbre, except they obviously use their voices for very different reasons, you know? It’s kind of like how The Black Keys play the same instruments as Train. Clooney and Romney have similar instruments. But they use them for very different things. I just happen to believe George Clooney more. Romney’s like a little bit of a disconnected salesman. He just seems disconnected, like he’s talking to us through bulletproof glass.