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: Tom Everett Scott had a movie debut that most actors just dream about: His big break was in Tom Hanks’ 1996 film directorial debut That Thing You Do!, basically playing Hanks’ stand-in role. That first movie part was so successful that Scott was next launched immediately into horror (An American Werewolf In Paris), comedy (Dead Man On Campus), and tearjerking drama (One True Thing), all within a year or so. He’s scarcely stopped working since, showing up in everything from well-known TV dramas like ER and Law & Order to voice-over work with superheroes and puppies. His mammoth IMDB list includes just about every genre you can think of. His most recent appearances include a pivotal role in the huge musical hit La La Land, taking over the patriarch of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, entering tween period drama on Reign, and his first regular sitcom role since he started out in Grace Under Fire.
The first season of I’m Sorry, his just-renewed domestic sitcom with Andrea Savage, wraps up tonight on TruTV. Scott may be even nicer than he appears on screen, and spoke with us from his L.A. home as we traced the twists and turns of his long and impressive career.
I’m Sorry (2017-)—“Mike”
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on I’m Sorry getting renewed for a second season.
Tom Everett Scott: Well, thank you. We’re very excited about that. Love the show. Love doing it. So glad we get to do more.
AVC: Did you and Andrea Savage know each other before? How did you get associated with that project?
TES: Actually we didn’t know each other. She just wrote me a letter.
AVC: And she had you in mind as her ideal TV husband?
TES: I guess so. I was really flattered that she wanted me to play that part. We got along great right off the bat, and she sent me this script. I thought it was really funny and very eerily similar to my real life. And so it was just kind of like, basically she’s like my second wife.
AVC: Is there a lot of improv on that set because you’re dealing with so many comedians and improv background people, or is it mostly on script for you?
TES: A lot of it is scripted, but there is a bunch of improv, and honestly, that really scares the hell out of me because I don’t really have a lot of confidence in it or a big background. But we did a little bit with an improv guru at UCB, and it was really helpful for me. We just do so much of it on the show that it was just kind of like trial by fire, and she’s extremely supportive and just great to play off of. She’s doing most of the work. I’m just reacting to her. But it was fun. We have some really funny moments that were able to come through on the show.
AVC: Your IMDB page is so impressive. You’ve played antiheroes and drama. Now you’re on a sitcom. Historical stuff. You’ve done such a wide gamut of things.
TES: That’s very nice and I appreciate that. People say really great things to me like that, which are not lost on me. I look at it as, “Oh good, I’m still working.” I don’t think of it as putting together this kaleidoscope career. I love acting so much. I know that might be a dorky thing to say, but I just really love it. It makes me really happy, and I love getting opportunities to keep acting and playing roles, and I do enjoy new challenges. I don’t always get to do comedy. I love that Andrea thought of me for this. But obviously not for my comedy chops. She really wanted the essence of that really solid husband/dad guy, but also to be able to play and to be able to appreciate the humor of the situation. To appreciate her, I think, is a big part of my character. And I do love getting to play these different roles. I have had some pretty great opportunities, that is for sure.
AVC: How many kids do you have?
TES: I have two kids. I have a daughter who’s 17. She’s in 12th grade, and then I have a son who’s 12. He’s in seventh grade.
AVC: Do they still talk to you?
TES: They still talk to me. One of them is trying to talk to me right now.
I mean, I’ve done some things that have kept me on their good side certainly. Like my daughter got to meet Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. So she was pretty excited about that, but I’ve got to keep doing stuff like that or I’m dead.
Justice League Unlimited (2004)—“Booster Gold”
AVC: Like playing Booster Gold on Justice League? And your Air Buddies appearances—is that for your kids?
TES: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been able to do stuff that they can enjoy. The Air Buddies movie stuff. It’s been great for that. I’m playing a lot of dad roles these days. And Booster Gold is so much fun because that’s one of my favorite jobs—sitting around a recording studio with really talented voice actors. They’re so good and they’re all doing multiple characters in these episodes. I’m allowed to only do Booster Gold. I don’t have much range. I wanted to play other characters. They just wouldn’t let me.
AVC: Because you’re just nailing Booster Gold! Which makes sense, since you did start on a sitcom.
TES: That was really interesting because I got flown out from New York. I read against a couple other guys. I got the part, and as soon as I got the part, they walked me right into wardrobe. They needed that part cast. And it was just immediate. It was like, “Bring enough clothes for a week.” And then walk into a role that recurred a bunch of times. So it was a nice job at a point when I was really struggling to pay the bills. I was a starving artist in New York, and it just came at a really good time.
And it was right during that run on Grace Under Fire that I got That Thing You Do! And that was the only job that I had that was the only footage of me that I could show Tom Hanks anything that I had done. And I was a little nervous to show them because even though I came from theater and doing comedy like that in front of a live audience, it’s sort of like theater. It’s really not. You’re still acting in front of a camera. It’s a different animal, and I learned a lot doing that show, but it didn’t hurt my chances with Tom Hanks obviously in the long run, but I was really nervous for him to see it. He chuckled when he saw it because it had been awhile since he had done Bosom Buddies. So he was like, “Oh, that was really funny to watch you doing the jokey joke stuff.” I was like “eh.” I’m glad he had a good time and cast me anyway.
AVC: There was a lot of press when that movie came out. There was so much talk about how you resembled a younger version of him. So it seemed like you and Tom Hanks had a pretty solid connection from the get-go.
TES: We did. We really hit it off. I’m so fortunate that he is the guy who really taught me how to act on film and gave me that opportunity. I learned a lot from Tom Hanks. We had a lot of fun. He said, “Please, you look like me. You kind of have some mannerisms like me. But try not to act like me during this movie because we’ll just never hear the end of it.” I said, “Okay, I’ll go with that. I’ll try not to do my version of you, but I don’t really want you to show the whole crew how I’m supposed to do a bit and make them all laugh because you’re so funny and then expect me to follow that.” He said, “Deal, I won’t do that.” And then during all the press for that movie, when everyone was bringing up that point about how similar we were, he said, “If you get annoyed, just tell them you can take me in a fight.”
I was just so excited that I had that big of a part, that I had that much to do in a film. For me, it was like, wow, I’m like the guy. And then it being with Tom Hanks who was my idol and getting to play the drums, which is something I had always wanted to do but my parents wouldn’t let me because they were too loud. It was just a lot of wonderful things happening at once.
AVC: Did you get coaching on the drums? You were pretty convincing.
TES: Yeah, they hired this drummer named Billy Ward, who based out of New York. He’s a jazzer. He taught me how to play the drums. He taught me how to hold the sticks, and he taught me how to play the songs. And we became really good friends through the process. And we worked together for about two months before we started shooting, and then during the course of shooting the movie, he would come in and out and give me some pointers and he even played one of the tracks at the end. So I got to play some of his recorded stuff.
AVC: So after that, you take on the daunting task of remaking American Werewolf In London in Paris, where there are stunts involving jumping off the Eiffel Tower and special effects and make-up and stuff. That must have been a different kind of experience.
TES: It was really cool because I had never been to Europe. I hadn’t left the country. So it was a really big, brand new experience for me, and I got to work with all these great special effects people and we got to climb all over the Eiffel Tower at night. They would shut it down from midnight to 6 a.m. for our production. I don’t know how many people get the opportunity to do that but that was a real thrill. We got to run around Paris in the middle of the night, and as a 26-year-old guy who had never been to Europe, I was just fascinated and felt very fortunate.
AVC: What was the scariest thing you had to do on set? Climbing the Eiffel Tower at night?
TES: There was a lot of height, and we had to hang from things. There was a big sequence where we jump into the sewers. And me and Julie [Delpy] actually thought we had to jump into raging waters from pretty high up. There was a lot of crazy stuff. I had to jump on the back of a moving bus, got pushed around by some of the cars. It was crazy. It was fun but it was a little crazy and looking back, sometimes I wonder how we even survived.
AVC: So you were doing that, not the stunt people? Like, “Tom, you have to jump onto this bus. There’s no way to fake it.”
TES: There were stunt people there, but they had me do a lot of the stuff. There’s one scene when this guy jumps out of a window on a second story building. They didn’t make me do real stunts like that, but I was definitely running around in my underwear doing crazy stuff.
AVC: Speaking of crazy stuff, Dead Man On Campus seems to be one of those movies that received its own cult following because of you and Mark-Paul Gosselaar.
TES: Every once in a while, sometime will say Dead Man On Campus, and I’ll be like, “Okay, all right. I get it. I know what you were doing when you were watching that movie.” But yeah, that was fun too. It’s fun to be part of those movies that has a real following, just a small following of people who love it and quote it back to you. That’s fun.
AVC: It’s one of those urban legends that we all heard in college. We all knew somebody who knew somebody whose roommate died so they got straight A’s.
TES: Absolutely. You get to school and you’re like wow, you off yourself, I get straight A’s. So what are the odds? I don’t really feel like studying for this test. So, how you feeling?
AVC: Around the same year you did One True Thing, with Meryl Streep and William Hurt as your parents, which must have been intimidating.
TES: Yeah, exactly. I went from smoking pot out of a giant bong to jumping in my underwear into a sewer with Julie Delpy to bawling my eyes out because Meryl Streep’s my mom and she’s dying of cancer, and it was all happening in this small stretch of time, and then I got married in real life. There was a lot going on. It was really fun. I was honored to be working alongside Meryl Streep, who is just one of the greatest actors of all time. She’s not an intimidating person. I mean, unless she wants to be. I’m sure she could be, but she was loving and wonderful and so inclusive, and I just loved every minute of it.
AVC: Is there something you remember learning from her or any advice that she told you about acting that you picked up on set?
TES: It wasn’t so much talking about acting. But it was just being in the moment while we’re shooting, in between takes, staying in that same place. Our characters were a mother and son who really loved each other’s company, and we just kind of stayed in that. I was just thinking, oh wow, what a wonderful conversation we’re having. But I’m realizing, oh my god, it’s seamless. They’re calling “action,” and we’re still in that same mood and it’s because of her. That’s her choice to keep it right there, where you’re just enjoying each other, so that when they call action, it’s seamless. And I just learned so much about watching her, but I tried to glom as much as I could from her.
The Love Letter (1999)—“Johnny”
AVC: The Love Letter is such a great sleeper of a movie with the idyllic small town and the bookstore. Did that happen from the Hanks-Spielberg connection?
TES: Yeah, it did. Kate Capshaw had me in mind, and she spoke with Tom Hanks because she’s friends with them obviously, and she and Rita [Wilson, Hanks’ wife] are very close. And I think she did say, “Yeah, I asked them about you and they said wonderful things and that was really great.” I was really happy that one relationship would really help me form another relationship like that. That’s another movie where I spent a lot of time in my underwear.
AVC: It’s a theme.
TES: I always want to steal that quote from Paul Newman where he said, he wants on his tombstone, “Here lies Paul Newman with his shirt on for once.” And I certainly felt that way back in the ’90s.
Boiler Room (2000)—“Michael Brantley”
AVC: So as we move out of the ’90s, Boiler Room is one of those movies that everybody knows, and it’s kind of the precursor to Wolf Of Wall Street, right? You were the Wall Street guy.
TES: Yeah, we were based on a truly fake stockbroker firm that the writer-director Ben Younger had worked at. He worked at one of those that Wolf Of Wall Street is about as well. I don’t know if there’s any crossover that I know about. But yeah, that movie was all about that. It was all about that energy. There was a lot of testosterone on that set, I remember. It was a wonderful cast. Super-talented guys. Vin Diesel. Scotty Caan. Nicky Katt. Jamie Kennedy. Giovanni Ribisi. Just so much fun. Everyone really did have a good time working on that.
AVC: It’s hard to even recognize Vin Diesel in that movie. Were there a lot of practical jokes? Ben Affleck only stopped by really quickly, right?
TES: Ben Affleck was in it, but yeah, when he was there, I think we were all about making that movie good. It wasn’t like everyone was sitting around partying like the characters were. Everyone was really just excited to be there working on such a great movie. I think the movie turned out great. I think that’s another movie where a certain subset of the population really identified with it, and I get that movie quoted back to me by a lot of different people.
AVC: Yeah, at work, four or five people were like, “Be sure to ask him about Boiler Room”! So did that help lead into working on The $treet, which had a similar theme and was your first regular series since Grace Under Fire?
TES: Yeah, Darren Star was a fan and what was nice was coincidentally I had done all that research so I was able to just roll that right into The $treet. That also just had a phenomenal cast. Jennifer Connelly. Adam Goldberg. Good people. Just didn’t last. It was kind of like the stock market crashed and so did that TV series.
Southland (2009-13)—“Detective Russell Clarke”
AVC: Do you do a lot of research for your roles usually? Do you get a lot of background before you walk in on the set?
TES: It depends on the role. If it’s something that’s absolutely integral to making the character real for me, then yeah. And certain jobs like Southland, production is 100-percent full-on providing it. And sometimes you have to go and get it yourself. For The $treet and for Boiler Room, I would go out and get that info, but on certain jobs like Southland, they provide it. As many ride-alongs as you want to do with the LAPD, you’ve got to step up and do it. And I took advantage of all of it. I think I drove around the entire city at some point. Rode in the helicopter. They give us a little bit of training at the police academy. It was really fun.
AVC: Was there a most precarious position you were in on a Southland ride-along?
TES: Yeah, I did a graveyard shift in South Central, and we were going out to the car to do a ride-along, and the sergeant that was with me asked me if I wanted to wear a bulletproof vest. And I said, “Um, are you wearing one?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Yes, please. I’ll take one of those.” And he said, “Well, actually, I don’t know if you want to. It’d probably be uncomfortable,” and it was a hot night. “It’ll probably be too hot. You’re not going to need it.” And I was like, “You sure?” And he’s like, “Yeah, yeah. You’re fine.” So we’re riding along, and the first call he gets is a suspect with a gun, and he flips on the lights and just starts flying down the center of the boulevard at about 80 miles an hour. I’m like, “Holy crap. If I get shot tonight, my wife’s going to kill me. Why am I not wearing a bulletproof vest?”
And we get there. They’ve already apprehended someone, and luckily that person did not have a gun, but I definitely felt like the guy had kind of put me in harm’s way. And when we went back to the station to pick up another officer who was going to go with us to get a bite to eat, the officer that got in the car said “Hey, you’re supposed to have on a bulletproof vest. That’s protocol.” And the sergeant who was driving me around said, “Uh, yeah, you know what? I forgot his.”
AVC: So that’s why.
TES: What a jerk.
AVC: You do a lot for your art, that’s for sure.
TES: Definitely made my heart race.
TES: I played Maura Tierney’s brother who was bipolar and who was in and out of the Air Force, kind of a mess-up.
AVC: Sally Field played your mom, who was also bipolar?
TES: Yeah. And actually Sally and I worked on the bipolar stuff. She had already done it. She won an Emmy for it, but she took me under her wing and she gave me all these great books and people to talk to. So she shared all the groundwork that she had done and sources of info. She shared it all with me, which was so invaluable.
AVC: And that was a different kind of role for you at the time.
TES: It was, and it was right after I had done The $treet. I had done a lawyer show called Philly, and Philly wasn’t getting picked up, and it was summer and I had just moved to L.A. and had our daughter. I had actor’s anxiety of, what’s my next job going to be, and that’s when John Wells offered me this arc on ER, and I was like, oh my god. That was my favorite TV show, and I couldn’t believe I was going to do that. So I was very excited.
AVC: And then you also do something like Saved, where you’re not the clean-cut, all-American boy. You’re like the antihero paramedic rebel. That was a cool show that was kind of under the radar.
TES: Thanks, I really loved it. It was so under the radar, and it was doing well. I don’t know what happened, but it was a great experience. I became really close with the cast and crew on that. But sometimes, despite how great they are, they just don’t go on. It’s hard to be on a show that lasts awhile. I don’t think people realize.
AVC: What appealed to you about that when you got offered that? Finally, you could not shave and forget sunscreen?
TES: That’s what I wanted. That’s what I was looking for. I was looking for something with an edge, and there it was. It was a great script. Great character. Another role I got to do a ton of research for. Ride around with paramedics. Another very eye-opening experience.
AVC: I’m almost afraid to ask what happened there with the paramedics.
TES: We had a slow night on my ride-along, and we shot it in Vancouver, so I rode along with Vancouver guys. We went down a heroin alley. We saw a lot of people shooting up. We did help a guy who fell down a really long flight of an escalator and cut his head open on the escalator stairs, so that was crazy. There was a lot of blood.
AVC: Nothing bleeds like a head wound.
TES: Definitely one of those situations where I was like, “You know what? I’m really glad I don’t do this for a living.” But it had been a slow night, so I was also kind of grateful to be able to watch them in action.
AVC: You played a couple of different characters, including a governor, on Law & Order, which is another situation where you’re getting cast into a prestige series. Was that intimidating?
TES: Yeah, it was. I got very excited to play that part and work with Sam Waterston. It would be ripped from the headlines, a version of Eliot Spitzer, who had been bought with prostitution. And that’s who my character was. And I remember going through wardrobe and hair and makeup and feeling really good. And as I was walking to the set, it’s New York and people just shout things at you, and they’re like, “Hey, are you an actor?” I’m like, “Yeah.” And they’re like, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “Law & Order.” “Who are you? A lawyer?” And I was like all confident, and I’m like, “No, I’m the governor.” And he goes, “Oh, wow. You’re a young governor.” I was like, “I am a young governor. That’s right. Oh my god, am I too young? Are the people just not going to believe me?” “You’re a young governor.”
Z Nation (2004)—“Garnett”
TES: That came about because a friend of mine, John Hyams, who’s a director, he got hired to go up and work on that show as an executive producer and director and writer. And he told me he was going to Spokane to do a zombie show because he and I were just trying to set a time to go to dinner with the families. And I just remember that and I said, “Hey, if you need any zombies, let me know,” and just joking. So then a couple days later, I was in the car and my son was in the car with me, and John called so I put him on speaker phone. And John said, “I know you were kidding, but I totally pitched you for this guy in the show who’s just in the first six episodes and then he dies, but it’s a great role.” And he told me the whole thing about the zombie apocalypse and blah, blah, blah. And I said, “Cool, man. Send me the script and I’ll let you know. It sounds like a lot of fun.” So I hung up and my son said, “Dad, you have to do that.” He said those exact words.
It was super fun. They were definitely shooting that on a bit of a shoestring budget, but the effects were amazing. The people that were working on it were all really, really excited to do it, so there was a lot of passion behind just making that really good, but I also love how the material was a bit more campy. Not as serious as The Walking Dead, and more about that Romero-style fun. And we just had such a blast with it. I loved playing that part so seriously because I knew how funny it was to take it seriously. I thought it was really great. Turned out great and still going strong.
AVC: So it looks like recently you were doing a couple of shows simultaneously?
TES: Yeah, I was definitely going back and forth between Toronto and New Orleans for those two shows. It was fun. I got to do a British accent for Reign, which I hadn’t really attempted before, but I hired a dialect coach. And Laurie McCarthy, who created the show, is a friend of mine, so it was fun to go up there and work on that. But Scream was a lot of fun as well. Both of those shows I really loved the locations, and during my kids’ school breaks, I brought them to both Toronto and New Orleans, which are great cities, especially New Orleans. You don’t think of as a kind of place you can bring your kids, but it is. It’s a super fun city. You’ve got to go to Preservation Hall and you can go to the WWII museum or just go to the Garden District. It’s truly great. And you can walk around with a beer while you do that.
AVC: Gotta love parental activities where beer is available.
TES: That’s one for sure.
AVC: I’m envious of you getting to be a part of La La Land because I love that movie so much.
TES: I do too. I really love it. I think it’s a wonderful movie. Damien Chazelle. It’s beautifully done. Everyone involved with that really did an amazing job. I got teary eyes at the end of that movie too. It’s about how you can’t sometimes be who you want to be as an artist and then also have the love of your life. It’s just this tortured decision that they had to make, and it just makes your heart break.
I was in Toronto doing Reign, when I got this really nice email from the casting director, Deborah Aquila, who I’d known since the very beginning. She cast me on Dead Man On Campus, and we’ve been friends all these years. We see each other around the Valley where we live in L.A. Actually I saw her one time at a restaurant just kind of passing by and she’s like “Hey, remember, we still owe each other dinner and I have something I want to talk to you about.” And I’m like, “Okay.” And I kind of forgot about it, and then she sent me this email and said, “You’re going to get the offer on this movie. It’s really great.” I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know what it was.
And then the offer came through for La La Land, and I’m like oh my god, this is what she was talking about? This is insane. The guy from Whiplash and starring Ryan Gosling? That’s crazy. And told me what my role was. David. And I’m reading the whole script, and I’m so into it and so into, and I’m like three-quarters of the way through the script and I’m like “Wait, where’s David? Who’s David?” And I got to the part where I’m David at the end and I’m like, oh, everyone’s going to hate me. Oh no. I’m that guy.
AVC: But the fact that it’s you makes it totally understandable. Like “oh, of course she’s going to wind up with that guy because he’s more stable and her life went a different way.”
TES: That was exactly Deborah Aquila’s point, because Damien was like, “Who am I going to cast in that so that people don’t hate him and they feel like Emma’s character’s going to be okay?” And she said, “I think Tom Everett Scott would be great.” And Damien, who’s always really sweet and he was a big fan of That That You Do!, was excited and he said yes, so a lot of things came together for me on that one. I’m just really lucky that all those things kind of play into each other, and you never know how they will.
AVC: And it looks like you have 5 million things coming up, so you’re not slowing down anytime soon. What’s the project on your long list that you have the biggest soft spot for?
TES: I’ve taken something from everything. I’ve been able to learn from each and every one of these roles and projects. I don’t think anything will top my first movie because of all of what it was. My first movie with Tom Hanks and I met my best friend, Steve Zahn. We did something that has been lasting, and people have really expressed their love of that movie. We really set out to make a good movie and we accomplished it. And being friends with Ethan and Jonathan and everyone is invaluable. I love those guys. I love the Oneders.
There’s been a lot of great stuff. I got to be on Broadway in a play called The Little Dog Laughed that won Julie White the Tony, and to be able to do that was just wonderful. All kinds of roles that maybe no one will ever see the light of day that I definitely put a little blood, sweat, and tears into. They’re just out there and at least I got something from them.
AVC: You guys just had a reunion, right? Didn’t you get together on stage recently and play with the Oneders?
TES: Yeah, it was a total goof. A friend of ours has a show called “The Goddamn Comedy Jam,” and he asked us to back him and up, and unfortunately, we couldn’t get Steve Zahn there because he wasn’t in town but it was fun.
AVC: And now he’s passed the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid dad mantle to you.
TES: Yeah, that’s another thing we have in common. Now we’re both Wimpy dads.