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: David Walton is the star of Jason Katims’ new TV adaptation of About A Boy. He’s also something of a journeyman cult figure among TV fans, having made his way across the great landscape of one-season sitcoms of the past decade, taking regular roles in more than a few of them. In just the last few years, he played a supporting part in NBC’s short-lived 100 Questions, an ostensible lead in the same network’s Perfect Couples, then essayed one half of the central couple in the late, lamented NBC sitcom Bent. From there, he moved on to a major guest part on New Girl and, now, About A Boy. And that’s not even mentioning his work in film and onstage. Walton sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about where About A Boy differs from the book and film that inspired it, what makes comedy pilots hard, and the unlikely nexus that is Fired Up! and the 2009 NBA Championship.
About A Boy (2014)—“Will Freeman”
David Walton: The first thing I decided to do was not watch the movie at all. I’d watched it when it first came out, but I’d forgotten it. I’m a huge Hugh Grant fan, but I really didn’t want, almost as an experiment to myself, to see what I came up with, and maybe down the road I’ll watch the movie and see how much I messed up. [Laughs.] What opportunity I squandered to steal from Hugh. I actively avoided the movie to try to give it an original feel. The series is inspired by the book and the movie, but it’s not beholden to it in any way. I think after the first episode it goes into completely new territory. Hopefully, my strategy was the right one.
AVC: What are some avenues you get to explore in the TV show that the book and the movie weren’t able to?
DW: TV is so great because you can slow everything down and really explore a relationship, and at the heart of this show is this relationship with the little kid, who’s this weird, strange, bullied kid, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, and then I play this character who—the universe is his little playground. He’s very winning. Everything is going his way. He’s made a lot of money writing a Christmas song. He can sort of sleep with anyone he wants. Every impulse can be satisfied. In a lot of ways, he thinks he’s figured it out, but with starting to care about this little boy, he realizes there’s a lot of things he’s missing out on in life. Meaningful things. And what ends up happening in the series, as opposed to just the movie, is that this family starts forming between Minnie Driver’s character, Fiona, who’s the single mom of Marcus, played by Ben Stockham, and me. And me and Minnie kind of don’t even realize that this family is forming, but Marcus’ will to try to be a part of my life is making this really strange unit come together. I think that’s what separates it from the movie. We can explore this new odd family.
AVC: Jason Katims is really known for his work in family drama. This is his first real push into comedy. How did you first come to meet him and get to know him, and how is he, to your mind, shifting to the comedy realm?
DW: I heard of him from Friday Night Lights. I thought it was a fantastic, beautiful show, and then Parenthood I was a fan of. My wife’s [Majandra Delfino] first show was Roswell, and he did that show and she knew all about Jason as this kind of mad genius. So I remember being very excited when I read About A Boy’s script just because it was so good. I asked Jason, “What’s it like going into comedy now?” And he had an interesting answer. He was like, “I’ve always felt like I’ve been writing comedy,” you know? Because if you watch Parenthood, there’s always these really light moments that are so grounded in the emotional truth of what he’s so good at. It’s really almost just coincidental. An hour is 43 minutes of programming, and this is 23 minutes, but it shares all that emotional complexity and depth, and he kind of just turns the volume up a bit on the comedy. But the show is not about jokes and one-liners. It’s really about this relationship and then the funny situations that you get into. Katims is kind of doing what he’s always done. He’s just maybe, instead of going for tears or going for real emotional, powerful moments, he’s going for a more humorous situation.
AVC: You get to do a little bit of singing in the pilot…
DW: [Laughs.] Yeah.
AVC: You mentioned that the character wrote a Christmas song. Are these musical talents things you’ve been cultivating for awhile?
DW: [Laughs.] Yeah, in the shower. My wife is a very talented singer. She sang a lot on Roswell, and I am embarrassed to sing around her. I love music, and I love singing karaoke and all this stuff, and I’ve been really excited to play a musician. I feel very at peace, because the way they shoot things, if I suck, they can put in someone else’s hand playing the guitar and then pipe in someone else’s voice. So that’s kind of freeing, because you’re like, “I’m just going to do my best and see what happens.” In an episode we’re about to shoot I do have to start to sing, and that’ll be interesting. I should note, also, as a difference from the book: In the book, his dad wrote the song, and Hugh Grant’s character is just collecting royalties from his dad’s success. I think Katims made a smart choice making it my song. So that I have a little more responsibility for where I am in my life. But I haven’t written a song since. I wrote the song eight years ago, and I haven’t done anything since. And there’s a reason for that, and it will get addressed in the series, and it’s not a funny thing. It’s part of the depth of the characters that Katims creates.
AVC: There’s sort of that old maxim about “never work with children or animals.” For this show, you spend a lot of time with a child actor. What’s it been like building that relationship with somebody that young?
DW: It’s interesting. Benjamin Stockham plays an 11-year-old on the show, and he’s got the soul and the intelligence of like a 50-year-old. He’s really precocious. But he’s also, rightly so, sheltered. His mother’s very good keeping him away from the traps of this town and Hollywood. We have a great relationship where we just give each other a lot of shit and tease each other in a very loving way. It’s very close to who… I think everyone in the show is playing characters that are pretty close to who they are.
Listen, I’m married, I have two kids, but I’m not too different from Will in a lot of ways. I actively avoided responsibility for as long as I possibly could. Minnie has traveled the world and definitely has some of the earthy qualities that her character has, and little Ben is this delightfully strange kid that is really funny and witty.
AVC: Was that supposed to be your About A Boy character or sort of an analogue to that?
DW: One hundred percent. I was playing Will Freeman. Jason had this idea pretty early on that we would do this sort of subtle crossover, and Will would show up in Crosby’s [Dax Shepard] life. We’re buddies because we both play music and both live in San Francisco. It’s very realistic that our paths would cross. I think it’s really cool to do a crossover because Parenthood definitely is a drama, and About A Boy is definitely a comedy, but they’re close enough in tone and groundedness. It’s not like Two And A Half Men and The Black List. It’s two worlds that are pretty similar, so Crosby will come over and play a poker game on About A Boy, which is super cool. We just got the script, and it’s hilarious. It’s a subtle little wink to fans of Katims’ shows, and hopefully, it’ll generate some viewers.
AVC: Is that tricky, working out those schedules between the two shows?
DW: I think Parenthood wraps pretty soon, and as you know with that show, there’s a lot of separate storylines, so those guys have some days off.
The Loop (2006)—“Marco”
DW: That was the first time I met Will Gluck, and I’ve done now two movies with him, and we’re friends. It was also my first foray into just playing the absolutely over-the-top douchebag, which I think is the only way Will sees me now [Laughs.] since those are the only roles he offers me. Eric Christian Olsen and I have stayed in touch; Bret Harrison and I are friends still from that little experience. It was just a really fun show, that, like so many shows, goes away too quickly. But what’s cool about this town, and what’s cool about working with nice, fun, grounded people, is that you end up staying in touch, and the circle gets smaller and smaller. I see Eric Christian Olsen and Bret all the time, and Will and I cross paths. Who knows? We may all do another show or series together at some point.
AVC: What’s it like to be in a pilot when the show goes on, but then you’re the guest star from the first episode?
DW: It’s sad. [Laughs.] I had auditioned for Eric Christian Olsen’s part, and that’s how I got the guest star part—because I think Will liked my read but was like, “I’m giving this to Eric Christian Olsen.” So he sort of threw me a bone, giving me this guy, Marco. It’s also a good note for all the people who go on auditions: You get rejected no matter what, but if you do good work, it makes an impression on people, and you never know what opportunities that audition you didn’t get will generate.
AVC: Your résumé starts around that time, but how long had you been going out and auditioning and trying to get work before that?
DW: I graduated from Brown in 2001, moved to New York and spent a year and a half just looking up Backstage magazine auditions and grinding. And then I got an open call audition for Terminator 3, John Connor. Edward Furlong had a little bit of a drug habit, so they were looking for someone. It ended up going to Nick Stahl, and it was actually my friend John Krasinski who told me about the open call. So I went in there and that casting director was like, “I’m going to get you an agent.” She hooked me up with this woman Randi Ross the next day, and that day I was literally thinking about doing a production of Huckleberry Finn in northern Maine, that’s how desperate I was to act. And the next day, I was auditioning for CSI: Miami. A month later, I got a play called One Day On Wall Street that a Fox executive came and saw, got a general meeting from that, and then met Marcia Schulman, who was the casting executive, and I got a holding deal. They flew me out, and I did pilot season out here and got this show Cracking Up. That was my first professional TV show, Cracking Up, with Molly Shannon, Jason Schwartzman, Chris McDonald.
Cracking Up (2004)—“Liam Connor”
DW: It was kind of ahead of its time. I actually think with how TV has kind of morphed that that show would hold up right now. It was absolutely weird and sick. It’s the mind of Mike White. He’s so talented and funny. He just did Enlightened. What a talented cast! Molly Shannon’s incredible, Chris McDonald has got to be one of the funniest people I know, and I mean, Jason Schwartzman. So it was a really strange show about an incredibly strange family, and Jason played the straight guy, and I played the wild, opportunist best friend. That was my first lesson in… [Laughs.] I remember getting the part and starting to make all this money, and I’d made no money before that, all of the sudden, this money was coming in, and I said, “Yeah, I’ll keep my apartment in New York, I’ll rent a place in L.A. I’m making $20,000 a week making this show,” and then I didn’t work for a year after. [Laughs.] And actually The Loop was the first job I got. I got that lesson early. Just because you get a show and it gets on the air doesn’t mean jack. It certainly means that you’ll be considered for stuff, but you’ve got to fight and claw to get every job.
AVC: As a new actor, new to TV, working with all these people who had so much experience, what did you learn from some of that?
DW: I learned how little I knew. I mean, it’s only now I remember Jason would come in and he wouldn’t memorize his lines beforehand, and then Molly Shannon would be incredibly prepared, and Chris McDonald was halfway in between, but Jason was amazing in the show, and then Molly was amazing and so funny. I think the biggest lesson was that you’ve got to find your own method. You’ve got to find your own way of doing things. You come out of school, and you feel, “I have to do it this way.” But it was freeing to know that everyone has their own little strategy, and you’re not beholden to anyone to do it a right way. So just figure out what yours is. I’m still figuring it out. It just depends on what the material is, and then you kind of figure out how you’re going to approach it. Comedies, I find, tend to be a little better if you’re kind of loose and not over-rehearsed.
AVC: You’d mentioned that you have a lot of stage work, have done a lot of stage training, and yet you’ve ended up on the single-camera side instead of the multi-camera side. What do you think your strengths are that make you play so well on single-camera?
DW: Well, I think the only reason I haven’t done multi-cam is that all the ones I’ve done have failed. [Laughs.] I like single-camera. It depends. I don’t know. You’ve watched a lot of series. Shows like Malcolm In The Middle were single-camera, but there was a bigness to it. If you look at [Bryan] Cranston, he was playing a huge character. But it was single-camera. But I feel like that character could have easily been in the multi-cam world. I think single-cam/multi-cam, like 30 Rock is huge, some of those performances. Those are multi-cam performances, if you really think about it, a lot of them. So it’s kind of arbitrary how you perform. I think it’s more like, “The creator of the show, what is the feel of the show he’s trying to get?” And I like really grounded humor. I like really subtle stuff. I like stuff that you’re not spaced out on the couch and are still getting the jokes. You’re paying attention, and you have to really pay attention to get everything. That’s just my taste, so maybe just because that’s what I like, that’s what I end up getting. That’s my answer as far as why I tend to do those kinds of shows.
Fired Up! (2009)—“Dr. Rick”
AVC: You mentioned you’ve done some movies with Will Gluck.
DW: Fired Up! And then I got cut out of Friends With Benefits because my character was—I had to do S&M on Mila Kunis’ mom [Patricia Clarkson] in the movie. And I do readings with him, but Fired Up! was a big moment because Will really went to bat for me. I think they were thinking of kind of a more stereotypical frat-boy kind of guy, more macho, built, and all that stuff. Will, from The Loop, put his neck out on the line to get me that part. That is a cult hit, that movie. There’s so many people who’ve seen that movie in double-digits. I did New Girl this past year, Kobe Bryant came to the set and was like, “Yo man, are you Dr. Rick?” And I was like, “Yeah.” He said, “I watched Fired Up! every day before we won the world championship in 2009.” So these athletes are, like, it was the coolest thing in the world thinking about the entire Lakers team watching Fired Up!, this teenage sex comedy before going out on the floor and winning.
AVC: Obviously Fired Up! is a very farcical movie. What appeals to you about that sort of scenario?
DW: I try to tell directors and writers when I’m doing these things, my instinct is to sometimes go sketch-comedy big. I started doing sketch comedy at Brown, and I just like the parody style of acting and just being so huge. Jim Carrey was a hero and I was so influenced by him. I saw Ace Ventura when I was 12, and it just had such a big impact on me. I laughed the entire movie, so hard, and it was so out of control, what he was doing, that I always got a kick out of it. So I’ve always tended to like to go big and I’ll always say, “You’ve got to cross the line to know where it is.” [Laughs.] Like take five or six in these grounded single-cameras, they sort of know that I’ll start going a little ape, and I’ll just say, “You guys can always dial me back, but I like to at least do a huge one.
AVC: Is that the thing you think people recognize you for the most, when you’re recognized?
DW: I wouldn’t know. I really don’t know. I think it changes. I’m not famous enough to have people… I’ve met some people who really have seen a lot of my work, but it’s not like, you know, Tom Cruise. I’ve been on a lot of stuff that hasn’t lasted that long, so I’ve actually done a lot of roles, but I think if people saw the whole realm, I hope they would see someone that can do both. That can do grounded and subtle and real and also just go completely bonkers.
Friends With Benefits (2011)
AVC: You mentioned getting cut out of Friends With Benefits. As an actor, what’s that experience like?
DW: It’s very disappointing. Listen. I was dressed in S&M gear like I was riding a horse. I was in leather chaps, shirtless. If my grandmother was watching it would have been incredibly humiliating for her, so it wasn’t like I had a great storyline and got cut out, but I basically rode Mila Kunis’ mom like a pony in a scene and whipped her and was like a FedEx pilot that she met in the airport. It was just this absurd scene, so I was just bummed. I was even in the trailer. I was in the trailer and then I was cut out of the movie. So they used me to sell a movie, and then they cut me out. Will told me it made her character too unlikeable. I’m actually just in the background. It was disappointing, and you can’t help but feel like, “Oh, maybe it’s something to do with my performance,” but at the end of the day, you just kind of move on.
New Girl (2012-2013)—“Sam”
Happy Endings (2011)—“Henry”
AVC: What’s it like coming into an established show like New Girl, playing a character for a while, and then going away?
DW: It was really interesting seeing what season two of a show looks like. I never would have seen that before. [Laughs.] Those guys, everyone on that set is so nice and fun. Jake [Johnson], Max [Greenfield], Zooey [Deschanel], and Lamorne [Morris], everyone is just so cool and fun. But I would say that I was a little tentative and a little bit scared. The first scene is like, “Hi, nice to meet you, Zooey,” and then three minutes later, I’m in full makeout with her in a bathroom stall. So you have that moment of, “This is the weirdest job on the planet.” But after two episodes and I had gotten to know everyone, I really felt like a part of the show.
I knew seven episodes was the max, and I kind of dreaded it, to be honest. I really loved being on it. If I hadn’t gotten this, I would have begged Liz Meriwether to bring me back or make me a something on the show because it was just really fun. They made me feel like a part of that whole family… and then they kicked me to the curb. [Laughs.] It was the fastest breakup scene. It was the longest boyfriend she’d ever had. Obviously, she’s going out with Jake now, but I was the longest, by far, boyfriend on the show, and the breakup scene was, like, 35 seconds, and I was just gone. They pulled the Band-Aid off quickly.
AVC: You’ve done that and Happy Endings, which both have very tight-knit ensembles. How do you make yourself feel like a part of that, or is that up to the ensemble cast to help bring you in?
DW: It’s totally up to them. In general, you walk onto a set, and you pick up the vibe on the set. Happy Endings and New Girl, you just had a group of thirtysomething people that were having fun, felt very blessed to be there, and I think in a lot of ways—because I’ve now been on some series where I’m the regular and guest stars coming on—you kind of feel like you’re hosting a cocktail party. You want people to enjoy themselves. Everyone does their best work when they feel comfortable and appreciated and confident, so I think it’s really smart. It felt so good, their welcoming me, that it’s an important thing that I try to do when guest stars come.
100 Questions (2010)—“Wayne”
AVC: You’ve been on a lot of these shows that get held for midseason. What’s that experience like, shooting this stuff in a vacuum?
DW: It’s hard. I joke with my agents, “I’ve never been on a fall series.” I think I’ve done seven series, and every one of them has been midseason. I don’t even know what to make of that. But 100 Questions was the only one that, quote-unquote, got that burn-off in the summer. So no press, and just kind of like, “We have these. Here. Here you go. Instead of running repeats, we’ll show these.” And we kind of knew the show was in trouble, as we were shooting it. We had an original 13-episode order and then it got reduced to six. We paused. We got put on a couple “emergency hiatuses” to rework scripts. It was kind of troubled from the beginning, so in that way, you just put your head down and try to do the best work possible. It’s just not the best feeling. You just try to put good takes down, and that’s all you can do.
AVC: That one was multi-camera. Was it before a live studio audience?
DW: It was, but some episodes we ended up not doing it. NBC was trying, it was Angela Bromstad, I believe, was the head of NBC at the time, and she was trying to make… Jim Burrows had done the pilot, and it looked like a classic pilot. Burrows’ pilots always kind of look the same with different stories and characters, and they wanted to try to rework the sitcom, making it sexier and making it darker and cooler looking. It just never really panned out. So much of multi-cam is rhythms and feeding off the crowd and all these guys having fun, and I think what ended up happening is, in trying to get this new look, it kind of ground the rhythm to a halt.
Perfect Couples (2010-2011)—“Vance”
DW: That was a really special show. Jon Pollack and Scott Silveri—that has a fan base. It’s got a life online, and people really loved that show. I thought it was pretty tragic that that went away. As you know, a lot of these comedies start to find their gear in the second season, and by third or fourth season, you’re watching something really great. I thought there were some amazing episodes in that first season, and it was just an incredibly talented group of six people. You had Olivia Munn, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, Christine Woods, Hayes MacArthur, and Kyle Bornheimer. We were all just in love with each other and in love with the creators, and there was so much good energy in that. I feel like that show got the short end of the stick, and I will remain sad about that show.
AVC: It’s one of those shows where the pilot was maybe a little shaky but it really came together. Yet, so many people watched just the first episode and tuned out. What do you think makes comedy pilots so hard?
DW: You have to set up so much. You have to set up, in that case, six characters, six relationships. There’s so many expository requirements, and you’ve got 21-and-a-half minutes to do it. It is so hard, structure-wise and writing-wise, to be funny while being so expository.
I don’t think the Cheers pilot was very good. I don’t think the Seinfeld pilot was very good. Once you engage and know the characters and love them, you’re in, and then all the stories can just come, and you’re not worried about setting things up. I think that’s what makes pilots hard. Listen: Two comedies last year went to a second season, of all the comedies. The Neighbors and The Mindy Project, of all the network comedies. This is tough stuff, and people can rip it apart, but at the end of the day, it’s super hard to make a good pilot. Which is why I’m so excited about About A Boy, because I think it’s good.
AVC: Do you find yourself wishing you could do drama?
DW: Yeah, for sure. I’m really itching. Like anything in life you want fresh, new experiences, and I’ve been in the half-hour world for a while and a lot of my favorite shows are really hardcore, like the Homelands and the Mad Mens and all that stuff. Yeah, I definitely want to do that. We’ll see. I put it out there. I’ll put that want out there and see what comes.
Bent (2012)—“Pete Riggins”
AVC: It felt like NBC was really just burning it off. Did you get that sense at the time?
DW: Yes. When we got our timeslot it was like, “Okay. This is a problem.” Our lead-in was one of the historically low-rated shows, I forget even what it was, but it wasn’t even close to the tone. It wasn’t a good pairing. Promotional-wise, we had some billboards in two cities, but those aren’t the cities that actually do ratings. And they were doing back-to-back episodes, so that was on for three weeks. Actually, two weeks and one hour, it was on the air. And that kind of show—which I’m so glad you liked it, because I thought it was so cool—was the kind of show that needed the word-of-mouth time. It needed people to go, “Oh, you gotta check this show out.” Unfortunately, with the bottom-line mentality and conglomerate culture, no one’s getting the time to do. We knew we had an uphill battle, but we did what we could and just made the best show possible.
AVC: You play a lot of charming cads all the way up to, as you said, raging douchebags. You played a charming cad on this show. How do you think you fell into that role? What do you find enjoyable about playing that kind of character?
DW: I find that people who can say exactly what’s on their mind and get away with it are really fun to play. Where you can be that honest and irreverent and really, at times, despicable, but because you’re so forward with your shortcomings and despicableness, people forgive it and actually like it. I’ve always loved and kind of wished I could be more like that in real life, so, like everything, whatever you kind of want to be in your own life, if you get to play it on-screen, it’s really fun.