Show-business lifer Jason Bateman has been a near-constant TV presence since he filled the little-kid void in the later seasons of Little House On The Prairie. Inescapable in the '80s, while his sister Justine starred on Family Ties, Bateman bounced from Silver Spoons to It's Your Move to Valerie (later Valerie's Family, and later still, The Hogan Family) while guest-starring on everything from Knight Rider to Mr. Belvedere. Like many former child stars, Bateman had difficulty maintaining the same level of success as an adult, but while appearing in a string of short-lived sitcoms, he picked up skills as a director.
While his personal life prospered with his marriage to actress Amanda Anka (Paul Anka's daughter), Bateman's career seemed to have found a predictable rut. But it recently took an unpredictable turn when he landed the central role in Mitchell Hurwitz's acclaimed Fox comedy Arrested Development. Employing chops he'd never had a chance to exercise before, Bateman has proven himself a peerless straight man. The lone voice of sanity in a wealthy family facing financial ruin, Bateman holds his own against an ensemble including Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, Jessica Walter, and Portia de Rossi, as well as talented relative unknowns like Will Arnett and Tony Hale, and teenage newcomers Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat. (Producer Ron Howard provides deadpan narration perfectly in tone with a show that's both warm and capable of featuring a character with an apparent crush on Saddam Hussein.)
From the set of the show, Bateman spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about reruns, driving KITT, and why he loves his job.
The Onion: You've said that you wouldn't necessarily have been the first person you thought of to star in Arrested Development. Why is that?
Jason Bateman: Well, what I meant was that it seemed like they were trying to do everything that I hadn't been doing in the nine shows I did before. I was hoping that I wouldn't get thrown out with the bathwater. I wanted a chance to do something different, as well, and fortunately, they were open to letting me come in and read for the part. Luckily, I guessed right as to how they wanted it played.
O: David Cross has said that what makes Arrested Development work is a lack of ego: Everyone wants to do what's best for the show without worrying about whether they look good. Would you say that's true?
JB: Absolutely. They did a really good job in casting the show, in that everybody sort of has the same sense of humor as the writers. The actors are as much fans of the show as the audience that's watching it. We see when something's funny, and if somebody's got to set somebody up for a punchline, then we do that. It is kind of rare that everyone here is kind of ego-free. It's just so easy. You fly out of bed in the morning.
O: Have you had that experience before?
JB: Um, in smaller doses. This is just across the board: Everybody is so happy to be here and really feels like they're a part of something that makes them laugh. You can't really guess what the audience is going to like or think is funny. You just cross your fingers and hope that it's appealing to enough people to keep you on the air. We're right there, kind of, at that bubble stage, and hopefully, our ratings will pick up just a little bit to make the decision easier for the network in a couple of months.
O: The early line was that viewers should watch before it disappeared, but it seems like Fox has been supportive.
JB: Yeah, they have been. We're not doing an embarrassing number for the network. We're not forcing them to do anything rash. I think they just need to continue to have patience with us, because this is kind of a word-of-mouth show. It's a creeper. Some of the other shows that have been similar to it have taken a year or two or three sometimes to really catch on, until enough people hear about it. It doesn't really have the high-profile flash that some of these big ratings blockbusters have, some of these reality shows that come out of the gate on fire. I think the key is that you've gotta watch two of these. If you watch one, you're sort of like, "Well, that was kind of odd. It felt good, but I'm not really sure I got everything." After you watch it the second time, you kind of get the pacing and the tone of it, and enjoy it a bit more.
O: How many sitcoms were you on between The Hogan Family and Arrested Development?
JB: Let's see… There was Simon on The WB. There was Chicago Sons on NBC. There was George & Leo on CBS. Some Of My Best Friends on CBS. Um… What was the one after that? That was The Jake Effect on NBC. We did seven of those, but they never aired. And then this one.
O: Did you feel like any of those didn't get a fair shot?
JB: Well, The Jake Effect, only because it never made it to air. I think NBC got a little reluctant to get behind single-camera shows after Scrubs didn't do what they thought it was going to do following Friends. I think they got a little apprehensive about whether America wanted to see single-camera against the cost of making them, and would they syndicate, blah blah blah, all that business crap.
O: Recently, on Inside The Actors Studio, Johnny Depp admitted that he hadn't seen a lot of the projects he's been involved in. You've been in a lot of stuff. Have you seen it all?
JB: I try to see everything I do. It's a good learning tool for me. You kind of remember what you were going for when you were shooting it, and then see how it comes across in the context of what comes before and after it. You get a whole sense of the tone of the episode, and even of the whole night, with the shows that lead into it and lead out of it. It's helpful, especially with a comedy, to try and be familiar with your audience and where they're at, mood-wise and pace-wise. I learn a lot from it. That, and I'm a narcissist like you wouldn't believe. [Laughs.] I have a letter "N" on my chest.
O: You were also in a movie called Sketches.
JB: Yeah, that's a very, very important independent film about a young chap who's got cancer and drives across the country to audition for Jeopardy! before he dies. A real heartstring-puller.
O: Were you the cancer patient?
JB: I was. I load up a van with my two best friends, Jonathan Silverman and C. Thomas Howell, and we end up meeting Annie Potts, and I get married to her, and… It's not bad, but, you know, I was 19 when I did it.
O: Did you find it challenging to act with a car when you guest-starred on Knight Rider?
JB: No, actually. He's a brilliant actor, that car. That was a blast. I was 15, and at that age, I was like, "I get to drive the car? Yeah, I'm doin' it!" And David Hasselhoff is actually a really cool guy. I like him.
O: How did you first get into acting? You started very young, right?
JB: We had this neighbor who was an actor, and he was going to an audition one day, driving by our house, and he asked if I wanted to tag along. He was reading for the part of the father, and they were reading for the part of the son the same day, and he told me to sneak in there and make it look like I knew what I was doing. I did that and ended up getting the part. I thought I was really good, so I had my dad take pictures of me and send them to an agency, and we ended up doing some commercials after that.
O: What was your first commercial?
JB: Um… I think I did, like, Honey Nut Cheerios or something. I had to pretend to see this fucking bee flying around all over the place. I thought I was in the middle of Hollywood magic.
O: You were in a fight scene recently. Did you have to train for that?
JB: No, but I should have. I just about passed out when I was done with it. I would have been good, but my body was fighting something else at the time, I found out later. It was really exhausting, and we had to shut down production at the end of that for about six weeks. We were going to take a break anyway. That was right before Thanksgiving.
O: Have you ever found out if the character in American Psycho is really named after you?
JB: I don't know, but my big letter "N" was throbbing during promos for that before movies when the name Bateman was flashed up there. It was a real highlight for me.
O: But not based on you, I would guess?
JB: Um, I don't know. I mean, the fact that the guy had a kickin' body, probably, but… No. I have no idea. I haven't ever talked to the writer.
O: You co-starred with Shannen Doherty at a young age. Was she trouble then?
JB: No. Wilford Brimley was a pain in the ass. He played, I guess, the dad on the show, and I, a young actor, show up on the set… It's like a four-page scene I have with this guy, and he cuts the middle two pages and doesn't tell me 'til we're rolling. He offered no explanation. I guess he didn't like it. But Shannen was pretty cool. We knew each other a little bit, because she was doing Father Murphy while I was doing Little House On The Prairie, so we had sort of like a sweet prairie relationship.
O: At jumptheshark.com, your departure from Silver Spoons is the second most commonly cited moment for the beginning of that show's decline. Would you agree with that?
JB: I have no idea. I certainly loved playing that character, but they ended up giving me a really good character right after that on It's Your Move, and I ate that up. I think we actually followed Silver Spoons during the brief life of that show.
O: To this day, there are people out there who are fans of It's Your Move.
JB: I get a lot of really nice comments about that show. I guess there were a lot more people watching TV back then, and there were only three networks, and we were all 14 or 15 and doing nothing but watching TV and staring at girls. It was a good time to be on TV.
O: You haven't done a lot of films. Would you like to do more?
JB: Yeah, there was a long time there where I was just concentrating on trying to balance as much play as I could with as much work as I was doing. I wasn't really interested in doing anything except going from pilot season to pilot season, and sowing my oats in the months between, and telling my agency to stop sending me movie scripts, because they'd pile up in my house and make me feel guilty because I had to read them. That's certainly passed, and I'm much more excited about having a job and a career and a wife and a house. I also enjoy acting a lot more now. So I'm much more proactive and interested in doing other things. I'm all over it now. Plus, I've got basically a manager for a wife, and she doesn't let me get away with not reading things.
O: Did your father-in-law sing at your wedding?
JB: Yeah, he did. He re-wrote his song "My Way" with personalized lyrics.
O: Did your show ever settle the lawsuit with the group Arrested Development?
JB: I assume so. I think it's kind of gone away, but I was hoping that it would flare up into something nasty so we could get some good press out of it.
O: Was there a lot of pressure to live up to the first Teen Wolf when you did Teen Wolf Too?
JB: If there was, I didn't feel it. Again, young age, it sounded good at the time. But now, I still get asked about it, and it was, I don't know, 20 years ago. It was fun to do at the time, but it's definitely a résumé-eraser.
O: It's on cable all the time, like a lot of your stuff. Do you ever run across yourself while you're channel-surfing?
JB: If I do, I'm back on the button.