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: At this point, Joey Slotnick is practically a charter member of the “oh, that guy!” school of acting. Though he’s starred in successful sitcoms and in big budget movies, he’s also popped up in recent commercials for E*Trade, in which he plays legendary traitor (get it?) Benedict Arnold. Truly, Slotnick is an acting journeyman with a degree of humility about his job, something that made running through his roles with him all the more interesting.
The A.V. Club: You’ve done a number of commercials, including the recent E*Trade ad. Do you like doing commercials? Does it take a different skill set than acting on TV and in movies?
Joey Slotnick: Commercials are those things where, initially, if you don’t have to do a commercial, you probably wouldn’t. But it seems like every actor nowadays does commercials. For a long time, you didn’t do that. Film actors stuck with film, TV actors stuck with television, and you had the commercial actors, but because it has become more insular and more difficult in, let’s say in the last 15, 20 years, it kind of all drops down.
I’ve been lucky, because some of the commercials I’ve done have been really fun. E*trade was really fun. The director’s name is Steve Miller, and he’s great.
I auditioned for that one. The commercial is basically dependent on the client. If the client likes you, then that’s great. Otherwise, it has very little to do with anything else. That was a fun one. It’s short and sweet and I think the timing is fun on it.
I did a bunch of commercials with my friend Rashida Jones. They were these Verizon commercials, and basically she said, “Hey, I’m doing these commercials. Do you want to be in them with me?” I said “sure, that’ll be a lot of fun.” Basically it’s just she and I for a couple of them. And then she asks some of her other friends. It was really fun to kind of sit around and hang out and oh, that’s right, we just happened to be shooting a commercial.
AVC: Where did you meet Rashida Jones?
JS: We did a TV show called Boston Public.
AVC: You were only on the first season of Boston Public, and then your character, a teacher, got fired. How’d you land that role?
JS: Everyone has to go and test for a part. For a pilot, you have to go through the whole process of going into a really, really cold room with 20 or 25 executives, and you have to perform. But this was great, because it was David E. Kelley, and so they knew that the show was going to be on the air. I had one audition, and the second audition was with him and a few other people sitting around a conference table. It was very casual. We did the scene, and then it was, “oh yeah, David Kelley wants you to do the show.” That was it.
When I was fired, if you will, he said to me that he had written himself into a corner and unfortunately couldn’t write himself out. I thought to myself at the time, “Really? You’re a writer. I imagine you can figure stuff out.” However, I get that that wasn’t what he chose to do. And so I was written off the show along with Tom McCarthy, who was a teacher that was friends with my character. But that’s how I met Rashida and Tom. Tommy is still one of my closest friends. We both got written off at the same time.
AVC: What was happening to your characters that you got the ax?
JS: Well, my character, Milton, started having an affair with a student.
AVC: That will do it.
JS: Yeah. That’ll do it. And Tom’s character kept on saying, “You gotta stop. What are you doing? You’re crazy. You’re going to get in a lot of trouble and this is not good.” His character knew about it.
But the experience of doing the show was really fun. I had a good time. Good cast, and it was fun.
AVC: That was not your first TV series, though.
JS: Nope, not as a regular at least. That was The Single Guy.
AVC: There are a lot of people on the A.V. Club staff that remember that show fondly.
JS: Yeah, it was a pretty good show. There were a lot of shows that replaced it that weren’t as good.
You know, it’s funny, after the first year, they let a couple of wonderful actors go, they hired a couple of other wonderful actors, and it got a little—well, it wasn’t as funny as it used to be. So by the end of the second season, when we found out we weren’t getting picked up, I just thought, “Well, you know, that’s okay, because I’d rather not do a show that’s not funny.”
AVC: You still had very good ratings, all things considered.
JS: Especially by today’s standards. It’s hilarious.
We were between Friends and Seinfeld. I think some critic said you could show fuzz and people would watch. We were a little more interesting than fuzz.
AVC: Ernest Borgnine was on The Single Guy, in addition to Ming-Na Wen and Jonathan Silverman. Do you have any Borgnine stories?
JS: Borgnine was one of the greatest. He and I got along incredibly well. He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. Just a wonderful, wonderful guy.
I have a good story. It’s kind of a sad story. But it’s a good story. Want to hear it?
AVC: Of course.
JS: At some point, I said to him, “Ernie, do you have any used clothes?” I was into vintage clothing, and I figured Borgnine would have some vintage clothing. He said, “let me check.” So then a few weeks go by, maybe a month, and he calls me into his dressing room and hands me this suit bag, and I opened it up, and there is this leather jacket. It’s his McHale’s Navy jacket. He had it refurbished and signed it on the inside for me.
AVC: Do you still have it?
JS: Well, that’s the sad part. I don’t still have it. I was moving to New York and I put a bunch of stuff in storage. There were some boxes that I knew I was going to give to Goodwill, and some other stuff I was going to keep. And at some point, a friend of mine said, “I’m going to go to the Goodwill, which boxes can I get rid of?” I said, “I think one of those boxes.” I was out of town. So someone is wearing it. Hopefully someone who needed it really bad is wearing that leather jacket.
AVC: It’s just floating around somewhere, I guess.
JS: It’s floating around. Hopefully the Borgnine family won’t be completely pissed off at me, but maybe someone who does have it can contact them or me and say, “I have it. Would you want it back?” It’s a bittersweet story. But he was dynamite.
AVC: The stories that guy probably had.
JS: Oh my god, hilarious stories. Jonathan Silverman and I had to basically distract him and bring him to his 80th surprise birthday party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. It was an incredible night. I mean, it was hysterical. I was sitting with Don Rickles, who eventually played my dad on the show, but I was sitting at his table, and he was, again, also one of the greatest humans ever, and he was so frickin’ funny. He made a toast to Borgnine and his family and made such crap out of him, oh my god. That’s what he does so well, and everyone was on the floor. It was amazing. He worked a room.
One of Rickles’ lines to me was “Slotnick, what a night, huh? What a night.” Because there were some people that were speaking that—I forget this one guy was, but he was basically the oldest guy ever. He must have been 90, and he got up, said, “happy birthday to everybody. Everybody, happy birthday!” And he sat down in his wheelchair and they wheeled him out. Rickles was like, “Slotnick, what a night, huh? What a night.” It was pretty hysterical.
AVC: You have a project in post-production right now called Humor Me with Jemaine Clement and Elliott Gould. Can you tell me about that?
JS: It’s a very funny script written by a guy who started the Old Jews Telling Jokes website, if you ever saw that. I play Elliott Gould’s alter-ego. He’s always telling jokes, so I’m the guy who is described in those jokes. Sam Hoffman wrote and directed it, and it’s a very sweet movie. Clement plays a dad who’s getting divorced. His wife basically leaves him, and he moves in with his father, who is played by Elliott Gould. So Elliott Gould always tells these jokes, and when he describes these jokes, I’m the guy. So I’m kind of sporadic throughout the film. I haven’t seen it yet. I hope to, it’s supposed to be really funny. It’s a great script. So we’ll see what happens.
AVC: Well, Elliott Gould and Jemaine Clement are both very funny.
JS: They’re very good. You’d think people would want to watch them. That’s the crazy thing about this business, though. You just never, ever, ever know.
AVC: You were in another movie called Tuna that has a bunch of a great people in it, but according to IMDB, even though it was made in 2000, it wasn’t released until 2013. It’s got Louis C.K., Damien Young, Angus T. Jones, Nick Offerman, David Krumholtz, Kevin Corrigan, and a bunch of other people. What is that movie? And what’s its deal?
JS: It’s crazy. I don’t know why it didn’t come out, but the director was a really interesting guy. It’s a bunch of weird characters driving around L.A., basically. Nick Offerman’s guy collected grocery carts. I was a guy who was trying to recruit this woman for something, I don’t even remember. I think I’ve seen bits and pieces of it, but I’ve never seen the whole thing. It’s an odd, independent film.
AVC: It’s been a while, to be fair. It’s amazing that you remember that you were in it.
JS: Well, somehow it came up a few years ago. I think I saw some scenes from it. I was like, “oh my god, that’s right, that’s hilarious.” And I didn’t even realize Louis C.K. was in it, that’s the thing. Maybe when I run into him at the grocery store, I’ll say, “hey, we were in the same movie together.”
AVC: How did you land your role on Curb?
JS: I auditioned for the show a few times. Basically you go into a room and you just improvise with Larry [David] and Jeff [Garlin]. So this time, I went in and it worked out. It was great. Larry’s great, and Jeff I’ve known for a long, long time.
Who directed that one? Was it Bob Weide, maybe? It was really fun. Basically, Larry said, “okay, here’s where I want to start, and I want to make sure you say this specific line, but otherwise, we can just play around.” And that’s what we did. I think it ended up being a shorter scene than it began as because, you know, we improvised a lot. But basically, on that show, you improvise.
AVC: How long ago did you meet Jeff Garlin? You were also in his movie I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With.
JS: I knew Jeff a little bit from Chicago, and then L.A. I’ve known Jeff and Marla [Garlin] since the early ‘90s, I guess. Jeff’s wife Marla, who is a casting agent, used to be one of my agents back in Chicago when I lived there in ’90, ’91.
AVC: Speaking of Chicago, you used to be roommates with David Schwimmer, and you were in a movie called Since You’ve Been Gone that he directed in 1998. Could you talk about that relationship and how you came to be in that movie?
JS: We were part of the same theater company, Lookingglass, and Schwimmer really wanted to find a script we could do with the theater company. The original script, I think the original title was called Stepping In The Dog Water, which wasn’t the greatest title. Basically, he used everybody he could from the theater company. He got a lot of pressure from Harvey Weinstein, who was producing the film. Harvey wanted a big name here, a big name there. Jon Stewart has a tiny little part, and I think [Weinstein] wanted Jon Stewart to play a big part. But Schwimmer was incredibly—and still is—loyal, and he said, “I want my theater company. This is who I pitched and this is who I want to play the parts.” And they let him.
That was a blast to do. He was directing, and he’s a really wonderful director. You’re working with people that you’ve been friends with for the past, at the time, 10, 12 years. And now our theater company is celebrating its 30th anniversary next year.
AVC: What did you learn doing that movie?
JS: First of all, I had to play guitar and sing. So that was a little frightening. So I learned to get over that fear. I learned to play. I mean, I knew how to play, I guess.
It was really a lesson in, “here’s a bunch of friends getting together and just kind of playing around, and the camera happens to be on.” Schwimmer got really wonderful performances out of people who hadn’t had a whole lot of film experience. I had more experience than others, but people who hadn’t really been on film were terrific in it. They’re very natural. It’s a sweet little film. I don’t know if a whole bunch of people saw it.
AVC: That’s the good thing about the internet. It could have legs for years to come, assuming its online somewhere.
JS: I’m sure it’s somewhere in the universe.
AVC: Was Twister the biggest production you have ever been involved in?
JS: Twister and Hollow Man are the biggest, I would imagine.
AVC: What do you remember about making Twister?
JS: In the spring of ’95, I got The Single Guy and Twister in the same week. I literally finished shooting the pilot of The Single Guy at 3 a.m., and that next morning flew to Oklahoma and started filming Twister. We were in Oklahoma and Iowa for like four months, and we shot a week extra. We shot until four in the morning. That morning I flew back, my agent picked me up at the airport and drove me to the set of The Single Guy, where we were starting to shoot the first season. So that was crazy.
Twister was an insane shoot. I knew nothing. That was my first big movie. We were in the middle of nowhere for months. But I befriended Phil Hoffman, and there were a lot of good people there. Alan Ruck and Sean Whalen and Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt.
It was a very difficult shoot. One of my favorite directions from Jan De Bont was when I was partnered up with Jeremy Davies, and we were in this car—we were always in a car chasing down a tornado—and Jan De Bont gave the best direction to us. [in French accent] “Okay, here we go now. So real big tornado. It’s not real big, it’s pretty big. And, action.” Okay, so it’s not a real big tornado, it’s pretty big? That’s how we’re supposed to look at it? Of course, when I look at my performance, I just think, “Oh god, I’m just awful.” But I haven’t seen the film in a long time.
AVC: People learned a lot about tornadoes from that movie.
JS: People love that movie. I mean, people love that movie.
AVC: Do you get recognized from that movie?
JS: Yeah, and I think, “oh my god.” And then of course the next question people ask is, “Are you still acting?”
AVC: Is that the thing you get recognized the most from?
JS: It’s hard for people, because I’ve been on a lot of things. They’ll say, “Where do I know you from?” And I’ll say, “I’m not sure.” I like to say theater first. “Did you just see something at The Atlantic?” or something like that. And they’ll say no. And I’ll say okay. Then I’ll name something like The Good Wife, and then maybe I’ll name one other thing. And they’ll go, “no…” And then I have to walk away, because I can’t. It’s too much. People know they know you from somewhere but they’re not sure from exactly where.
AVC: What do you remember about Hollow Man?
JS: I have a good story from that. We were shooting on the Sony lot, and I got to do the film with a very good friend of mine, Greg Grunberg. We had been friends from before, but we were both cast in the film, which was great. I befriended Kim Dickens, who was also in that one. We had a really good time.
Anyway, we were on the Sony lot, and across the way they were filming What Lies Beneath, this film that Robert Zemeckis was directing with Harrison Ford. So one day, months into the shoot—we had taken a couple weeks off, because Elisabeth Shue had sprained her foot or something. I don’t know if she was at home jumping on a trampoline, but she sprained her foot, so we had to take a week or two off. We came back and she was in this golf cart. The golf cart had a Rolls Royce emblem on the front, like on the grill.
So we were touring around in it, and it’s me and Kim Dickens in the golf cart with Elisabeth, and she sees Harrison Ford is basically out in front of the stage, just kind of holding court, talking to a bunch of people, because he’s Harrison Ford. The guy’s Han Solo and Indiana Jones. So Elisabeth is like, “I wish I could go over and meet him and stuff,” and Kim and I were just like, “You’re a movie star! Isn’t that what you guys do? Don’t you just go and introduce yourself?” We were teasing her a little bit, but she just drives up to Harrison Ford, and we’re in the cart, and she says, “hey.” He says, “How do I get one of those?” There’s some chit-chat, and he says, “Do you want to race?,” and I said yes. So basically, it’s Harrison Ford in his golf cart and Elisabeth and me and Kim Dickens in our golf cart, and we’re racing down the studio street on the Sony lot and we rush to one end and come back. He won, of course.
AVC: He had only one person in his cart. That’s unfair.
JS: Exactly. But that was pretty kick-ass. That’s when I had to pinch myself and say, “Okay, this is not an experience that I will forget. This is unique and I’m appreciating every second of it.”
AVC: You have done two event television movies, Pirates Of Silicon Valley and Too Big To Fail.
JS: Oh my god, it’s so funny. You were talking and I’m like, “I have? What the hell?” I played Steve Wozniak before it was cool to play Steve Wozniak.
AVC: Exactly. You were there pre-Seth Rogen.
JS: He was actually very, very good.
AVC: Steve Wozniak seems like a fun guy to play.
JS: He was great. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to meet him before we started shooting, but both Noah Wyle and I did tons of research and really created a lot of that stuff, that friendship, I think, offscreen and onscreen. We tried to be very specific with it. It was a great experience. I had a good time with that.
AVC: What did you learn about the banking crisis from Too Big To Fail?
JS: God. I mean, the banking crisis is so dense, I’d rather learn about computers any day of the week. That’s at least something that you can put your hands on.
The banking crisis was a little more ephemeral, or ethereal. I don’t know. Too Big To Fail was definitely more serious. The subject matter in Pirates Of Silicon Valley was serious, but it was different. With Noah and Anthony Michael Hall, we were looser than the other folks, certainly compared to Too Big To Fail. It had a much more vast story to tell. There were so many characters and players in that. It was a real interesting group of people to be around, though, and I loved Curtis Hanson. I just loved him. He was great. A really wonderful director that let me do my thing a little bit.
The guy I played, Dan Jester, there was no background about him. He chose to really get away from those events. Some of the other people in the film met their counterparts. I know [Paul] Giamatti had lunch with Ben Bernanke. A lot of people had met their guys. I had nothing. So it was basically based on a few things that I had read.
I had less control over the role than other people. When I got to my first day on the set, they kind of did up my hair and sprayed my hair, and I was like, “okay.” I didn’t have a lot of control over how I was going to look, because they had one picture, and they were like, “this is how you’re going to look.” So I didn’t have a lot of say in that, whereas with Pirates Of Silicon Valley, I grew a beard, we had a great wig, and a lot more time was taken. I didn’t have a whole lot of time.
I actually got to meet Woz after the shoot. We actually met at that funky restaurant in LAX, and he came with this guy Andy. I forget his last name, but he designed the original Mac. We all had lunch, and it was really, really fun. I’m still friends with Woz. We’ll email each other.
It was interesting, too, to do that film just as the iPod was about to come out. It was before Apple was back on top.
AVC: What do you remember about working on Nip/Tuck and how did your character come to be?
JS: That was an audition that I had got, and I went in, and thought, “This would be a really fun guy to play. Just a real pompous jerk who has a huge ego and doesn’t care what he says or how he says it, because he’s pretty much right.” That was really fun. It’s very close to me, really. Just kidding.
I think I did five or six episodes of that over three seasons. A lot of people recognize me from that.
That show was so unusual and new. It got a little kooky in the last couple seasons, but those first two or three seasons are really, really good, and weird, and funky. They had a lot of wonderful writers.
Bobolit was a little nutty. When he’s giving the dog a little CPR? That was really fun.
AVC: How was that scene filmed? Was it a toy dog? Was it a real dog?
JS: No, it was a fake dog. But the dog looked very real. There was someone offscreen pumping so it looked like he was breathing and not breathing.
AVC: You played the manager of Burger Jungle in Idle Hands?
JS: I think I was cut out of that film. Maybe I worked a couple days on it, but that was it. I’ve never seen it, but I don’t think I have any lines. I think they cut my part. That’s not the first time.
AVC: What else have you been cut out of?
JS: I got cut out of The Black Dahlia. I flew to Sophia, Bulgaria to shoot that thing for a week. I don’t know how I got cut out, because I played the number one murder suspect.
They dyed my hair red. It was crazy. I got to work with Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson. Brian De Palma and Art Linson produced it, and everybody was in a great mood the week I was there. And then they cut me out. So that was a bit of a bummer.
In fact, I saw De Palma two or three years ago at the opening of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, on Broadway here. It was the show that came from Steppenwolf. Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. De Palma was sitting right behind me. He was coming up the aisle at some point, by the stage, during one of the intermissions, and he was kind of looking out at the house with his back to the stage. He comes up the aisle and we smile at each other, and he looks at me, and I say, “Hi Brian, Joey Slotnick, I did Black Dahlia,” and he said, “Oh yeah, hey, how are you?” And then he sits down and he says to his wife, “I had to cut him out, but he had one of the best scenes in the movie.” It was very sweet. I don’t think that happens all the time. So I got cut out of that, but I got to go to Bulgaria.
AVC: Was A League Of Their Own your first movie?
JS: That was my first movie. This will age me, but there was a place called Boogie’s Diner at Rush and Walton, right behind the Bloomingdale’s building on the northwest corner. I waited tables there, and then this audition came up. Ellen Lewis, who is still one of the best casting directors around, she was casting, and I went in and got this part. This other guy, they thought we looked like brothers, so they put us in the film. It was, again, really fun.
I probably sound like a broken record, but I’m lucky to say that most of the experiences I’ve had in my career have been really good. Certainly theater and almost every time I do a film or television program. There have been a few exceptions, but otherwise, I’ve been lucky.
Anyway, we did it and we had a good time and Penny Marshall loved us and asked us to come back for another week. So then we went to Indiana, and we shot some more scenes there. I didn’t have a whole lot to do, but it was my first film. What a fun film to be in. And that’s a good movie.
AVC: How does your character end up in that movie? He has a crush on Rosie O’Donnell.
JS: They’re all dancing in a bar. We’re there, just watching and getting excited about it, and at some point, we’re in the stands, and we said, “hey Doris,” and Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, they come to the stands, and we say a couple things. Maybe that was first. I don’t know. But [Penny Marshall] had us come and do a few extra little scenes and stuff.
AVC: It’s been 25 years since that movie came out, and people still love it.
JS: It’s nuts. Here’s the funny thing to bring us around: Sam Hoffman, who just directed Humor Me, was the first AD on A League Of Their Own. How about that?
AVC: It’s a small world.
JS: It’s a very small world. So he’s been doing AD, and now he’s also an executive producer on Madame Secretary. He’s been around for a long, long time, too.
AVC: And, as is tradition in Random Roles, I must now ask about your Law & Order appearance. Do you remember what your character Walter Camp did on SVU?
JS: I think I was a lawyer. In fact, I just did an episode of Blue Bloods, and the one of the leads on that, I think I was his lawyer on SVU. My character represented him, which he reminded me of when I did the episode. I thought, “Well, that’s hilarious. And now you’re a regular on the show and I’m coming on as a guest star. Where does that leave us?”