The actor: John Hodgman, a humorist whose diverse adventures past and present include work as a literary agent (Bruce Campbell was a client), a journalist (as featured in McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, and The New York Times), a radio personality (This American Life), an author (of the irreverent almanac series that began with The Areas Of My Expertise and More Information Than You Require, and will finish this November with That Is All), a supplier of false biographical information (on the last two Emmy Awards telecasts), and a fake-but-surprisingly-fair-minded judge (on Maximum Fun’s ongoing Judge John Hodgman podcast). A promotional appearance on The Daily Show for The Areas Of My Expertise opened the door for Hodgman’s second—or it is fifth or sixth?—career as an actor, first as a Daily Show correspondent, then as “PC” to Justin Long’s “Mac” in the long-running Apple “Get A Mac” advertising campaign.
Between 2007 and the present, Hodgman has worked steadily as a voiceover artist and a supporting player in comedies and at least one cultishly adored science-fiction show. In the new indie farce The Best And The Brightest, Hodgman makes the most of a small role as an elite private-school board member who mistakes a series of sexually explicit instant-message exchanges for poetry. At a party to celebrate the “poet”—actually a desperate father (Neil Patrick Harris) trying to get his daughter enrolled in kindergarten—Hodgman’s character becomes keenly interested in terms like “Cleveland Steamer.” In addition to Harris and Hodgman, the film also stars Amy Sedaris, Peter Serafinowicz, Bonnie Somerville, Christopher McDonald, and Jenna Stern.
The Best And The Brightest (2011)— “Henry”
The A.V. Club: This is quite an assemblage of talent. How did it come together?
John Hodgman: It’s like all of Twitter is in this movie, minus Amy Sedaris. It has Amy Sedaris, but she’ll never be on Twitter.
AVC: Has she explained why?
JH: Yeah, all she does is pass little slips of paper around. She writes down little things on slips of paper and then hands them out to everyone on set, that was her version of Twitter. [Pause.] I wish that were true, but it’s not. Amy Sedaris is an old-timey kind of person. She does not have a cellular phone. She uses electronic mail. I’ll give you an idea of how old-timey and sort out of touch she is, charmingly so, with the go-go Internet culture of which you and I are a big part. It was around the time we were filming the movie and she was talking about her latest book [Simple Times: Crafts For Poor People] of crafts and entertaining, and she asked me to help her with a YouTube video for the book. Why me? I don’t know. Because I use the Internet, she just figured I could do it. I told her she may want to talk to someone who shoots things for a living—someone with a good camera might be a good idea, someone who can edit video. [Being on] Twitter does not automatically make me part of the YouTube generation. I’m not going to be the Arc Music Factory to your Rebecca Black, Amy Sedaris.
[The Best And The Brightest] was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. We shot it in Philadelphia in 2009, and Philadelphia was pretending to be New York, as it often does, frankly. [Whispers.] Everyone in Philadelphia is going to strangle me now. [Normal voice.] I love Philadelphia. My mom, who is no longer alive, was from Philadelphia, and my wife went to Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia, so I spent a lot of time there, and indeed, we shot at Bryn Mawr College too, which was the first time I had been there since I was a teenager pitching woo to my future wife, so it was kind of old home week for me.
We shot the scenes that make up the bulk of my appearance in the film, which were the scenes in the book party, and that was in a beautiful brownstone in Philadelphia, of which they have many. Philadelphia is a beautiful old city with beautiful old homes, but it is, like all cities, economically challenged, particularly in terms of real estate, these days, and a lot of these old townhomes have been gutted and renovated. Not the one that we shot in, which was lovingly preserved, but around that area of Philadelphia, there are quite a few townhouses that have been in the real-estate boom, gutted and renovated to perfection within an inch of their ancient lives, and then in the financial and real-estate crash that happened not altogether too long before we shot the film, remained completely empty. For that reason, the production simply rented out a townhouse that was for sale and just not selling around the corner from the location where we were shooting—to serve as our dressing rooms, basically.
So you walk into this thing, and this had been beautifully restored, and had four floors and a deck and an old-timey elevator running up the middle of it, and a wine cellar, and a butler’s pantry, and recessed lighting, and everything you’d read about in a lavish real-estate description of this house—and it deserved it, it was beautiful. We were all installed in little rooms in this house, but it was completely empty except for the folding chairs we brought in, and the iPhone chargers we plugged into the walls. We would wander around it, and for a weekend, I got to share an empty townhouse with Amy Sedaris, Peter Serafinowicz, Neil Patrick Harris, Bonnie Somerville, and Jenna Stern. It was the strangest reality show of all time, but there were no cameras. It was actually happening. It was dreamlike. We would sit around and wait between our scenes and wander the empty hallway of this beautiful home, and I think by the end of it, we all sort of considered pitching in and buying it, and just abandoning our lives and living there forever, which maybe we should’ve done.
AVC: This role seemed colored by you in some way. Did you have any input, or was it written with you in mind?
JH: The director and co-screenwriter, Josh Shelov, and his co-screenwriter, Michael Jaeger, and I all went to Yale University together, and we all knew each other to one degree or another while we were there. I had not really been in touch with [Shelov] since. He made some indication that he had written the role with me in mind, but it’s hard for me to tell whether that’s something that he says to everybody or not. [Laughs.] I think perhaps he had me in mind. He had known me at Yale as a miscreant and a lout, which is to say a writer of short stories, and then I accidentally got on television, and I think he may have consciously or unconsciously relished the idea of taking the darling of the personal-computer ads and making him say a lot of dirty things. I think he liked doing that for all of the cast, frankly. One thing I did not know about Josh or Michael when I knew them years ago was that they were so foul-mouthed. Boy oh boy, talk about a locker room.
AVC: The film’s hook is pretty large, especially if you’re a person with children who lives in New York and is trying to find a decent education for your children. Did you connect to those misadventures?
JH: Our children go to a public school, so we only had to murder one person to get them in, so the barrier to entry was much lower than what you hear about. I feel that there is a decision people make to either engage in a legitimately ridiculous process to get your kid into school, or choose not to engage in that so much, and end up finding a nice local school that fits. I think that’s kind of what the movie is about. There’s the choice: Are you going to engage in this world? And if you are, why would you, when there is a perfectly reasonable alternative called Delaware?
You see them arriving in this city, New York, practically every 30 seconds—and all of us who live here, unless we were born here, was one of them at some time—who are drawn like moths to a cliché, to things that will destroy them, to a completely unnecessary complication in one’s young or not-so-young life, to live in a completely implausibly expensive city and sacrifice savings and sanity and living space to be here for some period of time. I guess it’s like experimenting with smoking cigars in college: Sometimes you just have to get it over with, and unfortunately for some people, it becomes a lifestyle. That’s where I think [the film is] a farce, but the farce is driven by the fact that there’s this real human couple where the wife really feels a need to do this, and the husband doesn’t at all, yet he’s going to be completely supportive of her, and because of that, she sees him in a new light by the end. Which I think is part of the story that’s more subtle than perhaps Christopher McDonald prancing around in towels.
AVC: The nature of the farce takes the film down a lot of odd tributaries.
JH: It’s an extremely broad farce. I’m grateful for it for being an extremely broad farce in a way that they don’t make them anymore. There used to be movies and TV shows like this all the time, and there are still. There’s a Hangover, and I believe there’s a Hangover Part II, but as movies have understandably started to target only teenagers, because they’re the only ones who want to leave the house and go to the theater, those sorts of movies with grownups in them getting into scrapes and troubles, and married people and older people tend not to be seen as much. It’s not a relief, but a delight to see that again, and what’s also delightful is the fact that underneath it, these guys are really good writers, and they found the truth of every character in this story. It’s not just that dumb, Robert McKee, “everybody’s got to have an arc” nonsense. They found everybody’s truth in the story and made them happy in the end in a way that feels completely organic and often surprising.
The Jenna Stern character—and she’s so great in this movie—could have completely been discarded by the end of the movie. You just needed her to be a foil for a while, and then off she goes, she could disappear. But the romance that develops between her and Peter Serafinowicz is one of the greatest things about the movie, and it’s so true and it feels so real, and I think it’s very touching when they finally find each other at the end of the movie. I think in almost any other screenplay or movie, you would not feel that that had to happen, but you’re so glad that it did. Probably the only person who doesn’t have a resolution in this is the character that I play. It’s not for lack of trying—it’s because I had to go out of the country for a while, and I couldn’t come back and film my final scene, so I do kind of disappear. Once I read those poems, those dirty, dirty text messages passing as poems, and once I learned what a Cleveland Steamer was, I went to Cleveland to find out for myself. Maybe when we do the George Lucas-ian reshoots, we’ll have one final scene where I’m driving in a car and you see the road sign pass that says “Cleveland: Five miles.”
AVC: I think we don’t see too many farces like these because farce requires engineering on the scriptwriting level, and it feels like screen comedy has really shifted to the performers, and been shaped by how they can improvise their way through a movie. The comedies of the past were much more the product of crack writing teams. Maybe this is sort of a throwback to that.
JH: Dudes in snap-brim hats typing at old Underwoods.
AVC: That’s how I like to imagine them, yeah.
JH: That’s exactly how it was done. I have those dudes here in my office writing my book for me. [Laughs.] I think we’re actually at a tremendous time for comedy in feature filmmaking right now. I like The Hangover. I haven’t seen part two, and I think that screenplay took a lot of ingenuity to put together, and I think it’s a lot of fun. And Zach [Galifianakis], I think, is not only a great comic genius, but his embrace by every person in America is one of the happiest things that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in entertainment, because he is the kind of person that turns every idea of what a movie star is on its head for the better of culture. He’s smart, he’s subversive, he’s incredibly bearded, and just completely magnetic in every way, and I think it’ll open the door for more interesting performers—and I hope for my sake, for fatter and facial-haired performers to be in more movies. Similarly with Bridesmaids, you have some of the greatest comedic performances I’ve seen in years in that movie, and some amazingly set up and ingenious setpieces. It’s a good time, but both of those movies are appealing to a generation of people who are younger than you or me, and the movies like A Fish Called Wanda or even Woody Allen movies, they used to be popular hits, even the funny Woody Allen movies, those were always addressed to an audience of people 35 and older. A movie like [The Best And The Brightest] is a delight to see, because I think the form is wonderful and exciting, and there is an audience that wants to see it. But as you’ve probably already discovered, these movies, much like almost every other genre that is not a comedy that appeals to 15- to 25-year-olds, has to work a little harder to cultivate and reach that audience that wants it.
Coraline (2009)—“Charlie Jones/Other Father”
AVC: You’ve said you’re really proud of Coraline.
JH: Do you know why I’m proud of it? Because I did all the animation. A lot of people don’t know that. I did all the animation, and I wrote the original story on which it’s based. That’s why I’m so proud of it.
AVC: You get so little credit for that.
JH: No, I’m proud of that movie because I got to associate myself with two super-geniuses. And I didn’t even ask for it. It was the first role that was offered to me after The Daily Show, and it might have been before Apple, but maybe not. The Daily Show and Apple started right about at the same time at the beginning of 2006. And the offer came in off The Daily Show very quickly from [Coraline director] Henry Selick. And the answer was yes before I even finished reading the sentence. Because I knew [writer] Neil [Gaiman] a tiny amount before that, and I was certainly a fan of his work, and Henry’s as well. And the idea of them working together was just so perfect. Even though the role was terrible. [Laughs.] No, so it was a lot of fun.
AVC: Is there something to voice acting? Is there a discipline to it that’s different than any other kind of acting? When you’re in a booth, you aren’t responding to people in the same way.
JH: Even though I’ve been a phony imitation actor of one sort or another for five years, it’s still all very new to me. And certainly, at that point, not only had I not been in a movie before, I hadn’t been in any movie before, never mind a voice role vs. an on-camera role. So I didn’t know quite what to expect. I knew that I wouldn’t meet the other actors, because I’d been told that that was not how it was working on this one. I don’t think they specifically requested that I not be seen, but I knew that I wouldn’t meet Teri Hatcher. And so I had to go to Portland and they put me in an extremely small room with a microphone. And so the only things that were in the room were me and this microphone, and for some reason, this really scary scarecrow. I was like, “What is going on?” That really scared me. And then I realized that that’s the director, Henry Selick. He’s the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and he looks like Jack Skellington. And I say that with great fondness, and I hope he’s heard that before, because I think it’s so obvious.
So it was me and Henry in this tiny room. And I certainly did have someone to work against in the sense that Henry knew this world and this story inside out and backward. And so he really listened, very closely, to what I would say. And he gave me very detailed notes and something to perform to. And it was in that room that I was just trying to get by and say the words correctly. It was Henry who really encouraged me to relax and think about the character and think about the ways to differentiate the real-world father from the Other Father. And then, very naturally, this sort of Dean Martin/Bing Crosby voice started to emerge for the other world.
I don’t do a lot of impressions or voices, but what I kind of began to understand about acting is that it’s similar to writing. You warm up for a while, you hate it, you don’t know what you’re doing, you feel totally fake and phony, you feel like you’re mechanically imitating what you did before and you’ll never be able to get any inspiration again, and then suddenly this voice starts coming out of you. And whatever it is you’re working on, if you’re writing, you realize there’s a story that you’re trying to tell that you didn’t know that you were trying to tell. And I think acting is the same way. There’s this period where you’re just pretending to be a human, and then, all of a sudden, some kind of human really emerges from you. When that voice came out of me for the first time, it was unnerving. It was the first time I had really allowed that to happen. So that was an interesting experience.
AVC: Based on what you knew of Selick and Gaiman’s work, you probably had some idea of how it might look in the end. What did you think when you actually saw it?
JH: Well, it was much more. I’ll be candid with you. You go into anything with cautious expectations. And then when you have people involved who you respect a lot as geniuses, like Neil and Henry, you go in with high but cautious expectations. And then when they’re your friends… I met Henry for the first time that trip, but I had met Neil before, and we knew people in common. I’ve really always been rooting for Neil Gaiman, and just adore him as a person, and especially as a writer, so you really want it to be great. But when a good friend gives you his or her book, you don’t want to read it, because you’re afraid that it’s not going be what you hope it can be. So suddenly your cautious expectations are extremely cautious and fraught with fear. And I was particularly skeptical, I don’t mind saying, of the 3-D aspect. It just seemed dumb to me. It just seemed like something that was foisted onto it, the way it’s foisted onto so many movies. And at that point, there hadn’t been a lot of the new 3-D movies out, so I worried that doing it was somehow a reflection of mistrust that someone had on the project. Not Henry or Neil, but somebody else.
And so I went into the theater to see it, and I was stunned. Not only because it worked as a movie so beautifully and came together so hauntingly and so Neil-y and so Henry-ly, but the 3-D suddenly made a tremendous amount of sense. Because they’re puppets. And what makes Henry’s work so special is that it’s 3-D animation in the old style! [Laughs.] Where you actually have a thing that moves around! I had seen the maquettes of all the characters and seen a lot of the storyboards, but these are physical puppets. Each of them has hand-stitched and hand-knitted clothes, being moved around by hand painstakingly. Impossibly. Not to take away from drawn animation or CGI 3-D animation, which are incredible art forms, obviously. But this is not something you get to see a lot. And when you do see it, you don’t see it in 3-D, usually. And suddenly the whole idea of seeing these puppets move through this magical puppet world in 3-D made perfect sense, because you felt like you were watching a diorama. That depth that moved around those characters… You were seeing something you had never seen before. And I was like, “Well, I was completely wrong. This is the perfect use of this cinematic tool.” And unfortunately, I feel it was a shame that the Jonas Brothers 3-D concert film came out just two or three weeks after that, because all those 3-D screens were given over to Jonas Brothers. So Coraline left 3-D theaters at that point. And I feel there are a lot of people who love that movie who have not seen it the way it should be seen. I hope they re-release it in 3-D some day. I think it’s now out on Blu-ray in 3-D, and I haven’t seen that version. But it’s really something special.
AVC: With 3-D, it seems like just a small handful of films have been crafted with format in mind, rather than having it foisted upon them or converted, which is a much different thing.
JH: Yeah. And I was a dummy. If you look in the dictionary under “perfectionist,” you see Henry Selick correcting the definition of “perfectionist” in the dictionary. I mean, he is so meticulous. And I should have appreciated that he would not have undertaken it unless he was going to engage in it in some way. And of course, it gave me an opportunity to work more closely with Neil and get to know Neil better, which was always my sick stalker-y dream. When I started writing professionally, it was as a magazine writer. One of the first assignments I had was to interview Neil for Time Out New York. And that was a job of a lifetime for me. That was when Neverwhere came out in the United States. So 1995 or ’96. So I was always trying to weasel my way into his life, and I think now I’ve finally done it.
The Invention Of Lying (2009)—“Wedding Overseer”
JH: [That role] came about like most movies that I’m in. It’s because someone made the mistake of asking specifically for me. [Laughs.] Ricky [Gervais, co-writer/director] was someone I had interviewed onstage for The New York Times Magazine, and we had a good time talking, and had stayed in touch via e-mail. It was right around the time when I was starting to do performance onscreen, and to be known as a comedic performer, and Ricky had this movie that he was going to make with Matthew Robinson, and it was his opportunity to hang out with the people he wanted to hang out with, and to cast whomever he wanted. I was very surprised, and felt very honored that he wanted me to come and visit Massachusetts for a day, and do this little role. I was so surprised and honored and blown away, because he’s a hero of mine, and I like him a lot, that it didn’t really occur to me what this role entailed. I had read the screenplay at one point and loved it, and wanted to be a part of it. I remembered he had said, “Would you want to be the Wedding Overseer?” and I said, “Sure. Yeah. Of course. Whatever it takes,” but it really wasn’t until I showed up on set that day that I appreciated that, like, “Oh, I don’t have any scenes with my acquaintance Ricky Gervais. My job is to stand in front of Jennifer Garner and Rob Lowe and say they’re getting married.” You don’t really understand what that means until you’re standing in front of Jennifer Garner and Rob Lowe. [Laughs.] You’re like, “Oh, right. This is different. This is not me hanging around Ricky, trying to decide whether we’d prefer to have huge testicles or penises for nipples,” do you know what I mean? One of his favorite questions.
AVC: At that point in the movie, you kind of have to carry the weight comedically.
JH: You are correct that I am the lynchpin of the film. It was just so weird. But Ricky was in that scene, as was Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner. I had more lines to deliver than I had ever had to deliver in my life without something in front of me, and longer takes than I had ever had to do it. I had more energy drinks than I had in my life. [Laughs.]
AVC: I never envisioned you as a consumer of energy drinks.
JH: I just felt really run-down. I was like, “Is there anything? Coffee?” “Do you want an energy drink?” and I’m like, “Yes, I’ll give that a try,” I mean, I really wasn’t that familiar with them, and then I had a Monster energy drink, and I’m like, [Shouts.] “Oh! Get this more for me now! Oh, this is fantastic!” It gave me the boost that I needed in that moment to not collapse onstage. But Ricky really impressed me. I don’t know why Ricky returns my e-mails, or sought me out for this film, but I know why I like him. I adore him as a comedian and as a person, he’s tons of fun to be around, one of the most generous laughers in the world, he laughs at any joke you make. Though he clearly has high standards, and I think that his podcast is brilliant, and he’s just a very sweet guy, but he’s also a very private guy. It’s been hard for me to appreciate. He’s never took me aside and said “I really like you in these ads,” or “I really like your writing.” I think there’s something about me that amuses him, and he likes to torture me, or something like that.
I know why I like him to some degree, because he is also a guy who had a number of different careers. He was a pop singer. I think he was a music booker for a while. He was a DJ. He did all sorts of things, and came to his place in the entertainment sun at a later age than a lot of people do, and in an unusual set of circumstances. One of the reasons I’m so fond of him is that I feel a certain kinship with that journey. I was especially impressed when I saw the film. What a good actor he is, as somebody who I don’t believe was ever trained in plain old-fashioned acting. His scene with his dying mother—who was played by Fionnula Flanagan from Lost, who is an amazing, amazingly well-trained actor, you can tell—but his moment with her was just heartbreaking, and really, really good. I think it was an extremely brave movie to make, an extremely funny movie, and one that I’m really proud to have been a part of. Even though Ricky made my life a living hell. And I don’t want to run down Matthew Robinson, either, because he wrote the original screenplay, and then rewrote it with Ricky, and co-directed it with Ricky, and that guy, he’s a genius screenwriter. He’s got so many smart ideas about story. It was just a pleasure to hang out with him, and get to know him, and we’re still friends. He’s the one who told me that I should read Game Of Thrones, and basically took away 70 percent of my life last year for that reason.
AVC: You’ve been doing this for a little while. Have you gotten to the point where you feel more comfortable or confident as an actor? Has a process developed?
JH: You get used to anything, so the nerves disappear a little bit. I don’t know that I’ve developed a process yet. I’m still seat-of-my-pantsing it, which I think is part of the job—in fact, probably all of the job is not just to show up, but to be present. To really be there in the scene, and react, and not be reciting lines, but be saying them. And I like to think that I’ve gotten better. I felt more comfortable on set this year with Bored To Death, which we just finished shooting the third season, and really had more of a good time than I had since during the Apple ads, which was just playtime all day long. After the first few that we made, it was getting to play around with Justin [Long] and Phil Morrison, the director. It was pleasure, pure pleasure. Straight to the brain. But I think that the turning point came with Battlestar Galactica. You may know that I had a small but pivotal role.
JH: Well, “advocate” suggests that I was somehow in a position to help the show. I wrote about the show largely for the same reason that I initially started appearing in it, which was also the same reason I watched it: I loved it. There are certain things—and this largely drove whatever I did when I was a magazine writer, and I think to some degree now that I’m whatever it is that I am—that I just get so excited about that I will do anything I can to be a part of that world. The first way I was able to force my way into this world, under cover of non-stalkerdom, was as a journalist. I really wanted to alert The New York Times Magazine and its readers that there was this thing out there, but I also wanted to meet [creators] Ron Moore and David Eick, and find out what they were thinking about. I remember seeing the original miniseries and being astonished, like, “How could you make me care about this? I can’t believe this magic trick that you’ve pulled off.” And then once the series got started, they continued to pull it off. It was one of the most interesting and vibrant things I was seeing on television. What’s forgotten a lot now was that at the time, it was engaging with the morality of war from both sides, when that kind of talk was almost literally forbidden.
So I was very excited about the show, and I weaseled my way onto the set under the guise of a journalist, and had a great time visiting with everybody and meeting everyone up there. It was just one of those experiences as a journalist where you are not disappointed. You are, in fact, more excited than ever by the creators behind this thing, and the feeling of kinship, like happy kinship, with what they’re doing as consumers of culture. Almost immediately after I left Vancouver that time, I started planning out how I could weasel my way back in, and it crossed my mind fairly early on after The Daily Show and after Apple that I might maybe find a way to get on the show. I had hired a talent agency at that time in 2006, and they would say, “What do you want to do? What do you want to do?” and I would say, “I don’t know. My world has turned inside out. I am on the verge of vomiting out of fear at any moment, because I suddenly have a new life, but I wouldn’t mind going on Battlestar Galactica. I can’t think of any other thing that I would possibly do except maybe that.”
Now to be fair, I stayed in touch with Ron, though I haven’t spoken to him in a while, and I would like to think that we’re still friendly acquaintances. I think he’s terrific, and David as well. So it’s not as if it was totally out-of-bounds that they might remember who I was, and think, “Oh, yeah. Maybe that’ll be fun to have him on the show,” but I wasn’t going to present it to them. It was when I had dinner with Ron at one point, and he told me they were going to stop with the fourth season, that the next season was going to be the end, that I got in touch with my agent, and I said, “Look, this is ending, and this is kind of my last shot. I wasn’t joking, I would love to do it. It doesn’t matter what it is.” I really had it in mind that I would be happy to just be a space bartender, or a dude who flips a switch and says, “So say we all” at one point. That’s all I needed. I just wanted to go up there and see those friends again, and say goodbye to the ship.
My agent called and discussions were had, and an offer was made, and they said, “Sure, we’ll have you on. How do you like this script?” and they sent me a script, which was written by the great Jane Espenson, who also kind of found her way to the show as a fan, and we had met one time before, and we had liked each other. She had written the script, and perhaps out of thinking that this is what I wanted in life, she wrote an actual role for me where I had lines and everything, and would be acting against actors that I had never met before. The three people that I had a scene with were Michael Trucco, who had not been on the show when I profiled it, Donnelly Rhodes, who played Doc Cottle, whom I had not met when I profiled the show, and Starbuck, Katee Sackhoff, who was not around when I was in Vancouver previously, and we ended up talking on the phone.
I was very scared when I showed up in Vancouver. I’m like, “Oh, this is a real job,” and I had stayed up the night before to finish an article I was writing about Jack Kirby for The New York Times Book Review, and then got onto a plane to Canada, and then flew, and then collapsed, and then woke up and said, “You know what, I can’t do seven jobs any more. I have to make some choices about how I’m spending my time. I like Jack Kirby, but I can’t do injustice to Battlestar Galactica by not being a hundred percent.”
It was great to be on the set again, but it was awkward, because I had been there before under a completely different guise, and now I really felt like a stalker, like I had really snuck back in. There were people whom I had met in the job of a journalist that I was being introduced to, and there was no reason that they would remember me, necessarily. That was two years before, and a lot of things happened, a lot of people passed through, but it was always this weird dance I had to do. Do I say, “Yes, I know you, Richard Hudolin. You gave me a tour of the set last time as the production designer,” and then he would remember? And some people would remember right away, some people didn’t remember at all, and when someone doesn’t remember you at all, it’s always a jerky thing to do, “Of course you remember me, we talked on the phone that one time.” [Laughs.] And so I was feeling really insecure about, like, “Oh, what have I done? I’ve really snuck—I’m really just a stalker, aren’t I? I’ve just done the most gruesomely gross thing.”
But at the same time, there were a lot of people who were big fans of the Apple ads, and they were coming up and asking me to sign their computers and whatnot. And so I felt at once the lowest fanboy and the biggest star, and it was just a weird space to inhabit. I walked onto the set, while the stage had been aged prematurely when they built it in order to look like an old-timey spaceship. Now it actually was aged, do you know what I mean? It had been around for four years at that point, getting beat up, and messed up, and legitimately aged. That was also a weird transition to see. When I had been on the set before, everyone was really excited, because they had just finished the first season and the show was the talk of the town, and now here they were filming the last few episodes of the fourth season and everyone was planning their trip out of town. Here I am, going, “Hey guys!” and everyone is saying, “Let’s get out of here.”
But the real thing that happened was when I shot my scene, and I was surrounded by the set, all these people, and all these actors and all these professionals. I knew enough at that point by working on a set from the Apple ads and other things that these people work really hard, and are really good at their jobs—not just the ones on camera, obviously, but the ones behind the camera, too. “I can’t let them down. I am here to do one job, and that is to act, and not stand and be excited to be here. That’s not part of my job. This is not nerd fantasy camp for me. I have to honor their professionalism by doing what it is they hired me to do, which is pretend to really be here.” That was a decision that I had to make at that point, and it probably was the most meaningful acting lesson—and I’ve taken a few—which was to make the decision to stop observing, and just start being.
I’d always been an observer in every other role that I’ve ever played professionally in my life: journalist, writer, agent, all those things. Now I just had to be there. I remember that because it was a three-dimensional set: They build those rooms, and then send in dudes holding cameras to surround you from different sides. It was completely different from any on-camera experience I had had before, which amounted to The Daily Show, where I’m sitting next to Jon Stewart, or the Apple ads, where I’m standing next to Justin Long. Just pure two-dimensional things. I remember making this decision: There was this X-ray behind me of a bullet lodged in Trucco’s head, and I’m talking about it, feeling myself afraid to cheat too far from the camera. I’m like, “What if I just turned around?” That was the one thing that if I had done that on The Daily Show or the Apple ads, they would yell at me, say “Cut,” and start over, because you’ve gotta be facing the camera. I said to myself, [Whispers.] “I think I’m going to turn around in this scene, in this shot, in this take,” and I delivered my line, “See, now look at this.” And I turned around and pointed at the bullet, and every cell in my body expected to be yelled at that moment, and while I was turned around, I might as well have jumped out of a plane, because I was just so unnerved. Then I turned back, and no one yelled, and the scene continued, and I felt like sighing. “Something has happened.” I think it was maybe that take or the next one where I legitimately, in character, got Starbuck to tell me to frak off. That was the best feeling.
AVC: Remaining present as an actor in that scene must have been terribly difficult and exciting.
JH: Oh it was. It was. It was exciting as a fan of the show, but it was much more exciting, I won’t say as an actor, but as someone who had decided, “I’m going to try it. I’m gonna try being here.” As someone trying to act, it was much more gratifying that she believed in me just enough, or at least wanted me to frak off that much, that she told me to “shut the frak up,” I believe is what she said. And that was great, and then I had to hold it for a minute, and then the scene was over, and it was terrific. They didn’t use that line, but it replays in my head about once an hour.
Bored To Death (2009-present)—“Louis Green”
JH: That’s total joy, first of all. I know Jonathan Ames from the old days, from the Pre-Crisis continuity, before The Daily Show and the Apple ads turned my life around. So I knew Jonathan from literary writing and performance circles from that time, and it’s extremely awesome to see him go through the same sort of process of being kidnapped into a completely different world. But it’s a world where he’s in charge of everything in that show. This as opposed to me, where my job is to surrender to the forces that I can’t control, which is fun if you are a parent or a writer, to give up that control. It’s terrific, let me tell you. But anyway, he called and asked me if I would consider being in this role, and it was an automatic “yes” for all sorts of reasons, and I’ve never felt happier about a yes that I’ve said. You’re not only paid okay, and treated well and given great, fun things to do, but I felt like I was getting to watch the beginning of television history once I saw those three guys [Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis] interact.
First of all, Ted Danson is television history—or as Zach Galifianakis would say, ancient history. Zach so delights in teasing Ted about his age, and he’ll do it even when Ted isn’t around. [Laughs.] He’ll do it when there’s no reason to. So Zach and I were having lunch one time at an oyster bar, and across the counter from us, there were these two 65-year-old men having lunch together, and Zach turns to me and says, “Aren’t those Ted’s sons?” and he just cracked himself up. There was no one around. He just loves making fun of Ted so much. And Ted loves it too, and there’s so much affection among the three of them. To see Jason [Schwartzman] and Ted is a great comedic double act of all time, and Jason and Zach is a great comedic double act of all time, and Ted and Zach are emerging as one of the great comedic double acts of all time, and all three of them working together—it’s just the chemistry, it’s an astonishing reaction to observe in a laboratory that is not only well-funded, but well-catered. I love that job, and in a life where I already feel unbelievably grateful, now I just feel ridiculous, where I get to go there. My only regret is that I don’t get to go there every day. But my non-regret, the opposite of regret, is that they keep bringing this character back, and putting him into increasingly ridiculous and dangerous situations that are fun for me to do. And I get to have more and more to do with more and more of the people in the show. It’s a tremendous thrill, and I just wish I could do it every day.
Having the responsibility to bring the character along is… [Long pause.] I guess the trick is that Louis Green is so outlandish in his spite and hatred of Jonathan, so open about it, and such a weird collection of eccentricities and varying moments of vulnerability and pure vulnerability and pure asshole-ism. He’s such a foil, in the sense that they can put him into any ridiculous situation in order to provoke the Jason Schwartzman character, Jonathan Ames, into action that it sort of falls to me to find some sort of internal consistency behind a guy who wears glasses, but believes that he’s also a boxer, who considers himself a guy who’s sucking the marrow from the bones of life, but will not possibly snort even the smallest amount of cocaine in a basement, who will call to Jonathan for help, desperate, desperate help, in one scene while he’s being beaten up, but within seconds, is once again berating him angrily.
They give me everything I need to work with comedically, and from a writerly point of view, it’s fun to connect the dots and say, “Who is the person behind all of these wild emotional swings?” And it kind of wasn’t until I grew a mustache that I figured it out. I think that’s true for a lot of men who grow mustaches, about a lot of things. The mustache is an affectation that I grew as a joke, and then just sort of enjoyed, and it allows me to really embrace wholeheartedly the idea of affectedness, and affectations in one’s personality. For a long time, I was like, “Who is the person in the world who would ever be like this?” and somehow when I started the affectation of wearing the mustache, and started thinking about affectations, I was reminded of someone I know from the literary world who is extremely affective, unapologetically so. And that person would do all of the things that Louis Green has done over the course of the three seasons. Once I was able to connect that to a real human being, suddenly I felt like a real human being. So that’s a roundabout way of saying [who the character is], and I obviously can’t reveal who that person is, because it would be mean.
AVC: About the mustache: Had you grown one before? Did you have an idea of what it would look like, or how it would transform you?
JH: I grew a mustache 10 years ago, right before I got married—the summer before I got married—just for fun. Quite honestly, you may have noticed that my skin is very pale, and you may now have noticed that my facial hair is very dark, almost jet-black, except the places where it’s gray. The 5 o’clock shadow comes in at about 9:30 a.m., almost immediately after I’ve shaved, and very embarrassingly, because I’ve got big bald patches where it’s supposed to grow but doesn’t. I was getting a little tired, over the years, by 11 o’clock or noon, telling people, “No, I’m not growing a mustache.” Even though I had shaved that morning, people would say, “Hey, I like that new look,” and I would say, “I don’t know what you mean.” “You know, the mustache,” and I’m like, “Oh boy.”
So I tried one 10 years ago, my wife quite reasonably told me to shave it off for our wedding, and I did. But I never thought it looked terrible. And then over New Year’s, I was on this cruise ship with Jonathan Coulton for the [JoCo Cruise Crazy], and I was looking forward to turning 40, and at that time, Paul F. Tompkins was going to be on the cruise, and he has mustached it up recently, and we were all talking about growing mustaches, so I thought I’d give it a try. I’ve just enjoyed it since. I really think it fits with the kind of derangement that you have to go through when you are confronting your mortality at the age of 40. So I will keep it as long as America will allow me to keep it. I fully expected to have to shave it off for Bored To Death, but they liked it, because it is as ridiculous as Louis Green is ridiculous. So far, people have been very tolerant of it. But I’m not going to get tied down. Maybe I’ll shave it off tomorrow, I don’t know.
Arthur (2011)—“Candy Store Manager”
JH: Another one where I was sure I was going to have to shave my mustache! But again, they indulged it. Maybe it whispers to them the way it whispers to me, and makes them do its bidding the way it makes me do its bidding. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was your Arthur experience like?
JH: Surprising in every way, because I had not expected that call, largely because I thought they had finished filming that movie. But they were coming back to New York to do some additional footage, and they had written this scene where Arthur gets a job at the candy store, and Jason Winer, the director, thought of me. Or I guess it was him—someone thought of me for that role, and it happened very quickly. They were like, “Are you around this weekend?” “Yeah.” “They’re going to be shooting Arthur. Can you do this?” And I said, “Sure, I’d love to,” and off I went. The thing of it was that because of the locations they were shooting in, they were shooting nights. And so once you start shooting nights, you have to continue to shoot nights, because the union will destroy you. I reported to work at Dylan’s Candy Bar at 6 p.m. and was done at 4 a.m. Again, another one of those gleefully surreal experiences where you are given the keys to, literally, you are like a kid in a candy store in the middle of the night being told, “Eat what you want.”
I don’t like candy that much, but I do like comedy. On top of that, it was this extra thrill to work with Russell Brand, who is really funny and really quick, and at the same time, get to meet Scott Adsit, whom I admired so much on 30 Rock. Since then, I’ve gotten to see him perform at the UCB in New York, and I am not typically someone who likes to go out and see improv comedy, but what he does with John Lutz, also from 30 Rock—they do a two-man improv show that blew me away. Not just in terms of the funny, but in terms of the trust they showed each other, and the intuitions they had, and were able to nonverbally share with each other. It was just an astonishing thing to see. I kept going back week after week to see it, and ended up having to apologize to them, because I felt like any reasonable person would feel like I was stalking them, and that I was going to try to wear their flesh before long, because I kept coming to the show.
The writer, Peter Baynham, could not have been a sweeter, more non-assuming guy, but that guy, he helped make Brass Eye the touchstone of everything that I find funny. The beautiful thing is that if you like movies or television, it’s an astonishing feeling to be able to work in the field, because you get to meet the people who make the things you like, and you are not arrested, traditionally, for getting to know them. So it was a lot of fun, and I also got to meet the producer of the original Arthur, who was a producer for this one as well, and talked to him about that movie, which is a brilliant movie. There are very few remakes in the world that make any sense, and I would have said the same thing about Arthur until they suggested Russell Brand, and I was like, “Oh, that makes sense. I’d like to see that version.” And so there it is.
AVC: You talked about the importance of being present in a scene. When you’re around actors like Russell Brand or Scott Adsit, who are so quick, that seems to be an essential skill.
JH: You know, it was tough. I had lines, but we were encouraged to improvise. But then there was the balance of, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s very late at night, and Russell needs to fly to L.A. to see his wife. So it’s like, you don’t want to waste anybody’s time with dumb improvisation, and you don’t want to frak up, to use the term that Katee Sackhoff taught me. So there are a lot of tremendous pressures to be loose and free and funny, but not too loose or not too free, and maybe not more funny than the other guy. So it was a real test, and a good one. I hope I passed that test. Because it’s something I’d like to do more.
AVC: It seems like that is the primary role of a character actor in general—just to hit the mark, right?
JH: That’s a pretty accurate and humiliating reduction of what it is I do. I’m just kidding. [Laughs.] No, I get it.
AVC: It’s a proud tradition.
JH: I agree, I agree. Insofar as I belong to that tradition, I’m very happy to be hitchhiking on that tradition for a spell, and hope that I can do more and be more of a part of it. It’s a very exciting thing to do. As I say, I’ll always make things. It is something I am cursed to do. No matter how many different ways I’ve tried to avoid writing my own stuff—I tried to avoid it by being a literary agent and I couldn’t, I tried to avoid it by being a journalist and I couldn’t, I tried avoiding it by hosting a live show in New York for a long time and I couldn’t—there was always something drawing me back to the idea of making my own thing, and I always will do that, to some degree. But as someone accustomed to making his own thing largely in solitude, and in addition, is co-responsible for the lives of small humans who can’t bother to take care of themselves, the collaboration and the surrender that goes along with acting is extremely liberating and fun and revitalizing. Getting a call saying, “Hey, do you want to be in Arthur this weekend? It’s on Saturday,” and I’m saying, “Yeah, I do,” and you have to cancel everything to go do it, and say, “Sorry I have to cancel lunch with you, but I gotta go do this thing,” it feels like having your parents say, “Hey, we’re going on vacation this weekend. You’re coming.” Like, “Okay, I guess I’ll go along with it.” It’s terrific. [Laughs.] It makes me feel young again, out of control.