How did this role come to you, and why did you like the part of Bill?
Well, I got a call from my manager saying that they wanted me to do the table read for it, quite a while ago, and I was like, “Sure, of course.” I knew Judd [Apatow, the producer] was involved with it and I had worked with Judd before. I hadn’t worked with Nick [Stoller, the director] or Jason [Segel] before, but I knew they were funny men, and the script was funny, so I did the table read and played the part of Bill – I don’t know to what extent they were always considering me for Bill, but when I read it, I was told that, “This might be an option for you.” Then you get to read these other characters too, and having come from Saturday Night Live where you are doing a lot of table reads, playing a lot of different characters, you get used to making quick choices, and a range of choices, so I find that a table read suits me, in that I can play different things and if I can get laughs not just on what I am auditioning for but also in these other characters, it helps buoy up the sense that the producers go, “Hey, this guy is funny. He’s hitting these jokes and making them work.”
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And that you fit in with the team?
Yeah. That’s the other thing about doing it that way, is that you are there with the whole cast and not everybody may stay the same, but I think most people did, so you are doing your part in the context of the scene, and in the broader context of the whole movie, so you are not just going into an audition cold and trying to get everything there, so I did a couple of table reads and they gave me the part from that.
Is that usual, to do a table read without doing a normal audition?
It’s not. I mean, I don’t do many movies, but it happened a little bit that way for 21 Jump Street - I did a table read for them, maybe another table read, and then I did go in and do a formal audition for the role I got and another role. I had already made a good impression at the table read, so that helped me going into that. I wish it was always like that. I don’t tend to get things if I have to audition for them straight up, I often get my jobs because they’re offers, or in these cases, because of table reads. It’s very nice if I get offers, but it would be good if I could audition better too!
This film has a modern take on relationships and it differs from the usual rom-com in that it’s about what happens after you’ve found ‘the one’, and what real relationships are about.
Yeah, they came up with a great concept from the very beginning. I think it’s got a pretty strong male point of view to it. It’s certainly for both sexes, but seeing what Jason’s character goes through, I think it’s something that guys can relate to, whether they have been through it or not.
In this movie the guys are kind of playing the traditional female roles, like choosing the wedding cake, and your character is the faculty husband, emasculated by a successful high-earning wife. What’s your take on this reversal of roles?
Well, I have had friends who have been in the situation and, for me, it just added to the unusualness of Bill’s plight, even though it’s becoming more common to do that, and men are often the one staying home and looking after the kids, but it just set Bill up to be a little bit of an oddball, with these hobbies that he has taken on to compensate for the fact that he is not out there earning the cheque: his hunting and oddly his knitting.
That’s why he takes up hunting, I think, to get in touch with and build on that masculine part of himself that doesn’t get much attention. He likes knitting, perhaps as a result of being the ‘mum’ sort of, the stay-at-home husband. He loves being there with the kids, that’s the pay-off for being the stay-at-home dad, I think, that provides its own rewards.
Your character does love knitting. Do you have a penchant for terrible woolly sweaters in real life?
We did some of the stuff with us eating wedding cake and buying flowers, and there was a lot of room for improvisation in that. Did my seizure make it in to the movie? My diabetic seizure? I liked my seizure.
No, no, I don’t. That was written in the script. I learned to knit basically for this role, just in case they needed a shot of me knitting, but I don’t think they did. I have a friend who knits, and she has knitted us a blanket, but I don’t think knitting is for me. People who are really good at it are amazing. It’s quite an art.
How are your hunting skills?
I have never hunted. I have never tried. I’ve been fishing twice, that’s the closest thing I’ve ever done to hunting.
As you were on board with this character from the beginning, did you get to influence him in any way?
I can’t honestly say to what extent they had me in mind for the part when they were writing it, but I think that definitely when they heard me do it at the table, and then do it again, we were able to take what I was doing and then expand on that some for other scenes. It is such a collaborative process because we come in with ideas, the script is already very strong to begin with – and we shoot it like it is – but then Rodney Rothman, who is the on-set writer and producer, and Judd are introducing other stuff, alternate ideas, and then they are opening it up to improvisation as well. So there are a lot of ways to add comedy to the scene.
As there was a lot of improv, there will be lots of extras for the DVD. Can you tell me some of your favourite funniest moments when you got to go on a run, where maybe not all of it made it into the movie?
Well, we went back and shot some extra stuff here in L.A., not that long ago – me and Brian [Posehn] and Jason – and we did some of the stuff with us eating wedding cake and buying flowers, and there was a lot of room for improvisation in that. Did my seizure make it in to the movie? My diabetic seizure? I liked my seizure. Because we eat so much cake, we find out that the Bill is actually a diabetic and he really shouldn’t be eating cake
I probably shouldn’t be laughing.
In this context you are supposed to. I guess it’s not really funny at all! So he goes into a diabetic shock. It’s not a true diabetic shock – it’s a comedy version of a diabetic shock that they might have decided to not put in because it was not in good taste, but that may be on the DVD. When we went back to shoot that extra stuff, there wasn’t that much on the page that day, and they came into it knowing that we were going to improvise. They had some ideas that they threw out, but some of the stuff with the cake, we went on and on with that. Then with the flowers: that was a great one. When we were hunting, we definitely did some improv.
Do you think there’s lots of comic potential in this role-reversal idea?
Oh absolutely, definitely. That was one of the great things when we went back to shoot this extra wedding planning stuff – we were all like, “This is a great idea.” They just realised when they saw what they had, they felt like it made sense to bring back Brian’s character and my character to be a part of this wedding planning with Jason, and obviously it’s a bit of a role reversal thing.
Do you think your years on Saturday Night Live prepared you well to do movies shot in this what could be called Judd Apatow style of, “Let’s improv on the set”.
Well, it started with me, movie-wise, with Anchorman, which Judd was a part of, with Will Ferrell and Adam McCabe of course, and that was a big part of that, with Adam throwing alternate lines and Will was coming up with amazing stuff, and Judd was there coming up with stuff. I don’t know if that’s where it started, but that’s where it started with my experience. Look, SNL is a great training place for anybody, for anything, but I feel like I started in high school, then went to drama school, and so I was learning the ‘craft’ of acting on some level – or trying to – and then I did The Groundlings Theatre out here in L.A., which is sketch comedy and improv, and started getting little parts on sitcoms, and then that was a good set-up to go onto SNL. I think I grew a lot in confidence and hopefully in ability while I was there.
There isn’t that much improv on Saturday Night Live, honestly, because it’s scripted and you’ve got a director who’s shooting a live show, and they need to get their shots and they have a shot list, and they are watching the show, calling the show, and if, all of a sudden, someone who is not on camera decides they are going to improvise a line, then you’re not going to see them, the camera is not necessarily going to get them. They certainly have moments. I am not saying there is never any improv, but it’s mostly scripted. Improv comes into play in the writing of the sketches.
Which you used to be a part of too?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. All the cast writes as well.
Quite a lot of people come from [Los Angeles improvisation company] Groundlings, like Kristen Wiig and some of the other Bridesmaids girls ...
Yeah, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph.
Do you miss The Groundlings? It must be pretty hair-raising to improv live on stage.
Well, you know, I got better at it. You are taking improv classes and doing improv, so by the time you are Sunday company or main company, you hope you have a pretty good sense of it. It’s like muscles, it’s like training, so when you are in that mode, you are thinking really fast and coming up with stuff, and that’s a lot easier than when you have gone without doing it for I don’t know how many years. I haven’t improvised on stage for a really long time. So the thought of being on stage again and doing that is really daunting. Doing it in a movie is scary but the way I compensate for that is that I try to come up with material before I shoot it – I try to come up with ideas and jokes that I can fall back on. Then also just to try to be in the moment and respond to what’s really going on. That’s where I do my improvising these days.
How was it working with Jason Segel and with Nick Stoller, who I have heard laughs a lot behind the camera?
Yeah. He’s good. He’s ideal because he contains his laughter – almost always – until after, “Cut!” and then he bursts out laughing, and then the crew will burst out laughing and that’s when you know you did something that worked and was funny. With Jason and him working together, they both wrote the script, they are both on the same page about what the movie is, they understand it, and I can‘t honestly say that I have had this a lot, but you don’t have a case where the star is wanting to do something and the director has another vision for it, so there is harmony there.
Jason is just the easiest, nicest, coolest guy in real life, and he, just like everybody else, just wants the movie to be as funny as it can be, so he is not proprietary about the jokes or this and that – he wants everybody else to be funny too, because that’s the kind of person he is and he also knows it makes a better movie. I don’t think there’s any room to be precious in a comedy. A drama, you probably don’t need to improvise that much, but I haven’t done a lot of that, so I can’t say. But you don’t want to be too precious on a comedy ever.
What did you enjoy about Emily Blunt in this comedic role?
I was so impressed with Emily even from just the first table read because I have seen her do stuff that I guess is primarily dramatic – I don’t know that I have seen her do too much comedy – so I was pretty impressed, because I think she’s a really talented actor, and obviously really lovely, but then to turn up and to see that, oh, she’s genuinely really funny – she’s not just ‘pretty girl’ funny, she’s really funny. So that was pretty cool to see from the very beginning. She’s great.
You’re such an old hand, do you ever corpse? If you are in a scene with Jason Segel, it must be hard not to laugh.
You know, it’s not really hard for me, most of the time. I was kind of known on SNL for not breaking. In some ways, I think, being available enough to laugh in the moment is not a bad thing, like Jimmy [Fallon] had a reputation for laughing a lot in sketches, but Jimmy also has ... I think in some ways he had more fun than I did. He sees the joy and the fun, he’s got this vibrancy of life about him that I am sorely lacking in.
For me, I sort of come from, if anything, more of an acting standpoint – not that everybody else doesn’t – but it’s really about trying to be in that moment, and if you are in the moment and that character ... if it’s a scene where that character is not supposed to be laughing, then it’s not hard. But it can be hard with the improvising, because if you know what the script says, if you know what people are going to say, then it’s not a surprise, and a lot of laughing comes from surprise, so when somebody comes up with a line that you are not expecting, that can certainly undo you.
Who was your comedy inspiration when you were young? Did you always look at comedy as what you wanted to do?
No, I did not know it was what I wanted to do. I liked it. I watched Saturday Night Live from probably the second season, because I remember Bill Murray being a part of it, and he wasn’t on season one. But I would get to watch that with my dad, and when we would go up to visit my grandmother, I would stay up late because I didn’t have to get up and go to church the next morning, so I would stay up and watch SNL with him. Then there was The Carol Burnett Show – another sketch comedy show. Later on, I guess I would have to say Phil Hartman, from Saturday Night Live and then a little bit later on, Chris Farley, were big inspirations. In the earlier days, it was Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd were the main guys – just amazing – and still I love them. Then later on it was Phil Hartman and Chris Farley, and honestly, Will Ferrell. Will is a genius, and he almost never fails to make me laugh. He’s fantastic.
Is he totally different in real life?
Yeah, he’s super nice and very kind and complimentary. I think he’s a hard worker. I think when he is working on a movie, he’s very focused on that and is really trying to make the best story and make it as funny as possible, so I imagine he can be a little intense in that respect, but I found him to be lovely.
You are also an animated voice.
I do this show called Archer on the FX network and we got renewed for a fourth season, so we are going to be recording those some time starting in the summer. It’s really well-written. It’s really funny. It is pretty filthy. It’s got a great cast: Jon Benjamin plays Archer, and then we have Judy Greer, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash, Aisha Tyler – it’s a great cast and it’s really well-written. It’s an adult animated spy comedy, if I had to encapsulate it.
With a bit of filth.
That’s where the ‘adult’ part comes in.
Five Year Engagement is available on Blu-ray and DVD.