Comedian and actor Patton Oswalt is in the midst of one of the busiest times of his career. In the last year or so, I've spotted him on TV series like "Caprica," "Community," last week's "Raising Hope," "Bored to Death," "Futurama," "Jon Benjamin Has a Van," "United States of Tara," and the fantastically grotesque Adult Swim series "The Heart, She Holler." The paperback of his best-selling book "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" was just released, and his latest comedy special FINEST HOUR was released in September.
As for movies, he was most recently seen as a drug-dealing mall Santa in A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS, and I think Oswalt has his first real shot at an Academy Award nomination with his starring role opposite Charlize Theron in the latest from writer Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman (who made JUNO together), YOUNG ADULT.
After more than a decade of stand-up comedy work and small roles in big and small films, he had a long supporting run as Spence on "The King of Queens" and broke through in film after voice Remy the rat in the Pixar masterpiece RATATOUILLE, which led to slightly larger roles in films such as BALLS OF FURY, OBSERVE AND REPORT, THE INFORMANT!, and the mind-blowing lead in BIG FAN. If you've seen this film then the work he's doing in YOUNG ADULT makes a little more sense in the scope of Oswalt's comedy-centric career.
Movies have always been an important part of Oswalt's way of life and his comedy, so much so that he spent a couple of years writing undercover for AICN as the hormonally challenged Neill Cumpston, an entity loaded with adolescent energy and a taste for all things action. A man among sheep, Cumpston was such a force that I didn't even want my stories posted near his for fear no one would read my puny attempts at journalism and criticism. I couldn't compete with reviews that featured classic analysis like "Pants, meet shit." One of the bonuses of the "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" paperback are the complete works of Neill Cumpston (yes!).
I spoke to Oswalt a couple weeks back to discuss YOUNG ADULT and other events in the Oswalt-verse. I was right at the end of his inevitably long day of interviews for him, so we were a little pressed for time. About two weeks prior to our talk, Oswalt, Reitman and Cody attended a secret Chicago screening of YOUNG ADULT that I hosted at the Music Box Theatre, and the audience absolutely loved the film, as did I. Please enjoy my all-too-short talk with Patton Oswalt…
Patton Oswalt: Hey, Capone!
Capone: What’s up man?
PO: How are you doing?
Capone: Good. How are you?
Capone: It was a lot of fun having you guys out here, by the way.
PO: Oh yeah, that was a really fun screening. Thanks for introducing it and everything.
Capone: So right off the bat, what’s the question you’re most sick of at this point now that you're at the end of a full-scale day of press tour?
PO: [whispers] You know what I’m actually kind of sick of, and I’m sure you’ve seen this. It’s the D-minus journalists who go, “So tell me what the film’s about.” I’m like, “You saw it last night.” One guy actually said, “Tell me what the film’s about,” and I go “Well didn’t you see it last night?” Then he said, “Then describe what the film is about.” I’m like, “Do you not want to do your job today? You can leave. You don’t have to be here.” I’ve literally gotten like five of those.
Capone: Is the satisfaction level you get from making a movie like greater or different knowing you just nailed this one. They're talking about it in terms of cleaning up at awards season.
PO: Actually I’ve got to say I feel more fortunate than I do satisfied, whereas in some other endeavors where it’s just you, I lucked out with great collaborators in this. I lucked out with Diablo’s script. I lucked out with Jason directing me. I lucked out with someone like Charlize to play against, who is a dream, who was able to give me exactly what I needed. She's one of those actors that’s all about wanting to make everyone else in the scene look good, so that she’s in a great scene rather than, “I’m the only great thing in this scene.”
And there were some moments--and this is what you rarely see actors have the balls to do--where she gave me what I most needed in a scene, which was nothing. Remember those scenes where she just doesn’t listen and doesn’t give a shit? That totally changed my performance and made me just up what the fuck I was doing. It was so amazing, so again I mean I’m happy that the film is doing well and I could not be more flabbergasted that there is awards buzz, but if I’m going to be really honest, I’m way more fortunate than I am satisfied.
Capone: I read some where that you actually took yourself to an acting coach before you did this.
PO: Oh, hell yeah. I read this script, and there were so many nuances in it and so many very fine lines between…Matt can’t be a complete gloomy Gus, be he also can’t be flippant and just funny all of the time. There has to be this fine line. And also, because of all of the physicality to the role, I worked with a physical trainer and a physical therapist to figure out what his damages were and how he could use his leg and how he couldn’t use his leg, and then I worked with an acting coach for three months and really worked out what his backstory was and how he got to where he did, and we wrote out like what the accident report might have looked like . She was amazing. Her name is Nancy Banks, and she’s one of the main reasons my performance is so good.
Capone: Was it strange though not being able to just rely on what you bring what your are often asked to bring to many of the other roles you've played?
PO: It was really scary, but I was actually grateful for it, because you can very easily just go, “These are the eight tools I have, and they never fail me and that’s what I do,” and you end up kind of going down a blind alley at that point. So I was glad that something kind of yanked me down a wider street I guess, not to give you a clumsy analogy, but I really lucked out.
Capone: Did you actually have to audition for this?
PO: No. Jason and I had bonded years ago about… [Laughs] It was weird, we were at an award ceremony for film editors, and I actually recognized all of the film editors, because I’m like the music geek that recognizes the bassist. I’m like “Oh my God, you cut this and this and this!” And we also own French bulldogs, so we kind of bonded over that, and he does screenings at his house every Sunday and I would go to those and we would talk about movies.
So when he got the script he wanted to hear what it sounded like with just people reading it, so he would have these very informal table reads at his house, and I did those early on, and he kept having me back for them, and by the third one that’s when Charlize came aboard. She came over to read it, and something about our chemistry just really clicked and he said, “That’s it, you’re doing it.”
Capone: You said there were times when Charlize always sort of gave you exactly what you needed for each scene, but I just read that piece in Entertainment Weekly, where it sounded like she was a little tough on you at first.
PO: Well yeah, but in a very playful way. We weren’t just like, “You fucking asshole!” We would just tease each other constantly, and she’s like, “Okay, if you are going to come a me like this, I’m going to come at you like that,” and just gives it right back to you, which is good; it keeps you awake in the scene. She’s not just there like “Let’s just shoot this and go.” She’s like, “Let’s make this great.”
Capone: For the first half of the film, we think YOUNG ADULT is about this woman going after the old boyfriend, but as the film progresses, we start to realize, “No, this is about these two very broken people who find some level of comfort in each other's company.” I love that it’s a little sneaky like that. Was there ever a time when you were just going through the script and thought, “Holy shit, look what I get to do.”
PO: Well that was a testament to the writing, but when I was reading the script, there was a lot of like, “Oh good God, really? I have to be half naked next to the hottest half-naked woman on the planet? Really?”
Capone: Come on, man. Didn't you also say, “Hey, I get to be half naked next to…!”
PO: [laughs] Yeah, and then the other part of me said, “Hey!” So yeah, there was both.
Capone: Did the fact that this character was a basement-dwelling, action-figure-assembling guy, ever make you pause and go “I'm afraid people might think this is a little closer to me than it actually is.”?
PO: Well except that the bourbon making and the action figure stuff was all brilliant subtext to the character, I thought. It was actually kind of necessary, and I mean that is a very real person. That is a person that exists, and the one thing that I added to the scene was that when he mixes and matches the action figures' [body parts] to make them. That’s a very real thing that happens in the action-figure world with these guys that make the custom figures, and I was like, “Oh, how symbolic of what Matt wishes for his own life:'Why can’t I switch these legs out with a pair that works?'”
Capone: What did you learn about acting from this experience that you didn’t know before shooting it?
PO: I learned way more--even more than I thought I knew--about listening and about knowing that sometimes your performance can be changed if you have a partner that is brave enough to go all the way in being a hateful character and being someone that is not listening to you. And especially what I learned from Charlize and from Jason, rehearsal is not that necessary and too much rehearsal is actually bad. Jump into the scene first and see what happens, and then adjust from there, which is what we did a lot, which I thought was really cool.
Capone: I know you’ve got a few things movie-wise that you’ve got. I know you’ve shot ODD THOMAS. What do you do in that?
PO: I play this weird eccentric artist named “Ozzie” and I’m not in a lot of scenes in that. It’s pretty much a cameo kind of thing. I’m not really sure when that movie comes out.
Capone: And then the other one was SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD, which sounds like it’s right up your alley.
PO: I have a very, very fun cameo in that that I’m not going to ruin. I refuse to talk about it, but man did I have fun shooting that.
Capone: I actually just got the paperback of your book.
PO: Steve! I would have sent you that thing, man.
Capone: Please, I’m happy to contribute.
PO: That’s so nice. Thank you.
Capone: I have to have the collected works of Neill, so how could I not?
PO: [Laughs] That’s right! You’ve got to have all of that!
Capone: I do. Now it’s all in one place. I don’t have to go searching for it anymore. Patton, it was great to talk to you again.
PO: As always, man.
Capone: I’ll see you the next time you’re close to Chicago.
PO: Oh hell yeah. Steve, thanks man, and thanks for being a good interview, you have no idea. All right man, they are waving at me like I’m a crashing plane.