Spinning Platters Interview: Patton Oswalt on “Young Adult”

by Jason LeRoy on December 7, 2011

Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron in YOUNG ADULT

It has been proven many times over the years that comedians can bring an unexpected and singular potency to their performances when given the opportunity to play a dramatic role. Actors from Tom Hanks to Robin Williams to Jim Carrey have graduated from broad comedy to dramatic leading-man status when finally given the chance to play the right character. And now Patton Oswalt, best-known for voicing the mouse protagonist in Ratatouille and his 122 episodes as Spence on The King of Queens (in addition to his decades of stand-up and countless cameo appearances), is poised to make a similar breakthrough with his poignant performance in the new Jason Reitman-Diablo Cody collaboration, Young Adult.

Oswalt has been earning rave reviews for his turn as Matt Freehauf, a man left stranded in his small Minnesota hometown after a vicious beating in his teens left him crippled for life (his attackers mistakenly assumed he was gay). But Matt’s uneventful existence is suddenly shaken up with the return of the highly toxic Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron, in her finest work since Monster), the former queen bee of their high school, who has been living in Minneapolis and working as the ghostwriter on an ailing young adult book series called Waverly Prep. But when she learns that her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson) has just had a baby with his wife (Elizabeth Reaser), Mavis decides to rescue Buddy from (what she assumes is) his empty life of quiet desperation by destroying his marriage and whisking him off to her glamorous life in the “Mini-Apple.” She crosses paths with Matt in a bar on one of her first nights back in town, and the two hesitantly begin to bond over their mutual misery and dissatisfaction. And as Mavis continues carrying out her delusional plan, Matt becomes her unlikely confidante, despite his efforts to snap her into reality.

Oswalt’s performance is just one of many unexpected facets of Young Adult. After the highly entertaining and hugely emotional arcs of Thank You For Smoking, Juno, and Up in the Air, Reitman has now made a disarmingly dark and minor-key film that will catch many viewers off-guard. The character of Mavis is one of Cody’s most inspired and complex creations to date, but she is also a disturbed sociopath that unflinchingly taps into the pathology of anyone who ever developed a superiority complex after leaving their hometown for the big city.

We’ll be posting our interview with Jason Reitman later this week, but right now let’s check in with Patton Oswalt. Below, he chats with Spinning Platters about the hot topic of teen bullying, Charlize’s skill at acting “cunty,” and the #1 thing about the 2012 presidential election the media is too scared to admit.

How did you get this role? Did you already know Jason? Was there an audition process?

I met Jason at an awards ceremony years ago. I think I was hosting, like, the editing awards or the visual effects awards or something like that. We just started gabbing backstage and both bonded over our love of movies, and the fact that we both owned French bulldogs. [laughs] Then I just started getting invited to movie nights at his house; he does a movie night every Sunday. And then this script came along. At the time I was working on The United States of Tara, which Diablo created, and Jason said, “Well, why don’t you come in and do a table read?” Because he wanted to know how it sounded. And three table reads later when Charlize came in, we just clicked. We were so fun and adversarial right off the bat that Jason was like, “That’s what I want.” So that’s how I got the offer.

Did you bring any of your own high school experience into this performance?

[laughs] I didn’t get beat up in high school. I didn’t have a bad high school experience. I wasn’t the lead quarterback or anything, but I had a great group of class clown friends. I was in that clique. There’s no such thing as the class clown, there’s always 8 or 9 of them, and they all kinda compete. So I had this great circle of friends, but I could certainly empathize [with my character]. The one thing I could definitely relate to was what would have happened if I’d ended up stuck in my hometown. That’s an ongoing recurring anxiety for me. I have dreams about that, where I wake up and I’m stuck back there and I’m like, “But I have this whole other life! Don’t you understand?”

Young Adult taps into a zeitgeisty moment right now with this national dialogue about the bullying of gay teens, since your character was brutally gay-bashed as a teen despite being straight. How do you think he would respond to the It Gets Better movement?

Holy shit! That is great! Wow. How would he respond to that… [long pause] You know, I wrote an interesting – well, I can’t say it’s interesting, it’s on my blog – but one of the things I did when I was young in high school, when I was a freshman and still kind of twerpy – yes, myself, I believe that it does get better for people who are bullied, but I wrote a thing about how for a long time I was the bully’s best friend. To preemptively protect myself from being bullied, I would join in on bullying someone else, and goad, and give really mean lines to the bully to throw at these guys. And I still have a lot of residual guilt for that. So I was like, “You can help it get better not so much by standing up to the bullies on behalf of the kids, but by just not helping out the meanness.”

I think at the most, what Matt would say is, “It gets better for you in the future, but it also doesn’t change now.” There was something kind of interesting I heard when I was living in the Valley. There was this guy who did my hair, and he grew up gay in Washington state in this tiny little town, and he had to hide being gay. He played football, and he dated girls, and he beat up other guys who he thought might be queer because he was so terrified of people finding out. And then he moved to LA and was like, “Screw this,” and came out. And now his life is great and he’s happy. So he goes back to his hometown to visit his family – they’re all fine with him, they accept him – and his nephew is there, and he’s gay. And my friend keeps thinking, “Oh my god, the things I went through, what is this poor kid going through?”

So eventually he asks his nephew how high school was treating him, and his nephew says, “It’s terrible. They still oppress us. Our gay/lesbian/transgendered club wanted to have our prom, and they won’t let us have it the night of the actual prom, we have to wait a week.” And my friend wanted to say, “You need to shut the fuck up! You have a gay/lesbian/transgendered club? And oh, they’re making you wait a week? They’re letting you have a prom?!? What the fuck are you talking about?” So it would be interesting to see the generational thing of, “It gets better, but also I don’t think you know what bad is.”

But there’s still bullying, and the idea of shrugging your shoulders at bullying as just something that kids do – no! You’re just passing it along because you went through it! Think about when you were little, if someone could have stepped in and found a way to stop it, you would have been so happy! So I’m not saying we’re going to find a solution immediately, but why not try to fucking stop it? “Boys will be boys” – well, fuck that! Why is that a thing we just shrug our shoulders at?

Did you go to a public high school?

I did, in northern Virginia.

Just to play devil’s advocate, how do you respond to the idea that declaring a war on bullying is kinda like declaring a war on terror, especially at that age?

I think the best way to stop bullying is to teach every individual kid – whether they’re gay, straight, Christian, atheist, whatever – that guys, it’s a gigantic world out there. Where you are right now is not the world. If you don’t fit in, there’s plenty of people just like you everywhere. You’re the girl in the bee costume in the Blind Melon video and there’s a field full of bees out there. Trust me, you’ll find them. I almost feel like if every high school kid in all countries had to spend one year living in a different country with a different family, when they come back everyone would just calm the fuck down and say, “The world is so goddamn huge. This doesn’t matter.”

I was lucky enough – I don’t wanna say I was smart, I was certainly not an A-student – but me and some other friends for some lucky reason, we always had an inkling, even when things got bad in high school, like, “I’m never gonna see these people. This doesn’t fucking matter. I don’t give a shit.” And it’s weird, if you run into anyone you know from high school a year later, you all have this unspoken sense of, “What the fuck was that all about? I’m sorry man! Was I a dick? I think I was a dick!” High school is an unrealistic environment that you’re all shoved into, basically.

Circling back to Young Adult, you’ve spoken about how in certain scenes Charlize would give you nothing as an actor. I imagine that when you were first breaking into acting from stand-up, that would have been terrifying. Can it actually be a good thing to get nothing from your costar?

It depends. Charlize is on a level of acting that very few actors are on, and without commenting on it or over-explaining, she just knows what each scene needs, even if she’s not necessarily the focus of the scene. It’s impossible for most actors to sit there and give nothing back, because (A) it’s extremely unsympathetic, and (B) it’s very enervating if you’re an actor and you’re not bringing any kind of tension to the scene. The fact that she was so smart to be able to look at a scene and be like, “This is a scene where I just should aggressively not engage with him and just give him a blank stare, like, ‘Why are you going on at length?'” It was so fucking brilliant. I’d never seen that done so perfectly before. I know there are other actors in very famous scenes where the other person just did nothing, and it makes the scene work because if someone is not responding to someone, the other person gets very nervous. That’s a very realistic thing that happens in life. You try to get through to someone and they’re like, “I could give a shit.” That’s so brutal.

But again, I’m describing a very advanced actress in terms of skill and empathy and just overall knowledge of how a movie gets put together. But yes, for a comedian, of course it’s terrifying, but I’m so happy it was terrifying, because it made me better. It was like she was basically giving me a gift by going, “I’m going to make this so uncomfortable for you.” Rather than being like, “Now Patton, in this scene I’m going to be really mean, I’m not gonna give you anything but you know I’m just acting,” she was just like, “Okay, let’s do it.” It was so intimidating, and afterward, I was just like, “Fuck, thank God!” It’s that thing Bill Murray says, where the real lesson he learned about acting at Second City was to just try to make everyone else in the scene look better. Now if everyone in the scene is doing that, the whole scene will be amazing. If you’re all setting each other up, it will be great.

I imagine you were probably getting a lot of that on the first take. Were a lot of takes needed for follow-up?

Not a lot. Jason doesn’t believe in a lot of takes. Charlize didn’t need a lot of takes. I remember one time Jason gave her the note – and I can say this because Charlize has said it in Q&A’s that we’ve done – Jason was like, “I need you to be way more cunty.” And then she said, “Uh, I’ll do it, but I don’t think you want it.” And he was like, “No no no, I want you to do it,” and oh man, did she do it! Jason reminds me of those old-school pros. He just shoots movies all the time. If he’s not making a movie, he’s making a short film, he’s shooting a commercial. He actually likes to shoot things. He likes to make images and sound and movement, which is what a true director wants to do. He’s not one of these guys that’s like, “I’ll wait till each thing is special…” He’s like, “I just wanna shoot film! Let’s just go!”

Jason reminds me of the old school guys like Michael Curtiz and Allan Dwan and Delmer Daves that made five movies a year, and it got to the point where they were geniuses because they could just walk into a room and be like, “Yeah, we’re gonna use that light source, you’ll enter through here, we’ll get a two shot, and we’re done. Here we go!” In other words, there’s less angst and [wringing hands] “What does this scene mean?” There’s no angst from the director because he knows what the fuck he’s doing, which means the actors can relax and give better performances.

It’s clear that you’re knowledgeable about directing film. Is that something you’d like to do?

One day, yeah. But I’m in a lot of movies now, and I’m doing what a lot of actors do – I observe all the time until I feel like I’ve absorbed it, and then I’m just gonna do it. Also, I don’t know what medium I’m going to work in. I love these tiny HD digital cameras where you can do it less and less intrusively. That’s the kind of movie that draws me in. So that’s what I’d like to be doing. But directing is so fucking hard. It is such an all-encompassing process, not just the month of shooting, but the months of preparation, and the months of post-production, and the months of promoting it. It’s so brutal. I don’t know if I’ve trained enough for the marathon. Jason started when he was a teenager.

The one thing in my life that I can say I have that skill level at is stand-up comedy, because I’ve done it since I was a teenager. So it must be intimidating to other people to see someone like me, not because I’m so skillful but because I’ve done it every day of my life for 22 years so I’d better be good at this point. There’s things I can without a lot of preparation. There’s directing things Jason can do that he doesn’t really need to think about that much because he’s done it so many times. He’s like, “I know what I wanna do here.” He can glance at a scene and be like, “We’re gonna do it this way.” It’s so amazing to work with calm pros where it’s not like every movie gives them a heart attack and puts them in the hospital for three months. He just likes shooting things, and I love that.

Between TV and comedy and writing, you stay pretty busy. How do you prioritize film roles in that constellation of work?

I just like creating stuff. And as far as prioritizing film roles, it’s not like I’m being offered a lot of stuff. I don’t have to fend off a lot of things. [laughs] I’ve just had a lot of very lucky accidents. Right now it pretty much comes down to – and I’m being very honest – it just comes down to where it’s being shot and if it will take me away from my family for too long, and if it’s something that I think is going to be really interesting and unlike anything that I’ve done before. I’m so beyond, like, genre or budget. I’m lucky that I’ve read so many scripts and written so many scripts that I feel like I have a better grasp on what’s a good script. I can read something and say, “This is gonna be a fun one to do.”

Finally, you’ve developed a following for your live-tweets of the GOP debates.

They’re never going to end, are they?

Do you feel like you’ve done something to earn the amazing gift of comedy gold these debates have presented?

[laughs] Especially the field this year, it’s amazing! Actually – no, it’s not amazing. I’m gonna say this right now, and not because I’m anti-Republican or pro-Democrat – Obama is going to be reelected. Everyone knows it. Nobody can say it. Because all these cable shows, their job is to keep story and tension moving along. They just can’t be like, “The Republicans are having a shit year.” It happens every few election cycles. The Democrats in 2004, we had a shit year. And everyone acted like, “It’s gonna come down to Kerry and Bush!” But people like Nate Silver and all the anchors [in private] were like, “Bush is gonna be reelected. We all know, but we have to be like, ‘We don’t know!’ Otherwise we won’t have fucking jobs.”

So now that I’ve seen the other end of the process, it’s gonna be really interesting to see how they spin this fake narrative that does not exist. It doesn’t exist! They don’t have anyone! And again, it has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats – they just don’t have anyone! In 1984, everyone – except the public [laughs] – knew that Reagan was gonna be reelected. It wasn’t even a story. But all the anchors were like, “We better pretend there’s a goddamn story here or we are out of a job!” So that, to me, is more the gift.

Young Adult opens in San Francisco on Friday, December 9.

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