Patton Oswalt is a renowned stand-up comedian, but he's no stranger to the big screen. Having popped up in a handful of films as well as being a sought after script doctor (a man called upon to spruce up finished screenplays), Oswalt has established a multi-faceted career in Hollywood—but you wouldn't find many people labeling him a "serious actor."
But they should. Oswalt co-stars in this week's Young Adult as Matt, a handicapped small town chap who becomes Charlize Theron's Mavis' best friend when the eternal teenager returns to their home town. With director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody (who I previously interviewed) behind the wheel, Oswalt gets plenty of funny to deliver throughout the movie, but the actor shines brightest in the film's heavier emotional scenes. It's great work, and I was happy to have a chance to sit down with the comedic Renaissance man to learn more about his experience making the film:
I’ve talked to multiple people who thought this movie was a change of pace for you. A risky, dramatic role. But for me it seems like the perfect fit…
Patton Oswalt: Thank you!
…with most comedy has kind having a darker edge. I don’t know if you feel the same way, that Young Adult feels like an extension of what you do or your material is has that kind of edge.
PO: Well, it’s not that I’m trying to perceive things as either light or dark. I’m trying to perceive them as best I can as they are. Sometimes I’ll amplify them through comedy, or through my stupid, childish reaction to them, obviously. But, you know, Diablo [Cody] is very good at doing that in her scripts. So when I got offered this, I was very…actually, I was exhilarated, but then I was nervous, because I’m like, ‘Well, this is what I try to do with my comedy, but can I do this through someone else’s words?’
What was that challenge like for you?
PO: I hired an acting coach. I worked with a woman named Nancy Banks for months on the script, and worked on the character. And worked with a physical therapist to get the walk down correct, and all that stuff. I really wanted to [give] due diligence to this script, and to the dialogue and characters. To the nuances. I didn’t want to mess any of that up.
You’ve done your fair share of writing in Hollywood, and obviously you write all of your material for your standup. Is your impulse to work on your character with Diablo and Jason? Or did you kind of stick to the script as it was presented to you?
PO: For the most part, yeah. There were little moments of improvisation, but that…came out of the moment and energy between Charlize [Theron] and I. I think that there’s too much of a cult of improv right now. People want to improv before they even crack the cover, because everyone feels like, ‘Well, they’re doing it. I want to do it.’ Why don’t you read the script first? The script might be great! And you’ll look great if you just read it! So just take a deep breath, read the script…and read this script, and it was great. So, I didn’t want to mess it up.
You talked about finding the nuances and working with the acting coach. Was there something about your character Matt that you attached to that helped you bring him to life?
PO: Yeah. The aspect that I really attached to, because I feel guilty of this in my own life: he has let the narrative write him, rather than writing his own narrative. This thing happened to him, so this…‘Obviously I’m this way. Look what happened to me,’ instead of choosing how to let it affect him. And that’s something that I’m guilty of a lot. And I have to keep reminding myself, ‘No, you can actually choose to react to this in a much better way than you are.’ So, to get to play, ‘What if I just indulged that aspect of myself and totally went down that road?’…I really kind of sympathized with him on that level. He didn’t have that voice inside of him going, ‘Hey, you can change your mind about this.’
I love that the characters in the movie feel like people we’ve all met at some point in our lives...
Well, it’s all people that Diablo has clearly met, and has a—even when they’re horrible people, she has a weird affection for [them].
Was she able to describe them in more detail to you?
PO: She never gave me the specific memories, but they’re in the script. Even if it’s a quick little description, you know that she found the right way to really nail this person. The script is, in itself, a very pleasurable read. You feel the world and you feel the story as you read it.
You talked about finding a dynamic with Charlize, who, while I don’t think most people would think this about her, is a really funny person!
PO: She was great in Arrested Development. She’s done really funny stuff. She gets humor, and she has a voice. Especially with the fact that she was able to take—because she’s kind of bubbly and funny and bright—but she was able to do this huge negative space of a character and make the negative space funny. Which I just loved. That, if anything, shows you what her comedic skills are like.
Is there a specific instance that you recall where you two discovered something that wasn’t on the page?
PO: Well, there was that very spontaneous moment where she was slamming those drinks like a pirate, and I’m like, ‘Take that, liver!’ And then she gives me this look, like—if you notice in the scene—she gives this look like, ‘You’re so happy you just said that. You’re so fuckin’ proud…’ And you just get our relationship right there. And that came very spontaneously. Instead of trying to react to it like a less secure actor would with ‘I’ve got to say a line, too,’ she just did it all with a look. Like, ‘I’ll let you have that. But don’t think I don’t know how excited you are to have said that.’ It’s just such a real moment! It’s like…oh, fuck, that’s so real! She’s so onto me! I just love that Charlize…[Patton takes a long yawn and a stretch] This is so rude. Oh my God.
[Laughs] Take a moment. Work out that stretch!
PO: God, this is so rude. Please don’t put this in your article.
I obviously have to put this in the article. ‘Patton takes a long yawn and a stretch…’
PO: ‘Takes a wino-worthy stretch...’ [Laughs] Okay, please go ahead.
What’s your relationship and process like with Jason on set? Did you work with him ever before? Were you familiar with him?
PO: Well, we met—this is so sad—I was at an awards ceremony. I was presenting an award. It was at the ACE Awards for editors. And I’m such a movie buff, I recognized and knew all the editors from their work. It’s like the music geek that knows bassists. So, we started gabbing about movies, and how much we love movies, and all that stuff. We also realized we both had pictures of our French bulldogs on our phones. [Laughs]
PO: So, we both like French bulldogs…and he’s like, ‘You should come over and watch movies,’ because he screens movies at his house every Sunday. So, I started doing that. And then when the script came in, he said, ‘Hey, I want to do early reads. Why don’t you do some readings with me?’ And it just clicked.
Did he talk to you about why he saw you in that role in the first place?
PO: We never really talked about that. It was more that…it’s not that he saw me in the role, we did the table reads just to hear how it sounded, and he said, ‘You sounded right when you read it.’ And then, boom. And then when Charlize came in, three readings in, she and I…our chemistry just worked. And that’s what he went with. But he never talked with me about the specifics about what it is he saw. He saw it in the read.
It sounds like this part was really important to you, but do you feel like your passion for acting is on par with your passion for writing and comedy?
PO: Yeah. They’re all equal. Because they are really fun, creative endeavors that could not be more different from each other. Stand-up is a completely lone, almost dictatorial post. Writing is collaborative after the fact, when you’ve turned it in, and you’re lucky enough to get a really good editor to work with. And acting is collaborative in the moment.
So, you just have these incredibly different experiences that all come from the same wellspring. That’s a miraculous thing to have in your life, and I’m really lucky to have it. So, my passion for all three is really equal, ‘cause they all kind of feel into each other, and I think make each other stronger.
You’re a big movie buff, too. Is making movies something you would ever want to do?
PO: Yes. Except that I observe so many directors working, and it looks like such a brutal job. I have even more of a respect for directors than I ever did. I had a respect for the product. But now I have a respect for the process, that is even deeper than the product, when I see what I go through. Incredible.
Is that something you’re actively working on or trying to get off the ground?
PO: I’m not actively working on it. I’m kind of letting fate and life take me where it’ll take me right now, and hopefully someday…
Having dealt with the inner workings of Hollywood politics in your writing jobs, I figured you might be equally astonished that a movie like Young Adult even happened.
PO: I’m tellin’ you! Especially now, with the way movies are getting made. And the kind of amazing directors that are having trouble getting movies made. This one got made.
What do you think it is about the film that makes the studio feel so confident?
PO: I think it was a combination of Jason, and Diablo, and Charlize. When those three were all on board, it’s like, ‘Okay, we can do this.’ Oh, and let’s get the basic cable power of Patton Oswalt attached to this product and go right to fuckin’ Jupiter! [Laughs]
And I saw his last film Catechism Cataclysm at Sundance last year…
PO: How amazing is that movie?
PO: I just screen it in LA. We’re like, ‘What the fuck was that?!’
And you’re like, ‘I must do his next movie!’ Is that going to be on par with this?
PO: I don’t know. [Todd’s first film] Guatemalan Handshake and Catechism could not be more different than each other, and could not be more equally brilliant. So I have no fucking idea how this other movie is going to turn out—which is really exciting. I don’t know what he is going to do when he puts that thing together.
It’s going to be crazy.
PO: It’s like, I just did a movie that I am genuinely excited to get to see.
But that’s amazing. You can be on set, you can do all the work, and yet still have no idea…why do you think that is with him? Or why do you think that is with his movies?
PO: Because he’s fuckin’ crazy! He just has such a skewed way of looking at life…like, he did those first two movies, and they were art house hits, and they did great at festivals. And then his people told him, ‘Write something really fun and commercial.’ So, this is what he thinks is fun and commercial, and it’s still the most fucked up shit you’ve ever read.
Awesome. Thank you so much for your time!
PO: Thank you. I’m sorry that I yawned!