Patton Oswalt on Charlize Theron, the Best Response to Bullying and 'Young Adult'
In Young Adult, Jason Reitman’s unsentimental portrait of a mean girl who clings to the memory of her high-school glory days – even in her late 30s – Patton Oswalt plays Matt, a misfit permanently scarred (literally and physically) by a run-in with homophobic bullies.
He’s just the sort that Mavis, Charize Theron’s aging beauty, would have ignored back in school, and she’d probably keep ignoring him, if not for her own desperate neediness. Returning to her small-town Minnesota home after a modestly successful stint as a ghost writer in the “Mini Apple,” Mavis finds companionship where she can, leading her time and again back to Matt’s nerdy man-cave.
Oswalt, 42, a Grammy-nominated stand-up comedian whose live-action miniseries The Heart, She Holler debuted on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim last month, doesn’t often play a leading man, and even less frequently do his schlubby characters get the girl. (In real life, the Portsmouth, Virginia, native has been happily married since 2005.)
He earned raves for his performance as a pathetically loyal New York Giants backer in Big Fan (2009), but to hear him tell it, he landed his plum role in Adult not thanks to his résumé, but because he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Modesty? Perhaps, but from an actor contentedly resigned to playing an underdog, it’s the kind of humility that fits perfectly with his on-screen personae.
On his introduction to Reitman and Young Adult:
“I met Jason at an awards ceremony years ago. We just started gabbing backstage and we both bonded over our love of movies and the fact that we both own French bulldogs. I 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 [Showtime's] United States of Tara – which [Young Adult screenwriter] Diablo Cody created – and [Jason] said, ‘Why don’t you just come in and do the table read?’ He wanted to know how it sounded. Three table reads later, when Charlize came in, we just clicked. We were so fun and adversarial right off the bat. He’s like, ‘That’s what I want.’”
On his own memories of high school:
“I didn’t get beaten up in high school so it’s hard for me to say I had a bad experience. I was not the quarterback or anything, but I had a great group of class-clown friends. I was in that clique, because there’s never [a single] class clown. There’s always eight or nine of them, and they all kind of compete.
“The one thing I could definitely relate to in Young Adult was [imagining] what would have happened if I got stuck in my hometown. That’s like a big, ongoing, recurring anxiety for me. I still have dreams about that. And so I brought those fears with me and invested them in my character.”
On how his character would relate to the anti-bullying movement:
“Holy Shit! Wow. How would he respond to that? I wrote something interesting about one of the things I did in high school when I was a freshman and I was kinda still twerpy. I do believe it gets better for people who are bullied. But what I wanted to say was, for a long time I was the bully’s little friend.
“In order to preemptively protect myself from being bullied, I would join in on bullying someone else and give these really mean lines to the bully to throw at these guys. And I still have a lot of residual guilt for that. You can help it get better by not so much standing up to the bullies, but by not [contributing to] the meanness. I think what Matt would say is, ‘It gets better for you in the future but it also doesn’t change now.’
“When I was living in the Valley, there was a guy who did my hair and he grew up gay in Washington state in this tiny, tiny town. He had to hide being gay. He played football, dated girls and beat up guys he thought might be queer because he was terrified of people finding out. Then he moved to L.A. and was like, ‘Screw this!’ He came out. Now his life is great. He’s happy.
“He goes back to his hometown to visit his in-laws. They’ve all accepted him – they’re fine. They’re all totally cool with it. And his nephew is there, and his nephew is gay. He keeps thinking about what he went through – you know, ‘What is this poor kid going through?’ He was talking to his nephew like, ‘How is it? How’s high school?’ He goes, ‘It’s terrible. They still oppress us. Our gay-lesbian-transgender club wanted to have our prom and they won’t let us have our prom the same night as the actual prom. We have to wait a week.’
" My friend wanted to go, ‘You need to shut the fuck up! You have a gay-lesbian-transgender club? And 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 that interesting generational thing of like, ‘It gets better, but also I don’t think you know what bad is.’ But there’s still a lot of bullying that goes on both ways I think.
“[Some people] shrug their shoulders as if to say, ‘It’s a thing kids do.’ No, no. You’re just passing it along because you went through it. If someone could have stepped in to find a way to stop it, you would have been so happy! I’m not saying we’re gonna find the solution immediately. But why not try to fucking stop it? Don’t do this, ‘Boys will be boys.’ Fuck that! Why is that a thing we shrug our shoulders at?”
“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 now is not the world. If you don’t fit in, go out. There are plenty of people just like you. They’re everywhere. You’re the girl in the bee costume in that video. And there’s a field of bees out there. Trust me, you’ll find them.
On working with Theron, who spent some takes refusing to engage Oswalt’s character on any level:
“Charlize is on a level of acting that very few actors are on, in that, without trying to explain it, she just knows what each scene needs even if she’s not necessarily at the center of it. It’s impossible for most actors to sit there and do nothing and give nothing back, because it’s extremely unsympathetic and it’s also innervating if you are an actor and you’re not bringing any kind of tension to the scene.
“She was so smart to look at each scene and know [when not] to engage with Matt, and just give him a blank stare. It was so fucking brilliant. I’ve never seen that done so perfectly before. I know there are other actors where the other person just did nothing, and it makes the scene work because if someone’s not responding, the other person’s getting nervous. That’s a very realistic thing that happens in life. You’re trying to get through to someone. And they’re all, ‘I could give a shit.’ That’s so brutal.
“In her case, she’s a very advanced actress in terms of skill and empathy and knowledge of an overall script and how a movie gets put together. For a comedian like myself, it’s terrifying. But I’m so happy it was terrifying because it made me better. She was giving me a gift, basically. She was saying, ‘I’m going to make this so uncomfortable for you,’ rather than saying, ‘Now Patton, I’m going to be really mean, but I’m just acting.’ It was so intimidating. Afterward it was like, ‘Thank God.’
“It’s like that thing Bill Murray says he learned at the Second City – the first thing you learn as an actor is to try to make everyone else in the scene look better. And if everyone in the scene is doing that, the whole scene will be amazing. If you’re all setting each other up. Then it will be great.”
On shooting multiple takes:
“Jason doesn’t believe in a lot of takes, and Charlize doesn’t need them. I remember one time, Jason gave her a note, He was like, ‘I need you to be way more cunty.’ She said, ‘I’ll do it. I don’t think you want it, but I’ll do it.’ And oh man, did she do it.
“Jason reminds me of those old-school pros, because he shoots movies all the time. If he’s not making [a feature-length] movie, he’s making a short film or he’s doing 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. Jason reminds me of the old-school guys like Allan Dwan, Delmer Daves and Michael Curtiz, who made five movies a year.
“They were geniuses. They could walk into a room and say, ‘We’re going to use this light source, that one, you’ll enter from here, we’ll get you in a two-shot, here we go.’ And working with them, there’s less angst. Because there’s no anxieties coming from the director, because he knows what the fuck he’s doing, the actors can relax and give him better performances.”
On his own directorial ambitions:
“Someday [I’d like to], but I’m in a lot of movies now. What I’m doing is what a lot of actors who want to direct do – I just observe all the time. When I feel like I’ve absorbed it, then I’m going to start. I also don’t know what medium I want to work in. I love these tiny, HD digital cameras that allow you to shoot less and less obtrusively. Those are the kinds of movies that draw me in.
“So yeah, eventually I will direct. It’s so fucking hard, an all-encompassing process, not just the months of shooting the film, but the months of preparation and the months of post-production, and the months of promoting it. It’s so brutal. I just 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’s [comparable] is stand-up comedy, since I’ve done it since I was a teenager. So what seems intimidating to other people, it’s not [to me] because I’m so freaking skillful. And that’s because I’ve done it every day of my life for 22 years. I better be good at this point.
“There are things I can do at this point without a lot of preparation. There are directing things that Jason can do without thinking about that much anymore because he’s done them so many times. He can glance at a scene and say, ‘We’re going to do it this way.’ It’s so amazing to work with calm pros. It’s not like every movie gives them a heart attack and puts them in a hospital for three months.
On where films rank on his list of things-to-do:
“I just like creating stuff. 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. I’ve just had a lot of very lucky accidents. It pretty much comes down to, ‘Where is it being shot? Will it take me away from my family for too long? Is this something that I think is going to be really interesting?’
“I’m so beyond genre or budget. I’m lucky enough that I’ve read so many scripts, and I’ve written so many scripts, that I think I have a better grasp as to what’s good. I can read something and think, ‘This is going to be something fun I can do.' Besides, it's not like I have any control over my career, and the projects I choose. You know, “Tell Spielberg to get ready to be disappointed – I’m going with Reitman.'
"I was very lucky to be offered [Young Adult]. Someday, if I’m ever at a point where I have the luxury of intention, I will make the right choices. But so far I’ve been lucky enough that the choices I have been given have been really, really good."
Young Adult is now playing at the AMC Loews Metreon. For tickets and showtimes, click here.