You probably know him best as Todd from the Zoolander films but Nathan Lee Graham has had a stellar career on Broadway and television as well. We recently spoke with Nathan during a press stop for Zoolander 2 about stepping back into the role after so many years, winning a Grammy award and much, much more!
So congrats on everything, I haven’t seen the new film yet, but I’m sure it’s just as great as the first one.
Well let me tell you something, if you’re gonna see it, please see it under the influence of something.
Alright, that helps!
Yes please see it, under the influence of whatever you choose, I’m not gonna, solicit anything in particular, but I’m just saying.
I respect that, I guess people have been asking you this a ton, but I gotta ask you this, did you ever think this was gonna happen. There being a sequel to Zoolander?
Absolutely, positively, no. Well listen, after the first one, a couple years passed, and we started to get this sort of cult following, which none of us anticipated at all. Because you know originally it opened the week of September 11th, and we opened at number one, and I told everyone, in an envelope, that it opened at number one that week. It was just a horrible week, for everyone. But, you know, Paramount was hesitant, Ben Stiller was hesitant to open the movie. In the end everyone said, you know what, we need to laugh.
I remember David Letterman saying “ya know, we need this” so we did, and slowly but surely over the years it got this cult following. And then there was these rumblings of a possible sequel. Ben’s people got in touch with my people, and asked me if I was still interested, and I was like “yeah, duh!” Sure it would be incredible because no one anticipated it but then you know, a decade goes around and you say, “this ain’t gonna happen.” Lo and behold, miracles with miracles, here we are. It’s just amazing, like a birthday or something. It’s like “how is this even possible? The fact that we got along so well back then made it easy for most of the crew and cast to came back, happily, and it did.
That was gonna be my follow up question. Did you guys just get along right off the bat the second time around? Or was it like a weird family reunion type thing?
It was very surreal, but in the best possible way. And the reason it was surreal, was because it was just like we were in a time warp. Did we actually stop filming or have we been filming the whole time? These characters are insane. So to embody these people again made it feel like we never actually stopped filming this. We had to ask ourselves, “Did we go into some fashion universe vortex?” It was really wonderful. What made it more surreal was the fact that we shot the entire film in Rome.
People have great memories of your character. Why do you think people still love your character in the film, years later?
I don’t know! When I initially had a meeting with Ben to do the role of Todd, it was the day after my Broadway show The Wild Party closed. And he came to see the final performance, which was a matinee. He called me, to the studios and said, “Listen, there’s this character I’ve been playing on VH-1 named Zoolander. We’re going to make a movie of it. There’s also this character name Todd, we haven’t written anything yet and I don’t know what he’s gonna do, but I would love for you to do it.”
Of course I said yes because my show just closed the day before. But I still didn’t have any idea what it was about. It was loosely about fashion. I hadn’t seen the sketches or talked to the writer before we started shooting. I was like “what in the world is Ben Stiller see in me on stage in this 1920’s jazz musical?” I think it’s just when you have a comedy team, like a duo, and Will is so tall and I’m not as tall as Will. He’s tall, and comparatively to him, I am short. The dynamic is already funny.
I’m not so sure if it’s because he’s Caucasian and I’m African American, however it adds to it. I think that if it does, it adds to it in such a positive way because we go immediately into the comedy, which is universal. So I’m thinking, people just love to laugh and these characters are so out of touch. Todd is almost like, an audience member, getting up and then making themselves fall into the film like in Star Trek. They just beam into the film and I think people could relate to Todd. First of all, “what is he doing there?” And then you notice he’s the butt of all jokes, “Is he even running things?” “Is he really Mugatu’s mind?” I think the foamy latte scene in the sequel is just one the those slap stick classic comedy moments.
Even those looks you give [Will Ferrell], so iconic, was that in the script or did you and Will work together on that?
This is what happened. The original take, both moments were from Ben’s point of view, we were just doing stuff for him, so that he can say, ah man and laugh and stuff, but the B-roll was catching all of it. So we no idea that stuff was going to be in the film. And there it was. No practice no rehearsal. That was all improv. Will gave me a look and I gave him a look back, and then we started to add sounds to it, so you know there were actions, stare up and down, blah blah blah. When we got the sequel, we ccouldn’t remember why we were doing that, so we actually had to go back and watch the original. We wanted to reenact some of those moments, but we don’t know what we did, because we just made it up on the spot. So I tell people I’m bringing silent film acting back.
You won a Grammy. Is that one of the best things about your career so far?
I guess, the best thing about my career is that I get to do everything. The Grammy was great, but I found that it was Best Classical Album for 2005. And when you win a Grammy for classical album, unless you are a solo artist, the composer actually gets the statuette. You have to buy yours.
I’ve won two Grammys actually, because the soloist and the composer, are the ones that get the actual Grammys. It’s just incredible because I had just finished, Hitch and I was doing The Comeback, with Lisa Kudrow on HBO and they called me out of the blue. I hadn’t been singing for years and they asked if I would do it. They said they need someone who has had a musical theater background but also can sing Classically. So they flew me out to Ann Arbor, MI, to the University of Michigan and we recorded this album. Then lo and behold years later, it won 7 Grammys, it’s incredible.
I think, however, the biggest thing, for me is that I get to do everything. I get to do movies, TV, Broadway and Classical work. As well as underground trench work, concerts and cabarets, it’s a continuous sort of gratification to get to do everything. I’m not just pigeon-holed in one genre.
When you’re filming a movie, do you ever get the itch to go back on stage, or vice versa?
Always. I like to use the analogy of ballet. A ballet, is the bases of all dance, so whether you’re doing hip-hop or jazz or tap or whatever, ballet is like the foundation and theater is that way for acting.
You’ve been on Scrubs, The Comeback, and Absolutely Fabulous. Was comedy something you always wanted to do?
NO! It’s so funny you asked me that. I totally love doing drama, I do a lot of drama on stage. I never thought of myself as funny, I always thought I was witty, bright, and quick, but never funny. But if the script is funny and there’s a great director, I can do it. I literally look at myself in these comedies and I go, “What are you doing? WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I sort of fell into comedy, and once you fall into something on screen – whether it be the small or the large – you get known for that. And of course, you know, that’s what people want to see you do.
When you’re walking down the street, I assume most people are yelling out “Todd!” Do you ever get shocked by people saying they loved you in something that you wouldn’t assume they would see you in?
I get stopped for something everyday and people are very very nice. Occasionally something crazy will happen. Once I was crossing at an intersection, and this middle age women literally punched me in the chest and said to me, “I’m so sorry, I just didn’t think you would have stopped.” I said “I’ve stopped now! I’m in pain and I stopped!” She then said, “I just wanted to say that I loved you.” I said, “Thank you so much, thank you.” and I hobble off. Rarely someone will come up and say, “I loved you in Ab Fab!”, that’s when you know they are a real fan. That show is an aquired taste, so I really appreciate that because I had such fun with those women. They’re so great. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley, they’re just really great people. It was just so fun doing that shoot with the BBC.
Finally, this one time, I got on a shuttle heading to Grand Central. I put my hands over my face with my head down because I was a little tired. Then these two jocks, for lack of a better term, stood above me and reenacted the entire Todd and Mugatu foamy latte scene word for word and sound for sound. I had a blast doing, and for instance, I was at Times Square, on the shuttle, going to grand central, I get on the train, I’m going to meet my dear friend and mentor, Eartha Kitt, and I can’t even make up this story, so, I sit down on the train and I put my hand over my face and I put my face down, cause I’m a little tired, but while I’m doing this, two guys get on it, and let’s call them Jocks, for no other better word, they get on, they put their arms on the bar above me, so they’re literally standing above me, and they’re doing the Zoolander line, Todd and Mugatu, the foamy latte scene, word for word, sound for sound. I was literally exploding inside. The finished the entire scene and then said, “Man that scene is so funny hahahah, I love it, I love it!” It was so incredible that I could not interrupt them. There was something in me that was like, “Nathan, this is for you, just keep it for yourself, just keep it.” They had no idea that I was sitting right below them. I had on a hat with my head down. They didn’t even notice me, and I couldn’t believe it. That’s the moment I knew Zoolander was a cult hit.
Did the woman who punch you explain why she punched you?
Yeah, she said she loved Hitch and Sweet Home Alabama. And she just wasn’t sure if I would stop and didn’t want to miss the opportunity to say it. I was like, okay, thank you, goodbye.
What else upcoming for you that fans will be able to check out?
There are some things that I can’t talk about but they will be revealed. I just hate saying it and then not actually signing the dotted line. Just head over to my website, I keep it updated.
Thank you so much, this was a pleasure, you’re a blast! I really appreciate it!
My pleasure, thank you so much!