There is no hat maker in the world that can possibly produce hats fast enough for the likes of Taran Killam. He is one of those guys, with an instantly recognizable name, who always has exuded that likable charm. But it’s not until you sit down and really think about how much he’s done that you realize that this man can seemingly do everything.
Throughout the past 20 years, for example, he has found himself starting out on Nickelodeon, transitioning to being a cast member on MADTV and Nick Cannon’s Wild ‘N Out before going onto Saturday Night Live. Add into the mix a stint on Broadway in Hamilton, a supporting role in the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, and writing/directing/starring in his own film Killing Gunther with Arnold Schwarzenegger and you realize that this is someone that isn’t going to be able to be defined by just one thing (or just one hat).
So it would stand to reason that he would naturally have two projects come out within 2 days of each other. He is currently starring on the new ABC sitcom Single Parents, where he plays Will, a single father raising a daughter who meets a group of fellow single parents who help him get out of the rut he’s in and show him that he can balance both being a father and having a life all his own. To contrast that, Night School, the new film with Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish, finds him playing Stuart, the principal of the school that is more along the lines of an antagonist.
We recently spoke to Taran over the phone about both of these projects, the flaws and strengths of both characters he plays on the show and in the film, working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, his time on Saturday Night Live, and his hopes for the future.
Tell me a little about how Single Parents came to be. Was there a conscious plan on your part how to transition after Saturday Night Live?
I was still living in New York a year after I finished SNL. And I got to do a little bit of theater and I did a pilot for Showtime that ultimately wasn’t picked up. And then we moved, my family and I, back to Los Angeles, which is where I’m from originally. Once we landed here, I was sort of actively looking to join a project. Ideally one that would shoot in town. I wanted to stay close to my family. So I started to develop a couple of things on my own, but I was also taking meetings. I sat down with Liz Meriwether and Katherine Pope, who just sort of floated the concept of a show about single parents by me. And I just thought that was really a sort of interesting idea that I hadn’t seen covered before. I really trusted Liz and her sensibilities and her talent. So when I said “Yeah, that concept interests me and I’d love to read the pilot,” I think they went to J.J. Philbin who co-created the show with Liz and let her know I was interested. Because by the time the pilot script was delivered to me, I was sort of playing a hopeful optimistic dad who obsessively loves his child who happens to be a daughter, which I have two of, and he was a guy who was wearing a Rams jersey in the script. So I knew that they were sort of trying to tailor it to me. And it turned out great. It was as funny as I thought it would be but it was much more heartfelt than I knew it would be. And that’s what spoke to me and that’s what got me excited.
You had mentioned being a dad. Did that sort of help you form this character at all?
Totally. You look for things that you can relate to in any character that you’re going to play. And getting involved, this was something that I hope that people would enjoy and we’d get to do for an extended period of time. So you want the character to be someone not only you can relate to, but somebody that you like being. So a father who loves his daughter more than anything in the world is definitely something that I can connect to, something that I can draw from. But the degree to which Will, my character, invests in his daughter’s well being and has consumed every waking hour and probably a majority of his sleeping hours, too, making sure she’s eating right, making sure she has the clothes, food, medicine, housing that she needs to the determent of his own needs. He’s very endearing and very flawed and very appealing to play.
And the character does play as, while being flawed, also being an every man. Someone that the audience, especially parents, can see themselves in.
Yeah, I hope so. Obviously the conceptual foundation of our show is that it’s a group of single parents trying to get by. But very quickly it’s just about the characters themselves as people. There are people who are looking for friendship, there are people who are looking for love. And I think that those are two big things that anyone can relate to. Whether or not you’re a parent or a child or both or neither, but I don’t know how the neither would work out… And part of the pitch of the character to me was this is a guy who’s really lost all sense of himself. That he’s become too wrapped up in his daughter’s life. That the group, the other adult leads, help pull him out of that. But what I said to them is ultimately I would love for Will’s big heart to rub off on them. And I think when I said that, the producers and creators eyes lit up the most, because I think that was their intention. That yes, we want Will to learn to have a dating life and realize that it’s okay to be a good father, and it’s okay to be someone that cares. But at the same time, you have to find time for self care. But ultimately he’s going to help the other characters on the show know that it’s okay to go above and beyond. And that’s sort of what you want most parents to be. You want them to care too much, as opposed to too little.
Right, and in just the first couple episodes, you can already start to see the impact that he’s had on Brad Garrett’s character for instance.
Yeah, exactly. And I’m really proud of that aspect of the show.
One thing that is really strong about this show is the chemistry between all of the cast. From other interviews you’ve all done, that seems to translate off screen as well, that natural flow.
You hope when you sign onto a project like this, you’re going to connect with the people you like. I already respected Liz Meriwether and J.J. Philbin and certainly Brad Garrett and Leighton Meister. But the fact that I genuinely like all of them. I’ve worked in this industry long enough to know that it’s a rare thing where you not only get along with the people you work with, but you look forward to spending time with them. And we’ve been really lucky, and I agree with you that it bleeds through to the show itself and you can tell that these are people who may actually care about each other when the cameras are off.
Your character on is a good-hearted and well-meaning guy. As opposed to your other project this year, as the bad guy antagonist in Night School. Was that a good way to flex both of those muscles by doing simultaneously? Because they both were released within 2 days of each other.
It’s been a fun month having two projects come out, and those being projects that people really enjoy. I would like to claim responsibility for the design of it, but it’s really just how the cards sort of fell. (Laughs). I shot Night School last October, so over a year ago now, in Atlanta. And we didn’t shoot the pilot for Single Parents until March. It was just a total coincidence that these both premiered in the same week. And yeah, they were two different types of characters. What was most exciting about playing Stuart in Night School was he’s absolutely sort of the villain and the nemesis of the project, but he also has a sense of art. It’s rare that you get to play a villain in a role that has his own heart. Normally you want to see the villain destroyed and then wiped off the face of the Earth. What was nice that the writer’s sort of did with Night School is they made him a three-dimensional human being, which I think helped because a couple of his games are taboo to say the least. Particularly with the black voice of it all, and I kept checking in with Kevin [Hart] and with Malcolm [the director] and saying “We’re not taking this too far? Is this appropriate?” You don’t want to be offensive for offensive sake. Hopefully we’re saying something with it. I think the fact that Stuart was, again, flawed and insecure and threatened by Kevin’s character, yet surrounded by a culture of hip-hop and predominantly African American students, they kept explaining to me that it’s natural code switching. But I think with Stuart it was also probably some overcompensating switching to that black voice.
Jumping around a bit, last year you came out with Killing Gunther, that you wrote and directed. Was making the shift to filmmaker always something in the cards for you? Or was it something that came about a little more organically than that?
It was definitely more of an organic process, in terms of me wearing all of those hats as writer/director/star of the movie. I had always wanted to be in it and was an idea that I had where I was trying to sort of combine two genres that I love. The mockumentary comedy films that Christopher Guest does like Waiting for Guffman and Spinal Tap, but also sort of heightened genre action films by Luc Besson or John McTeirnan. In trying to get it made, shopping it around town and pitching it to people, I just had lived with it more than anybody else. I had just a very clear vision of how I wanted it to look like and how I wanted to execute it that once I partnered with a financier that was willing to let me direct, I just took the chance. I had to find out if I could pull it off and I was proud of myself and very happy with the finished product.
You spoke in the past about your initial shock getting Arnold Schwarzenegger to star in the film. As your first film as a director, it’s a bit intimidating to say the least. What’s the greatest thing you learned having someone of his caliber on set?
The best part about working with him, other than being an enormous fan for my entire life, is sort of the example that he sets. There is that indefinable megawatt star power that you feel when you’re near him and in personality and physicality he is larger than life. But he was respectful to everybody, he was always prepared. He wanted it to be the best it could be and seeing someone that’s so accomplished, has so little to prove still striving to make everything he’s involved with the best it could be was really inspiring and really heartening, too. He also taught me a great lesson in the power of a star, which I think in the past I probably always rolled my eyes at and was like “What does that mean being a movie star and why is that important if you have talented, good actors?” But the biggest takeaway from the movie is everybody loved Arnold. The second Arnold’s on screen, you want to watch, you want to see more of him, you want to find out what happens to him. I really sort of came to understand what the power of that charisma and of that talent and of that again that star power can do for a movie or any project.
To bring it back to Saturday Night Live, the story emerged [at the time of this interview] from a recent podcast where you talked about some of the more negative experiences you had on the show. After listening to the podcast, I noticed a great deal of those comments were largely taken out of context. I’m sure that must bother you a bit whenever all of that media attention is drawn to something while they don’t include the counter-balanced positives in your comments on the show.
My biggest issue with it was the perception that I didn’t enjoy my time on SNL. Because that is not true. I had some of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences of my life, and will forever be grateful and proud to have been a part of that show. I still love that show. What that show is is the cast and crew who make it work, who are some of the most talented and incredible people that I have and will ever meet. So when people focus on the negative, which is a very, very small portion of my experience there, and these were specific isolated incidents that I’m speaking of, I don’t like this perpetrating that I don’t like the show, that I don’t care about the show as that’s just not true. I love SNL, I was always love SNL. And I’m incredibly, incredibly appreciative that I got to be apart of such an amazing institution. It’s a good lesson in that people or news outlets or blogs are going to latch onto whatever they want to hear, and they’re going to construct whatever narrative they are. So you just need to be sort of conscious of that and moving forward I will probably be more reserved in how it shows just because I want people to know what a wonderful experience it was.
Right, SNL is one of those few shows where it can’t be faked. If somebody isn’t have a good time or it’s not working, it always shows. When I watch that cast, I do get that sense that you guys all genuinely vibed well and liked each other.
A million percent, yes. Everybody that I got to perform with on SNL and I can’t stress enough how important the crew is to the show. They are some of the most incredible, wonderful people that I’ve ever crossed paths with.
And finally, with everything you’ve gotten to do and all of the many hats you’ve worn, is there anything that you haven’t gotten to do yet that you’d ultimately like to do?
Yeah, I had a wonderful experience performing in Hamilton on Broadway and it was definitely one of the highlights of my career. I would really, really love to originate a role on Broadway. And particularly in a musical that would be a challenge and an artistic experience that I’ll definitely keep seeking out in the future.
Single Parents airs Wednesdays at 9:30/8:30 Central on ABC. Night School is in theaters now.