One of the things that’s always fascinated us about character actors, the people that have really been the glue of the whole operation, has been what they bring to the story. Without them, there is a notable absence. There are those that do it really well, and that’s just what they’re known for. So, it is always interesting to watch that person reach the point in their career when they make the leap from being supporting to being the lead, and how the new change of pace affects their performance.
The Long Dumb Road may be one of the smoothest instances of this that I have witnessed. Sort of in the same vein of John C. Reily when he made the leap with Walk Hard, Jason Mantzoukas doesn’t change everything we’ve come to know about him and completely redefine his craft just because he’s front and center. Rather he takes everything that he’s built and continues building upon it. Richard, his character in the film, would be right at home with Adrian Pimento from Brooklyn Nine Nine, Rafi from The League, or even Jay on Big Mouth. These are all characters with distinct features and personalities, being a bit of a loose-cannon or loaded gun at times. But in addition to that, Jason brings forth the proper mixture of empathy and understanding of Richard.
In the film, which is on VOD now and in select theaters, Richard is a man of the road. He’s very street smart as well as rough around the edges, but also there is an emotional vulnerability that just wants to be loved that you feel for. That is true to form with a Mantzoukas character, but just on a much higher playing field here.
We recently talked to Jason Mantzoukas about all the many things he has going on from The Long Dumb Road to No Activity to Big Mouth, what he himself brings to his characters, fan interactions, and his love of road trip movies.
I’ve always been a big fan of the ‘road trip movie’ genre, mainly because of the opportunity it allows to watch a friendship and characters grow and develop sort of in a confined space.
Yeah, same. That was one of the things when I read it. That it felt like one of those road trip movies that I loved both growing up but also as an adult. I love the classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, The Last Detail, even Stand By Me, which is kind of a road trip movie. I love mismatched characters kind of creating a lot of chaos for each other on the road. It’s great.
Right. And I also feel like the genre is really difficult to get right. For as many good ones there are, there are just as many bad ones. But I really think you guys found something fresh and original in sort of the way you approached it.
Oh yeah. And I think part of that was Hannah [Fidell, the director] and Carson D. Mell, the co-writer, were like “We really just love this idea.” And some of it was based on a true story that a friend of theirs told them. And then I think the rest of it they just took it and ran with. So it was great.
And a big thing as well to the film is the chemistry between you and Tony. What do you think is the secret to having good chemistry? Obviously a part of it is just liking the other actor, but is there a specific secret to finding that?
Oh, I don’t know that there is actually. I don’t know that there’s a way to find chemistry. I think we talk about chemistry in different ways. You’re talking about it right now with the actors on screen. But we also use the word chemistry to talk about when people have romantic chemistry or have both in real life when we’re talking about Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday which is off-the-charts their chemistry. So chemistry can work in different ways. I don’t think you can manufacture it. That’s one of those things where I think Hannah deserves a lot of credit for casting this movie because I think that she saw Tony and I would potentially work well together because he and I didn’t know each other. We met to do this movie. I think so often movies can work or not work predicated solely on the success of casting. And I think that in this case Hannah and the rest of the people that were on that side of things really deserve the credit for the chemistry between Tony and I.
That makes sense. And with this film as well, you’re known for playing certain type of characters which you’ve joked about in interviews…
You mean the handsome leading man romantic lead? Is that what we’re talking about? It’s Jason Mantzoukas, Channing Tatum, Chris Hemsworth, Mantzoukas again, Liam Hemsworth. Spoken in the same breath. Classic hunk.
I can’t walk down the aisles of the supermarket and not see your face on the cover of every magazine.
People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive.
Anyway a lot of attention has been made over this being your first film as the lead, but more than that, this is your first character that has as much depth as this one has. He really is that mentor sort of character, and you pull it off so well.
Thank you so much. You’re right completely in the sense that just simply having this movie be primarily just Tony and I for the whole movie, this really is the first time that I’ve had to be responsible for an emotional arc and not just be responsible for a couple of funny scenes or supporting the lead in their journey. This was, for me, not just figuring out “How is this funny or where are my jokes going to be?” But really asking ‘Where am I? Emotionally where is Richard in this multi-day roller coaster?” and throughout the day having to be responsible for “Right, the scene we shot there happened before the Casey Wilson scene. And the scene we’re about to shoot after lunch happened after.” So I have to remember that earlier I’m a lot more carefree and this afternoon I really have to be feeling the weight of that experience and interaction with Casey. And that kind of stuff, truthfully, I’m just not normally doing. Whether it’s in The League or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, my characters really come in and out for stories and jokes, but not for like a full emotional arc that I need to be kind of responsible for if that makes sense.
Right. Those characters just serve their purpose without a lot of growth embedded.
Sure. I mean, some of them have secret growth. I feel like Rafi, from The League, over the course of those 6 seasons has weird growth. It’s just not in directions anybody kind of notices. It’s just very bizarre. A lot of times the characters in sitcoms and stuff, I would say the characters that I’m most well-known for, are pretty big kind of chaotic characters. And with this, while certainly Richard has big, chaotic energy in that world, he is a real person in the real world. I mean he has to exist in reality. This movie doesn’t exist in weird T.V. logic world. I really had to find a way to be really funny and have this wild energy that would really knock Tony’s character off his game and make him uncomfortable, but never get so big or so chaotic and crazy that a character in Tony’s position would just walk away or go to the police or something. It was like a fine line for how much to weigh the emotional stuff and the vulnerability of Richard. And like you said about Richard being a mentor, which is true, he is a mentor for the road for Nat, I also think that Nat is a mentor for Richard regarding emotional health and things like mental well-being. He’s such a well adjusted kid, I think what’s fun about the movie is that both of them are learning from each other.
How do you think you would fare in the car with Richard?
Oh, I think I would do pretty good. I think part of the reason that I love playing characters like Richard or like that is I love those kind of chaotic people. Those people who, upon meeting them, just launch into their life story kind of unguarded. Those people who don’t have a filter on the world, who just immediately start giving you their philosophy on life, what they think about the people. People who just can’t not tell you everything. I love that. I think I would do pretty great on a road trip with Richard. I think that’d be pretty fun.
I’d love to see that movie. You and Richard.
(Laughs). Well the weird thing is, in that situation, I am a lot more like Nat. I am not a crazy person. I’m like very reserved. That’s why I like a lot of these characters. They let me exercise that element of my persona in a safe, non-real way. Because that’s not anything like I am in real life.
Right. And do fans expect you to be these characters when they meet you?
Very much so. They really believe, especially I will say The League fans, they really believe they are meeting a monster. League fans are the people who never know my real name, they just know that I’m Rafi, and they think that Rafi is just there. Wherever they are, “Rafi’s here. Holy shit.” And then I have to explain to them I am not Rafi, I am the actor who plays Rafi. But it’s usually drunk people who can’t believe a T.V. maniac has entered their lives. That’s pretty bizarre. That’s the one that people most expect me to be like. People don’t expect me to be like Derek from The Good Place or Dr. Steve from Transparent or anybody like that. But yes, when I walk into a bar, there’s usually a bunch of people who think like “Oh no, Rafi’s here. He’s going to bash somebody or something.”
Jumping around a bit, let’s talk about Big Mouth. A few weeks ago, I’m not sure if you saw it, Out Magazine put out an article that hailed Jay as being ‘A future bi-sexual icon’. Which is fascinating to me.
Yes! Somebody sent me that article. I love that. I was so happy to read that.
And when you go into a character, you’re thinking so many things, but I’m sure that’s obviously one of the farthest things from your mind as you approach a character.
Oh yeah. One of the things that I love about Big Mouth is it’s a pretty wonderful show that is both an exploration of teenage sexuality and puberty and the kind of real emotions that come along with that time in life and looking at it through all the different points of views of all these types of kids, looking at it through gender and sexuality. The show is both exploring all of this stuff, this period of absolute upheaval in life and transition, while also being committed to just such funny, crazy, dirty jokes as well. So when that storyline happened, when it looked like Jay was going to be interested in both women, as he has been predominately female pillows, and then men male pillows, I was like “I love this. I love this way of getting at this and talking about stuff in a way that is really healthy and really progressive and excellent but also deeply funny. I’m so excited when people talk to me about this show because so often, they’ll talk to me about how funny it is, but also are saying things like “You know what? I never would’ve thought it, but it allowed me and my kids to have a really good conversation about,” whatever specific thing was important for them, “that we never would’ve had if we both hadn’t watched your show.” And that’s pretty cool. I think that’s pretty awesome that it’s both providing an opportunity to start a conversation for both kids and parents, kids that are going through this time of life, but it also is predicated on both kids and parents have found it funny and can laugh about it. It’s not some serious thing. It’s like “We both can laugh about these wet dream jokes in the show. Now we can talk about wet dreams,” which I think is pretty great.
But Jay being a bi icon, I’m assuming that is known as a bi-con, is f*cking rad. That makes me so happy that person wrote that article. That they saw themself and their own life reflected in the show. And I think that’s pretty amazing and exciting.
As a working actor, someone that is constantly working in the industry, has that in turn lead to any blowback or anything from doing How Did This Get Made? Maybe when you encounter someone who’s previous work was featured on the show.
No. The reality is, thankfully, no. I will say I don’t think we approach How Did This Get Made? with any kind of malice or intent to trash or tear apart anybody. I think partially because we all do this for a living, we are aware of what goes into making a movie and understand it on a process level. And so that’s why, with the movies we choose, we’re celebrating “Wow, this went off the rails. What has happened here? Why do we think that might have happened?” The examination of it on that level feels more to me like a celebration of these movies rather than any kind of take-down generally. We’ve all been in movies that didn’t perform well or weren’t reviewed well. We get it. And I will say predominately, if people in the industry are aware of the podcast when I meet them or talk to them, it’s because they’re fans. It really is, for us, it is the conversation that you would have with your friends at the bar after you just saw the movie. That’s a fun conversation. We’re not negative people and I think that’s part of what works about the show. Our personalities really come through. All we really want to do is recreating that kind of vibe or just being at the bar, hanging out, and chatting.
It seems like you’re doing so much lately and there’s just so much to discuss. You’re also on this CBS All Access show No Activity. I want to talk about this and that character. What can we expect from this character for the second season?
For the second season, I will say for my character, real cool changes and stuff happens over the course of season two. I do think No Activity is built in that way where you can jump onto that show and have direct access to it. You don’t have to have seen all of season one to get all of season two. I think if people want to jump to season two, they one hundred percent can. But I will say, in particular my character has some really cool turns in season two that are really fun. I love doing that show. You’re talking about how many things I have coming up, and one of the things they all share, whether it’s Hannah Fidell with The Long Dumb Road, or Kroll, Andrew, Mark, and Jen who run Big Mouth, or it’s Patrick and Trent who created No Activity, all these people are amazing creators and collaborators. These are people who are making it fun to do a big ensemble thing like Big Mouth or whether its these smaller and more intimate things like The Long Dumb Road, so much of it is I love and am psyched to work with all these great people. That’s the thing that’s been most exciting in this stage in my career. I get to work with pretty fucking crazy, talented people. And so with No Activity, they just create such a great vibe and such a great set and they’ve got amazing scripts written and cast amazing people, and then they just let us do stuff. And it’s fun. Me, Jesse Plemons, and Will Ferrell, the days we were shooting in that factory were some of the most fun and funny days.
That all seems to be very constant in your career. The majority of the things you do just give off this sense of fun.
I feel like the generation that is working right now, everybody is very supportive of each other. Everybody wants everybody to work, and asks everyone to help work on their stuff together. I came up in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade scene in the late 90’s and it feels like right now, it feels very similar. Except instead of writing and doing and improvising shows at midnight on a Saturday for 150 people, we are just doing it for T.V. shows. It feels like the same wonderful, supportive ethos, but in service of something that has much bigger stakes. But it still has the kind of comradery and support that I came up with when I was doing shows in a black box theatre in Chelsea.
The Long Dumb Road is streaming on VOD now. Big Mouth can be found on Netflix, while No Activity can be found on CBS All Access.