SXSW: Rob Riggle on 21 Jump Street

Rob Riggle has a presence unlike most comic actors working today. Most are not exactly domineering or towering, and Riggle fits both of those descriptions. It helps Riggle standout, especially in minor roles. The actor’s one of those guys who’ll come into your movie for a few minutes and mark an impression, and usually as an oblivious asshole.

From his collaborations with director Adam McKay to plenty of his other work, Riggle displays what he likes to call “arrogant ignorance.” No matter how much of a loser Riggle will play, there’ll still be a cockiness there. This is a bold statement, but that may be the actor playing at his most arrogant and ignorant yet. There’s only a slight sliver of Riggle arrogance and ignorance in 21 Jump Street, but what’s there is pure comic idiocy.

Here’s what actor Rob Riggle had to say about getting to play on set, the awkwardness of studying acting and drama, and how he pushed through bartending:

Phil and Chris, they just have such a handle of tone. They know action conventions, but never go into satire or parody. 

Absolutely. And they’re very funny guys in their own right, but I think they have a really good vision, which is everything for a director, directors in this case. I think they did a really good job of letting us play. There’s a lot of joy to be found when you get to just play.

Do you get that in most cases though?

No. Not always. It takes a really special director to relax and allow the actors to improvise or to play or to find moments that may not be on the page. A lot of directors are very…some can be a little tighter than others. [Laughs] So Chris and Phil did such a great job at letting us play. Sometimes, for comedies, if you want to play and have fun, that’s great. But a lot of scripts, you know, require you to stay word for word, verbatim, and that’s fine. I’ll do whatever.

I’ve actually talked to Phil and Chris before, and the one thing that’s clear is how enthusiastic they are. What does that enthusiasm bring to the set?

Oh, it’s everything, especially for a comedy. You want good energy. You want people up and happy and kinda juiced. You want that hint of electricity. And you need that from your directors. So that’s good. That’s what you want. Again, especially for a comedy. So they definitely brought that. And every time I showed up at set I was always really happy to be there.

And I’m sure you were happy to be a part of the “tripping balls” drug scene. 

[Laughs] That’s a good example, too, because that’s the first time my character meets Jonah [Hill] and Channing [Tatum], and there’s a lot of things going on in that scene, a lot of information we had to get out. But we ended up playing and improvising in that scene a lot.

So is it always surprising seeing what a filmmaker goes with?

That’s always another thing, too. You watch and you…because you do so much you realize you’re like, “I don’t even remember saying that,” or, “I totally forgot that we did that.” Or you remember something you thought was really funny and they didn’t use it. So, who knows? [Laughs]

How about a director like Adam McKay?

Oh, Adam is one of the best. But he came up…he’s an improviser by trade. You know, he started in Second City and Improv Olympic in Chicago. He gets improv better than anybody. He’s one of the best improvisers I’ve ever been around. I think that’s why he likes to bring a lot of that to his movies.

One thing, I’ve spoken to Adam McKay before and I feel like he’s been a big part of this new wave of comedy, focusing on oblivious assholes. You’ve gotten to play a few of those guys.

[Laughs] Well, I mean I just enjoy playing certain roles in comedy, and one of my favorite is arrogant ignorance. That’s what a lot of these characters have in my opinion. And, you know, a lot of characters I play are authority figures, so I like to give them the game of arrogant ignorance, because I think there’s a lot of joy to be found in that. It always cracks me up. I always enjoy it. So that’s why I like to play it.

Do you think you can find that type of humor in nice people?

I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. [Laughs]

[Laughs] It probably wouldn’t be easy. Going back, I was doing some basic research and read about your history with the Marine Corps and how you got a master’s in Public Administration. At what point did comedy and acting come to you?

In high school I was voted most humorous in my senior class. I did forensics, which I don’t know if you know what that is, but it’s like competitive drama, instead of doing like a production in which we would prepare scenes, and we would go compete against other schools and stuff. So I did forensics. I did radio and television in high school. I played sports in high school. I was very diversified.

And then I was a theater and film major in college. I studied theater and film for four years. But I also had my pilot’s license when I was an undergrad. So when I graduated, I got a guaranteed flight contract with the marine core, which I thought being top gun would be better than being a waiter, which is what you are going to be when you graduate as a theater/film major. So that’s where I ended up…I went that path.

But as I went along, I realized…You know, I wanted to try acting and I wanted to try comedy. I felt like that was a calling and a passion that I had that I had to give it a shot. I quit flying for the Marines and became a ground officer. Once I fulfilled my ground contract with the Marines, I started pursuing acting and comedy in New York fulltime. It took a long time before I caught a big enough break that I could do it fulltime. Then I joined the Reserves and I stayed in the Reserves.

Were you doing a lot of waitering when you went to New York?

No. I did bartend for a little while, but I was still in the Marines when I came up here. So I was a captain in the Marine Corps doing public affairs work out of Manhattan. I did that for the first three years I was here.

I find it interesting you mentioned Top Gun and then you went to bartending, following that up with Cocktail

[Laughs] There you go! That wasn’t a goal, though. The ultimate objective always to try and build a career in comedy and acting. It’s a long and painful road. [Laughs]

What kept you going through that period?

Just a sense of this is what I should be doing. This is what I love doing. I would do it for free. Those are all good signs. And then, also, I was getting positive feedback. If I was out there doing it and they were like, “You are terrible. This sucks. You need to quit now,” and I wasn’t getting any work, I would probably pay attention to that as well. But I was lucky. I guess people were responding to what I was doing and I was getting opportunities, so I just kept going.

You mentioned how you studied theater and acting in college. How was that experience?

It’s awkward and it’s awful, and it’s nerve-racking, and it’s just clunky. You know, you’re basically still a teenager. You’re trying to figure out things. You get goofy around certain material. You’re trying to be mature but you’re not. You don’t have enough life experience to draw from. Unless you’ve been out there and lived in the real world and had a shitty job, or had a crappy boss, or had a bad relationship, or made some mistakes in your life, you know, if you haven’t done any of these things you don’t have the experience to draw from. Or had that terrible apartment the first time you are ever on your own in a big city. Not that everybody has to go to war, but the more life experience you have, the more you have to draw from. When you are 19, 18, you know, you’ve got high school experiences. You don’t have much more than that. So it’s hard to read something on the page and bring it to life. You need to go out there and live a little.

Was there maybe one thing or two things that you learned in acting school, besides that kind of contradiction that sticks with you, that still informs what you do today?

Well, I always take something away. When I was a theater and film major at KU, I definitely learned some great lessons, had great teachers, and I had a real appreciation for film and film acting. And then when I got to New York, I studied at the UCD Theater. I learned improv, and sketch, and writing, and all kinds of great things. From there I studied common basis theater and studied method acting there. You always take away something. As long as you are growing and learning and you are able…If you go to a school or take a class or a course and you are able to take something away from it, then it’s worth your time.

And I’m sure that long, torturous period you mentioned was a big learning curve. 

Oh my gosh, yeah, because you try things and you fail, and you try other things and you fail, you think you’ve got it figured out and you fail. And then you try something and it works. And if you are smart, you go back and you ask yourself, “Why did these things fail? Why did this thing work?” And you try to improve. That’s what I did.

I’ve been getting asked a lot of questions about 21 Jump Street about where they say, “Would you go back to high school, would you change anything?” And not to be cliché or Beaver Cleaver about it, but no, I wouldn’t, because honestly, all the mistakes I made in my life, all the shortcomings, all my failures, all those mortifyingly embarrassing moments, I learned more from those failures than I ever learned from anything else. And that’s what made me who I am today, which is still a moron, but at least I’ve learned some lessons. I wouldn’t trade any of that.

What about success? Say when you’re writing a joke or other material, do you know when you’ve found something good? 

Not so much when I am writing. Sometimes when I’m writing. Sometimes, yeah. But a lot of times, I always discover on stage, a lot of times when I’m doing standup I’ll write down premises and then I’ll get up on stage and I’ll discover it on stage. I’ll just start going for it on stage and find things on stage. It’s the performance you find stuff. And if I’m doing something in a movie, if I improvise a line or make a move and the crew starts laughing, I feel like I’m on the right path.

Do you see that as a challenge for yourself, when you get on stage, going off a premise?

Never improv, because you don’t preplan anything for improv. But for standup, yeah, you know, I always think about a premise and maybe think about one possible joke so you at least have a beginning, middle, and end. But as I work through the joke and work through the setup, I might add to it. Or, as I do a punchline, I might hit the punchline but then also add to the punchline, like, you know, give it one extra beat. But you don’t discover those things until you’re up there doing it.

I saw this one quote of yours that I really enjoyed where you said, “SNL is not the sanest place to work.” 

Well, you know, the amount of people there, the pressure. It’s a stressful environment. It requires a lot of attention and focus. And it’s not the sanest place to learn.

When you’re working with groups, like on SNL, does that heavily change how you work?

Yeah, because you are working ensemble. You know, it’s not about you, it’s about the comedy and you’re serving the piece. I came up doing improv at the UCB, and there you work ensemble comedy, you work on serving whatever the comedy is. You don’t go out there and say a joke and sacrifice the scene just so you can get a laugh. You go out there and serve the scene, serve the comedy.

21 Jump Street opens in theaters on March 16th.

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