Ron Swanson was just the beginning.
Nick Offerman has taken up the helm of America’s man’s man. He’s inherited this role from a long line of paragons of masculinity, not the least of these being John Wayne. But unlike most of his predecessors, Offerman isn’t clutching onto this role for dear life. He’s actively looking for ways to destroy it.
We caught up with the polymath actor the day before his latest film Infinity Baby was released on iTunes and VOD to talk toxic masculinity, his long-running collaboration with Infinity Baby director Bob Byington, and what he’s producing out of his woodworking shop these days.
FSR: Your new film Infinity Baby feels like a Godard film—it reminded me a lot of Alphaville. As an actor do you use other films as touchstones in your preparation?
Nick Offerman: Quite the opposite. [Director] Bob [Byington] is a film school smarty-pants, and he’s always watching classic European films and films from people that he would aspire to, and he always tries to get me to watch them. And I just can’t seem to become a student of cinema. I think it’s because I’m a polymath, and so I always have homework. I never have time for someone to say, “Hey, can I show you some of the lesser-known Fellinis?” I’m like, “No, I have a book to read.” If we’re not shooting right now, I have other things I need to be doing. So Bob could talk about his influences, but the thing I love about working with Bob in specific is that I find him to be a really unique and original voice. And that’s something I’ve pursued since I started in theatre in Chicago. I had a theatre company called The Defiant Theater, and that was our thing, to create original pieces that were uniquely our voice. I feel like Bob really succeeds at that as a filmmaker.
That goes with your comments about being a bad actor until you understood how to filter your performance through your persona.
It does very much. And I think Bob does a great job of shining a light on how weird and messy human beings are. And that was my realization: whatever my particular weirdness or peccadillos are were actually my strengths that I can bring to the table.
And that also goes with Infinity Baby screenwriter Onur Tukel’s writing. It’s so specific, more like a playwright than a screenwriter. With all of these unique voices contributing to Infinity Baby what was the experience like on set?
Given the nature of Onur’s writing, there is an element of theater script or literature to both Onur’s writing and Bob’s writing. So by and large it’s less conducive to improvisation, but it is very collaborative. When film scenes are getting a little weird as these are—sometimes when we get on set, it’s hard to make the dialogue fit the real situation. Perhaps it’s a little overwritten or underwritten, and so when we get on set and start working it’s very collaborative. We can say, “Can we cut this line,” or, “Can I say something to get me from point A to point C?” And that’s part of the fun. That’s one thing I love about Bob’s movies is that he gets really great, fascinating, and idiosyncratic actors. So you’re having the collaborations with people of this incredible ilk like Megan Mullally, Kevin Corrigan, Stephen Root, Martin Starr, Kieran Culkin, and Trieste Kelly Dunn.
You’ve worked with Bob six times. What keeps you coming back for another project?
We met on a really terrific original Sundance movie from 98 called Treasure Island that our friend Scott King wrote and directed, and we immediately enjoyed the bratty sense of humor that we shared and also an appreciation of language. So as Bob had continued to develop his career in Austin—there’s something really satisfying about his insistence on making his films on a small budget. So there’s a small scale to it that to me allows it to feel a little more like a little theater company. Like you can see all 18 people making the film together, and that’s incredibly satisfying. It allows you to feel much more profoundly that this is our collective art project. You know, the bigger the budget the more you can feel like a prop that they brought in for three days because there are 300 people. But in this case, if we ever won an award for a Byington movie you could fit the entire crew on stage and still have room for 20 people.
This is your first time as an executive producer on a Byington film. You had previously produced his film Somebody Up There Likes Me. How did the change in title change your experience on this project?
Generally, to my way of thinking, producer is much more hands-on, and I took that very seriously. I drove my truck full of tools from LA to Austin, and this great producer named Hans Graffunder was sort of the dad of the movie. He ran the office; he did all the smarty-pants paperwork that he knew how to deal with the unions. He works with Terry Malick a lot and Sarah Green so he knows all of the grownup stuff, which left me free to run the set. And I know how to captain the ship and make sure everybody is tying the proper knots and we have the correct sails in the air. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s 102 degrees in Austin, and producing on that scale you’re the guy who slips someone 200 bucks and says, “Go get ice cream for everybody.” But then executive producer has a more overseeing quality. So from the get-go, you’re using your influence to help cast the movie and to help find funding for the movie. Some of that comes with the good fortune both Megan and I have experienced. Like the bigger our audience gets the more we can influence things. Like how a movie gets staffed up. It has more of a Godfathering quality to it. We look at what the producer is doing and we can weigh in and say, “Thanks for busting your fanny, but you might consider putting up the mainsail in this particular storm,” or taking it down actually. When a squall kicks up you want to drop some sails. I’ve gone way too deep with this sailing analogy.
This film feels like a parable about toxic masculinity and how that taints society. As someone who plays exaggeratedly masculine characters, while in a lot of cases you’re subverting that trope, why do you think it’s important to play those characters in this socio-political climate?
I haven’t come up with a successful version of it, but I have a dream, especially since Ron Swanson became popular, I feel like I’m set up in a unique way to subvert the traditional sort of John Wayne sense of masculinity. And I think it’s very important in this modern climate to sort of gently erode what people consider manly or masculine because a lot of our human rights issues are deeply ensconced in that fear-based masculinity. Like, “I’m afraid that I’m going to lose control, or I’m just generally afraid because I’m a human being and I happen to be a muscular man so I’m going to use violence to try and mask my fears.” That’s proven to be not the healthiest technique. So, for what it’s worth, wherever my two cents can occur I’d like to set myself up as a meat-eating ax-swinging, dependable protagonist, but at the same time say, “But I also love dancing ballet, and giggling. You know, the softer things in life and that’s ok.” Human beings are much more complicated than anything John Wayne has ever played, and I think our society is slowly coming around to that realization that you can be a woman and be an incredible woodworker or outdoors-person, or be a big beefy guy and be a champion of knitting and baking a delicious quiche. All of those attributes—they’re not gender specific—they’re all charismatic and winning. I’m thrilled that in our lifetime if you told me ten years ago that gay marriage was so ubiquitous that it was no longer up for discussion, that all the states now have legal gay marriage, or that you can walk into a boutique and select and purchase delicious and curated marijuana I would have fainted flat out. So I’m excited that all of these conversations are on the table because we’re wrestling our way towards a world where everybody gets a fair deal. As an artist, I feel very lucky to see grudging progress, but it’s progress nonetheless.
When did you become conscious of your agency that you were able to play these characters, yet subvert them in the way you do? Was that the plan all along?
I would never accuse myself of being sharp enough to have a plan all along. I’m a very gut reaction-type agent. I don’t have grand ambitions. I’m not looking to win any trophies. I don’t have any particular milestones that I think about, and my wife is kind of the same. We just generally love performing good writing for an audience. For me, that has come to cover many mediums from TV to film to theater to writing books to audio books to touring as a humorist. And I’m having a blast, so once I started getting cast in theater in Chicago which is where I started, that’s when I came to understand that I was viewed as a virile, athletic guy who could play a cop or an athlete or a killer, but I represented a strong male presence, and I’ve always had a strong subversive streak. I guess it’s part of my recipe. It’s ingrained in me. Like, “Ok you guys want to put me in a suit and make me look like a conservative. I’m going to do my best to do something weird or goofy so that everything is not two dimensional.” No matter what I’m doing I try to maintain some human complexity.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned over the process of making Infinity Baby, whether about yourself or the filmmaking process in general?
There’s a certain audacity to Bob’s work and it hit me with more effect on this film than with any of the previous ones because to put me in a suit and to make me a sharp looking, relatively speaking fast-talking executive type was audacious and fun because I’m usually seen more as a slow-talking stentorian. More of a Tommy Lee Jones and not so much an Alec Baldwin. Bob’s always telling me to talk faster, and I’m always bristling against that because it’s not my natural pace, but there’s stuff we did in this film that—when you’re young you try to work within your comfort zone, and when someone says, “Hey can you do the pole-vault?” You say, “Well, I could try, but I’d rather you didn’t photograph it because it’s probably going to look pretty stupid.” Then I think as you become more accustomed to the way life operates, especially if you’re prone to comedy, you understand that if you look stupid pole-vaulting that could be considered your greatest work because we all look stupid—that’s human. We love to watch Will Ferrell run down the street with his pants off because we understand that we have that within all of us. So there were things in this movie that normally I would have said, “No, that sounds way to fast and ambitious for me.” That I was pleased to say, “Sure, let’s try and rip off this monologue while walking quickly.” Sort of like a shot you wouldn’t be surprised to see in a De Palma film, but was pretty crazy for Byington.
So what’s next for the film and for you personally?
For Infinity Baby, it’s kind of fascinating because in entertainment these days the landscape changes drastically every three months or so. So with the last few movies I’ve done with Bob I’m pretty grateful that we have found, for this type and size of movie, a recipe by which the movie premiers at a festival and it does well and then they end up on some kind of art-house festival release, and then they end up on some sort of viewable service. That’s astonishing these days because these films have always been my bread and butter, these little festival films, and before streaming came around you would play a festival and by and large the odds would be better of a winning lottery ticket than your festival film making it into a movie theater. So I’m thrilled these films can continue to exist and be seen. I think this is the best we’ve done together. So I’ll be excited for the world to get their eyes on it. As always, and I might be a touch biased, but Megan never ceases to amaze me with her ability to steal every scene she’s in with the lightest of touches. There are lots of funny people in our lives and great actors but she’s so deft. That’s what I enjoy so much when we’re working together or when I’m watching her do these scenes in Infinity Baby. She’ll pick a piece of lint off the couch or she’ll do something really tiny, and then when I see it in the scene I say, “You sneaky bastard.” It seemed like a throwaway gesture, but in truth, you’re completely sculpting the air within the frame. She was born with a genius that the rest of us aspire to. So I’m excited for the fans of hers and Bob’s and the rest of this great cast to get to see it.
As far as myself, I’m working on a book with Megan right now that’s going to come out next year. And then when that’s done, I’m going to start working on my next book which will be my fifth counting the one with Megan, and I have a bunch of shop time lined up. I’ve been turning down acting jobs so that I can spend some time in my shop, which I’m really excited about. I’m working on a big batch of ukuleles, and I’m getting ready to start building guitars.
You have a song about ukuleles right?
I do, yeah. Hilariously, I had the idea for the song, and I wrote the song about building a ukulele. And in order to perform it for an audience, incongruously I had to actually build a ukulele. So I did, so that’s part of my tour that I’m in the middle of right now—this show called Full Bush. Which, I’m shooting in Chicago in a few weeks to make a special.
What’s that coming out on?
I produce them myself, and I see if anybody will buy it. I found that to be the method by which I can retain the most control. So then hopefully some channel or other will be willing to put it up.