'The Tick' Star Griffin Newman On How Season 2 Expands The Show's Universe (And Those Cool Practical Costumes) [Interview]

Amazon's revival of The Tick returns for a ten-episode second season today, boasting the charming return of a new take on the eponymous blue hero (played now by Peter Serafinowicz) and his nebbishy sidekick Arthur, played by comedian and actor Griffin Newman. Outside of The Tick, Newman has had small roles in films like Draft Day and the HBO drama Vinyl, but he's best known to a subset of cinephiles as one of the hosts of the popular podcast Blank Check With Griffin and David, where he and co-host David Sims of The Atlantic talk about various distinctive filmmakers and their filmographies, sharing their thoughts on the industry at large. Slashfilm sat down (via Skype) with Newman to talk about playing a superhero, working in an industry he sometimes criticizes on a podcast, and more. (Full disclosure: Newman has appeared on this interviewer's podcast before.)

After two seasons, has there been an easiest part of playing a superhero for you?

It doesn't get easier. Playing a main character on a TV show is an incredible workload, and there are constant challenges. When you add onto it that it's a superhero show, there are all these technical complications. And...on top of that, it's a superhero comedy. The comedy of it all and the technical aspects — be it fight choreography or special effects or the costumes — are at odds with each other.

Choreography has to be precise. With special-effects stuff, the entire shot can get messed up if you move your head a quarter-inch the wrong way. And comedy is supposed to be loose and behavioral. So much of comedy is trying to find unexpected moments, the chemistry between you and your scene partner.

I think the only thing that's gotten easier is putting on the costume and taking it off. Wearing it is still a bit of a challenge. Every day, there's a new challenge, which also makes it fun. I would get bored if it became routine.

I think you said this on Twitter: are the antennae on the Tick costume a practical effect?

One hundred percent.

That seems insane.

This is our third costume for the Tick. The Tick keeps evolving, literally. It's the cold open of the season: Tick has molted and shed his old suit like an insect, and now has revealed the new, less detailed suit underneath. The antennae were like the Fitzcarraldo of the season [laughter], getting them to work.

There's a puppeteer named Lara McLean who does the Tick's antennae live. She has a remote control, and she is giving a live performance on set in tandem with what Peter is doing. Everyone on set understands this is someone giving a performance. This isn't some technician. This isn't a special-effects person.

She's worked for Sesame [Street] and the Henson Company for years, as a fabricator, as a builder, as a performer. She's sitting there watching our rehearsals, getting the scripts, coming up with ideas, and then giving a performance that syncs up with what Peter's doing. But Peter might change the timing, might improvise a line, and she has to improvise with that. He doesn't know what she's doing because it's above his head. So often, I will compliment Peter on something funny he did during a scene with his antennae and have to remember that's not an organic part of his body. That's Lara sitting in the corner creating that performance and pushing the Tick character over the edge.

When you got the second-season renewal, did you approach the new episodes with the weight of expectations fans might have either to the previous season or earlier adaptations?

All that pressure is already there being put on myself by myself. I was a huge fan of the [1994] cartoon. I was a huge fan of the [2001] Patrick Warburton show. I didn't get into the comics until I started auditioning for the role, but then I became a huge fan. By the time we started filming, I had read every issue of every series they've ever done.

The curse is, I feel that weight of expectation with everything we do with the show. I don't want to be the guy who ruined The Tick. The blessing is, I don't have to put myself in the shoes of "What are fans going to like?" I can't speak for all fans, but I can speak for the guy who used to go through TV Guide every week to figure out when the Warburton show was airing, because they would move it around timeslots. My brother and I would not miss an episode live. Then, I waited over a decade for...some revival, before I found out the show existed by getting an email saying I could audition for it.

So I've tried to make the show that guy would want to see the entire time. I try to stick to those expectations: what would have felt right to me and what would have felt wrong to me.

What else can fans look forward to this season?

Expanding the universe. The first season was the Tick-and-Arthur origin story. In previous versions, they've met and quickly teamed up, despite being such an odd couple. In Season 1, Ben [Edlund]'s goal was to create greater narrative and emotional stakes by treating these people with a little more depth. I don't want to say "more seriously," because it's an absurd show and the Tick is always going to be a comedic character.

The term Ben uses is "do the math" to figure out who they are as people. That way, the comedy, action, and emotion get heightened. In Season 1, the universe is pretty small because it's mostly around us, and the people we directly relate to. At the start of Season 1, superheroes have kind of been outlawed. The agencies have also shut down. In Season 2, it's the industry revival. AEGIS, which is our equivalent of SHIELD, reopens and there's going to be a new superhero team. There are five coveted positions everyone's fighting for and now a bunch of other superheroes come out of the woodwork.

Some are superheroes [Arthur] grew up idolizing, but now Arthur and the Tick are brought into a more legitimate world where they don't get to be the city's number-one superheroes by default. They have to fight for that position with other superheroes who have a lot more experience and a lot more conventionally heroic than they are.

You've worked on a TV shows, on networks, basic cable, pay cable, and now streaming. Is it different working within each of those arenas?

My experiences are colored by the different roles I had on those shows. Vinyl felt like the biggest production I've been on, but I had a very small role. I could see a difference in how HBO runs things on the daily production side, as opposed to how a network runs things. But on networks, I've only done pilots and guest spots where you're just sort of visiting that world.

The Tick is different, because...I'm there every episode. There's a throughline. What's fun with Amazon is, they're not as beholden to the traditional notions of what a TV show needs to be. There's a lot of latitude. They know what show it is. [We don't have] to fit into a timeslot. [We don't] compete in the ratings with other shows live. They want us to make the best version of The Tick that people who liked The Tick will like the most.

Ben tells stories about working on the Warburton show, and there were all these pressures of what it needed to be. Fox wanted them to have a home base that was a restaurant. A lot of that show takes place in a Chinese restaurant, because they said, "That's like Seinfeld." It didn't matter that it was a superhero show. I think [the 2001 show] executed all those things very well. But Amazon isn't throwing requests out like that. They're not saying "This is like The Walking Dead. So you need to kill a character every four episodes." They're saying, "Make the best Tick," which is exciting.

Aside from other versions of Arthur, what other actors were you inspired by?

I looked at Gene Wilder a lot. When I met with Ben, he was direct about what the challenge was with this character: "I want to make Arthur a proper emotional protagonist rather than just being a comic device." Arthur used to be, even if he was sympathetic, comic relief. Why would a guy who's this neurotic become a superhero? Ben wanted to keep that, but make him a guy you could invest in and root for.

The trick to that is, you want to make sure the guy doesn't become a joke. It's the difference between the audience laughing at a character or laughing with a character. Even when Arthur fails, you want to make sure you're not putting him down, because it becomes hard to invest.

Gene Wilder was a very unconventional leading man, which is something I try to do with Arthur, to make a leading man who doesn't have the standard machismo that I feel seeps into any lead male character. He's incredibly vulnerable and emotional and empathetic, but can be the hero of the story and can get the laughs. You can find those jokes. A lot of those laugh lines come out of not what's being said, but how it's being said.

Gene Wilder was so good at the emotional oscillation of getting stressed out. When he's stressed out, he's really stressed out. When he's angry, he's really angry. When he's sad, he's really sad. Like his blanket breakdown in The Producers or his tirades in Young Frankenstein. He's the North Star I look towards. I have a long, long way to go, but that's what I try my hardest to emulate.

The Tick season 2 trailer

How has working on this show changed how you relate to big-budget superhero films?

More than I thought it would. I went to see Ant-Man and the Wasp when we were in the middle of filming. I was on the verge of a panic attack the entire movie. Not because of what was happening in the story, but because I had a practical understanding of how difficult it must've been to make. Every time there was any size shift, I would think about how difficult the costumes...or eyelines must have been to work around. It becomes a little overwhelming.

What I think is unique about us, which I relish, is we're the only superhero thing that isn't tied into any bigger universe. There are no other shows. There are no other cartoons. There are no other movies we are shaking hands with. The Tick universe is just the Tick universe. Each version of it, the comic book, the cartoon, the Warburton show, and this one have their own continuities.

I can't imagine the stress of having to deal with those other concerns, not just how you're making your own project good, but how you're making it fit in with all the other projects. When I watch that sort of stuff, I can't even believe it. When it works, it feels like a miracle to me.

But in terms of watching practically any superhero movie or TV show, I spend too much time thinking about how long things took to shoot or how uncomfortable certain positions are on the costume.

One of your recent credits is Showtime's Our Cartoon President, where you play Jared Kushner. When you saw this opportunity come forward, did you think, "I want to dive into the mess of the real world?"

I fought very hard for that part. I really wanted to do it, which maybe seems demented. But I felt it would be cathartic to comment on these people who are driving me crazy on a day-to-day basis.

Rather than a lot of animated shows that [cast] the voiceover community first, they were going out to the comedy community. So there were emails...[talking about] the 30 characters they're looking to cast this season. They had the drawings for them and the breakdowns of what their take on the characters were, what they imagine their voices to be like. You could put your own tape together, using a transcript of a real speech they made.

So I stayed up all night and worked on eight or nine characters, because I so badly wanted to be part of the show. I want to do voiceover in general. It's a hard thing to break into, and this seemed perfect. I spent 12 hours working on about 10 different characters. Kushner was the one I wanted the most.

And I originally didn't get the part. Months later, they rethought it and asked if I was still interested. So I went in and met with them. They had started animating and writing, so I jumped into it pretty late. They had done the first two episodes and had to reconceive Jared.

I was watching the episodes that were mostly finished and trying to show them what I thought I could do with it. You're trying to sneak in between narrow goalposts. But it's been fun to develop the character, because it feels like a very organic process. Every time I come in, they'll go, "You know, we really liked that thing last time, we didn't think about that being a thing with Jared. So now we wrote some more stuff that's like this." It does feel therapeutic, because I feel so angry about this administration all the time.

How do you balance your career with the comments you make on the podcast about current films or filmmakers? I imagine somebody has encouraged you to...not say those things.

I get a little freaked out any time I go into a meeting. But it's been weird, because when I started doing the show, I felt like I was transitioning out of acting. I was feeling discouraged, and I was starting to question if I wanted to do something else.

David and I started doing the show, which at that time was just about Star Wars. It was a ridiculous podcast about pretending Phantom Menace was the only Star Wars movie that existed. Later, we started talking about the other prequels...all within this comedic conceit of playing willfully ignorant to the Star Wars saga.

We wanted to keep doing the show [after discussing Star Wars] in this broader idea of...directors and their filmographies. Four weeks into recording, I got cast on The Tick, which was very unexpected. Over the course of 3 years, my understanding of the industry has changed and the way people view me has changed.

I have no delusions about being hyper-famous, but certain statements sound different when they're made by someone who is on billboards. I don't want to sound like someone throwing bricks inside a glass house or that I'm trying to take down other people competitively.

So it's a tough thing. To reconcile this show that organically came out of David and I being friends who talk about these things and making those conversations into a podcast, with people taking what I say more seriously now. [What] I always try to keep in mind is: we're not a bad movie podcast and we praise a lot of things. Some of our listeners think we overpraise things or praise too many things. But any time I criticize a piece of work on the show, I have [likely] praised another work by that same person.

I don't think we're falling in with the consensus of s***ting on the things everyone s***s on and praising the things everyone else praises. But I will see sometimes that people refer to me as a critic or they'll quote things I say on the podcast as the opinion of this film critic, which always freaks me out because I try as hard as possible to make it clear that I don't think of myself as a critic.

I think of myself as a big movie fan, someone who takes it very seriously, maybe has a critical perspective on things. But I'm an actor and comedian first, and anything I say about anyone else's work is with the understanding of how difficult it is to do any of this stuff.

Well, you're a connoisseur of context.

Right, I'm a connoisseur of context. That's a shorter answer.

Of the various blank-check filmmakers you've discussed on the show, who would you want to work with and why?

It's different people for different reasons. What excites me is getting to do something different than I've done before. Playing Arthur on The Tick was such an insane pipe dream that I never thought would happen, it crossed off every bucket list item I had as an actor. To want anything more in my career feels selfish.

The things that excite me are a different type of character or a director with a different type of process or a different genre. I mean, would I kill to be in one of the Avatar movies? Yes, because I would love to do motion capture and I would love to see how James Cameron runs his set because you hear so many stories about that. I mean, that feels creatively the most interesting to me.

The other obvious answer for me...we're covering Tim Burton now and he is the first filmmaker I ever became obsessed with. He's a Rosetta Stone for a lot of what I'm interested in.

What is your favorite blank-check TV show?

David and I, when we started the show, we didn't know if it was always going to be about directors. We thought we would cover other things. So there was a period where we were thinking we would do a miniseries on John From Cincinnati, which feels like the most blank-check thing that's ever happened on TV, at least up until that time. I'd say Twin Peaks: The Return also falls into that category more successfully, as something where the network wants to work with the creator so badly that they let [David Lynch] do whatever he wanted.

I'm trying to think of ones that I really like... Get a Life, the Chris Elliott/Adam Resnick show. That always jumps out to me. It's something I saw when I was young and my mind was blown. Like, "How did this end up on TV?" That felt like a show where they got no notes, which is impossible. The whole challenge of making TV is making it through the notes process. But that show had an E.T. parody where the alien wouldn't stop barfing and it ends with them barbecuing the alien and eating it. That's the show that I still am perplexed made it onto network TV for 20 or 30 episodes.

Last question. You, like me, are a theme-park fan; you mentioned Avatar. I know you've visited Disney's World of Pandora. If there could be a Tick attraction, what would it be and which theme park would it reside in?

We'd have to be at Epcot. When you see AEGIS this season, it feels very Epcot to me. There's a lot of testing we have to go through. I think there'd be some Tick testing ride with all of the machinery.

For Comic-Con in 2017, they built a replica...of several sets from our show. The bodega, Arthur's apartment, and the warehouse where Miss Lint was working in the pilot. They had a scavenger hunt, where you had to locate objects and people could win Tick swag. I had to record a video that was what people watch when they were waiting to go into the attraction, like my equivalent of the pre-ride video at a theme park.

It was such a big nerd dream...to do "Oh, thank God you made it here. Look, Tick and I are in a lot of trouble and you're the only ones who can help us." That kind of performance style, which as a theme-park fan, I had spent so many years studying. It was so much fun that I already feel like I've gotten to do the theme-park attraction. But it would be fun to do this Tick-and-Arthur roller-coaster through AEGIS that was half-bureaucracy and half-insane physical challenges.