Jason Mantzoukas Interview

People who watch lots of movies start to recognize character actors from role to role, especially in comedies, when a funny guy or woman keeps showing up. Jason Mantzoukas has been one of those reliable actors stealing scenes in movies like Baby Mama, The Dictator, The House, Sleeping with Other People and more. But in The Long Dumb Road, Mantzoukas finally takes the lead.

The Long Dumb Road premiered at Sundance this year, and is now playing select theaters and VOD. In the film, Mantzoukas plays Richard, a mechanic who, just after getting fired, helps Nat (Tony Revolori) with a broken down car and rides with him to college as they have a series of road trip misadventures. Mantzoukas took the time to speak with /Film about his lead role, his role in John Wick 3, and of course, the beloved movie podcast How Did This Get Made?, on which he’s been a regular with Paul Scheer and June Diane Raphael since 2010.

Just as the interview began, Mantzoukas noticed my Nundercover T-shirt, based on the How Did This Get Made episode for Hudson Hawk.

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Jason Mantzoukas: That’s an oldie.

I legit have always loved Hudson Hawk. I saw it when it came out and thought it was great. Then when people started making fun of it I was like, “Awww.”

I think I said it in the episode, I remember going to see it thinking it was going to be good. Maybe I was in high school and being like, “Yeah, this looks like it’s going to be great.” I just thought it was terrible at the time.

I was Team Hudson Hawk since 1991.

Smart. Good for you. You were probably younger. I bet it was more fun.

I was but I understood it wasn’t Die Hard but it was funny and crazy.

Oh, yes.

I’ve got colleagues who are shouting Geostorm since that episode too.

That’s really funny. Nundercover’s a good one, Geostorm, I like those things that take on a life of their own, that the fans and the community then start doing. People started sending us videos of them in storms screaming, “Geostorm!” Just quick videos of them wherever they are caught in a storm screaming, “Geostorm.” It’s such a fun group and so many good fun quotable bits have come out of it which I love.

Hollywood likes to cast you as the funny friend or comic relief in some scene. Does it take an indie director to give you a chance at a leading role?

A little bit I think. I don’t get opportunities to go and be the lead guy in a thing. You’re right, I usually am on a handful of episodes of a show or a couple of funny scenes in a movie. So it’s been really fun and exciting to get to do a leading part, to be responsible for a character’s development throughout a movie and all that kind of stuff. It’s been really fun. Definitely, I think that really is a testament to Hannah Fidell who genuinely going into this, she certainly wasn’t picturing me for this part. We didn’t know each other. I had sat down and talked to her for hours in a coffee shop. I believe that really is what got me this part was that conversation.

In a Hollywood movie, I feel like Richard would be the carefree free spirit who teaches Nat to abandon all of his plans, and you’ve probably been in movies like that too. Was it more realistic that Richard’s just like, “Hey, whatever goes wrong, we can fix it. Just don’t freak out.”

Yeah, a little bit. There’s definitely a little bit of like what are the lessons that each of them is teaching the other, whether they know it or not? One of the things I really liked about this character in the script and then when we started digging into it shooting, was that sometimes that guy in that kind of role can be more intellectual or have things figured out or a philosophical outlook on life that is meaningful for the Nat character. I like that Richard is really just barely keeping it together himself. He is truly struggling to put it together and that that is part of what is important and what lands for Nat is Richard as cautionary tale, not Richard as wise philosopher of the road or something like that.

I think we all feel safe that Nat’s going to be okay. He’s going to graduate from college, get a job and have a life.

We hope, we hope. We’ll never know.

But Richard is already on the other side of that and hasn’t moved forward. Did that give you more compassion for him?

Oh yeah. I love these kind of fuck up kind of guys. I love playing these kind of semi-broken chaos agents who are really trying to, in a well-meaning way, figure their lives out. I think what’s fun about Richard, it was important that he be scary when scary but not so scary that if you were nervous for Nat continuously, you wouldn’t laugh at the jokes in the movie. You’d be too anxious that something bad was going to happen. So it was important that Richard have real threat or real menace at times, but also genuine vulnerability and sweetness to balance it out so you could see why Nat is A, willing to keep him around, and B, charmed by him as well.

Again, I feel like in a Hollywood movie, Richard would be the hero no matter how big a fuck up he is.

Interesting, yeah.

The fuck up is the hero and we should all try to be like the fuck ups. Especially when he gets scary, is Hannah saying, “No, real people shouldn’t act like this?”

Oh, I think so. I don’t think there was any interest in making Richard seem as though he had all the answers. He’s not the person who is aspirational here. He’s not the person whose life everybody should want or whose point of view everybody should share. He’s just an absolute mess of a person and that, I loved. I love someone who is unapologetically, continuously from the minute you meet him when he’s being fired, all the way through to when he’s trying to win money at the casino, he is making almost always the wrong choice.

What was your thought behind the knife, where it doesn’t even occur to him that it’s weird to pull a knife on a stranger in a car?

I think that’s one of those things where he feels like, “My intention isn’t malice. I’m just showing you that I have a knife and I’m able to protect you.” I think for Richard there’s a bunch of scenes where he gets frustrated and upset with people for not understanding the contents of his heart or what he’s trying to say. It’s frustrating to him because he’s like, “No, I’m not pulling a knife on you. I’m showing you I have a knife. I’m ready to protect you.” That disconnect is really one of the things that pushes his buttons. Like oh wait, no, you’re not getting me. That frustrating of being misunderstood seems like a big one for Richard which is why he’s always getting fired, which is why he’s always getting people double crossing him. I don’t think people are loyal to him. I think he struggles with real intimate relationships.

And once we learn the full story of the knife, we feel bad for Richard. He should have led with that.

Exactly. That’s exactly the kind of weird vulnerability or sentimentality that Richard really doesn’t traffic in because I think he is in situations that he doesn’t want to show that to people. He doesn’t want people to have one over on him. I feel like that’s the Casey Wilson scene too is that he’s somehow immediately defensive because he’s shown his cards, he’s been vulnerable and been rejected. He can’t handle that.

And now you get to be in John Wick 3?

I do. I do, which was so fun. It will be, I suspect, a very small part but I was thrilled to get that call. That was very exciting.

Do you get to shoot guns?

I can’t say what I do or do not do, sadly.

Is The Tick Tock Man as cool as the other characters from John Wick 1 and 2?

I think so. Again, it’s a small part, so I hope. I love those movies. I have since the first one. I saw the first one in the theater and was like, “Holy sh*t, this is great.” Really loved it. The second one I thought was great as well and their world building is phenomenal. I guess now they’re doing a TV show about The Continental which I was talking to them about when I was doing it and that sounds completely rad. There’s been pictures of Keanu on the horse, horse vs. motorcycle, just them telling me about that stuff was exciting, never mind getting to see it at some point. So yeah, I think The Tick Tock Man is probably going to be a pretty legendary character.

Did you get to read the whole script?

I did. It’s great. It’s great.

How did Paul Scheer rope you into doing How Did This Get Made in the first place?

Oh, in the first place, you know what it was? We were all at a party at a friend’s house. It might have even been a Halloween party. This was maybe eight years ago. A group of us had all just seen Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Just organically a conversation started happening that was basically what would be a How Did This Get Made episode, a group of very funny friends sitting around the table deconstructing that movie for how crazy it was, how weird it was, what a bizarre thing to even have done and attempted. The choices were nuts, the performances were nuts, the whole thing. We go through this whole party having this conversation. Previous to that, Paul had said to me, “What do you think about podcasts?” At the time, WTF was happening, [Comedy] Bang Bang had just started up or maybe a year into Bang Bang. There seemed to be a real audience for comedy based podcasts. He was like, “Think about it. Think about if there’s something you would want to do.” After that party, I said, “That right there is a podcast. A group of funny friends just chit chatting, doing bits about a bad movie, that’s a podcast that I would listen to. Being part of that conversation would have been fun to overhear a group of funny people.” A couple of weeks later he e-mailed me and was like, “Do you want to do that? Would you want actually that to be the thing we try and do?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.” He was so instrumental in pushing that thing forward. We walked out of that party, I said, “That could be a podcast” and I didn’t think about it at all again. He really was like, “Hey, why don’t we try that?” We did. We tried it a couple different times as little pilot episodes to see how it would work. It was longer at one point and we were like, “Oh no, this is too long. We’ve got to make it way shorter.” Then we cut it way back. Those first batch of episodes are 35-40 minutes, really short. Once we started doing live, it started to get bigger and more bloated. It’s fun.

Have you become an actual film critic from doing How Did This Get Made?

I don’t… no. I think there’s a large difference between what we’re doing and actual film criticism. I respect critics too much to say that that’s what we’re doing.

You are able to identify problems with story structure.

Yes, well, that comes I think from just having spent years as a writer and somebody who thinks about and does this for a living.

Would you want to do Caddyshack II?

I didn’t know there was a Caddyshack II.

Really? It’s a legendarily bad sequel.

Oh really? That’s interesting. I’m sure it’s on the list if it’s that bad. Then yes, I would. I’m just hearing about it for the first time now. Wow, is it one of those ones that was made way later like Easy Rider II that was made just a couple years ago.

Still in the ‘80s but eight years later. The only one who came back was Chevy Chase. Instead of Rodney Dangerfield it’s Jackie Mason. Dan Aykroyd is I guess the Bill Murray-like character.

Oh wow, that’s interesting.

When you finally did Vampire’s Kiss, did it make all the other Nicolas Cage performances seem tame?

Wow, did you see he did a great video promoting probably Mandy. He was breaking down all of his iconic roles. He talks about Vampire’s Kiss and the way he talks about it makes the performance even more bizarre and interesting. You should track it down. He’s basically trying to channel Nosferatu, like silent film performance in that movie. That’s his whole thing. Then he talks about how that performance really unlocked something for him moving forward in his subsequent performances. It’s pretty great.

Could this interview be a Jacob’s Ladder scenario?

Have you died? I hope not.

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