As a Lynn Shelton movie, Sword of Trust is both familiar and an oddity. The dramedy has a focused yet free-wheeling narrative similar to Shelton’s other heavily-improvised movies, including Your Sister’s Sister and Laggies, but it’s the first movie of hers that could arguably be considered a partial thriller. There are more guns and swords in Sword of Trust than the usual Lynn Shelton film.

Caught directly in the middle of the drama over a Civil War-era sword is a pawnshop owner by the name of Mel, who’s played by renowned comedian and podcaster Marc Maron. Shelton first directed Maron in his IFC comedy series, which they followed up with his Netflix special, Too Real, and now Sword of Trust. The two similarly intimate storytellers have proven to be a compatible combo over the last few years. Recently, Maron told us about being directed by Shelton, how they made his comedy special truly intimate, continuing to grow as an actor, and of course, Van Halen frontman Diamond David Lee Roth.

I’m a big David Lee Roth fan, and I thought your recent conversation with him was one of his best interviews. 

Oh, good. Yeah, I was happy with that, that seems to be the consensus on that. I usually go into these things not really realizing what he’s done in previous interviews or how his fans can see him or any of that stuff. I just know that he likes to yammer on. I had some real kind of curiosities along the lines of what I was generally curious about in conversation, and I’m glad I had some success, and that at least it was having some sort of narrative through-line.

He said more about the Van Halen brothers than he usually does, too. 

There were funny moments, man. There was actually a moment that he tried to sit down and just have dinner together [with them], he was like, “No, absolutely not.”

[Laughs] Nobody thinks or talks like that guy. 

Yeah. I think that’s true. I think what I came away with, once I saw the foundation of where he’s come from and him getting into it a bit about his uncle Manny and his sort of Jewishness and his approach to show business that you kind of start to realize that he’s – and it really bothers me because I think that over the years some people have just sort of like, yeah, let’s just have that guy on [the show] and let him spin around and then, they’ll be condescending about how goofy he is. I think he’s a fairly inspired guy, and he’s a very bright person, and he’s very essential on a lot of different lines on a lot of different levels, but people treat him like a fucking clown. He’s not really, he’s just kind of a hyper-energized, bordering maybe even on manic mentally, but his stream of consciousness is genuinely deep. I don’t think people necessarily give him credit for that.

He is inspiring. I always loved how he saw every step he took on stage as a kick to the face of anti-Semites.

Yeah, man. I didn’t know that stuff about him and you knew most of that stuff already.

It was a great conversation. You first worked with Lynn Shelton on Maron, so what was it you enjoyed about that experience that led you two to keep working together? 

I met her for a couple of her movies, but when I was on Maron I was sort of putting on an act, on the job. By the time I got the fourth season, I knew I wanted to do something different. This was not based on my life, it was based on a possible path that could happen, a tragic path. I wanted to sort of explore that. I think the thing about Lynn is that she’s very intuitive with actors. She’s got a great sense of comedy and humor. She likes to laugh. But also, when she works with a team for promotional content she develops this weird, almost like a symbiotic emotional relationship with the team, and with the actors. You know, innately my first reaction is always slightly defensive and childish, but she moved through that, and once I learned to take her directions, it really allowed me to get under my reactive disposition and to more emotional places. I trust her instincts and she could handle me pretty well to allow me and encourage me to get to those places.

And that’s supposed to be across the board with comedy too. We’ve made a lot of decisions around the special, which people either notice or they don’t. Obviously, she’s not helping me write material, but there is a shape that has to be placed, when we’re shooting it, that she wanted to do, and that I had in mind, too. You know, don’t shoot any audience reaction, that’s not intimate, which was kind of a breakthrough for me. I think with specials in general, that format is so tired. Aziz Ansari decided to sit down in a T-shirt and you know, I did that. There isn’t a way to reinvent that but there is a way to create intimacy to create a tone.

I’d like to hear more about that process. What else did you and Lynn want to do visually to create a more intimate special? 

Yeah, her stance with me is exactly like…my approach and stance is very personal and not really driven by a defensive assault where I’m pacing the stage or whatever. I decided to man the stool many years ago as a way to bring intimacy to a large room, that was my intention. After processing the way Bill Cosby handled Himself, after that special, I know he’s horrible and a terrible person, but before a lot of that came out I watched that special. You know, he was sitting on a relatively comfortable chair and deciding what was funny and deciding to bring people to him as opposed to get to them, that was a revelation. So over time, as I became more confident and grounded in my skillset, I’m very willing to take a lot of emotional chances on the standup stage, and that’s kind of given me this comfort zone and this ownership of the stage that I think in a way is uniquely mine. Lynn kind of resonates with that.

I did not want any audience reactions, because by and large, they are mostly used so you can cut out chunks of material. They’re edited and they’re not really doing anything. You know, you’re just kind of picking random people laughing, maybe not even at the joke that you’re using, to cut. It was really just a device to cut. Our decision was let’s not do any of those, and I will make this set as tight as I possibly can as a piece of theater, almost, to a degree.

In the last couple of specials, I left a little room for improvisation, but I have callbacks and I usually have a through-line and a theme now. So those specials need to be about 75 minutes, so coming into that special I was running it at theaters, and even up to two nights before, I was still running 90 minutes. And then I guess this is just years of experience, I just sat down and get rid of all the fat and all the stuff that didn’t go right with the through-line of the piece of Too Real.

Then I ran it one more time before the special and I got it down to 73 minutes, and then on the day of the special I actually switched the ending and added a bit. The approach that she really wanted was to get was that shot where we had a camera come out from the beginning, onto the stage so she could get close enough to establish the intimacy that she wanted. And that was really the focus point. And I didn’t watch the Aziz Ansari special but it seemed like he was trying to do something similar by having Spike [Jonze] just stand there moving or doing whatever he was doing, but my stance and her stance was to capture the tone of what I do.

Absolutely, and she does that really well with the physical comedy too. One of the best bits in that special is you acting out the Rolling Stones concert, and her full view of it is great. 

I was generally a guy that moved around the stage a lot and do the back and forth business that you see a lot of the time. I have been that guy, I’ve done a lot of different things on stage but that was just a moment where I was going to get up, I’m going to show my comedy chops, I’m going to do this thing and gosh, I really dialed up to that, you know?

Like you’ve said on the podcast, you keep growing more comfortable with acting. What about acting took the most time to adjust to?

It’s sort of happening but I knew that going into my show, Maron, just from my experience, I knew that I was able to be present, and I had grown more confident in life, in how grounded I am, as who I am on stage and in that situation. But I knew that I was going to take a hit in terms of being comfortable on set, seeing, owning that space. To own that space like standup, I knew that there was going to be a learning curve in just feeling relaxed and having a natural ability to move in that environment.

I was all right, you know, I wasn’t terrible but I knew there was nothing I could do to make up for my lack of experience. So, as time goes on, I just thought it really becomes about that. Whenever I talk to a younger comic about “what did you do when you were starting out?” My answer has always been “do whatever the fuck you want,” because you’ll get to a point where you’ll think you can’t do that because of the job. So if there is no pressure on you to do the job, then take all the risks you can so you can figure out what your parameters are and your space up there. How do you hold that stage and own it? Because that’s your home and you should be as comfortable as possible in it.

So take all the chances you can, take all the risks you can, and you’ll know exactly what your strength is up there. And I think it’s the same with acting. For me, it is, “how do I learn how to relax, believe, stay in that scene, stay in the moment, stay deep, process information, look at things or hold things, learn how to keep pauses.” Same with radio, how do you take the space, so you’re actually in it and not rushing through something to try to get somewhere?

What do you do to help yourself stay in the moment when you’re acting? 

I just try to listen. Over the years that I’ve been acting, I’ve had actors on, and I really try to get a free acting lesson out of all of them. I forget which actor told me this, but there is a way to plant yourself in a space, so I look at the immediate environment. There is my chair, there is a guy with a camera, this is real life here, this is what’s happening, I am present in this situation. And then come out of that, into the scene and stay that person, that I am in a real place, you know? You just try to read every face, listen to the information, don’t think about what I have to say, and if I am thinking about what I have to say, don’t worry about that, and make it fresh every time.

You can make choices on the fly. You’re trying out some sort of choice going in, particularly when you get your character, when you’re living with your character. And usually my characters, they’re all within my wheelhouse. You really understand that it is all about these choices that you make, like, “I’m going to do this now, I’m going to do that and when I do it this time, I’m going to go over there or maybe look the other way.” You get very meticulous doing these takes that are sometimes less than a minute long because that’s the way that event was constructed.

The biggest challenge for me is really knowing that I have to go in this groove every day and also trying to figure out where the scene I’m doing fits in with the story. I’m not great at picturing a script, and I don’t always shoot in sequence, so I’ve grown to ask, to make sure that the director gets me up to speed with what will come out of it, and what’s happening.

What was it like staying in that groove when you were heavily improvising Sword of Trust

A lot of these people are really talented actors, but I don’t come from sketch or ensemble work. All of my comedy is created in real time on the stage. I am a pretty confident, efficient improviser as me. I’m very emotionally available for it. I’m not fundamentally a comedic improviser in the sense, and I like moments that are happening in real time. But I love working with a lot of people. I don’t have an immediate comedic acting background where I’m going to drop in all these characters. It’s not really my bag. But a lot of the people that I was working with on that shoot are those kind of people. So there was a little issue at the beginning where I said to Lynn it can’t be some weird improv and these characters have to ground themselves. I think that’s the real issue with improvising, is – it doesn’t happen to me as much – but you can’t just be going through the jokes or pushing the envelope of weirdness and that be the end of it, you know?

I didn’t even see myself as a lead, really, until Lynn said that I was, and then become this weird kind of emotional anchor. So improvising within that context showed me who I was, at times I become kind of a straight man but also this guy that has the responsibility of being an emotional through-line to this thing. So I think the biggest risk with improvising is diminishing a character to riff a joke or doing a joke over what the character would really do, that’s the tricky part.

What are some of the other big acting lessons you’ve learned from your past guests on the podcast? When you see Ian McKellen performing Shakespeare in front of you, do you learn from that? 

Definitely. I’m definitely a fan of a lot of people, but when they show up to my house, they become people, and then over time you sense actors are people doing a job. And then you start talking about the job, how do you do that job? And everybody’s got a different approach, and different things. The interesting thing is there is no one way to do it. There is no end to the things you can practice or techniques you can engage. But ultimately, you come to realize I’m doing a scene with Robert DeNiro and Joaquin Phoenix, which is just crazy. But also, with these guys, this is their job and this is their lifelong job and they have their approach and they’re going to do the work however they’re going to do it, and you respect that. Once you see these people doing a job, all of a sudden you start to frame it like that. Like, “So, how do I do this job?” It is not some sort of magic behind it.

So all these with conversations with actors sort of helped me to understand that I can approach it however I can approach it and I can get into it deeper if I want to. I can look to the fact that I have a job to do, but also, how does this satisfy me? It is the dream of people to be an actor or a movie star for what makes it seemingly rewarding, but once you get into the nuts and bolts of it, it’s tedious. So learning how to make it satisfying, and learning how to do your job as best as I can, and these different features as you shoot, that’s sort of a challenge. But to answer your question, I want to know, is there a key to this? Is there a singular approach or is there a technique that will help me? And all the conversations help.

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Sword of Trust is in theaters now.

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