As the unseen prompt for Michael Scott’s long “NOOOOOOOO” that has endured to become one of the Internet’s favorite reaction GIFs, Paul Lieberstein – best known for playing Toby on The Office – has often done his best work under the radar. In addition to playing Dunder Mifflin’s favorite killjoy in front of the camera, Lieberstein was a key creative force behind production of The Office as well, serving as a writer, director and showrunner throughout the series’ run.

Since the show came to a close five years ago, Lieberstein has stayed mostly in the television world, lending his talents to both HBO’s The Newsroom and Fox’s Ghosted. But he’s begun to branch out into the world of indie film with his feature writing and directing debut Song of Back and Neck, which premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Lieberstein also appears in the film as protagonist Fred Trolleycar, a middle-aged office drone who must come to terms with all the complications that stem from his chronic back and neck pain – an experience which came directly from the star’s own life.

I caught the film there back in April and reviewed it positively, writing that Lieberstein is adept at “handling some slightly morose material with equal parts sincerity and dry humor.” We were able to chat further about the film earlier this month and talked about how he made the leap from TV to movies. Our phone call was shortly after Steve Carell gathered a few former co-stars from The Office in his Saturday Night Live monologue, so naturally our conversation had to start with some discussion about a potential reunion or revival for the show. 

Where were you for The Office reunion on SNL?

[laughs] I was coming back from…

I don’t mean that literally!

Yeah, I don’t know! They didn’t call!

Dang, I’m sorry! That’s a bummer.

I get no respect, man. No respect. That’s just classic Toby.

Are you as tired of getting asked about a potential revival as Steve Carell seems to be? 

No, I really don’t know where it stands! I really don’t know where it’s all coming from. Nobody’s talking to me about it at all. The fact that somebody thinks it’s out there – I don’t even know where that started. All these other shows are rebooting, so I guess it’s just a question in the air about any show that had a strong following.

Steve Carell did say in a recent interview that he didn’t think the show would work today given the high level of awareness around workplace misconduct in the #MeToo era. Do you agree with that sentiment? Would it have to be different now?

It would be different anyway. People adjust, and he would be charged even more. It would be fun to do! Could the same show have worked today, launching for the very first time? It would have to be a little bit different, but I’m sure we’d find it.

Did you feel your time as a showrunner and TV director fully prepared you for making a feature film, or were there things you found you had to learn on the set? 

Yeah, no, it was really different, and I was shocked! The Office was such a collaboration. There were so many talented people around to talk to and work together and sometimes negotiate things – but always a discussion. And making an indie movie like this with a super low budget, it was whatever I wanted to do, we did. Which blew me away! There wasn’t pushback, there wasn’t “are you sure?” It was very freeing and kind of wonderful that way – but also pretty scary.

Yeah, it sounds like it could be either liberating or terrifying based on the problem before you.

[chuckles] Yeah, both – at the same time! 

At what point in your own struggle with back pain did it occur to you that this might make for a good thing to turn into a narrative?

A character in transition makes for a good, contained movie. What I really felt – I had back pain, when it went away, it felt like that’s an interesting transition that I feel like nobody’s talking about. It also felt like everybody I knew either had back or neck pain themselves or was very close to someone who did. And no one was talking about it all, so I thought, let’s go for it.

And how did you make sure it had resonance beyond just your own autobiography? 

Too autobiographical – and too small! I was aware that I needed some themes that resonated for everyone. I do think it’s a narrow movie, but at the same time, it asks questions about how we want to act in the world and how we want to live. One of the big things was not the transition from pain to pain-free but the transition of thinking always being in control and not letting your anger show – that’s a thought I had, and I think it’s a common one – to realize that’s just wrong. That’s a lousy, unhealthy way to live. That was a big transition for me that I felt sure some people could relate.

Did conceiving or making the film help you gain any closure with your experience of back pain? Or had you already gotten to such a point and that’s what allowed you to make the movie?

Yeah, I got some personal closure for sure. Because I think I’d stopped feeling pain in 2010, and it was another five years before I found the movie. But that’s something I’ll always struggle with, dealing with anger and letting it go, letting it out.

Yeah, back pain is not something that I personally experience, but knowing how to manage anger is something that I can definitely relate to.

Yeah, how to manage anger – I don’t think that’s something we have the complete playbook on yet.

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