3:08 PM EST, March 7, 2013
Whenever I find myself in a bleak mood, a quick glance at the Ron Swanson Pyramid of Greatness usually does the trick. A near-perfect melding of minds between the "Parks and Recreation" writing staff and actor Nick Offerman, this visual guide on how to live life ("Crying: Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon") is one of the NBC show's lasting legacies.
For Offerman, who acted in Chicago theater throughout the '90s before moving to Los Angeles, the role has made him a bona fide star after years of years of struggling to get cast. Raised in Minooka, (a farming community not far from Joliet), Offerman returns to Chicago this weekend with the film "Somebody Up There Likes Me." He is both a producer and co-star, playing the sly and comical best friend to Keith Poulson's disaffected restaurant worker.
An anti-coming-of-ager, writer-director Bob Byington's Austin-shot indie captures that perpetually lost feeling that tends to pass itself off as merely "life." It is a film that dares you to push it away, and Poulson is little more than a cipher at its center. But Byington's casual social observations work as terrific little comic set pieces (a debate about appropriateness of the phrase "you guys" hits just the right note), and it should come as no surprise that Offerman's presence goes a long way. His melancholic sarcasm is a terrific boost every time he's on screen. There's a reason Rolling Stone magazine recently named him one of the "50 Funniest People Now."
I first spoke with Offerman (who is married to Emmy-winner Megan Mullally) two years ago, and his celebrity has increased since. He is still a droll yet wonderfully formal conversationalist. In addition to film and TV work, he has spent much of his off-time this year traveling with his one-man show "American Ham," which I saw last year and would describe as a giddier, more Offerman-centric version of the Swanson Pyramid of Greatness.
"That came about organically when I was invited to speak to some colleges last year," he said when we talked last week. "I just thought, 'Why yes, I have a great many things I would like to say to the young people of our nation.'"
Q: The last time you were in town was in June for "American Ham" at Just for Laughs. Will you be doing any "American Ham" shows this time?
A: I'm just here for the film. We weren't able to find any time to slip in anything else because I'm still in the middle of finishing up the season for "Parks and Recreation."
So I'm going to come in and make love to the Music Box (Theatre). When we started talking about doing (the film's) release, the first thing I said was, "Can we please play the Music Box?" Because as a young, broke artist in Chicago, the Music Box was one of my havens. I think I saw Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man" there at least five times.
Q: How did you become involved with "Somebody Up There Likes Me"?
A: I met this filmmaker Bob Byington in 1998 in Los Angeles. We both worked on a film called "Treasure Island" that went to Sundance and won a special jury prize for distinctive vision. We were enamored of the cut of one another's jib, and we remained friends and stayed in touch.
He's had a part for me in the previous films that he's done, and he was always threatening to write me a bigger role. Finally he made good on his promise and wrote me this part and then asked if I would produce it with him. It's the first thing I've officially produced and I jumped at the chance because, when it's a small, low-budget company like this, it reminds me so much of my beginnings in Chicago theater with my (now defunct) company the Defiant Theatre.
Q: I was impressed that you didn't have to do much to look pretty different in the film. Your voice makes you instantly recognizable, but without it, I'm not sure I would have instantly realized it was you with those glasses, a middle part and a beard.
A: Well, thank you, that's my bag. That's what I love to do. And literally, since you just said that in a telephone interview from Chicago, now I'm going to find a project in which I can change my voice and I'll show you. I'll show you all!
Q: According to IMDB, you have more films that you're working on.
A: Gosh, I've got a few things. There's the Diablo Cody movie called "Paradise," which is coming out in the summer, I believe. Very excited for that, and I'm hopefully even more unrecognizable in that. Holly Hunter and I play the parents of Julianne Hough, who is the lead.
I have a movie called "We're the Millers," which I also think is coming out this summer. That's more of a big-budget comedy with Jennifer Aniston and Jason Sudeikis (about a pot dealer and his fake family). Kathryn Hahn and I play a squeaky-clean Midwestern couple in that.
And I'm doing a voice in an animated Lego movie, but that's a long-term thing. I think that comes out in 2014. They have to draw a lot of Legos.
Q: At some point "Parks and Recreation" will come to an end. Have you thought about what you might want to do afterward?
A: I don't have any clear-cut goals on my vision board in my rumpus room. I just really like getting to do good work, so whoever brings the good writing — whether it's film or TV or live theater. I really have enjoyed being able to bounce (among) those media.
Something like Ron Swanson can only come along once in a great many lifetimes. I feel like I won the lottery in all 50 states at once. So I'll be, in a way, happy to slow down a bit. I've really enjoyed discovering a new side of my career with my one-man humorist show, so I think I'll probably continue to do that as well.
Q: When I saw you perform that show, I was struck by how you're able to embrace two competing ideas at once: You're a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative. You're not afraid to have a good time and you have as dirty a mind as they come. On the other hand, you have very firm and traditional beliefs about being polite and having good manners.
A: Generally we associate enjoying oneself to the fullest with ODing on narcotics and throwing your TV out the window. I try to walk the line. Everyone should be as licentious as they want to as long as they use good manners.
Q: Some of that has been debated in the wake of Seth MacFarlane's hosting performance at the Oscars. Did you watch that?
A: I'm happy to report that I entirely ignored the Oscars. I performed "American Ham" that night to a sold-out audience. In Los Angeles.
Q: I wonder what kind of host you would make. Do you ever think about hosting a big event like the Oscars?
A: Yeah, I've hosted a couple of minor events, like the Television Critics Association Awards, and I was surprised to find I rather enjoyed it. If things ever get so bleak that they need to come looking at me to host something like that, I'd be glad to give it my best shot.
Q: Or if they asked both you and Megan to host together.
A: That would be a very clever move, indeed.
Q: So talk to me about Twitter. You abandoned it a year ago with this message: "Twitter was a mistake. I'm leaving it behind and going outside to look at nature, then use my hands to make something. Join me. Goodbye." And now you're back. What changed your mind?
A: We are hooked on our smartphones and iPads because they are miraculous inventions and they enable us to do such a great many things in the world of communication, as well as providing entertainment. But what I urge people to remember, first and foremost, is that they are a tool and they're not a window to life. So when I came back to Twitter, I said I'm not going to participate socially. I'm going to use this as a tool to disseminate information. And the reason I did it is simply because I was getting ready to embark on this "American Ham" tour and, at the time I had, I don't know, 90,000 followers. And I said, you know, it would be idiotic not to use this great communication network to say, "Hey, 90,000 people: Be aware of my show dates."
Q: It's amazing you still had 90,000 followers nine months after announcing that you left Twitter.
A: That kind of sadly points to the way people depend on Twitter and Facebook to bring them some relief to what they consider the humdrum part of their lives — so they even will follow someone who has announced that they left the building.
Q: There's a scene in "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in which you deliver all your lines with a cigarette dangling from your lip. It looks like it's going to topple out at any second, but never does. That's some fancy acting technique behind that, right? One that took you years to hone?
A: Uh, a lady never tells.
It's something, actually, when you're in theater school, there's no discipline that you and your fellow aspiring thespians apply yourselves to more than art of smoking and manipulating a Zippo lighter in every cool way possible. I can light a strike-anywhere wooden match off 12 different spots on my body.
So one of the things you learn is that, if you wet the filter of a cigarette and compress it in your lips, as the moisture evaporates, a sort of light glue bond is formed between the paper and your lip. You can let it dangle off your bottom lip and perform the entirety of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" speech.
Q: When was the last time you were home?
A: It was the Christmas before last. Megan and I trade off between Minooka and Oklahoma City, where her family is from. Oh wait, I was home in Minooka when I was there in June for Just For Laughs. It's funny, my family don't all know what to do with me. They've seen me in plays and they've seen me on TV and in films. But this one-man show was a new animal for them, and not all of my aunts and uncles came out to see it. I think it was just foreign to them so they sort of politely demurred. I don't know what exactly struck the fear of God in them. Eventually they've all come to see it because they heard it was actually funny and they weren't made to take their clothes off.
Q: Last time we talked, you mentioned that you were interested in coming back to Chicago to do a play. Anything in the works?
A: I have not been approached by anyone. I talk to some of my friends from Defiant Theatre quite regularly and, although they have all gone their own way, my first dream would be some sort of reunion. My main champion and best friend in the company, Joe Foust, remains an incredibly dependable jack-of-all-trades...and so if anything, I'd love to come back and do something with Joe.
Q: Defiant was a quintessential in-your-face fringe theater company. Your career is obviously at a different level these days. Could you see yourself coming back and doing storefront theater? Would that even be possible, or does it need to be a big production?
A: That's a very good question. I couldn't, in good conscience, allows us to inhabit some of the dressing rooms that we were able to stomach in our 20s. But we would probably, necessarily, need to do a bigger venue, just because hopefully there would be a little more of a turnout then there was in '94. But that's a great question. I think it's probably impossible that the entire company would get back together again, but if we could get a few of us back together to mount something on a more grown-up level at one of the bigger theaters in town, that seems like it would be up my alley.
It could happen one of two ways. If one of the bigger theater companies in town wanted to do something, fine. If they're smart, they would do something with Megan and myself — there's a much better chance of getting us to your town if you bring us both. That would be fun, something high profile.
But it would also be fun to do something bratty (laughs).
Nick Offerman comes to the Music Box Friday and Saturday for screenings of "Somebody Up There Likes Me." Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
Chicago actors, TV pilots
A handful of actors with Chicago ties have snared roles this season, including Evanston-raised iO veteran Lauren Lapkus ("Are You There, Chelsea?") in the NBC multi-camera comedy "Joe, Joe & Jane." Steppenwolf regular Stephen Louis Grush plays one of seven gas station workers whose lives are changed when they win a lottery jackpot in the ABC drama "Lucky 7." And Sara Sevigny (a standout in Porchlight Theater's 2007 production of "Assassins") landed a role in the Fox family comedy "The Gabriels" alongside fellow Chicagoan Tim Meadows. We'll know in May if any of these shows get picked up for series.
Pritzker's next film
"The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart announced earlier this week that he will take a sabbatical this summer to direct a film adaptation of BBC journalist Maziar Bahari's book "Then They Came for Me," about his strange and harrowing period of captivity in Iran while there to work on a story. Financing and producing the film is longtime Chicago-based producer Gigi Pritzker and her company Odd Lot Entertainment, which brought "Rabbit Hole" to the screen in 2010. Pritzker (perhaps better known as the daughter of Hyatt hotel chain founder Jay Pritzker) is also producer on the coming-of-ager "The Way, Way Back" (written by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriters of "The Descendants") and the sci-fi actioner "Ender's Game" starring Harrison Ford, both slated for later this year.
Twenty-four hours of science fiction and horror films are on tap starting at noon Saturday, kicking off 1959's "Attack of the Giant Leeches." Director Frank Henenlotter will be at the theater for the 7:30 p.m. screening of his 1988 film "Brain Damage." Also on hand: Jay Bonansinga, co-author of "The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor." At the Portage Theater. Go to facebook.com/terrorintheaisles.
Fight it out
The movie debate series Cinema Slapdown returns next week with a Craig Zobel's "Compliance," one of 2012's most controversial films and one that prompted numerous walkouts. Based on an actual case, it centers on a fast food employee terrorized by her boss at the prompting of a man impersonating a police detective. Facets founder Milos Stehlik will face off against Dr. Frederick Miller, who heads up the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at North Shore University Health System. 7 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia College's Film Row Cinema. Go to colum.edu/Academics/Film_and_Video/CinemaSlapdown.
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