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Ron Livingston has been something of an institution in Hollywood for almost 20 years, even if there are only a handful of films you remember him from.
Office Space famously flopped upon its initial release, but has since become the standard-bearer for workplace comedies, and established Livingston as exactly the kind of everyman we want to be. And in Swingers, he was a best friend to Jon Favreau’s Mikey, playing the kind of struggling actor everybody wants to see succeed, even if all he wants is for everybody else to succeed. Since then there’s been Band of Brothers, Sex and the City, Game Change and, most recently, The Conjuring.
In his latest film, director Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, Livingston plays Chris, a fortysomething music producer whose weekend getaway with girlfriend Kate (Olivia Wilde) unearths some unexpected desires – in particular, with Jill (Anna Kendrick), the girlfriend of Kate’s male buddy Luke (Jake Johnson).
Spinoff Online recently spoke with Livingston in Los Angeles, where he described the character as he saw him, and discussed how he and director Joe Swanberg built a performance out of little moments and improvised magic. Additionally, he delved into being caught between multiple generations of actors, and reflected on the creative process he uses to keep his work interesting.
Spinoff Online: How did you initially define Chris? He seems less interested in committing to Kate, Olivia Wilde’s character, than deliberately attracted to Jill, Anna Kendrick’s character.
Ron Livingston: Yeah, a lot of times you come up with ideas about the character before you start shooting, but the way that Joe works, where you don’t have the story and the script going in, it was really fun because you kind of discovered a lot along the way. The only real research I did on the guy was they said he’s an indie music producer in Chicago, so I did a lot of reading up just to try to figure out what the hell that meant. Also, in case a conversation came up about it, so that I would be able to talk out of my ass for at least 30 seconds and sound like I know what I’m doing. But a lot of the other stuff was you show up and see what his apartment looks like – and he’s kind of fastidious, so I was like, OK, I guess he’s the guy that lives in this apartment. He has this vinyl collection. And Joe had a really astute note: He was like, “She’s going to put her drink down and I want you to put a coaster under it, and kind of make a big deal about it.” So for a lot of it, you kind of back into it, like, oh, he’s not this guy and he’s not that guy.
Well, at what point do you feel like he kind of congeals?
Well, to answer your original question, a big question for me is what is this girl doing [with him], because I’ve got a good 10 years on Olivia, and that’s being gentle with myself. What the hell is she doing? Because a lot of times you see an older man and a younger woman in a movie but you’re not supposed to talk about it, but I really wanted to ask the question, what’s this guy doing with these girls – and why is he still single? We don’t hear anything about an ex-wife, and he doesn’t seem to have any kids, so I think there’s definitely a little bit of an emotionally stunted thing, and then that was the question of the movie for me, about trying to explore that.
Is it then only when you see the finished film that you see the result of how those things come together?
I learned a lot of it when we did that walk in the woods with Anna. It started off just kind of shooting my mouth off and seeing what would happen, but a lot of it [became meaningful]. You know, when I first started listening to music as a kid where I did this thing where I felt like I was behind, so rather than listening to the stuff that was coming out, now I joined the Columbia House record club and get all of the greatest stuff from 20 years earlier. And the problem with doing that is you never quite catch up – you’re always about 20 years behind. And I sort of imagined that this guy was like that in his relationships with women – he was just kind of coming around to getting serious and then has an epiphany that this one’s not working out, and he doesn’t have time to waste, either for him or for her. And I think originally we had a much longer break-up scene up in the apartment when she comes with the bike, that we shot in about the first day – and none of it made the movie but it does very much kind of inform the character. And you don’t know if it’s going to be in the movie, so you’ve got to stick with it.
There’s an interesting, understated foreshadowing to their compatibility in his decision to drink bourbon. How many details like that did you come up with, and how many came from Joe?
That’s all Joe. Joe’s a great student of human behavior. He’s talked about it – rather than sort of talk something to death, he likes to boil it down to one little piece of behavior that somebody does, like checking their phone and then going, “I’m not going to take this call,” and put it away, rather than have a big scene. Like when she sets the drink down on the table and he has to put a coaster on it because he’s more interested in the antique table than he is in the hot girl.
How do you feel like improvisation has changed acting in the last decade or two? It seems more integral to the performance process than it might have even when you were doing material like Swingers, which had a little bit in it.
Back then you’ll have a script and then you’ll kind of riff around it – but it’s not very far from it. I think it’s the audiences that have changed, and you’re trying to present a story and have people look at it and go, oh, that looks real to me. But the problem is that once you have something like reality TV or people being able to watch a lot of documentaries on TV, audiences know the difference. They know the difference between “I’m watching a cop show” and “I’m watching an episode of COPS.” That one’s real, and that one’s not. It used to be in the ‘30s and ‘40s, you could put a stage play up and people would go, “Well, hello, Cecily,” and people didn’t have anything to compare it to on a screen. But audiences are really sophisticated now so you they know the difference between something that’s canned, and something that’s not canned. So improv is a way of forcing it not to be canned, because you can’t get ahead of yourself because you have to listen to the other person because you don’t know what they’re going to say. And you don’t know what you’re going to say in return. So the trick is usually when you do that, you don’t end up with a story, and that’s where Joe I think has a real gift. He edits his movies on the fly in his head, and he always knows what he’s getting and how it’s going to contribute to the story, and he trusts that when he gets to the editing room, he’s going to get there. And he’s not afraid to leave gaps; usually with a movie, you over-cover everything because you’re terrified of having a gap. But Joe is not afraid to say, well, we just saw him doing this, and then we’ll cut to him doing that, and we don’t have to tell them what happened in the middle because they’ve all seen movies before and they’ll put it together. And it gives it a little bit of a documentary feel, and a little more of an arty feel, but by and large audiences are sophisticated and they can follow that.
How does that allow or force you to use your formal training in a different way?
No, it’s really exciting. It sort of takes away a step, because usually the process is a little bit of like somebody says their line, and if you’re paying attention to them, then you’re going to have a response to it – a feeling, a reaction to it. And then the next thing you do is you go, OK, how do I channel that reaction in to the next line I’m supposed to say? With this one, you could just have whatever reaction you’re going to have, and that goes in the scene. So in a way it’s really freeing; it’s taken away the net, but it makes it fun. It makes it alive.
You seem to fall into a generation of actors between those like Olivia and Jake, who are coming up in a time where there’s so much experimentation and improvisation, and ones older than you who are accustomed to a much more formal production process. Where does that put you in terms of the creative choices you’re making?
I’m on to this thing right now where I just try to take whatever’s going on in my life and find a way to put that into the movie, whether it belongs there or not – really, because it keeps it interesting. After doing it for 20 years, it gets old to come to work and go, OK, today’s the day that I have to prove that I’m talented and my hair looks good. You know what I mean? It’s like, it either does or it doesn’t, and if I haven’t proved it yet, I’m not going to. So when I was doing The Conjuring, people wanted to talk about ghosts and “do you believe in them,” but to me that was a movie where I was working on what it means to be a dad and what’s fatherhood about. I don’t know that it shows up in the movie, and if I talk about it on Actor’s Studio I can look pompous doing it, but personally, it’s something that gets me to work every day excited to try to crack a scene from that angle. And it makes it feel new to me, and relevant – it makes it relevant to me even if it’s not relevant to anybody else in the world. And I think if you care about your work in that way, just the fact that you care about it will make it better and people will see the difference – even if they have no idea what you’re thinking about or why you care about it.
Already available on iTunes and VOD, Drinking Buddies arrives in theaters today.