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With the premiere of Archer’s fifth season mere hours away, fans are abuzz at the prospect of some huge story changes – allegedly involving pregnancies, cocaine deals and at least one or two Miami Vice references.
Star H. Jon Benjamin hosted a conference call last week to commemorate the start of the new season, during which he offered a few insights – not just about what’s coming, but where everything started. In addition to talking about the origins and inspirations for the roguish, reckless super-spy and his team of misfits, Benjamin discussed the creative and logistical challenges of performing opposite, well, often nothing, and talked about how he might like for his eclectic past as a voice actor to play a role – or multiple roles – in future episodes.
How did the character of Archer come to be? Did one person or celebrity influence how you play him – or is there a lot of yourself you see in him?
H. Jon Benjamin: It wasn’t really based on anybody in particular, any celebrity. I think I had the initial idea to make him — try and portray him as suave, but I couldn’t really do that. So, I just played it by ear. I mean, I kind of pictured him in a tuxedo a lot like James Bond. I just don’t embody that. I can barely get into a tux. Everything is odd fitting lately. Yes, I just kind of played him as a very hyper-aggressive version of me.
Have you ever talked with Adam [Reed, the show’s creator] about when is it really set?
Time is pretty fungible in Archer, I feel, yes. Sometimes Burt Reynolds seemed like he was of his time, but the car that he was driving was from the ‘70s. I mean. they preserve cars. So, that’s maybe a sad example, but yes, there’s pretty much a very broad sense of time in Archer. I think it was that was from the onset. So, that was the world the way they structured it and I don’t think it’s ever really changed.
Sterling is actually very well read – it’s almost deceiving. He can be talking for hours about the dangers of alligators, but then he’ll drop a Herman Melville quote on his enemies.
Yes. Well, I think he was prep school-educated, it seems like, at least from the flashbacks. So, he had the luxury of probably some very expensive East Coast prep school and they’ll make you read a lot of books.
Does it come somewhat from your background, or was that just something you and Adam created for the character?
Well, I mean Adam Reed, I think, was a literature major in college. So, I think that mostly comes from him, although I’ve read Bartleby. I can tell you that.
You have such a brilliant way of balancing dry humor with absurdist humor. How do you keep that balance so fresh season after season?
Well, I really don’t. I think Adam Reed has a lot to do with that, and the writing has a lot to do with that. So, I defer to that mostly. I think maybe I add drier elements, but the absurdist stuff is all in the scripts. And it’s really fun to play. He’s a spy, so, he can do what he wants. I mean I guess he announces that he’s a spy a lot, which he shouldn’t do, but I guess when you’re carrying a gun, you feel better about yourself, but that doesn’t suggest carry a gun just to feel better about yourself.
Are there any other characters from your past that you’d like to see do a crossover episode like you did in Season 4 with Bob’s Burgers?
Oh, man. Wow. I suppose Dr. Katz or something, or maybe like Jason from Home Movies should walk by, but all grown up now.
A spy in training perhaps?
He’d be like 18 now. That would be fun, to see him grown up.
I prefer the mystery, I think. I think it fuels his anger. It’s both what makes him good at what he does and bad as a human being, which is fun to watch. So, yes, I mean maybe it will get resolved, but I’m not sure Malory even knows.
If there’s one life lesson Sterling needs to learn, what do you think that is?
I think he probably needs to sort of get over these issues with his mother, but that’s hard to do. Most people can’t. I think he probably needs to cut the line with his mom and just go somewhere and write an autobiography.
What have you found have been some of the biggest acting challenges in creating a character using just your voice?
Well, it was very hard initially when I first did it, but that was like a long time ago. It’s hard to be sort of physically restrained. I mean I’m not tied up or anything, except on occasion from the night before (laughs). That’s a little bit difficult when I started, but I guess I’m just kind of used to it now. I’ve been doing for so long. I get kind of used to just working alone in a booth. But at first, it was definitely odd. I remember feeling that way, like how do you negotiate this. Like, can I yell? Like, am I too loud? Yes, so there’s a lot of like natural restraints, like being extra-careful, which I wouldn’t do in a live performance.
Did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up, or did you have other professions in mind?
I had a lot of professions in mind when I was younger, I think — a fireman, arsonist, insurance adjustor, a lot to do with fire and fire making and fire prevention, tobacconist. I mean, I definitely didn’t want to get into voice acting. I just was interested in acting, and that was what I was good at early on. So, the voice acting part of it came just as a coincidence, I guess.
When you’re in the booth, is there a different sense of collaboration by working off of other performers?
Well, the way it works with Archer is I really just work off this guy named Matt Thompson and this guy named Casey, who are producers of the show Archer. They’re on the line. So, I always work off them, and sometimes we’ll do scenes together; like, we would read together a scene and sometimes I’ll just do line reading, but they’re very good at directing me as to what they want. So, that works out well.
You did a one-off appearance on Suburgatory a bit ago. Do you have any interest in pursuing any more actual on-camera work, or are you quite happy living the life of a voice actor?
I do. I do on-camera work when I’m asked to do it. So, yes, I have no problem with it. I’ve worked on live shows of my own, and I’m working on one now. Hopefully, you’ll see me in that. So yes, I don’t rule it out. I just rarely get asked.
Because of that non-voiceover work – or maybe in spite of it – do you sometimes get recognized by fans?
I do. Yes, I do a lot. Yes. Maybe just because I had TV shows and I’ve been on live shows a lot. I think combined with people who love Archer and stuff like that, they’ll know what I look like if you do a little research.
What is the typical fan response? Do you get high-fives from bros and stuff like that, and free beers?
I will get an occasional high-five from some bros, yes.
Have there been any discussions about further Archer live tours?
They do them very like sporadically. There’s one coming up in Austin, Texas, I believe this weekend. I think so. And then, I think it depends on the availability of the cast. I know Aisha [Tyler] works during the week, every day. So, it’s hard to schedule a tour, but we’ve been doing them kind of as one-offs. So, I assume they’ll do more. It’s just that they’re sporadic.
You have worked really extensively with Loren Bouchard. What do you love about working with Loren so much, and do you see yourself working with him again?
I don’t know. I work so closely with Loren still. Brendon I haven’t worked with since Home Movies. So, I mean, he was great to work with, but with Loren, I certainly read that he’s made the claim that he won’t do a show without me. I’d hold him to that. I don’t know how many more shows he’ll do, but it’s great working with Loren. We sort of started together doing what we do now. So, it’s been a pretty parallel trajectory. Loren started at editing my improvisation for Dr. Katz. Now, he’s making his own shows and I’m still doing the same thing. So, he’s really progressed. I’m just still doing the same thing. So, now I’m mad. Now, you’ve got me angry at him. But yes, I’d always be happy to work with Loren. He’s very passionate about what he does, and that’s really a good foil for my dispassion.
Is there such a thing as too much or over the top with Archer?
It doesn’t seem so. I mean it lives pretty within itself, I have to say. So, as much as it’s over the top, it feels organic. You know what I mean? I haven’t seen them go way outside themselves, and that was a slight concern with, like, a Bob’s Burgers crossover because that can get like, “Oh, why are you ruining it?” But, he pulled it off. It was seamless. If you didn’t know Bob’s Burgers, I don’t think you would have even batted your eyes at that. So, even when they do things very conceptual, it somehow still works for Archer.
Is there anything either in your performance character or the story as a whole that you feel like did not get pushed to that limit, to sort of explore as much as they could?
I had to cry a couple of times. I’d like to see more of that. That’s hard to capture in voiceover work. But I like to cry. I really like to cry.
Archer returns tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX.