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Defying expectations, Gary Cole has carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood as an actor that directors call when they need a handsome guy of a certain age who can be hilarious without looking like he’s trying.
Beginning his career playing well-received straightforward roles in television series like Midnight Caller and American Gothic and films like In the LIne of Fire, Cole’s most dramatic turn came in the ‘90s when he made an unexpected shift to comedy, bringing deadpan flair to his stints as Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch Movie and policy-obsessed office drone Bill Lumberg in Office Space. Since then he’s seamlessly traveled between comedy (Arrested Development, Dodgeball, Veep) and drama (The West Wing, True Blood, The Good Wife).
Now appearing as Earl, the roadhouse lothario chasing after the grandmother in Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, Cole talked with Spinoff Online about making out with Susan Sarandon in the back seat of a car in their very first scene, bringing improv to the table, and whether it’s drama or comedy that excites him the most.
Spinoff Online: So: lecherous, drunken older gentleman – first person they thought of was you.
Gary Cole: Exactly. What does that tell you? We need a roadside drunk with a one-track mind, I’m in!
Given Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy’s backgrounds with improv, did they give you a lot of room to kind of create this character yourself? Give you some basic parameters and let you run wild?
Yeah, Ben was very [open]. … We tossed stuff around, kind of inside the script. Sometimes we would do what was just on the page. Sometimes what we started to improv kind of became what the scene was, and that became the new page, or whatever. And then after each setup, he would make suggestions whether to eliminate this or try something else, so every time we ran at something – that sequence inside the bar, at least – there were several versions of it.
How much of that approach to acting do you get to exercise in most of the things you do? Do you get a lot of leeway to figure out your own take? Is it 50/50 or is it rare?
Depends on the situation. Normally what happens – I’m on a show now [Veep] that uses the technique of improvisation heavily, but not so much necessarily while shooting – although they do, but to get material later. In other words it’s used in rehearsal. There’s a draft of the script, and we read that at a table, throw the script away, take that scene, put it up, and start to do whatever with it with absolutely no scripted dialogue. Then the writers will go away and maybe incorporate some of that, and it might change the scene. This is the same way: They’ve got what’s on the page, you get that secured, you get that in the can, and then you start to play with it. Then they can go shopping later and mix it together. So I think that’s the influence that people from Saturday Night Live, The Groundlings, and years ago, sure, Second City [brought], but I don’t think the industry itself used it as a tool as much as they have in the last 20 or 25 years. I could be wrong – I’m no historian about that. But I think that the influence of these producers and writers that came from that background – not only as improvisers, but as writers having to write on the fly, quickly – lends itself to the way you shoot a movie now.
Where did comedy fit in the beginnings of your career aspirations? Because you’ve become an icon of comedy, starting, I think, right around the time you made The Brady Bunch – probably the first time that audiences really started to think of you that way.
First comedy I did on film, yeah.
And then obviously Office Space was huge for you, and you’ve done so many comedies since. So was comedy always something that you were ready to do, or did you discover your facility for comedy along the way? How did it work for you?
When I was on stage, I started in Chicago doing theater, and I did equal amounts of both – drama and comedy. It just happened that when I got here, for whatever reason, the work that I was able to get was all dramatic. It didn’t’t venture into comedy at all. And it was for a number of years, and that had to do with a lot of things. It had to do with what was available. It also had to do with you become connected to a persona, or “Can he do that?” “No, he can’t do that because you’ve never seen him do that before.” Until I did The Brady Bunch, and that was a situation where it was like I got that job because a lot of people didn’t want the job, I’m assuming. And I knew the director [Betty Thomas] previously, and even she was skeptical, but she kept bringing me in. And I think she literally said, “Is this funny? I don’t know? It seems to be.” But she wasn’t laughing. She was like, “It seems like it’s funny, or it’s right, but I don’t know.” And finally she did cast me, and that really kind of changed things for me, in terms of “Oh, OK, well, now he can do this.”
And now you’re getting asked all the time to do comedic stuff. Does that make you happy? Do you think, “I love comedy for X, Y reason”?
To tell you the truth, I’m a beyond middle-aged actor, if I get asked to do anything, I’m fairly happy, period. [Laughs] So, comedy, drama, I’m not all that concerned about it.
With Susan Sarandon, obviously every actor looks forward to opportunities to work with somebody of her caliber. Tell me about getting your groove on with her for the movie, getting where you need to be chemistry-wise, and quickly.
Well, it’s one of those funny show business situations: It literally was the way the schedule fell. Basically, the first thing we do together is make out in the back seat. So, I mean, I did meet her before that; I met her only days before that. We did do the dancing scene and all that, and then we wound up in the back seat. But she’s been doing this a long time. She’s a total pro on every level — not just in her ability to play a character and bring everything to it, but in just her manner, in how she can just be instantly available to people. Once I met her and we hung out for a little while, any kind of intimidation or anything like that really kind of fell away, and now we just have to have fun doing what we’re doing. So I found that quickly, very easy with her.
On TV, you’re all over the dial. Are we for sure going to see you back on Veep? Because I suppose your character could–
Yeah. Oh, yeah. You’ll see me all the time on Veep.
OK, good! What’s been the fun for you of that role, and do you have any notion where they’re taking it for the next spin around?
I don’t know where they’re going to go. Obviously, the campaign will continue. So, it’s a great environment to be in. It is very challenging. Again, it’s an embarrassment of riches – everybody in it is so wonderful. Great writers, and I think that [Julia Louis-Dreyfus] is in a zone right now, of what she’s doing that is pretty remarkable. She’s playing this character, and she’s hitting all these notes. It’s almost scary, in a way. It’s incredibly funny. But it’s impactful, and she’s the engine of it. The show is really a great spin on what’s really happening. The scary thing is we were all invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner, and – we’d heard this before – people kept saying, “The show is very authentic.” If this is authentic, we’re in BIG TROUBLE. But it’s enhanced comedically, but it’s drawn from what’s really happening.
Tell me about the show you’re going to be on with Rashida Jones.
That’s called Angie Tribeca. I’m a guest – I’m like the guest villain in the pilot, so whether they bring me back or not, I don’t know. But it’s a very, very, very funny half-hour single-camera [comedy] that Steve Carell came up with and directed. He and his wife, I believe, wrote it and he directed it. And it’s kind of harkens back to almost an homage to the Leslie Nielsen Police Squad-ish style, just absurd, and the setup is that she’s an undercover heroine, a law enforcement type.
One of the things I think you do best is to play comedy with as straight a face as possible. Do you sometimes want to be the genuinely wacky one? You got a taste of it in this movie. Or do you prefer playing the guy who’s funny because he doesn’t know he’s funny?
Yeah, I don’t really plan or have a focus on what I want to do. I usually just kind of react to what happens, what seems to be the next reality down the road. I don’t seem to spend a lot of time thinking, “I’d love to play that role.” Somehow my brain is never occupied by that.
Tammy opens today nationwide.