Comedian Patton Oswalt has entered the prime of his career, but it’s a hard one to describe. The author, actor, comedian, and comic-book enthusiast got his start as a stand-up comedian in the ’80s and later refined his skill as a staff writer for sketch show MADtv. From there, he transitioned into television, lending his voice to the oddball muppet-y prank show Crank Yankers. Soon after, Oswalt made a tentative dip into television with niche roles in The King of Queens, Reno 911 and The United States of Tara. Since then, Oswalt’s determination to keep branching out of his comfort zone has made him a recognizable supporting actor in both television and film. In his performance as Matt, a lovelorn, disabled nerd opposite Oscar heavyweight Charlize Theron in 2011’s Young Adult, Oswalt exhibited a tenderness and likability as the voice of reality in Theron’s skewed world.
The sympathetic “aw, shucks” quality the actor brought to Young Adult helped snag Oswalt his first leading role in Todd Rohal’s comedy, Nature Calls. With Oswalt at the helm, Nature Calls is set against a thematic backdrop of family values and what it means to be a real man. The comedian doesn’t play up the laughs; instead he pulls back and embodies a genuinely soft character with a huge heart (who faces an eclectic supporting cast of hilariously outrageous antagonists).
The film, which made its debut at SXSW, is a sweet outdoorsy tale about the adventures of a pack of derailed Cub Scouts. It follows Oswalt’s earnest and sometimes over-the-top character Randy, who crashes his nephew’s sleepover and kidnaps the boys in order to sell them on the importance of scouting. For the sometimes-overzealous character, this trip is an opportunity to carry on the role of mentor, just as his father was for him. But what begins as a promising outdoor journey unlocking the secrets of manhood and maturity turns into a disastrous weekend. The boys’ adventure is anything but a typical scouting experience, as they find themselves in adult-themed and life-threatening situations.
Although the film has its fair share of crude jokes, its backbone relies on the inherently sweet spots that Oswalt brings to his character. It’s a testament to how far Oswalt is willing to leap for comedy and where he seems to be going as a leading comedic actor in film. While others in his position might feel comfortable with their signature shtick, Oswalt has proven that if there’s a good script involved, he’s willing to break new ground.
Away from film, Oswalt’s online presence matches the boundless energy he has for taking on different endeavors. He seems to voice his opinion via blogs and Twitter just as frequently as he tours. In his latest post, Oswalt manages to tie in his days getting heckled on stage, with his views of “The Man,” growing old, devouring six pints of ice cream and the presidential debates.
Oswalt found time among his many endeavors to talk to Paste about what goes into wearing different hats, his new film Nature Calls, and the ever-changing medium of comedy.
Paste: You’ve been involved in a whole spectrum of comedy over the years through your work in stand-up, television and film. They seem to be different worlds apart. Initially, did you find it challenging to transition from stand-up to film?
Oswalt: It felt like a challenge at first but then I was very lucky to get to work with filmmakers that are fans of comedy. The filmmakers use other comedians in their movies, so it was a nice and easier acclimation than just throwing myself in with just totally professional actors, I think.
Paste: Did you have two different head spaces when you’re doing film as opposed to stand-up?
Oswalt: Absolutely. I mean I have different head spaces for when I’m doing different sets in stand-up. You’re trying to keep it fresh and new every time, so I don’t think of it as, “Oh, now I have my film hat on or now I have my stand-up hat on.”
Paste: Is that how you attack film takes, as well?
Oswalt: Yeah, you just try to keep everything new and fresh. Everything is a different thing rather than bringing in preconceived expectations to it.
Paste: You seem to have done it all. You’ve written books, you’ve acted in film and television, and you still do stand-up. Is there a specific area where you feel more at home or are you just trying to space yourself around?
Oswalt: I try to move around as much as possible, definitely. I don’t really think like, “Okay, this is what I do.” I try to just keep a variety of things going.
Paste: Creatively speaking do you ever do anything that’s solely for yourself?
Oswalt: No, I’m pretty much trying to amuse myself in everything that I do. I like to keep things fun and fresh. That’s usually my aim.
Paste: The characters you play are everyday people with flaws, but they still come off as charming and likable. How easy is it for you to put your own original “Patton” stamp on your characters?
Oswalt: I try to serve the script rather than go, “Well, this has to be my take because this is what I do.” I try to serve every single thing that I do individually. I try to keep it original each time and sort of lose myself, I guess.
Nature Calls was not your typical comedy in the sense that it has a lot of sweet moments and it’s generally earnest. Was that something that attracted you to the project?
Oswalt: I think what really interested me was the director Todd [Rohal]’s previous movies. He always went for something unique every single time, and that made me kind of want to say, “Well, okay. Let’s see what he does with this film. This should be really interesting.”
Paste: Your character has such a huge weight on his shoulders. He feels responsible in carrying on the family legacy of scouting and doesn’t want to disappoint his ailing father. Do you feel that at this point in your career, you have a certain legacy to uphold yourself?
Oswalt: Well, I think that legacy and reputation are traps. They can lead someone to become way too cautious and hinder someone on what they can do by keeping them from starting things. The fact that you are even able to worry about your so-called reputation and posterity is because you took chances to begin with, so why don’t you keep on doing that instead? Don’t worry about your reputation.
Paste: In recent years, comedy in general seems to be more authentic in the way characters are developed. Between your role in Nature Calls and your role in Young Adult, do you think the more that you work, the more there will be other opportunities to learn about human behavior through comedy?
Oswalt: Oh, man. I hope so. I mean that’s one of the reasons you keep doing it, you know?
Paste: You had a great turn in Young Adult. Did your work as a supporting actor prepare you to jump into this particular role?
Oswalt: It definitely taught me to be way more open and to listen more. Hopefully, working with kids, I was able to bring that to this. That’s for the audience to decide, not me, but I definitely felt more comfortable going into this.
Paste: How was it working with the kids? You always hear these horror stories.
Oswalt: I had a really good time with them. They were really nice.
Paste: You’ve done a lot of supporting work in your comedies. Were you waiting to jump at the chance to play a lead role?
Oswalt: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to see if I could lead a movie, and I figured that with a smaller budget there’s less at stake, so why not?
Paste: As a lead, what was it like to be supported by a whole cast of comedians? Was there any conflict because everyone in this film is pulling from different worlds of comedy or was that something that made the cast gel together?
Oswalt: Well, we all had that background in comedy, and because we had that we made it comfortable for everyone if they didn’t want to necessarily go for the laugh like, “Oh, I understand you want to maybe go for something different here.” So, it definitely created a much better environment for me to do that.
Paste: Was there room for improv in your scenes?
Oswalt: Definitely. Whenever we needed to, they would let us mess around if that’s what we wanted to do.
Paste: You said you worked on a smaller budget. How long did it take you guys to film it?
Oswalt: I would say it took just over two months, so it was pretty good.
Paste: Would you rather work for a short amount of time and then move to the next project or do you think there’s a greater chance of character development when you’re on a longer shoot?
Oswalt: I think it depends on the project, and it depends on the script and the director. I don’t really think that time or budget has anything to do with that. Ultimately, it’s whom you’re working with and how you are willing to work with each other. You can get pretty deep in a short amount of time, and you can spend months on something and only scratch the surface. I really think that every single time it depends on the project.
Paste: In December, we’ll get to see you in the ensemble-based comedy The Secret Life of Water Mitty. Can we look forward to seeing a bunch of ensemble pieces or do you really want to take the lead in your comedies from now on?
Oswalt: Oh, I’m not thinking about that. I just like having fun doing stuff. As long as it’s fun. If a small role is really well written then it’s just as good as a lead to me. I’m kind of just trying on entertainment.
Paste: Does that include heading back to television in the future?
Oswalt: I’m doing some television work coming up‚ some stuff on Burn Notice and I start filming Justified next week, so there’s stuff coming up, definitely.
Paste: Do you prefer one medium to the other as far as film or television?
Oswalt: No, I just prefer good projects. They can come from anywhere. A good project could be a web series. You just never know anymore.
Paste: Would you consider doing a web series? There seems to be a huge outlet for them right now.
Oswalt: If something cool came along, sure why not.