Being a working actor was never something that Texas native David Sullivan took seriously. Indeed, despite a productive mini-career in high school drama, it wasn’t until he found himself fired from a post-college job that he ended up revisiting his old talent. This re-introduction proved to be life altering, as Sullivan hooked up with local filmmaker Shane Carruth to help realize the novice director’s offbeat, challenging script about a pair of engineers who inadvertently discover time travel. This micro-budget labor of love, Primer, would later grow to become a cult sensation, with entire websites devoted to cracking its intrinsic web of heady mysteries.
The success of the movie allowed Sullivan to move to Los Angeles and work steadily for the past decade, with appearances on New Girl, Justified and NCIS as well as a small role in Best Picture-winner Argo. In the case of Netflix’s Flaked, Sullivan finally landed the job every Hollywood actor longs for—a meaty, leading role on a prestige cable/streaming series. Sullivan plays Dennis, a mild-mannered, yet naïve Alcoholics Anonymous-compatriot of Will Arnett’s Chip, the show’s central protagonist. Whereas the emotionally damaged Chip manages to get by on his natural charisma and talent for deception, Dennis often finds himself struggling against both Chip’s manipulations and his own battered self-esteem.
Paste caught up with Sullivan to discuss the dark series, his unorthodox entry into acting and the discoveries inherent in portraying a recovering alcoholic.
Paste Magazine: You grew up in Longview, Texas, correct?
David Sullivan: I did!
Paste: We were somewhat neighbors. I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and went through Longview a lot.
Sullivan: Come on! I used to go to Shreveport because, when I was younger, the drinking age was 18 in Shreveport and 21 in Texas. Where I’m from, it’s a direct 55 miles from the first liquor store. Not that I would know! (laughs) But, from what I’ve heard from my friends, you can be there and back in an hour and a half.
Paste: Tell me about how you came aboard Flaked. Was it just the traditional audition process?
Sullivan: (laughs) Yeah. Well, see, I’m a huge star, so I get people just calling me and sending me scripts and saying, “Hey, will you please do my show?” But, no, it was. I’ve been in LA for a bit over a decade now and, as an actor who looks for the next opportunity and puts himself into his work, it was just that—an audition I got. I actually initially read for the [more minor] Stefano role and I went to [casting agents] Sherry Thomas, Sharon Bialy and Russell Scott and I was yelling at them the entire time because that was the scene. I didn’t hear anything for a week-and-half so, in my mind, I thought I just reminded those people how much they hated me (laughs). Then, my manager Maggie over at Principato called me and said, “Hey, they want to see you for the lead role.” I was like, “What?! Awesome, send me everything!”
So I went in and auditioned a couple of times and I had the opportunity to chemistry read with Will [Arnett]—which was such a terrible experience because I was so nervous, and intimidated, and so in awe of standing next to one of my idols and pretending to audition. So the first scene we did was not great. I somehow said all the lines I was supposed to say, but just standing right next to him, I was literally just looking at him, I wasn’t in the scene with him at all. Thankfully, after we did the first scene and they were about to kick me out of the room, I mentioned, “Maybe we can do one of these other scenes?” So we did another scene and another scene and another scene.
Paste: Please tell me during that first audition you were tempted to go, I’ve made a huge mistake.
Sullivan: Yeah, that’s exactly what was in my brain. [GOB voice] “I’ve made a huge mistake.” After that first scene I was like, “Oh no, what have I done—I love this script, I love this story, this was a great opportunity and I just ruined it.” Luckily, I mentioned reading another scene and, for about four seconds in the room, it was silent. It was [co-creator] Mark Chappell in the back of the room who was like, “Yeah, let’s try one of these scenes.” Then [executive producer] Mitch Hurwitz piped in and [director] Wally [Pfister] started talking about things. It was a surreal, surreal moment for me that was both fearful and extremely fruitful. I’m so grateful for that full circle moment, going from insecure actor to “Hey, I did pretty great.”
Paste: What excited you about the script?
Sullivan: The patience that the script had. A lot of times when I get scripts, it’s easy to say, “Okay, on page 15, this will happen and then on page 50, this will happen.” With TV, you’re either the “suspect” that week or “the friend,” or “that weird guy.” There’s so many formulaic stories out there right now, so when I got Flaked I was like, “What the hell? What happens next?” So many times you have a clean episode where something happens at the beginning, they introduce the conflict and then it’s resolved and that’s the end of the episode. With Flaked it wasn’t like that at all. Basically, they introduce all these characters and you’re like, “Wait, who are these people?”—which I have to give credit to the editors and the whole post-production on it. They took what was on the page and translated it exactly how it was written. You watch the episode and you’re like, “I don’t know who this guy is and if I’m supposed to like him, but I kind of do and—wait the episode’s over?! Okay, I guess I have to watch the next one.”
Paste: Dennis is such a well-meaning character and it’s sad to see him get manipulated so often by Chip. Do you ever just think, “Come on man, see what’s happening to you?!”
Sullivan: I did. Obviously, David thinks that, but Dennis doesn’t at all because of the way he was raised. I don’t know how much of it you’ve seen, but once my mother’s introduced to the story—and once you see the effect she has on me—it kind of explains my relationship with Chip, and why I hold that so dearly and why I see no wrong in him. Because the relationship I had growing up wasn’t the greatest.
A lot of times in life we follow these same patterns, and that was really interesting to me about Dennis. You look at him and he’s this lovable guy and you want to root for him, but you also just want to slap him and just yell, “Hey, wake the fuck up, man! Look at what he’s doing!” But he was raised in an environment where his mother was extremely flawed and has very deep issues, so a lot of those issues were passed along to him, so he doesn’t see it. There are a few scenes with Lina Esco, who plays Kara, where she tries to say, “Hey, Chip’s not a nice guy, I wish he could be more like you.” But even with her saying that, he doesn’t see it. As the series goes on, however, he begins to understand that maybe [Chip’s] not the healthiest person, and maybe this persona he’s created for years is not what it seems to be. And that was something that, as an actor, was fun to access.
Paste: Obviously, your character is a recovering addict. Going into this, did you research people who were addicts, and their behavior after they tried to go sober?
Sullivan: I actually just drank tequila for two months straight and when I woke up I had a tequila sunrise and, at lunch, I had a couple of margaritas and, at night, I had to make myself a few tequilas on the rock as a nightcap (laughs). But, no, addiction and alcoholism is something I’ve had a little bit of experience with. I didn’t really know that it was a sickness until I moved to Los Angeles. I just thought it was people making bad decisions and people being irresponsible. I knew a handful of people who either knew alcoholics, or were recovering alcoholics and I learned a lot about the mentality and a lot about their chemical makeup. There’s literally a chemical in the alcoholic’s brain that makes them think that they need to keep drinking in order to function. A buddy of mine likes to say, “I would either pass it, we would run out, or I would end up in jail.” So, yeah, I went to a lot of AA rooms. In doing that research, it helped me humanize not only my role, but also Will’s character too. I saw the human being.
Paste: Definitely. Growing up in the South, alcohol is so prevalent in everyday life. When you go back, whereas you once thought that those people were just hard-partying, you now realize, “Oh man, you have a problem.”
Sullivan: Absolutely. And, the thing is, I don’t think they’ve been educated. Like, “Hey guy or lady, there’s something out there that can help you, and the thing that can help you are people who have done the exact same things as you’ve done. The only difference is they’ve decided to ask for help, and they’ve decided to stick their hands out and help somebody else.” And it’s crazy when I go back home and realize, “Wow, you’re drinking all day.” It’s a sad sickness that a lot of people don’t realize is taking over their lives—if it hasn’t already by the time they’re my age. But there’s help out there and people that are willing to say, “I have a problem.” The big part of sobriety is helping others that have the same issues.
Paste: Will co-wrote a lot of the episodes. Is that a different experience as an actor, to have your scene partner also be the person who wrote a chunk of the dialogue you’re speaking?
Sullivan: Oh, absolutely! The majority of the time as an actor you’re in this small group where you can freely talk about the script—what do you think of this? What do you think of that? But knowing you’re in the scene with the person who wrote the script, there’s so much pressure. I don’t know how other people do this, but I put so much pressure on myself, because those words are so precious to Will and Mark. [In the beginning], there were days I struggled because I wanted to do a good job. So yeah, it was intimidating, but I had to keep reminding myself that, as talented as Will Arnett is, he’s able to just drop into the scene. He goes from checking the camera set up, and having a conversation with the director, and then he comes over and sits face-to-face with me and now it’s time to act. So it was intimidating a first, but, once I got comfortable, and once we had a few conversations about acting and his process and how he got to where he’s at, we really connected and I think that chemistry comes up on screen.
Paste: You have Wally Pfister, who’s done such huge movies like The Dark Knight trilogy, directing several episodes. What was that experience like?
Sullivan: Mark, he is a savant. That guy’s amazing. When Will first had the opportunity to talk with Wally, it was socially at some party. He was talking about this idea and Wally was like, “Maybe I can shoot something for you guys.” At that point, Will’s jaw just dropped. He was like, “Wally Pfister is going to shoot this little independent project?” At the time, I don’t even know if Netflix was involved yet, but to even have the possibility of seeing Wally with a camera in his hand was a treat in itself.
But to have him come on from day one—I felt such support. I knew, if nothing else, I was going to look great, the show was going to look great. Even with my own insecurities, I knew Wally wouldn’t let anything look less than gorgeous. As a director, he’s so collaborative—he has a talent not only for aesthetics, but understanding the relationships. From day one, it was amazing. He took pictures before he was officially attached. He spent an entire day casing Venice and taking pictures. Some of the most beautiful photographs you’ll ever see. He was like, “This scene would be great here, and this scene would be good with this kind of lighting.” When he came on as a director and producer, we all became so much more fortunate.
Paste: You’ve had smaller roles on TV shows, and roles in both small and bigger movies. What’s the experience of having a regular role on a TV show and having your character develop over these eight episodes?
Sullivan: I hate to say nothing is different, but it all comes down to preparation and trust. I’ll do that, whether it’s eight lines on New Girl, or a three-episode arc on Justified, or a movie where you shoot something for a month. You trust the people you’re surrounded by. I realize how lucky I am to be an actor and a storyteller for a living. I have to surround myself with people who inspire me. and people I can trust. Showing up that first day, I got to know everyone on a personal level.
What I mean by trust is, first, trust in myself that I’ve read all the scripts, and understand the character and understand my arc, and where I’m going and where I end up. Then, on the day, trusting my director and the people I’m in the scene with. Sometimes you don’t get what you expect, which is awesome, and sometimes you get exactly what you expect, which is awesome as well. You just got to stay on your toes and allow yourself to be 100 percent in that moment, and trust the work you’ve done will capture the authenticity of your character.
Paste: What got you first interested in acting?
Sullivan: Chicks! (laughs) I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of creative people in my life. Growing up, from kindergarten until high school, we always had extended family in our house. My parents would take in these foreign exchange students from all over the world, so I was always surrounded by these different people. Being the baby in the family, I entertained people. I enjoyed having an audience, but I didn’t really conceptualize that. In high school, I was an athlete and someone told me, I should think about doing a play one year. I was like, “A play?! No, are you crazy?!” She was like, “No, it’s this really cool production of You Can’t Take it With You, and if it’s good enough, we’ll get to travel every Friday.” I was like, “Wait—what do you mean, travel on Fridays?” They were basically going to travel to other schools to do the play. So I got the material, and the idea of playing pretend, and the idea of really committing myself to a new world was so interesting and fascinating to me. And I was pretty good at it. I got a bunch of awards and some accolades, so I did it the following year.
Primer is a movie I loved, but one that still baffles me to this day. Is that a movie that people come up to you and say, “What the fuck is that movie about?”
Sullivan: It’s funny, nobody ever comes up to me! I almost wish they would more often because that would mean people have seen it. When it does happen that’s exactly what they say— “Oh my God, I love that movie, can we talk for an hour?” I’m like, “Yes, let’s do it!” I love the fact that it’s inspired the next generation of filmmakers. [Someone made] a movie for seven thousand dollars and won Sundance, why can’t I? There’s nothing to say you can’t. I love the fact that it’s thought provoking and it makes you really invest yourself in the story. Anytime somebody wants to talk Primer with me, a.) I love it and b.) I will probably talk more than you will. It’s a fun puzzle to decipher.
Paste: What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
Sullivan: Yeah man—there’s this small indie movie that we’re trying this crowdfunding thing on and it’s all students of mine. The director is a student of mine and all the actors have been in my classes. I’ve had the great fortune of teaching acting classes and coaching actors, which is the best side job ever. One of the actors was like, “Hey, we have all these talented actors, why don’t we make a movie?” So he’s in the process of raising money. Hopefully we’ll try to shoot that in April. Other than that, I’ve done a few movies that are starting to roll out now. There’s a great movie called Mad that I’m excited about. It will be an indie darling this year and it’s getting a lot of great buzz. I have another film I just wrapped with Bob Odenkirk for Netflix that’s called Girlfriend’s Day. Bob’s such an amazing human being. He’s obviously a talented writer and actor, but he’s such a generous human being and that bleeds into his acting as well. And a film I did with Jessica Alba, The Veil, just got released on Netflix.
Right now, I’m excited about Flaked and about the opportunities to shoot another season. Still haven’t’ heard anything yet, but I like our chances. If for some reason it doesn’t work out, there are some other opportunities out there that I haven’t been able to finalize. But yeah, I’m lucky to do what I do!
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.