Patton Oswalt On Comedy, Change, And What Happens If You Never Leave Home

Dec 18, 2011
Originally published on December 18, 2011 12:40 pm

You might know Patton Oswalt as a stand-up comedian, as a writer, as a player on TV shows like United States Of Tara and Dollhouse, as the voice of the primary rodent in Ratatouille, or as the New York Giants obsessive in the dark film Big Fan. Now, he's appearing opposite Charlize Theron in the black comedy Young Adult.

Oswalt plays Matt Freehauf, who's minding his own business in Mercury, Minnesota when Mavis Gary (Theron), once his classmate and now a woman spiraling into many bad things at the same time, comes to town to reclaim her high-school boyfriend. The two become drinking buddies, despite the fact that Matt is repulsed by Mavis' scheming.

On Sunday's Weekend Edition, Oswalt tells Audie Cornish that he appreciated the fact that while Matt may be a small-town guy, the script (by Juno writer Diablo Cody) doesn't present the people of Mercury as simpletons. "I loved that the people living in the small town are actually happy and have lives of their own," he says, adding that all too often in the movies, "the small town, they're just these harmless potato people who are there to make the hero better."

In developing the character with an acting coach — the first time he's done so for a film role — Oswalt says he had to consider the way his life might have gone had he never ventured out into the world as he did when he went into comedy as a young guy. "I really had to imagine the kind of person that I would have been if I had never left my hometown. I don't think I would have been a very pleasant person." Not that speculating about alternative futures is ever easy: "I had to go back and reverse-engineer a life that I decided not to live."

Oswalt also says he's grateful for getting to play roles like Matt, because like anyone, there are ways he might be typecast. "Definitely the kind of geeky — I'm amazed I haven't done more, like, nerdy tech guys to the hot leading man in all these action movies. I don't know why I haven't been sitting in a van with headphones on, going, 'We've lost the signal!' ... maybe that's in my future, I don't know."

His future has, of course, already seen shifts, some of which Cornish notes are conspicuous across his comedy albums. Oswalt agrees, and says cataloging those changes has been useful. "I didn't even realize that was my aim, but I'm very, very commited to saying exactly what I feel right now on each album. And I have no problem with people saying, 'Well, you know, in your first album you say you hate kids and you'll never get married, and now on the fourth one, you're talking about raising a kid.' I'm like yeah, because at the time, that is how I felt. I'm glad that's been permanently recorded. You see a person changing and growing."

And change and growth, Oswalt finds, are a useful complement to the constant excitement about youth. "We're rewarding either the reality or the apperance of youth, which is why you have all these people in their fifties trying to act like they're seventeen. You know, it's great to be young. Be young. By all means, be young. But always remember that youth is also kinda dumb, and doesn't know a lot yet. So what you want to worship above youth, I think, is beauty, and beauty is so beyond just appearances after a while. Because you can be with someone who's good-looking, if they open their mouths and they're an idiot, then they cease to be beautiful very quickly."

It can be particularly useful to have a chronicle of how much you've changed, he says, if you happen to have kids. "I like that you see me when I was a much dumber youth," he says, adding that one day, he may be able to comfort his daughter about her own anxieties by showing her evidence of his own past: "Daddy made mistakes, too. Here you go."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. Looking at Patton Oswalt's resume is a bit like being caught in a pop culture genre mixer. He's appeared in big, broad half-hour comedies like "King of Queens," and he's played recurring roles on the kind of critically acclaimed geeky TV shows that inspire rabid fandom, like "Dollhouse" and "Caprica." He's written books, both comic and otherwise. He's been a standup comedian for more than 20 years. Movies? Oh yeah, those too. He's voiced the hero of Pixar's "Ratatouille." He's appeared in movies from "Blade: Trinity" to tiny indie dramas like last year's "Big Fan." Amidst all that, he still has time to sit and chat with us about his latest project, the very dark comedy "Young Adult," which opened this weekend. Patton Oswalt joins me from our studios at NPR West. Patton, welcome to the program.

PATTON OSWALT: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So, we should set up a little what the movie's about. And your co-star, Charlize Theron, plays the very mean and very unpleasant character Mavis Gary.

OSWALT: That's a very diplomatic way to describe her.

CORNISH: And she goes back home to her hometown of, I believe it's Mercury, Minnesota, right?

OSWALT: Yes.

CORNISH: And what's her mission there?

OSWALT: Her mission, or at least in her head, is that like every rom-com heroine, she is going to go back to her small hometown from the big city and rescue the man that got away from his drab, boring, married, new fatherhood life in the suburb.

CORNISH: And tell us about Matt Freehauf, who Mavis Gary meets in a bar.

OSWALT: Well, Mavis Gary meets him in a bar but not for the first time. What she very soon realizes is that Matt Freehauf, my character, had the locker next to hers all through high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "YOUNG ADULT")

OSWALT: And he was the victim of a, at the time, everyone thought was a gay-bashing hate crime. Turns out he wasn't even gay, so everyone sort of forgotten him. And he still is scarred, you know. I would say it is - especially externally - very internally by this and weirdly becomes her kind of sounding board and confidante because he ends up being the one person in Mercury that can call her on her damage and delusion.

CORNISH: In what ways do you feel any kinship with this character?

OSWALT: I don't, you know, it's weird. When I was working the character out and, you know, I worked with an acting coach on this, which I'd never done before, and I really had to imagine the kind of person that I would have been if I had never left my hometown. And, you know, the kind of - I don't think I would have been a very pleasant person. I think I would have been very negative if I hadn't, you know, gone out and done the things that I did and, you know, scratch the itches I wanted to scratch. So, you know, I had to kind of go back and reverse-engineer a life that I decided not to live.

CORNISH: 'Cause you did - started doing stand-up almost immediately after you left school.

OSWALT: Yeah, when I graduated...

CORNISH: You're from Virginia.

OSWALT: Yeah, but I started doing stand-up between freshman and sophomore year of college. So, when I graduated college, I had bookings and gigs and I was ready to go. I'm trying to imagine if I decided to give that up and just stay back in my hometown and get married and not pursue, you know, traveling for stand-up; what that might have done to me.

CORNISH: Though in fairness, the movie also doesn't - it isn't punishing or patronizing towards the people who do live their lives in the place they grew up, which was also nice. It doesn't have that kind of, like, small-town people are a mess, kind of tone.

OSWALT: Well, I loved that the people living in this small town are actually happy and have lives of their own. And I think so many major Hollywood movies, it's somebody from the big city who goes back to the small town. And the small town, there are just these harmless potato people who are there to make the hero better. That's very refreshing.

CORNISH: Every actor gets pigeonholed, and what are the ways casting directors tend to look at you?

OSWALT: Oh, definitely the kind of geeky - I'm amazed I haven't done more like, you know, nerdy tech guys to the hot leading man in all these action movies. I don't know why I haven't been sitting in a van with headphones on, going "We've lost the signal. Hey, guys, hello?" You know, so, maybe that's in my future, I don't know. But, you know, I think that's, luckily, you know, with "Big Fan" and with "Young Adult," I've been allowed to do roles that are more nuanced.

CORNISH: What do movies do for your stand-up?

OSWALT: Oh, I mean, doing films and TV is great because, A, it's fun for me to do them and, B, it does bring out more people to see me do stand-up, which is ultimately what I want to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ROUTINE)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OSWALT: At that point, I wanted to say I didn't turn out fine. I'm a fat comedian with OCD...

CORNISH: What I like best about your work, kind of listening to the albums one after another, is one can really hear your growth over time, like how you mature as an adult comes through in the jokes.

OSWALT: Yeah. Well, I mean, that was kind of my - I didn't even realize that was my aim. But I'm very, very committed to saying exactly what I feel right now on each album. And I have no problem with people saying, well, you know, on your first album you say you hate kids and you'll never get married. And now on the fourth one, you're talking about raising a kid. I'm like, yeah, because at the time that is how I felt. I'm glad that that's been permanently recorded. You see a person changing and growing.

CORNISH: And even the thought of people kind of criticizing you about that says a lot.

OSWALT: Well, yeah.

CORNISH: And I think it's a little bit about what "Young Adult" is saying as well - that sometimes in our culture, at least right now, we're, like, rewarding people who aren't mature and who don't mature.

OSWALT: We are rewarding either the reality or the appearance of youth, which is why you have all these people in their 50s trying to act like they're 17. You know, it's great to be young. Be young, by all means, be young, but always remember that youth is also kind of dumb. But, you know, getting back to the stand-up thing, yeah, I like that you see me when I was a much dumber youth, and it's, you know, it's been preserved. I like that that's there. I think that'll be good for my daughter. I can go, look, I know maybe you're feeling dumb or confused right now but, you know, daddy made mistakes too. Here you go.

CORNISH: Patton Oswalt appears in the movie "Young Adult," which opened this weekend. Patton Oswalt, thank you so much for speaking with us.

OSWALT: Hey, thanks for having me on the show. That was really cool of you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.