Interview: Andy Samberg of 'Celeste and Jesse Forever'
"Some people were wiping tears away after the Sundance premiere...which I have to say was very satisfying."
As I step towards the hotel suite where Andy Samberg -- ex-"Saturday Night Live," now co-starring with Rashida Jones in the romantic drama "Celeste and Jesse Forever" -- awaits, a nameless publicist leans into my ear: "Andy...doesn't really want to talk about 'That's My Boy.'" At this moment as I wait for the actor, the Adam Sandler bomb has cratered the week before at the Box Office. I nod, not saying what I'm thinking: Trust me, I don't want to talk about "That's My Boy" either, you know? Samberg may be best-known for broad comedy, like his collaborations with the Grammy-winning comedy-rap group "The Lonely Island." In "Celeste and Jesse Forever -- co-written by his co-star Jones and Will McCormack and directed by Lee Toland Krieger --- Samberg gets to actually play a character, not just a punchline or a wig or a bit, as he and Jones break up, supposedly amicably and then, as is to be expected, horribly. We spoke with Samberg about big comedy, small dramatic moments, shooting in L.A. and premiering, nervously, at Sundance.
MSN Movies: Celeste and Jesse together, doing this film, when you realized, "Oh, my costar co-wrote it," did you have not even a concern, but a thought that working with one person who's wielded that much power in the creative process - not that you had to worry about Rashida Jones pulling a Napoleon…
Andy Samberg: Right.
...but for somebody who's a writer, like yourself, it's a lot of power to cede. And I'm curious if you even thought about that.
It made me trust more in the process, just having been through it so many times before where I'm the writer; it's comforting to know that somebody has a very clear vision of what it's going to be and what they want out of it. And that coupled with the fact that I've seen Lee's previous work and thought it was really amazing. For me, it was more like I know her personality really well and I saw so much of it in the script that it didn't seem like there was going to be any surprises going in. It seemed like I knew everyone felt like they were on the same page kind of from the start.
Let me ask you the converse. Is it nice to walk into a project knowing that you're abdicating some of the responsibilities as a writer?
Show up, say your lines, don't be drunk.
(Laughs). Yeah, Don't be drunk was number one on my list of obligations. It was nice to be able to focus just on performing, and I don't always get to do that, so it was cool.
And the character, it's really interesting to see a character who's depicted with that kind of complexity - like a little bit optimistic, a little bit passive aggressive, a little bit of a crazy dreamer, a little bit of a slacker…
I'm curious about how much changed from the final draft of the script you signed on board with and how much of it changed in performance or in filming? If the script was like a locked text ...
The script didn't change a lot. We would improvise jokes and stuff here and there, but in general it was all on the page kind of from the start, from when I came on. And the kind of the beautiful thing about the way that Rashida and Will write is there's so much going on just in the dialogue that they choose - like they choose their words very carefully - and so much of the characters is revealed and clear just by the things that they have say; like there isn't a ton of action explaining who the characters are to you. You kind of just get to know them by reading what they do and what they say.
And what other people do and say with them, because almost all of the scenes are to-and-fro conversations.
You grew up in Berkeley, but you've been living in New York for awhile; is it nice to come back and shoot this and get your L.A. on, get your West coast on?
Absolutely. I lived in LA for 5 years after I graduated college. I love it in LA. It was definitely relaxing to shoot here. (Laughs).
Just in terms of you know the geography, you know the territory…
Yeah, and the weather's nice, and the food's great, and I have a lot of love for the LA area. It's nice here.
The great thing about this film is it starts in media res.
When you read that, was that just like setting the hook in your cheek going, "What the hell's happening here?"
That's kind of what hooked me into the script where I was like, "Oh! This isn't what I was expecting at all." When you first begin the script or begin the movie, you think they're just completely together which is what makes it so complicated is how two people can be so close and yet be deciding that they're not right for each other. And I just love that moment with Ari's character at the restaurant where she is like, "What are you guys doing? This isn't normal," and the only ones who do think it's normal are the two involved, and they kind of have to face the facts that it's not normal.
The whole thing where the two of you sit there and mock the menu in these sort of faux-Teutonic tones…
(Laughs). Uh huh.
That felt really couple-y; that felt really real.
Did you ever lean over to Miss Jones and Mr. McCormack and say, "So how much of this is stolen from your lives?"
(Laughs). Well I think a lot of the jokey stuff is things they do together as friends. And I'm not sure about the German thing; I know the Vaseline stuff is a bit they like to do together. It's the kind of stuff that Rashida and I do as friends also. We're jokey, comedy-loving friends so that stuff came very easily, and I think that’s a huge part of the believability of the relationship, which is -- here are these people who clearly do get along in so many ways but also have these different personality types that don't necessarily lend themselves to the best versions of either of them in terms of growing up and blossoming.
Well, that's the thing. You're playing this character who doesn't quite know how to hit a deadline and doesn't quite know how to motivate himself to work. That's not you. I mean, I don't know you terribly well, but I can still see on your resume that's not you.
That's true. Although it's funny because I never thought of myself as how I guess I am now. I was very much more laid-back in high school and college. It wasn't until I started getting the opportunities to work on comedy and writing and filmmaking stuff that I became more responsible and more hardworking.
So your work ethic is completely linked to your egomania?
I think it's completely linked to being interested in what I'm doing. I know you're kidding, but I was fairly unmotivated. I've said this before, my parents, I think, were a little concerned about me until I got into film school. And then all of a sudden this other side of me came out that was obsessed with doing the best job I could and getting things done and being timely, and I changed dramatically as soon as I felt engaged.
You may also have the only parents in the world who were gratified to hear that their child was headed to film school.
(Laughs). Well I will say a lot of my fellow classmates really wasted their time. I was always shocked at how lazy some of the students were that got into -- I went to NYU Film School, which to me was like winning the lottery.
I couldn't believe it, and I felt like I spent every second I had trying to do as much as I possibly could and learn as much as I could and produce as much as I could. And I knew a lot of people that never finished projects they started and seemed like they could care less whether or not they were there, and it was always shocking to me.
I don't get that either.
I don't want to sound like a Republican here, but bootstraps, people, bootstraps…
Yeah, that tuition ain't cheap.
Yeah. When you're working on a feature length film, which has I'm sure a fairly small budget…
And you've done films that have been larger, never mind how much 'Hot Rod" cost -- it had to be more than "Celeste and Jesse Forever."
It was. (Laughs).
What was that kind of micro-budget experience like for you?
It was not that difficult for me because I've done so much kind of guerilla, quote unquote guerilla-style film shooting both in college and frankly until the last few seasons all the SNL Digital Shorts we were kind of just run-and-gun…
Like, no permits?
Oh, you kidding me? (Laughs). Very rarely did we get permits.
You just point the camera at somebody punching Will Forte on camera?
Oh, we definitely didn't get a permit for that.
Or for punching… we're breaking away here. But the whole micro-budget indie thing -- you were able to adapt to it really well?
Yeah, I was very comfortable in that environment. For me, when I get on a bigger movie shoot, it feels crazy slow to me. I can't believe how much time it takes and how much lighting there is and how many people have to sign off on things. I do like things maybe a little more loose.
Why don't you just go with the wallpaper that's there instead of somebody running over with 20 swatches going, "Which do you like?"
Can we talk briefly about how awesome Mr. McCormack is as Skillz the dope dealer?
Skillz! Born to the play the role of Skillz. (Laughs).
Like that weird, gangly frame and that weird kind of evil-boy look. Like you could almost trust him but you wouldn't leave your purse in the same room. I mean, how great was it to see your co-writer hurling himself into what could have been a thankless part for another actor?
I think he knew what he was doing, and that character plays so well in the movie. It was so nice to see how many laughs Will gets with that part. God, that scene where he's like propositioning Rashida is probably the funniest thing in the whole movie.
Either that or Miss Jones trying to operate a bong that's taller than she is on her lonesome.
We've all been there.
I have not, I have not.
And I won't say whether it's because of my height or my personal taste.
Miss Jones ... she does gradual exasperation really well, we've seen her playing that key before.
But she gets to do stuff here she hasn't gotten to do before. She gets to be flat-out angry, she gets to be flat-out irritated.
Was that interesting seeing a different side of someone you knew professionally and personally?
It was fun and intense to watch her do it on camera. I've known her for awhile and I know many shades of Rashida, and she's a very complicated, hyper-intelligent, hyper-talented woman, and it was really satisfying to watch her show her range and sort of tackle something that has a lot more depth to it than maybe she's done in the past. And she's done great stuff in the past no doubt, but I liked seeing her really sink her teeth into something.
Now let's flip the script on that: What did you get to really sink your teeth into?
Certainly doing things that I had not done before in terms of playing a scene more dramatically or more realistic - even scenes that are quote unquote comedic - I'm still playing them as if it's in the real world; it's not a heightened reality that we're living in in this movie. So it was fun to play things a little more naturalistic and a little more quote unquote real.
It's also interesting because a lot of actors I think would have that little bit of apprehension as they look at the part of Jesse and go, "That guy's a weakling, no!" Was that part of the challenge? Part of the appeal?
Gosh, I didn’t think of it that way. But I guess…
Let me state that that could be a very narrow perception of it. Factually, this guy's sleeping in his ex-wife's garage…
…he doesn't have a job per se…
To me he had those issues, but he was inherently likable and-good natured and good-hearted, which I liked about him, and he's funny. Even in his sort of aimlessness, especially at the beginning of the movie, he does have a good sense of humor about things and he's sarcastic and charming. For me, looking at those pages, I was like, "I have an angle to play here", and he grows in the movie, he really does. And it's not a normal cookie-cutter arc he goes on; it's complicated, and he sometimes is doing the right thing, he sometimes is being scared and doing the wrong thing, and he has conflicted feelings about Celeste and about what he's moving on to. So especially for the number of pages he's actually in, I feel like there's such a great range of things that the character of Jesse goes through; it was really exciting to try that.
And that, in my way, is what I'm trying to say.
Aw, thank you.
.. And complimenting you over all of the other actors not being smart enough to go for it. Did you ever find yourself going, "Okay, I have to dial this down. I'm not in a comedy per se, something's not about to explode, I'm not going to fight Ian McShane into a basement…"
Right, right, right.
Did you find yourself able to go, "Nope, I'm in this space, this mood, this mode. I'm going to lock onto it and stay on target"?
There were a few times where I would start going a little bigger, especially when there was comedy to be had. And me and Lee would talk and be like, "I'll do a bigger one and a smaller one and then we'll see what feels right when you're cutting." And I believe more often than not, the smaller one is what won out on this particular movie. But I was definitely hyper aware of it from day one. Like I don't want to be the guy hamming it up in the real tone movie. I don't want to come in and sort of try and apply this other comedic tone to something that doesn't need it.
Show up in clown shoes when everyone else is dressed business casual?
I know this film was at Sundance. Did you have a chance to see it there?
What was the mood like for people walking out in the lobby afterwards? Like was a lot of the overheard dialogue like, "Oh my God…"?
Some people were like wiping tears away, which I have to say was very satisfying.
(Laughs). Possible headline, Andy Samberg loves making people cry.
Andy Samberg's only happy when you cry.
Whatever people take away from it, as long as they're emotionally impacted in some way. But I think we did a Q&A afterwards and I was saying until we hear people clap at the end and like the enthusiasm with which they clap or don't clap, I think, is the only way to gauge a movie like this. Like certainly there's laughs in the movie, and when those happen it's satisfying because you're like we were trying for a laugh there and we got it. But until we heard the applause and then started getting the questions from people in the Q&A, they were clearly very thoughtful and impacted, and people seemed very much like they were connecting with the story and not just as viewers of a movie but that they were connecting to the story in a way that they felt mirrored their own experiences, which is the goal of so many movies, so many books, so many anything's that you set out to do creatively -- like you want people to feel like you're speaking directly to them and that they have an in on what you're doing with the work. So I was incredibly satisfied with the reaction at Sundance; it was crazy great.
"Celeste and Jesse Forever" is currently playing in limited release.