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Nick Kroll Dives into Film Acting for “Adult Beginners”

Ever since his comedic dawning on that long-lost ABC series “Cavemen” (as inspired by those insurance commercials), Nick Kroll has solidified his creative prowess to become a multi-hyphenate who wrote, produced, and acted in his intricate Comedy Central sketch series “Kroll Show,” a universe for his freewheeling spoofs of various character types in media. 

Though he’s previously applied some of his charisma to the silver screen, Kroll makes his most distinct dive for the film world yet with the indie comedy “Adult Beginners,” opening today in limited theaters and available on VOD. In the movie from director Ross Katz, Kroll plays someone who doesn’t seem too far removed from the “Kroll Show” civilization—a self-centered jerk who is too immature to take care of others, or himself. When his brand new tech company collapses, Kroll’s character Jake moves in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne) and her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), where he becomes nanny to their young son Teddy (Caleb and Matthew Paddock). The film finds Kroll working with acute expressions that are fairly muted compared to his other characterizations, verifying as well that his previous comedic turns, however wacky (and extremely funny), are more akin to thorough performances than simple impersonations. 

“Adult Beginners” is executive produced by Jay and Mark Duplass (Mark and Kroll can both be seen on FX’s “The League”). It was written by Jeff Cox, Liz Flahive, and Kroll; Kroll also produced. RogerEbert.com sat down with Kroll to discuss “Adult Beginners,” the way he thinks that family shapes [a] character, his interest in making fun of people who “feel like they’re eating at the airport all day,” and more. 

"Adult Beginners" has a unique focus on family when it comes to the arrested development character arc. How has family influenced your perspective on comedy, or acting?

I think it’s a huge, whether you are close to your family or not, I think it is this seminal formation for human character. But if you’re not close to your family, then you’re thrust toward your friends, and there’s still that base which becomes an important framework to be around. And I think movies don’t often cover that brother/sister relationship. I know that “The Skeleton Twins” came out last year, but for the most part there isn’t a ton in that space which is what I think was interesting me, and I’m just very interested in those relationships. I was the youngest of four kids, and so I’m just very aware of that, and aware of how impactful my siblings were on who I am, and now watching my twelve nieces and nephews, how they are all interacting with each other and how much they form who each other are, I am interested in that world, and I think that its’ really important.

What does the element of family mean to you when you are constructing characters?

Yeah, with “Kroll Show” there was some family, but it’s more parent/child, like with characters Dr. Armond and Roman, Bobby and his mom, Gil and his stepson and stuff like that, but it was more about friends, Gil and George, Liz and Liz. Totally by chance, but it just happened to be about that stuff. Now I am sort of on this weird sibling kick. But when I am figuring out a character I try to figure out what the deal is with their family. Often times it's the parent stuff, because I think that is the first and foremost relationship. But then siblings are these weird witnesses to your whole life, whether you are close to them or not, because that person is the only one who genuinely knows you from the beginning of your life to where you are now. And then when you add in-laws to the mix, when everyone starts getting married, and you might start becoming closer to your in-law than your sibling or you don’t like the person that your brother or sister has chosen to marry; your allies shift. I think that stuff is really interesting, especially as we get older.

Speaking of siblings, what discussions did you have with Jay & Mark Duplass when it came to assembling this project?

In the scripting stage, I worked a lot with Mark on it, and then Liz [Flahive] and Jeff [Cox] who wrote the script. Mark has a brother, Liz has a sister, and Jeff has a brother. And that was one thing that Mark and I talked a lot about, because Mark is married to [writer/director] Katie Aselton, who is also on “The League,” and he’s obviously close with Jay, they work together. But that was one thing, how those relationships shift, like how Jay and Katie might be on the same side of this issue and Mark on the other side, and how those dynamics are constantly shifting. I am always blown away by the sibling duo, that most brother relationships are so powerful that it’s like they have two minds for the price of one. You look at the Coen brothers or Mark and Jay, any situation in which they really just get so much out of it because they have this shared life experience but there’s two of them. And I can’t think of too many sister filmmakers, but in music there’s Haim and Tegan & Sara, and it seems to play out there very effectively.

When you were casting the film, what struck you about Rose Byrne that made you think that she could play your sister?

Well, we look so much alike, we have such similar features, and I have such refined features like she does [laughs]. There’s a lot of talented actresses out there right now who can handle a lot of the drama and the comedy, but she just happens to be so adept at both. I knew her from watching FX's “Damages” but I also had a small part in “Get Him to the Greek,” and she was such a surprise to me playing this funny, broad pop star. And then in “Bridesmaids,” I think that Melissa McCarthy gets the “breakout star” label, but Rose to me was the true revelation. She was not only incredibly funny, but she’s the villain of that movie and was really likable. And so we wanted to create someone who would be able to carry the dramatic stuff as well as the comedy stuff, and allow herself to be flawed and not be perfect looking in every scene. On top of that she is just really fking cool. She’s very unassuming and not demanding, and her American accent is flawless. It really is frustrating how good her American accent is.

She’s a comedic gold mine.

We got really lucky because I think she’s the youngest of four, so in talking to her about the film, she was just drawn to the sibling dynamic. I think the elements within that were what helped us get someone of her caliber to do [the film].

When it comes to getting into a character's groove, was Jake one of the more challenging compared to other characters you’ve done?

It was challenging to just not go for the joke in every scene, that it was OK for things to just end where they ended, and not try to have a button, or work on some lines and think, “This line isn’t working, I’ll just change it.” Like on “The League,” we were very loosely scripted, and “Kroll Show” we always had scripts, but I also had freedom to change whatever I want whenever I wanted. And in theory, I could have with this movie as well. But we worked for a long time on the script, and I wanted to serve it, and that was a new experience. To work a line, and working the perimeters within that line to make that work.

Your acting resume shows an interest in douchebags—on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” you played a radio DJ called “The Douche,” and even in the upcoming Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen-produced R-rated CGI comedy “Sausage Party,” you’re playing a character explicitly named “Douche.” What’s your interest in playing these types of characters, especially those who are defined by a lack of self-awareness? 

I do think a lack of self-awareness is funny. This isn’t exactly it, but watching someone eat at the airport, there’s just something fun or funny about it. And I think similarly it’s like douches feel like they’re eating at the airport all day, they’re unaware. And it’s fun to make fun of shitty people. But then it’s also fun to make them somehow likable or relatable.

Some people might watch your "Kroll Show" character Bobby Bottleservice and identify with it. Do you see that happening a lot?

People do that all the time. I am always shocked. I was at a hotel in Boston last night, and a bunch of the staff told me that one guy working at the hotel is identified as Bobby Bottleservice, and he’s kinda psyched about it. And there’s a guy on “Survivor” now who is a Bobby Bottleservice, and I tweeted about him, because he had this whole speech about loving his mother, and he tweeted back to me and was so psyched. It was so weird, it’s so weird. 

From your perspective, do you think it is harder for a comedian to make a movie? And did you ever try to make a film from your previous characters?

No, I’ve never really made that push. I wrote one movie about six years ago with John Mulaney, and it was a studio comedy for Tracy Morgan and T.J. Miller. It was a good experience to just learn. When that didn’t move forward it was like, “This is too hard, writing a movie is really hard.” I guess it’s like with the character stuff, TV is such an easy, fun place to do that. The thinking was, “Why would I try and go and take something that works in this medium, and try to put it into a medium where I haven’t seen these kinds of things really work?" It seems like so much work and effort. I’ve got this new character, why don’t I just put it on my TV show, where I can do whatever I want, and if it’s great I’ll do more of it, and if it sucks I’ll put it away? And so I think that there is this space now in film that is this indie comedy/dramedy space that is a little easier to get that kind of stuff made, because people are like down to hear I think a grounded story that has some very funny stuff in it. And I was just about the prospect of having done “Kroll Show,” which those characters were pretty broad, but I think emotionally honest. I was always trying to build them and have them react as honestly as they are. I think that whatever the medium is, the show or the movie, I’m always trying to build some sort of three-dimensional character. This film, in a way, felt like an extension of that, even though it’s a much more grounded version. Jake starts off in the film where it feels like he’s a “Kroll Show” character, which we actually the opening of this film during “Kroll Show,” just to clarify his character. 

Do you see yourself ramping up a movie career? Up next you’ve got a diverse batch coming—projects like Terrence Malick’s "Knight of Cups,” and then on the other side of the spectrum, you’ll be voicing Professor Poopypants in the “Captain Underpants” movie. Are your pursuing film more in particular now?

It’s slowly just building a catalogue of stuff. I was coming to an end with “Kroll Show,” but it was exciting to have, I’ve basically gone from “Kroll Show” to “The League,” and this will be [“The League’s”] seventh season, and “Kroll Show” from the pilot on, it has been basically doing one show or the other, which has been amazing. So I theoretically have more free time to do things like movies, but no, I think the greatest thing about doing what I get to do is that I make a movie and then go do something on a TV show, then go do an animated thing, then go do stand-up. I feel very lucky that I get to do a variety of different things that are fun and exciting, and then I get to go back to whatever I was doing before and it’s even more fun because I haven’t been doing it for a while. And well, there’s like four movie stars left.  

And how many of those are comedians, other than Kevin Hart?

And Kevin Hart is still doing stand-up and a show on BET. There’s just not that space anymore.

When "Adult Beginners" was coming about, were you seeing it as a step forward from “Kroll Show” and other TV comedy, to take on a more dramatic role?

I brought the idea to Mark like three and a half years ago. These things just take a really long time to go. It felt like the natural progression of things to figure out how to get a movie made, and bringing it to Mark seemed logical because he just knows the space so well. But it’s such a long process. It wasn’t just like, “I’ll finish my TV show, and then I’ll put out my movie, and then I’ll be at the next stage and be a movie star,” it was more like, “I am going to throw a couple things against the wall and see what sticks," and this one kept moving forward.


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