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David Krumholtz Wants to Reintroduce Himself to You

Over Zoom, David Krumholtz flashes a friendly, bashful smile, his demeanor several shades warmer than the character he plays in the movie he’s here to promote. Named after the depressive malcontent at its center, “Lousy Carter” is a wry, off-kilter comedy of unhappiness, with Krumholtz starring as a mediocre literature professor who teaches “The Great Gatsby” to students who couldn’t be more bored. Lousy has very little going for him, and early on in writer-director Bob Byington’s film, he receives terrible news: His doctor informs him he’ll be dead in six months. In plenty of movies, that would inspire a curmudgeon to change his ways and embrace life. That is not what happens in “Lousy Carter”: Lousy tells no one about his medical death sentence, enjoying the private joke that he’ll be outta here soon.

Acting since he was a teen, Krumholtz, 45, has worked on stage, in film, and on television. You know him from “Numb3rs,” “The Santa Clause,” “The Deuce” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” He recently received excellent reviews on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” and he’s superb as Robert Oppenheimer’s friend and colleague Isidor Isaac Rabi in the Oscar-winning “Oppenheimer.” By comparison to some of the loftier projects he’s been part of recently, “Lousy Carter” may simply be a small, idiosyncratic indie, but it allows Krumholtz the opportunity to explore an unlikable guy shuffling through his unremarkable life. He savored the challenge.

“Bob Byington is really keen on making subversive cinema that doesn’t fall into tropes and sometimes takes tropes and turns them on their head,” he tells me. “It’s a risky thing to do, because we’re so used to the formulas, that it’s jarring sometimes for an audience to see the opposite—and very difficult for a filmmaker to make the opposite work. I knew that’s what Bob was going for, so when I told him that I wanted to play the character as completely relieved, without a second of real neurosis, about his death sentence, Bob was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I intended.’”

Between “Lousy Carter” and “Oppenheimer,” Krumholtz has been in the spotlight lately, but perhaps his most noteworthy moment in recent months was a series of Twitter threads he posted in which he detailed his misadventures in Hollywood, including being high at the Disney Christmas parade. These amusing, self-deprecating, candid tales made Krumholtz beloved on social media, but eventually the actor chose to deactivate his account. “It was an impulsive moment,” he says of that decision to pull the plug. “Literally, I had tweeted five minutes prior, and then it was just like, ‘No, shut this down. Shut it down right now.’ There is no regret about shutting it down.”

What prompted Krumholtz to open up on Twitter about his career—and then abruptly stop? And how much does he relate to Lousy? During our 30-minute conversation, we touched on those topics, as well as how having children gave him a reason to live, and why the loss of his friend (and “10 Things” co-star) Heath Ledger hurts even more now than it did back then.

Depending on your perspective, Lousy is somebody who is depressed, defeatist or maybe just realistic about life. How much does his worldview match your own?

I think there’s a lot of similarities between how Lousy sees himself and how I see myself. I live in a perpetual state of embarrassment, and I think Lousy does, too. However, I’m much more optimistic about the future, and Lousy has kind of lost hope. I think Lousy very much is in lament of his solitude. Even with friends and ex-girlfriends and his mom, he feels very alone—I don’t feel alone. 

Lousy doesn’t have a family of his own, but you do. I’m curious if that helps combat loneliness.

I’ve been drastically lonely in my life. I wrote a script about loneliness—about the nature of loneliness—and I think loneliness defines so much of who people are. Ultimately, when you get to the point of real depression and you feel like you are just a small organism on a spinning rock in outer space—which is actually what you are—it’s a hard realization to accept. But I’ve come to accept it, and having children really has given me meaning in my life, which I direly needed—I was lacking meaning.

You’ve said in the past that fatherhood has made you a better actor. But were you wanting to start a family, in part, because you wanted to change your perspective on life in general?

Well, I was very bored with myself. I spent 35 years being worried about myself, obsessed with myself, admiring myself. It cured me of my narcissism, and it cured me of my loneliness at the same time. I knew that having kids would potentially do that, and it has, in spades.

Could Lousy ever change? Or is he someone who’s stuck the way that he is?

Correct—so much so that he’s relieved when he finds out he is dying. You get the sense that he’s all right with it, or at least he doesn’t react like the filmic trope would suggest he does. There’s no panic, there’s no worry, there’s no lament, there’s no deep sadness. He keeps it a secret—he’s enjoying the secret, he’s getting a kick out of knowing that all these people that have bad things to say about him are going to miss him when he’s gone. 

It’s sociopathic in a way—silently sociopathic—which is really fun to play. He’s a guy who feels like his best days are behind him, and he never realized his full potential and he never will. So it’s okay to go—it’s time to go.

It’s such an interesting choice to have Lousy not tell people—his condition is basically something only the audience knows. There’s this conspiratorial thing going on between us and him throughout the movie. 

You are sharing a secret, and so it’s very easy for the audience to access the character psychology, even though the reaction is not prototypical. In terms of playing [Lousy], it’s great—I mean, it is a prank in a way, and there is a devilishness, a precociousness, a mischievousness to that. 

I became obsessed with these videos on YouTube of the great actor Oliver Reed, very drunk on talk shows. What I loved about it is, he’s extremely drunk, but he’s in control of the idea that he clearly made a conscious choice: “I’m going to be drunk on these things.” He’s an alcoholic—he can’t help being drunk—but, “I’m going to be drunk on these shows, and that’s the joke. The joke is on me, I’m not going to harm anyone—if anything, I’m harming myself.” There’s something really deliberate about that and premeditated about that and cranky about that, which works so well. He takes such joy out of putting people in the awkward position of having to deal with a drunk on live TV. And that was a little bit of an inspiration for [playing Lousy].

About 13 years ago, you dealt with a cancer diagnosis. Did that inform how you played Lousy?

It crossed my mind, but only in the way that I sensed that I’d earned the right to play the character—that I had been there, to some extent. I knew that it would inform it, but I didn’t make the choice to have it inform it—I just knew it was there. I had lived through that experience, so I didn’t have to fake anything. I knew that it would just come through—that I had been in that moment myself. It was just about reliving that moment a little bit.

None of us can choose when something like that happens in our lives. Looking back, do you think of your own diagnosis as something that gave you an important perspective?

I absolutely do. I got very lucky—a masseuse saved my life. I went and got a massage and she did the strangest thing: At the end of the massage, she massaged the front of my neck. Why? I’ll never know. And she told me, “You have a lump on your neck.” I didn’t feel it—she tried to get me to feel it, couldn’t feel it. Two months later, routine physical, thank god, my doctor at the end of the physical said, “Hey, is there anything else you want to tell me? Because you look really healthy.” And I said, “Yeah, this masseuse told me I had a lump on my neck,” and he [found] two lumps when he went and felt for it. That’s called divine intervention—that’s called an angel on my shoulder.

If anything, [being diagnosed with cancer] gave me a sense of belief that I had lost—a belief in something greater and belief that I was on a path. That freed up a lot of artistic creativity and a lot of sensibility that I have a purpose—and that the purpose is not something that I have control over, nor do I need control over. To some extent, I am this rolling ball channeling some sort of cosmic energy, and my job is to emulate humanity and do so by channeling energy. There’s a lot less deliberation in my work now since that cancer diagnosis than there was in the past.

Some people, in Lousy’s position, would say, “Screw it, I’m gonna do whatever I want with these last six months.” I’m thinking about the tweet threads you did recently, which went viral, because they seemed to be inspired by a different version of “Screw it, I have these stories, and I want to tell them.” Was there something dramatic going on in your life that prompted that outpouring? 

No, it was totally calculated—that was deliberate. That was me going, “You know what? I’ve shied away from recognition for too long.” I [had] created some weird mystique for myself by not speaking up and not telling my stories and not being myself in public—not to mention some experiences with actually hiring a publicist and it not being what I wanted it to be. I thought at some point, “You got to stand up and be counted.” 

The urgency of that came during the pandemic when there was no work to be had. At the end of the pandemic period, about halfway through 2021, my agent dropped me, and I saw the end of my career happening and it scared the living shit out of me. I thought, “Well, I better start letting people in, being more generous with myself to people, and admitting publicly that my life is a little different and that I am recognizable and there’s no shame in that.” Sort of indulging in that and creating more of it—I felt it was necessary for me to continue to work, to be honest with you. 

Plus “Oppenheimer” being such an exposing thing for me just made me think, “Well, it’s time that I help people connect the dots.” I didn’t want anybody watching my performance in “Oppenheimer” and going, “Who is that guy? I’ve never seen him before,” when they’d seen me so many times. So it was about me going, “Hey, that guy in ‘Oppenheimer’ also was this and was this and was this and was this.” The more keen fans were aware already, but so many people, I was getting a lot of, “Are you still acting?” I’d get recognized in the street, and people said, “What do you do now?” That was bothering me a lot and scaring me. 

I don’t want this to end—I love acting, I love being in this business. I live and breathe the business, and I always have. I fought so hard to get to the place that I’m in and have always been conscious of how lucky I am and trying to pay back the privilege of my luck that I thought, “I’m not going out like that. I don’t want to go out without people knowing that it’s all been part of some very calculated plan that I’ve had the whole time—this isn’t an accident and I’m an artist. I’ve fashioned this, to some extent.” 

Telling those stories and making myself relatable was important for now. I deactivated my Twitter account and I’m sort of feeling my way through it. I don’t want to indulge in overexposing myself—I’m not a spectacle, I’m just a person. But for a moment there, I thought it was important to go, “Hey, I’m here. Hello, I’m here. That character’s there, but I’m also here—there’s a person behind it. And if you want to know the person, I’ll tell you who the person is because the person is not entirely boring, either.” 

You mentioned mystique—when you were younger, did you think, “I want the work to speak for itself”?

Very much so. This is a weird comparison, but I love Led Zeppelin and I love that they didn’t do a lot of interviews when they were popular. Their fans literally came to believe that Jimmy Page was the devil—that’s how quiet they were. The music spoke for him and it was like, “Whoa, this is so out there and so wildly brilliant and so devious.” We don’t get a sense of who he is—he’s a mystery, and because he’s a mystery then his music is telling us that he’s the damned devil. And I loved that—I thought that really worked. 

It’s hard to do that now in this age of social media. Studios do look at the number of followers you have. They compare and contrast—you won’t get cast if you don’t have a certain amount of followers, which sucks and is stupid, frankly. They know it’s stupid, but they don’t care because they’re thinking of how they market the film or the TV series, which is fair. 

But, yeah, there was a period where I just wanted my characters to exist and not me, and that was a foolish pursuit. But it was natural—I had to get to a point where I was comfortable with myself. Like I said, I spent so many years lonely and depressed and hating myself that I just wasn’t ready to expose myself. Living in a state of perpetual embarrassment is very much still me, but was way worse in the past.

I also wonder if that uncertainty about putting yourself out there on Twitter was partly that Gen-X thing of “No sell out, man! It’s about the art, not the self-promotion.”

It’s punk rock, man: “Don’t sell out like they’re selling out!” So, now that I have sold out… [Laughs] I didn’t want anyone to do that for me. I’m doing it my way and it’s not selling out. It’s information that I think will help me do what people like that I do, which is act in movies and television. I felt strongly that if I didn’t do it this time around with “Oppenheimer,” that work would slow down, and ultimately the whole goal is work. Plus having kids, you got to pay for their shit—I got responsibilities and I have to make money. So, yes, selling out but not really—I’m proud of myself for that.

Now that it’s happened, how do you feel about going viral on Twitter?

I liked the attention too much, which is why I deactivated it. It’s weird: I’m on Instagram, I don’t post all the time, I don’t need the attention there. But something about Twitter— something about my thoughts being validated—really scared me and how craven I was for the next bit of attention. “What do I tweet now that’ll make people…?” That’s not who I want to be. I wanted to tell my stories and I was thrilled that they got the response that they did—then that was over and I didn’t know what else to tweet, and I got out of there.

One of your most beloved films is “10 Things I Hate About You.” You’ve talked about your friendship with Heath Ledger and how his passing affected you. But when you think back to that time, do you ever wonder, “What kept that from happening to me?” So, I was 13, I came from a difficult childhood, without getting into detail, and I got saved somehow. I got put on Broadway, discovered off the street, and I was suddenly an actor without any impetus to be one prior. I often think, had that not happened to me, I’d be dead—no doubt about it. I’m an addict, currently sober—I would’ve been less caring about keeping myself alive. Acting is my reason to live now. It’s my kids and acting, but acting was my reason to live for a really long time, and still is.

When Heath passed away, I knew why he passed away. I had decided a long time ago to never do hard drugs. Heath wasn’t suicidal—Heath had a drug problem. As I get older, it gets harder to deal with Heath’s death because I think about how he would’ve been today, that he died wildly young. It gets more tragic, in a way, that he’s not here.

Drugs are low hanging fruit in this business—and alcohol. They’re easy to do, and I don’t think Heath thought, “Oh, if I do drugs, I’m going to die.” No one thinks that, but I wish I had been more vocal about my worries and disapproval of him doing those things. But you just aren’t in the moment—you don’t want to be a buzzkill or a bummer. Yeah, there are regrets I have about it, but I know for a fact that Heath tried to fix himself right before he died. He understood he had a problem that was dangerous—he came to understand that. It took a really long time, but it was too late. 

It gives me pause, not because it could have happened to me—it couldn’t have happened to me—but because it happened to my friend who was a dear man who didn’t want to die, had a young daughter and wanted to live and was full of life. It’s a cautionary tale—I don’t think Heath ever wanted to be a cautionary tale. He just wanted to be a great actor and he was only just beginning.

Brittany Murphy is another one. I’ve rarely ever met, to this day, someone as full of life as Brittany Murphy. She was a shining example of spirit and soul. For that to be wiped out, it can happen to anyone. You got to be careful.

You mentioned that acting and your kids are your reason to live. But I imagine at least your kids love you back—the business is a lot tougher. 

I don’t have to act to be their dad. There’s no fakery—there’s no pretend. I love them with all my heart and I am as vulnerable with them, for humor’s sake and for their own sense of reality, as I can be. I show them all my insecurities and my nooks and crannies, and I think they appreciate me being a well-rounded person and not trying to be something I’m not. I’m in love with my children and they’re in love with me, as it should be. That’s been a journey that is just ever-rewarding. For a lifelong depressive, children are essentially happy pills. You wake up in the morning with morning dread, you walk upstairs to get your cup of coffee and there’s your child there going, “Hey, you want to look at the piece of art I made in class yesterday?” And your depression is lifted immediately. Am I using my children for that? It’s a reciprocal relationship—I’m there for them and I give them as much as I possibly can of myself. I just believe love reigns supreme and that you can love someone to the extent in which you can heal them and teach them. My showing them love is a way of teaching them.

Now that “Oppenheimer” has won Best Picture, that time with your co-stars is finally over. It was a great run, but how are you adjusting to the whirlwind being over?

It’s the nature of this business. It’s like a circus life—you go from one city to the next. There’s a new clown at every corner, and some of the old clowns die or go to different circuses. You keep in touch with the people you feel close to. 

The “Oppenheimer” experience was such a unique experience and will always be a unique experience. I don’t think there’s a single member of that cast that I don’t feel especially close to, because we shared such a unique experience, and that’ll never change. But life is a series of hellos and goodbyes, and it’s not goodbye forever. I’ve come to be very used to that, and it’s always wonderful to see someone after some time has passed. I’m okay with letting the time pass.

But that letting go can’t always be easy. 

The hardest I’ve ever had to deal with in that regard was doing a long-term job, like “Numb3rs.” Saying goodbye to those people was very difficult because they’d become family. But I’d have a [harder] time if I worked in the same office for 30 years appreciating all my coworkers—there’s something about them being gone that makes you appreciate them more.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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