For many of us, actor Jason Bateman will always be eternal nice guy Michael Bluth from the cult series Arrested Development. While the world (and the Bluth family) falls into chaos around him, there’s dependable Michael/Jason: hair as mop-topped as his child actor days on Silver Spoons, eyes as flirtatious as his teen idol period on The Hogan Family and the affable smile as fixed as the visages of Rushmore.
For his feature film directorial debut, Bateman went on a decidedly different route. Instead of floating on his likability, Bateman gives us Bad Words (opening Friday across the Bay Area), a dark comedy about Guy Trilby, a 40 year old man who finds a loophole to compete in the youth National Quill Spelling Bee. The potty mouthed, child-hating, misanthropic Trilby commits one reprehensible act after another in the film but the actor-director provides enough dark laughs that we want to see Trilby go from bad to worse.
KQED Pop spoke with Bateman about the film on a recent trip to San Francisco. From first time feature directing jitters to getting children to say horrible things to juggling an impressive cast of supporting actors, Bateman tells all. Just don’t ask what his favorite bad word is.
KQED Pop: Directing isn’t really a new chapter in your career; you once held the Directors Guild’s record for youngest director on a television series when you were 18.
Jason Bateman: I don’t know if that record still stands. When I directed The Hogan Family, the Guild called and said I beat Malcolm Jamal Warner by a few months and Spielberg by a couple more months. It was a treat to do it at the time. I’ve been looking at the director’s chair for a long time. I’ve been clocking it for a while and always wanted the opportunity to direct a film. It’s a more robust and involved process for a director than television. I look forward to directing more television, but I had my eye on this for a long time.
So much of the advertising for this film has been via social media, specifically the hashtag #badwords. Have you ever said a bad word over social media?
JB: The only social media I’m involved in is Twitter and that’s basically used for business stuff. I’m not really cursing on that. I find it hard to believe anyone would be interested in my daily gripes.
You’ve done several projects where you your character has a candid relationship with a kid. Are you particularly attracted to those kinds of projects and is there some kind of humor you like from those interactions?
JB: Now that you point it out, I guess you’re right. I don’t think I look for that; the notion of looking for particular projects gives actors a lot more credit then we deserve, most of us take what we can get. I think it’s coincidental I’ve done several projects with kids. Once I’m there, I think it’s an interesting relationship you can have with a kid if you treat them as equals on a certain level and interact with them as peers. It’s always interesting to have an older person and a younger person on a peer level. In this film, my character is not emotionally advanced so he considers himself on a equal playing field with the kids.
What were you looking for in the casting process for the film?
JB: I was looking for a common sensibility, a common sense of humor. There are many different kinds of comedic flavors: none better or worse than the others, they’re just different. I needed actors who could get laughs without winking, being broad or really even being funny. Because they’re raw and authentic, they’re funny. They take it seriously and that’s where the comedy comes from.
How do you think your experiences as a child actor helped you to approach the adult subject matter with the kids in the film?
JB: I do remember wanting to be treated like an adult as a kid actor. Unless I got nervous, then I wanted to be taken care of by an adult. I was always aware of that balance when I worked with the kids. When we have challenging material, you want to do the same thing; you want to down play it so the kid’s not scared, but, if they don’t understand something, you might not want to explain it to them. I didn’t ask how much they understood. Their moms are there; it’s not my job to educate that kid.
As a director acting in your own film, how do you check and balance your own performance?
JB: That’s the risk: you’ve eliminated those checks and balances for yourself. You have to be honest with yourself about whether you have a chance of hitting the target. I knew I had a good shot of hitting that quality of being unlikable yet likable. I tried out other actors for my part, but they said thanks but no thanks, then I had to play the character.
Was there anything you particularly didn’t like about the directing process on film?
JB: Absolutely nothing. It was the greatest experience, except for the birth of my children (I have to throw that in there) of my life. It was everything I wanted it to be.
Were there any filmmakers that were particularly influential to you as a first time director?
JB: David O. Russell, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson make films that are very raw and mix drama and comedy fairly easily without giving the audience whiplash. Being John Malkovich was [a film] I kept coming back to. Even though it’s a comedy, at the end of the day these were fragile people going through this absurd experience.
Do you think your work on ensemble pieces like Arrested Development prepared you for juggling the rich cast of supporting characters in this movie?
JB: Yes, and I think playing team sports growing up helped too; it’s the same idea. Everyone has their job and the sum total creates one thing for the audience to enjoy. Everyone needs to stitch the same fabric. I like being part of that and it was a pleasure to manage that.
Is there one repeating question you’ve had in this junket process that you wish would go away?
JB: “What’s your favorite bad word?” I’ve generally just been saying I like them all, but I try not to abuse them. There’s a time and a place for everything.
My second least favorite is “Can you really spell?”
Bad Words hits Bay Area theaters this Friday.