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Pat, the character played by Ed Helms in the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives At Home, is a fascinatingly layered character. Though the film initially portrays him as a selfish, egotistical prick, as the story continues and we watch him suffer through the realization that his wife might be having an affair we understand that he actually is a sweet, devoted guy underneath. It was this redeeming factor that let Helms really play out that awful side early on.
A couple weeks ago I had the chance to sit down one-on-one with the actor to discuss not only Pat’s inner workings, but how he chooses scripts as the star of a television series, why he almost turned the project down, and the pressures of improvising with the Duplasses.
Being the star of a television series, obviously you’re more limited in the time that you can commit to making movies. What do you typically look for when choosing a script and what was it about Jeff, Who Lives At Home in particular?
To me it’s about, “Is this an exciting story that I want to be a part of? Are these people that I want to work with? And can I fit it into my schedule?” [laughs]. That’s usually the biggest wild card. But if those things are in place then I am so psyched. And I really don’t think about it from a scale standpoint. If it’s a story and people that I am passionate about working with and for then that’s going to bring out the best in me and that’s going to have the most positive effect. I have fun doing it, and it will all sort of shake out in a positive way. I try not to make those decisions on like, “Is this a big movie or a big enough movie?” or whatever.
This movie sort of had it all. It was such a cool script and such a cool group of people to work with.
Does character work into it also? Are you looking for characters that aren’t like Andy Bernard?
That fits into the script, “Is this a story I want to be a part of.” So absolutely, absolutely it’s important. That’s not to say absolutely that I looking to depart from Andy Bernard consciously, but I think that probably, if I’m analytical about it, those are things that I’m gravitating towards – things that kind of change the game a little bit. That’s just sort of what I’m drawn to creatively as opposed to a conscious decision to break out. But Andy Bernard is such familiar territory, it’s been five years now of full television seasons doing this, and I think that Pat, this character, provided a very different kind of avenue for me.
And it’s funny because I didn’t want to do this – when I read the script I was about 40 pages in I was like, “No way I’m doing this. This character is reprehensible. And I’m not drawn to that. I want to play characters that I understand and that I think are cool – even if they’re flawed, like Andy, for example or Stu in The Hangover. This one I was like, “This guy is such a jerk. I don’t want to be this guy”… until I got further on and got through to the end and I realized like, “Wow, this is actually just a really honest portrayal of a complex guy who wants to be a better person than he is.” And that’s what I could relate to. Alright, he may be a jerk, but he’s mad at himself for it. And that, to me, is redemptive – and he finds a little bit of self-awareness through the course of the movie. And that’s like a painful but wonderful arc.
I’m super, super excited to hear you say that! Because I was terrified that he would just kinda be this douche bag, but it was really important to me to find something redemptive in him and that kinda freed me up to really be the douche bag early on [laughs].
Was the character that you read in the first draft of the script basically the character that you see on screen or did he undergo some changes through collaboration through production?
I would say that Mark and Jay [Duplass] painted a character that I could really sink my teeth into. And of course I brought a lot to Pat just in terms of his behavior, but his choices, his context, his damage, those were all things that were written in there and for me the challenge was kind of like accomplishing that vision that Mark and Jay had. But I understood it. I felt like I got this character the more we talked about it. My first meeting with Mark and Jay it was like, “Yeah man, this is cool. We’re on the same page and we sorta see this character the same” and that was exciting.
The Duplass brothers have a very unique style. They’re two of the few filmmakers shoot in chronological order, they don’t do rehearsals, they shoot a lot of masters…I’m curious, from your perspective, how they compare to other directors you’ve worked with. And in terms of rehearsal, do you prefer to have it or do you like to find it on the day?
I don’t like to rehearse too much. I like to rehearse just to where I’m not thinking about blocking and I’m not thinking about my lines. In this case, with the Duplass brothers you’re not thinking about your lines anyway because you’re improvising the whole time. It is a very different way of shooting but it’s familiar to me because it’s hand-held cameras, kind of like a documentary style, which is certainly something I’m familiar with from The Office. It’s two cameras so I’m very comfortable with that sort of set up. That said, with Mark and Jay, like on The Office we improvise a little bit here and there, but it’s pretty short takes. We’ll play out maybe a two or three page scene of The Office once or twice a week, but it’s not like all the time. Mark and Jay, every scene is pretty much the entire scene every time you do it. It’s very rare that we’re going in for inserts and pieces. And that can be tedious, but it also just gets you to some really cool places and you find some amazing shit. I love it. I would love to do another movie with this whole gang, with Jason [Segel], I’ll do anything with Jason, ever. I just think he’s the greatest and we had such a good time. And Mark and Jay, I would do anything for them. I just love those guys and I’m partly in awe of what they got out of me, they being Jason and Mark and Jay. Love it.