Patton Oswalt: ‘Messed-up relationships manifest in madness’ | Movies

Plenty of movies have been pinned on seemingly foolproof plans that go catastrophically awry in execution; less common is the movie that hinges on a scheme so ill-advised, so rife with potential for disaster, so guaranteed to end in failure that one wonders why a character would even try it in the first place.

The new film I Love My Dad falls into the latter category, which was precisely what drew star Patton Oswalt to it. His face-voice combo has that special something that makes a person a sought-after character actor and winning comedian, memorable yet unobtrusive. He’s shot hours of stand-up specials, appeared in at least one episode of all your favorite sitcoms from Parks and Recreation to Curb Your Enthusiasm (though he counts Arrested Development and Just Shoot Me! as the ones he most wishes he could’ve booked), and amassed movie roles from beloved comedies to the voice lead of Ratatouille to an awards-tipped dramatic turn in Young Adult. “If they ask me, I do it!” he laughs. “I like doing stuff.” His against-type performance as a townie with more to him than his exterior as a disabled sad sack opposite Charlize Theron presages his latest gig, which pushes him to new extremes of discomfort.

Oswalt throws all of himself into a role most actors wouldn’t touch with rubber gloves: hapless Chuck, the one deadbeat dad to rule them all, a man introduced taking in a dog he finds with his young son and then furtively tearing down a “LOST DOG” poster with the pooch’s picture as the boy asks whether it might have an owner. He’s swindled and corner-cut his way through life, rising to the top of an online chess league by copying moves from an automated program. His most egregious misdeed forms the basis for the film and comes from the real-life experience of writer-director James Morosini, who also appears onscreen as his own stand-in Franklin. Upon getting blocked by Franklin on Facebook, Chuck whips up a dummy profile using photos of a kindly diner waitress and engages the fruit of his loins in a catfish flirtation that turns sexual with skin-crawling swiftness.

Even if the sexting wasn’t visually represented in the most awkward scenes of intimacy between two men this side of Wet Hot American Summer (and it is), the taboo-teasing performance would still require as much empathy as an actor can muster. Oswalt soon realized that only by meeting Chuck on his level, however contemptible, could he hope to access the mindset that goes through with an idea so stunningly bad as to be impervious to success.

“I think he’s one of these people who, very fatally, wants credit for wanting to do the right thing,” Oswalt tells the Guardian from a Manhattan hotel room. “So it doesn’t really matter if his plan is going to be successful or just outrageous, it’s all ‘don’t people see I eventually want to do right by my son even though I’m not following through on anything?’ He’s taught himself that if he does an amazing apology later, it doesn’t matter what goes wrong. Unfortunately, that’s shaped his life.”

This is the work of an actor, honed to its essence. At the core of some stomach-turning choices, Oswalt located an impulse he could tap into, seeing Chuck’s self-destructive bonehead moves as an exaggerated form of the same ethical shortcomings we all live with. “I’m absolutely guilty of that, too, wanting to do well, and thinking that alone counts,” Oswalt readily admits. He came to see that not so much separates his own imperfections from Chuck’s, particularly in terms of parenthood, which forces us all to come to terms with our varying levels of human limitation. His daughter Alice may be just out of her tween years, but their relationship enabled him to imagine a not-so-happy version of it.

“This is the first one where I really play a dad who’s trying, in his messed-up way, to repair things in a relationship that’s really gone wrong,” Oswalt says. “That’s a very new perspective, for me, that I had to learn how to embrace. I haven’t done a parent just dealing with parenthood before. Playing the father of a son who’s in his twenties, I have to at least have an idea in my mind of what it was like when he was five, eight, twelve, and the ways I messed that up. This led to a lot of emotion for me, remembering the way my daughter was at those ages. What if I’d been neglectful and shut her out? That’s so alien and cruel to me. How does this guy compartmentalize, even if it’s subconscious, some real self-loathing? How do you get out of bed in the morning carrying that load? His only way is to take this desperate measure and rationalize it for himself as helping a kid who doesn’t know any better.”

Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in I Love My Dad
Patton Oswalt and James Morosini in I Love My Dad Photograph: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The clarity and lack of hesitation with which Oswalt delved into the nuts and bolts of acting endeared him to Morosini, though they bonded first as kindred “massive film buffs”. In this askew portrait of paternal devotion, they both saw links to the hysterical mania of Frownland and the excruciating cringe of Toni Erdmann, while Morosini traced his influences back to the mother-daughter discord of Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. “These messed-up relationships manifest in madness,” Oswalt explains. It’s in conversations like these that he’s most engaged and animated, a genuine love of the game explaining a staggeringly prolific career soon to enter its fourth decade. Soon, he’ll appear in an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy saga Sandman, a graphic novel that entered Oswalt’s life sophomore year of college. “The books really shaped me so much,” he says. “They sent me in a good direction.”

The Sandman job falls more squarely within Oswalt’s purview, which tends toward the side of the nerd-approved. In a memorable guest stint on Parks and Recreation, he improvised a minutes-long monologue detailing his wackadoodle plans for the Star Wars franchise. He’s popped by Agents of Shield, contributed a little voice work to Eternals, and co-created the MODOK streaming series. As the authority on comics-based media (“Not the authority, maybe an authority,” he’s quick to correct, adding that “there’s an Illuminati council of us”), he’s more qualified than most to comment on the state of the MCU super-union. Marvel’s total industry domination can’t last forever, and he sees expansion as the key to remaining creatively vital. He imagines a modern-day equivalent to the circa-’50s Hollywood studio system, under which benevolent managerial neglect led to some of the American cinema’s finest works.

“Some people, like Buster Keaton, very freewheeling, got crushed by the studio system,” Oswalt explains. “But others like Vincente Minnelli and Michael Curtiz thrived, doing amazing things using that system. To go deeper, here’s my question: when will Marvel unknowingly hire their Douglas Sirk, a guy who comes in and smuggles in all kinds of hidden richness they don’t even see at the studio? That’s gonna be great … We don’t know yet, what a 20, 30, 40 million Marvel movie looks like.”

From there, he’s off, waxing rhapsodic on the thrilling potential of lessened oversight, his line of reasoning bouncing from a little-remembered Aquaman run in the ’80s to the much-maligned surrealist sitcom ’Til Death. He’s seen everything you’ve seen and would love to discuss it, just five minutes of our conversation covering the early works of Ramin Bahrani, the ‘hugely underrated’ recent action throwback Run & Gun, and the grassroots phenomenon springing up around Tollywood masterpiece RRR. A perfect stranger starts to see what it means when an actor is described as “good in the room”.

Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron in Young Adult
Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron in Young Adult Photograph: Paramount/Allstar

In his easy and affable demeanor, Oswalt makes an unexpectedly apt choice for a man confident in his ability to smile and shrug his way out of any predicament. He uses his innate likability to unsavory purposes in the case of I Love My Dad, but offscreen, that’s the secret to his longevity in an industry notorious for chewing actors up and spitting out. He’s earned his stripes, built up his share of fame, lost love, found it again – it seems like he’s done it all, and he’s just glad to be here.

More than anything, he sincerely likes his job, that rarest privilege of all. An offhand question about his one-line bit part on Magnolia leads to an excited recollection of getting flown out to Reno, taught to play baccarat by Paul Thomas Anderson, and then hanging from a tree costumed in a full-body wetsuit on a brutal Californian morning in July. Oswalt still remembers the sagacity that the director shared with him on that day: “I only got to read the one page of the script I’m in, so I’m confused. I’m a croupier, and now I’m in a wet suit? He wouldn’t say why, he just said, ‘You’re the first frog who falls out of the sky.’ Eventually, I got what he meant.” And now it’s on to the finer points of foreshadowing, when it works, when it doesn’t, who’s gotten it right, etc ad infinitum. One gets the sense he has a million stories like this, and that he would gladly spend eternity sharing them.

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