AUSTIN, TX: Nick Offerman’s giggle is a joy to behold. His high-pitched snicker has occasionally surfaced on his TV show, Parks and Recreation, where its enthusiasm and timbre sharply contrasts the no-nonsense nature of his already iconic character, libertarian parks department director Ron Swanson. But it’s always popping up in interviews, and it even comes out a couple of times in Somebody Up There Likes Me, the tragicomedy premiering here that he co-produced and co-stars in. It’s one of three films the busy actor has at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival; he also has a cameo in 21 Jump Street and a supporting role in Will Ferrell’s Spanish-language comedy Casa de mi Padre. “When it comes to specific roles,” he told me, “I really just try to eschew anything that is remotely Ron Swanson-esque, and I do my best not to have a mustache.” And that’s when he giggled. It’s incredibly charming.
“If somebody comes to me with a sort of cliché romantic comedy,” he continued, “I’m going to be a lot less attracted to it than if Will Ferrell calls and says, ‘I’m doing a movie all in Spanish, and I want you to play a racist devil,’ I will say, ‘You have my hand, sir.'” The role of Sal, the oddball best friend of leading character Max (Keith Poulson, above with Offerman) in Somebody Up There Likes Me, is one that was written specifically for him by the picture’s writer/director Bob Byington, with whom he’d worked on several previous projects. This time, Byington also asked him to help produce, “so I drove a truck full of tools and my wife [actress Megan Mullally] to Texas, and we had a lot of fun.”
The resulting film is an odd but affecting mixture of absurdist humor, dark subject matter, and genuine pathos; it spans 35 years (in five-year increments) but is mostly concentrated on the two men, in a way that makes it, in Poulson’s words, “big and small at the same time, in a way that I really appreciate.” Byington also wrote Poulson’s role with the actor in mind; Offerman says, “I think the two of us and Bob all have a similar smart-ass flavor that he was responding to” when penning the screenplay.
Offerman’s commitment to the project didn’t just end with his nuanced performance, or his role as a “creative producer” — though of the latter, he stresses that co-producer Hans Graffunder handled “the paperwork and the purse strings” (“Without his parental guidance, we would have been eating McDonald’s every day,” Offerman says. “And I do mean to go on record saying that’s a bad thing. I’m totally willing to take them on”). He not only bares his soul for the movie; he bares his backside. I asked if he had any hesitation about taking the step into celebrity nudity.
“The short answer is, no, I don’t give a shit,” he said, with a grin. “I love performing — and I’m not an exhibitionist, I’m not a Kardashian, by any stretch. And I’m not built in the way that people regularly ask me to bare myself. But when things call for it, I’ve done it on stage, I’ve done it on screen… I enjoy the beauty of nature.” The birthday suit moment wasn’t in the script; Offerman did it to put co-star Jess Weixler at ease before her nude scene. “Apparently somebody started rolling a camera,” he explains, “and it ended up in the film.”
The scene will probably get a little more attention now that Offerman has become a TV icon. He says he’s lucky to have already been through this once, when Mullally’s supporting character of Karen became a scene-stealing sensation on Will and Grace: “She is such an old-school professional, and such a classy, golden-age actress in the way she deals with the business,” he says. He recalls an occasion where she was appearing on Letterman, they were running late, “and I was just beside myself — We can’t be late for Dave, this is insane. And we pulled up to the building and got out, and there was a handful of people who wanted her autograph, and she stopped to sign the autographs. And I’m fuming: We’re already late for Dave! What are you thinking? And we got inside, and I said, I’m very upset, why did you sign those autographs? And she said, if it wasn’t for the fans that want your autographs, you’re not ever gonna be on Letterman. Don’t forget, what gives you this cool job is the people that watch the show and love it. And I was absolutely thunderstruck — I was like, You are a wise person, and I’m an ignorant hothead.”
As the character of Ron Swanson has become more detailed and defined, fans of the show have made something of a parlor game out of guessing how much of Offerman’s own personality has seeped into the character — for example, both Mr. Offerman and Mr. Swanson are skilled woodworkers. “It’s interesting, for some reason the fans really want me to be, exactly, Ron Swanson,” he says. “But Ron is a fictional character who has certain superhuman abilities, especially when it comes to consuming meat and alcohol. Unfortunately, I live in the realm of biology and I can accumulate cholesterol, so I have to be a little more diet-conscious than Ron. I think I’m just generally a lot more girly than Ron Swanson. I mince about and giggle, I think, a lot more than Ron does… [the role] really plays on a certain aspect of my personality, but I have a lot of other facets. I could play a drag queen in a film, Ron never could. So I guess I’m a much more complex person than Ron.”
Somebody Up There Likes Me premiered Sunday at SXSW; 21 Jump Street and Casa de mi Padre are in theaters this Friday. And if you missed it, here’s our interview with Nick’s Parks and Rec castmate Aubrey Plaza, also in Austin for the festival.