“’30 Rock’ Was a Writers’ Show”: Judah Friedlander on Frank Rossitano, ‘American Splendor,’ and the ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ Prequel

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It frankly struck me as a little odd that the makers of Ping Pong Summer were sending out Judah Friedlander — the eccentric standup and co-star of 30 Rock, American Splendor, and many more fine films and television shows — to promote the movie, since one of my few real complaints about the sweet ‘80s nostalgia comedy is that there’s not enough of him in it. Then again, Friedlander has established himself as something of a comedy gunslinger; he comes in to a project like this, does a quick, funny, weird bit, and gets out. “I do enjoy that,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “I’ve probably done about 25 or so movies, and I do like just coming in and going for it and doing it, you know.”

Flavorwire: So how did you get involved in Ping Pong Summer?

Judah Friedlander: This was kinda different, this one. The movie was pretty much already cast, and I play competitive ping-pong, I’m an advocate for the sport — I actually got to know Susan Sarandon through table tennis. Susan is one of the owners of SPiN, which is a popular ping-pong club in New York City… So I found out about the movie through one of the owners of SPiN, Jonathan [Bricklin], who’s friends with Susan, and he was telling me about Ping Pong Summer, this movie, and I’m like “Great title. Sounds cool. I’d love to do something in that.” So one of the owners was like, “You’ve gotta meet the director.” I met him there, and turns out the director’s from Maryland, which is where I grew up and was living when I was in high school.

So I was like, “Wow, this is even a cooler coincidence, there’s a movie about ping-pong and it’s taking place in Maryland.” So, I played ping-pong with the director, and I beat him, and basically I said, “Hey, if I beat you, you give me a part in the movie!” No, that’s not what happened. We were just talking and stuff and he was like, “Well, we’re already cast pretty much, but I’ll just try to find something for ya.” And I think the scene was just one line, and then I said, “Dude, I don’t care. I’ll do it. I’ll go down to Ocean City for a day, take it easy…” and then the scene was pretty much improvised. So it was fun.

Although you don’t share any scenes with her here, this is your second time working with Susan Sarandon. You worked much more closely during her arc on 30 Rock. What was that experience like for you?

I actually met her through ping-pong before I met her on 30 Rock. She’s a really great person. You know, a big supporter of the arts and human rights, and a fantastic actor. So it was great working with her. And on 30 Rock, it was fun working with her because… because she is who she is, I think they gave her a little more freedom. It’s almost like, “Play it how you want.” And then since I’m in scenes with her, that sort of gives me more freedom too.

You played Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock. How much of that character was already there on the page, and how much of it came from you and the comic persona that you created on stage?

Well, you know, it’s a mix. I would say most of it is from the writing, and so the other parts, the additional, extra little spices are stuff that I brought to it. Very little I think came from my standup persona. My standup persona, while there are some similarities, is actually a lot different. When I first auditioned for it, I knew what they were going for, and I knew one of the guys it was based on… The guy I was playing came from more of a standup background, and kind of like a blue-collar Queens or Jersey background. So that’s really what anchored it for me.

The hat stuff is certainly stuff I brought in, that was all me. The character was not supposed to be wearing glasses or a hat. But you know, before doing 30 Rock I’d done lots of movies, and in a lot of those I completely changed my appearance as well as the way I talked. So when 30 Rock came around – and I love acting, but standup is my main thing – you know, when you do a movie, I’m totally fine with completely changing my look and everything about me, you know, being a chameleon and becoming someone else, I don’t mind doing that for a few weeks, or a few months. But when you sign a TV contract, you sign a TV contract for six years, eight or nine months out of each year.

So when I was doing this show, I told them, “I’ve gotta look like me.” I’m still doing standup all the time, and my look is very particular to my standup act. It’s all interconnected… Things that I brought to it were really established more in the first and second seasons, and then as the show progressed, the writing and the script just got tighter and tighter and tighter. And there really wasn’t a lot of room for improvising around. Like I said, the writers are great, and as the show progressed, the scripts got more in-depth. And so there really wasn’t room for improvisation starting in like Season 3 and later, because if you ad-libbed a line it would actually – it would mess up the line that follows it in a different scene. It was all just so tightly intertwined with jokes and plot.

I’d imagine after a couple of seasons, they were starting to write for you, and what they knew you could do.

Yes and no. Actually, there were many times where I disagreed or didn’t initially consider the angle that they were going [for] with the character. Frank really changed a lot over the years. Frank started out as this real strong guy with a strong base, you know, he’s blue-collar Sleazy Frank. But if you look at his episodes over the years, Frank turned gay for one episode. When Liz Lemon had to leave the office and then Frank was in charge of the writers, he started sort of like morphing into Liz Lemon. Almost like he had no backbone, or no sense of self. And then there was that one episode where Frank wanted to become a lawyer and be like Alec Baldwin and just become a corporate lawyer with the copyrighting business, where I shaved my hair and got all corporate and stuff.

So Frank was really… and you know this is all coming from the writers, and I loved doing it ‘cause I loved when they let my character do different things. But it’s almost like Frank… [is] wearing all these things and saying all this stuff to hide who he really is, because he doesn’t really know who he is. And that’s kind of how I looked at it for a while. And again, that’s all coming from the writers. Because sometimes I’d read the script and be like, “Wow, I can’t believe Frank is saying this,” you know? But as an actor, you find a way to believe that — why Frank would be saying this. 30 Rock was a writers’ show. Great actors, but it’s a writers’ show first.

For a lot of moviegoers, our first real awareness of you came in American Splendor, and that’s such a terrific performance — playing someone who was also in the film. In making that movie, how did you find the balance between creating a character and playing a real person who is, like, right there?

Yeah, it was nerve-wracking and challenging, which is good.

I had some videotapes of Toby Radloff, the guy I played. I studied that and studied it and studied it, and just worked on perfecting it. I wasn’t able to talk to [Toby] on the phone or meet him until the night before we started filming. And that was great, ‘cause he basically gave me his entire life story. So that really helped me with understanding the inner psychology of the character. Like, I didn’t know that Toby was gay. Toby was gay, he’s out now, but at the time he was only out to close friends, when we filmed it. In American Splendor, Toby’s character was not out at that time. He knew he was gay, but he was not out. So Toby told me about how he was picked on a lot, and some guys found out he was gay and beat the shit out of him when he was in high school. So this is all stuff I just keep within me. I don’t know if any of it translates to screen, but it really helps me just giving the performance.

Paul Giamatti and I, we shared a trailer on that movie, so we were basically roommates for a few weeks. And he’s fantastic. I mean, Paul’s amazing. But I remember we’re doing this movie (laughs) – it was very tough, very draining. You know, it’s such hard work not looking like yourself, not talking like yourself, not walking like yourself, and you’re doing that all day every day, more than 12 hours a day, and it wears on you after a while. And then, you know, about three-quarters of the way through the movie, or halfway through the movie, we had a scene where we’re in the same scene with the real people that we’re playing. And we’re like, “This is either gonna work, or it’s gonna be a disaster.” And I don’t think that had ever really been done before, so it was something new.

You know, a lot of times to do something really great, you have to go where things are uncomfortable, things that make you nervous, things that you haven’t done before. And that’s kind of what we were doing. And that’s all – it was the directors that put us there. And that scene wound up, to me, [being] one of the most important scenes in the whole movie. It really kind of makes the movie. And really helps our performances, and adds nuance to our performances, that people could actually see the real people.

Did you stay in touch with Toby after making the movie?

Yeah, I still see him about once every year or two. I tour doing standup a lot. I do shows in [New York City] almost every night, I go on the road a lot too. And I go to Cleveland about once every year or two, and me and Toby always meet up and hang out.

One of your first film roles was as Ron von Kleinstein in Wet Hot American Summer. Word is that there may be a prequel series to that film on Netflix — if so, will you be involved?

You know, I’ve heard rumors. I’ve been hearing rumors for a long time. I don’t know if they’re true, but my fingers are still crossed. So I certainly hope so. If that happens, I would do that in a second. That was a lot of fun to make. That was another movie that was hard to make! It rained – I was only there a day or two – but that movie, it was pouring rain something like 26 out of 28 days they were filming. And you can’t notice it when you watch it. But that was a lot of fun too.

Those guys are very good, [Michael] Showalter and [David] Wain. Those guys really know what they want, they have a very specific style, I would love to work with those guys again. That’d be great. And Molly [Shannon] is one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. Besides being like flat-out hilarious, she’s one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet. She’s great.

Well, I hope it happens. We’d love find out how Ron and Gale became an item.

That’d be great! Yeah, I’ve heard some little rumblings here and there, just from people talking and stuff. That would be amazing.

Ping Pong Summer is out now in limited release and on demand.