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Nick Offerman, deadpan man

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  February 24, 2010 07:33 AM

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One of the secret weapons on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” is Nick Offerman. He plays Ron Swanson, the department head with the withering deadpan, a bushy mustache, a love of breakfast meats, and a secret identity as jazz musician Duke Silver. I spoke to Offerman over the phone from LA, two weeks after he and his wife, “Will & Grace” alum Megan Mullally, had posed naked (with carefully-placed grapes) for New York magazine.

Q. I saw your photo spread.

A. Sorry about that. I hope you weren’t eating lunch.

Q. It was a great idea -- a goof on the more serious flesh pix.

A. I’m very proud of it. It was Megan’s brilliant idea.

Q. You didn’t seem reticent.

A. The short answer is that I come from Chicago theater. We’re trained to lounge about nude festooned with fruit.

Q. You and Megan also appeared together in a classic episode of "Parks and Recreation," in which she played your ex-wife (see clips below). Did you reach a certain point in your relationship where you were comfortable talking about it publicly?

A. We’ve always been very private in regards to more tabloid news sources. It’s only recently that people had any interest in what I had to say about our relationship. But Megan has talked about the two of us for a while. We stick to the pleasantries and the idiosyncrasies that we enjoy.

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Q. Does the sudden interest in you feel strange?

A. One of the great things about being around Megan is that I’ve had a ringside seat to many of these experiences. She handles things really gracefully. All through the “Will & Grace” years, I’d say to myself, Remember how she did that. Because if I hadn’t learned that lesson I would be much more of a clod. I see the way Megan deals with signing autographs and the way she deals with everybody around her, and besides having a kickass wife, I have a mentor in the business.

Q. “Parks and Rec” has already been renewed. But is it frustrating for you that more people don’t watch every week?

A. As long as we get enough numbers to satisfy the parent entity, as long as they let us keep making the show, that’s my main concern. Usually the comedies that I find funny aren't the most popular. I compare more popular shows to the Coca-Cola of TV, while we’re more the Guinness, the sarsaparilla. As long as we are popular enough to stay on the air is all that matters to me.

Q. I liked “Parks and Rec” from the start, but it has gained momentum this season. Is there a noticeable change in energy on the set?

A. I agree with you. I liked the show, but it’s undeniable that there has been a big surge even in the quality in the second season. I have likened it to a sports team, where you throw a bunch of sports stars together and we’ve got to feel each other out and see who's gonna get the assist and who’s gonna get the rebound, and once we have that in place -- which is what happened this fall -- we start scoring points.

I always talk about what an amazing room of writers we have, headed up by [executive producer] Mike Schur. And this is another thing I learned from Megan. She would always say the same thing, and I would say, “Come on, you’re so amazing, and all four actors on ‘Will & Grace’ are such great actors and great clowns,” and she’d say, Yeah, there are a lot of really funny people, but if they don’t have good writing, they’re just out there thumbing their nose.

The combination of we as performers and the writers finding what they find funny about each of us and our characters is what shifted us into high gear.

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Q. Is it different for an actor working in the mockumentary format?

A. Yes and no. The main difference is that sometimes you don’t know where the cameras are, quite. And that’s a wonderful freedom, really. But beyond that, it just feels like we’re shooting a 20 minute film every week.

Q. Do you have to hit fewer marks?

A. There are no marks. One of our guys was working on a film on an off week, and they gave him a mark and he was thrown because he’s gotten so spoiled on our show by being able to freeball it. [“Parks” and “Office” Executive producer]

Greg Daniels really found that particular brand of lightning -- I know Christopher Guest grabbed it, and Ricky Gervais certainly. I’m a huge fan of “The Office,” and Greg continues to explore the humor in the banality and the silences and the lives of these quote unquote normal people.

Personally, I love nothing more than to play scenes in silence. I think it's because I grew up in a Catholic church, and I first learned my sense of humor in performing in silence for my cousins and friends in the church.

Q. A lot of eye acting?

A. A lot of deadpan. Jaw clenching. I was an altar boy, and then I began to do the readings of the gospel, probably in my early teens, and that was the beginning -- I’d have eight guys just rolling in the aisles. And everyone else thought I was delivering a heartfelt performance. It was really fun.

Q. I gather you are a serious furniture builder. Is that still part of your life?

A. Yes, very much. I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and grew up working on my grandparents farm, on which they had corn and beans and pigs. And the men in my family, my grandfathers, my uncles, and my dad, are all these incredible -- and I should say the women as well -- they could be pioneers. They can build anything. My uncle recently was hauling a wagon down the highway, and the tongue broke off the wagon, and he had everything in his truck that he needed, and he pulled over and welded a new tongue on the side of the road. So I come from these really hardy, handy, practical people.

I went into the arts and became an actor and performer. For a lot of my early theater career, I made my living building scenery and props, and somehow when I got to Los Angeles -- I always really felt this quote of Robert Mitchum’s in which he said acting is no job for a man. I understood what he meant, because I grew up as a laborer and suddenly I was going to work and getting makeup put on and reciting dialogue. So I switched to building furniture, so I have a shop that’s very barnlike and so that I can continue to work with my hands and feel like I’m still a part of my family.

I know that I have a lot of pride in my acting work. I understand that there’s a holistic quality to it. I always have called it bringing the medicine to the people, and I find it really satisfying to make people laugh. But its not the same as building a table and watching people eat a meal off it. That’s so much more tangible. It’s all by my hand. Nobody gave me notes on the table or edited it.

Q. Maybe it’s time to come out to your family as an actor.

A. I think I’m ready! I always say jokingly, but there’s truth in the jest, that it keeps me out of the pub. If I were just an actor I’d have all this time to kill, and I’d be pounding pints or something worse. So I make sawdust my vice. 

 

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