The new FX comedy Wilfred is equal parts crazy, hilarious, crude and brilliant. The half-hour, live-action series, adapted from the Australian series of the same name, follows Ryan (Elijah Wood), a young man struggling unsuccessfully to make his way in the world until he forms a unique friendship with Wilfred (Jason Gann), his neighbor’s canine pet. While everyone else, including his owner Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), sees Wilfred as just a dog, Ryan sees a surly, yet irrepressibly brave and honest Australian bloke in a cheap dog suit. As Wilfred, the dog, shows Ryan, the man, how to overcome his fears and joyfully embrace the unpredictability and insanity of the world around him, the two develop an unlikely friendship that gives new meaning to “man’s best friend.”
During an exclusive interview with Collider to promote the TV series, Jason Gann, who co-created and starred in the Australian series, and who is also co-executive producer on the American version, talked about how the concept for Wilfred started as a conversation that turned into a short film and then become a television show, being convinced to put the Wilfred suit back on, getting the opportunity to expand the world by doing almost as many episodes in Season 1 as the Australian series had in its entirety, how much fun he’s had working with Elijah Wood, a rather funny run-in he had with two Australian teenagers while he was shooting in costume in Venice, and how he’d also like to branch out and do some drama work as well. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
JASON GANN: It started as a conversation. The original pitch for the short film was that it would be a conversation between two blokes, one of whom happens to be a dog. It was based on a story of a real dog that was threatening to his owner’s date. I just started improvising as this dog, and it was really, really funny. I was just articulating dog issues or dog-related angles, in a human voice. I’d actually had a strong theatrical background and I had done a lot of children’s theater and I had played a lot of animals in suits. I always found it really funny when actors would come offstage, smoking cigarettes and swearing at each other. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would swear and go off at Santa. I’d always thought it was really funny, seeing people in suits swearing and doing that sort of stuff. That, in itself, isn’t totally original, but this character was original and the voice was original.
And then, it was like, “How do we do this? Is it animation?” I was like, “No, I think we should just get a really bad dog suit.” And, I don’t do any doggy acting. I won’t scratch behind my ears. The moment I do any puppy dog acting, I think the joke is dead. It’s in the truth of how I play it, and the real painful honesty that I approach my performance with. That fights against the traditional image of what you think of someone in a dog suit. When I used to be in those kid shows, the kids would just totally engage in the magic of it. They would totally believe that you were an Emu, even if you had a beak on the top of your head and you had eyes, a nose and a mouth underneath it. It was like, “How do these kids believe this?” I’m fascinated in the children within adults. I’m surprised by how it isn’t that massive a step for people to totally believe in Wilfred and feel for Wilfred. With the Australian version, the fans are just so loyal and they love Wilfred. To them, he’s a real dog. They don’t even question that it’s me, in a suit.
GANN: Yeah. Sometimes girls would come in and audition and they’d talk down, and it was like, “No, no, talk to the human eye level.” There’s a surreal-ness to the show. When Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann) asks if Ryan (Elijah Wood) can babysit her dog, she has a bag and she says, “Here’s some of his toys,” and one of those toys is a bong. When he pulls the bong out, it’s packed and he’s lighting it. She clearly probably hasn’t packed a bong for her dog, but that’s where we’re screwing with conventions and reality, and stuff like that. Humans will still look at Wilfred in the eye. They just accept it.
Since some of the responses Wilfred has seem so spot-on, have you spent much time watching dogs or wondering how they would actually respond, if they could speak?
GANN: An ex-girlfriend used to say to me, “You’ve got to do a show one day where you’re putting voices to animals,” because whenever there was a dog down the street that was running around, I was putting a voice to it. For Wilfred in particular, I drew on a few times that I’d seen some dogs that were real people dogs. They don’t hang around other dogs much, they think they’re people, and they’re putridly spoiled. And then, they’ll be in the car and look at the window and see a real dog, catching a frisbee in the park, and you can see the neuroses in their eyes as they’re confronted with what they really are. They’re like, “It’s got four legs, it’s running around, and it’s got a tail that wags. That looks remarkably similar to what I am, but I’m not one of them. I’m one of you.” They look up at the people like, “I’m one of you, right?” Deep down they know. When an animal looks at itself in the mirror, they’re like, “Woah!,” and they ignore it. They don’t want to deal with that. Wilfred will rarely refer to himself as a dog. He won’t say the word because he doesn’t want to admit that’s what he is, unless it’s convenient and he wants to use the fact that he’s got a heightened sense of smell, to make Ryan feel inferior. Then, it’s convenient and he’s a dog and he embraces it. It’s kind of like me saying that I don’t like being an actor, unless I’m getting laid. Then, I’m proud and I love being an actor.
GANN: No, it just was always like that. It really was. The very first conversation I had with Adam Zwar, who co-wrote it with me in Australia, I said that he’d have a bong and this gruff voice and he’d smoke cigarettes. That’s how it was, even in the short film. People would come up to me and say, “He should scratch behind his ear.” And I was like, “No, if he thinks he’s human, he’s not going to embrace doggy type things.” The costume had to be dowdy and drab as well.
Were you surprised that FX wanted to do the show for America, or was it something you were actively looking to do?
GANN: There was interest in the format in America, and it looked like there was a good chance of them making an American version. I was approached by the executive producers and they said, “We think you should play the role again.” I said, “No, I’m not getting in that suit again.” I was going to come out with another show here. And, they convinced me. They catered to my ego, for a start, and said, “No one else could play it.” That was a good start. And then, they said, “This could be your Mork & Mindy.” The Mork character was an alien. It wasn’t human. It was a stand-out character. I said, “If you do this, even if the show is not a hit, everyone is going to remember the guy who played the dog. So, if you can sell it, I’ll do it.” I was not expecting it to sell, but now a deal is a deal and here I am.
Are you as involved with this version of the show?
GANN: Yeah, I’m as involved. It’s different in that, in Australia, there were two writers and here we’ve got eight. That’s fantastic. I really wanted to work in the American industry because it’s the leading industry. It’s where film and television started. I’m loving every minute of it. I’m learning a lot. The writer’s room is a really interesting place to be. I want to continue to make shows here and have a successful career here.
GANN: We did 16 in its entirety, in Australia. We’re doing 13 in Season 1, here. Because of that, we’ve stretched the world out and expanded the world. The Australian version was kind of claustrophobic and there were three characters. Here, we’ve got some extra characters and guest roles. (Writer) David [Zuckerman] has done a great job of opening up the world more. And, the pilot actually starts before. It’s a different show and a different story to the Australian version. Wilfred is introduced earlier than what we had done. It’s almost like a prequel of how they might have met.
What’s it like to work opposite Elijah Wood and have him reacting to you?
GANN: It’s a lot of fun, working off Elijah. He really is a tremendous actor. His experience in film really comes through. I’ve always been fairly confident in my acting. I had a good theater career for years. I played Hamlet when I was 22, and I’ve played some really great roles. I like to think that I can mix it with the best. When I started working with him, it was like, “Dude, I have to be really good here because otherwise he’ll just eat up these scenes.” But, I came to America so that I could work with the best and be the best. Not in a competitive way, but just to be the best I can be and be successful. Working off Elijah certainly brings the best out of me. Wilfred is kind of neurotic and anxious, and he has a fear of abandonment and dissatisfaction of being trapped in this dog’s body, and the moment I put on that suit, that’s exactly how I feel. It’s surprisingly not the acting challenge that people might think it is because I’m pretty miserable when I’m in it.
Have you had any strange responses from people that come across the set when you’re filming on location?
GANN: When we shot in Venice, Elijah and I were at a table, at an outdoor on the beach, and there were these two teenaged Australian girls on their bikes who screamed, “It’s Wilfred! It’s Wilfred!” I was like, “Holy shit!” I thought, “Yeah, that would really mess with your head to be in Hollywood, and then see Wilfred with Elijah Wood.” Not everyone here knows about the show yet. I’ve had some offers from furries – people that want to have sex with dudes in furry suits. I’ve had some interesting requests. There’s some great fans.
GANN: I guess it’s a bit like being in a band, if you think you’ve got an original sound and people say, “What do you sound like?,” and you can’t say what it is because it’s truly original. It’s a dark comedy that I call traumedy. There’s the human trauma, and then the trauma that Wilfred goes through. We really hit some dark human emotions. It’s surreal. It’s about a guy in a dog suit, smoking bongs, and everyone else sees a real dog. That’s the pitch.
Is it difficult to find the balance to make him more likeable, since he always seems to be so unhappy and angry at things?
GANN: Yeah, definitely. It’s a real fine balance, getting that Wilfred character right. It’s in the writing and it’s in the playing. More thought goes into it than people think. It’s a real fine line between having a character that’s sabotaging someone’s life and still have you root for that character, at the same time. I remember when the short film played at Sundance and Wilfred used the “C” word, half-way through. In Australia, you just get the best response. That word doesn’t wash real well in America. At Sundance, the audience just stopped laughing and I could feel this tension in the room. There was animosity for Wilfred and I was like, “Holy shit, this isn’t good.” But then, he won them back over. That was a really good experience because I really got to feel how an audience can love a character. The American version of Wilfred isn’t as tough or as dark, but it’s a different relationship. I like this one better.
Does he continue to encourage Ryan to do bad things, or does he also encourage him to do things that are a bit more positive?
GANN: As soon as you think that you know what he’s doing, that’s when we switch it. There’s no real formula to the way Wilfred acts, but that’s part of his charm. He’s just so instinctive. He may or may not have a bigger agenda. He may just be hungry and in a bad mood and want to get laid, and yet he’s taking Ryan on this complex, emotional, spiritual journey. He may know he’s doing it, and he may not.
Did you ever bring other animals into the Australian series?
GANN: In the Australian series, we started bringing other animals in, but we’re not going to do that yet. This is a new show. The moment you bring in any other animals, it’s really delicate to get right. We want the audience to really understand what the rules of the show are. Until we feel that we’re really ready to go there, we won’t go there. At the moment, we’ve really just got to set up the characters that we’ve got and hope people respond to them.
GANN: The next show that I’m developing, I’m not in. Eventually, I want to be a creative producer that isn’t in things. The acting is more of a secondary thing for me now. I will be in it, if I’m the best man for the job, but it really is about creating characters and shows. I’m much more a writer than an actor. Although I have a great respect for that and I enjoy acting still, it really is about the world that I’m creating. That’s where my future is.
What other kinds of shows would you like to develop?
GANN: I like drama as well. When I played Hamlet, I got one review that said, “This must surely be the funniest Hamlet in history,” but schoolgirls would still cry when he died. I really think that you can extract a lot of comedy out of really dramatic, intense situations. I think that you can make a drama and have it be intensely funny, and vice versa. I want to do different projects and be versatile. I don’t want to get fixed into narrative comedy.
As a writer, is it fun to see other people act out the words that you write?
GANN: Definitely, yeah. And, it’s great to write for actors when you know who they are. I think I prefer it. It’s so much fun when you’re in the editing suite, cutting it together. You just think, “Shit, I wrote this scene when I came home drunk at 3 o’clock in the morning, a year ago, and it was just this crazy idea. Now, it’s shot and it’s a world that exists. It’s not mine anymore. It belongs to the fans.” When I read all the things that they say on all the fan sites, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why I do it. I love making people laugh.
The quote at the beginning of the pilot, that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination, is very striking. Do you think that’s true? Is there one that you strive for, more than the other?
GANN: I just strive for peace. I’ve been insane for a long time. An ex-girlfriend of mine once asked, “Is it true that all comedians are depressed?,” and I said, “Every one I know is.” I just think that shit gets so bad sometimes that you just have to laugh at it. That’s the stage that I’m at. But now, I think the toughest years are hopefully behind me and I’m enjoying life a lot more. It’s good shit.