‘Mascots’: Fred Willard on Working with Christopher Guest for the Netflix Mockumentary

     October 20, 2016

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From director/co-writer Christopher Guest (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman), the comedy Mascots takes place in the ultra-competitive world of sports mascots, where men and women put on furry suits or inhabit unusual characters and compete to win the World Mascot Association’s prestigious Golden Fluffy. These individuals who dedicate their lives to being a mascot will stop at nothing to be the best.

At the film’s press day, actor Fred Willard (who plays the mascot coach for Jack the Plumber) talked about how Christopher Guest reached out to him, that he immediately took to his particular style of filmmaking, being responsible for all of his own lines, hoping what he contributes pays off and doesn’t end up on the cutting room floor, and working with such talented actors whom he’s also a fan of.

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Image via Netflix

Collider: It’s been awhile since the last Christopher Guest movie. How did you find out that this was going to happen and how much time did you have to figure out what you wanted to do with this character?

FRED WILLARD: It wasn’t too long. He usually calls, and when he calls, I know that he’s not asking for a favor. He said, “Hi, Fred, how are you? We’re doing this movie.” And I said, “Oh, is that good news for me?” And then, he told me what it was about and he told me my about my character. Then, you go down and meet with him at his office and he gets into it a little fuller. And then, they sent you a 30-page script and he discusses your character. Then, you think about it. I usually call him and ask who’s going to be playing the other characters. I like to know who I’m going to be working with, so that I can think about them.

Does his style and approach to filmmaking get easier, the more you do it?

WILLARD: Oh, I just took to it immediately! I got exactly what he was doing. The first time I worked with him was in Spinal Tap. I didn’t know him so much, but I knew Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. I’d seen a little bit of the movie they’d done, as a selling card, and I was just knocked out. When they told me it was improvised, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed like such a real documentary. So, I felt at ease in it, right away, if you just act naturally and do what your character would do. And then, with Waiting for Guffman, I just fell into it immediately. I love his style.

What do you most enjoy about working the Christopher Guest way?

WILLARD: There’s good and bad things about it. The bad thing is that you don’t have a script that you can sit and memorize. I like to do a lot of homework. If you get nervous, you can sit down and memorize your lines. But with this, the good part is that you create your own character. You can’t say, “I wouldn’t say that line,” ‘cause you would. If you say it, you say it. You just have to stay true to your character.

Once you had some time to think about your character, were there things you specifically wanted to bring to him?

WILLARD: Yeah, I had his whole background planned out, with where he came from, what he was doing, and why he acted the way that he did. He had some concussion issues as a mascot, when he was in his younger days, so he kept bringing up the same line, over and over again. You’ve gotta come in prepared. Some people can just go in and make something up, but it’s never as good. You’ve gotta be in the context of the movie, so you’re not suddenly talking about your wife when they’ve already mentioned that you’re a single guy.

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Image via Netflix

Is it daunting and terrifying to be responsible for anything that comes out of your mouth, in these films?

WILLARD: Oh, yeah! You hope it pays off and you hope you keep the story going. I’ve done things on stage with groups that have been working together, and it goes so fast. But it’s a different thing, in a movie. You’re just trying to move the plot forward. You really can’t go too wrong. If you go off on a long thing, he’ll come in and say, “Let’s start over again. Obviously, we can’t do that.” But other than that, he’s a very easy director. You do it, and then maybe you’ll do a second take, just to move the camera around. If you say, “Chris, can I try something else?,” he’ll say, “Oh, okay.” He shoots 120 or 130 hours, because the cameras keep rolling, and then he cuts it down to 85 or 86 minutes, which is a good length for a movie.

Are you ever disappointed when you have bits that are cut out?

WILLARD: Oh, yeah! But, it’s happened to everyone.

You guys have all worked together for a long time, but is it fun to never know who you’re going to get paired up with, for one of these films?

WILLARD: I’ve been fans of so many of these guys, for a long time. Bob Balaban is so perfect that the first movie I did with him, I couldn’t talk to him because I was so intimidated by him. It was the movie where he was the producer of the show, and his character didn’t seem to like me. I remember him from Seinfeld, when he was the head of NBC. We’ve since become very good friends. He’s a wonderful guy to improvise with. He’s funny, but he just keeps moving. He’s the perfect straight guy, but he’s very humorous. And they’re all like that. It’s just a pleasure to work with them. You’re all in the same boat together.

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Image via Netflix

In doing research for Mascots, what most surprised you?

WILLARD: It’s a thankless job, but people do it. It’s like being the manager of a college basketball team. It sounds like an important thing, but you’re not the coach, you’re the manager, so you’re in charge of the towels, the basketballs and the schedule. I guess if you’re a professional mascot, you’re doing it for the money, but a college mascot just wants to be out there. If you’re a cheerleader, people see you. If you’re a mascot, you’re just helping out. I’m sure there’s a big competition in college for who will be the mascot, so if you win the job, you’re very proud and you’re going to be the best mascot. When you think about accountants, who would want to be an accountant? But, what would we do without accountants? Whether it’s soldiers, or garbage men, or doctors, everyone has the thing that they love.

I personally loved the scene you had with the little person that you were acting opposite, and the exchanges that the two of you had. How was that to shoot?

WILLARD: I was told about what we were going to do, and then we did it. I thought up some funny things, and then I tried to play it like he was just really amazed at this little guy. I was interested in him because I needed someone for my plumber’s sketch. That’s how I played it. It wasn’t a stand-out scene, at the time. I played it not making fun of the guy, but like my character was clueless. That’s what made it so funny. And he seemed brighter than me. He was very patient and listened to me. It got a nice response at one of the screenings I was at, so that was nice.

Mascots is available at Netflix.

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