From writer/director Michael Rosenbaum, Back in the Day is a raunchy comedy with heart that tells the story of Jim Owens (Rosenbaum), an aspiring actor in Hollywood who decides to go back home to Indiana for his high school reunion. Reliving the glory days with his now-married friends, he encounters an old flame (Morena Baccarin) and wonders what could have been, had he chosen a different path in life.
At the film’s press day, actor/comedian Nick Swardson (who plays town local Ron Freeman) spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he got involved with this film, how much his character evolved, what he looks for in a script, and what it was like to work with Michael Rosenbaum, as a director. He also talked about his work on FX’s animated series Chozen, just how crazy the hard-R stop-motion animated film Hell & Back will be, the outrageous animated series he’s developing, why he likes to be so involved with the projects he’s doing, how he realized that he could make a career in comedy, and his worst stand-up experiences. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
NICK SWARDSON: I knew Michael [Rosenbaum]. I’ve known Michael for seven or eight years. He basically just called me up and said, “Hey, man, I’ve got this little film. We’ve got no money. We’re shooting in Indiana. I’m just trying to get my friends together, and you’d be really funny for this part.” I read it and I really liked the part, but I was like, “Michael, this guy is 45 years old. I’m 35. I can’t play 45.” He was like, “No, it’s fine. It will work, either way. We don’t have to say his age.” So, I was like, “All right.” I really liked the role, and I wanted to help Michael out, too. I only had to shoot for 10 days in Indiana. And it was a departure for me, as a role, because there were dramatic elements. It wasn’t me having to be wacky and crazy. It was understated. It was just something I really wanted to do.
How much of what we see of him was what was originally in the script, and how much evolved since the first time you read it? Did it change a lot?
SWARDSON: Yeah, it did. Casting me, I improvise a lot. I always have, in everything I’ve done. Reno 911! was all improvised. So, he was really good about being like, “Okay, get the line from the script, and then do whatever you want.” I added a lot to it. We collaborated on him, wardrobe wise. I wanted to walk the line of improvising, but not being jokey. I wanted to stay true to the character and not make him a goofball. I wanted to ground him, and slip in moments that were funny, but organic.
When you read a comedy script, is it important to you that it actually make you laugh?
SWARDSON: Yeah. It’s a lot about who’s behind the movie, too. Who’s producing it and who the lead is, is a big part of it. If I read a script and it’s decent on the page, and my character is a funny character and it’s something I could bring a lot to, I would do it. It’s rare that I’ve read a script where I’m like, “Oh, my god, it’s hilarious!” All you want is a good skeleton and good characters. Then, you can go, “Okay, I can bring a lot to this. I can improvise and I can create something out of this.”
How was it to do the wiffle ball scene where you’re playing ball with one hand and holding a Big Gulp with the other?
SWARDSON: I’ve played sports my whole life, so it wasn’t too jarring. It was a little tricky. The only thing was that I had to let go of the bat, and I almost hit the two guys in the face. It was hard to throw it and not hurt somebody. That was a fun scene to shoot. It was a little chaotic for Michael ‘cause there were so many people and it was so many shots and it started to rain. He was in panic mode. It was funny.
Your character also has quite an interesting love story. What was that like to do?
SWARDSON: I love that arc. I thought it was really cool. The sex scene that we had was very bizarre. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever shot, and I’ve shot a lot of crazy stuff. Logistically, in the car, I was trying to move my knees around. She was all precarious. She had put in eye drops and burned her eyes, so she was screaming. It was such a mess. You wanted to stay in there and be real and in the moment and commit, but physically, I was like, “Michael, I fucking have two more takes!” My knees hurt so bad, and her mascara was running. It was so funny. But, I love that scene.
What kind of a dad do you think Freeman would be, if he actually ended up responsible for her kids?
SWARDSON: I don’t know. I go back and forth with that. He’s one of those guys where he could find redemption and realize that this is what he needs in his life. He has a future and a purpose. Then again, he could feel like that for just two years, and then bail. But, I think he’d be a pretty decent dad.
How was it to work with Michael Rosenbaum, as a director?
SWARDSON: It was pretty painless. He was just so glad that everybody was there. We didn’t make any money. We grinded it out. On set, we had a trailer with five guys. Nobody would ever want five guys in one trailer. That’s fucking crazy! He was just so appreciative, and he was so excited. He couldn’t believe he was making this movie. You always get scared that funding is going to fall through. He was really cool. He knows all of us and he knows what we can do. He respects us, so he was like, “Do your thing.” He did a great job. Being an actor, he was really actor friendly. We had a good time. He was just so busy. I felt bad for him, a handful of times. I was like, “God, this dude is so slammed.”
How much fun is it to be involved with Chozen? Do you feel like you can get away with more in comedy when you’re doing animation?
SWARDSON: Yeah, 100%. It’s not even a question. You can get away with so much. I’ve developed animated shows and you can get away with a lot. I’m developing an animated show right now. Chozen is not mine. It’s Danny McBride’s. But, I’m excited to do animation. With Chozen, I would read these scripts and just be like, “Oh, my god!” FX is great, too. I’m developing an actual pilot with them, that’s not animation, and they’re pretty crazy. They really want to push it, but also ground it. I’ve worked with Comedy Central for so long, and this is my first time not working with them, so it’s been interesting to see how FX works. It’s cool. I have no problems being crazy.
SWARDSON: That was great. My buddy, who directed it, called me up and showed me the model of what they were doing, and it was pretty awesome. It’s stop-motion, and it’s a hard R. We just said the craziest shit. I got Danny [McBride] involved in it. It was fun. We would record, and there was no filter. We were so crazy. It was funny seeing these characters, that you would grow up seeing on kids’ cartoons and Christmas specials, and it’s just this filthy, crazy movie. We’re almost done with that. That’s going to wrap up soon. It’s really cool. Wait until you see it. It’s really impressive. It’s pretty awesome.
What character did you voice for that?
SWARDSON: Me and T.J. Miller are the leads. We play these carnival workers, and our carnival is getting shut down. We make an oath on some demon book, as a goof, and then one of our friends gets sucked into hell and we have to go find him. We’re in the depths of hell with all these demons and this whole world, trying to get our buddy back.
Do you find it challenging to do comedy where you only have your voice and not any of the other physicality?
SWARDSON: Yeah. It’s definitely something you have to get used to. At first, it’s weird. I’m used to it now. A lot of the times, they’ll put stills up around you, so that you can see the characters. That helps a little bit. But, it’s weird when you’re playing off of somebody who’s not there.
What’s the animated series that you’re developing?
SWARDSON: It’s in the early stages. I just attached a writer. It’s really bizarre. My schedule is crazy right now, so we’re setting up meetings at Fox Animation and a couple of places. We’ll see what happens. It’s just an idea that I’ve had for awhile. I couldn’t do it on my own because I’m over-extended, but I was able to attached a writer who got it, right away. Basically, the gist of it is that this old Southern couple, who’s right-wing and hardcore Christian, retires and buys a small restaurant/bar down South. It turns out that it used to be a down-low gay bar, and it’s haunted by gay ghosts. So, this hardcore Christian couple has put all of this money into this place, and they have to deal with these gay ghosts. And they can’t sell the place, so they just have to deal with these gay ghosts while they’re opening up this restaurant/bar. It’s super out there, but it could be funny.
SWARDSON: Yeah. It started with my stand-up, but I’ve always wanted control of everything I do. I always write and create. I’m never not creating. I’m always creating a show, every year, whether it gets picked up or not. I always sell a pilot or an idea. I like to be in control. I love to write, so it’s important. I like to be hands-on.
When it comes to comedy, are you up for anything? Is there anything you wouldn’t do, if it would get a laugh?
SWARDSON: I’ll do anything. There’s nothing I won’t do, as long as it’s funny and it makes sense, and it’s not just shock value for the sake of shock value. I did this movie called A Haunted House, with Marlon Wayans and Cedric the Entertainer, that came out last year. Marlon pulled me aside, for this one scene, and he was like, “Hey, man, will you be totally naked in this scene? Will you lose your clothes? It would be really funny with that infrared camera. Your character is trying to find my character to sleep with him.” I was like, “Really?!” And he was like, “Dude, I’m telling you, I think it would be really funny.” And I was like, “Yeah, I guess that would be pretty funny.” So, I just took off all my clothes and was completely naked. I was like, “You’re not gonna show my dick, so my mom might see it?” And he said, “No, I promise. We’ll make sure to frame it.” I just did it. I was on set completely naked, and it was so bizarre, but it worked. When we were at the premiere, it killed. It was great. So, I’ll do anything, as long as it’s funny.
How did you find out that you’re funny?
SWARDSON: I was just always silly. I’m just a goofy dude. And I was really small, so it was a means of survival. I went to an inner-city school and I was a small kid, so it was just trying to get by. Once you realize you can make people laugh, it’s a superpower. When you’re really young, you don’t know how to use that power, so I would just say the meanest things I could to get a laugh. I was so awful. I would make fun of kids who didn’t deserve to get made fun of. I was just mean, when I was really young. You don’t realize that you don’t have to be mean to be funny. But, it was something that I was just able to grow into.
SWARDSON: I had to go to rehab in high school. I was a drug addict. I got addicted to drugs when I was 15 and got expelled from high school four times, and I had to go to court-ordered rehab when I was 16. I wasn’t a stupid kid, so they let me back into the school, but my grades were so bad. I needed to get an A, so I took theater. I was in this theater class, and we were writing sketches and plays. We wrote a play and performed it in front of our school. It was a tough school. All the other plays were getting booed. And we did our play, and I played this character that was super wacky and big, and it just destroyed. The whole theater erupted. And my teacher was like, “You’ve got something here. You have the power to do what you just did.” That was the first switch that clicked. And then, I got into improv through my high school. The main thing was when I graduated high school and didn’t go to college and my improv company folded. I was trying to find an outlet to do comedy, so I went and did an open mic. I did three minutes of stand-up that I threw together, and it went great. The first time was fucking amazing. You usually hear horror stories, but it went great. It was Minnesota, so the crowd was also really nice. And the club owner came up to me and was like, “Holy fuck, you have to come back.” They made me the house M.C., and the rest was history.
Have you had any horrible stand-up experiences?
SWARDSON: I was always pretty good at adapting to my situations. My act was never that inside, where it was like, “Okay, they’re either going to get this or they’re not.” I was always pretty broad. I’ve had a couple bad experiences. When I first went to New York, I would get booed off. I didn’t swear, at the time. I was really adamant about being clean, which as a Def Jam show, it’s really hard to get the crowd on your side. One time, I showed up late for a gig in Brooklyn at an Italian restaurant. I ran on stage, did my show, and then some guy in the audience threatened to kill me because he didn’t like my joke. Instead of talking to him, I just ran off stage. And then, because I was late, the owner of the restaurant threatened to kill me. And I was 19 years old and so scared that I almost started crying. But, I’ve done every gig you can imagine, in every state.
SWARDSON: It’s a skill, but it’s also a weird thing that only certain people can do. I always equate it to surgeons and how they can just cut people open and operate. Certain people are just wired differently, and I feel like comics are the same way. A lot of people come up to me and are like, “Hey, man, in my office, I’m hilarious. Should I do stand up?” And I’m like, “No, just be the funny guy at the fucking office. Why do you have to be on stage? What are you gonna say? Are you gonna talk about Jim in accounting? No one’s gonna know what the fuck you’re talking about?”
Do you think it’s because everyone thinks they can be a comedian that comedies and comedic performances that they’re not recognized the way they should be at awards season?
SWARDSON: Comedy is just so subjective. With drama and awards season shit, if there’s a great script, it’s shot great and the acting is great, you get that when you see it. But with comedy, people can see it so many different ways. With drama, you can too, but comedy is just so extreme. I have people who love me and worship me, but then I’ll get Tweets from people that say, “Fucking die!” It’s bizarre. With comedy films, it’s weird. Critics never tend to like them. To me, Dumb and Dumber should get 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. It shouldn’t get 40%.
Back in the Day is now playing in theaters and on VOD.