Comedian Rob Riggle is one of the busiest funnymen working in Hollywood these days. Currently filming 21 Jump Street in New Orleans, he’s also done a voice for the Dr. Seuss story The Lorax (due out in 2012), and he has roles in Everybody Loves Whales, based on a true story about whales trapped under the ice in the Arctic Circle, and Larry Crowne, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. On top of that, he’s the host of the AXE Dirtcathlon, on behalf of AXE shower gel, and he will be doing a football comedy with Adam McKay sometime next year.
During an exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Rob Riggle talked about his journey from Theater and Film major to officer in the Marine Corps to popular comedian, playing the villain in 21 Jump Street and getting to improvise on set with Jonah Hill, how honored he is to be a voice in The Lorax even though his character is morally questionable, how awesome it was to work with Tom Hanks, who was both his co-star and director for Larry Crowne, and how his humor developed out of the need to diffuse situations when he was growing up. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What’s it like to play the villain in a movie like 21 Jump Street? What is that experience like?
ROB RIGGLE: Well, any chance you get to work with Jonah Hill or Channing Tatum is a good experience. It’s a comedy-action film, so no matter what I do, I get to have some fun.
What can you say about the film and how your character fits into the story?
RIGGLE: I can’t say much about it, to be honest with you. I can’t talk about it. I can tell you that I’m making it. I’m in the movie. I really can’t tell you anything else.
What kind of a villain is he? Is he a mustache-twirling villain, or does he think he’s a good guy?
RIGGLE: I don’t know. When I approach villains, unless it’s a drama, I’m a comedian, so I approach most things from a comedic point of view.
Having played some really fun villains, do you enjoy getting to be the guy who mentally tortures people?
RIGGLE: Well, thank goodness, it’s not who I am. It’s definitely fun to play something you’re not, which is always a good time. Who doesn’t want to get to act like a jerk or a douche, every now and then?
What’s it like to be on set with Jonah Hill, who’s known for improvising?
RIGGLE: It’s wonderful ‘cause that’s what I do. I’m an improviser. I came up doing improv at the U.C.B. Theater in New York for seven years. That’s where I started, so improv is what I love. I think that’s how I got the role, to be honest with you. When I went in to audition, Jonah and I started improvising together. We were dying laughing, and it was a blast. And, it’s always nice when you meet another improviser because they know how to play. If somebody doesn’t know how to improvise and you try to improvise with them, it doesn’t work usually. But, if somebody knows what the general rules are to improv and play, then it becomes a lot of fun. We’re having a blast.
When you improvise like that, do you always have the character in mind?
RIGGLE: You never want to just be outrageous for outrageous’ sake ‘cause then it doesn’t work and it’s not believable. You want to be as true to whatever character you’re playing. And then, you act and react as that character would act and react. If that character is a big jerk, then he’s going to act and react like a big jerk.
How has it been to work in New Orleans?
RIGGLE: There’s a very cool energy down here. It’s a lot of fun. It’s real hot, but it’s good. It doesn’t necessarily directly play into what I’m doing on the movie, but it also makes for some late nights too.
Is it fun to be involved with something like 21 Jump Street, where everybody has such an interest in it and you know that audience will be there?
RIGGLE: Yeah, I think so. There’s definitely an element to that and some truth to that. It’s like any project. You show up and you try to do the best you can. You hope it works out, you hope the chemistry is right, and you hope that people are getting what they want.
When you’re doing something like this that has got a different spin because it has new people in it, even though it has a title that people are familiar with, do you think the film will really surprise people who have a certain expectation?
RIGGLE: I hope so. I can’t say for sure because I don’t know what people’s expectations are, but there are fun things in the movie. There’s a lot of comedy and a lot of action, and hopefully some surprises. It will be fun. I’m sure Starsky & Hutch fans or Charlie’s Angels fans felt the same way. You could probably ask that question of any of them, too. I can’t answer for other people’s expectations because I don’t know. I can just tell you what we’re doing, and what we’re doing is having fun. Hopefully, that will translate.
How did you get involved with doing the AXE Dirtcathlon? Did that appeal to you because you can have creative freedom with it?
RIGGLE: Yeah. Axe shower gel is relaunching their brand, so they wanted to do something big and they came up with this web series idea. It’s a half-reality/half-game show, and they asked me to host it. One of the main reasons that I’m involved is because they asked me. I looked at the script and I thought, “Yeah, this looks like fun!” That’s how I’m involved. And then, anything you do on the web, I feel like you do have a little more creative elbow room. There is an element to that.
Had you ever had a secret desire to be a game show host, prior to doing that?
RIGGLE: No, not that there’s anything wrong with it. There are some wonderful game show hosts out there, and I have watched a game show or two in my time. But, right now, I’m an actor and a comedian, and that’s what I like to do.
Is it difficult to find things that keep challenging you, as a comedian, or do these new mediums help give you more creative outlets for your comedy?
RIGGLE: Yeah, it gives you more canvases to paint on. It gives you more venues. But, you still have to create the comedy and the content. It just gives you more opportunities to get it out there.
What’s it like to be a part of a Dr. Seuss movie, doing a voice for The Lorax?
RIGGLE: It’s really an honor. I think they’re doing a great job with it, so I’m very proud to be a part of it. Hopefully, it will be something that my kids and my grandkids get to watch someday.
What are you voicing for it?
RIGGLE: I play O’Hare, a corporate business type guy. He leaves a lot to be desired in the morals category.
Do you enjoy getting to do voice work, or is it difficult, as a comedian, to be alone in a voice booth with no one to react off of?
RIGGLE: Yeah, it’s definitely different. You don’t have anybody to play with or play against, and you don’t have an audience to gauge, but at the same time, you still have to deliver a vocal performance. It really makes you read the script and dive into it and think about everything that’s going on. You really do a scene analysis. You have to go back to your theater school training and actually break down the script and break down the scene, and ask the questions and figure out what the objective is and what’s really going on, and what the emotion is ‘cause you have to bring all of that with your voice. I enjoy it a lot.
Have you gotten to see any of the footage yet?
RIGGLE: I saw a 10 or 15 second clip that had my voice and my character, and it looked awesome.
What’s it like to get to see that brought to life?
RIGGLE: It’s very surreal to see your voice put on this character’s body, and him moving through time and space. It’s surreal, but it’s awesome surreal. It’s not bad surreal, it’s good surreal.
Did you get a chance to see what they had done with Horton Hears a Who?
RIGGLE: I have seen Horton Hears a Who, but I don’t know how it compares to The Lorax because I haven’t seen enough.
Who are you playing in Larry Crowne, and how is your character connected to the story?
RIGGLE: I play one of Tom Hanks’ bosses. I don’t want to give anything away. But, if you go on July 1st to see Larry Crowne, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, it will be a fun time, I promise.
What was Tom Hanks like to work with, both as a co-star and as a director?
RIGGLE: Awesome and awesome. You sit down and you find yourself in a scene with Tom Hanks, and you look around and you’re like, “This is surreal. I can’t believe I’m doing a scene with Tom Hanks. This is actually happening.” He’s a wonderful actor. You really get to see one of the best ever do his craft and do his work, and you get to be part of that. It’s really awesome. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had, as an actor. And then, as a director, having him come over and say, “Oh, that was awesome!,” or give you a pat on the back and say, “That was beautiful! I love how you did that!” That makes you feel like you’re walking on Cloud 9.
It’s just the best feeling in the whole world to have Tom Hanks come over and say you nailed something. And then, to have him collaborate with you was great. He was very collaborative. He’d say, “Hey, do you want to try this? Do you want to try that?” And, you’d try it and he’s say, “Great, try this, but don’t do that.” He was just wonderful. It was everything you’d hope it would be. He’s pretty awesome. He’s really smart and really good, and he knows what he’s doing.
Is the role that you did in Everybody Loves Whales something that’s a bit more serious because of the subject matter?
RIGGLE: I think it’s a feel-good story, but it’s not a comedy. I play this guy from Minnesota, along with James LeGros, and we actually have fun. Our characters are a little more light-hearted in the movie. I enjoyed doing that. It’s a true story. These guys made de-icers and, when these whales were in trouble, they flew up on their own dime, on a whim, and went to the farthest, most northern city in North America and helped save these whales, on their own initiative. It’s fun. It makes for an interesting story.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next, once you finish working on 21 Jump Street?
RIGGLE: Yeah, I have an idea. I don’t know officially. But, there are a couple things that are taking shape, as we speak. I can’t tell you about them because I don’t know if they’re going to happen or not, but if they do, I’ll probably know in the next couple of weeks.
Are you still doing the football comedy with Adam McKay?
RIGGLE: That’s something that’s going to happen later. That will happen next year.
What do you enjoy about working with Adam McKay? What does he bring to comedy?
RIGGLE: Everything. He was a former head writer for Saturday Night Live. He’s an amazing producer, director and writer. He also is a performer. He’s the full package. And, as an improviser, he understands that you can find a lot of good stuff with funny people, if they’re allowed to just play in that character. Everything I’ve ever done with him, he’s always been wonderful, as far as letting me just try something. He knows that, if I get into a character and I lock into that guy, then I can go off a little bit, in character. He encourages that and lets it happen. It’s always a lot of fun. I think he’s a genius.
When did you realize that you were funny?
RIGGLE: Like most comedians, it was a defense mechanism. In junior high school, I didn’t go through puberty when everybody else did. So, all my peers grew and became massive and big and intimidating, and I stayed small and prepubescent. Therefore, I spent a lot of time running for my life, from the big kids who wanted to beat me up, and I had to use humor to diffuse a lot of situations, or at least keep the heat off me. That’s probably where I developed my sense of humor. I have very funny parents. That helps. I was voted Most Humorous in my senior class in high school, and I was a fan of comedy, my whole life. I never got into the horror genre, and action was fine, but I just loved comedy. Any comedy I could get my hands on, I would. I watched Saturday Night Live religiously. I’ve just been a fan of comedy, my whole life.
What made you decide to go from a Bachelor’s Degree in Theater and Film to the Marine Corps, and then to comedy? Had you always wanted to be a comedian, but took a different path to get there?
RIGGLE: I was a Theater and Film major at the University of Kansas. When you graduate as a Theater and Film major, you’re going to be a waiter or a bartender because you don’t walk across the street and say, “I’m here to act now. I want to be in movies.” It doesn’t work like that. But, I had my pilot’s license when I was an undergrad and I got a guaranteed flight contract from the Marine Corps. I went in and took one of their tests and scored high enough on the AQTFAR test, and I scored high enough on it that I got a guaranteed flight contract. So, when I graduated from K.U., I was either going to be a waiter or I was going to try to be Top Gun. At the time, I wanted to go fly, so that’s what I did.
And then, I realized that, once they pinned those wings on me, they got me for eight years. At the time, that seemed like an eternity. And, realistically speaking, I figured that, after doing eight years flying, I probably wouldn’t go try comedy and acting, and that thought scared me to death. So, I stopped flying for the Marines and became a ground officer and finished out my time in the Marines. Actually, my last three years on active duty were in New York City. I would do the Marine Corps during the day, and at night I would go do comedy at the U.C.B. Theater, and I took classes and studied. Eventually, I taught classes, and then I finally caught a couple breaks and was able to make a living.
How did an experience like being in the Marine Corps shape your comedy?
RIGGLE: The Marine Corps didn’t really shape my comedy, at all. They’re two different world. I keep them very separate. But, I have observed people in the Marine Corps and picked up little traits that I’ve incorporated into some characters that I do. I could say that also of life because I also observe people that I do business with or people that I get interviewed by. Anybody that I interact with, I observe and I pull from them and I use them, whether I know it or not, and whether it’s conscious or subconscious.
How would you describe your sense of humor?
RIGGLE: One of the favorite games I play, when I improv or take on a character, is what I like to call arrogant ignorance. That’s the game I enjoy playing most.