The very talented Ben Schwartz says that when it comes to his new Netflix comedy Space Force, the biggest conversation he had with co-creator Greg Daniels was one connected to one of his most well-known roles: “It even happened during the audition — to make sure that this character was not Jean-Ralphio.”
Instead of leaning into his iconic Parks and Recreation persona, as Schwartz explains below, he wanted to find the grounded aspects of F. Tony Scarapiducci, a character clearly originally modeled on infamous short-lived Trump communications director Anthony Scaramucci — just one of the many moving pieces of Space Force, a surprisingly dense Dr. Strangelove-esque take on the real-life, in progress, American effort to return to the cosmos. Tony handles public relations for the initiative led by General Mark Naird (Steve Carell), and never once gets run over by a Lexus.
When I spoke to Schwartz for this interview, America was only dealing with a deadly pandemic, which was still plenty to process. Below, he talks about why he wanted so badly to break into doing voice acting for shows like DuckTales and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the possibility that Jim Carrey could end up being an Oscar contender for his work in Sonic the Hedgehog, and the video games that have been not just keeping him entertained, but connected to others.
To start off, talk to me a little bit about what brought you to Space Force?
I was doing this pilot called The Wrong Mans. It was like an American remake of that James Corden, Matt Baynton show, and sold it. We did it for Showtime, and then it didn’t get picked up. And when it officially got passed on, literally this audition popped up, and it was the first thing I had. I had been developing that show for three years. So it was like the first time I was able to audition for a TV show in three years.
And it was Greg Daniels and Steve Carell to begin with — and if it was just Greg Daniels, I would have done it in a heartbeat. If it was just Steve Carell, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat. And then Malkovich joined, and it’s like a dream project. So I just wanted to be a part of it because I get to learn from all those people.
When you got the initial sides, was it very clear that your character was a riff on Anthony Scaramucci?
Well, the initial sides were just one scene. They didn’t give me the script. So the way that I played it is, because I don’t know very much about the Mooch, I purposely tried not to learn about him. I wanted it to be a character that didn’t feel like it was parodying anybody. So I just made him a person that, in my head, worked as a media manager maybe for like American Apparel, got fired and got this job, which to him is a demotion. And it’s like his last resort to stay in the field that he was doing. So that’s kind of how I played him.
It feels like one of those shows where you show up on set and it’s just a real opportunity to have fun and play.
Yeah, and also I’m in awe of what Greg Daniels had done with The Office and then his help with Parks. And so, what I love about him is that he does these incredible television shows, but then every season of the show, the characters grow more and more, and it’s like peeling away these different layers. And so, I cannot wait to see, if we ever get a second season, what keeps happening, because he puts himself in these wonderful positions to keep growing out these characters.
In terms of Season 2, were there conversations about, “Oh, this is maybe where your character would go if we come back”?
I think those conversations will happen if we can get greenlit. The whole idea is grounding him in reality, making him a real person that has real risks, as opposed to Jean-Ralphio, who slowly becomes a Muppet. This guy is more grounded, and his actions have repercussions, and he really wants to be admired and respected.
Yeah. I feel like that really came out in the episode with Janina Gavankar.
Yeah. That’s a perfect example of how you get to see his failings and who he wants to impress. I think if you went back home with this guy that you would find that he’s a pretty sad guy by himself. And so, I think we’re going to get to explore that more and more, if we get to keep making episodes.
I know it’s weird to be talking about the future right now, with everything that’s going on. The one thing I know you have been doing a lot of already, and what feels like will become what a lot of production is in the next year or so, is animation. To put it in the cheesiest possible terms, what has your journey as a voice actor been like?
So I was obsessed with Disney Afternoon. I was obsessed with Transformers, Turtles. And I was a huge, huge cartoon guy, and also a huge video game guy. When I was young, I didn’t know any actors, I didn’t know this was a job that we could have. But the second I started getting to a place where I could start auditioning for it, I had a V.O. commercial agent, and I was auditioning for like Subway commercials for the radio or something like that. I had a bunch of trouble getting them, and then got one or two, and then started auditioning for television stuff. But it’s very hard to break into it.
And then I finally got a guest role on Tron, which was a Disney show, and they liked me on that. They brought me in for like four or five more shows, and then I got Randy Cunningham: 9th Grade Ninja, and it showed me being the lead voice of a show. And that kind of is what broke me in, because I can then point people to something that I’ve done. Because it’s quite a hard field to get into. It’s pretty competitive.
From there it got a little bit easier, because they did a hundred episodes of that. You get a lot of experience underneath your belt. And then I just went through the ones that I loved. Like Duck Tales, because I couldn’t imagine being one of the nephews in Duck Tales, or playing Leonardo in Turtles, and then Sonic. It’s been so surreal to play the characters that I was obsessed with as a kid. Someone asked me, “What would it be like if you went back in time and told yourself that you do all this?” I literally would be like, “What? What are you talking about? That’s not … ” It wouldn’t even be a thing. I’d first be very curious how time travel works, but then I’d also be like, “What’s happening? What’s going on?” So I feel very lucky.
Are you still getting work now, with things shut down?
Oh, yes. I’ve been sent a microphone with a microphone stand, and I put it in front of a closet with a lot of clothes in it. I have a little rack behind me that I put my comforter on, and I’ve been trying to record television-quality sound for all these different things. And I hope that it works, because if it doesn’t, then I have to do everything all over again for many, many hours.
But yeah, I’ve been doing quite a bit of voiceover, and then anytime I’m on a podcast, I go down to that little area. It’s been nice getting a little bit of work done during this, whether it’s ADR, or whether it’s other different projects.
I feel like when you really know you’ve made it as a voice actor is when you get your own professional booth in your house.
I can’t wait. I don’t think I have a big enough house to have a booth, but if I had a big enough place, it would be so fun.
So this is a random aside, but people have been talking about how, because of release schedules and everything that’s changed, if we had to select our Oscar nominees for this year from just the movies that came out in the first three months of 2020, that makes Sonic the Hedgehog an Oscar contender.
Oh, my goodness. Wouldn’t that be absolutely amazing if Jim Carrey got nominated for Dr. Robotnik for the Oscars? That would make me so happy. What was exciting is that people were able to see it in theaters before digital, which I thought was really exciting, just because I had never been a part of a movie this big before. So the idea that I get to go out and surprise kids or adults in theaters and say hello and talk to them as Sonic, it was great. It was so much fun.
Have you heard conversations about Sonic 2 and where things stand?
I literally have heard that we just haven’t gotten green-lit yet. All I know is they said, “The second we get green-lit, we’ll tell you.” And I have not heard anything yet… And my hope is that we get the opportunity because it did so well, and especially domestically it did so well. So I hope that we get to do it because there’s so much more stuff we can do in that world. And I know Jeff [Fowler] would just be incredible to direct another one. He would just do such a great job.
[Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, a sequel has been greenlit, with Jeff Fowler returning to direct.]
I now just want to do a riff on the question you asked Larry King on Larry King Now, about what a hedgehog sounds like — was it hard finding Sonic’s voice?
I had only played the video games, so I had never heard him speak before, really, outside of a YouTube clip of some of the cartoon shows. But I know like how incredible of a job Roger Craig Smith did, and [Jun’ichi Kanemaru] did, and [Ryan Drummond] did, and all those people who played them.
But when I read the script, I just saw him as like a kid, like a really energetic kid that never was allowed out to do all the things he wanted to do. And now he finally is out meeting friends, doing things, living his life. And I was like, “Oh, if I can bring the idea of the speed and the stuff that I’ve seen him doing in video games that I’ve played, if I bring that out in his voice, like making him talk fast and energetic and exciting and just can’t wait”… That’s kind of how I tackled it. And I think it worked all right, which is exciting.
So what’s keeping you busy right now? What have you been up to right now?
Watching a lot of movies, watching The Larry Sanders Show again, playing a lot of video games. I beat Chrono Trigger again, and I’ve been playing Mario Kart 8. Every weekend, we have something called the Tournament of Champions. So the same 12 people come into the room, and we keep our stats from week to week, and we’re on Season 2, which means we’ve already had a Season 1 winner. And now, the point total comes back to zero. That’s been really nice.
And I’m feeling very, very fortunate that my family and the people that I love are healthy right now. I’m just trying to help, doing as much charity stuff as I can, trying to do anything… It’s so unknown what happens next. The bouts of anxiety balanced with trying to do your best — like, I was really happy that the Middleditch and Schwartz stuff came out there because so many people have been so kind and being like, “Yeah, we really needed this. It’s just an outlet to laugh and an outlet of being in an audience virtually and stuff like that.” So it’s a very surreal time, and I feel very fortunate in just sending good vibes to everybody.
Yeah — I saw that somebody recreated some Middleditch and Schwartz clips in Animal Crossing.
That was unbelievable to me, because by the way, I just started playing Animal Crossing, and I’m afraid that it will take up … like I owe a script and I have work to do. But I played this game on my iPad called Simpsons: Tapped Out years ago, when it first came out. And every night I would play for two hours or an hour, and it just becomes like, “Got to check in on my town.” And I just saw myself doing that with Animal Crossing. And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, back it up, back it up, back it up, back it up.” I didn’t want to get stuck, but I understand why it’s so fun.
The reason why I got it is Thomas and I wanted to do like a little Twitch thing with it and play it together. But you have to build a little town first to get your airport open, to be able to visit each other’s houses. So I put in the work to do that. So hopefully we get to do that.
These two wonderful humans are recreating #MiddleditchAndSchwartz scenes in Animal Crossing and I have never smiled so wide. Thank you @lexyancosplay & @shackabear! This is magnificent! https://t.co/zTljB3LVE0
— Ben Schwartz (@rejectedjokes) May 17, 2020
If/when you start really getting in Animal Crossing, do you have people in mind that you want to make sure you invite over to your island?
I went to one of my friend’s islands already — one of my friends is an incredible illustrator, and there are these other graphic designers that I was like, “Oh, what would they do?” Because when it’s like, “Hey, customize your little design,” I’d make the weirdest happy face you’ve ever seen, because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
But I’m so curious about what real artists are doing with everything, because some of my friends who have really put in the time… Like, I visited one of my friend’s islands and I was like, “Wait, you have coconuts? Wait a second, what’s happening?” And you just start seeing all these things. And you’re like, “Oh, it takes hard work.” And I’m going around because I don’t quite understand that you can shake them and plant them. So I’m like shoveling up all of her trees. She’s like, “No, no, no, no.”
It’s been a very fun learning experience, but I think the most fun is honestly looking … because I’m so far behind everybody else, it’s going to other friends’ islands and seeing how intense everything is. It was very fun to do.
Yeah, it’s just one of the many ways in which, as awful as everything is right now, it’s been really exciting to see the level of human creativity that comes out in moments like this.
Yeah. And also people spending time with each other. I heard you can like have little parties at each other’s islands. That’s basically what our Mario Kart thing is: We text each other and FaceTime each other while we’re doing it, and just have some sort of normalcy every week, to not think about what’s happening and just play around.
Is there a very intense Google doc that’s tracking all of the Mario Kart stats?
Man, I wish there was a Google doc. I’m going to give you the scoop. It’s been me. I have huge amounts of yellow paper that’s lined, and I put everybody’s scores down, and then I calculate them right after. And then I put in the total. But it was taking up so much time that I said, “Okay, we have to establish a treasurer.” Because I was sending out the email blast and doing that. So whoever is last place becomes the treasurer and has to do that. So after Season 1, we got a treasurer, and now I don’t have to deal with it anymore.
Space Force Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.