Jason Mantzoukas knows that audience members who spot him in his seemingly ceaseless and always wildly comedic appearances on scores of TV and film projects are more than likely to say, “Oh — that guy!” rather than recognize his name in the screen credits, And he’s totally okay with that.
A self-described “comedy character actor” and veteran of the revered improv troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, Mantzoukas’s profile has been continuously on the rise for the better part of the past decade-and-a-half thanks to his status as a strategic weapon deployed in all manner of comedies, from TV series like “Parks and Recreation,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “The League,” “Modern Family,” “Broad City,” “Childrens Hospital,” and “Transparent” to films including “The Dictator,” “Baby Mama,” and “Neighbors.” He also wrote the screenplay for buddy comedy “Ride Along” and frequently appears as his comically well-informed and cinematically erudite self as a host and guest on a number of popular podcasts.
Now, Mantzoukas has what’s easily his highest profile turn yet, playing a central role opposite his longtime UCB cohort Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell in “The House” — as the couple’s friend who’s reeling in denial over his impending divorce, he offers up his home to be transformed into an underground casino to help raise money for their daughter’s non-existent college fund. Yet, as Mantzoukas reveals to Moviefone, comedy superstardom isn’t at the top of his agenda — making audiences laugh is.
Moviefone: With this role, you might as well be right up there on the posters with Amy and Will. This is one of the biggest things we’ve seen you in. What did it mean to you to get the opportunity?
Jason Mantzoukas: It was pretty exciting, and not lost on me. This was an enormous opportunity and certainly a much bigger opportunity than I’d ever been given before. I was so psyched to get it, but also so happy that I got to do it with people that I had worked with before, or have known for a long time, and felt really comfortable and easy. So the minute we started to shoot, it was just easy to kind of flip into the dynamics that we three already have. So it’s pretty terrific.
You have been a go-to comedic actor for characters that are right on the razor’s edge. Frank in “The House” has a few more dimensions to him. Tell me what’s fun about delving into those characters, and especially with this one, having the opportunity to make him a little more well-rounded.
The characters that I’ve played, like you’re describing, the guys that kind of pop in and out of TV or movies, your Dennis Feinsteins [on “Parks and Recreation”], your Rafis [on “The League”], your Adrian Pimentos [on “Brooklyn Nine Nine”], these are all characters that bear no emotional responsibility to the stories being told, really. There’s never an episode of “The League” where Rafi is responsible for the plot. In a way, it’s really fun to be freed from that, because you can just, in my case on that show, or in others, you’re really just there to serve as jokes, or to serve as something funny, which is, is there anything funnier? Not really.
It’s a blast to play those kind of characters. But then there’s something really rewarding in this case with this movie, to kind of trek in a more emotional through line. What I really liked in this movie was, this wasn’t just some kind of maniac character, or some sort of disposable comedy character. This is a guy who was heartbroken, and all of his bad decisions are coming from a place of real pain and loss, and it’s channeled into funny stuff.
It was really cool to kind of track his emotional growth, and have that relationship with Michaela Watkins’s character be so meaningful to him, and have that really weigh on my character, and try and figure out what that would be like. We’ve all been through the catastrophic breakups in our lives, and we all deal with our heartache and our heartbreak in different ways. It was really fun to channel that kind of heartbreak and heartache into terrible character life decisions. It was really fun and exciting, actually, to have more to do and more … I guess more responsibility is what it ends up being.
What’s the fun of mining comedy out of aggression and confrontation, and some of those edgier, in-your-face qualities? What do you enjoy about that brand of funny?
It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily think about it like that. I more think about a lot of my characters as just having different limits than other people. That they are more, I guess they are more aggressive. You’re not wrong. There is something funny about characters who are, I find — I find it very fun to play characters who really are filterless characters who don’t have checks and balances on their emotions or what’s going on with them.
So for me, that’s what a lot of these people share. A lot of these characters share a certain kind of emotional abandon, or a chaotic nature, that makes them make decisions that are sometimes aggressive, sometimes confrontational, but also, what’s great to me about whether it’s Rafi, or Dennis — maybe less Dennis, but Adrian Pimento, these are people who are really emotionally available.
So Rafi isn’t just like an aggressive monster, although at times he is, he’s also convinced that all the guys in “The League” are his best friends and is heartbroken when it looks like they might be breaking up or fighting. He’s in equal measure an emotional kind of love friendship aggressive person, as he is an aggressive murder person. All of his emotions are kind of, he’s experiencing them all. Again, he’s like without any kind of ability to stop himself from engaging fully in any emotional feeling that comes his way, which I love.
As an actor, you’ve really been in a sweet spot. I feel like producers and showrunners see you as a comedy closer. If not a household name, you are definitely recognized by audiences all over. What do you like about that space that you’re occupying right now?
I’m very lucky to get to work on like some of the best stuff that’s going. I like that people use me on their shows, whether those shows are “Brooklyn,” or whether it’s “Transparent,” or whether it’s any of these kind of — I get a real kick out of doing to do shows that I myself love. Like that’s really exciting to me. It’s a very cool thing.
And truth be told, I would like a career where I get to work on lots of stuff, and I get to have those people, those directors, those show creators, those producers, whoever, that they want to use me in their stuff. I care about that a lot more than, kind of like you said, being a household name, for example. I think the more and more you become a household name, the less and less you are able to be in a whole bunch of stuff.
I like kind of getting to be a comedy character actor, and I do think a lot of people get very excited to be like, “Oh, there’s that guy again!” I think most of those people are like, “Oh, there’s that guy again,” more people say that than say, “Oh look, there’s Jason Mantzoukas again.”
What is, as far as your writing projects, what’s sort of front and center for you right now?
Right now, front and center, is a movie I’m writing for Paramount called “Battling Boy,” which is an adaptation of a Paul Pope graphic novel. That’s really the primary thing I’m doing right now.
I’ve read the graphic novel, and always love Paul Pope’s work. What’s got you excited about it?
I love that book, and the kind of ancillary Aurora West book. I’m a huge Paul Pope fan. What I love about this specifically was that, I love coming-of-age stories. This is, like, really a story that exists in kind of superhero archetype universe, but the stars of it, the leads of it — it’s kind of a Batman/Superman type story, but the Batman character is a 17-year-old girl, and the Superman character’s like a 12-year-old boy.
That’s, to me, really cool. You’ve got these kids who are, for each of them, it’s a kind of coming-of-age story. He’s on his kind of walkabout year of becoming a man from his culture, and she has just lost her father, and is grappling with kind of becoming an adult, and being forced into adulthood, and what that means. Both of them kind of pushing those two people together is pretty cool and exciting.
And then, obviously, it’s otherwise a big story with kids fighting monsters, and all that stuff, and has the kind of fairy tale element. So it’s just a lot of stuff that I like all kind of in one place. It’s exciting.
What character of yours are you excited to play again? You create these memorable characters on all these different shows. Is there one you’re really eager to get another crack at?
That’s a good question. I have, like, real genuine fondness for a lot of my characters … I’m excited to jump back into “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” next year. I love playing Pimento. I love playing Pimento, but I also love, frankly, I love playing Pimento with that ensemble of actors. I love doing Adrian Pimento scenes with Andre Braugher, or with people who you’re like, “This is a funny juxtaposition of energy. Mostly I get excited to just work with those people again.
I love Dr. Steve on “Transparent.” Again, it’s such a fun character, but what I love about it is getting to play with all those actors.
“The House” is in theaters now.