Christy Grosz is an Awardsline contributor.
After building a career on comedic characters he calls “eccentric,” Will Arnett is back in primetime with CBS’ The Millers, playing TV journalist Nathan Miller, a recent divorcee who finds himself living with his mother. Arnett is more of a leading man than he has been in the past on such shows as Arrested Development and Up All Night, and he’s doing it in front of a live audience on the multi-camera sitcom directed by TV stalwart James Burrows (Taxi, Frasier). He’s also enjoying a thriving film career, voicing Batman in The Lego Movie and appearing in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles this year.
AWARDSLINE: Showrunner Greg Garcia asked you to be a part of The Millers when he heard that the future of NBC’s Up All Night was not looking good. What about the role of Nathan appealed to you?
WILL ARNETT: I had known Greg personally for a number of years, and when he heard that basically the show was over, he said, “I just want you to read this script, if you don’t mind.” I didn’t think that I wanted to necessarily start work on a TV show quite so quickly, and yet because it was Greg, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to read it.” When I read it, I really liked it. Then I had a meeting with Greg and (director) Jimmy Burrows. Jimmy said, “You are going to have to play a character who is much more at the center of it.” So in that sense, it was a bit of a departure for me. I had to play somebody a little more together. But that really appealed to me. It was something I really wanted to do.
AWARDSLINE: And with Margo Martindale, Beau Bridges and J.B. Smoove, it’s a pretty great cast.
ARNETT: It came together at the right time. It’s a testament to Greg. He’s a smart guy and a good dude, and people want to work with him. In fact, I don’t want to discount that too much. At this stage of my life, it was important to do something that I wanted to do. Not to say that I did stuff before that I didn’t want to do, but it’s important that you work on something you’re going to be happy on every day.
AWARDSLINE: What has the transition from a single-camera series to shooting in front of a studio audience been like?
ARNETT: It is a completely different animal, without question, and yet I was excited by the challenge. There was a certain amount of trepidation at the idea of sitting in front of an audience every week, but I was excited at that. I really wanted to shift gears a little bit, and it was the perfect way to do it. What’s great about multi-cam is that it is kind of like mounting a 21-minute play every week, and you get to rework it and rework it. By the time you put it in front of an audience on a Friday night, you’ve had a chance to sit with it. You do get to rehearse every week, all week, on the stage, and that, frankly, ends up being better.
AWARDSLINE: Now that the show has been picked up for a second season, have you talked about where Nathan’s story will be going?
ARNETT: Greg is a very collaborative guy. He’s always willing to engage in conversations about where my character is going, where the bigger story is going, where the family is going. We have to allow the story to move organically and not be constrained by any preconceived notions (about) what kind of dynamic works and what doesn’t…. There are some changes that take place, and we will explore that in Season 2 and see where it takes us. What we found is that, not unlike every other show, when you develop an audience, it’s usually because people like the dynamic between certain characters, and they want to see that dynamic continue. So we’ll stay true to that, and we’ll find different ways to put them in situations where they stretch the boundaries of their relationships.
AWARDSLINE: Most of your recent work has been in comedy, but you’ve had plenty of dramatic roles in the past. Are you looking to find more of those roles?
ARNETT: I used to maintain that I liked playing characters that look flawed because to me they seemed more interesting, and those tended to be the characters that were not the lead. But now, with Nathan, I feel I’ve found a balance where he is kind of the leading man, and yet he doesn’t have it all figured out. With regards to finding a role that might be more dramatic, there are things I’m working on and things I’ve written, things I’m constantly developing that might explore that.
AWARDSLINE: You’ve also toiled in the pilot season for almost 20 years now. How has your success changed that process for you?
ARNETT: It does get easier in the sense that it feels like there are more things available to me. I don’t need to go in and sing for my supper as much. I had years when I was living in New York and had to constantly come out (to LA) and go to the network and test for 15 pilots one year and not get one. And that’s disheartening, yet you just continue on. Now, because people are more familiar with what I do, it affords me more opportunity. But at the end of the day, no matter who you are, you still have to get lucky. You’re kind of always under fire in a way. I don’t care if you have a 44-episode commitment. If you (don’t) get viewers, you’re gone. In that way, it is very democratic.
Original photo atop interview by J.R. Mankoff
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