Hard-working actor Will Arnett has been at his craft for about fourteen years (professionally), not long after moving in 1990 from Toronto to New York and studying at the Lee Stasberg Institute. But it was a long and trying road to his breakthrough role as the dimwitted semi-professional magician GOB—a.k.a. George Oscar "G.O.B." Bluth II—on the cult 2003-2009 FOX sitcom Arrested Development, created by Mitch Hurwitz. The show opened the door to comedy films, including Blades of Glory, Semi-Pro, The Brothers Solomon, Let's Go to Prison, and Hot Rod. He's had recurring guest star roles on The Sopranos and 30 Rock, as Jack Donaghy's rival Devon Banks. His voice has been heard in Ratatouille, Horton Hears a Who!, Monsters vs. Aliens, Grindhouse, and on TV as the voice of GMC trucks and Lamisil. He often appears alongside his wife Amy Poehler, with whom he has a son. His latest voice gig reunited him with Hurwitz for the FOX animated series Sit Down Shut Up, in the role of unqualified English teacher Ennis Hoftard. During the 2009 WonderCon at San Francisco's Moscone Center, Arnett told me about his work with Hurwitz, including an upcoming live-action sitcom and the long-awaited Arrested Development movie.
Groucho: First of all, what sort of experimentation went into developing your character [Ennis Hoftard] and your voice? Or did it come out fully formed?
Will Arnett: (in mock exasperation:) Oh, God. I wish I had a great answer for this. Uhhhhh. Urrhhhmm. You know, I think that just reading the script. Mitch had a pretty clear understanding of what he wanted this guy to be and we kind of talked a little bit about it. And, uh, you know, half the time that he speaks up, he's really outraged. And that's kind of what he wanted. He wanted this sort of "flash anger" thing to occur, where he's really confident and then super-angry. And that's kind of where the direction went.
G: Coming from a hidden insecurity?
WA: (reading my polo shirt:) "Ontario Power Generation."
WA: What's that?
G: I like to think I'm part of the Ontario power generation. But it's actually—I got it from the dam at Niagara Falls.
WA: Are you Canadian?
G: No. No. I'm a pretender, poser.
WA: Oh. Huh.
WA: I'm from Ontario.
G: Yeah. You don't probably hang out at the dam much, though.
WA: No, but my dad does do some work for the Ontario Power Generation.
G: Really? How 'bout that!
G: Do you have in your past any teacher horror stories that would help to inform your work on the show?
WA: You know what? Honestly, what this has made me do—this process has made me realize how many patient teachers I had. Because I was, like, not a great student. And I spent a lot of time goofing around. So it made me kind of look back and go, "God, I was a real dick." But I had—you know, I did have some teachers—there were always teachers who were a little—y'know, put their own interests in front of the students. And that's the kind of thing I think that we were going for here, which is really that the welfare and the education of the students is secondary to these people's own personal motivations, you know?
G: Yeah. Conversely, is there a teacher who inspired you that you'd want to give a shout-out to, sort of as penance for doing the show?
WA: (Laughs.) I had a great teacher for many years—her name is Judith Robertson. Growing up in Toronto. And she was very inspiring and really did make learning interesting. And, you know, really sort of challenged me to challenge myself. So, yeah, I think she was the one who probably had the most positive effect on me. Everybody else was just garbage.
G: Of course, since we haven't seen the show yet, it's sort of incumbent on me to ask you to explain who your character is and how you see him: what we may not immediately get.
WA: Well, you know, unfortunately with this guy, he's like—when you scratch the surface, there's just more surface. He's a very kind of self-involved, y'know, narcissistic guy who is more concerned with his physical fitness and his status with the ladies than anything else. And I think that he probably, if pressed, would say that the students are more of a hindrance than anything else. They're like an obstacle that he's got to overcome. I think his first line is—what's he say? "Out of the way, schloosers."
WA: That's the first thing he says—that's how you first meet the character, of Ennis. And that's [how] he views the students—as just a big pile of losers. So it tells you what kind of a thoughtful guy this is.
G: In the promo that's making its rounds on the internet, there's clips of Kenan wearing a wig at the table read.
G: What would you do to show your commitment to the role?
WA: I guess wear a bike helmet?
WA: And bike shorts, maybe.
G: 'Cause he's a cyclist.
WA: He is a cyclist. But that's all part and parcel of his dedication to physical fitness. So I think that would be the extent of my dedication. Uh, Kenan did look fantastically nice in that wig.
G: Yes he did.
WA: So I'd like to see him back in that.
G: Uh-huh. Tell me a little bit about your bosses, Josh [Weinstein] and Mitch [Hurwitz]. What kind of bosses are they? Who's Mom, who's Dad?
WA: (Laughs.) Well, it's a very modern relationship.
WA: They're both—I have two dads. So that's progressive. I'm just getting to know Josh, so we're still just in a kissing phase. Mitch and I have done everything. And, you know, one of the things that attracted me to doing this was of course because it was Mitch. And [I] had such a great experience working on Arrested Development, and I'm such a fan and in awe of his talents as a writer and everything else. So there was no question that I—even before I read the script—there was no question that I would do it. I just trust Mitch implicitly and wanted to be a part of it. And it's been great. It's been everything that I hoped it would be and more. It's been really fun; it's very collaborative. They give you a lot of freedom. You read the script as it is, and then you can kind of play with it. And one of the great things about animation is that, when you're in the booth, you're not hindered by hitting your marks or making sure that they get it on camera. All you have to do is just speak into the mic and you can do another take where you can completely change the tone of the scene or the tone of a certain line, and—
G: And give them options.
WA: And give them options, yeah. It's super-fun.
G: Your improv background: from your training and your time on stage, what's the lesson that sticks with you most that you find yourself returning to, whether consciously or unconsciously?
WA: Probably the thing that you start to realize is—there's a lot of things—there may be things that you want to say, but do they work in the context of the scene? You know I remember working on Arrested, it would happen time and again where you'd say something, or you'd improvise something, and Mitch would then yell, "Cut." And Mitch would come in and go, "Yeah, that was great, that was great. Uh, it doesn't make sense for what we're trying to do here in this scene. It might be funny, but it's not—it completely doesn't work for the purposes of what we're doing here." So just trying to—
G: Keep your eye on the prize of the scene. The goal, or your objective—
WA: Yeah, really, and making sure that whatever you come up with works within the context of the scene and the character and where he's at—or she, whatever the case may be. For me. I play a lot of female characters.
G: On this show, do you do any other characters?
WA: Uh, no, I guess I've done, like, an announcer-type character. In the pilot...you hear a broadcast, an old broadcast from—when the last time the Baiters, which is the team, the football team won a game a year—like, "The Baiters win the game!" So there's a few things like that, but really I just play the one; I'm no Tom Kenny. I can't do the old switch-around every two minutes.
G: Now if the show takes off the way we all hope, what kind of merchandise would you like to see based around your character?
WA: Oh God. I haven't even thought about that. That would be—I'm sure it would be the most unappealing—.
WA: He's not a very appealing character.
G: But you have to find a way to make him appealing, so you get that money!
WA: You're right, you're right. I know, I've got to get into that stuff, right? I've got to get that sweet merch dough.
WA: God, I'm so far down the totem pole. I'll be the last one.
G: What else can you tell you us about what you have coming up? I know that there's an Arrested Development movie in the works.
G: But it's probably not scheduled yet for you, right?
WA: Not—there's no hard date. But we have a kind of a very loose timeline in mind of when it's gonna happen. And Mitch and I are working on a new show right now—
WA: A new live-action show.
G: Oh, right. Tell me about that.
WA: I can't really tell you too much.
WA: I can tell you that it's—I think it's going to be really good or really bad.
G: Uh-huh. (Laughs.)
WA: Uh—. (Laughs.) So we're not sure yet, but I think that either way, it's going to go down in, um—
G: In history.
WA: Yeah, in history as being fantastic, or just simply awful.
G: It's funny you mention that, though, 'cause I was wondering if you'd wanted to work on developing your own material, because as fantastically successful as you've been cornering the market on the conniving, dimwitted, a-hole nemesis—
G: I suspect that there's more comic invention that you could be mining that maybe people aren't giving you credit for—
WA: Well, I think that, you know, over the last couple years, I've kind of been a part of other people's things, and I did play those kind of parts, quite frankly...maybe a little bit too much. And, y'know, sometimes, at a certain point, you feel like you're giving it away a little bit. So I made a decision that I did want to kind of harness whatever a-hole capabilities that I have and use them for good.
WA: (in his conniving a-hole voice:) That's why I'm donating all the proceeds to my bank account. But no, and so that's, y'know—I did want to start doing something that was rewarding on a different level and start creating something myself. And, of course, the first person I wanted to do it with was Mitch. And so we talked about it, and now, we've been working on the show, and writing it. And that's been the most rewarding thing, probably, next to Arrested Development, that I've done professionally is this process of developing this new show. It's been super-fun.
G: Is there a timeline for that?
WA: No, that's also in a—we are officially working on it. So it's actually happening, and, y'know, hopefully sometime next year it'll be on—y'know, I made a deal with FOX. And we made a deal, a commitment to them to deliver a show. And so sometime—I don't know if it'll be on the fall; that might be a little early, but maybe more halfway through the year next year. And yeah, it's good. At least it's been fun for us, and (laughs) hopefully people will enjoy it! Or hate it.
G: (Laughs.) Alright, well, it's been great talking to you.
WA: Hey, you too, man.