Catching Up With Jason Bateman

Comedy Features
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Bad Words tells the story of a grown man participating in spelling bees that were made for children. He finds joy in not only eviscerating his competition, but also insulting the hell out of them. Given his comedic resume, this is the perfect feature filmmaking debut for Jason Bateman. In addition to sitting in the director’s chair, he also stars as Guy Trilby, the spelling bee bully in question. He is in good company with a gold-star roster of comedic actors: Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Ben Falcone, and his buddy from The Hogan Family days, Steve Witting. The main target for his glorious inappropriate verbal takedowns is Chaitanya (Rohan Chand), an adorable young spelling bee prodigy that doesn’t seemed to be fazed by anything Guy says. Instead, he just wants to be his friend.

We had the chance to talk to Bateman about being a first time filmmaker, his history as a child actor and social media regrets. Other than that, we stayed away from the obvious question, “What’s your favorite bad word?” We’re pretty sure he’s answered that question enough.

Paste: You once held the Directors Guild’s record for youngest director on a television series when you were 18 years old.
Jason Bateman: When I directed The Hogan Family, the Guild called and said I beat Malcolm-Jamal Warner by a couple months and Spielberg by a couple of more months which was pretty neat. I don’t know if that record still stands, but it did for a while. It was a treat to do it at the time. I’ve been looking at the director’s chair for a long time. I’ve been clocking it for a while and always wanted the opportunity to direct a film. It’s a more robust and involved process for a director than television. I look forward to directing more television, but I had my eye on this for a long time just being a fan of movies. My dad was a big fan of film. He kind of showed me what was good acting and bad acting, good direction and bad direction. I always dreamed of having the opportunity to direct a film which is a more robust and involved process.

Paste: As a first time feature filmmaker did you look to any other directors for a source of influence?
Bateman: Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, the Coen Brothers, and Spike Jonze make films about a class of people that are pretty raw and that lends itself to drama and comedy fairly easily without changing genres or giving the audience whiplash with tone. It’s a whole world they bring you into. Being John Malkovich is a film I keyed into with this film. Even though it’s a comedy, at the end of the day these were fragile people going through this absurd experience. They are trying to keep it real and there’s nothing funny about it to them.

Paste: How do you maintain a balance as actor and director of this film?
Bateman: That’s the risk: you’ve eliminated those checks and balances for yourself. You have to be honest with yourself about whether you have a better than fair chance of hitting the necessary target. There’s no right or wrong way to playing the character but there’s a wrong element for the character. I knew I had a good shot of hitting that quality of being unlikable yet likable.

Paste: Did you have any other actors in mind for the role of Guy Trilby?
Bateman: I tried out other actors for my part, but they said thanks but no thanks. [laughs]

Paste: Speaking of casting, what was your involvement? And what were you looking for in the actors to play certain characters?
Bateman: I was deeply involved in the casting as a director. I was looking for a common sensibility and a common sense of humor with all of the actors. We are doing a comedy and there are many different kinds of comedic styles and flavors: there’s broad comedy, there’s subtle comedy, there’s Woody Allen-type films, there’s Mel Brooks-type films—none better or worse than the others, they’re just different. I wanted to make sure I got actors who were comfortable with getting laughs without winking, being big or broad or being funny. It was important that these people were raw and authentic and because they were so raw and authentic that’s what makes them funny.

Paste: How much improv did you allow the actors to do in the movie?
Bateman: Plenty. Whatever they wanted. Andrew [Dodge] has written great characters and those characters would still be great if they said “A” or “B” line. Oftentimes the variables on set might necessitate a different line or benefit from a different line. You need to be open to that.

Paste: In The Switch and Arrested Development, you play a character that has a candid relationship with a kid. Are you particularly attracted to those kinds of roles and do what do you find a different kind of humor in those relationships?
Bateman: I certainly don’t I look for that; the notion of looking for particular projects gives actors a lot more credit then we deserve. There are about three people in Hollywood who get to choose what we want, the rest of us take what we can get. I think it’s coincidental I’ve had a couple of projects with kids. Once I’m there, I think it’s an interesting relationship you can have with a kid if you treat them as an equals in certain circumstances. It’s always interesting to have an older person and a younger person on a peer level. In this film, my character is not emotionally advanced at all so he considers himself on a equal playing field with the kids—certainly the main kid. It’s nothing malicious he’s doing. He just has no social graces.

Paste: Did your experience as a child actor inform how you approached working with child actors a director?
Bateman: I do remember wanting to be treated like an adult when I was a kid actor. Unless I got nervous, then I wanted to be taken care of by an adult figure. I was always aware of trying to find that balance when I worked with the kids especially Rohan. When we have challenging scenes with off color material, you want to do the same thing; you want to down play it so the kid’s not scared. If they don’t understand something, you might not want to explain it to them. [laughs]

Paste: For social media, ”#badwords” has been used for the film. Have you ever said anything over social media that you regretted?
Bateman: Never! [laughs] I guess the obvious answer would be yes and the obvious follow-up would be “What is it?” and my obvious answer would be, “I’m not telling.”

Paste: And finally, you have a big body of work in television and film. From where are you recognized the most?
Bateman: I think Arrested Development…but I should qualify that by saying that there have been a lot of stuff I have done that is not great that people don’t like. Those people walk right by you [laughs]. They usually stop and say “You suck!” Arrested Development was such a well-made show. Mitch Hurwitz is a genius. The people who really like the show will come up to me and say so and I am really happy they do.

Bad Words is in theaters now.