It must have been the easiest casting choice in the history of cinema. Director Michael Peterson was gathering the actors for his fantasy nerd comedy Lloyd the Conqueror, a look inside the world of LARPing (live action role playing), a phenomenon that could be described as “Dungeons and Dragons come to life.” He needed someone slightly older than his college-age protagonists to play a mentor of sorts, a legendary former champion of the LARP world—someone with a strong persona, excellent comic timing, someone who could be physically imposing while still having some nerd credibility.
Enter hulking nerd icon and comedian Brian Posehn.
“Yeah, it was a straight up offer,” Posehn says. “I didn’t even have to audition. And it was the biggest part I had ever been offered! My character is not the main character, but I’m the old wizard who helps the college kids get into the tournament and try to beat the guy who turns out to be my nemesis, played by Mike Smith from Trailer Park Boys. But I’m usually the guy who comes in and has one dumb line, and here I actually had all these speeches. I was really sweating it.”
Despite his intense involvement in several spheres of nerddom, Posehn actually had never been a LARPer, although he is an avid D&D player. “I’ve been in a regular D&D group for about 10 years now,” he says. “We stopped for a while when me and a couple of other guys got our wives pregnant at the same time. I don’t think that’s ever stopped a D&D group before. [Laughs.] But I didn’t have any real experience LARPing. That just seemed like a different level of nerdy. I mean, not that I’m any less nerdy about other things, but that was a place where I kind of drew a line.”
Nevertheless, it was important to Posehn to play Andy as a sympathetic and likable character, not as a cardboard cutout. “I kind of know this guy,” he admits, “so I wanted to play him real. The thing about a lot of these kinds of nerds is they don’t really have a good sense of humor about what they’re nerdy about. Unless they’re a Python nerd. The thing that they love, they’re really passionate about it. So that’s what I wanted to be sure I captured. This is his world; this is his life. He has this big obsession. I wanted to play this like a guy you know, that friend who you’re like, I love this guy but I can’t quite get on board with what he’s into. So you love him and you care about him, but you are kind of laughing at him, and with him, if that makes any sense.”
Growing up in Sonoma, Calif., a large kid obsessed with Star Wars and heavy metal, Posehn experienced a lot of that “laughing at” phenomenon. Around senior year, though, the tone shifted to more of a “laughing with” situation. “At that point I wasn’t the new weird kid,” he remembers. “We had kind of grown up together, so I think people kind of eased up. And I think around then, that people figured out I had a sense of humor, whether I made them laugh in history class or working on the school paper. And by senior year I was also the school DJ, so I became more outgoing too. Then I wasn’t just the weirdo. Once they realized I was kind of funny, they still thought I was a weirdo at the end of the day, but certain people got on board through the humor.”
His DJ’ing partner was a most unlikely friend he made just before senior year. “I went to summer school between junior and senior year,” Posehn says, “and I made friends with the good-looking wrestler kid. He was one of the most popular kids at my school. And he was a key part in turning it around and saying, ‘Hey, leave Posehn alone. He’s a good guy, he’s a funny guy.’ He also beat up a stoner for me, after a stoner beat my ass in a parking lot at 7-11. It happened over the weekend, and I came back to school and told my friend John what had gone on, and he was like, ‘Well I’m going to find that dude.’ And he did. I didn’t see it happen, but the kid never touched me again.”
Good Looking Wrestling Kid John also introduced a bit more variety into Posehn’s DJ sets. “He was all over the map,” Posehn remembers. “He got me into Pink Floyd. He was also into the B-52’s, and he also got me into that. You know, I was the one going ‘Here’s Anthrax’ new stuff and here’s Metallica.’ And at that point no one had even heard of these bands. And then we would play one side of Rush 2112. We’d go to 7-11 and get whiskey and fill up our Big Gulps while the records were playing at the school. It was a lot of fun.”
In a way, those DJ days were the precursor to what has become a pretty remarkable phenomenon—Brian Posehn is a very strange-looking, strange-acting, strange-speaking, strange-thinking man who is completely at home with his strangeness, and is finally celebrated for it. But not in a mocking way; Posehn is cool, even to those who don’t share his passions. It’s essentially a Zen triumph in a decidedly un-Zen pop-culture world.
“I just kind of trace that back to watching friends and comedians that I loved be more themselves on stage,” says Posehn. “So once I decided that is what I wanted to do, I started talking about metal on stage and other things I’m nerdy about. And I had no idea—I mean, I knew there were other guys who had the same likes as me. But it was never like, I’m going to get all these metal guys to like me. But then it just sort of built up and spread out into these other areas. I mean, winding up in horror films, winding up on the Sarah Silverman Show—where I basically played a gay metalhead—all these things that I’m into sort of happened because of that which comes from the real me. That scream that I’ve ended up doing in a lot of sitcoms is based on me really getting mad. I mean winding up on a metal record, and working with Scott Ian and putting those on the comedy record, something like Rob Zombie’s movie, getting to do these fantastic movies and showing up in The Fantastic Four, having those parts be offered to me—it’s just crazy to me. And I love you saying I come off kind of cool because I’ve been accused by nerds of not being a nerd anymore. ‘You’ve got a hot wife, you’re successful, you’re not bitter, you don’t sit in a room crying so you’re not a nerd anymore.’”
But Posehn argues that being a nerd has nothing to do with a lack of acceptance. “Nerdiness, to me, is just obsession,” he says forcefully. “When I think about nerds, it’s just people who are way obsessed with this one thing. When I think about guys who are way smarter than me and know all this stuff about science, I think a guy who plays Fantasy Football is a football nerd, you know?”
And the specialization and personalization of that obsession is also dear to Posehn; he doesn’t want the whole world converted to his tastes. “I never wanted it to be for everyone. I’m glad Anthrax is not as big; I’m glad Rush is not as big as they should be at the end of the day. I’m glad, when I go to a concert, that it’s full of dudes like me and not guys who listen to Coldplay. I mean I’ve been into niche stuff my whole life that I don’t really mind anymore. I understand and think it’s cool to be into niche stuff and don’t want to be any different. And I don’t understand some of the mainstream things.”
In other words, he’s cool with being a nerd, and that itself is pretty cool.