In case you didn’t realize, Jim Gaffigan is not new to acting. He’s got 116 credits in IMDb, and he’s turned in some spectacular performances in recent years. The most recent is as the lead in Colin West’s moving dramedy Linoleum, which was honored Tuesday at San Francisco International Film Festival as this year’s recipient of the Sloan Science on Screen Award as part of the Sloan Science in Cinema Initiative. The film was selected for two primary reasons: Its two leads (Gaffigan and Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn) are astronomers at distinctly different points in their careers, not to mention their marriage, and the film is a fascinating examination of the phenomena of memory and time.
The film’s success hinges on a bravura performance by Gaffigan, so Paste sat down with him at the festival to talk about Linoleum, his role and his own family background.
Paste Magazine: First of all, I’m all-in for a real-life version of the show Above and Beyond, with you hosting as this character.
Jim Gaffigan: I know nothing about science. It’s hard for me to memorize lines anyway, but when you don’t understand it…
You were like ABBA. They famously didn’t know English, and just learned what the lyrics sounded like.
Gaffigan: Exactly. And that enthusiasm for science that character has is such a cornerstone of his personality. So maybe I don’t have that for science, but I do have it for comedy and acting. I do know that world, but not that exact same world. I love acting because I love being a soldier for someone else. I’ve been on the other side, so I do want to be a good soldier. And Colin has this collaborative thing. When you have a leader of the ship that is collaborative, that wants to hear things you have to say, I totally nerd out on those projects. When I saw the cut I told Colin, “This is really great. There was this one bit that you didn’t put in there, but it’s not my film, you know what I mean?” I don’t ever want to be someone’s hindrance.
I’m going to let my Buddhism show, but it’s a great opportunity for letting go. A great opportunity for non-attachment, you know? “I put everything I had into this role and now the director is going to do what he’s going to do with it.”
Gaffigan: I feel as though the whole entertainment industry is very like that. People tell me “It’s so interesting to see you acting,” but I’ve been in dozens of films.
One hundred and sixteen credits. I looked it up this morning.
Gaffigan: But it’s a perception business. And when you talk about letting go, you do hold onto things. I love this film. I want people to see it and I want people to love it. But I’m not going to be able to control this. And selfishly, I especially want directors and producers to see movies where I’m a lead. Because in the entertainment industry, people are relatively risk averse. It’s fascinating because as any creative person, what works is when we take things personally. But then we also have to turn it off. So it’s like if you submit an article, you think “This one’s gonna pop…” And for people like you and I who have been kicking around for a while, the sting is shorter when it doesn’t. But it’s still there.
We’ve talked about several of your really good performances in recent years—Tesla, Them That Follow, Troop Zero. I didn’t realize you were in Three Kings all those years ago.
Gaffigan: Yeah, “Guy Who Cuts Bandage.” I would audition for things—and this happens to every actor—but you’re up for something and you’re really close and then they say, “Do you want this other thing?” And you’re like “Yeah, okay, I’ll do that.” And look, I’m very grateful to make a living, and I get great fulfillment from standup and doing these CBS Sunday commentaries and things. But there are some times with the acting roles when I think, “Can’t I be in the mix for that thing?”
Obviously in this film, there’s a lot about fathers and sons. Can we talk about where you grew up?
Gaffigan: I grew up in a small town in Indiana. My father was a banker. I portray these two characters in this movie, the main character and his father Kent Armstrong. Which is so fun for an actor, to play two characters in a movie, I mean come on, that’s pretty amazing.
Having conversations with yourself.
Gaffigan: It’s amazing. But my dad was the first one in the family to go to college, and to him success was wearing a coat and tie to work. I used to joke, it took my family 200 years to get to the middle class and then I was like, “I want to tell jokes and act!” But yeah, my father was relatively strict. He wasn’t a Kent Armstrong, but… do you have kids?
Gaffigan: Yeah. So it’s like, every parent… I’m sure that Deepak Chopra’s kids are like, “You know, he can really be a dick sometimes.”
Gaffigan: My dad essentially picked my major in college.
Were you bucking against that kind of control at that point?
Gaffigan: I was very…ummm…whatever people would tell me, I would do. I didn’t really think about what I wanted to do. I was very compliant.
Is that because you did internalize what your parents were telling you, that at some level you did believe that and wanted to fulfill that?
Gaffigan: I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s a fair question.
Gaffigan: There’s a scene in Welcome to the Dollhouse where the brother says “That’ll look good on your college resume.” I guess I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew that I wanted to get out of Indiana. No one in my town was in the entertainment industry. There was one guy who was a writer, he lived across town and he was this total mystery. I used to say the only thing creative there was the marching band. And it was a great marching band. I remember not knowing what I was going to do, but I knew that New York City would provide the answer.
That was where it was going to happen.
Gaffigan: Yeah. Although you know, the night I graduated from college, I did tell a friend that I really wanted to be an actor and a comedian. And she said, “Why don’t you do that?” And I said, “Well, everyone wants to do that.” And she said, “No, not everyone wants to do that. I don’t want to be an actor or a comedian. But of course you do.” We were probably drunk.
Gaffigan: And then I think, you know, I was so miserable in my job, doing financial calculations for law firms. And then working in advertising, I don’t think I was that good at it. And of course I wasn’t creatively fulfilled. It was a very slow process. I’m a coward, you know what I mean? I kept my day job longer than everyone else did. I think I inherited that because my parents grew up during the depression.
People who grew up in that era seek security.
Gaffigan: I knew that my grandfather made dentures. And I knew that my father was the first one to go to college, but I didn’t realize that my grandfather was this incredible success because his father and his father and way back, all worked in coal mines. So the fact that he was making dentures—he was this big hero. And it was like oh my God, he broke the cycle of working in the coal mines. That’s unbelievable.
And then you think about how that must have shaped your dad, growing up in the shadow of this guy. Of course he was achievement-oriented.
Gaffigan: Yeah. It’s crazy. This has been like a therapy session.
I love to hear that!
Michael Dunaway is Editor at Large at Paste. He’s also the cofounder of Poitier & Dunaway Motion Pictures and Creative Director at the Rome International Film Festival. You can learn everything about him here>