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Nat Faxon on Ben and Kate, Writing Aliens With Jim Rash, and Being ‘Sturdily Built’

Before he won an Oscar this year for helping adapt the book on which Alexander Payne’s The Descendants was based, Nat Faxon had survived Hollywood on steady guest spots, parts in failed sitcoms (including his first as Kevin the PA in Grosse Pointe, which we still miss dearly) and voice work on Seth MacFarlane’s animated shows. Now he’s busy wrapping The Way, Way Back, a film he wrote and directed with Community’s Jim Rash, and starring in the new Fox sibling comedy Ben and Kate (premiering tonight at 8:30 p.m.). On his first day off from shooting, Faxon spoke with Vulture about the man-child who, in success, he’ll be playing for the next six seasons, the alien script that tested his friendship with Rash before they landed The Descendants, and how he failed to get in on Angelina Jolie’s Leg action.

The original title of Ben and Kate was Ben Fox Is My Manny. Why did they tell you they changed it?
I think because the show became more about the relationship between Ben and his sister, and about everything that happens between two people who are very close and love each other but also annoy each other. The first title makes you think it’s all about a guy taking care of a kid.

There’s a real-life Ben Fox, brother of series creator Dana Fox. Have you met him, and is he the same type of man-child you’re playing?
I have met Ben and I’ve spent time with him. He’s a fantastic guy, really fun and like myself, in the sense that he’s extroverted and social and likes to have a good time. I think the character that Dana wrote is based on her brother at a younger age because Ben is now super successful and has a family and gotten his act together.

And what is the guy you’re playing like?
He’s constantly creating havoc in a way that’s unintentional but affecting a lot of people. I grew up with a kid who’s sort of like Ben, so I channel him, too. His mom was constantly screaming, “Slow down! Slow down!” He basically had no breaks. It’s a combination of the stories that I’ve heard from Dana about the real Ben Fox and my best friend growing up, sort of a combo platter of spazzyness.

Alexander Payne recruited you and Jim after reading your unproduced [at the time] script for The Way, Way Back.  What about your work did he say appealed to him?
At the time, we were actually involved in this other movie that we were supposed to write. It was a big alien movie [laughs] and we were struggling mightily. It didn’t really play to our strengths. It was a big-budget-type thing and we would sit in coffee shops and just stare at each other, really getting frustrated. One of us would go, “Well, maybe you kill them when they swallow green juice? I DON’T KNOW! YOU TELL ME!” There are so many incredible writers who can handle that material brilliantly and I don’t know that we were the perfect pair for that, so it was a struggle, a really rocky time in our friendship [laughs]. But while that was going on The Way, Way Back had made its way around town and Alexander’s company Ad Hominem had read it and brought us in. They really liked our script in terms of tone, in the way it played both the comedic stuff and the dramatic stuff, towing the line. The book The Descendants was based on was tonally in the same ballpark, and they asked us to look at it, and we read it and loved it and just aggressively made our reps help us get out of this alien movie and on to this Descendants project that promised to pay us an eighth of what we would have gotten for the aliens [laughs].

When Jim pulled the Angelina’s Leg bit during the Oscars, do you remember what you were thinking at the time? Did you immediately realize what he was doing?
No. There was definitely a lull before people understood what was happening. I think there was a sense of panic in Jim, like, “Wow, I’ve made this really bold choice and nobody knows what I’m doing.” But then there was a huge response. I didn’t know what was happening and then was like, “Oh my God.” And then I thought, That bastard, I can’t believe he didn’t tell me he was going to do that before we got up there. And then I thought, That’s hilarious, I’m going to do it, too. And so I did it, but I think in my mind I was doing it as exaggerated as he was, but when I looked back at the tape, it looks like I was just standing awkwardly watching him. In my mind, I was doing it exactly like he was. Then we got off stage and everyone was asking Jim about it, and I was like, “I think I … Wasn’t I also … We both were kind of … No? Okay.” We haven’t heard from Angelina. Hoping she knew it was all in jest.

You share writing credit with Payne and Rash. Is there a part of The Descendants that you feel any particular ownership of?
It’s a hard question to answer because it’s very collaborative, the way Jim and I work ... but a lot of people I know after they saw the movie said to me, “Oh my God, that Sid character is exactly like you!”

Oh, wow.
Yeah. I love that the slightly dim stoner guy was it. They were like, “Oh man, I could tell you did all of the Sid stuff,” and I was like, “Wait a minute, what?”

Well, rest easy knowing that the New York Times called you “blonde, sturdily built and outgoing.”
I mean, at least I wasn’t “twiggy.”

They did call Jim twiggy. It does sound worse.
I so enjoyed that. “Sturdily built,” though, isn’t that calling someone “thick” or “husky”?

I think it implies you maybe have some muscles? As opposed to extra body fat.
I don’t totally know. I wasn’t sure whether I should be like, "Cool! I’m sturdily built" or "Oh no, I’m sturdily built." I do think sturdy and outgoing is better than twiggy and bald. Jim, as a matter of fact, probably has .5 percent body fat. He’s in incredible shape, super healthy. So reading that was even better for me [laughs]. So awesome.

Now The Way, Way Back is happening, and starring Steve Carell, Toni Collette, and Sam Rockwell. It is based on your childhood summer vacations?
I grew up outside of Boston in a town called Manchester by the Sea and we spent our summers in Nantucket. Jim’s mother has been married a few times and her second husband had a place near Lake Michigan, so yeah, it’s sort of about that experience of having a summer house for part of the year and having friends that only existed there. But it’s really a coming of age story about this kid who is at odds with his mother’s boyfriend and discovers the water park and meets a bunch of people there. He gains this confidence and is able to ultimately reconnect with his mom.

Photo: Corbis