On Amazon’s The Tick, which debuted the back half of its first season last Friday, actor Griffin Newman plays Arthur, a man who is absolutely terrified of just about everything. As Arthur gets roped into the superhero shenanigans of Peter Serafinowicz’s the Tick, Newman and the show’s great achievement is turning a character who might otherwise be a punch line or an archetypal straight man into an oddly poignant exploration of trauma and mental illness — and somehow, he’s also still funny. Vulture caught up with Newman to talk about The Tick’s place in the modern superhero landscape, the “very shitty reality” of abuse in show business, and what happened after he became one of the first recent actors to apologize for acting in a Woody Allen movie.
The Tick isn’t exactly competing with superhero movies, but it exists next to these $200 million blockbusters. I’m really interested in that dynamic.
The gambit was, Can we make this look like the real thing? If we’re going to be in dialogue with blockbuster superhero culture, we have to play the same game that they’re playing. Which is a crazy thing that most people wouldn’t want to agree to do. It’s weird how often we have to play against the comedic instincts of the thing. It is always scary not to go for the obvious joke.
You especially have to resist doing that, right?
Yeah, a lot. I think about the Santa Claus monologue in Gremlins, where Phoebe Cates explains why her family never celebrated Christmas. It’s played super-straight — Phoebe Cates plays it like it’s her audition for the Actor’s Studio, and the movie, the score, the shots, the light, everything, they just commit so hard to it. [Gremlins director] Joe Dante tells the story about screening it and everyone going, “You can’t do this in a comedy!” Then they did the first test screening and realized that the whole audience got it. Think about how scary that must’ve been to do. You run the risk of looking really dumb, you know? So there’s a weird amount of restraint involved for a show that is so maximalist in so many ways.
How important was that for playing Arthur?
When I met up with [The Tick creator] Ben [Edlund] for the first time, we barely talked about the character in literal terms. We barely talked about the property. I didn’t want him to know how big a fan I was of the old Tick because I thought that would actually be — not a hindrance, but he was so pointedly looking to do something new that I felt like he might be turned off by someone who seemed too beholden to the old version.
You don’t want to be a fan.
Right. We met up, and I still mock him for this, but the first thing he said to me was, “First of all, I want you to know that I love how small you are. You’re the perfect size, so thank you for your genes.” And I went, “Great, first time anyone’s ever said that to me.” And then he said, “There’s a very specific set of things I need for whoever’s playing this character, and you’re one of the few people I’ve seen who I think could do this.” He said, “I don’t want someone to be punching down, I need someone to retain the integrity of this guy without also making it too heavy that it ceases to be a comedy.”
It was like the Mr. Miyagi wax-on, wax-off moment, where I was like, I’ve trained for this one moment in my life. I have spent years doing stand-up for three people in basements, week after week after week for years. I was just so obsessed with the notion of how sad I could make stand-up. Not self-pitying sad, but, like, I love Fozzie Bear. He’s maybe my biggest comedic influence. As a kid, I found Fozzie so funny because of how valiantly he fought, despite knowing that he was always going to be heckled by Statler and Waldorf. He would just go out so confidently and just eat shit so fucking hard, and it would get to a point where they’re heckling him and he would just go, “Come on, guys, please, I’m trying really hard.” I was trying to be a human version of Fozzie Bear and heckle myself. Friends would come up to me and go, “Why don’t you try to just tell jokes onstage?” And I was like, “But this is the point! If I can make it work like this …” It made my life more difficult than it needed to be, but then suddenly, at this one moment, I was like, I’ve spent eight years obsessing over this notion, and I have a lot of results I’d like to report to you.
It’s also fascinating to watch The Tick in light of the superhero movies at the center of our culture, especially Wonder Woman and Black Panther.
What I think it’s equivalent to is, so many of the great American films came out of crummy populist genres, like the Western or screwball comedies or noir films. These guys learned how to smuggle things in, where on the surface it’s cowboys defending the town, but it’s actually about McCarthyism. [Laughs.] I think you’re finally starting to see filmmakers smuggle themes into these $200 million movies. The problem is, the bigger those movies become, the more masters you have to serve. When I hear people criticize Wonder Woman, I want to say, “I get what you’re saying empirically, but do you understand how insane it is that this movie exists at the level that it exists?” Wonder Woman is a masterpiece because it’s 80 percent perfect. The 20 percent that’s hitting the beats the genre requires — like the CGI battle at the end — still vaguely stays on theme, and that’s an insane victory. I think Moonlight is the best movie of the last ten years, but it’s harder to make Wonder Woman than it is Moonlight. With Moonlight, everyone goes, “Look, our goal is to make the best Moonlight.” With Wonder Woman, everyone is constantly around Patty Jenkins telling her, “You know, you can just make it a basic thing. It’s fine, we’ll release it and we’ll sell dolls and it’s fine.” You know that she and Ryan Coogler had to really be canny strategic negotiators to figure out which battles to choose, and how to navigate those waters.
You were one of the first recent actors to say you regretted being in a Woody Allen movie. Was the reaction a weird experience for you?
Yeah, thoroughly. It felt like the first time in my life I was being perceived as a personality.
People were writing stories about the things you tweeted.
And trying to interpret my motives and parse my language. There was this weird balance of things where you go, This is objectively a big thing for an actor. There’s a certain rarefied company to be invited to be in one of those [Woody Allen] films. So that’s one thing, that stands as a fact. There’s fact two, which is, This is someone who’s made a lot of work that’s meant a lot. Certainly as a small, neurotic, bespectacled Jew in New York, I had not been able to avoid those comparisons my entire life. Whether or not I wanted to, everything I did, even if I was trying to be me, somehow got related back to him in some way. And then the third thing is I felt super morally icky about it.
But there’s a moment where it crosses a threshold and it stops being, “I like this person’s work and I have disdain for this person’s behavior,” which is a concept that exists throughout the history of art. There are a lot of people who are excused from one behavior to another, whether or not it is criminal, whether it stands in opposition to what I try to stand for. How do you reconcile that with the work itself? I had always been someone who would go, “Well, I’m just a viewer, I will watch things made by people who I have problems with as people.” Then you get into work situations where suddenly, you no longer have the very comfortable privilege of compartmentalizing those things. Not because you’re witnessing indiscretions, but because things are existing as realities in front of you.
It becomes a record of your stance.
Right, and mind you, the issue of what constitutes endorsement in terms of working for or with people — and I think there almost is a difference between those two things — was something that I never found cut and dry. But what very quickly became clear to me was, I feel uncomfortable. Not uncomfortable because I have been made to feel uncomfortable, but because I felt dishonest in my own standards of what I believe. I wish I had not done it because it felt hypocritical for me to do. It’s certainly not like there was any spotlight on me where I was like, “I’ve got to get ahead of this scandal.” Most people don’t know who I am, so that was not going to come up. I just felt really dishonest.
It just gets down to, what kind of person do you want to be? It doesn’t matter how much you care about this work, how much you love doing the work, how much you care about the art form itself. When this gets overlooked, it gives people the license to think they can get away with the next thing and the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. Maybe it’s an aggressive action, and maybe it’s moral hypocrisy, but I felt like I needed to draw a line in the sand for myself.
I pointedly don’t have a publicist, and I get a lot of frustrated collar-loosening from the people who work with and for me, like, “Can you please just say a little less on certain subjects?” I’ll tweet about movies I don’t like, and my agents will go, “That guy might want to hire you someday!” Am I supposed to pretend I liked it? Am I supposed to go into a room and pretend I liked it? So there was no strategy to me saying it, and I also didn’t have very many Twitter followers at the moment that I tweeted it. And then, within 24 hours, I had twice as many Twitter followers. This is my platform I’ve had from when I was a struggling comedian, where I could write jokes or takes on movies or whatever, and then it very quickly turned into something different. It’s very bizarre to have people try to analyze your motives.
Did you see that as it was happening? You started having to defend yourself in this way that really surprised me. People seemed to be attacking you for something that a lot of actors have done since.
Not to play the sad violin — this comes with the territory, I made a decision that I regret, I owned up to what I perceived as my own hypocrisy, I will withstand the consequences — but I was attacked from every angle I could’ve been attacked from. I had people getting mad at me for completely opposite reasons at the same time, which is a very weird feeling. And then suddenly you become a news item, people are writing about you, and they’re responding to the way that people wrote about you rather than what you actually did. They’re going, “Oh, so I’m supposed to think that this guy’s a hero now?” I pretty pointedly was not looking for that. But if this big organization frames you in that way, then they start to attack you for other people putting you on a pedestal, or other people are trashing you and they use that as encouragement to trash you further. It’s a weird thing, and I view it as a tax. It’s the price I pay for getting to do a job I love this much.
It’s so interesting to me, because when it happened, I thought, “Oh, that’s admirable.” And then you were getting so much shit. Now, it’s the thing that everybody does.
But I also still get shit for it. I’ll say this, I feel equally uncomfortable being lauded or criticized.
You were just looking to put it in perspective in your own personal way.
Yeah. It sounds naïve, but I just thought in that moment, “I’ll clear the books for myself, I’ll just have vented that out into the universe, and I don’t think it’s really going to stick.”
Do you think it’s easier for people to speak out now?
I don’t know. There’s a very shitty reality of this industry. Most people who want to do this work care way too much about it, and like many artists, however you define artist — I’m not using that as any sort of term reserved for those in the rarefied air — you’re told there is a certain amount of sacrifice required to enter. But a lot of people in the industry exploit the fact that people enter the door going, “I guess they told me I have to make some kind of sacrifice?” And those people try to write the rules of what that sacrifice is. People who just want to use others for power in whatever way they can — their bodies, their names, their time, their energy, their emotions, their work. Any of that. And it sucks. Because show business is seen as this ephemeral Mount Olympus, no one wanted to have public conversations about the difficult realities of the industry, which involves a lot of indecency and criminality as well. A lack of basic decency and empathy is a thing that, even when it never crossed those lines, all of us have just been tolerating forever.
It’s almost like the dialogue that shifted about people wanting less processed food. People stopped going, “Well, I just want whatever tastes good,” and started saying, “I want it to not hurt my body” and “I don’t want my enjoyment of this food to be at the expense of other living creatures or the workers, the employees, the servers, the chefs, the people at the packaging plant.” It would be great if the entertainment industry worked the same way, if you could have free-range movies, in a way. That doesn’t mean that everyone has a great time at work every day and holds hands, but it means that no one is taking advantage of anyone else, and everyone’s at least doing everyone the common courtesy of looking each other in the eye and saying good morning. That’s hopefully what’s changing, and that’s what I would like to see be the end product of all of this. You want people to stop getting hurt, and you want that to happen because the people who consume the work say, “I’m not supporting stuff with this kind of baggage.” That accountability should be in place. It should be bad business practice to hire people who are bad people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.