The Lost Roles Interview with Tom Lennon

Lost Roles is a weekly column exploring “what might have been” in movie and TV comedy as we take a different actor, writer, or comedian each week and examine the parts they turned down, wanted but didn’t get, and the projects that fell apart altogether. This week, I interviewed Tom Lennon, star and writer of beloved comedy shows like Reno 911! and The State and an accomplished screenwriter and author (with Ben Garant) of the hilarious, no-bullshit screenwriting how-to book Writing Movies for Fun and Profit. Every actor has their fair share of close casting calls, and Tom Lennon is no exception. He was nice enough to chat about some of the movies and shows he’s missed out on acting in, including Step Brothers, Parks and Recreation, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

I Love You Man (2009)

It’s interesting - the last one of these I read was Rob Huebel - because I actually was always auditioning for Rob Huebel’s roles. I read for [the role of] Tevin at least twice for [director John] Hamburg… in I Love You Man, which ended up being played by Rob Huebel. It was super annoying because it was such an incredible, juicy part. But ultimately, you feel like those roles ended up being played probably exactly by whom they should have been played by. Weirdly, a lot of people quote “You’re a whore, Peter” to me [from my role in the movie] as the guy who goes on a date with Paul Rudd.  And I actually ended up getting nominated for an award, the only award I’ve ever been nominated for was for that movie. As much as I was really, really pissed off at the time, I’ve learned to embrace how that one went down.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

[Of] the biggest heartbreakers of my entire career, probably the worst one was [when] I read three different times – and for a while, was the frontrunner – to play Ford Prefect in the movie version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. People have wondered why I’m the voice of Eddie the Shipboard Computer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is a totally thankless, three-line role itself. The reason is I was in the running for so long to play Ford Prefect. That’s the most devastating… I didn’t get the role of my career. It went to the actor Mos Def, so they went at least a fairly different direction from me, it seems like. [Laughs] It sucks when I lose a role to like, Andy Daly, but when it’s Mos Def, it doesn’t make me feel bad. At least it wasn’t a close call.

That one really killed me because since I was a little kid, I was obsessed with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like obsessed. I’m just insane over Douglas Adams and always have been. I went in, and I knew I nailed it. I read, and they kept having me read. I was like, “Oh man, I’m gonna play Ford Prefect in The Hitchhiker’s Fucking Guide to the Galaxy. This is the coolest thing of all-time.” And then, it just got real quiet, and I never heard anything for a while after killing it over and over again. The next thing I heard was, “Hey, oh yeah, we’re going with Mos Def.” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh, okay.” It stung a little bit because as a fan of the books, I never really pictured Ford Prefect as – not that I didn’t picture him black, necessarily – I just specifically didn’t picture him as someone as cool and low-key as Mos Def. I certainly think there are other black actors who could have brought a lot to Ford Prefect. That one… I may still have never gotten over that.

Splitsider: With ones like that, are you able to still watch the movie, or is it too heartbreaking to see somebody else play the role?

I was pretty mad during the movie [Laughs]. Let’s face it, I was pretty mad beginning to end. That one I’ve never quite gotten over.

Garfield (2004)

There’s a couple strange ones that I passed on that I definitely should have done. One that I passed on that I probably should have done was the villain in the first Garfield movie. He was some kind of reporter. I don’t remember the part that well. I know it ended up being played by my friend Stephen Tobolowsky. In some regards, I feel like I am the heir [Laughs] to the Stephen Tobolowsky thing, which is I’m just sort of that random ever-so-slightly-creepy white person who appears in almost everything. Know what I mean? I pride myself on striving to be like Stephen Tobolowsky, who is, you know, like the wallpaper in every single movie, which is what I’m heading towards.

There’s two roles I didn’t take because it would have messed up either production on the Reno 911 TV show or the movie. You know, it’s tough because those are my best friends that I work with, that I’m doing these shows with. The two roles were, one was the villain in Garfield, which was a big hit. I absolutely should have been in that.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

This one is probably one of the dumbest moves in my life but similar situation: the role Stanley Tucci played in The Devil Wears Prada. As I recall, I think I was just offered that role. I had some back-and-forths with the director, and they were very serious. They either offered it to me or were about to offer it to me. I didn’t want to change the schedule of Reno. It was also like the sort of classic sassy gay assistant. I was like, ‘You know, I don’t know in my life what it does for me to play sassy gay assistant.’ Literally, he has fabulous turtlenecks on, and he says stuff like, “Oh, you did not!”

Stanley Tucci, I don’t know if he got nominated for an award, but I feel like he did. He’s amazing in it. There was tons of press, and the movie was a big hit. I feel like everybody in that movie got nominated for awards and things. Probably an absolutely idiotic move on my part to pass on that. I just passed, I said, “Nah, not interested.” Next thing I know, it was like the biggest movie.

Splitsider: Yeah, but at least you got to go work on Reno 911.

At least I got to go to a parking lot in Sun Valley and get kicked in the nuts by Nick Swardson. That’s what I was doing instead of getting nominated for awards with Meryl Streep [Laughs]. Literally, Nick Swardson was kicking my in the balls in a parking lot.

Men Don’t Leave (1990)

Back in the day in Chicago, I auditioned for a movie called Men Don’t Leave. It would have been a role played by some crazy hip kid.

Step Brothers (2008)

The role played by Adam Scott in Step Brothers. That’s an interesting one because at the callback, they were seeing three actors for that role. One was Adam Scott, one was Jon Hamm, and one was me. It was one of those times where you walk in and you’re like, “Oh fuck, these other guys would be really good in it.” [Laughs] Once again, I think that one went down the right way because Adam is truly off-the-charts amazing in that role. He’s got a sincere edge that if I try to do it, it just seems like I’m faking it. He delivers some amazing lines in that, like when he screams at his wife to get in the car ‘cause they’re gonna miss the Dane Cook special.

Poltergeist III (1988)

I auditioned for but didn’t get into Poltergeist III. God, I wish I could remember what the role was for. I was a kid in Chicago, this was 1988, that was the year I graduated high school. I remember being really excited. I went downtown and auditioned for Poltergeist III. I believe it’s set in like the Hancock building. The Poltergeist is following them around the country like in Jaws 3D or something… That one at the time was a heartbreaker.

The Watch (2012)

I was actually at the table read of The Watch, the recent Ben Stiller/Vince Vaughn movie. I got to read Billy Crudup’s role, and I thought I killed it. I was positive. It was one of those times where I was, “Nailed it!” Never heard back again [Laughs], which is weird because I’ve done some movies with all the people involved in that movie. That’s another thing, sometimes familiarity breeds contempt a little bit. The more people know you, the less likely they are to cast you. But more people know me as a writer, and I think they’re inclined to think of me more as a writer than as an actor. I think of myself as a combination of both.

Lolita (1997)

I auditioned for the guy that she marries at the end of the remake of Lolita. Remember when she’s happily married to some guy? Some weird, like sad sack. I read for that [Laughs].

Bad Teacher (2011)

This happens a lot. This is an interesting one. There’s no actor who gets cast more in the roles I thought I was gonna get than John Michael Higgins. I don’t know why, but for example, in Bad Teacher, I actually auditioned for the principal role he plays [before booking a different part in the movie].

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

I recently lost out to him [John Michael Higgins]. I was positive I booked the bad guy in We Bought a Zoo. Positive. I was like, “I did it! Booked it! Done!” and then never heard back again. Then when I saw the movie coming out, it was Higgins, who is again a friend of mine, so it’s a little bit awkward. There’s also a character actor realm where once you’re in it, you know a lot of the people in it and become friends and things like that. I get knocked out by Higgins for a phenomenal amount of roles. He’s incredibly reliable. He’s one of the most reliable guys around. Higgins is like a comedy genius.

Splitsider: Who are the other actors who you come up against most often?

Let’s see… Higgins would be a huge one. Andy Richter and I are crossing paths a lot. Then, there’s that certain group of [Rob] Huebel, [Paul] Scheer, Nick Kroll. There’s a certain circle of people that you’ll see in the same spots a lot.

Parks and Recreation (2009)

I read for Nick Offerman’s role, and it was a bummer because Greg Daniels and the creators did not come. Greg Daniels wasn’t at my audition or whoever was sort of running the show at the time. I remember thinking, ‘Oh that’s a bummer’ because I had a pretty great audition then I found out later it had been written pretty specifically for Nick.

I don’t think they ever considered me for it, but when they were doing the American Office, someone in casting had said, “We’re looking for sort of a Tom Lennon type” for the Michael Scott role that, of course, made Steve Carell the most famous living American [Laughs]. I never auditioned for it or anything like that, but weirdly Ken Marino told me. I guess he’d gone in or something like that. He said, “They mentioned they were looking for a Tom Lennon type for that type of role,” which is pretty funny.

The Corrections (2011, an HBO pilot based on Jonathan Franzen’s novel)

Whatever happened on that? Nothing. That’s the other interesting thing with auditions. When you’re an actor, it’s like those Tibetan monks who make a painting in the sand called a mandala, and then you just wipe it away and it’s gone. That’s what auditioning as an actor is like. You spend like a really long time, stress out. I take auditioning very, very seriously. I generally memorize the entire thing. Some people think, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. They just wanna see sort of what you’ll do.’ In my experience, they wanna see something very close to your finished performance in the film. So frequently, you feel like it went great and then you turn around and literally never hear another thing about it again. And then you see the poster and you’re like, “Oh, there you go. Oh, that guy. Oh, look. Okay.”

Curb Your Enthusiasm (guest spot, 2011)

One of the strangest auditions I ever had was I auditioned for Curb Your Enthusiasm. I am pretty used to improvising, but it was a very different level of improvising with him. Larry David will stop you a lot to re-direct the scene. It felt very much to me like I was playing a game of “Guess what he was thinking” more than like an improv game. I never heard anything about that again. Weirdly, it was to play a Hollywood screenwriter who was sitting in like a café next to Larry David. I was like, ‘Oh, that’ll be easy.’ But it was certainly one of the stranger auditions I’ve ever had, improvising-wise.

The Lost Roles Interview with Tom Lennon