early roles

Jim Rash on Three Early Roles, Flop Sweat, and Playing ‘Sexual Weird Dudes’

Jim Rash - in the Sundance Channel original series
Jim Rash - in the Sundance Channel original series “Writers’ Room” - Photo Credit: Mark Peterson Photo: Photo: Mark Peterson/Sundance channel

Long before he gave breath to Community’s obliviously needy Dean Pelton or needled Angelina Jolie’s leg while accepting an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants, Jim Rash was just another unknown actor trying to catch a break. Vulture was thrilled to learn, while prepping for a lunch interview with Rash to promote his duties as the host of the Sundance Channel talk show The Writers’ Room (which wraps up its first season this Monday at 10 p.m.), that the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as a man picking up snapshots from Robin Williams’s stalker-y clerk in the 2002 movie One Hour Photo is officially named Amateur Porn Guy. Rash was gracious enough to discuss that acting résumé gem with Vulture, and he also regaled us with stories about experiences shooting two other small parts in 2002 movies, both of which found him stricken with flop sweat.

One Hour Photo
“I don’t know how it happened that I became the sexual weird dude. I did that on That ’70s Show. I did it on Reno 911. And now on Community. And they’ve been all variants, all different kinds of people. Somehow I’ve worked my way up to playing creepy sexual men who flirt with everything. Amateur Porn Guy was a bit more sheltered and shifty than the others, I guess. That was filmed so fast, though. It was part of a little montage of characters. I remember shooting that in some deserted building in the Valley; they’d filled it with stuff to make it look like it was a Walmart or a CVS or something. We shot it in one night and I don’t think I even say much because it was just quick cuts of random [customers] coming up to Robin Williams. I improvised a little bit, I remember that. They’d let Robin do some improv with that character, and he was quite good at playing that guy without losing you with that hairdo. We didn’t do much together, so I only vaguely recall talking to him, but I think it was me trying to get out of there fast and him stopping and asking about the pictures I’d taken. But yeah, I’m pretty proud of my sexual deviance. Eventually, that’ll be my exposé on Inside the Actors Studio.”

Minority Report
“I actually have two eerily similar flop-sweat stories — one was on S1m0ne with Al Pacino, where I do appear on-screen, and another horrible flop sweat came when I was shooting Minority Report. Two different circumstances. They’re both long stories, but I’ll give you the abbreviated versions. And I need to go back and look at some things on IMDb because I think I’m still credited for Minority Report, even though my part was cut. Anyway, the experience with Minority Report was wonderfully horrible. The whole thing came up quickly when the movie was already in production. There was this audition because Steven wanted to add these futuristic police dispatchers to cut away to for the building of suspense — technically, they would be on the other end of a line with Tom Cruise. Because it was Steven Spielberg, it called for a very multicultural array of six or seven dispatchers. When I went to the audition, the part I was up for was like two or three lines, which seems fine but it was all technical jargon. Code numbers and shit. But they said, ‘You got the part,’ and I said, ‘Sweet.’ So, the night before shooting, I was teaching at the Groundlings, and my class ended at, like, ten-thirty at night. They had told me that they were going to fax over some new asides. When I come home, there’s seventeen pages of dialogue now. It went from one page to, like, seventeen pages of dialogue, and they’d added all this technical jargon for all of us. I didn’t know what was going on. All I knew is I had too much. So I started freaking out, thinking, This is way too much to learn. And like an idiot, I tried to stay up into the night and learn these lines.

“So I was dead tired going in. Basically no sleep. It’s an early call. We get there and I’m freaking out about whether I know it because it was hard to memorize. It really was like, ‘Precinct Five-one-three. Target. Officer. Blah blah blah.’ So, Steven Spielberg comes over on a golf cart in a very Hollywood moment. Very nice guy. He says, ‘Hey, guys, I’m going to get to you at the end of the day. I just want you to run it all day because I need it to be quickly paced.’ The only thing I thought was, Oh, good, we have all day to cram. So we start cramming and it seems to be getting there, and the writer of this technical jargon — I don’t know if he wrote the movie but he wrote this stuff — comes over and goes, ‘Hey, guys, got everything?’ And we say, ‘Yes.’ And he looks at me and says, “Do you know what you’re doing?” And I go, ‘I guess so.’ And he says, ‘Well, no — you log all this stuff into the computer.’ So then we realize that I had been memorizing all of their lines but I was supposed to be reciting it at the same time as them while putting into a computer in logging terms what they were saying in normal English. So, like Rain Man, I was supposed to be starting a little bit after them but we’d be talking at the same time. So now my lines are supposed to be just a monologue. I was just like so insanely over-stressed.

“We get on set finally and we’re in these futuristic, weird outfits. It’s pretty hot in there. They had these headsets they designed for the future that are around your ear and they have to sort of stick them on the side of your face because they’re supposed to stay there. From the first take, I’m sweating because I’m nervous. Steven Spielberg’s right over there. I don’t know these lines. I’m so out of my mind. And this thing won’t stay on my face so I keep pushing it to stick. That’s not why my part got cut — at least I hope not. On the very first take, the steady-cam shot started on me, so I started talking, and at some point when the camera was off me, I would sort of fade into the background because I couldn’t remember anything. I was talking nonsense while the others were doing their stuff so they weren’t getting any audio from me underneath the other dialogue. The set was glass dome-y, and there’s this tap on the glass. The script coordinator’s like [in annoyed exaggerated whisper voice], ’Say your lines.’ More sweat. ‘You gotta say your lines.’ And Steven Spielberg, not looking up from that monitor, says, ‘Yeah, guys, say your lines.’ Not in a dickish way. To be honest, this was just a stylistic thing he needed; I don’t think it really mattered. Anyway, so now, I can’t remember anything, so what I did was, when the camera would go off on me, I would pull the page with the lines on it out of my pocket and just read it, because at least I got it. We only shot for an hour, but unfortunately, during that hour, seventeen pages represented any number of scenes he could use. So he’d just pick at random: ‘Let’s do scene eight.’ So you were memorizing pages that may or may not be done. So he says, ‘Let’s go to this next one,’ and he went to one that I definitely didn’t know, and he says, ‘Let’s do all of them, and then we’ll do yours in a single [shot].’ I was like, Are you kidding me? So now he wanted me just by myself. It was a manageable line. Just one line. So I’m working and working and working, and I don’t know how many takes I did, but it was a lot to try to get that line. A little while later, Steven wraps the set: ‘That’s it, I’m going home.’

“And then cut to, going home, horrible day, and we had to pick it up again in the morning. And I woke up and — the human brain is such a fucked up thing — I knew everything. It was as if now I could do a thesis on this shit. The second day was like night and day. I was like, comparatively, top of my game. So there was relief that it would be okay. And I guess, because I’m not even in the movie, it doesn’t matter, but it was literally like, me pushing this headset back up my face, being so unprofessional, and thinking I’m going to be fired.”

“The one with Al Pacino was worse because Al Pacino and I had a scene together. We were at Paramount in an old screening room and I was playing one of the three executives that always followed Catherine Keener’s character around on movies, like one of her little lackeys. It’s a scene where Al Pacino, as a director, is showing us a movie Winona Ryder’s character walks off of in the very beginning. She plays an actress who’s a diva and leaves, which makes Pacino furious, and he’s so done with actresses that he creates a computer one to replace her. Anyway, so, we’re watching the dailies of Winona Ryder. And Al’s supposed to come down and give this sort of speech, and then turn around and stand facing us as we sat in our seats. They hadn’t introduced us to him ahead of time. He just showed up and went, ‘Are we ready?’ So, this was our physical introduction to him. We’d rehearsed. I knew all of my lines. No big deal. It’s not technically hard, but now it’s, like, I’m in the lawyer zone. My line was like, ‘Victor, according to the writ that her attorneys filed at noon today, she’ll sue if a single frame of this movie is released.’ That was my line. Not crazy. A little clunky. He comes down, and it’s over his shoulder to me. So it’s on me and I mess it up two or three times. And it’s freaking hot inside this place. Not a drop of air condition. I can feel the sweat starting, you know? At one point the makeup artist comes over and starts fixing me, and she says out loud, ‘My god,’ and staring at my forehead, saying, ‘You are sweating.’ Which makes it worse. So it’s like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. And it’s not stopping. It’s pouring. I’m freaking out. I was much younger then as this was years ago and I probably had hair — ish — or enough that if it got wet it would be noticeable. There’s something nice about being bald now because it’s like powder and you’re good to go. Anyway, sweat keeps coming down. Keeps coming down. Keeps coming down. At one point, Andrew Niccol, the director of that movie, had them write my line on a big piece of poster board. So my image is Al Pacino with a big poster board behind him with my line on it — this is how bad it got. So I’m reading it, and Niccol goes, ‘Great. Now’ — and it was a great device — ‘you’ve said it, let’s get rid of it because your eyes, you’re reading it.’ He knew I was nervous and that it would relax my brain. And it worked. It was one of those things where I just needed to say it once right. ‘So now let’s do one where you’re not reading it.’

“I can’t wait to meet Steven Spielberg or Al Pacino again so I can say, ‘I have to tell you how you know me. You know me because I am the worst actor in the world.’”

Rash is currently filming the fifth season of Community and, with writing partner Nat Faxon, he directed the hit indie dramedy The Way Way Back. He also hosts Sundance Channel’s The Writers’ Room, which wraps up this Monday at 10pm with an episode on the FX series American Horror Story.

Jim Rash on Three Early Roles