Brian Huskey on UCB, Improv, and Being a Character Actor

Brian Huskey might have once been “that guy,” recognized for his work in commercials and film and TV, but the actor and UCB-trained improviser has built a career as a quick-thinking talent able to sink into a role — often a soft-spoken or buttoned-up character — that Huskey makes his own and twists into something more complex. Huskey played an empty-headed panelist in Onion News Network videos before he began appearing regularly as the unbalanced EMT Chet on Childrens Hospital, and he’s been popping up in shows and movies all over, including a memorable scene in This Is The End and on shows like Workaholics, Parks and Rec, Bob’s Burgers, and Veep.

Now, Huskey plays as a high school principal in Premature, a high-concept teen sex comedy from writer-director Dan Beers about a day in the life of overachieving and anxiety-ridden senior Rob (John Karna). It could have gone better: Rob ends a day of humiliation after having started it waking up to his mom walking in on him after he’d just had a wet dream, later being hit with a squirt gun full of piss, failing to nail a crucial interview with a Georgetown recruiter (Alan Tudyk) to his father’s disappointment, feeling pressure from his friend (Craig Roberts) to have sex with the hot girl he tutors (Carlson Young), and blowing off his good friend (Katie Findlay) for the chance of losing his virginity, which he botches. Then he repeats it. Groundhog Day would have been the closest comparison to the premise of Premature were it not for Edge of Tomorrow, since, like the way Tom Cruise’s character resets the day himself by dying, Rob resets it whenever he orgasms.

I talked with Huskey about the movie, improv, and how he’s made a career of acting.

How did you get involved with Premature?

I got involved because Dan Beers gave me a call and said, “Do you want to do this?” and I said yes. [Laughs] That’s the exciting journey that led to that part. But Dan and I had crossed paths back in New York, and he was just aware of my stuff and I was aware of his. I think he’s a great guy and wanted to work with him, so that’s what happened.

It seems like a lot of the people you regularly work with you knew from New York or UCB or have become part of that community. How important has the training and community of UCB been to what you’re doing now?

Oh, it’s essential. UCB was my acting program because prior to that I was a photographer, and I had always wanted to do comedy and be an actor. I wrote a speech about it and stuff, but I just kept being distracted or being scared off of it. Improv made sense to me — it made sense to how I knew I was already funny. It was a language that made sense to me, that made the idea of doing a scene less threatening than learning a bunch of lines. It would be something that I could be invested in and create. That carried over into now where I do have to have lines, but I do have the skill set to invest in and create my own take on it. That’s really helpful. It’s like anything, any creative venture: your associations to the people that you came up with leads to other opportunities. And it’s great to be able to work with people you like, your friends.

It’s great to hear that you’re working with people you enjoy, especially since the shows you appear on are often acclaimed by critics and appreciated by comedy nerds. You’re a staple on Childrens Hospital, and you’ve recently appeared on Veep and Bob’s Burgers. What’s it like to be doing a variety of things within the comedy community?

Well, one: It’s great to work. It’s amazing to work. I always try to remind myself to just be so thankful that it’s not only one thing but multiple chances and experiences. Two: It’s great to do stuff that I really love. As a viewer, I love Veep, I love Childrens Hospital, I love Bob’s Burgers. That kind of a rare experience of getting to work on stuff that you love because there are a lot of days like, “Yep, that was a fun day, and you’re paying me, so thank you.” But to get to do things that are really amazing work… it’s the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that you’re eating. Sometimes it can be a little crazy maybe — bouncing around from world to world to world — but at this point, with those three examples, I know exactly who the characters are and what I’m doing for the show. I’m so thankful and proud of all the work I get to do and the people I get to work with. [In a funny voice] I pinch myself everyday.

How has your life changed from your UCB days to now?

I would say now that I’m in a place where I don’t feel as nervous, or, for lack of a better phrase, unsafe. You know, being an actor, you’re saying, “I think I will play the lottery with my career” or “I’m going to jump off this building and see if I land safely.” It’s a crazy thing to do, so for a long time it’s been a battle against this feeling of “This could be my last line of work” or “I don’t know if this is going to lead to anything else.” So I am happy to be aware that these parts do link up to each other and that this work begets that work, this reputation gets that thing. I think for the first time maybe in my career I’ve been like, “Oh yeah, cool. I think this is working.” Which might sound weird to someone on the outside, but everybody’s experience of their own journey is very different than others’ perception of it.

There’s a good quote from Conan O’Brien where he says something like, “Even though I have this late night TV show, I still don’t feel safe. I feel like it’s all going to go away at any second.” And that’s true for anybody in any line of work, but I think more so in this line of work. It’s better not to lean into that fear of thinking that it’s some form of protection for yourself because sometimes the fear can lead to bad things. That’s something I honestly learned recently: to let go of the fear and enjoy what’s happening a little bit more.

Was there something when you were just starting out that helped you push past that fear of instability or the feeling that the chances of making it were slim?

It helps a lot if you get paid a lot of money. It makes you feel safe. That sounds really crass, but when you get something that’s not just one day’s pay — like a very good commercial, or you get a part on the show that’s paying you good money — that allows you to calm down, which is understandable for anybody. A little security goes a long way. But, that does go away if you don’t get another job or there’s a writer’s strike, for example, or whatever. But you just have to kind of remind yourself that if it’s happened before, it will probably happen again if you’re a talented and nice person. If you’re talented and not a nice person, you can make it all go away. And if you’re untalented but and not a nice person, then that first time was just a fluke and people will find you out. The other great wisdom I’ve gotten from people is straightforward, like, “Don’t be a dick” and “Have fun with the people you’re working with.” I think that’s really great. “Don’t be a dick.”

You said that improv makes sense to you. What do you mean?

First, it made sense to me because I used to play in a band. The improv community reminded me a lot of the indie rock band community. People were competitive but also really supportive within the scene, so it had this feeling that you had this secret language and this secret clubhouse that, if you stumbled into it, you were one of the chosen few, and it made you feel very safe and cool. That made sense to me. I was like, “Oh, I understand the people I’m dealing with and the vibe here.” And then I think what was familiar to me was the fact that you could just get up onstage and start making up an idea with someone was something I’d grown up doing with my friends, just doing bits with my friends, hanging out. And when I would teach improv classes, I would say, “At best, you want to sort of feel like you’re unconsciously hanging out with your friends, creating a funny scenario out of nothing. You’re not aware that the audience is there, you’re just in the moment like, ‘That’s funny. I’m gonna add more to that.’ And then before you know it, you’ve got a fully fleshed out idea.” That was familiar to me.

And it also strips away some of the artifice of acting classes, which for me felt very threatening. You have this text and this history and this chapel of creativity that you’re entering into. And there’s also in improv, ownership. There’s inherent ownership in what you’re creating. And that made sense to me to or was familiar because in a band, like an indie rock band, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t pay off. You’re just making songs with your friends because that’s what you want to have happen. I was also surprised, when I started taking improv classes, by people trying to be actors. I just assumed everyone else was like me, “I’m gonna do it just to do it.” I was like, “Oh, you mean this will lead to something? That seems weird.” I just assumed everybody was gonna take either a pottery class or an improv class. But there were some people who really wanted to be actors. And then I did too.

So, turning toward Premature

Yeah, I don’t want to talk about Premature. It’s a disgusting movie.

I didn’t do much reading about the movie before I watched it, so when the premise became clear, I was surprised and excited that this was what the movie was going to be. What did you like about the script?

Well, the conceit itself, I thought, was really funny. Of course, I thought it was really ballsy to take on that Groundhog Day concept, but he did such a great job of heightening that idea  blowing it out, having that kind of absurd comedy tone to it with this weird mindfuck of an experience for the guy. And I think Dan is just a really, really funny writer, so the jokes in there are just so funny. And watching the movie, it built upon itself into nooks and crannies of how he would figure out that situation. It was such a great way, that was very funny. And it was very heartfelt at the end. I didn’t feel manipulated. You know what I mean? Like in a lot of rom-coms the part where the heart kicks in is like “I get it. Here it is at the end.” But he did such a good job with the relationship with his dad. It’s totally earned.

Even with a Groundhog Day/curse concept and it being a sex comedy, its sense of humor felt grounded.

And it was funny. It existed somewhere between really weird, heightened comedy, like the character of the genius with the monobrow and his best friend like falling off a roof and popping up again. It had a lot of great, absurdist little touches that just went by because you’re so into the storyline and following the main character.

You play the high school principal in this movie. You often play these straight-laced characters who always seems to have a surprising edge or darkness to them. What do you find interesting about playing those characters?

Well, I think it’s that kind of thing early on you try to become aware as an actor of what your type is. Recently, I had a run where I had I think nine auditions in a row, and then three parts I got in a row that were doctors. I was just doctoring for a while. And I was like okay, this is definitely how people sort of see me. And it’s important to know that so you can sort of play to the strengths of how you’re being perceived so you know what to do with it. But I also know that, if you’ve ever seen me do improv, I can be very intense, very dark. I can be very, you know, crazy. I like when there’s an opportunity to have the veneer of a straight-laced man, but there’s something below the surface.

And you know, as an actor, you always kind of go, “Well, let me do this other thing.” Like on Kroll Show, I just put this costume on as this prospector who is this real dark corrupt dude, and when I walked out on set, everyone was like, “Holy shit!” They put this hairpiece on me and everything, and that was really fun because I was getting to be a totally different character than I normally do. That’s what I like about Chet. He’s totally low status and vulnerable and insecure but might be a serial killer who is definitely kind of crazy, and he has no status. He makes himself void of status. That’s really fun to play with. But if they want to keep hiring me to be principals, managers, bosses, doctors, I’ll do it. I’ll do it! I won’t fight you!

Do you have a kind of a day that you’d like to repeat?

When I was doing This Is The End and just getting the reactions from those guys when I was doing my scene, we had to stop shooting because they were laughing so hard. That just felt amazing. I was so happy and proud about that. I’d love to get that rush again, and all those guys were amazingly great guys. It was really nice.

What else are you working on?

I just finished shooting all my stuff for Childrens [Hospital], and Jason Mantzoukas and I are going to shoot a pilot with me as the lead for Adult Swim, and [Rob] Corddry is producing it. Melissa Rauch has a new movie this summer [The Bronze], and I’m going to shoot something for her. Her and Thomas Middleditch. Very cool.

That’s it. I’m pitchin’, hustlin, you know, playing the game, sleeping around. I’m trying to fuck as many people as I can. That’s pretty much it. That’s all you got to do.

Premature is currently available on VOD and opens in theaters in LA on July 25th.

Joel Arnold is a writer and improviser living in New York.

Brian Huskey on UCB, Improv, and Being a Character […]