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BoJack Horseman’s Will Arnett on Why We’re All Narcissists

Photo: Caroline McCredie/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

BoJack Horseman — a deeply insecure, self-destructive, and often manipulative anthropomorphic horse — isn’t the first unsympathetic character Will Arnett has played. He was nominated for Emmys for both Arrested Development’s self-absorbed showman G.O.B. Bluth and a recurring 30 Rock guest role as snakelike NBC executive Devon Banks. “People always accuse me of playing the asshole character, but I say he’s not an asshole,” Arnett said. “He’s severely unloved and in an incredibly tough environment emotionally.” And it’s clear after talking with Arnett that the actor’s own compassion for his character also helps drive the audience’s ability to root for the faded sitcom star, in spite of some pretty unforgivable behavior. Season three, which may be BoJack Horseman’s bleakest yet, finds BoJack on the brink of respectable movie stardom. And if you’ve watched Bojack Horseman before, you already know that it doesn’t go very well for very long.

I’m still recovering from BoJack Horseman season three.
It’s continued devastation. It is unrelenting. Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, the show’s creator] and I were talking last week about how he is hellbent on keeping his foot on the gas when it comes to making sure that BoJack is never happy and/or satisfied. Season three is pretty bad news for BoJack spiritually, but the show is still a comedy. You don’t wake up one morning and say “today is going to be a comedy day.” And the next day, “today’s going to be a drama day.” Things happen in life that are fun and light, and things happen that are heavier. You just have to move your way through life, and I think BoJack is a good reflection of that.

When all you’re doing with a character is the voice, does that create distance? Or does it give you an opportunity to connect on another level?
Raphael’s writing is so specific and he has such an understanding in any given script of where he wants to go and what BoJack is going through that when we sit down to record, we are able to talk in very specific ways about what we want to accomplish in a scene. Because we are not encumbered by worrying about the physicality and the blocking and those visual elements, we can just focus on the words and the emotion and that aspect of the storytelling.

I’ve been trying to distill what BoJack Horseman is as a character into a couple of words and the best I’ve come with so far is “redeemable narcissist.” How would you describe him?
It’s funny you say narcissist. It seems like more than ever you hear that word used to describe other people. We live in an age where a huge percentage of the population can be accused of being narcissists. We’re kind of encouraged to be: Take care of yourself, make sure to look after yourself first … You can’t be in a relationship unless you are whole and you can put your whole self first. Everybody is a narcissist by that definition. It’s more of the rule than the exception.

So how does someone get the distinction of being a narcissist if we’re all narcissists?
A guy like BoJack is someone who is is self-serving to a point that it harms other people. That’s what he is grappling with, and it’s the first time he’s becoming cognizant of it. A real narcissist wouldn’t actually recognize that.

He seems to genuinely want to be a good person and it bothers him when he falls short. But is simply having the desire to be a good person enough? Or is it just another self-delusion?
I don’t know if it’s enough. I really don’t. Thematically, it’s something I find very interesting. Certainly it’s an idea we touched on in Flaked [Arnett’s other Netflix show]: If you don’t know that what you are doing is having a negative effect on other people, and you are kind of being a bad person but are unaware of it, that’s pretty bad. But if you know and you continue to do it, that’s even worse. The thing I always try to hold onto with BoJack and with Flaked is that maybe there is a sliver of hope that they are going to turn it around. They are just having a tough time getting there. And that’s the thing with BoJack — he is obviously depressed. And I don’t know enough about real clinical depression to speak on it  — God forbid I do and somebody will be offended — but I do think there’s something going on there that’s a lot deeper that he’s not confronting.

You’ve been open about your recovery from addiction and have said your show Flaked is drawn from personal experience. Would you consider BoJack an addict?
I would think he is. But for someone like BoJack, his addiction and consumption of alcohol and drugs are truly a symptom of far greater problems. Like a lot of people he is self-medicating. It allows him to escape and mask his fear and uncertainty. He has a lot of suffering moments when he’s confronted with his own reality, and it’s almost too hard. He can’t take it. [Mild spoiler ahead.]

At the very end [of season three], you see his desire to be set free. But he has to watch from afar and see what could be. It’s so devastating and heartbreaking. One of the ideas that I’ve discussed is if BoJack ever really hit his bottom, from what we know of him.

It’s hard to know what would be his bottom. There have been some disastrous consequences, but he’s so protected. Can material wealth keep people from hitting bottom?
In certain instances it can, on a very surface level. But ultimately, spiritually, it can’t protect you.

One of the fascinating things about this character is that he’s so self-destructive and he tries so hard to alienate people, but he still manages to have these intimate, solid friendships and romances.
He is really looking for a connection with somebody. He really does want to be happy. He does have all these relationships and they are quite intimate, but I don’t think it is until he can stop the music and confront who he is that he will ever be able to have anything that lasts.

What are some similarities between you and BoJack Horseman?
I think there’s a shared cynicism, but of course BoJack doesn’t really exist: That comes from Raphael and the writers. There’s a shared sensibility in that way because we all understand the ups and downs and the pitfalls of what we do. And I can identify with the idea of trying to figure out where it is you fit in the world. But BoJack is a guy who is kind of deeply unloved and even his friendships are flawed and one-way, though he has his moments. For me, I am blessed with incredible friends and relationships with people, and it’s something that I rely on. And of course, family — I have two kids and I am a dad first and foremost.

There seems to be a certain angst about being childless coming through in season three.
I think it would serve him really well — one thing about being a parent and being present for your kids is that you have to put their needs before your own. I would imagine for BoJack it would really change his entire worldview if he were forced to do that.

And then there are the parents who don’t do the job they are supposed to do, like BoJack’s parents.
He was not particularly nurtured or well cared for emotionally by his parents. It obviously did some damage, and he is having a tough time letting that go. That’s a big thing that holds a lot of people back. I’m not saying, “Hey, just get over it.” Someone has said this to me and I’ve repeated it to other people: Once you’re 30 you can’t blame your parents anymore. These are the cards you were dealt and you have to come to peace with that in whatever way you can in order to move on and become your own person. You have to try as much as you can to decide to move on and be happy. This might be controversial, but sometimes I think that being happy is a decision. I don’t mean that in a way to diminish clinical depression. But on a more day-to-day level.

So it sounds like you’ve made the decision to be happy.
I am happy because I’m grateful. I choose to be grateful. That gratitude allows me to be happy.

Will Arnett on BoJack, Why We’re All Narcissists