Improvising Through Life with Jason Mantzoukas

Before Jason Mantzoukas was being asked about the logistics of breaking into the comedy world, he was traveling the real world. Living for almost two years abroad on a trip funded through the Watson Fellowship, a grant that enables graduates to pursue an independent study internationally, Mantzoukas had only one restriction: he could not return to the US until the fellowship ended. The actor and comedian, who has since become known for his roles in shows like The League, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, said the trip taught him about improvisation and how there is no template to life – the same way there is no set path for comedy.

Mantzoukas is now starring alongside Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler in The House, in which he plays Frank, the depressed neighbor with a severe gambling problem. I spoke with Mantzoukas about his time traveling abroad in his 20s, working with comedy heavyweights, and the constant hustle of his job.

In The House you play a gambling addict going through a divorce. You learned to play craps for the film. Was there any other preparation involved or was it more just focusing on being funny, playing the comedy aspects of it?

A little bit of both. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of preparation in terms of research or anything, other than, like you said, having to learn the actual games of craps and stuff like that. But for the most part I think a lot of the preparation for me was essentially just trying to figure out and connect with I think what we’ve all certainly been through, which is some version of a breakup that is heartbreaking enough that it’ll make you wander around in sweat shorts and a poncho to your friends’ daughter’s graduation party. That kind of degenerate lost soul who you feel bad for instead of hating was important to me – finding that kind of balance so that Will and Amy’s characters would feel bad for me and not want to walk away from me.

The characters do some morally questionable things.

[laughs] I would say they are not questionable. They are bad.

Was there a hesitation that audiences wouldn’t like your characters?

Not really. I don’t think anybody was really worried that the audience wouldn’t be on board for these characters. For the most part, especially with Will and Amy, you’re always going to be rooting for them. You’d have to work really hard to make a movie where people wouldn’t root for them to get their daughter to college. Even as things spiral out of control, I think Will and Amy are so good at playing people who make crisis decisions that are negative, but you are still rooting for them to succeed. I think my character is somewhere on the fringes of that. I think he is more of a bad influence but is also emotionally a lot more of a mess. I think Frank is truly just barely keeping it together.

You started in improv and have now acted alongside people like Robert De Niro, Amy Poehler, and Will Ferrell. Is there a level of intimidation in working with these big names?

I always get excited to work with the older actors that are not necessarily comedy people like Robert De Niro in Dirty Grandpa or, as an enormous fan of Homicide: Life on the Street, doing scenes with Andre Braugher in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the fuckin’ best. He is just so great.

I’ve known Amy since the late ‘90s when UCB was just starting out in New York. That’s when I came to New York and started doing comedy as they were getting up and running, and so I’ve known her for a long time and the same goes for a lot of other people that kind of came out of that world. Somebody like Will, even though I’ve never worked with him, I’ve certainly known him socially for a while. To work with him, it wasn’t necessarily intimidating because I knew him to be a very nice and cool and generous guy so working with him was just that. Everybody that comes out of that UCB world or that comes out of improv – Will, Andrea Savage, and Michaela Watkins – they all kind of come out of the Groundlings LA scene, which is not completely dissimilar to UCB. Having everybody speak that same language was terrific.

You won the Watson Fellowship when you were younger. They gave you a certain amount of money to travel and find your own path. What was that experience like?

The Watson Fellowship is kind of a non-academic Fulbright. It’s a grant that is given to, at the time I got it, 40-50 [recipients]. The constraints are that you have to be pursuing something that is not your field of academic study. Their whole kind of ethos is, “There are plenty of people who will give you money to continue your academic career. We would like to give you money to continue something you are very passionate about or something you are very interested in, but something that is not what you’re going to go to graduate school for.” So you apply through your college, your college nominates you to the foundation, and [the foundation] awards the grants. I had a background in jazz, playing drums. And I was a religion major and was studying all these different kinds of religions, and so I ended up doing a project in North Africa and the Middle East. It was basically music that was meant to bring about a union with something holy, basically music that was meant to put you into a trance or meant to connect you to God.

It’s true you couldn’t go back to the US during your trip?

[Watson] doesn’t put a lot of rules on you taking their money. But one of them is: “If we give you this money you can’t come back to the United States for at least a year.” Their whole thing is, “We want you to go out and be challenged in what your project is and really immerse yourself in it and not come home to see friends.” Part of the experience of it, which I also found very valuable, was that understanding that when I leave I’m leaving for a long time and I have to figure it out. That’s the other thing, unlike a Fulbright or other academic fellowships, there is no infrastructure in the country. Wherever I went there was nobody there looking after me or nobody I was supposed to report to. Part of what they’re funding is a little bit of you getting to know yourself or getting to be more self-reliant, which was truly invaluable.

When people ask you how to break into the industry you’ve told them there’s no set road, that they have to find their own paths. Did you learn that lesson when you were abroad?

A little bit. This business is difficult in the sense that there is no model. There are people you can try and model yourself after, but you can’t have anybody else’s career. You can only have yours and you can try and figure it out as best you can. I ended up being abroad for just under two years. And it’s a very improvised life. There is not a lot of forward planning I could do. A lot of it required me to actually go to the places, start talking to people, build relationships – all of the kinds of things that required me to just move the ball forward down the field in the moment. That is a lot of what this career is. I can’t predict or know what is going to come next or how it’s going to unfold. I have to keep moving what I have right now down the field.

Looking at your career trajectory it would seem like you’re “set,” but there’s always an unpredictability and a hustle.

There is no security to it. I don’t have any kind of job security. People get really curious about auditions and what that’s like and it really is that bizarre thing. Having doing it for so long, it’s baked into how my job works, but what if you had to go on a job interview four times a week every week forever? Even with success you still have to do job interviews constantly. You hope you get a job and you hope the job lasts for a while. It’s a constant beginning and then ending the job and then trying to figure out what the next job is going to be.

The House hits theaters this Friday, June 30th.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Improvising Through Life with Jason Mantzoukas