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Brett Gelman Is Ready to Play a Good Villain

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

If you want to play action-movie bingo, consider the new Amazon film Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse. It’s got Revenge, Conspiracies, Crashed Planes, Crashed Cars, Sinking Cars, Fire, Guns, a Renegade Hero, Prison Fights, More Guns, Russia … all of the genre tropes, in other words. But it’s not so far into the movie, which is directed by Stefano Sollima and stars Michael B. Jordan (as John Kelly), that there’s a genuine surprise: Brett Gelman.

At this point, the actor and comedian has tallied over 100 credits — more than supposed Hollywood Nucleus, Kevin Bacon, by the way — so his appearance probably shouldn’t be a surprise. But while there’s range to Gelman’s roles, they tend to be at least tinged with comedy, if not altogether doused in it. And Without Remorse … well, let’s just say it is a movie about a strong, angry man whose pregnant wife gets shot and killed. There’s a bit of a disconnect in tones. But that, Gelman says, is precisely why he was interested in being in the film in the first place. “I want to do as many varied characters and things that look to be outside of my wheelhouse,” he says.

For Without Remorse, that meant playing Viktor Rykov, the man who kills John Kelly’s wife and gets away. Though Rykov doesn’t get a lot of screen time, he is a complicated character, and one who looms large throughout the film. Vulture spoke with Gelman about how he makes small parts like Rykov feel big, what the past year’s relative lack of work has been like, and why he has always been into villains.

As someone who is always working and seemingly in everything, what’s the past year been like?
You know, I had a somewhat busy year. I did work a bit, but not in the way that I’m used to. I did shoot some Stranger Things, and I did a couple movies. I’m also a writer, and I was taking on other projects. So I kept very busy. But yeah, a lot of it was not being on set and just being at home. And that felt absolutely insane! I think anyone who’s an actor will be able to play someone who’s on house arrest very easily.

A serious role in a blockbuster action movie is a bit outside your normal wheelhouse. Why did you want to do this project?
I have played villains in things, but not in this genre and tone. I wanted to do this because it’s always been a fantasy of mine to be the villain in an action movie, and I thought doing this would help me be seen and show a different color of what I can do. And I just love playing different types of characters. I want to do a lot more varied stuff. Not that I want to stop doing comedy, but I want to stretch myself and do everything that I know I can do — and also learn more about myself and increase what I can do along the way.

This is a role that looms large in the movie. How do you give a character like that weight in that limited amount of screen time?
That has to do with the intensity of the character’s psychology and their presence. This is a large character. He’s essentially an American jihadist. His religion is democracy. I mean, this is a very intense guy. So [it meant] throwing everything I had at it. This is a guy who’s aware of his sacrifice, and there was a choice made by Stefano [Sollima] and myself to really show his humanity and show the knowledge of This is it. The sacrifice is here. And there’s a deep pain, in that I’m about to sacrifice myself, but also a deep passion in doing what I think is right for America.

When I was training as an actor, studying classical theater, the shoes you have to fill as those characters [are huge], given that it is some of the best writing in the world. When you’re playing Shakespeare or Arthur Miller, you have to fill these larger-than-life characters. And you also have to fill the theater. So I would think about almost inflating my presence. And to be funny, you’re grabbing everyone’s attention in the room. So I think all of that adds up to intensity and a very large presence, which helps with playing Viktor Rykov and most of the characters I play.

I have a couple comedic roles of this nature that people hold near and dear to their hearts, like my character in The Other Guys and my bad magician in The Office. So if I say yes to something, I bring the whole life of that character, even if it is just five minutes. And it means a lot when it means something to people. This was a cool opportunity to do that in a dramatic and action context instead of a comedic one. It’s the same thing with Christopher Walken’s Pulp Fiction speech: It sticks in my mind. Or Mel Brooks as the governor in Blazing Saddles. Not to be too cliché, but there are no small parts; you throw yourself in.

You said earlier that it had been a fantasy of yours to play a villain in an action movie. Was there a certain villain growing up that inspired that fantasy?
Star Wars is so tattooed in our consciousness in almost a subconscious way, but Darth Vader really is one of the greatest villains ever. But beyond him, I just think the greatest villain ever is Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber in Die Hard. When I saw that performance, I was like, Look at the fun this actor is having. And yet there’s such a charm to him. And such a menace. I was always influenced by certain villain performances.

Did those villains always appeal to you more than the heroes?
Yes. The villains or the comedic side characters, which I got to play in Stranger Things as Murray. But as I’ve gotten older, I love the great heroes. I mean, I love Harrison Ford so much. He’s, to me, probably the greatest action star. And Bruce Willis in Die Hard. These are roles that really speak to me. But when I was younger, yeah, I gravitated more toward the villain — even in dramas. I remember seeing Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and going, Oh my God, look at this. What a blast being such a bad guy.

This is a pretty serious movie. Were you able to joke around on set and bring levity to it?
There were definitely some good times being had. I would have a lot of laughs with Michael [B. Jordan]. Michael likes to have a good time. I mean, he’s one of the most focused people I’ve ever seen, but every time after a take, we’d hug each other and be joking around.

What did you joke about?
It was mostly just about how fucked up it all was [laughs]: “This is so crazy” and “Oh my God, I’m strapped with plastic explosives” and “What is going on right now?” But nothing so specific. It’s always just fluid.

This movie proved that you look natural holding a gun. And you’ve worked alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge. So I’ve got to ask: Are you going to be in the new Mr. & Mrs. Smith remake?
I mean, I should be. I haven’t gotten any calls yet, but Hello! Phoebe, Donald [Glover], let’s go! Give me a role, give me a gun, and I’m there. That would be cool. But no, I have not been contacted. And I imagine I would’ve at this point. But that’s fine. I don’t have to be in everything.

Brett Gelman Is Ready to Play a Good Villain