When interviewing comic actors, there is an expected protocol: you wonder how long before the first of many jokes lands, but Will Arnett may take the record with ten seconds in. When the publicist points out that I’m from the Irish Times, he quips that he’s “had a few Irish Times in my day” (more on this later). In TV terms, Arnett is one of the best and most distinct comic actors of the last decade, whose career has been carved out by graft and persistence. Best known for Arrested Development, Arnett originally dropped out of college and moved to New York to try to become an actor. “When I was starting out, there were many moments when I thought ‘right: it’s NOT going to be an actor’s life for me (laughs). If you want to be an actor, it has to be because there’s nothing else that you want to do, or can do. I always knew that in order to get into a position where you get to do the things that you want, it was going to take some time. I knew that would be my path… but you have to love doing it.”From the late 1990s until the early 2000s, there were one-off appearances in high profile shows like Sex and the City, Law & Order: SVU and The Sopranos. Life involved countless auditions and the merry-go-round of pilot commissioning that characterises US television. “When I was about 32, I’d done my third pilot in a row for CBS, and while Still Standing DID got picked up, my character was written out. Even though I’d been living in New York for 12 years and auditioning constantly, that was a very tough one to take. There was a period of over six months where I thought ‘that’s it, I’m done’. As tough as I think I am, I didn’t want to put myself through all that anymore. It was too hard. I was in rehearsal for a play and was doing a lot of voiceover work, so I decided that I wouldn’t do any more TV. It made me feel good because I could take back some control. Auditions would come up and I would tell my agent that I didn’t want to do TV… the process was just too heart-breaking.”As disappointment mounted, Arnett was drinking heavily. He admits he was out most nights, and the earlier “Irish Times” reference is a nod to the years he hung out at McManus Bar in Manhattan. The cyclical process of putting himself forward for pilots, not getting commissioned, or worse, getting the green light only for a show to be dropped quickly, proved too much. Then out of the blue, an opportunity arose that turned his life around. “It was a pretty dark time so I had zero expectation that things would happen for me when I was sent the script for Arrested Development. The producers were having trouble casting the part of Job, so I reluctantly put myself on tape, and then got a call to come out to California. The process involved testing in front of the Network and signing a contract right there, so if they want you, they’ve got you already. I wasn’t in California, but my agent called to ask me about signing a contract and faxing it back. I was drinking all night in McManus’ – where I hung out a LOT – and was all ‘yeah, yeah, I’ll sign it at some point’, but he kept calling so we knew they really wanted me. It was as if when I finally let go and didn’t really give a shit, the world opened up.”Arnett also got sober at this point, and Arrested Development went on to become a cult classic with a niche, but hugely dedicated audience. Starring Jason Bateman and Portia de Rossi as his siblings, Arnett played Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job), the eldest son of the Bluth family, a magician with a failed marriage, a fondness for Segways and a signature ‘Chicken Dance’ which is part of TV lore. It ran for three series and Arnett was back to hustling for work. Was it easier, having worked on such a hit show? “Yes, but frankly the endless cycle doesn’t even end, it just takes a different shape as you move through it all. As you get older, you start to realise that how little in control you really are, and once you accept that you remove a whole layer of frustration.” Arnett is not a moaner, and is sanguine about the hit-and-miss nature of TV, reckoning he learnt something valuable along the way.
Arrested Development ran for three years, before being cancelled in 2013. Last year, Netflix recommissioned the series. The profile of many of the cast – Arnett included – is now considerably higher, so reassembling them might have proved difficult, or resurrecting an old show a possibly regressive move. “I had no hesitation or apprehension about going back. I love the process of that show and the people involved. The crews in TV and film move around a lot and lead a transient life, but so many of the original crew tried to make their way back. Also, [Creator] Mitch Hurwitz is the captain of that show, and one of the smartest, funniest people on the planet… this is the only planet I’ve ever been on by the way”. Arnett quips away through the interview and is genuine and funny.
The week after we speak, he confirms on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show that there will be a fifth series on Netflix. In the years after Arrested Development he found occasional film work (starring in Blades of Glory with his then-wife, Amy Poehler) but for a long time was in danger of becoming a character actor: an “oh yeah, that guy!”, who everyone recognises but can’t name. His role as gay executive Devon Banks in 30 Rock – created by Tina Fey, a close friend of his ex-wife – was show-stealing. “I’ve known Tina for a long time. She’s a brilliant person with a great comedic mind, and one of the most hilarious people of all time. When she asked me to play Devon, it was a no brainer – and luckily for me I happen to have no brain – but I also got to work with Alec Baldwin, who is an incredible performer. Doing scenes with him is like playing tennis with Bjorn Borg. You’re just trying to keep up… he is a master.”
Luckily, Arnett is also in possession of an extremely distinctive voice and is much in demand for voice characterisation roles. This year alone, he played Batman in The Lego Movie, and has roles in The Nut Job and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He says he wasn’t aware of his distinctive voice until people started pointing it out to him. “I looked quite young in my 20s and my voice didn’t match the way I looked, and to be honest, for a while I thought it was really going to work against me. I was almost despondent (laughs) but it turned out to a good thing.”
His latest role is an intriguing one, and another where audiences don’t get to see him. Starting on Netflix, Bojack Horseman is an animated series about a washed up hard-drinking actor. Who also happens to be a horse. It’s anthropomorphic angst with a lot of gags and co-stars Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt and Amy Sedaris. “It was so different to everything else I’ve ever done. It really stood out and yeah, so there are animals and half-animals, but because its so funny you get over the novelty of that pretty quickly and buy into the writing. His main co-star is Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad. “We knew each other a little, casually, socially – we never dated. It was hard for him to come off a big show like that because everyone kept asking ‘what’s next?’ but he’s not burdened by it and he’s a really funny guy.” Arnett has also finally moved out of the supporting actor role, with his show The Millers. He’s certainly come a long way from frozen bananas and chicken dancing.
The first series of BoJack Horseman is available now on Netflix
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on September 15th, 2014