Nick Kroll first showed up on our televisions as a puka-shell wearing caveman in Cavemen, ABC’s short-lived, ill-fated adaptation of the popular Geico commercial. (Preparing for this interview, I watched an episode and Kroll’s bone-dry comic sensibilities are almost fully formed already, and it was surprisingly funny and apparently (ironically) ahead of its time.) Shortly thereafter, he collaborated with pre-fame Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer and Rob Huebel for a few eps of Human Giant before landing a major gig on The League alongside Scheer, where he played antagonistic lawyer Rodney Ruxin. Kroll got perhaps his widest audience exposure featuring as radio jockey “the Douche” on Parks and Recreations where he met now girlfriend Amy Poehler. In 2013, Kroll launched his own variety show, The Kroll Show, that has now seen its curtain call after three seasons.
For the past few years, Kroll has invested himself in a little project called Adult Beginners alongside Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne. Kroll came up with the outline of the story (though Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive wrote the screenplay), taking bits and pieces from his own familial experience to weave a heartfelt and deeply funny independent film [Full review here.] Nick and I sat down (next to a stoked fireplace) to discuss Adult Beginners, The League, moving on from television, the perks of typecasting, the effects of negative reviews and what’s next on the docket.
You’ve been a funnyman on The League for years and now you’re working into a new dramatic side with Adult Beginners. How has that transition been for you?
Nick Kroll: Ironically, it was Mark [Duplass], my co-star on The League who helped me produce it. I obviously have more of a straight comedy background than he does. But I watched him do The League, and then it was either do a movie that was a thriller or drama, and that made me realize I could do different kinds of things. So doing this movie wasn’t intended as a transition, and I don’t think it will be in the long run. I still plan on doing mostly comedy stuff. The process of doing a movie is so long, a few years. It just happens to be coming out now with The League and Kroll Show wrapping up.
One of the things about your character Ruxin in The League is that he’s like a dead-pan sociopath, whereas Jake in [Adult Beginners] is guarded and a very vulnerable person. And you drop tear in the movie, which is new for you. How was it opening up tha temotional side of yourself?
NK: It was fun. It’s exciting to do new stuff. Being Ruxin has been such a fun part to do. But I don’t know any actor who does a TV show for six or seven years, and doesn’t think that they could do something in addition to it. It’s just fun to exercise different muscles. That’s why I work out during interviews.
When you were coming up with the idea for the story, did you have a general overview or was it born from a particular scene?
NK: I have 12 nieces and nephews, and I’m the youngest of four. All of my siblings have kids. They each have four kids, and I’ve barely been asked to babysit, and I’m the godparent for none of them. So I’m like the selfish younger brother that no one counts on for anything. So what would it be like if that guy had to take care of a kid? And so I was kind of interested in that. In the movie, it didn’t end up being that. But I was interested in the playground dynamics. And it would be different because there would be nannies from all these different countries, and me. It continued to evolve. But I always pictured that kind of playground originally.
Actors love to talk about the research they do for roles. Did you do “research” by getting out and playing with your nieces and nephews?
NK: I love playing with my nieces and nephews. The research got me very comfortable with kids, and how to work with them. I didn’t do any research as far as nannying. I thought I’d be able to imagine what that’s like.
I think Adult Beginners works so well because Ross [Katz], the director, really exploits the best elements of the cast. What do you think that you bring to the table as an actor, and what are your greatest strengths?
NK: I’m so multi-faceted as an actor, it’s amazing. [Snide, Ruxin deadpan] I’ve always hoped that I’d get the opportunity to do a mix of comedy and drama. If you watch Kroll Show, as bananas as it is, there’s more dramatic stuff there. It’s always for a joke, but there’s more dramatic stuff than in The League, for example. You’re never going to get an actor to say what his strengths are. But I think we spend a lot of time trying to find that balance where you feel like you’re watching funny stuff, but also underlying that should be something very real in each individual in their relationships. And having Rose and Bobby, who are both great in comedy and drama was such a blessing. It’s hard to find people who can do both.
You have this persona as a dead-pan comedy guy, especially for people who aren’t familiar with zany nature of The Kroll Show. Do you fear getting typecast as a very wry comedian?
NK: I don’t fear it because I think there is a concern when you’re on a show that succeeds that people see you as that character. There’s too much stuff out there to really get typecast too much. But doing Kroll Show and Adult Beginners was more about how there’s lots of things that I want to do, and I get the opportunity to do them. I was conscious about being able to diversify. I don’t remember who said it but someone once told me, “The best thing to happen is to get pigeonholed, because then you can keep working.” If you do a lot of things, people have trouble finding a thing they want you for. I just find for myself that the more variety I have in my creative life, the more fulfilling that feels. When I do The League, it’s super fun when I get to do that character, but then when I do the movie, I get to exercise different muscles.
It’s interesting that you bring up variety because you’re well-known as a character actor, and the great thing about The Kroll Show is that you get to play all these different types of characters. With both The Kroll Show and The League coming to a close, how are you reacting emotionally?
NK: It’s exciting. It was scary going into this year. Looking back what have I done? But once the year started, and Kroll Show came out, and people were really nice about it, I’ve been able to get a couple more things in motion. So there is a lot of stuff in very early stages. If I were to continue to do Kroll Show, I would have been like finish writing, and in week of like two or three of shooting, it seems crazy to me that I would be back there instead of in Seattle with a handsome writer by a fireplace. It’s scary to leave or walk away, but it opens up so many different different corridors to walk through, and I’m excited to begin to build the next stage of it all.
We had Mark [Duplass] on here last year and I asked him how long The League sees this going for. He said that since you guys were having so much fun, it could go indefinitely. Just months later, it was announced that the seventh season would be the final season and that it’s ending this year. Have you guys finished shooting?
NK : We start in the beginning of July. We usually start around the ESPY’s because we can get football players before they go to training camp. We usually start then.
It looks like you have a smattering of supporting roles like Vacation and Sausage Party, which admittedly sounds pretty awesome, but no other starring vehicles as of now that are official. Is something like what you did in Adult Beginners, where you’re creating most of the product, is that something you want to do more of?
NK: Yeah. I’m about to make a movie with Jenny Slate and Adam Scott. I shot a movie a couple months ago with Thomas Middleditch and Adam Pally, and Jenny is in that as well. So those are like the indy/comedy space. The ideal for me would be to do things like that. Do other people’s stuff. It would be bullshit for me to say that I don’t think about it. I’m getting to do a lot more animated stuff. Sausage Party, Captain Underpants, and other things have popped up. I’m at a period where it’s still too early to say, “Here’s X,Y,Z.” I’m figuring out what I like to do. The experience of making this movie was really fun. It was challenging, and I love doing it. But I also like to be a spoiled little actor and then leave.
Fair enough. This film really got a lot of praise from the film festival circuit, audiences loved it at my SXSW screening. It was riding this great train but then took a beating from middle America in terms of its critical ratings. Do you let things like reviews affect you?
NK: Because I’m a producer in the movie, I see all of the clippings. I didn’t think we would get reviewed. I thought we would just make a movie that people liked. Then early reviews were really positive. Then mixed stuff came in. And I remembered that critics can write that they didn’t like the movie. Our per-screen average was pretty good. So none of that matters. And the social media has been positive. It definitely has an effect on you. Going forward, I’ll read what I choose to read about future projects. But because this was the first one, I was just trying to figure it all out. It’s not fun to get a bad review. Very few tore it apart, some were mixed, and most were positive. It was an interesting element. I hoped people like it but then there were critics, but everything finds its audience, or hopefully it does, and we were the #1 comedy on iTunes, so it seems like people like it, so what are you going to do?
I rather enjoyed and have done a bit of social media push for it. Can you tell me more about what you’re going to do with Jenny and Adam?
NK: It’s a movie called My Blind Brother. Adam is blind, and he’s my brother. Jenny is a girl, and we get caught in a triangle. We’re shooting it in Cleveland in a few weeks. It’s based on a short that Sophie Goodhart made. She’s writing and directing it. It was really well received at Cannes ten years ago. It will be great to work with them. It will be interesting. Adam, I’ve only worked with a little bit, but I’ve watched him and respected him for a long time.
This is probably deeper in your repertoire but another thing I loved hearing you in was How Did This Get Made. Are you doing another appearance any time soon?
NK: I did one awhile ago. I think I’m the only person who’s been on three times. It’s such a fun show. The three of them together are so funny. I don’t think I’ll do one any time soon. I’ve already worked to get in more than just about anybody. But I love that podcast. But I’m excited to get back up and running with Paul and Jason in The League.