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Interview: Comic Actor Matt Walsh Goes ‘Into the Storm’

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CHICAGO – Matt Walsh has been more visible lately, and it has much to do with his approach to character roles, beginning as Mike McLintock on the HBO series “Veep” and currently in the new film “Into the Storm.” For a Chicago native who began doing comedy improvisation here, he is moving on up.

Matthew Paul Walsh was born in Chicago, and graduated from Hinsdale High School. After college at Northern Illinois University, he became enamored of the improv scene in Chicago in the early 1990s, and studied under the master instructor Del Close. While dividing time between the Annoyance Theater and the ImprovOlympics (iO) in the city, he helped to found the “Uptight Citizens Brigade” (UCB), which also featured Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts and Matt Besser. The troupe got its own show on Comedy Central, and has opened UCB theaters in New York and Los Angeles.

Matt Walsh
Matt Walsh as Pete for ‘Into the Storm’
Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Walsh broke out from there, becoming a regular in the film comedies of director Todd Phillips, including “Road Trip,” “Old School,” “Due Date” and “The Hangover.” He is also notable for regular roles in HBO’s “Hung” and the TV series “Outsourced.” His character of Mike McLintock got married in the third season of “Veep,” and he continues to do character parts, with and without his mustache.

Two days before the release of “Into the Storm,” Matt Walsh talked to HollywoodChicago.com about his role as storm chaser Pete, his early days in Chicago and developing the oddball comedy of “Veep.”

HollywoodChicago.com: What did you learn on this movie set that you never have experienced before, despite being on several famous movie sets?

Matt Walsh: I got better as a ‘green screen’ actor, there was a lot of challenge in reacting to what was represented as tornadoes, which was added in later. It was people holding broomsticks and tennis balls, and me trying to stay in the moment and not laugh at the ridiculousness of it. It was a real lesson in imagination. I also learned about weather and storms, and became a better stunt driver. They let me do all the driving, except for the complicated moves like doing a ‘360’ after driving down an embankment, they were a bit afraid I would roll it.

HollywoodChicago.com: You are playing a non-comic character. What is different about creating a character in that mode rather than your usual comedic and or other fun persona?

Walsh: I feel there is more research involved in a dramatic role. I’m trying to understand the world they live in, in this case the guy is an expert on meteorology and storm chasing, so I did the research on that. In comedy you are focused on the jokes, and where the laughs are, and it seems like in my case it’s been closer to my sense of humor or my sense of self.

HollywoodChicago.com: We grew up in the first golden age of the disaster movies in the 1970s. Which ‘70s film or archetype do you compare ‘Into the Storm’ with or any specific disaster hero from that era can you compare to your character?

Walsh: I’d love to be compared to Han Solo, even though ‘Star Wars’ is not a disaster movie. [laughs] Well, the Death Star does explode. I’m thinking of ‘Earthquake.’ ‘The Killer Bees’ and ‘The Towering Inferno.’ I like to be the guy in ‘The Killer Bees’ who gets the idea to drive the Volkswagen Beetle into the Superdome to save the city. I want to be the guy with the bright idea who risks his life to save others.

HollywoodChicago.com: You’ve described your character as ‘a jerk storm chaser whose life obsession is to shoot a tornado.’ What is the key to playing a jerk, as opposed to a likable character, and do you prefer playing jerks?

Walsh: I am good at playing jerks, but counter to what I said, I approached Pete as not a jerk. I focused on someone who had to manage his squad of storm chasers like a military operation – we were at danger’s edge, we had to be efficient and we had to drive at high speeds to intercept something that’s very tricky – so there is no time for deliberation or conversations about feelings. It has to get done, so you’re like a football coach or a military leader. That was the approach, it wasn’t necessarily ‘jerk forward,’ there were reasons behind him.

HollywoodChicago.com: Most actors are also movie buffs. Again, in comparison to when we were kids, what do you find interesting about the summer movies battles, and the roller coaster rides that the movies have become?

Walsh: I think it’s become harder and harder to get people into movie theaters, so you have to make films that are big screen and full sound experiences. The smaller films can be watched on Netflix or On Demand, and nothing is missed in the experience. I think comedies are better with an audience, because laughter is contagious and it feels better in a crowd, and of course the action and super hero movies play best on that big screen.

HollywoodChicago.com: Let’s go back to your beginnings in Chicago as a student of improvisation. What can you tell us about the legendary Del Close that the rest of the world doesn’t know? What do you think made him so different when it came to expounding on the virtues and theories of improv comedy?

Walsh: He was a tortured individual. The first impression of him is as a bit mean and ornery, but that was because he did have a lot of demons. I had sympathy for that, and I learned most of it afterward through reading about him. He was intimidating to me, so I didn’t know him that well, as I was studying with him.

As far as improv theory, he was the guy in Chicago. He carried the torch for long form improv and the method called ‘The Harold,’ and treated it as its own art form, not necessarily as a process to develop a script or sketches. He brought the art form to a place in which audiences paid to see it.

HollywoodChicago.com: Do you remember the meeting of the Uptight Citizens Brigade comedy troupe in which you were named - what were the circumstances, who came up with it and why?

Walsh: My memory – and Ian and Matt may have a different memory – was that when we did shows at a club called The Roxy, we had a bit where we did intentionally bad improv games – ‘give us a name of a tuber, and a reason to kick a homeless person’ – which was deliberate post modern comedy. At the end of it, we would come up with a pretentious name, like we are ‘Citizens for Social Justice.’ One of those names that came up during that time was ‘Uptight Citizens Brigade.’ Matt and Ian may have a different take.

HollywoodChicago.com: Did you ever sat down and write the history?

Walsh: No, but we’ve just done a 400 page book on the type of curriculum we have at our theaters. We have a specific take on teaching long form improv, so we wrote a sort of textbook on the subject, that just came out.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is it about the zeitgeist of Todd Phillips that brings your sensibility into his universe? What magical aura do you bless upon his productions?

Matt Walsh
Matt Walsh in Chicago, August 6, 2014
Photo credit: Patrick McDonald for HollywoodChicago.com

Walsh: Maybe I’m Todd’s good luck charm, but he really took a shining to me the first time I auditioned for him. He appreciated the improv skills I brought to ‘Road Trip,’ and he seemed impressed about the contributions an improviser can bring to a film, and also I have an ‘everyman’ look that fits a lot of comedic roles. Todd gave me my biggest breaks in film, and he’s a sweet and great guy.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the difference in character persona between the mustachioed Matt Walsh and the clean shaven one. What would the two talk about?

Walsh: The mustache is his own person, and has his own writing staff, and was booked on ‘Into the Storm’ a year before I was attached. [laughs] You’ll have to talk to the mustache. Next question.

HollywoodChicago.com: In ‘Veep,’ they never mention the party that Vice President Selina Kyle is affiliated with, but there seems to be implications regarding party politics. Since there are only two major political parties in the U.S. currently, which elements of each are apparent in how the production approaches the show?

Walsh: I remember in the first season, she was progressive on the environment, which is a progressive concern. But she’s made so many compromises during the three seasons, that I honestly feel she sways back and forth. It’s tricky, because like all politicians, she is navigating the middle ultimately, to get the most people to like her. In truth, both parties pander, and compromise extremely.

HollywoodChicago.com: What is the process for that wild dialogue that has come out of the show?

Walsh: We make fun of ourselves and we make fun of each other. The way the process works is that the writers come in with a first draft script, we rehearse that script, and in that rehearsal we can improvise new scenes, new lines and can contribute to everything. We workshop it, the writers take notes, and then the next draft becomes closer to what is eventually seen.

HollywoodChicago.com: How do feel about the arc of where your character is going on the show?

Walsh: I love that Mike got to be happy. You only heard bits and pieces the first two seasons – like he had a dog and a boat. But now you see he has a life, and the fact that he got to be happy in it was really satisfying for me.

HollywoodChicago.com: Finally, what is another good use for Pete’s tornado filming machine, the Titus?

Walsh: It would be great in a parade, obviously, or in a car show. If you had to, you could plow a field with it. I’d love to see if it could go through a half pipe at a skateboard park. [laughs]

‘Into the Storm’ opens everywhere on August 8th. Featuring Matt Walsh, Richard Armitage, Sarah Wayne Callies, Max Deacon and Nathan Kress. Written by John Swetnam. Directed by Steven Quale. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Senior Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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