SIFF SITDOWN | Q&A with Jim O'Heir

The Seattle International Film Festival wrapped up this past weekend, capping 25 days that brought more than 400 features, shorts, and documentaries from over 80 countries.

The final weekend also meant it was time to hand out the hardware for the top films.

Among the features receiving honors was “Middle Man,” which won the New American Cinema Competition. The part-dark comedy, part-thriller stars Jim O’Heir — best known for his role as Jerry Gergich on “Parks and Recreation,” — as a wannabe comedian without the penchant for telling jokes, who picks up a mysterious hitchhiker (Andrew J. West) and gets caught up in a desert-town killing spree.

But as the death toll rises, so does his comedic prospects.

Before the film’s world premiere at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Friday night, actors O’Heir, West, and Anne Dudek, and writer/director Ned Crowley sat down with the Queen Anne & Magnolia News to discuss the production, and their hopes for the production moving forward.

Here’s what the “Parks” star had to say about his performance.


Q: What drew you to this role?

Jim O’Heir: Ned’s what drew me to it. He wrote it with me in mind a lot of years ago. I’ve known Ned over 30 years — we did comedy together in Chicago — and he wrote this film with me in mind, which is of course hugely flattering. I read it and was like, “Wow, but how are we ever going to make that happen,” and then years, years, years went on. Ned called me one day and said, “I think we might be able to do Middle Man,” and I thought, how the hell is that going to happen? And because of “Parks” it gave me some visibility I guess, and he mentioned it to these producer guys, Bill and Roger, and they said maybe we’d do it.

We had a meeting, and next thing I know we were going to do a film. And my first thought was, “I’m too damn old now,” because when you wrote this for me I was in my mid-30s, and now I’m … older. But no, I’m in my 50s now, and he goes, “Just a few changes, all it needs is a few changes,” and I was like, “I guess, yeah, change this to that and this to that and it could still work,” so we colored my hair to drop a few years off. So what drew me to it was Ned, because Ned’s one of my best friends in the whole world. I trust him with my life, and Ned does nothing half-assed. Whether it’s his job at the ad agency in real life, or his family or whatever, he whole-asses everything, so I knew it would certainly be given the best shot possible, so to me it was almost a no-brainer. We were planning it before “Parks” wrapped, but I knew “Parks” was wrapping in March, and we were going to shoot in May or June. It all just fell into place, so I was so excited. And terrified.

I’m the lead, if you don’t like me, you don’t like this movie, because I’m only not in I think three scenes, so if you begin watching movie and go, “Oh I hate him,” it’s time to get out, because you got another hour and a half of hating me, so that’s a lot of pressure, and lot of pressure we put on ourselves, but the pressure for me was also: This is Ned’s baby. I don’t want to kill Ned’s baby. So that was scary, but then when we started the process, Ned and I talked, our main concern is we’ve been friends for 30-something years, we can’t have this film in any way destroy that, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen dear friends go on a project together and it just gets ugly.

There’s decisions to be made, and money, and all this stuff, so we constantly checked in on each other, “Everything cool for you? Everything cool for you?” and that was the priority and I think that really helped, because Ned, he really put his thumb down hard on me performance wise. At first I was a little rebellious, because I’m like, “No, I don’t think I’m doing enough, I think it needs this, I think it needs that,” because we would do a take, and there was a scene in the jail cell, and I’m just kind of sitting there, and it’s so simple, and I said, “I just don’t think I’m doing this.” And the next day, he said, “This is what I’m doing,” and he showed me the trailers from the day before, the dailies, and it was, I was like, “Okay, I trust you, whatever you tell me.”

My natural instincts are bigger, funnier, I’m that kind of guy, and he brought the performance down to — I think — the bare bones, which had to happen because there’s so far to go. If we had begun higher my head would have exploded. We wouldn’t have been able to do it, and that was all Ned. I was certainly frustrated at points, like, “No, I think he’s wrong, I think he’s wrong,” and then I’d see it, and go, “He was right.” He was never wrong on performance, not once. A few other things he screwed up on, but never about my performance. He got me every time where we needed to go. It’s a boiling pot, the performance, it simmers and then it gets higher, higher, higher, higher. You can’t boil too soon, and you can’t boil and then come back and boil again. It has to be a rise, and he made sure that’s the performance that I gave. Hopefully. We’ll see what people think.


Q: You’re often type cast as the nice funny guy, so how do you approach this role where maybe you start out that way, but quickly turn into something different?

O’Heir: I love that. I love it, I love it. Comedy, being the big wacky dude has paid my bills for a lot of years, I love it, I will do comedy stuff the rest of my life. It’s instinctual for me, but it’s so nice to be given an opportunity to go, I’m also an actor, I can play angry and sad and happy, and remorseful. You know, we’re actors. So that’s what was nice, and Ned and I had two very different goals for this film.

My goal for this film is for people to see Ned should be directing big films, He’s an amazing writer and director. His goal is for people to see me in a different light, so it’s weird, and we’re not being like martyrs or anything, I truly feel that way. I’ve had so many wonderful things career wise, and it’s awesome, and because of Parks I continue to seem to keep working at this point. Ned needs to be directing more, so for me it’s got to be about he’s got to get that out of this. I’ll keep working, but would I love this to open people’s eyes, and go, “Hey, let’s give O’Heir a shot at that darker role,” well of course. Because that’s fun, we’re actors, we do all sorts of different things. When he said we were going to do it, it’s challenging and it was scary and crazy exciting, because there’s nothing like when you do a scene and you’re really feeling it, and you just know, that was it, I nailed that. And sometimes you do it and go, “Oh, I screwed that up, we got to go again,” or whatever, but it’s a nice feeling when it comes together.


Q: What was the biggest challenge for you during this production?

O’Heir: The effin’ desert. We shot in the desert, oh my god, oh my god, I keep telling this story but it’s true. And I wasn’t joking around. There was one day, I was sitting in a car, in a 1953 Chevy, with Adnrew Est sitting next to be, behind me is Ned, the DP, and the sound guy. The windows are rolled up because of sound issues, and we’re in the desert, it’s 110 degrees, and I truly thought I was dying. I was like, “Huh. Well this will be it. Okay.” And it was kind of peaceful, I was probably dehydrated, I don’t know, but I thought this is it, okay, and of course the day goes on and here I am. It sucked, shooting in the desert, the wind and the dust that is apparently non-stop, at the least the time of year we shot. So many people hate night shoots, at least it was cool at night in the desert, I loved the night shoots. Because I’m in pretty much the same clothes the whole time, and it’s a black suit and it’s not breathing, it’s whatever material that doesn’t breathe, so I just hated the heat. For me that was the toughest part.

Performance wise, the toughest part was believing Ned, that it was okay to do less. And then once I finally gave him that full trust, it was just, now we have found it, which I needed to do, because Ned put a lot into this, and I thought, I can’t ruin it for him.


Q: How does it feel to reach this point, and be here for the world premiere for a film where you’re center stage?

O’Heir: It’s scary. It’s exciting. It’s absolutely exciting, but it’s scary too. We’re going to get some people that are not going to like this film. That’s life, it’s not going to be up everyone’s alley, I understand that. And you know, we’re humans, I read things, and so you don’t know what you’re going to read the next day — and to be perfectly honest we know that a lot of the reviews are very good, we’ve heard some great stuff already — so I think overall we’re going to be fine, but even if they weren’t, we’re very proud of this film.

I think the ending is quite shocking, and we could have gone a different direction, and I’m so proud that we didn’t, I’m so proud we stuck to our guns, because it’s I think, a riveting ending. We shot another ending, in case we got scared, and luckily, because it was ultimately Ned’s decision, and we had all given our thoughts, all the other actors, here’s why we think it needs to be what it is, and he totally agreed. It’s weird, yeah, because it is on me, I never had that on me before. I’m an ensemble player, I’ve been an ensemble player forever, but it’s exciting. Because of “Parks,” the recognition from “Parks” has really changed my life, and it’s lovely.

If I walk down the street, there’s going to be selfies taken, there’s going to be people screaming, “Dammit Jerry,” so I’ve gotten used to all that, even this morning at the airport. It’s non-stop. So I’m used to that now I guess, but I’m not used to, this movie will sink or swim some ways on my performance, that’s terrifying. But it’s too late, it’s in the can, it’s going to be shown tonight, so I don’t know, it’s scary. I guess I went a long way around to say it’s scary. But exciting.


Q: For the audience, is there anything you want them to take away from seeing this?

O’Heir: I want them to just really have a good time. I think the movie’s a roller coaster, I love when I watch a film that tricks me legitimately, like it went a different direction. Like “The Sixth Sense,” there’s nothing better than “The Sixth Sense.” That was legit. If you follow that movie, because I did, everything was legit. So it made sense. Some movies never gave you a chance to figure it out. I want you to leave here and go, “Oh man, they had me all over the place, and it was legit. They never tricked me without showing me how it could have been.” Like, we got here, and we legitimately got here. I love that, because I know I love that. I loved your reaction where you said you needed a couple minutes afterward. Of course, a movie ends you want to hear big applause and stuff, but part of me is like you want people to go, “Ohhhhhh.” Before the applause, because I want the damn applause after to make sure they liked it. And unfortunately I won’t be there for the end of it tonight, because I have to go back to Chicago, but I think I’ll see the first hopefully half.


Q: You have 30 seconds, someone’s walking down the street and you pull them aside. What’s your elevator pitch for them and this movie?

O’Heir: You got to come see this movie. You’re going see the guy that you’ve known as Larry/Garry/Jerry/Barry/Terry, funny wacky, he ain’t so wacky no more. This is a crazy Cohen-esque, Tarantino kind of film, and if you’re into dark comedy, this is a must see. And I guarantee you the ending will shock you.


“Middle Man” screens Friday, June 17 at 9:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown as part of the Best of SIFF 2016 lineup.