Who knew Domhnall Gleeson and Martin Mull would be such a delightful pair?
Especially considering they don’t really even have much screen time together in A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which premiered Wednesday night here at the Sundance Film Festival. Now it would be great to see these two star opposite each other in a movie. Or at least go on the road together as some sort of comedy revue.
In David Wain’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture (which you can watch on Netflix this Friday), Mull and Gleeson play Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, respectively, the two co-founders of National Lampoon magazine. Well, sort of. Mull plays Kenney in the present day, narrating the experiences of his 1970s self, played by Will Forte. (This may or may not be a spoiler, but if you know anything about National Lampoon, you also know Doug Kenney died in 1980, so the fact Mull plays him in the present is a very ambitious narrative choice.) This is a very meta movie, and we see Mull often interrupt the movie to point out a plot point that didn’t really happen. Or to point out that Will Forte isn’t currently 27.
I met Mull and Gleeson at a condo off Park City’s Main Street. Here’s Gleeson, just off the roller coaster ride of The Last Jedi, sitting next to the living legend that is Martin Mull, who has starred in everything from Fernwood 2 Night to Mr. Mom to Clue to Arrested Development. Ahead, the pair talk about a whole host of topics, from Mull starting out in an embarrassing commercial as Mr. Telephone, to Gleeson telling the story of how he and Rian Johnson came up with one of the funniest moments of The Last Jedi. (I really do hope these two get to co-star side by side in something someday.)
But first, I had to relay a message from Jon Hamm to Domhnall Gleeson about Gleeson’s old comedy troupe in Ireland. And I had to relay to Mull that Lee Marvin was a big fan of Fernwood 2 Night.
I just ran here. I was doing an interview with Jon Hamm down the street and I just barely made it.
Martin Mull: In this air?
It’s rough. And Jon Hamm said to mention to Domhnall that he loves your comedy troupe…
Domhnall Gleeson: From Ireland?
Gleeson: Which is a mad thing! That Jon Hamm…
He went out of his way to mention it…
Gleeson: I did a tiny sketch show in Ireland [Your Bad Self –ed.] for a while and then made more sketches of my own to raise money for the house when my grandparents died, with my dad and some people, and we put them online to raise money and stuff. And I’ve heard through various people. Including, like, Isla Fisher and Sacha Baron Cohen, they come up to me at a thing to say that they’d really liked it, that Jon Hamm had told them.
So he’s telling everyone.
Gleeson: About my sketches back home. It’s just like, that is the most amazing thing in the world.
But you’ve never met Jon Hamm?
Gleeson: I’ve never met him.
He’s literally like two blocks away right now.
Gleeson: If I bump into him, it’ll really make my day.
Mull: Is Ireland home now?
Gleeson: Ireland’s home. Yeah, Dublin. Yeah.
Last year at Sundance I interviewed Mark Hamill, we started talking about The Big Red One and he mentioned that Lee Marvin’s favorite show was Fernwood 2 Night.
Hamill said Lee Marvin would say, “I love that Jerry.”
Mull: Oh, well that was Fred Willard…
Oh, I know, but apparently Lee Marvin was a huge fan of the show.
Mull: That’s great.
Gleeson: That’s pretty amazing.
Mull: That’s phenomenal.
Gleeson: Did you know that?
Gleeson: What a cool thing to find out. Thank you for bringing all of this good news.
Mull: Both of these little bits of things, you’ve made our day.
Well, that’s the interview. Goodbye…
Mull: Okay, great!
This movie takes a meta approach, like when Martin says to the camera, “Do you believe Will Forte is 27?”
Gleeson: You delivered it so brilliantly. And then in the background, Will, just his little move with his head. And the way David shot it, like the shifting of emphasis from you to Will, I think it’s just beautiful.
Mull: Well, if you think about it, do you think I’m Will Forte at 27? Do you think he looks 27?
It’s also unusual because Martin is playing Doug Kenney in the present day. And a lot of people who watch this might not know that he died in 1980.
Was that appealing? It’s a very different approach.
Mull: Yeah. In fact, last night, I was singing a little song, it’s actually in the film, that had a line in it about jumping off a cliff that I put in. And David said to me, “Don’t! Spoiler alert!” So I didn’t sing it last night. I didn’t want the audience to know that that happened. Yeah, when you think about it, it’s really three movies in one. It’s a biopic story of Doug Kenney. Then it’s an industrial growth film of a magazine industry. And then it’s a birth of a film industry. And it’s all three of these things going on simultaneously. And a drug movie.
Gleeson: For sure.
Mull: And to put all that together for the editors so it makes continuous sense, and that it’s all contiguous, is very difficult.
How much did you know about what they were doing back then?
Gleeson: Wait ’til you hear this.
Mull: Well, a better phrase would be how much of what they were doing were you doing too. And the answer would be, pretty much 90 percent. Yeah, I knew all these guys, some of them better than others. Unfortunately, Doug, probably one of the least. And Henry, not at all. But I knew Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue and P.J. O’Rourke and Sean Kelly and all these people.
And Anne Beatts?
Mull: Oh, Anne Beatts, yeah!
I’ve studied her SNL career…
Mull: Yeah, Annie was living with Michael O’Donoghue at the time. She and Mike were an item.
I love reading Michael O’Donoghue stories…
Mull: Well, he had ideas. One thing he wanted to do at one point, Michael, was he wanted to take the Zapruder film of the assassination of Kennedy…
Oh I’ve read this, but please tell it…
Mull: Okay. He wanted to do what they used to call a Pete Smith Specialty – they were these movies that were made in the ’40s where they would take this bumbling guy, and the narrative would always be a voiceover going, “I hope he’s not going to take that vacuum cleaner and plug it into that socket. No, no, don’t do that. That socket could be overloaded. Oh, no!” And he was going to do that kind of narrative to the Zapruder film. “Hope that’s not a gun in that package.”
Gleeson: Oh my God.
Mull: “Don’t point that at his neck! Ooh-wee, what a pain in the neck!” You know? And so these were the kind of things Michael would come up with and you just sat there with your jaw dropped and went, wow.
And there’s a scene in which Doug confronts Lorne Michaels and accuses him of stealing all his talent.
Mull: I said earlier, and I think it’s true, that the National Lampoon seemed, at least to me at the time, to be more like a training ground or a farm club, if you would, for the big time, which was Saturday Night Live.
So you think of it like The Groundlings or Second City?
Mull: Yeah, it didn’t seem that odd to me that they would move on up, or at least sidewise. Whether it was up or not is to remain to be discussed. But it didn’t seem odd to me.
What did you know about this before doing this movie?
Gleeson: Zero, you know?
Were you aware of it at all?
Gleeson: Yeah. I’d seen Animal House only recently before then. It just wasn’t as much a part of the landscape. Like the guys who broke all the rules, well, it was Spike Milligan and that troop, right, first of all, and then Monty Python. They were the ones who broke the mold and changed the way people did comedy on that side of the pond, and they were more a part of what I understood.
It’s interesting that Monty Python is extremely popular here, but SNL doesn’t translate as much over there. Every time I go to Europe, people are like, “It’s not really on much here.”
Gleeson: No, not at all. But, also, part of the thing that made Saturday Night Live special was that it was live. And unless you’re going to stay up until four in the morning in Ireland, you’re not going to be watching. Part of the thing is the danger of something not working or seeing people die on their feet in front of you, and then rescue it. That’s part of the thrill of that.
Have you seen him in the Star Wars movies or Brooklyn?
Gleeson: [Laughs.] Don’t do this. That’s not fair.
What? Yes it is. You’re great.
Mull: I saw him in a trailer. I have not seen the whole thing. So when I said I had seen you in there, I was telling the truth. I have not seen the whole film.
I am fascinated with Hux’s voice.
Gleeson: Well, you know…
The way you say “fleet.”
Gleeson: Yeah, well, I had a brilliant dialect coach, Jill McCullough, who’s a fantastic dialect coach. We worked on it a lot. And he’s just got such a different energy to Kylo Ren. He had to be the opposite of Kylo Ren. His power has to come from a different place, you know? Kylo Ren is all raw strength and he has all that stuff. He’s got the gift.
You get one of the biggest laughs in The Last Jedi when Kylo Ren is on the ground and you go for the blaster then change your mind.
Gleeson: It’s funny, Kevin Smith was asking me that yesterday. And it was funny, I was saying that was something I talked to Rian about, that we added in to the thing. And I realized it sounded like I was saying it was my idea, like that actor who’s always like, “That was all me.” Rian wrote that, but after we’d had a conversation about making the change.
Mull: Don’t you love that when that happens?
Gleeson: Actors who are like, “That was me,” you’re like, shut the fuck up! So, yes, I should clarify that that’s still all Rian Johnson.
Martin Mull has been a fixture in my life my entire life…
Mull: Like a bathroom fixture?
Yes, a bathroom fixture. I put your picture on like a pole and it holds up…
Mull: It holds up the roll?
Yeah, it holds up the roll. I am curious, when you’re walking down the street now, what do people recognize you for? Because I feel like it could be a million different things. Like Arrested Development or Mr. Mom?
Mull: Arrested Development a lot. And Mr. Mom a little bit. Roseanne a little bit. And, “Were you the guy in Clue?” So forth and so on. I’ve done a lot of different things. But more often than not, it’s, “Oh, there’s that old guy that cut me off at the light.”
Well, I don’t know how you drive, but when I mention your name people always bring up something different.
Gleeson: That’s a career well spent.
Mull: Well, where it started out was when, 150 years ago, my agent got me a job playing Mr. Telephone in a very local commercial down in the tri-state area of New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas. In this place, in this commercial, I had to wear a complete styrofoam telephone suit with a dial right in front of my chest and a huge cradle hat over my head. I literally was a telephone. And I said to him, “There’s no way on God’s green earth I’m doing this. I have a certain humiliation level. It ain’t going to happen.” He proceeded to tell me what they were willing to pay, and then I proceeded to realize, and it’s been my mantra all my career, and that is, it never says “asshole” on the check. And by making that my working mantra, I’ve been able to do a lot of different things.
How did that translate to what came next?
Mull: I got lucky.
Anyone who is in the position either of you two are in will always say that luck has something to do with it, and I’m sure there is, but you have to have the goods too, right?
Mull: Well, I had developed a rather unique stage show act and it was music and comedy put together, et cetera. And Norman Lear had seen it and I was able to get my first acting job, not counting my draft physical, on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. And he spun me off from there into Fernwood 2 Night, where I could utilize a lot of what I was doing and I knew how to do, and that sort of kept me going.
And then you got the attention of Lee Marvin.
Mull: Yeah, exactly!
While watching this movie, knowing that I was talking to both of you, I did wish you had more scenes together…
Gleeson: It’s normally me walking in the background while you talk to the camera. I know, I didn’t even get to throw a glance over, yeah.
Mull: Yeah, later I said, “I hope we get to do a movie together.”
I’d buy a ticket right now.
Mull: Yeah, me too.
Gleeson: Let’s convince David Wain.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.