In The Long Dumb Road (which is out in limited release and on VOD), Jason Mantzoukas plays Richard, a progressively troublesome road trip companion for the somewhat naive Nat, played by Tony Revolori (Spider-Man: Homecoming). In some ways, it’s a departure for Mantzoukas, who manages to stand out no matter how often he’s on screen in The League, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Good Place, The House, and countless other comedies. Here, there’s a little bit more drama and a lot more screen time, but no less impact.
Uproxx spoke with Mantzoukas about the appeal of taking on a leading role in The Long Dumb Road, his own experiences on the road, the common thread that runs through a number of his characters, his work voicing Jay on Big Mouth, and we definitely don’t get to the bottom of who he’s playing in John Wick 3.
I was researching you and I saw that you had done the Watson Fellowship. That kind of parallels with the journey Tony Revolori’s character is taking in this film where he’s seeing the US and finding new perspectives. Did your experience with that and two years abroad give you a nudge towards taking this on?
Oh, that’s interesting. In Tony’s case, he’s going to college. For me, it was just out of college, but yeah, like getting yourself into those situations that could be fun and then it turns into something that could be scary or dangerous. I think we’ve all made those choices and stuff. And I feel like this movie really gets at that kind of like, “Oh, no. What have I done?” for Tony’s character. And I really enjoyed playing the other side of that. Of being the character who is charming and funny, and who you wanna be around. But also, at times, scary and sketchy, and who you might be a little fearful of.
Do you have any experiences meeting anybody like that when you were traveling?
I’m trying to think. I mean, not really. I don’t have a good story, unfortunately, that would fit what you’re asking. I wish I did.
You could make something up.
[Laughs] The truth, Jason. I only speak the truth.
Any road trip experiences that you pulled from for this role or was it pretty much all laid out on the page?
It was pretty much all laid out on the page. I mean, in terms of the beats of who these guys were. But then I’ve also done a whole bunch of road trips. Both, kind of as you mentioned, living abroad. And then, also, I lived in New York. I came up in the comedy scene in New York for many years, but would go out to Los Angeles for pilot season. So every year, we’d drive cross country for pilot season and back. That was amazing. I got to see so much of the country. Those were trips that I loved. A lot of what attracted me to the movie was my genuine fondness for those type of road trips, actually.
You said the beats were already on the page, but this character feels like it plays to your strengths as a performer. How did it evolve from when you got the script to when you were shooting it?
When I read the script, the character was a little different. He was a smarter kind of guy who was a well-read philosopher type. Carson (Mell) and Hannah (Fidell) had written it, and then I just met with them on it to try and get cast, really. Then after they cast me, I talked to Hannah about it. We kind of went in this direction that’s a little bit more… Richard is not as intelligent. Like, he’s more of a street-smart kind of guy. Somebody who you would believe had a little bit more of a threat about him, even if that threat is kind of blunt and bluster. I like playing characters who present as these kinds of big, brash, crass, characters who act like they know everything, or whatever. But, really, that’s just a mask for the insecurities or the fear. The kind of emotions and vulnerabilities that they are so uncomfortable dealing with all the time. I think, hopefully, the movie works because Richard is scary, at times. But he’s also funny and charming.
What is it that causes something to get a “yes” from you when you’re offered a role?
It kind of changes. This movie I said yes to because, A) I loved the script and B) it was, honestly, the opportunity to play a lead role, which I’ve never done in something that had a real arc to it. Often times I’ll just do really fun parts, but I’m in three or four scenes of a movie. Or three or four episodes of a TV series, or something. I get to come in and be funny, and I love it. But this was a different opportunity, which was to kind of calibrate a character’s arc throughout a whole movie, which is a different challenge. And one that was kind of exciting to do.
I’ll also make choices based on who I’m working with. Like I loved Hannah. When I met her, I said, “Ooh, I’d really like to work with this person.” She comes from a different background. She doesn’t come from comedy. Her previous movies were both dramas, and fantastic. So, it’s exciting. I just went and did a role in John Wick 3. Which, for me, was a blast because I think those are just exciting, fun movies. And so incredibly well done. So the opportunity to even play a small part in there, I was like, “Yes. Absolutely I’ll do that.” Then, similarly, I’ll take a role because it’s something that is with people that I love. A lot of times I work with the same people. And a lot of them are people that I came up with in comedy.
With John Wick, are you playing a villain? Are you playing a heavy? Are you handling a gun? Are you involved in any action scenes?
I can’t say anything. Other than it was awesome. And the movie is just gonna be fucking awesome. But, sadly, I can’t reveal any of that stuff.
You’re not playing a dog that gets killed, right?
I’m not… I have to say, I’m not playing an alien who comes to earth to assassinate John Wick. I’m definitely not playing that. I’m not playing John Wick’s fully grown son from another timeline, either. I know a lot of rumors are saying that. There is no time travel in this movie, and I’m not playing John Wick’s fully grown son.
So the spirit of the dog from the first movie, with a human voice. That rumor is not true, right?
If that’s a rumor that’s out there…
Now it is.
I’m saying right now, I’d like to dispel that right now. I am not playing the spirit of the dog from the first movie, having found human form.
Again, you really could say whatever you want.
[Laughs] I just don’t want to get a call from them, like, “Hey, man, what are you doing? Listen, this is crazy. You can’t say crazy stuff out there.” Because I’m scared of those guys.
I would be too. Look at the things they put on screen. My God, they could think of some inventive ways to torture you.
I believe they can do all of that stuff. They’re not messing around. They really could do that stuff.
Has there been anything with Jay on Big Mouth where you’ve been like, “Wow, I can’t believe we’re going there?”
I’m trying to think if there’s been any. Not really. What I love about it is, even with the fucked up stuff that all these kids are doing (especially Jay) there seems to always be some heart to it. Or I think for Jay, everything he’s doing is because he’s lonely. You know what I mean? The reason he’s fucking these pillows, and getting into these relationships with inanimate objects that become animated is simply because the kid’s just an incredibly lonely child. His brothers are insane to him. His parents basically ignore him. It’s super fucked up, but there is also something about it that I find quite sweet because he’s just seeking a connection with anybody he can, even if those people are the fantasy characters that he’s inventing for himself. That’s what I love about the show. Everything comes from some place that has emotional weight to it.
It does. And, honestly, to tie everything back in, there’s a thread that runs from that character to some of the stuff that Richard goes through in this movie.
Yes. I think a lot of the characters that I’ve played… There are a bunch of characters out there that I’ve played that have a similar background, or have a similar backstory, in that sense. I think that they are people who want to belong to groups of friends that they are kind of on the outside of. You know, Richard really comes to need and want Nat’s company. Because, otherwise, he’s just out there alone. And I think Jay is the same. I think Rafi from The League is a character that genuinely believes that the main characters are his best friends. And those characters unquestionably hated him. And, again, there’s a real sweet sadness to that. There’s a real vulnerability to a lot of these characters because they are lonely, or because they are searching for something, or seeking connections, or whatever it is. And I think that whether or not they get or don’t get those connections, or get to be with that person, or whatever it is, kind of keeps people interested in following their journey.
Is it that you just keep getting offered these kinds of roles and you keep finding little nuggets within these characters that you want to explore, or is there something in your history that allows these characters to connect for you?
Well, I don’t know if it’s really my history, as much as…these are universal feelings. Especially in the case of Jay. I do like Jay because he’s a kid, and kids who are going through puberty feel alone and lonely, and they’re struggling. I do get offered a lot of parts that are outsider kinds of characters. And I do try and bring to them a degree of emotional depth just so they don’t feel like just a nonsense-spewing kind of crazy, if that makes sense.
Very much so. Yes.
I like that I play a lot of maniacs and outrageous characters. And I really do love them all. But I also like spotting the kind of, why are they like this? I don’t want it to ever seem like outrageousness for outrageousness sake.
I just wanna make sure you’re okay.
[Laughs] Yes, Jason. Absolutely. I’m fine. I appreciate your concern.
‘The Long Dumb Road’ is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD.