If you’re anything like me, you probably know Nick Kroll from The Kroll Show (2013-2015), or from his many characters on Comedy Bang Bang!, from El Chupacabra to Bobby Bottleservice. Trying to prove that he can do everything, this month he plays Mossad agent Rafi Eitan in Operation Finale, a Chris Weitz film about the operation to kidnap former Nazi official Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and bring him to justice.
It’s not his first foray into drama, having also appeared in the critically-acclaimed Loving, and Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. In fact, Nick Kroll doing drama doesn’t feel quite like the ol’ Jonah Hill/Jim Carrey dramatic turn, because Nick Kroll has had, and continues to have, so many projects going on, from writing on his animated show, Big Mouth, to assorted bit parts like Uncle Drew, that it never really seemed like he was in danger of getting pigeon-holed or accused of not having range.
Like his Operation Finale director Chris Weitz, Kroll also has a well-known father — Jules B. Kroll, who in 2004 sold his company Kroll Inc. for $1.9 billion. Kroll has never tried to hide the fact that he comes from money, and unlike other actors and comedians with well-off backgrounds, you almost never hear people use Kroll’s as a pejorative. That’s probably a testament to his abilities as a performer. He’s just so obviously talented that you’d never look for another way to explain his success.
In any case, the man contains multitudes. Which is probably why it felt fairly natural, when I spoke to him by phone this week, to shift freely from topics as disparate as the philosophical aspects of pooping yourself to the famous Nazi hunters he knew growing up. Like a lot of performers, he seems much more comfortable improvising in character than he does talking about himself.
I won’t fangirl out on you too much, but I will say that I’ve played your “Spotted Ox Hostel” sketch… I’ve probably sent that to at least 50 people. It’s like top 10 all-time for me, I think.
Thank you, I’m glad. I have a Spotted Ox Hostel T-shirt that I wear once in a while that I really love having.
How many of those did you guys make?
I think they made a bunch for merch, and I made sure to grab probably… I think I probably bought all of them. They might be out there in the ether.
That’s a collector’s item now.
Speaking of your characters, I also loved El Chupacabra. When I was researching for this, I read that you minored in Spanish. Was that important prep work for becoming El Chupacabra?
Yeah, I mean ironically, I lived in Argentina [where Operation Finale is set] during college, so I’ve always really loved Spanish and Latin America. Yeah, Chupacabra sort of comes out of that, even when I was back in the States, I just like listening to Spanish radio. And then, to have lived in Argentina, and then gone back to shoot this film there was a really neat, bizarre sort of turn of events.
So I was talking to another comedy director recently, and he was talking about comedic actors who start doing drama, and he said something like “if you ask studio execs, they’ll say that studios didn’t stop making comedy, the people who made comedy stopped making comedies.” And I was wondering if that’s you now. Are you going to take a Jim Carrey turn and start doing drama full-time?
One, I don’t think I’ll have that choice, and two, I don’t think I would make that choice. I honestly love having a variety of different things that I do, and different mediums. So doing a drama like this is great, but I get equal enjoyment of doing a basketball comedy like Uncle Drew, to doing my animated show, Big Mouth. And that’s what last year was and I couldn’t have asked for a more creatively fulfilling year than to be able to do such different things. And in different mediums, whether it’s film, or TV, or on stage, or animation, or whatever, I just really enjoy the variety of a career.
Do you think people see dramatic acting as somehow higher than the comedic acting, and like as a higher challenge?
I don’t know. I mean, there are obviously more awards for dramatic acting than there are for comedy, but I think the best comedy has a ton of drama in it, and I think often times the best drama has comedic moments. I think just like life, usually life isn’t separated one entirely from the other — even in incredibly sad, or tense, or difficult moments, there are moments of humor infused in it, and behind a lot of humor is real pathos and drama.
It seems like you’ve been fairly open about having come from money. Do you think that having that family background gave you more freedom to pursue an artistic career?
[Thoughtful pause] Yeah. It allowed me to take risks, and say no to things that I wouldn’t want to do. Yeah, I think it undoubtedly has to in that I didn’t have to… I mean, I was very lucky that I started earning money … doing like radio voiceover work, and commercials very early on, so that I didn’t have to have a day job for very long before I could fully just focus on being an actor and writer and performer. But I think for the majority of people, you are paying back student loans, you are working day jobs, and doing a lot of things in service of art that you want to make, and I knew had a cushion if things didn’t work out, that I would be okay, which I think allowed me to take more risks.
More than any of that though, and I don’t shy away from saying where I come from, but even more important I think in growing up financially comfortable was just having a very supportive family, and parents who have loved and been supportive of me from the beginning, which I think is hugely helpful. And even having nothing to do with being financially supportive, just emotionally supportive and how helpful that is in pursuing your dream. Even if you have money or anything, you still have to be good at what you do to succeed.
Right, and it seems like [coming from money] could cut either way, like either you’re forced into the family business, or you have the freedom to pursue what you want to pursue, depending on the personality.
My dad’s business, he never forced any of us into it. My siblings ended up working there because it was a cool business and doing good work. And so, I just never ended up there because I always knew exactly what I wanted to do when I graduated college. And I think my parents are incredibly proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish on my own, and take quite a bit of pride in it. It’s very pleasing.
Speaking of family history, I know Chris Weitz, the director of this movie, has some family history with Nazi hunting. Did you have any weird family connections with the material? I mean, other than having lived in Argentina.
I did. My dad actually worked with a guy named Avraham Shalom who was one of the team members in the capture and extraction of Adolf Eichmann. My dad also knew Peter Malkin, who Oscar Isaac portrays. You grow up, especially if you grow up Jewish, you know the story of the capture of Adolf Eichmann at least on some level, but because of this, like even for me very tangential connection, I always sort of bragged and took some extra interest in it just because I was like, “My dad knew a guy who was part of the team.” And now I’m seemingly continuing to tell that story, as I’m in the film.
I assume you’ve seen the finished movie.
What’s been your takeaway from it, why do you think this is a story that we’re telling right now?
Well, I think that, the movie’s unfortunately still relevant with the sort of things going on around the world. The continuing presence specifically of Nazism, but in general fascist tendencies of racism, xenophobia, and that is still unfortunately very prevalent, and there’s still genocides happening. I mean, you don’t need to look further than Syria to see that like what was going on in the Holocaust is still going on today. And it’s something that we just can’t ignore. Like what people ignored during the Holocaust, we need to take action, and stay involved, and try to mitigate the real human tragedy that is still befalling so many every day.
Switching gears. I saw you do standup, I think it was like five years ago now maybe at Bar Lubitsch, and I think it was right after you’d just done a televised special, and you’d thrown out some old material and were trying to start from scratch again, and you kept talking about like, wow, once you have a TV special, they really just let you come up here and do whatever. Have you noticed a difference in what you can sort of get away with on stage now that you’re more recognizable?
No, I mean, more than anything, I think the longer that I’ve been doing comedy, the more comfortable I am going up with less material, and finding moments, or allowing discoveries to happen. Less because I’ve got a TV special, and more because I’m just like, this one set will not make or break me, and I am up here trying to figure stuff out, and get better, and allow that discovery to happen. But yes, I also think the more well-known you are, the more willing people are to give you the benefit of the doubt. Just because it’s like talking to someone to you know versus talking to a stranger.
If you know someone, you’re going to be sort of like, oh, I know this guy. I’ll chat with him, versus a stranger, sometimes you’re just more suspicious. But I don’t think like if you have a special, you’re immediately going to be rolling the laughs. But I definitely think it helps if people are familiar with you.
You have a pretty famous story about pooping your pants, and you’ve been telling it for a while, and as someone who pooped my pants recently, what do you think is that’s so appealing about a pants-pooping story that you want to keep telling it?
Well, there’s just nothing more both human and animalistic than that. In the movie, there’s this scene where Eichmann has to go to the bathroom, on the toilet, and it’s such a … I find such a powerful scene when you see this monster, that’s played by Sir Ben Kingsley, they’re just sitting there watching him on the toilet, take a crap, and you’re just like, as he says in the movie, he’s recounting a story of him going to the bathroom when he was nine with his father, and he just says like, “Papa, everybody shits.” And it’s true, like it’s a very human thing. There’s something about pooping your pants that is so both human and animalistic. It’s simultaneously like your body is just doing this thing that it can’t control, and it’s a very leveling feeling.
When I told a friend about it, he said that “5% of life is pooping your pants, and 95% is how you react once you’ve pooped your pants.”
Yeah, well, I turned it into a six-minute story, I guess, to tell on TV.
You’ve done a lot of character work on other people’s shows, and then you also had a show with your own name on it. Do you have a preference? Do you like having your own name on something versus being a sort of utility character?
I like doing all of it. I mean, truthfully, I love having a variety of creative endeavors, some that I’m responsible for, some that I’m not. For me, the fact that I go and make Big Mouth, which I love, but I’m responsible for the beginning, middle, and end of it alongside my partners, versus a film like this where I just get hired to come down, and be an actor, and do my job, and then leave, and then come back, and maybe do a little ADR, but ultimately just have the responsibility of doing my job on the day and then going home, and I like both. I enjoy the variety of those kinds of responsibilities.
If this movie was made in 1992, who do you think would be playing your character?
I don’t know, was Rick Moranis… was he still acting in ’92?
Yeah, I think so.
I don’t know, who do you think? Who would you guess?
One of my friends said Jon Lovitz.
Sure, I mean I love John Lovitz.
Yeah, I mean I love John Lovitz, he’s the funniest. I don’t know if he would have been trying to jump in to do a dramatic historical thriller, but I don’t know John Lovitz’s tastes.
I do. I feel like he would.