Nick Offerman Talks Acting, Producing, And Sharing The Screen With Sam Elliott

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Last month, during SXSW, few people seemed to be as busy as Nick Offerman. In addition to his keynote speech, hosted by Nick Kroll, he was promoting two films he co-starred in: the offbeat, black-and-white sci-fi comedy Infinity Baby, and the slice-of-life story Hero, which features Sam Elliott playing a fictional version of himself (and which hits theaters in limited release on June 9). After the general chaos of the festival itself, the accomplished actor, author, and producer took some time to talk to us about these new projects, and look back at how SXSW has changed over the last 20 years.

You were promoting two very different films during SXSW last month. The first one is a very unconventional sci-fi flick Infinity Baby, which you also produced. How does a movie like that find you?

Infinity Baby in a lot of ways is my favorite kind of film. I’m a big fan of [Austin] filmmaker Bob Byington, who directed the film. I’ve known him for… sneaking up on 20 years. We worked on a lot of things together but I think this is the fifth. Let me count real quick. Tuna, Registered Sex Offender, Harmony and Me, [and] Somebody Up There Likes Me. This is the fifth feature of his that I’ve done and the second, or third maybe, that I produced. I’ve always admired his sense of humor and his kind of strange perspective through the rather crooked lens through which he views humanity that makes for good satire. There’s always a little bit of weirdness that I have come to associate with both Bob and Austin.

There’s a very distinct style there. Does he come to the set with a clear vision or does he take input during filming?

Sort of some of both. He definitely has his own vision. Positionally, his films don’t have large budgets so those productions kind of always necessarily involve some improvisation as we go. One of the things that’s fun about Bob is that he manages to make a stylistically pleasing film with seven dollars and a pack of gum.

I recognized the Austin locations but the frame was cropped to make it look like a bland, futuristic version of anywhere.

Our producer, Berry Lastina, came up as a locations manager. He was also very instrumental and sort of having all these particular architectural moments in his mind’s eye that I think was really served by the choice to shoot in black and white.

You play the CEO of this company, but also you serve as a kind of Greek chorus. Before the credits role you break down the fourth wall to address to the audience directly to set up what kind of world we’re going to be thrust into.

Well, that’s good editing

Compared to the other film that played at SXSW, Hero, had a much more conventional look and feel. Is your day-to-day process any different on a more… sentimental film?

Not really. I mean, the main way that both my wife [Megan Mullaly] and I choose projects is pretty much based first and foremost upon the writing. If we find the writing to be good whether it’s funny, surreal or sentimental. There is a lot of sentiment in Hero but I’d rather use the term ‘dramatic’. Just because sentimental sounds halfway to saccharine, which is something we try to avoid.

Fair enough.

Once we land on a writing that we admire, then we look at the players involved. If they’re people that we also love and admire or peoples who’s work we think we would enjoy collaborating with, that’s how we pick things. These two films are both low-budget films, labors of love. So no. Preparing oneself, girding oneself to withstand direct eye contact with Sam Elliott hours at a time is kind of it’s own specific meditation. In Infinity Baby, I had to countenance the legendary, character actor Stephen Root in different close quarters. That also required some preparatory meditation on my part.

Is it difficult to have to look him in the eye or is it after not looking him in the eye as part of your meditation?

Looking him in the eye is the only way you can save yourself. That makes great actors great is how giving they are, the empathy that you find in their faces. So it’s just a matter of getting past my own weakness that says, “Holy shit. I’m in a scene with Sam Elliott. Keep it together.” And I can find all the comfort and security I need in his gentle and generous mug.

I assume that’s a wonderful thing, having never looked Sam Elliott in the eye myself.

It doesn’t suck.

You’ve been coming to SXSW for a number of years now.

I’ve been to probably eight or ten. My first one was ’99.

How have you seen it change for better or worse, from your personal perspective?

Oh gosh. I can’t speak with a lot of expertise to that because the two main festivals that I know are Sundance and Southby. They both kind of changed in a similar way. While Southby is sort of more many-headed, existing as it does in a much more very varied, vibrant city such as Austin as opposed to a small ski resort. Also, Southby features both music and film, [and now] kind of a third head was reared in technology at some point, I’m not sure when that started. In both cases, over the years they’ve become larger, more multifaceted and more crowded. To make a large, gross generalization, show business has sort of infiltrated — for better or worse. So coinciding with that evolution has been my own age, my own aging process so I’m no longer young enough to stay up until three in the morning at La Zona Rosa, pounding tequila while The Old 97s tickle me.

For several years now, I enjoy the festivals but I have become much more of a careful dieter so I plan my itinerary so I can support my own work and hopefully see the work of a few friends. Sort of get in and get out. It becomes difficult to walk around at a festival without being stopped by a large group of nice people who would like you to sign their bosoms.

I imagine that would be a predicament.

Well, you know, Disneyland is not as much fun if suddenly you’re Goofy.

I suppose not. Thank you for taking the time to chat after the festival has passed.

Well, I appreciate it. Hopefully next time I see you it won’t be in a church.