When Kyle Chandler found out he was going to play investment guru Bill Gurley opposite Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s take on former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in Showtime’s Super Pumped (which airs Sundays), his immediate impulse was to call the man up and pick his brain about his life and experiences funding the rideshare behemoth’s rise. But then he thought better. As Chandler confirmed when we spoke ahead of yesterday’s series premiere, he feels a great sense of responsibility when playing a real person and leans on his research and the source material (Mike Isaac’s book of the same name, which he raves about) to find the character, but over-prepping might create something more like an impression and less like a performance. And in this case, there was room for interpretation in how Gurley moved in the lion cage, chair in hand.
“When it goes to the truth of the events that are happening and everything, more than anything I think that falls on the writers in the case of Travis, because Bill’s job is a little bit different. You’re not really focusing on very particular things that Bill did. I look at Bill as he’s got the reins in hand and he’s trying to figure out when to give rein for Travis and when to pull on rein, how to hold him in between the sun and the ocean without his feathers coming off and him crashing.”
It’s a fascinating back and forth, doubtlessly influenced by real events and the men at the center of this story, but the cat and mouse game here doesn’t pop without Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kyle Chandler and moments behind the scenes where the two would stare each other down before filming to find the intensity between their two characters.
“When I would sit across from Joe, it always started from a place of ‘what are your motivations, sir?’ Without even speaking before the scenes, we’re looking into each other’s eyes,” said Chandler. “He’s trying to hide stuff, I’m trying to dig it out, I know there’s something there. I see smoke, I know fire, but how do you get there? And if you see a little fire or if you see too much smoke, when do you turn a blind eye to it? And so those themes are all little mental mini-series unto themselves.”
We spoke with Chandler about the above, what made this story of tech Gods resonate for him, why he’s hesitant to define this as a kind of father and son story, loving the occasional hypocrisy of his character, and whether he’d ever want to play the bad guy in this kind of story. Plus a quick take on the freshly announced Early Edition remake.
Everything I’ve read about you; living on a farm in Austin, big property, not a social media guy… I’m generalizing, but I imagine the world of VC and tech isn’t necessarily something that’s an interest of yours. Did you have to find a way to make this resonate for you?
Kyle Chandler: No, it’s not that it’s not an interest to me. This part of that world was just purely unknown to me, though. Like most everyone, you’re always curious to know about, you know, there’s rockets flying around, electric cars zipping here and there, buttons on your phone and food gets delivered to your house. All that’s fascinating. It makes the imagination spark, but I don’t think I ever questioned what was behind all that and I certainly didn’t know the stories of these characters. You can imagine. I’m not so well versed in the tech world that I know the players. Put it that way. I know their products. And this story, when I read it, I was flabbergasted. It’s such an interesting book. And thank heavens that a guy like Mike Isaac has this kind of journalistic nose for this story. When I read the book, I was considerate of the fact that I didn’t know any of this. And then I was questioning how can this not be known? How can this be sitting behind the curtains and no one took a look at it for so long? Because it’s just an incredibly wild story.
I was thinking about words that I would use during these interviews today. You know, I get all nervous about doing this stuff because I don’t know what I’m going to say really, but it’s… I think it’s a cautionary tale as well. For everyone, especially the public in general, it’s important to see how these things are taking place and what’s really going on. It seems like it’s a lot of genies that can be let out of the bottle. There’s so much good that comes out of all of these things, but then there are other things that we’re being made aware of on a monthly basis that are not good. And so this whole story of Travis Kalanick and Bill Gurley and what Uber is and where it started and then the process and where it went, and some of the things that were going on within the company that no one was knowing about are startling. I find it startling. When I read the book and I put it down and walked away for a while, in my mind it was, and I’ve been saying this in these interviews, it’s a great American story! It’s pure Americana. And I’m so glad that the book came out because there are so many different sides to this thing that are so entertaining, important, wonderful.
Frightening… It’s just great storytelling. I was excited after I read the book to be part of it. I wanted to be part of this story in any capacity. But as it is, I play the role of Bill Gurley, which I liked that role too once I studied a little bit who Bill Gurley was and asked questions and watched him speak and read some of the things that he says. I didn’t need to know too much because I know the role that he played with Travis. And that role is… [laughs] it was a lot of work, I can only imagine. How great to be a fly on a wall, listening to Bill Gurley try to explain to people what he’s dealing with when all this was going on. But it was an enjoyable character to play. I tried to get as much complexity out of it as I could. There was a moral dilemma he had to deal with, there were goals that he wanted, he had to give a little, to take a little.
Do you approach this in any way like it’s a story of a father and a son?
I don’t like thinking about it like that because… I don’t know why I don’t like thinking about it like that, but it’s kind of hard to get away from. There’s no doubt that I consider myself a mentor to this guy and I think Bill even says it in the script. It’s written where the thing is you get hold of these young people and they’ve got these ideas and they want to change the world. And there’s a part early in this where you hear Travis says some of the things that he wants to do with Uber and why it’s important to him, and regardless of the veracity of what he’s saying, these things are true that they… He’s helping society. He’s doing things that are good and he’s got ideas that can do great things for people. And there’s no doubt that it happens. And in this particular story, I think there is a love for this young man and his ideas and his dreams, and I would like to be able to facilitate the opportunity for these dreams to come alive while at the same time making a buck also.
Yeah, there’s all that going on too, which just enriches the scenes when you’re working on them because you can’t help but… I like in the scenes also feeling the hypocrite as well because we’re all hypocrites in one way or the other.
I love the scene with Bill’s wife in the kitchen, with Jessica Hecht. Tremendous actress. Just her talking about the hypocrisy and her calling him on that a little bit there. That’s a great scene.
Yeah, and I like those scenes with us. They remind me… we had to sort of reset Bill’s moral compass a little bit. And at the end of all those scenes, I always wanted to say something to her, but it usually ended up… In my mind it was like, just [like] in my real life, it’s like, God damn it you’re right again. [Laughs]
Yeah, I know that experience. I’m familiar with that.
Yeah, just when you think you’re real smart…
Yeah. With this character and with Wolf of Wall Street, comparatively to the other characters, you’re playing the morally upright contrast there a little. Is there an interest in you to play one of these kinds of greedy bastards that just break all the rules?
In general, I don’t want to play a bad guy, but you wait for the role to come along and then you see what it is and it goes from there. But yeah, I’d like to, there are all kinds of… I’d like to play every character that you can possibly play. It’s just a matter of when those things come to you. I’m always looking for material and I could just… I’m always looking, my wife’s always looking, my people are always looking. You just hope for those pieces of material to come along. But for right now, this is what happened.
I asked Joe this. There’s a line in the show where you mentioned David Koresh [Waco cult leader], obviously the Waco cult leader. Do you look at these types of characters like Travis, in your own opinion, as sort of cult leaders?
No, I wouldn’t particularly put him in the word of cult. It [tech] is a world that I’m unfamiliar with… how it works or the many different worlds that make up tech. I don’t know how they work, but I do know it’s incredible amounts of money. It’s incredible amounts of freedom that people have to follow ideas. And it’s incredibly powerful effects that, I don’t know how many companies you can add into this, but the effects that reflect on society, that run our lives in so many different ways whether it be a help, emotional, spiritual, political, mental, philosophical, what have you. It’s so complicated. It’s pretty amazing, but they have tremendous amounts of power.
Yeah. The draw is the thing that concerns me with this stuff. And that’s why I mentioned the cult thing because the magnetic personality and the ways that they get people to set aside their moral compass sometimes, it seems, is the thing that worries me most about it.
I see money behind a lot of the… When you’re talking about the character of Travis Kalanick in our show, I see people who are following him not because of what he does and because of who he is, but because what he can do for them, money-wise, power-wise, and I consider cults something a little bit different where you’ve gotten into people’s psyche and personality and they cannot turn away because they’re locked into their minds.
That’s a good line of distinction. Lastly, I saw the news break that they’re bringing back Early Edition. Any thoughts about that?
I just started laughing. [Laughs] I was wondering, does anyone read a paper in Chicago anymore?
I thought that as well.
They’re going to get tomorrow’s blog today?
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Yeah, my wife and I had a good chuckle over that and a discussion. “Okay, how are they going to update it?” I hope it turns out great.
‘Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber’ airs Sundays on Showtime at 10PM ET