One on One with Brian Baumgartner

It’s hard not to love Kevin Malone. The spectacularly unspectacular Dunder-Mifflin employee can get away with talking about Hedonism or his favorite number, 69, simply by flashing a big grin to the camera. Portraying Kevin is Brian Baumgartner, who sat down and talked to us about life at The Office.

Where are you originally from? What was your childhood like?

I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia. I was born there, grew up there and I was very into sports until a pretty significant injury and surgery made me get into the acting thing. But, that was at a fairly young age. I was like 13.

Do you mind talking about what happened?

I certainly can. I had a problem with my leg – I played baseball. I went and tried to have some surgery to get it fixed up so I could continue playing baseball. There was a problem and I actually ended up going over the course of a year from a wheelchair to a walker at age 13 to crutches to a cane. This was in junior high.

I had a guy who was in junior high and he left, went to another school and we ended up in high school at the same time. He told me years later; after we became friends that he thought a miracle had happened. He thought that I had been cured, because the whole year that he knew me before, he thought that I had some degenerative disease.

Because I was active and I wanted to stay active and involved, I started doing theater and it kind of stuck from there. The sports thing gradually went away.

What was it like early on? Did you do school plays?

Yeah, I did the school plays. I actually sang once upon a time. I did sort of the whole arts thing. I went to the cherub program at Northwestern University after my junior year of high school. It was an amazing experience for high school kids. I decided at that point that this was something that I really wanted to do and eventually, went to a conservatory BFA program at college and was on a very straight and direct path from there.

How tough is it to break into the business? How many auditions did you go to before you landed a role?

A lot of people from our show have done the Improv circuit and have done a lot of Improv stuff. I was a straight theater guy, so I spent a lot of time in Minneapolis and Chicago and around the country doing regional theater and just moved to LA actually about two years ago, maybe two and a half years ago now. So it’s been a long time for me doing theater and I’ve just sort of started now to get into the film and television business side of it.

What made you decide to try to make the switch?

The life in the theater is really hard. The hours in what we do now can be taxing, long and difficult, but performing eight shows a week every night, it’s difficult to have a personal life. It’s difficult to keep up that schedule over an extended period of time and I did for years. Ultimately, I know it’s really cool to hate LA, so I kind of wish I could blast LA and relive the glory days on the east coast or whatever. But I visited out here and I loved it, I loved the weather and the lifestyle and film and television has always been something that interested me and I wanted to do something new and have a new challenge and it’s been great so far. I’ve been incredibly lucky, I will say. The amount of time it’s taken for stuff to start to happen for me out here, I realize how lucky I’ve been.

You’ve appeared on LAX, CSI and Arrested Development. What was it like working on those shows and which one was your favorite appearance?

Every show is different. It’s all been part of a process for me to figure things out. I got cast on The Office after I had been in Los Angeles for about four months. Because of how our show has been picked up and the number of episodes the first year just being six, really that was shooting the pilot, then just doing five more. There’s been a lot of time in there where I’ve done these other shows, but The Office has been a constant for me almost since when I first came out here. I auditioned I believe in January of 2004, so it’s been over two years that that’s been going.

How did land the role of Kevin on The Office, and how was the character explained to you initially?

The character as I understand it was listed on the breakdowns something like, “The only spectacular thing about Kevin is that he spectacularly has nothing spectacular about him.” The word spectacular used five times basically means there is nothing special. As my agent joked about it, why would anyone’s agent pitch their client for this role? This guy is really dull. There is really nothing special about this guy. But I was familiar with the British version and obviously, I loved that. I pegged this role as being something that would be good for me. The fact that I had been here such a short time and they were really looking for people who weren’t known, I felt like gave me an advantage over a lot of shows where they want somebody with a name or want somebody with more credits. The fact that I had done theater and they were looking for something very real and small and subtle I thought helped me as well.

The beauty of Kevin is that it’s not necessarily what he says, but it’s how he says it and the mischievous little smile that usually follows. Can you identify with Kevin? Do you think you are similar to Kevin at all?

(Laughs) I would not say that I am similar to Kevin. No. Whether this is true or not, I don’t know. Some people have said that I am the most unlike my character on the show. But, I guess if you meet me, you can draw your own opinions about that. Maybe I’m deluding myself.

The way that I identify with Kevin or what I think is kind of beautiful about him is – to me he’s someone who has no consciousness or recollection of the past or can identify any ramifications to the future. So he’s a guy that’s just truly in the moment. So if he is delighted by something, he lets you know that he is delighted by something, even if he has no awareness that might cause him trouble down the line. It’s a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it allows him to respond truly how he feels in that exact moment and if he says something that maybe he realizes he shouldn’t have said, it’s only because that is exactly what he was thinking at that exact moment. Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does. That was a pretty deep answer there.

(Laughs.) I’m a really deep guy, unlike Kevin. The other thing that some of us on set have talked about is on the evolutionary scale, there’s a certain evolutionary scale of man, that if Michael Scott is at the top of that evolutionary scale and then next in line would be Dwight, Kevin would be the lowest rung. There have been some scenes and suggestions that if Dwight is the punching bag of Michael, then Kevin might be the punching bag for Dwight.

When the show first started did you have any idea it would turn into such a big hit? When did you first get the sense that this show could really take off?

For me, it was very early on. Maybe I’m insane, but whether or not the show was going to succeed or whether people were going to watch it or it was going to become as large a hit as it has become, I don’t know that I could see it, although I believed it. But when we were shooting the first episode after the pilot, which was Diversity Day, I knew that we were doing something that was special and I felt like we were dealing with characters and situations and social issues that don’t get dealt with in primetime television very often. I felt like it was the most sophisticated, interesting look at race since All In The Family. We were doing something that people simply don’t do anymore. We think about ourselves as being this progressive society, but whether it’s with PC-ness or whatever, race is very much a taboo. I felt like in that show, we really dealt with people’s reactions to and thoughts about race and I felt incredibly proud of that episode. That episode will always hold a special place for me. Not to be cheesy or whatever, but I did feel like we were doing something that was special and I hoped that people would watch it.

Would you say that’s your favorite episode so far?

In a nostalgic place maybe. I thought that the Christmas episode was also beautiful in a totally different way. It’s difficult when you have such a large ensemble and so many people that every episode different people are going to be featured or whatever. But that episode I felt like was a perfect combination, everyone had something to do. I think the show works best when it is an ensemble.

I think that’s one of the things that makes the show unique. It’s all of us locked in a room for 60 hours a week trying to come up with a solid 30 minutes of television. Unlike another show where you have a lead and the show and the week and the episode consists of different people having a scene with that one person.

To me, it relates back very well again to theater because we really have built an ensemble and a working relationship that is unique. Part of it is the given circumstances, that we’re all there because it’s a documentary and the camera may move around and see people, we’re all there all the time just because the camera moves or they want to get a reaction shot from somebody. That’s unique and I think special.

We promised James over at Northern Attack that we would ask a question for him. During the Office Olympics episode, did you actually eat all of the M&Ms you had crammed in your mouth?

(Laughs.) No, I did not. Sorry to disappoint. Part of it is, I don’t think we did that many takes, but I might have gone into some sort of sugar coma or something had I done that. But no, they were spit out.

How excited were you to hear that The Office has been picked up for a third season?

Thrilled. I just thought that they did it so early at the winter press tour and they showed some solidarity with us and with Earl in giving us full seasons. That was just really a shot in the arm in terms of us being able to plan ahead, to look to next year at a really early time, which a lot of shows don’t get to do. After how much we have struggled to stay on the air, you have to give NBC nothing but kudos for how much they’ve stuck by the show. The first year, the audiences were not very large, but I feel like they showed that we had promise. Kevin Riley, specifically, was very excited about the show and they stuck with it.

When you look at shows on other networks that run maybe one time and then go away, the fact that they had the confidence in us is really great. We did six episodes, then they had us come back at the last minute for just six more episodes for season two and then, I think they picked up three more. Then, they picked up a full 13. And then, I think they picked up three more. And then, they finally picked up a full season for this year. Not very long after they had picked up the full season for this year, they picked up a whole other year.

We know early on when you were trying to get the show some recognition, one thing that you and a lot of the other cast members started doing was blogging on MySpace. Why did you start and what made you decide to do it in character?

I will blame or give credit totally to Jenna Fisher. Maybe she wasn’t the first, but she got into it fairly early. She signed me up because I’m not very computer savvy. She set up the account, did the whole thing and put it together. I just decided I was going to try it and just see, thinking probably in a week or so, I would be done. The reason I’m doing it for this show, I can’t imagine doing it for another show just personally, it’s a documentary. The whole experience is we’re supposed to be people in Scranton, Pennsylvania who work in an office. For me, coming up with the idea that Kevin would be sitting at his desk as an accountant in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he would probably be on MySpace. The way that the show is shot, we are aware that the camera crews are there, so it allows me to talk about that. We know that it’s going to be on television, so I can talk about that. But, for me, it’s been fun just to write it the same way that we do the show. It’s been a fun writing exercise and experience for me. I feel like I can explore the character. People have really responded, much more that I could have ever imagined.

How often do you get recognized in public? Is that starting to happen more?

Yes, it’s happening a lot. I think part of it is, let’s just say that I’m distinctive looking. I think that here in Los Angeles, I potentially stand out a little more maybe than some of the other people. People are very kind. It’s certainly been an adjustment for me to make.

What do you do when you have some down time on the set in between shoots?

Blog. Chat. It is a working office, so the Internet is available, people can do email and do other business. Again, it’s a unique show in that most of us are in the room actually all the time. So there is a lot of downtime. But it allows you to actually work. I may not be working on account receivable for Dunder-Mifflin, but I’m sitting at the desk and just trying to get bills paid or other stuff done. There is a lot of MySpacing and blog writing that happens on the set.

We’ve also heard about the video game playing that goes on.

John and Rainn and I, we enjoy the John Madden football and various other Playstation 2 games. We rotate actually. We’ll play something for a month or so, then we’ll go to something else and play only that for a month or so. But John Madden football, that’s been the game of choice for quite a while.

Are you guys pretty competitive with it?

(Laughs.) We’re pretty competitive with it, yeah. I think it’s a release. It’s our favorite lunchtime activity. We have a standing arrangement at lunch every day. It’s fun, it’s a distraction. We enjoy it, childish as it is.

Do you want to talk any trash here? Are you better than the other two?

(Laughs.) I don’t think I’m going to talk any trash. Again, just like the games rotate – I don’t know why, maybe Playstation is more mental than one might think – whoever’s kicking somebody’s ass will suddenly without warning or acknowledgment, the other person will start kicking their ass.

What goals do you have set for yourself? Where would you like to see your career go, and who in Hollywood would you like to work with some day?

At this point, I’m just kind of taking it one step at a time. I’m enjoying the show. The show has been great. It is taking up a lot of time. I have a couple of irons in the fire here for the hiatus. I would love to work in films and certainly there are people I would love to work with, but at this point, I’m taking it step by step and enjoying my good fortune.

Tell us something not many people know about you.

Well, I think I already have, actually. That I had a leg surgery when I was a kid.

If you never got into acting, what do you think you’d be doing for a living and where would you be living?

I’d be playing first base for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

We’ve got one last thing for you here. We’re going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and you tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.

Hollywood.

The Hollywood sign.

Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Dunder-Mifflin.

Steve Carell.

Coolest guy ever.

69.

My favorite number.

Kevin Malone.

Hipster.

Brian Baumgartner.

The absolute coolest.

The future.

Bright.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, May 2006. The Office is on NBC Thursday nights at 9:30 PM. You can find out more information about Brian Baumgartner by reading his MySpace blog.

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