One on One with Lucky Yates

Dr. Algernop Krieger, the one-man R&D department for ISIS on the FX show Archer, is by far the most lovable mad scientist Hitler clone on television.

Actor, improviser and puppeteer Matt “Lucky” Yates voices Krieger on the show. And while he doesn’t share his on-screen counterpart’s interests in resurrecting the dead, selling arms to the highest bidder or bickering with his hologram bride, Yates has led a colorful life in his own right. In addition to his work on Archer, Yates recently opened up to us about his work as an additional puppeteer on Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, the time he almost named himself Sheriff Yates and the year and a half he was married to a local on a Cherokee Indian reservation.

How did you get into acting? When did you decide its what you wanted to do for a living?

Oh man, it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. I think it was in first grade we had to write a little paragraph on what you want to be when you grow up and it was “actor.” The same thing when we had to do it in the second grade. I’ve never really wanted to do anything else and don’t really know that I have any other marketable skills. It’s kind of the only thing I’m suited for.

When did you start seriously pursuing a career in acting? Did you go to school for it?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m from Detroit, so I went to Wayne State University to get a theatre degree up there. Their theatre department is really top notch. It’s really all I ever wanted to do. Just single path, man. I’ve had shit jobs and stuff. But I haven’t had a real job since 1996, something like that. 97 maybe.

Atlanta’s really a great city for it. Finally, Georgia passed one of those tax laws, so they’re filming a bunch of stuff, but I don’t even audition. I don’t even really play the game, man. I don’t have a local agent. All the work that I get, I just kind of find on my own or from schmoozing and knowing people who know people. It’s pretty awesome.

What drew you to Atlanta?

After I graduated college, I lived in New York for a couple of years. Then I had a job there and that was coming to a close at the same time the lease on my apartment was coming up and I knew that I didn’t want to live in that apartment again. I was like, “Alright, I can just start over completely here or maybe I’ll go somewhere else and check it out.”

So I put word out. One of my best friends from college is from here and was back living here and another one of my best friends from college was living in Nashville and he was doing some cool stuff. Then I had a friend out in Seattle and this was before the whole grunge boom and all that kind of stuff. So I thought, “Those three places seem kind of weird and cool and I’ve never seen any of them.” My buddy here was the first one that said, “Yeah, come on down here, I’ll get you a job in outdoor drama.” So I took it.

In addition to acting, you also have an interest in puppeteering. Your IMDB profile says you were an “additional Muppet performer” in The Adventures of Elmo

Elmo in Grouchland, buddy. You bet I was.

What was that like for you?

Oh dude, it’s awesome. Puppets are great.

I moved down here. Blah blah blah. I got that job in outdoor drama doing Unto the Hill in Cherokee, North Carolina – the story of the Trail of Tears. I did that for a few summers and ended up marrying a girl from the reservation. I moved to the Cherokee Indian reservation for like a year and a half. It was a disaster. I just should not have done any of it. I was too stupid to get married and had no business being on the Indian reservation.

I got a job back in Atlanta. Atlanta has a place called the Center for Puppetry Arts, which is the biggest institution devoted to puppetry in the country. I had a friend who needed box office workers and that’s what I did all through college. So I got a job to move back to Atlanta.

My first duty was to see the show that was currently playing. It was very much that typical light beam from Heaven with angels singing like, “Oh shit, you can do this for a living? I would totally love to puppeteer. And I think I could probably do a better job than a couple of people who are in this cast. Not that I know anything about puppetry, but man.”

So I started working while I was working at the center, auditioned for the next season coming up and got a job and that started everything. I started doing a lot of video puppetry for the local public television station and then got that Elmo gig.

What was working on The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland like?

[Laughs.] It was hilarious. It was the Elmo movie and I was in the group of background puppeteers. Anywhere that there’s a giant crowd scene of a bunch of grouches or a bunch of whatevers walking around, I’m one of those dudes.

It was fun. I spent over a month in Wilmington, North Carolina filming it. The best part about it was that most of the old gang was still together, like Jerry Nelson and Carroll Spinney and just the old Muppeteers. So getting to hang out and party with those guys was a blast.

And the job was what it was. It was making a movie. It was a lot of sitting and waiting around, but then every once in a while you threw on a grouch and got to be in some scene. It was great.

You “threw on a grouch and got to be in some scene,” that’s so odd and great to get to say.

I know, right? It was weird.

To go to the audition, they gave you an Oscar. “Here you go. Put on Oscar.” Auditions were ridiculous. You had to say the ABCs and you had to count to 20, I think, with a Muppet.

But shit, it’s like there’s a fucking Oscar sitting there and then you put on Oscar the Grouch and you’re like, “Jesus, I feel dirty somehow putting this puppet on. This is so weird. But whatever.”

It was fun. Then, doing that film when I was Matt Yates earned me the points to get my SAG card. When I went to go get my SAG card was when they said, “There’s already a guy named Matt Yates running around with a SAG card. You can’t be Matt Yates anymore. Come up with a name.”

I was like, “Oh crap.” It’s not a happy day when you have to change your name all of the sudden.

How did you come up with Lucky Yates?

I called my parents to say, “Hey, you named me once, what else you got because I don’t know what to do?” I was so close to naming myself “Sheriff” – Sheriff Yates – so that any time I walked into any place, people would have to go, “How’s it going, Sheriff?”

So I called them and talked to my folks. My mom just rattles off family names for 20 minutes and they’re just like regular names – Steven and John and Bill.

I’m like, “I’m not going to suddenly become Steve. That’s just crazy.”

My dad, the whole time, is completely quiet. The whole time, he let’s us talk, let’s us talk, let’s us talk. And then finally, I was like, “Oh well, I’m going to have to keep looking.”

He says, “What about Lucky?”

Oh my god, Lucky Yates, that’s it. Perfect. Done. We’re done. I’m going to call them right now.

You did some work on Frisky Dingo before being cast on Archer. How did you start working with Adam Reed and Matt Thompson?

Back when they were doing Sealab and Frisky, 70/30 was the name of their outfit back then. It was a pretty small operation, like five or six guys all working in a house animating these shows. One of my best buddies that works at Dad’s Garage Theatre – that’s the improv theatre I work at with Amber [Nash] – one of our buddies Christian was an animator over there working on shows.

Through him, we would go to parties and stuff like that. It was kind of a tight knit group anyway. So Matt and Adam would come every once in a while to see the improv shows that we would be in and I’ve been running an improvised kids’ show that I puppeteer in at Dad’s since 2000. Matt would bring his kids to come see that. You just became familiar with each other and all that kind of stuff.

So when they needed some voice of reason Xtacle to come up, Christian was like, “Let’s bring in Lucky and see if he can do it.” I did and that’s what started it all.

Matt and Adam are great guys, so we were pals anyway. We just get along really well. It just fit.

How did Krieger come about? Did you audition for that or did they just have you in mind?

No, they didn’t. In fact, Krieger doesn’t talk in the first couple of episodes. They didn’t know if they were going to ride that out or not. Finally, Adam decided to give him some lines at that dinner party. Actually, it was Amber Nash. Amber was in recording and they were like, “Hey, we’ve got this scientist character coming up” and they showed her a picture of him and said, “Who do you think might be good to voice this guy?”

She said, “Call Lucky.”

And, they said, “Of course, yes. Why didn’t we think of that right away?”

They called me and I went and read and essentially recorded the episode. They were like, “This is great. We love it, now we have to get FX to approve it.” Then it went down to the wire because FX didn’t give an answer back. They submitted the episode and it was waiting, waiting, waiting. There was a cutoff time of when the episode had to be locked the way that it was before they could re-record anything.

They eventually had to call FX and say, “Hey man, we need an answer on this Krieger guy or else we’re going to have to re-record it.”

And they were like, “Oh no, we love him. That’s great.”

That was it. Then I was Krieger. And he got more and more ridiculous over the years.

Did you ever get a breakdown of the character or have conversations about him with Matt and Adam?

Uh uh. I would get the script and they showed me the drawing of him.

I was like, “He looks like General Zod.”

They were like, “Okay. He’s just a weird guy.”

If you watch the first episode that I talk in, which is “Killing Utne” at that dinner party, Krieger seems kind of sloppy. I remember Adam giving me the direction of “Make it sound as though you always have too much saliva in your mouth or something.”

I was like, “Alright.” That’s the way I read that whole episode.

Afterward, when I recorded the next one, he said, “Just do it in your normal voice.”

Do you have any particular moments or lines that stick out to you?

It so tough to pick a favorite, especially with Krieger because I love the position that he’s in because its really like he comes in, punches it and splits. Pretty much every time he’s on-screen, it’s a good nugget.

Fort Kickass is sort of the fan favorite and that was awesome and that was early on. Probably the biggest dream come true for me was getting to do the final speech – speech, I guess it’s more of a rant – from the original Planet of the Apes with the whole “Blew it up” because Lana takes a bat to the original hologram device of the first hologram bride and smashes it. So I get to do the whole, “You blew it up! You maniac!” That was great because the original Planet of the Apes is one of my all-time favorite films. I love that movie so much. Getting to do that was pretty awesome.

But everything I get to say is fun.

Krieger ends up helping other characters a lot. He brought Katya back to life, he reattached Conway’s arm, he helped Ray walk again. In your opinion, does he help because he cares about these people or is it all just intriguing scientifically for him?

This has come up before and I always characterize him as “Chaotic Neutral.” I don’t know if you’re a D&D guy, but everybody has these statuses. He’s not necessarily good because he also sells weapons from ISIS to whoever. There’s an episode coming up where he lends Barry a hand in getting off of that space station because Barry’s trapped up there from last season. He just kind of does things really for his own benefit, but I think Krieger genuinely likes the people he works with as much as that weirdo can really like people. He feels bad for them and all that kind of stuff. But he’s really in it for himself and ISIS just probably pays him to have a lab, which is perfect. So he leans toward being a good guy, but I think he’s just in it for himself.

At the Archer Live events, you guys showed a clip from the tentacle porn bonus feature that will appear on next season’s DVD bonus features.

Yeah!

What was it like doing that?

It was great. Judy [Greer] may be doing [the voice of] the hologram bride, but I don’t even know if that’s true. Because the whole premise of that video is that Krieger and Pam are the ones making it. Toward the end of it, you cut to Krieger and Pam at a computer console and they’re making it and Pam is editing the dialogue. So it’s actually me and Amber that do the voices.

The rest of the characters eventually show up in that thing as sort of teenage anime versions of themselves and I don’t think that the cast does their voices. I think it’s all done by other actors or maybe not even actors. It might be animators from Floyd County because they wanted everybody to sound different as though it were Krieger and Pam that were making this thing unbeknownst to Archer and Lana and all of them.

It was great. It was super fun. It was one of those things where I had no idea what was going on. They showed me and said, “Hey Casey’s got this other thing.” Casey is one of the producers. “We’re going to put this on the DVD for season four. It’s an anime thing. So here, record this too” when I went in to record an actual episode.

I was excited that Krieger had his own little thing. That was fun.

Since you record your lines in isolation, what is it like to do events like Archer Live where you get together with the rest of the cast?

It’s awesome. Because the cast, they’re all so great. This is the first time I met them. I don’t get to go to all the stuff because Krieger isn’t like a “main” character. I don’t get to go to Comic Con and all that stuff. Every once in a while, I go and see them.

I remember the first time I met them, I was blown away that they’re all so nice and cool and caring. So we’re all friends. It’s really fun just to get together with everybody and hang out for however long we’re together. I’m blown away. There’s not a single ego in the whole group. Everybody is just super awesome and supportive.

It’s great. Great, great, great. I cannot rave enough about that cast.

Obviously you were both doing improv at Dad’s Garage together, but were you and Amber Nash close before you started working together on Archer?

She’s been one of my best friends for like 10 years.

You and Amber actually run the official Twitter accounts for your characters on the show. How did that come about?

Floyd County approached us to do it. John [Benjamin] doesn’t do the Archer one. Somebody has already been doing the Archer one. They wanted to really kick up some of the characters on social media. They knew that Pam would be great and Kreiger would probably be a real weirdo on it.

We all met for a lunch one time just to discuss “Oh, what do you think it would be” and blah blah blah. There was a point where Krieger was maybe going to have a MySpace page because he wasn’t up to date with anything. But we figured Twitter was really just the easiest way to cull a following.

We all got together at a big lunch and just talked about it. Then I had to write a month’s worth or half a month’s worth for them to see if I could do it. I submitted that and they were like, “Yeah, this is perfect.” I think Amber had to do the same thing. She had to write some in advance just to see if she could grab it.

Now they love it so much that I think they’re going to let us start … because we sort of write them in advance and submit them and they all have to meet approval from both Floyd County and FX before they actually go out. But I think they’re getting to a place where they trust us so much that they’re just going to let us start tweeting during the day if there’s anything that suddenly pops up or there’s big science news or whatever that I can jump on.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I don’t know. I sort of just take things one day at a time.

I used to be on the show Good Eats on the Food Network for many, many years. I had both of those things running at the same time, with that and Archer. Alton Brown is still a buddy of mine and he and I are always bouncing around ideas. But he’s a busy guy. He lives here in Atlanta, but he’s always in New York or LA shooting one of the many shows he does for the Food Network.

And at Dad’s, I stay pretty regular. Everything I studied is live theatre and doing improv shows every weekend, I love the instant audience response. I’m pretty happy.

Amber and I are writing a couple of things together, hoping to launch who knows what. We’re kind of jamming out a bunch of ideas and projects for ourselves because why not ride the wave?

But as far as anything solid, I’m just an actor auditioning for stuff.

What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?

My god, dude. Jesus. I can’t even imagine what somebody would make me do.

I don’t know. That’s a great question and one I never even thought of. I came up in a blue collar existence. Who knows? I would probably be in Michigan somewhere working some who-knows-what job in the auto industry probably, because in the metro Detroit area 80 percent of the people work for the big three.

I don’t know. That’s a good question. Sorry I had such a shitty answer.

You know, that’s not true. I would probably do something in the geek world. Maybe own a comic book shop. I’m a big nerd. I’ll go with that.

Tell us something most people don’t know about you?

Probably the big whammy is that I was married for a year and a half and lived on an Indian reservation. I think that’s the one that when people find out, they get floored because I’m just a guy and a real goofball, the type of guy you would never expect to have lived as the white man on a reservation. I’m going to go with that one, probably.

How much like Dances With Wolves was it?

[Laughs.] It was not that at all. It’s Cherokee North Carolina. And this is pre-gambling Cherokee North Carolina. They didn’t have a casino yet. When I was there, the council would keep getting together … [to] decide is it going to be video gambling or is it going to be live dealers? Is it going to be this or is it going to be that?

So during those years, pre-casino, that city would shut down as soon as the fall colors were done and people stopped coming to the Blue Ridge Mountains to look at the pretty color, the town just shut down and there was nothing going on. It was depressing because there were just a couple of businesses open. The people are great, but they’re also kind of bummed out because everybody is pretty poor. They live in a beautiful area, but a lot of people live in trailers and stuff. There’s a lot of alcoholism on the reservation. I worked at the Cherokee children’s home for a while taking care of abused kids. It’s just kind of like, “Aww man, this is a drag.”

I’m sure now that it’s chock full of all of these businesses – I haven’t been back since all of the casinos have been up. I bet I wouldn’t recognize the place because there’s a lot going on there now and there didn’t used to be.

Interview and top photo by Joel Murphy. Archer airs Thursday nights at 10 pm on FX.

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