When last we spoke to Glenn Howerton, he was promoting season four of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The show was starting to catch fire after an acclaimed third season that featured the beloved “Dayman” and “Nightman” songs from “Sweet Dee’s Dating a Retarded Person.” Howerton, Charlie Day and Rob McElhenney were looking to follow their success up with another iconic moment.
Six years later, the show is still going strong. But instead of simply resting on his laurels, Howerton has decided to return to his roots by pursuing more dramatic roles. That’s what drew him to the FX miniseries Fargo, which finds him playing Don Chumph, an overly-bronzed idiot who gets in over his head in his attempt to blackmail a powerful man.
We recently caught up with Howerton to talk about Sunny‘s longevity, the differences between acting on your own show and someone else’s and how his parents talked him out of being a scientist.
Last time we spoke, Charlie Day made a joke that he was 6’1”. It got picked up by a few message boards and reported as fact. There’s a whole section of the Internet that believes Charlie Day is 6’1”.
Well if he’s 6’1” then I’m 6’7”.
All of these years later, HoboTrashcan still gets traffic from it and it always amuses us.
That goes to show you that you got to really be careful what you say. People really cling to it, don’t they?
When we spoke in 2008, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia was getting ready to start its fourth season and was really just beginning to get a lot of mainstream attention. Since then, it has become a phenomenon. What is it like to be a part of that show at this point?
You know, it’s fun. I mean it’s great. It’s so hard for me to qualify it in any sort of satisfying way because it’s my thing. I don’t know. It’s like a funny thing where you see other things from the outside, and you’re like, “Oh man, this guy’s having a blast.” So I don’t know. I don’t know how other people view it. But from my perspective, yeah it’s really really fun.
There’s sort of this thing too, people are like, “Wow the show’s gotten so popular, it’s huge.” I don’t see any of that really. But then every once in a while, I’ll go somewhere in public, I’ll go to a bar or something and people literally screech out as if I’m fucking Paul McCartney when they see me. And, I’m like, “Oh right yeah, I’m like a giant celebrity to some people.”
But that’s the funny thing about our show is that it elicits a very strong response. And our fans are so gung ho about the show. So it’s like I’m not really a celebrity, but it’s kind of nice because people that are fans of the show are so excited to meet me, but not because I’m a celebrity, but because of how much they love the show. Which I think is kind of really the response that I would want more than anything, for people to be excited to run into me because they love my work. As opposed to because I’m the last guy to fuck Scarlett Johansson or something.
That’s still not a terrible position to be in though.
It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to be know as that guy.
To answer your question more directly, we’re still having a really good time. I mean we somehow managed to create a situation where our characters really can get into such a wide variety of situations that it enables us to never really be at a loss for words.
How long do you think It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia will run? Are you guys taking the show year-to-year at this point? Are you just going to do it until you get bored?
Well it’s different every year.
Initially, it was year-to-year, just because that’s your own bubble, and they’re trying to decide whether your ratings make sense to bring you back, blah blah blah. And then probably around after season four they realize, at least in terms of a cable show, they have a qualified hit. And they started picking us up for a whole season. So that’s kind of how it’s been ever since.
There was a time there where we thought maybe Kaitlin [Olson] was probably going to be on her last season. You know, we sort of questioned creatively how far do we want to go with this. And while we weren’t at a loss for stories, we also thought we also don’t want to wear out our welcome. And I think when you’re looking at your situation getting better, and you realize, I can’t even imagine doing 10 seasons of this. People have got to be fucking sick of us by now. We’re definitely going to be sick of this show.
But then you get to season nine and you’re like, “This is still fun, I’m still enjoying this.”
We don’t do that many episodes. We only do 10 now a season, so we don’t wear out our welcome. It’s kind of like Curb Your Enthusiasm, where they let the show just fucking go forever. So it’s been different every year, but as of now we’re picked up through season 12, and we’re writing season 10 now. So we’ll see, I mean I think we’ll probably stop after season 12. I can’t promise, man, don’t quote me on that. I don’t know.
How do you guys approach writing the show at this point? Has the process changed at all over time?
It’s always worked just like a conventional writers’ room. We have a staff, and the three of us kind of run the room. We have certain trials and methods and things like that. I’m happy to say that we really are a nine-to-five shop, but we’ve always been that way.
For us, this isn’t fun if we don’t have time outside of the show. If it’s not worth it, we don’t want to do it anymore. We hear horror stories about other shows where it’s like, “Oh yeah, the writers are there until 3:00 a.m. doing polish ups on their scripts on weekends.” I don’t know what they’re doing over there; fuck that. I can’t do that. I’ll kill myself before I do that shit.
So, you know, we go in regular hours, like you know 10:30 to 6:00, and we just kind of hammer a story out . There’s not a whole lot to tell. We fill the room with the funniest people we can find. We’re just always looking for an angle.
Sometimes, we’re inspired to tell a story that involves the economy in some way. So we build a story that supports our mission statement. And then other times we’ll have a really stupid idea about Sweet Dee getting a cat and it getting stuck in a wall. And then all of a sudden it becomes a story about her sad and lonely and living in an apartment with a cat. But no, we come at it from a variety of different angles. I don’t know, somehow we always come out the other end of that shit.
So what is it like going from a show like Sunny to something like Fargo, where you’re an actor on it and you don’t have the same control? What’s that transition like for you?
I imagine if you’re working on something that is not written to your own standards, or it’s something that’s not written well, or something at least not written well for you, it’s probably pretty difficult. I haven’t had a lot of situations where I felt like, “Wow I have to act this thing, and I don’t think it’s very good.”
With Fargo, and even with The Mindy Project to a degree, I was just kind of trusting that the people involved. I think Mindy [Kaling] is very, very talented. I had seen the first season of her show, so it’s like, “Okay, whatever they write for me is probably going to be good, because they’re talented.”
I trust John Landgraf and the other people that I’ve know for years and years over at FX, that if they said Fargo was really amazing, then it probably was. And I knew they had a lot of great people on the cast. So thankfully, once I read those scripts I was like, “Wow, man, I wouldn’t change a thing about this thing. All I got to do is land it and not fuck it up, and it will be good.”
I imagine if I were on something where the writing wasn’t very good it would be very frustrating and very, very difficult. Because, like you said, on Sunny if something isn’t working I can step in and try to fix it myself.
So with Fargo, FX approached you for the role?
Well, my background, I had done comedy before, but it’s kind of weird because Rob and Charlie and I, we didn’t come from comedy backgrounds. We’d all done comedy before, but we weren’t comedians. We didn’t do standup. We weren’t sketch comedy guys or regular comedy guys. You know, a lot of my background, prior to doing Sunny, was doing more dramatic stuff.
So those guys over at FX, they knew that. We always talked about it. And John Landgraf was always like, “Yeah, I really want to find something for you. I think you’d be great.”
And he just kind of called me one day. He said, “Hey, we’ve got this thing we’re doing, a miniseries of Fargo, and I brought you up because I thought you’d be great for this one role.”
He brought me up to Noah Hawley, the show runner, and Fargo being a little bit of a comedy as well, it made sense.
So yeah, they just offered it to me. I didn’t audition or anything, and you know I just kind of trusted that it was going to be good. And the weird thing about it is that even though my character is funny it’s very, very, very different from Sunny. It’s really different from most of the stuff that I usually do. I think I’m a little bit more comfortable, as far as practice at playing guys who are kind of smart, or at least think they’re smart. As opposed to the character on Fargo who’s kind of dumb, and sadly is probably aware of it.
How did you approach the role, outside of obviously putting on a ton of bronzer? How did you get ready to play Don Chumph?
He’s a very innocent guy, and a very sweet guy actually, my character. Which again is not something that I’m used to doing. So I guess for me to click into it was really just more of me trying to bring a naïve, jovial, sort of happy innocence to the role. Which again for me is just normal acting.
As an actor, preparation for me is really all just about getting in the right mindset. Which can sometimes just be something as stupid as chewing a piece of gum before a taping because it makes you feel a certain way. I don’ t know, it’s a weird thing. It’s really just a matter of putting myself there. I know that’s such a vague way of putting it. I don’t know how to briefly tell you how I did it.
We were mostly just kind of showing up at the beginning in some respects, with this role, because my character didn’t have a relationship with Billy Bob [Thorton]. And most of the stuff that I have on the show is with Billy Bob. He has such a presence as an actor, and as that character, that really I just had to be present and available while we were shooting it and be affected by his performance, which is amazing on the show.
He’s phenomenal on the show. It’s such an interesting character. He basically just causes chaos everywhere he goes, and it’s a really fascinating dynamic. And for a character like yours, you’re just completely outmatched by this guy, who sizes you up and takes over your scheme. Is that the dynamic for your entire storyline? Will there be more to it with your character, or is it kind of that he’s just taken over and you’re along for the ride?
Well, I don’t want to say too much. But yeah ,it kind of becomes a situation where I guess you could say I kind of become almost like his goon. You know, I’m like a henchman in his lab. Instead of being the guy who’s heading the operation, I just become like an operative. But I definitely have a lot more to do to in the later episodes. And it’s really fun.
I mean it’s a really good exercise for me, both in playing the character, and as you said, not having control, and just an actor on the show. And just having to be okay with being along for the ride, and letting the fact that that is kind of scary in not being in control, and not really totally understanding what was happening.
It was a lot of fun. It’s a relief, quite frankly, a lot of the times, to work on something where I’m not in charge. Because it’s exhausting to try to take charge of everything all the time.
It’s tricky trying to figure out a way to adapt Fargo into a miniseries in a way that doesn’t just feel like a rehash of the movie. It’s really smart the way they’ve done it, and it’s a really interesting take on the material.
Yeah, he’s done a good job of paying homage to the movie, paying homage to the Coen brothers, but while still making it his own thing. It’s very tricky territory to try and step into. I think they did a really great job. I really did enjoy it.
Outside of Sunny, what does the future hold for you? Do you see yourself doing more stuff like this? Do you think you might do other projects that you have more control over, or have you not really put all that much thought into it?
No, I have. I think about it all the time. I go back and forth, I’m pretty indecisive about it. I know myself well enough to know that I’m never just going to take a back seat with my career. I’m never just going to be going to meetings and auditioning for things. Just because I feel so powerless in those situations, over my own destiny. So I won’t do that, but that’s not to say that I won’t act in other things that other people are doing, as long as a good thing comes around.
The good thing about doing something for as long as I’ve done Sunny is that financially you get to a place where you don’t have to take jobs for the sake of taking the job. So I like to be picky, but that doesn’t mean that my career from now on is just going to be Oscar movies and that’s it.
It’s just doing things that I think are fun and interesting, even if it’s something that accidentally turns out to be a piece of shit. I just want to have fun with my career, that’s the main thing. That’s one of the most beautiful things about having done Sunny, it’s that it’s given me the financial freedom to just kind of do things that I want to do, and not things I have to do.
In that interview from 2008, one of the things you said is that you really wanted to meet Kurt Russell and you hadn’t yet. Did you ever get to meet Kurt Russell?
I did not, no. I have not met Kurt Russell, but I think the guys have, or at least Rob has. One of those guys met him, maybe even hung out with him or something. I’ve got to ask them about that because I forgot. But no, I still haven’t met Kurt Russell. I think he’s awesome. I think he’s one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, I really do.
Kurt Russell is awesome.
At the time, you guys were trying to get him for a show that you were working on.
Yeah, we did write a show, and we did love the idea of putting him as the lead of the show. I just don’t think he had any interest in doing television. It wasn’t like our show, the answer we got back was like, “Kurt’s not really interested in doing a television show.”
What ever happened with the show? Did it get picked up or did nothing ever really come of it?
We shot them. It was Boldly Going Nowhere. It was a pretty odd concept, like a space comedy thing. We shot the pilot for Fox, and it was actually pretty good. The long and the sort of it was that we all kind of felt like we could do a better job. And we basically went to Fox and we said, “Hey, we all think this isn’t good enough. Can we take another shot at it? We want to do some rewrites, recasting. Blah, blah, blah.”
And we rewrote it and they were like, “No, we still like the original script better.” So we’re all just trying to figure out how we can fix this thing, but everybody kept going back to, “We still like the original script.” And then after about a year of trying to re-conceive this we just kind of got sick of it and shelved it.
That’s too bad.
Yeah, it’s kind of a shame. It’s just one of those things. It’ll never be because it just can’t. The three of us can’t even get on the same page about how we would fix it, you know what I mean? It’s one of those things where if it were up to me I would fix it one way, if it were up to Rob he would fix it a different way and if it were up to Charlie he would fix it a different way. So just getting us on the same page about it has been impossible.
Are you all typically on the same page with stuff? Is it an anomaly for you guys to not be able to come to a consensus?
No, no it’s a project-to-project thing. I think that this project was so high concept, and because of the sci-fi aspect of it, there were just so many aspects about it that you could control in terms of like: What is this future? What is this world? What is the tone of the show? Is it a Star Trek parody or is it just a comedy that takes place in space? You know what I mean? There’s just so many different options and ways to go that I think just aspects the project, for whatever reason, we just couldn’t get on the same page about.
But, generally speaking, we’re on the same page. We fight about things and we have a lot of creative disagreements and things like that. But we’re usually pretty good about figuring out a way to come to a consensus.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
That’s a good question. I don’t know man, I really don’t. Probably something in the math or science-related arena.
Was that something that you kind of had perused at one point? Was that ever considered as a career path?
Yeah, I actually signed up for classes. I’m from Alabama. I was going to go to Auburn University with all my friends. And I was going to get into aerospace engineering, because I always thought it would be interesting. I’m weird that I actually really like math a lot, and I find physics really fascinating.
My dad was a pilot my whole life. So I always thought like, “Well, I don’t know, it would be a good place to start because math and science is flying airplanes.” And I always thought a lot about that stuff, so maybe I would have done that. I was headed down that path. I weirdly veered off course at the last minute because, of all things, I’d done some acting in high school and I always really enjoyed it. Weirdly, it was my parents who encouraged me to try it.
That’s the complete opposite of what you would expect to hear – that you were on a path for engineering and your parents encouraged you to pursue acting instead.
Yeah, I know it is weird. Especially considering my dad was a military guy, and neither one of them were artists. But my dad’s mom was a dancer, and my dad’s dad, while he was also a pilot in the Air Force, was also a jazz musician. So we had gone to a lot of plays and things like that. I grew up around a lot of culture. So I always really enjoyed it, and I would book the leads in plays and things like that. So you never really know.
My parents thought I was great, but you know everybody’s parents think they’re great. But really, the short version of the long story is, just for the hell of it, I worked for this theatre conference thing when I was a senior. Just to see what would happen I auditioned in front of all these theatre programs, and I got accepted to almost every single one of them.
So that was the point at which it kind of hit me. I was like, “Oh wow, maybe I kind of could be doing this. Maybe I am good at this. Maybe I could make a career at this.” Suddenly, the idea of making a career as an actor instead of having to do math all day was more exciting to me. So I was like, “Yeah well if my parents are going to support me, I’ll give it a shot. Why not?” That’s how it happened.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
I don’t know. I was going to say maybe that I did start out as a dramatic actor and just kind of fell into comedy. Maybe that would be something that people wouldn’t expect to know about me.
I don’t know, I always worry that when people meet me that they’re going to think I’m a dick, or that they’re going to assume that I’m a dickhead just because my character is such a dick on the show. But the truth is, and this kind of goes for all of us, we’re all probably just disappointingly well-adjusted human beings in reality. So I don’t know, I think maybe it would shock people to know that in real life I actually don’t really even drink that much.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10 pm.