One on One with John Michael Higgins

John Michael Higgins

You may know John Michael Higgins from his comedic roles, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious about acting. From his first love, the theatre, to his breakout role as David Letterman in The Late Shift and his memorable roles in Christopher Guest’s films, Higgins is a hard working actor who has honed his craft since he was a child.

Starting tonight, he can be seen on the new NBC sitcom Kath and Kim. We recently caught up with Higgins to talk about his new show, life as a journeyman actor and his tendency to create quartets to pass the time on set.

Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?

I live in Los Angeles right now and have for about 10 years. I’m not quite from anywhere. My dad was in the Navy, so I moved a whole lot – about once a year until college. But most of my family ended up living in D.C., so when I think of home, I think of going back there to see them. Although I have a lot living in Seattle and Portland now too, so I’m all over the place.

How exactly did you get into acting, and when did you decide this is what you wanted to do for a living?

Well, when I was very young, I was basically an actor. It was pretty clear; nothing I chose, it sort of chose me. This is earliest memory stuff. And eventually, I ended up working as a child actor – stage actor – mostly in D.C. actually in places like what is now the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. When I started in 1972 or ‘73 or something like that, it was called Street 70 and I worked there for a long time, all the way through high school. I was doing shows and teaching. I taught a lot of children’s theatre and other types of theatre acting and improvisation.

Then I went to college and when I got out of college, I went to New York and I was a New York stage actor for 15, almost 20 years doing just a ton of theatre. I’ve got a resume all the way down my arm, basically all of the plays. And that’s what I was basically until I was cast in the HBO movie, The Late Shift, where I played David Letterman. And from that point on, I was doing a lot more film and television and eventually I moved out here.

When you were doing the theatre work, did you always have a job or were there long periods of unemployment? Did you ever think about giving it up and pursuing something else?

I was a lucky actor. I’ve never had another job and I’ve been acting professionally since I was probably nine or 10. I’m 45 now.

So you have literally never had another job?

I’ve never had another job. I mean, unless you count teaching, but I was working while I was teaching. In other words, yes I taught, but I taught theatre, I taught acting. And I was always working at the same time. I was always doing a show at night.

No, I’ve been very fortunate; I’ve always worked. You know, there have been dry spells certainly. When I was coming up in New York right out of college, I’d go for several months or something without a job and eventually get one. I never really considered leaving the business. I would occasionally consider leaving the business because I would feel like it was unjust. I remember I did a show on Broadway many years ago, Le Bete. It was clearly the best show on Broadway; it was a great, great show. It was a great moment in American theatre and it got trounced by The New York Times, so it closed and I just thought, “What’s the point?” I almost quit at that point. I thought, “Well, it’s clearly not a meritocracy and all I can offer is merit, if I can even offer that.” So, that’s as close as I ever got to quitting.

You played David Letterman on The Late Shift. What was it like portraying such a well-known personality? You mentioned before that it was a big break for you, so what was it like to play Letterman early in your career?

It was a great opportunity, but it was a scary opportunity. The only reason I played Letterman and not somebody that you could actually name or pick out of a lineup was because the job was basically too scary for anyone else to do. They couldn’t get any famous people to do it; Letterman’s a very powerful man. He didn’t like the project from the beginning. People already established in the business – what’s the point of jeopardizing anything for what, a TV movie, you know?

Eventually they went through the lookalikes and the impersonators and they just didn’t play the scenes well enough, I guess. So they scraped the bottom of the barrel and went to New York and actually got an actor, which is always the last choice for these guys. So there I was. I was probably in the bottom of the last list of the last casting session of the last call of that film, I have no doubt.

But doing the job itself wasn’t particularly difficult, even though it was tricky to play a living famous person. I actually find that in film and television, I’ve done a lot of things that aren’t particularly easy, but compared to almost anything I’ve done in the theatre are a walk in the park. I think theatre is genuinely difficult and requires an enormous amount of skill and patience to do well. I’m not totally convinced that’s true of film and television.

So the job itself was not too difficult for me, but what I was very bad at was the attendant hoopla – the press and the response to it; basically the various controversies I’d get myself involved in just because it involved famous people. I didn’t know what the press was or what they did. They were never part of my life, so I probably didn’t handle that very well. I just didn’t know quite what to say.

I took the job because I needed to fix the steering column on my Subaru, that’s why I took the job. I didn’t take the job to stick it to anybody or to make a statement of any sort. I took it because I needed to pay my rent. It was a very different world. No one else working on that job was paying their rent, you know what I mean, and I was number one on the call sheet.

Was there a lot of fallout for you from doing that film as your career progressed? Or after the initial attention died down, were you able to simply move on?

It wasn’t terrible easy to move on again because the performance was such a specific thing. It was some kind of odd impersonation/performance, so somebody would get interested in me – I won’t name names, but a producer would get interested in and bring me to his network and the network execs would say, “What do we need a Letterman impersonator for?” I did run in to a bit of that.

I think, strangely you know, the product of “actor” is not a very hot one in Hollywood. What people want is for you to be something. “It’s the guy who does that.” “Oh that’s the guy who looks like that.” “This is the guy who says that funny phrase over and over.” I’m not that creature. I blossom when I’m in character. I want to play things that are very different from myself. That’s just the way I’m built. And it’s not anything that is particularly appealing to Hollywood. I’ve done very well in Hollywood. You know, you can read my resume – it’s a very odd collection of characters and projects and I’m very different from one thing to the next.

That’s certainly true. Looking at your resume, you have been on episodes of Seinfeld, Monk, Cybill, The George Carlin Show and Mad About You. Did you set out to be a journeyman actor playing different characters on a variety of shows?

I think that’s where my skills lay. I think that’s just what I am. I would see a funny role crop up. Oh, “he’s an Armenian soccer player who turned into a basket weaver” – and I’d think, “Well, that’s interesting.” As opposed to “He’s the nice guy who gets the girl” – that held no interest for me whatsoever. Zero. It’s just how I’m built as a performer, I guess.

What’s surprising to me about my career at this point is that I was never a comedian, per say. Now I’m considered a comedian. In other words, Hollywood has figured me out to their satisfaction – which is that I’m a comedian. I’m a comedic actor who does comedy. This was never the case in my career for the last 30 years. I did comedy, but it was certainly not to the exclusion of everything else and it certainly wasn’t the majority of my work. The majority of my work was not comedy; certainly on stage it was mostly classics – Shakespeare, Shaw. Large parts in those things. That’s what’s been surprising about my Hollywood years – all those shows you just mentioned are comedies.

John Michael Higgins

Many people know you from your work on the Christopher Guest films Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and For Your Consideration. For someone like yourself with such an accomplished theatre background, we would imagine it would be a lot of fun to get to improvise and be able to play around with your character in a Christopher Guest film.

Chris Guest and I have always sort of been simpatico about what we find to be good entertainment. I think improvisation’s never been an issue for me or a problem or something I’m frightened of or something like that. I think Chris has always been someone who is more attracted to accurate behavior than he is to a joke. And I think that’s where my skills lay, not so much in jokes and broad comedy, but in sort of some kind of astute observation of human behavior and hopefully it’s astute enough that it becomes funny when put into the right context. I think that’s what he’s interested in; that’s what I do and that’s what a lot of the people in his little rep company do, if I can use that word.

And also, I think having done a lot of theatre, I’m basically unafraid. Certainly one of the best things theatre can teach an actor is a kind of fearlessness. At eight o’clock, you have to walk out on that stage, whether you’re ill or ready or know your lines or figured out the six bits that happen after the dinner scene. You have to go out there; you have to make it work or you’ll die. Everyone will hate you. And you figure it out. And in film, you can make a thousand mistakes and all it does is cost people who are in another building money. You might get fired, I suppose, but the consequences on your performance are minimal. You can always just stop, start over, keep doing it until it works.

I think in theatre you become kind of a gunslinger. You’re unafraid and you’ve got to fight the battle. I think to some extent Chris Guest has been able to preserve that high jump in his work. When you show up on Chris Guest’s set, there’s not going to be a lot of takes. We’re not going to be there all day.

We’re not going to do more than two or three takes. You’ve got to hit it. You’ve got to hit the ground running and you’ve got to nail it or the scene will probably not be shown. If it doesn’t work, it will go. If you’re not funny that day, well there it goes. If you’re not truthful that day, if you didn’t do anything of value to the story and the characters, it probably won’t be in. It’s some weird middle ground between theatre and film, I think, Chris’ films.

Have you heard of any future Christopher Guest projects?

Well, Chris is always thinking of things he’d like to do and he doesn’t hurry. He doesn’t do things that he doesn’t want to do. When he has a good idea, something that he thinks would work, he calls us up. I have no doubt that he’s thinking of something as we speak and just figuring it out.

I compare it to like the beginning of Mission: Impossible. Like a task presents itself to Chris in some way and he goes through his 8x10s and pulls out Martin Landau. Just like in Mission: Impossible, he always pulls out the same 8x10s and there’s his little team. And then they all put their masks on and go and overthrow Zamboobia. In other words, Martin Landau doesn’t know what the task is until he gets the phone call.

Speaking of Christopher Guest films, you and Michael McKean make an oddly sweet couple in Best in Show.

Thank you, I appreciate it. Actually, that was interesting for us because when Chris talked to us about it, we only ever had a little chat. I think we had a lunch with Chris and Eugene Levy. The four of us were like, “Well, what should these guys be and what should it be like?” And Chris sort of knew that he wanted us to be in light colors – not just what we’re wearing, but that we’re happy people because all of the other couples are so miserable in that movie. I don’t think Michael – I think I can speak for him – we both kind of looked at each other like, “Ugh.” It’s hard for a comedian to play a happy person. They’re not very funny. Pathology and dread, that’s funny; anger, fear – those are funny. But happiness is hard to make funny.

I think basically what McKean and I figured out is that we would be the type of couple that you find funny. They are funny people, which is dangerous always because you run the risk of not being a funny person. But I think that the couple we played is a couple of guys who actually you wouldn’t mind spending some time with. It would probably be a lot of fun because they say funny things and have a funny attitude about life. They’re ridiculous in their way, with the kimonos and all that stuff, but get in line. Get in line behind me, for one thing. We’re all ridiculous.

I actually really relished the chance to play – that they were gay was an extra thing. I liked the idea of playing a gay couple that their motor wasn’t the same motor that you see in all gay couples in Hollywood films and television, which is some kind of tired, cynical, ironic, self-hating whatever, you know? I’m actually proud of the relationship that we showed in that movie. It’s more like the relationships that I know about, my friends who are gay.

You also played Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development, a show which many fans were sad to see canceled. What was it like working on that show and were you surprised that it was axed by Fox?

The first answer is yes, I loved working on that show. It’s a rare instance of a show that I find, without qualification, funny. I can always make excuses for shows. For me, mostly with television I’m like, “For a show that’s XYZ, it’s not so bad. It’s actually kind of funny.” But you don’t have to qualify Arrested Development at all. It’s simply funny.

That’s Mitch Hurwitz. Mitch is a great writer and he has a great grasp of character and relationship in his head. He can really lay it out and go to places that seem almost too broad to go and it totally works. I think it works because he’s really done the hard work of drawing relationships with the characters and that the characters need and want things, as opposed to hitting poses and making funny attitudes. That’s why that show is a success. A total artistic success. As a business success, I guess it wasn’t a success. Well, it ran for several seasons, but that’s the great mystery. You throw these shows out and if the public doesn’t respond I guess in giant numbers, then they go away.

You know, it’s sentimental; it’s romantic to think that television is anything but what it is – a billboard. And if it’s not drawing the eyeballs, then it goes. You try a different billboard. It’s that simple. There have been great, great billboards on television; some of them approach art. As far as comedy is concerned – comedic art – I’d put Arrested Development somewhere near there. It’s a completely stand-alone property and I think the short answer is it’s too good to be a billboard. It didn’t fit.

It’s a great show and it will live forever; I’m sure of that. If sitcoms are able to live forever in some format or medium, that’s going to be one of them.

There are a lot of fans of the show who would like to see an Arrested Development movie to bring closure to the show. Do you think something like that will ever happen?

I don’t know. I believe all that would come down to just business decisions having to do with the major players. Most of those people have gone on to more fabulous careers than the ones they had when they started Arrested Development and that’s as it should be. If they want to go and revisit, that would be entirely either a proclivity of theirs or a good business decision. And there’s no way to guess if those things exist in those players and those producers.

Would you be open do doing something?

Oh, I wouldn’t mind. My guy in that show was such a footnote in a way. I loved the character; I had a great time doing it, but it’s nothing that takes a whole lot out of my skin. It’s not a great hardship. For me, it would just be an amusing week of work or something if I were to do a film version of it.

I don’t know though, Mitch would have to look at it and the big question he would have to ask is: Is Arrested Development defined by its context? In other words, would it work as anything other than a half hour shot in the arm – 22 minutes or whatever it is? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s a question that a lot of people should ask themselves before they make movie versions of television shows. We’ve seen the dead bodies along that road and most of them it’s because they were driving in the wrong car at the wrong speed. Mitch is too smart.

John Michael Higgins

We read that you do vocal arrangements for many of the projects you have worked on. Is it true that you also did the vocal arrangement and sang back-up for Ed Helms’ “Take A Chance on Me” performance on NBC’s The Office?

That is true. I wrote the vocal arrangement for “Take A Chance” and I sang it too on the phone behind him. Yes, I write vocal arrangements, it’s something I’ve always done since college; I led my college group and I’m still very interested in harmony. I’m actually not particularly interested in a capella harmony of the sort you are talking about, although I end up doing it a lot.

But Ed called me, he and I worked on Evan Almighty together and we sang a lot together on that set. Any set that I’m on, if I’m on it for more than a week or two, I will quickly – even just listening to you, the first thing I do is hear your voice and figure out what part you sing. Then I figure out who can actually sing in the cast and then I put together generally a quartet or something to sing to kill the downtime, of which there’s a lot.

So Ed was somebody who I sang with on the Evan Almighty set and he ended up doing The Office and he called me up and said, “We have to do this thing, would you come in here?” And I got my friend Tom Gallop, whose a wonderful comedic actor himself, he used to be on Will and Grace, he’s a great bass singer. It was just the three of us I guess, me and Ed and Tom, ran out to the Valley where they shoot The Office and honestly it was about 10 minutes in Ed’s trailer, quickly put the arrangement together and ran out onto the set and recorded it live on the set actually. We didn’t pre-record it. They were playing the scene and they had the phones set up and Tom and I were in an office, a real office nearby, one of the writers’ offices, on a speakerphone which went to the set. And somebody gave us a cue. We couldn’t even see Ed, I don’t think, on the monitor or anything, we just sang it.

I had no idea at that time, it turned out to be kind of a big thing. Ed called me and said it’s all over the Internet. I’m very pleased, but I did it sort of anonymously. I don’t even think I took a credit or anything. But I’ve done a lot of vocal arrangements for movies. I did all of the vocal arrangements in A Mighty Wind, which are pretty complex actually, and the ones for The Breakup, where I ended up doing a whole a capella group. I don’t know if you saw the movie, but I’m a guy whose in an a capella group and I annoy Vince Vaughn by singing loudly in his face. I wrote a bunch of arrangements for that group in the movie. Most of that stuff was cut out. But I actually hardly remember making that movie. I really remember doing the recording of all those arrangements that I did with this six, seven boy group that we sort of cherry-picked to sing those vocal arrangements.

So I’ve always been an arranger. If I had it to do over again, I think that’s probably what I would have ended up doing, being a real arranger. Although they don’t really exist anymore. That whole world is dead and gone. Vocal arranging I suppose is still around, but I don’t know, it’s all so computerized now. My heroes are the big arrangers from the late 50s and the early 60s; they’re like geniuses, what they knew about music and what they knew about orchestras. And it’s gone, it’s all gone.

You are now on Kath and Kim. What can you tell us about the show and your role on it?

It’s a show I’m very proud of actually. I find it really funny and I don’t think I’d be doing it if I didn’t. It’s four characters. It’s a small cast, which is very appealing to me. When I watch television, I find that I get lost. It’s hard to tell people apart for me. They look the same and they all sort of are the same in some funny way. They all have the same values and the same amount of money.

Especially on like these teen dramas on The CW, literally all of the young actors look exactly the same.

I know. I find those shows perfectly opaque. Like I look at them and for the life of me, it’s like looking at a brick wall. I just can’t make heads or tails out of it. It could just be a generational thing. Maybe I’m done.

But I like Kath and Kim because the four characters are very, very distinct. And it’s limited to four, so you can actually wrap your head around it. Molly Shannon, of whom I’m a big fan both on and off screen, is Kath, this woman of a certain age who is trying to get her life back together and her daughter moves in after a disaster starter marriage that lasted six months. And her daughter moves in and it’s just horrible, Selma Blair plays that part. And her husband’s Mikey Day. Mikey’s a really talented guy, he’s about half my age, which is annoying. He’s a huge talent; he’s like a myna bird with impersonations and a fantastic improviser. The best news is that he’s a very good actor. He just goes right into the scene. He doesn’t really do the jokes, he just plays the scene, which makes it 10 times funnier, of course. So that’s a great cast and the showrunner is brilliant, Michelle Nader, she’s really the thing that drew me to it in a big way in the first place.

So I’m really thrilled. I think the show is quite funny. I saw the pilot and I saw episode two and I don’t know what there is to object to. I honestly don’t. It’s very funny, got great designs, it’s very interesting to look at and it’s got people who are just suburban people who aren’t particularly clever, aren’t particularly glamorous, just trying to make it through in some way or another and being basically wrong about everything that they do. So it appeals to me.

Were you familiar with the original Australian Kath and Kim before signing on to be a part of the American version?

I haven’t seen it, but I understand it’s a huge, huge success in Australia – six, seven years. And they’re very protective and enamored of it in Australia. They don’t like the idea of somebody remaking it. But they didn’t have all of that money waived at them.

Was it a faithful remake of the Australian version or were a lot of changes made to the American version?

Again, I’m speaking out of school since I haven’t seen the Australian version, but my understanding of the American version – and basically it works this way with something like The Office – is that the American television season is so much longer, we have to do 23 episodes as opposed to 12 or even six sometimes on the BBC, which is ridiculous. They can go very broad in places that would be hard for the American audience to – you end up burning the characters up like a match if you go too broad too often because you’ve got a long haul ahead of you. It’s like blowing all of your best jokes right at the beginning of a dinner party.

So the American versions are generally more character driven than situation driven. I’m not saying that Australians don’t have great characters, I’m sure they do. It’s just a different way of stretching out the story – stretching a story into 23 chapters instead of 12 or whatever they do. So I think the American versions have more downtime as it were in the story, where people just talk to each other and say things that aren’t particularly funny or live their lives, as opposed to the constant jalopy ride – Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from beginning of an episode to the end.

What other projects are you working on? Are you doing any theatre work or are you mainly just focusing on Kath and Kim?

Well, right now the show is really taking up a lot of time. It’s a single camera show, so it takes forever to shoot and the schedule is hideous. That’s just the way it is if you’re not working with multiple cameras, that’s the gig. I always have my hand in theatre. My wife is a theatre actor, she’s currently doing shows, so I go down there and watch a lot and I direct more in theatre than I used to if the gig is shorter and I can stay active in film and television without taking too long of a break.

I’m currently also doing this spokesman type job for DirecTV. I’m doing DirecTV spots. Chris Guest directed those, so he and I are doing those together.

But that’s about it right now. I’m always sort of looking ahead a bit. So right now this show is taking up more time than most projects ever have. I haven’t done a whole lot of long runs as a television series regular. I’ve been mostly doing films for the last few years and those are just brief jobs that take a couple of months and you’re done. This is like a real job. I have to show up every day, all day. So it’s a little different.

What goals have you set for your career? Are there particular directions you would like to see your career head?

It’s hard to do that. As long as I’ve been in this career, the only constant is that I’m constantly surprised by the direction in which it goes. I seem to have very little control over that. I do choose projects to some extent. I won’t do things I don’t want to do. But is that a way of control or sort of a half-measure of control? People who can actually choose their projects are countable on a hand and I’m not one of them.

I can’t just sit in a chair in Montana and say, “I want to do this. I want to do that.” I’m still a working actor. I’m not auditioning as much as I did at other parts of my career; things come to me more now. But there I said it, things come to me. I have a hundred ideas of things I want to do that would be projects that are generated by me, which I’m always working on, so that is basically the best way to control your career and I’ll be doing more of that. And I actually do want to do much more directing actually; in theatre, not so much film and television. Theatre directing is very interesting to me and I hope I can remain enough of a success in film and television that I can afford to do it.

John Michael Higgins

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

I’m very conservative. Not politically so much, but as a person. People I think are surprised to find me as sober and dry as I am, given the types of characters that I play. I’m not sure why that worked out that way, but it’s always what I hear when people meet me. After a couple days, they say, “You know, I’m very surprised to find you this way.” Every now and then I’ll play a character like that; Arrested Development is obviously a very serious, dry, almost dead person. (Laughs.) But I think that’s the thing people are always surprised by.

What does the future hold for you?

I’m very happily married with two beautiful children. When I think of the future, I think of them. I think of continuing to have a fulfilled, happy relationship with my wife and children. That’s the most important thing in my life; nothing even approaches it in importance. I don’t know, it’s kind of a sappy answer, but it’s a truthful one.

Interviewed by Interviewed by Joel Murphy. Kath and Kim premieres tonight at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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