An Interview with Middle Man’s Jim O’Heir
Jim O’Heir’s new movie Middle Man recently premiered at the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), so we sat down to talk with the former Parks & Recreation actor about the dark crime comedy, what it took to get the movie made, and his busy schedule.
Middle Man is a movie I’d recommend to some people, but not others. What’s your take?
It is not a family film by any stretch, but I love dark, I love comedies. It’s totally my film, and I’d go see this film if I wasn’t a part of it. But I feel [director] Ned Crowley nailed what we wanted to do with it. I think the ending is shocking and awesome. We could have gone another direction, but he was, “No, we’re going to go this way.” I’m glad we didn’t back off.
Was it beneficial doing a film outside of the studio system?
When you don’t have people on your back, you can do whatever the hell you want. There’s no one looking at the dailies but us and our editor who has to piece it together. We don’t have to ask anyone “What would you do, what would you do,” and that’s exciting.
On the other hand, it’s nice to have other people’s money and have a lot of it. [laughs]
Do you pay attention to reviews?
I try not to obsess about it. I did it during Parks & Recreation—when the first season came out, we got some rough reviews, but things got better and then they were more fun to read. I try not to get crazy about it, but I think it is human nature to want to know what other people think.
Reviews do affect financial performance…
The goal of this film is that we hope someone buys it and puts it out there, so of course. I don’t believe anybody went into this film to make a lot of money. Ned and I have two very different goals—Ned’s goal, he told me, is “I want people to see that you can do things other than just the big, wacky, funny guy,” and my goal is to show people that Ned should be out there directing big films. He’s a writer and director and he knows what he’s doing.
We’ve known each other for over 30 years. We did classes at Second City. That was ’85, so we’re over the 30-year mark. We did roadshows together, performed live shows, and Ned went into the world of advertising, while I stuck with performance. But we’ve always stayed tight.
Have you been in any of his ads?
That cheap son of a bitch has never put me in one of his commercials.
How long ago did Middle Man first get discussed?
I read the script years ago. Maybe ten? I got a phone call and it was Ned saying, if you’ll attach to this we might be able to get it made. I was like, I’m too old. That was years ago. I had put it out of my mind. He said, “No no no, a couple of changes and it’s you again.” And next thing I know we’re sitting down in some hotel and we’re like, “I think we’re doing this.”
And then we’re putting together our dream cast, throwing it all at the wall to see what sticks, some does, some doesn’t, and some that you thought would be the perfect choice didn’t work and it was meant to, because the cast we have is perfect. I auditioned or rehearsed with each one of them, because I kept telling people, if you don’t like me, you’re screwed. This is an hour and a half of me—I’m not bragging, it just is. I think there are three scenes I’m not in. Either you love me or you hate me. I knew there had to be chemistry with me.
IMDB shows you have 16 projects for 2016. When do you sleep?
I know. I don’t know what’s happening.
Do you know where you are right now?
Well, kind of. I’m filming in Chicago right now. I flew in this morning [to Seattle], I’ll do this all day, and the carpet thing and the film tonight, and I’ll leave halfway during the film to go back to Chicago—tomorrow I’m filming at Wrigley Field—and tomorrow night I’ll fly back here for Sunday’s showing and Q&A.
It’s a little nuts. But you know what? When I think about the days when I would have died to get a dog food commercial, I have no complaints. No complaints. Good problems. Am I tired? Sure, everyone works hard, but it’s a gift. I have no complaints.
Have you ever done standup comedy in real life?
I think stand up is terrifying. A hundred years ago—seriously, it was the 1800’s—I did stand up for three minutes. I hated every second of it.
Being a pretty funny guy…
How dare you!
Funny looking, then.
Well now we’re back in business. [laughs]
Being a pretty funny guy, is it tough to play someone so… unfunny?
I can turn it on and off. So we would do those scenes and they’d be very dour and tough, and then the camera would cut and I would start riffing. I just would think about what [my character] Lenny would do. When he first gets up there, he thinks he’s killing it, and then you realize it’s not going as well as he thinks it’s going. Because he’s awful. Because what he thinks is funny… is awful. But that’s performance, and I love performance. Because I’m crazy.
Do you have the desire to return to television?
I just was having a conversation with some of the cast of Parks & Recreation. None of us have gone back to TV yet.
What about Aziz?
Well, Aziz, but that’s a little different. That Netflix thing is a whole different world. None of us have gone back to traditional network comedy. I would go in a heartbeat—I love television—and people often ask me, do I like TV or film more?
I like being on a set, I like the comradery of the crew, so I don’t know if I have a preference. But if a good series comes along, I’d do it in a heartbeat.