Big Fan's Patton Oswalt: 'I've Got to Embrace the Void That This Guy Is'
The first thing you heard about Big Fan after its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival was that its star, veteran comedian Patton Oswalt, was terrific. The second thing you heard was that he wasn't remotely funny. Mission accomplished, though: Those were precisely the dynamics screenwriter Rob Siegel (The Wrestler) sought in his directorial debut about Paul Aufiero (Oswalt), a parking attendant and sports-radio regular whose obsession with the New York Giants leads to a chain of misjudgments, misfortunes and turmoil for him, his famliy and the team itself.
It's a squirmy, often unpleasant and yet revelatory sit, for both Oswalt's disappearance in character and Siegel's continued, unflinching study of working-class obsessives. Oswalt talked to Movieline this week about Big Fan (which opens Aug. 28), giving comedy a rest, and his forthcoming work with "fucking pro" Steven Soderbergh.
So are you a big fan?
I don't really follow sports, no. Sorry. I don't.
So how do your research a part like this, or get into Paul Aufiero's head?
I just have to be very aware of the passions and obsessions I have in life. Film, comic books, stuff like that.It's the same energy going into that. It wasn't that hard of a leap to make.
Everyone relates to obsession. But how fine a line do you think there is between that and pathology?
Well, I'm at the point where I want it to enhance my life. I want it to supplement my life. This guy has crossed that line -- if it ever existed, which it probably didn't for him. This has totally replaced existence for him. And you see that with a lot of people: Politics, film, pop stars, whatever. They fill their empty lives with that stuff. So there you go.
Did you reach out to any Giants obsessives at all? Did you listen to them on talk radio?
No. I saw this guy as such a void that I said, "I've got to embrace the void that this guy is." I had to resist the urge to put a little wink and a nod on everything I do.
That's interesting, because this film's reception at Sundance generally touched on two things: It's good, but it isn't funny. Which I didn't think was the point.
Yeah, well, it's not a comedy. It's a drama. And hopefully people will be able to take the leap with me that I made in taking the film and doing it. This is a drama. I'm playing a dramatic guy.
Did you resent that perception?
No. I mean, look: I built my reputation over 20 years for one thing. I can't sit here and go, "What the fuck?" If anything, it was flattering to me that people were saying they appreciated my comedy. Wouldn't it be worse if they said, "Yeah, he's doing a drama now. Whatever"? You know? That would actually make it as though I had no impact in this other field. So I was very touched by that.
It's all about that weird space where extreme drama and comedy collide. In fairness to the viewer, it's almost as if one doesn't know if or when to laugh.
That's what I like about it. It doesn't make it easy on you.
Were exploring those vagaries part of the process for you and Rob Siegel (pictured at right with Oswalt)?
We didn't really talk very much about it because he had so much else on his mind. First-time director! I was kind of left alone to figure out who this guy was, and I just made the commitment to him wanting to have no impact on life. I wanted to not interact with people. Nothing could get in the way of my team.
Rob's scripts -- first The Wrestler, now Big Fan -- tend to explore that territory of men's obsessions, particularly as they pertain to sports. What, if anything, makes these films of a piece for you?
At least to me, the thing that Randy "the Ram" Robinson has in common with Paul Aufiero is that for everything they feel passionate about, they don't feel the need to defend or explain. Even when Randy is apologizing to his daughter, he's not defending wrestling. He's saying, "My behavior was bad." He doesn't stop wrestling. It's the thing that he loves and that loves him back. Big Fan goes a little darker and deeper into the thing Paul loves that does not love him back. Then what do you do?
Have you ever had a fixation with either an individual or phenomenon in the culture that you realized might be unhealthy?
No, I've been pretty lucky in that I've never gone that crazy over the top. I've always had people around me -- my friends, my wife -- who have kept me in check and said, "This should supplement your life. It shouldn't control it." I could see myself going that way, but also luckily, I saw people around me who were going too far. And I thought, "Oh. That looks like a sad life to lead." So I stepped back.
You didn't intervene in their lives or situations?
No. I didn't really know them personally; I could just see them at theaters or at Comic-Con and know, "Oh, that guy has gone way too far." And I don't want to be there.
Paul's family intervenes frequently in Big Fan, yet they're satirized as archetypes of their own. Don't they just want what's best for him?
I don't think they're satirized at all. That is very accurate in [depicting] what a lot of Staten Island is about. He didn't make them amplified grotesques. That's how they are. And yeah, in their minds they want what's best for him, but they also want him to be like them. And he's making the argument -- again, which the movie doesn't answer either way -- that what's best for him is this empty void of a life.
Looking ahead, you have The Informant coming up as well. How did that go?
I didn't do that many days on it; I'm just one of the gallery of incredulous faces that deals with Matt Damon as he goes crazier and crazier. But getting to watch Steven Soderbergh work and how he sets up shots and stuff was fascinating to me. The guy's a pro. I don't even think he's an auteur; I think he's a fucking pro. He comes in, and he's calm, and he knows. That what's so great about him.
You were also a regular on Reno 9-1-1, which was canceled recently. That's kind of a bummer.
Yeah, it is a fucking bummer. I mean, the show is consistently hilarious, it didn't cost Comedy Central a lot to do, it gave them nothing but revenues, and they've got other shows that are flailing around that they're not sure about. Why cancel it? What's it going to hurt you to keep it on? It's great, and it was consistently great. So what's the problem?