Dane Cook on His Days As a Stand-Up Therapist, Personal Tragedy and Answers to Nothing
Whether or not you buy into Dane Cook's brand of humor, you must acknowledge that the Boston-born stand-up has cornered a sizable comedy market and successfully infiltrated the movie business. Up next, Cook attempts to make the most challenging transition of his career -- from dependable funnyman to respected actor.
Following smaller dramatic turns in Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life, Cook sinks his teeth into his most serious role yet with this weekend's ensemble drama Answers to Nothing. As a conflicted therapist who struggles to get his wife (Elizabeth Mitchell) pregnant in between counseling a patient (Kali Hawk), dealing with his delusional mother (Barbara Hershey) and maintaining a mistress (Aja Volkman), Cook's character Ryan searches for existential justification that may or may not be within reach.
To discuss his latest dramatic turn, Dane Cook sat down with Movieline yesterday in Beverly Hills, where he also candidly revealed his career goals, recalled the time he played therapist and broke up a couple during a stand-up act and reflected on his own personal breakthrough moment.
Hey Dane. How was your Thanksgiving?
It was good. I had a stragglers Thanksgiving. I invited everybody who didn't go home over the holiday. It was a bit of a potluck night. Everybody brought booze or some treat. It was great.
So in Answers to Nothing, you play Barbara Hershey's son. The last actor who played Barbara Hershey's child won an Oscar for her role. Are you feeling stressed by this precedent?
I am not feeling that but I am feeling very grateful -- not only that people are acknowledging how incredible Barbara Hershey is as an actor, but to be able to parry and thrust in a moment with her -- that was a highlight moment.
Your character loves to play the "I have the worst mother in the world" game.
He does but there's a lot of identity stuff happening where you can really empathize with the fact that [my character] has this whimsical, glamorized idea of what his grandparents' love meant and this anger at what his father is doing and why his mother refuses to acknowledge his absence. You can see though that in the scene [where my character insults his mother] that it comes from pure love. It's just a disconnect in him. I think that speaks to all of us.
The movie opens with Ryan recounting his grandparents' courtship like it is a Disney fairytale -- and then the camera pulls back revealing that as he is reciting this tale, he is receiving oral sex from his mistress. Were you concerned that the audience might not be able to get past this first image of your character as a total asshole?
Yes! I read the script and thought, on a lighter scale, I've dug the deepest possible hole that I could put myself in and how would anyone want to hang with this guy? What redeeming quality would he have? Most of the discussions I had with our director were about that scene. 99 percent were, "How can I do this effectively? What needs to be done here?" But a lot of it is that Aja [Volkman], the actress playing my girlfriend -- the hopelessness and neediness she felt, that desire to fill some kind of void with love -- how she receives that scene that we play I think is what makes it buoyant.
I've been talking a lot lately about breakthrough moments. We all hope for breakthrough rebirth moments. When you're headed for a breakthrough moment it's kind of scary because you say, "If I break through then I have to make great change in my life." That means giving up on certain things whether it's alcohol, some kind of addiction or you're having an affair or you're cheating or you're about to get a promotion. Whatever it is, that breakthrough of truth alters your life. That's what all of these characters are experiencing -- that precursor to a breakthrough moment. How does everybody approach it and then once you're in it, everybody isn't just relieved. Sometimes it's going to be harder for a long time. The sympatico and serendipity with these characters -- those are the kinds of conversations I like to have when I watch an interesting movie that is character-driven. Like Pulp Fiction -- that's a very different kind of movie but I love leaving and discussing the characters and how they lent themselves to one another. I think all of the stuff here lent to a really great story.
How do you think someone like Ryan can completely romanticize one marriage, almost to the point of obsession, while destroying his own?
He is certainly affected by his absentee father. Anger has a way of seeping into every other emotion and planting itself in there. Speaking from personal experience, I teach comedy camp over the summers. I've done it for fifteen years for inner city kids. We do it on Saturdays at the Laugh Factory. It's wonderful. It's so rewarding to see these kids find their voices onstage. And as they are standing there and we are teaching them comedy, their stories are bone-crushingly sad. We ask them to tell stories about things they see around them. Some of them are funny and silly. Some of them will start telling a story like, "When I saw my mom get beat up by my dad..." and in that moment we're laughing and we're crying because in that moment we are allowing the truth to seep past even what this is -- us being together and having a little bit of fun on Saturday before they have to go back to foster care. Some of them leave [the comedy camp] never the same again because the truth and the anger finally starts to dissipate because they've shared it. It's incredible.
How do you find that button between comedy and tragedy. Are some personal stories just too sad to ever be funny?
We just try to keep the comedy and tragedy together. There are moments I've seen in screenings when people nervously laugh and what that says is that they are connecting with me. What's happening onscreen is so real that they don't know where to put it -- how to interpret it. [They] have to protect themselves with laughter. That's like ripping somebody's shield down. That's kind of the antithesis of vulnerability. I hope what this allows me is -- because I've done some comedies and some smaller movies like Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life that showed my vulnerability in a completely well thought-out character -- is to have more opportunities to play moments that are cathartic and funny. Like Woody Allen movies where you're laughing but you're touched. He is somebody I'd love to work with one day.
How did you prepare to play a therapist?
I say it with my tongue firmly planted in cheek but there's truth to it -- being a comedian is very close to being a therapist. When you're working smaller clubs, you're listening. You're feeling an energy, you're going with a tone but when people start yelling out, you almost start a conversation with people. I never looked at heckler situations as "What can I say that will smash them and shut them down?" I never wanted to just make fun of their hair real quick but I wanted to figure out, "Why did you yell up here?" The heckler was an interview moment for me. I always treated it like therapy. I always thought that if I got no love at all early in my standup career or I was god awful, I thought I'd get into psychology. Seriously! I've always read books and loved human behavior since I was ten or twelve years old. Maybe even that's why I wanted to do comedy. I thought, "This is making people feel joy." My family had a lot of hardship but we were all up watching Johnny Carson or Saturday Night Live and that made us feel okay.
Has there been a moment in your stand-up career when you've really worked through an issue with a heckler?
There was a moment with a heckler where [laughs] -- I haven't thought about this in so long -- I think I was having such a strong performance that night that this guy's date was attracted to my powerful energy -- me being the guy performing. Maybe in this guy's life, he was that powerful guy. Anyway, he shouted some shit at me. We had a little toe-to-toe and what I ended up doing is breaking down to this guy's date why she shouldn't be with a man like this. It was surgical the way I was going in and asking her questions and getting truth out of her. By the end of the show, they had stormed off angrily. Then two days later, I got an e-mail from her asking me out to dinner.
[Laughs] Yeah! She wrote, "I don't want to be with a guy who's like that." So many truths had come to the surface just from what I -- I learned that when you really get that eye contact with somebody and you're on stage, you can pull the truth out of someone. Just like Howard Stern does on the radio. He pulls the truth out of his listeners before they even realize it. I kind of learned those tricks and how to get into audience members' souls a little. I'd have therapeutic moments like that which would lead to somewhat life-altering moments. Sometimes they are miniscule but in this case, it led to the end of a relationship. He was a douchebag and maybe his date didn't realize it until he behaved in that manner. I just brought it all out of him.
Did you feel bad upon learning that you had broken up the couple?
No. Not at all.
Did you e-mail the girl back?
No -- I didn't take her up on the dinner. I was in a relationship at the time. I think I told her to bring her next date to one of my shows but make sure he doesn't interrupt [my act].
It seems like you are making a push towards more dramatic material. How conscious are you of this career transition and do you look to successful comedian-turned-actors like Bill Murray, Jim Carrey and Robin Williams for inspiration?
There's no master plan that says I want to do drama. I'm not going to be content with "just okay." I want to be patient and do great work with great people around me. What appealed to me about this film is that it was an ensemble piece. Little movie, low budget and we were all going to be in the trenches together. We wanted to get it above the line, we hoped that it would get into theaters, we hoped people would see it. Those were the early conversations. Hopefully with this success and if people find the film, I'll be up for more compelling roles that are not necessarily just dramatic but different kinds of comedy. Like Jason Reitman that I admire or Woody Allen. It's funny because I love comedic directors that know how to utilize a comic's ability for the tender moments as well.
What is your dream role?
Neil LaBute's play Fat Pig -- we were set to do that and we were about a week away from going back to rehearsal when we lost our key financier. So unfortunately now it's looking like we might not be doing it until the spring, if we can do it at all. The part of Carter though, that I saw a few years ago when Chris Pine played him -- I saw the play and immediately said, "That's the character I want to play."
What about the character spoke to you?
Well the play itself is really a morality tale about how we see image. It's a four-person play. Tom, my character's best friend, basically falls in love with an obese woman. We all think she is the greatest until we meet her. Based on physicality, I try to talk him out of this relationship. My character is just an asshole -- a caustic, sterile, verbally abusive character. Yet, there is this great moment where Carter talks about his obese mother and what he experienced growing up with her. Similar to my character in Answers to Nothing, it starts out with my character being a complete jerk. No [audience member] is going to want this guy back and yet there is this tremendous floodgate moment where he just opens up and admits that he hated his mother because of her weight. I love roles where you take risks and I don't mind that these characters polarize people.
This is the second dramatic character we've talked about -- and you've either played or are about to play -- who has a love-vitriolic hate relationship with his mother that manifests itself in ugly, damaging ways. Is that just a coincidence?
I love my mom so much and that could not be further from the relationship that I have with her. I would not be sitting here with you if it was not for my mom. My nickname for my mom was "The Compass." She actually passed away a few years ago. She always knew the direction I had before I knew it. I had zero belief in myself growing up. I grew up very self-loathing. I was a phobic. I had anxiety. I had panic attacks. Once I left my house I was a wreck. Yet, here was this empowered, funny, very cool woman -- my mom would listen to AC/DC's "Hells Bells" with my friends in the car -- and she would tell me, "You have a lot of soul, Dane. Every day, you have to believe in yourself." I had so much insecurity though and she saw [my whole future] laid out. I can't tell you how many times I'd call my mom to tell her, "I'm hosting SNL" and she'd just say, "I know." She knew it was all going to happen.
So you've talked about your character's breakthrough moment, the breakthrough moment you forced upon comedy club audience members...what was Dane Cook's personal breakthrough moment?
I think mine happened sometime in the last few years. My mom and dad passed away from cancer. Within nine months, I lost both of my folks. Immediately after that, I had a horrible betrayal where my brother, who worked for me, stole a lot of my money. He's in jail now. Here I was, reaching a larger success in my life but simultaneously dealing with this. My professional dreams were coming true while I was living a personal nightmare. It's amazing the lessons that came out of that. I had to go inward and first, I had to accept my accomplishments which I had never done. I don't think I ever sat and enjoyed them. I was always thinking, "What's next, what's next" or just trying to accomplish something for my folks.
A gift that [those experiences] gave me was that they taught me to stop and appreciate what I've done. I've done a lot and it's okay to share that. Now, I'm starting with something that is all for me. I don't have to do anything for anyone else's benefit anymore. I just want to exceed my own expectations.
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