ATX TV Fest 2014: Intense Discussions with the 'Archer' Gang
When I received my confirmation email to meet writer/producer Matt Thompson and Archer cast members Lucky Yates (Doctor Krieger), Chris Parnell (Cyril Figgis) and H. Jon Benjamin (Sterling Archer) in the Les Paul room of Maggie Mae's, I thought for sure I was being pranked. I've not been to that bar in a while, but I certainly didn't remember it having an upstairs room. Sure enough, as I serendipitously found parking right next to the bar that Friday afternoon, I discovered that the Archer team had found a little spot to beat the humid Austin heat -- a getaway from the growing buzz of 6th Street on a Friday afternoon.
The guys were as I anticipated: laid back, relaxed and quick to make jokes about any topic that came up. We talked about the film scene in Austin and their panel at the Ritz during ATX Television Festival -- and were interrupted from time to time by other fest panelists who knew the guys and wanted to stop and chat. After chatting with Parnell about being alumni from the same college, a few nut/bear jokes (don't ask) and what kind of pants are appropriate to wear in a recording studio, we finally got down to discussing the creation of the show.
Slackerwood: Where do you draw inspiration for these storylines in each episode?
Matt Thompson: They mostly come from whatever Adam Reed [the show's creator, who also plays Ray Gillette] feels like doing. People think that it's super-well planned out, but it's really not. We did, however, know the big plot points that we wanted to happen in this latest season but other than that, we kind of make them up as we go along.
Walk us through a typical brainstorming session. [To Yates, Parnell and Benjamin] Are you guys involved in it as well?
Thompson: No, they're not. I'd say about every three weeks, Adam will call me up and say about five sentences of something he's been thinking of for the script. And I'll usually say, "Sounds great!" and then soon after we have a script in hand.
Chris Parnell: So does Adam really not map out the season at all? Or is it just kind of all in his head?
Thompson: When we did Season 1, we had a bulletin board in my office that had all of the characters' names written down on it. And it stayed like that for three years. [laughter] He used to turn in script outlines, but after a while just told the studio (FX) that if he was going to do outlines, he might as well just write the scripts. FX said okay, so that's kind of how it's been working ever since.
Lucky Yates: So how many drafts does he usually do of each script?
Thompson: He usually does about 3 to 4 drafts.
[To the actors] So then how far in advance do you guys receive the script before recording?
Yates: A day? A few days, maybe.
Thompson: Not much more than a few days. In fact, you guys just got a script that was hot off the presses yesterday and there have already been changes. Your parts didn't change but there were a few tweaks here and there...
Yates: Really? Already?
H. Jon Benjamin: Yeah, uh... [to Yates] Your character's dead. He died so, you can go.
Yates: I can? Back to Atlanta? Sweet!
Thompson: You know this is an audio interview so they can't actually see you leave, right?
You know in the transcript I can write "footsteps..."
Benjamin: I'll do the sound effect for it... clomp, clomp, clomp...
Going back to receiving the scripts, what do you think is the biggest challenge of voicing your characters since you only get your scripts so far in advance?
Benjamin: It's much easier now than it was in the beginning. Each of us has really honed in on our characters --
Yates: And each other's character, too. So we kind of know how the other is probably going to read [a line].
Benjamin: Yeah. And the rhythm of the show is easy to reproduce now.
Parnell: It's just acting well, I think. It's not often that I do, but if I have to do something that's a little more emotionally challenging, then I have to prepare more. Usually I just imagine how the other characters are going to react and then play off what I think those reactions will be.
Yates: There was one moment I couldn't nail as Kreiger. Adam was directing it, and it was a scene where [SEASON 4 SPOILER] Krieger was about to give Ray the fake legs he created. There was a line where he says something like, "Are you sure you want to do this?" and, you know, I thought for Kreiger that was a really positive thing. But Adam was like, "No, you genuinely care about this character. This is big for Krieger." And I just, I couldn't wrap my head around it. But something sweeped out and, well, who knows if it was good or not. [SPOILER END]
Thompson: You know, I don't know if I've ever said this to you guys, but it somewhat freaks me out whenever you have to do something emotional on the show. Because it's mostly bitchy statements, but then you sit back and watch it and realize "Hey, that was pretty well done."
Benjamin: All of the characters have some sort of nuance to them. I think you like a show more for that reason.
Thompson: Adam's got a really good pulse on when to throw in the emotional stuff. He always wants to stay interested in them because if they are just one-note kind of people, they're not as interesting. So each character has a side to them that doesn't always come out because it's a comedy, so 90 percent of the time it's crappy people saying crappy things to one another. But then there's that 10 percent where you say, "All right. That's nice."
Yates: I heard at one of our panels way back that you and Adam aren't actually fans of the cheesy TV comedy, but rather the intense dramas instead. I feel like that really grounds you and puts you in a place to find these really great moments.
Thompson: I would say there's a lot of funnier jokes on other comedies than there are on our show. But because you care about these characters, the jokes work really well. We try not to pack each episode with tons and tons of jokes.
I really feel like it's the dialogue that carries it. It's always so perfectly timed, almost like improv.
Thompson: We always feel like it's going so slow when we first put the dialogue in. But then we sit back and watch it and say "Holy cow! That moves really fast!" And it always takes me by surprise.
How hard is it to prepare for these roles versus stage or film acting? Is it hard to record in a booth, alone, without interacting with the other actors?
Benjamin: Well, you can wear whatever you want.
Thompson: I think one things that makes it both challenging and rewarding for these guys is that there's always one line in each episode where we let the cast try things in completely different ways. Things like "Instead of being angry here, trying being scared." I think the giant swings of direction help create freedom, and sometimes show you that something can be better. I don't think you get that much of a giant swing in your acting when you're doing it with live action.
Yates: Chris made the comment earlier that it's nice too because you can get multiple takes of lines without screwing any of your other castmates over. Since we don't have scene partners, we get to try all kinds of different ways to read a line.
Parnell: You don't have to worry about the physicality of the character. It's all just focused on your voice.
[Photo credit: Matt Thompson, H. Jon Benjamin, Lucky Yates and Chris Parnell at the Archer ATX Festival Panel, photo by Gary Miller. Used with permission from Fons PR.]