In the arrested-development dramedy Young Adult, actor-comedian Patton Oswalt faces his biggest career challenge to date: holding his own against Oscar-winning starlet Charlize Theron. Reteaming Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody, the film stars Theron as Mavis, a misanthropic, hot mess of a YA-novel ghostwriter who returns to her speck of a hometown in a pathetic attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart, Buddy (Patrick Wilson). The most poignant role, however, belongs to Oswalt as Matt—Theron’s bullied former classmate, also stuck in yesteryear, in whom Mavis finds an unlikely ally. Best known for his stand-up—he’s an original Comedian of Comedy—Oswalt spoke openly with me about the film, the past, social media, and fatherhood.
You live in L.A. but grew up in Sterling, Virginia. Like Mavis in the film, do you find it difficult to acclimate when you go back home? Well, yeah. I have some pretty fond memories of a specific place that is not there anymore, the same thing that happens with a lot of suburbs. There used to be two main roads that connected Leesburg to Sterling to Herndon, and beyond that, you went to D.C. To go back now and see that interconnected sprawl, the roads that I used to drive down are literally not there. It’s this schizophrenic feeling. Something about the air, the sunshine, and the soil snaps me back momentarily into the person I was back then. All these familiar biological things are happening in what is basically an alien landscape to me, so it’s a bit of a mind fuck. Why am I having nostalgia about a place I don’t recognize?
Unlike Diablo Cody’s previous work, for once, all of her characters aren’t speaking in her trademark tone of pop-culture slang. Do you have any insight into that evolution? I’m friends with her, but I would never speak of another writer’s evolution. I will say that when I read this script, it made me realize what a nonjudgmental listener Diablo is. In other words, the youth speaking in Juno, whether you like it or not, that is how that generation communicates with each other. A certain segment of that population uses pop-culture landmarks as shorthand, especially as emotional shorthand. Whereas, you’re right, there’s not that much pop-culture chaff in the dialogue of Young Adult. But isn’t it a weirdly accurate portrait of Gen-X being dragged into his mid-40s, kicking and screaming and not wanting to go? [Charlize] plays someone that has to sneak up on youngsters and listen to them talk for her book, which is something that I bet Diablo has wrestled with a lot. Again, I’m not going to psychoanalyze her based on three screenplays and a TV show that I’ve read, and some that I’ve been in, but there is a very gentle warning in this movie: You have to evolve or die.
Is there anything that you actually miss about your own coming-of-age era?
One thing that everyone misses about their high school years is how young, healthy, and slim they were. “Things were so much better in ’86.” Yeah, because you were 16! The one thing that I do kind of miss is that we didn’t have Wikipedia and IMDb, and you couldn’t go find every shred of information on everything in five minutes. You had to be open to going out, talking to people, and getting different perspectives. How you interact with other people really forms how you are, and you had to do so much more of that in the ’80s, whereas now, it’s almost like we’re programming Asperger syndrome into the culture. I worry what the effects of that will be.
Still, technology has been kind to you. You have more than half a million Twitter followers. Do you think social media is a welcome distraction, or is it some out-of-control amoeba that’s going to swallow us whole? Oh boy, they’re both absolutely right. The problem is, and I’m just as guilty of this, a lot of people see their follower count increase and mistake that for friendships. It’s great to have followers, especially if you want to sell albums, promote shows, or promote your friends, but you still need to get outside and talk to other human beings. There are times when I have to take, I call it a “silence bath,” where I shut off all of the external gadgets. I go walk around, talk to people, and just live life for a while. When I’m done promoting this movie, I have nothing on the calendar for the next few months. I’m trying to defend those empty boxes so that I can take my daughter to a restaurant or go with my friends somewhere, so that I can have things to talk about.
Now that your daughter is two, what has been most unexpected for you about fatherhood? One time, I turned the TV on because I wanted to show my daughter Yo Gabba Gabba!, and for some reason, the channel was on that Benicio Del Toro film, The Wolfman. It’s literally the shot where he is in full werewolf mode, shirt hanging off of him, and roaring at the camera. I’m like, “Oh, dear God,” and she laughed. She thought that was the funniest thing she’s ever seen; it cracked her up so much.
Then this other time, we walked by Golden Apple Comics on Melrose, and they have a full-size Spider-Man statue out front, and she was screaming. You have to go, “Well, she doesn’t know the context.” It’s a weird guy in dark red and blue with these insect eyes and no facial features. Yeah, that is scary! Getting to see those moments, it’s a reminder of when you were growing up. You have to form the world without context.
Since we’re in December, and I know you’re a movie buff, what films meant the most to you in 2011? This is going to be one of those movie years like 1939 and 1968. It’ll take about 20 years, and people will look back and realize all of the little quiet revolutions that changed everything. If you look at movies like Bellflower, Septien, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, this was the first year that people really started going: “Fuck it, I’m going to shoot a film. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it; I just want to make a movie.” You can now perceive the new New Hollywood with little films like that.
By the way, it’s so odd how that aesthetic is also working its way back into the old masters like Terrence Malick. Tree of Life, as brilliantly organized and structured and crystalline as that movie is, there is that feeling of, “Let’s just shoot stuff, and this will all make sense later.”
When are you going to? If I ever get the courage. The thing is, I’ve been in so many movies, and I see what these directors go through. I have to figure out: “What’s the year that I’m OK with aging 10 years in one month? When am I comfortable doing that?” Especially nowadays, directors are the new flagellants: “I’m going to beat myself until my deity steps in and goes, ‘OK, I get it. Fine, you can ascend. Geez, stop it.'” It’s like these guys do it until the distributor goes, “OK, fine, we’ll put it out! Aaaah!”