John Michael Higgins is not quite sure how he became Hollywoodís go-to
guy for wacky comic fireworks.
Certainly a twenty-year run in theatrical dramas would not seem to be
the kind of training ground for a guy to come in, tell a saucy speech,
do a few jazz hands and then exit stage right.
However, that is the box that Hollywood has Higgins in right now Ė and
as much as he enjoys his comic supporting roles, he would love the
chance to stretch out more and use all of his acting skills.
2009 has been a typically busy year for the actor Ė he co-starred in the
sitcom Kath and Kim and has done supporting gigs in the movies
Fired Up! and Still Waiting. Just opening is the new hit
Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler romantic comedy The Ugly Truth and
in the wings is the upcoming Couples Retreat with Vince Vaughn,
Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell. He also gets a nice dramatic arc on the
series Raising the Bar and even has been doing a set of quirky
commercials for DirectTV.
Right before the release of The Ugly Truth, Higgins was nice
enough to sit down with us and talk about his unique spot in show
business, his feelings about comedy and drama and how a job he can
barely remember has been seen by more people than probably anything he
has ever done.
I recently saw you on Jimmy Kimmel Live
and you said something interesting that I hadnít really realized.
Before you played David Letterman in The Late Shift you only
really got hired in dramatic roles. Since then, you only do comedies.
Why do you think that shift has happened?
Boy, I wish I knew how. Iíd reverse it.
(laughs) I donít know. I think the Letterman job was a strange
one, because I played a comedianÖ
But it was a serious movieÖ
It was a totally serious role. If you watch it, I
donít really do anything. If I were playing David Letterman, a truck
driver, and the lines were exactly the same, everyone would just say,
ďOh, this is a dramatic role.Ē I think because I played a comedian and
they associated me with that and the skills that seemed to take, like
impersonation, mimicry or comic timing. I have to do monologues as the
character Ė they just associate those skills with a comedic actor, I
guess. I had certainly done a lot of comedy. Not much on film, mostly
on stage Ė although, Iíd even say the serious stuff outweighed the
comedy on stage. I did that for twenty, twenty-five years or
something. It all came as a bit of a shock, I have to say. I mean, Iím
happy. I like doing comedy, but I never would have seen it coming that
I would do it to the exclusion of anything else.
Would you like the opportunity to do some more
Oh, absolutely. I like comedy, but I would like to
vary my work. I try to do it as much as I can, anyway, even though Iím
just doing comedy. But I like new things. I like them to be as
different as possible. I think there is an impression that my career is
very rangy Ė which it is Ė but itís been more rangy for the people who
know what I was doing before people knew who I was.
You are probably the only actor alive who has
played both David Letterman and Donald Rumsfeld (in a play). What do
you think that says about your career?
Well, you can even get them further apart. Most
people are astonished that the guy who played Letterman was also the gay
dog handler [in Best of Show]. I donít see David Letterman doing
that. Iím thrilled that Iíve been able to do things as different as
Donald Rumsfeld and a gay dog handler. Itís what keeps me interested in
my own work, basically. I think as an actor Iím more of a problem
solver than I relish the idea of jumping up and down in front of people
making faces. Once I solve it Ėitís like doing a crossword puzzle. I
figured it out and I want to go on. I want the next crossword puzzle.
(laughs) So I feel like if someone said ďgay dog handlerĒ I
would consider it a puzzle of some sort and I go figure it out. Now
what immediately happens in Hollywood is that if I do one good gay dog
handler, well then I get five offers to be gay dog handlers Ė and I
couldnít be less interested.
Well, speaking of the gay dog handler, you
have sort of hit a mother lode in the comic world Ė you are part of the
Christopher Guest reparatory company. I interviewed him when For
Your Consideration was coming out and he said that it takes a very
specific type of actor to make his films Ė many very talented actors
just would not fit in. How did you start working on the Guest films and
what is the improvising experience like compared to a normal role?
Well, he and I first worked together on a pilot
that he and Gene [Eugene Levy] were doing for HBO called DOA,
which was the grain for For Your Consideration which would happen
many years later. It was the Dorkman/Orfkin agency and he and
Gene were two agents. Gene actually played the character he played in
that pilot in For Your Consideration. I canít remember his first
name, but he was Orfkin. (The character name was Morley Orfkin). I did
that for Chris whenever that was, sometime before Best in Show.
(The pilot aired in 1999). The show didnít get picked up to go
to series, but he called me shortly after and he said, ďWell, weíre
making this movie about dogs up in Canada. Would you like to do that?
I said sure. He said, ďYouíre going to play a gay dog handler.Ē At the
time I was actually Ė I mean I love Chris and Iíd do anything to work
with him Ė but I had just done a prominent gay role on the stage and I
had done sort of a controversial gay guest starring role on a television
show and I just felt kind of gayed out. (laughs) I didnít
really relish the opportunity, except to work with Chris again. So of
course, I did it and I canít be more grateful that I did. Then we just
kept working from there. And, you know, improvisation Ė I had a very
long history in the theater. I started when I was nine years old or
something. I had done everything. I started as a mime, actually, and
then moved on into various other things. So I had lots of skills. I
could dance. I could do physical comedy. I could do these things that
strangely come into use a lot in my work. You would be surprised. Iím
surprised, every day. I spent a long time doing improvisation shows,
cabaret type improvisation shows, in the old days when I was a teenager
and in my twenties and just as a journeyman actor Ė just doing things.
In college, you were an a capella singer,
which you were able to use on A Mighty WindÖ
I was. A Mighty Wind, I wrote the vocal
arrangements for that. I wrote the vocal arrangements in The
Break-Up. Itís odd how often these little skills can be handy.
Improvisation was never something that frightened me. I have an
affinity for it. If Iím on my game I can be pretty good. So, Iíve
always been happy to work with Chris. I think he and I have a
sympathetic understanding of whatís funny. If anything, we see it the
same way. Weíre less interested in the laughs than in everyday behavior
Ė which can make people laugh. Something they recognize, as opposed to
a joke or something like that. Iím honored and always challenged and
thrilled to be in Christopherís little stable. I love those people and
love to work with them. Iím very fortunate.
I also have to ask you about your experience on
Seinfeld Ė because you had a rather classic guest role on the
series [He played a guy who dated Elaine with a shaved head]. How did
that come about and what was the show like?
Well, (laughs) that was interesting because
at that time it came up that they had this guest star for Seinfeld.
They needed the actor to actually shave his head. For real Ė they
werenít going to do it with a bald cap. Itís a daunting task working Ė
and there are many actors who donít work who would love to shave their
head and be on Seinfeld, but the working ones (laughs again) Ė
itís hard to get employed once your head is shaved, unless you want
to play something that you are probably not right for, like a biker or
something. So Marc Hirschfeld, who was casting that at the time Ė he
went on to run networks and everything after that Ė but he thought of
me. Iíd known him a long time in New York and I think he thought of me
for the very reason that weíre talking Ė that I was able to go gonzo in
the funniest and strangest ways. Be unrecognizable from one thing to
the next. He thought I might actually relish the idea of shaving my
head and trying something silly like that. So I went in and did that.
The whole thing was a moot point anyway. My hair grows like a weed. It
was right before Thanksgiving and by the time I was eating my pumpkin
pie four days later, my hair was back. (laughs) So it didnít
really matter. But I loved being on Seinfeld. I knew Jason
[Alexander] a little bit from New York. It was really fun to be on that
show. At the time, it didnít even occur to me that it would be some
kind of classic where people would stop me in the grocery line or
something and talk about the episode of Seinfeld. But thatís
television for you.
You have also made a bit of a specialty in doing
quirky supporting roles now. Do you enjoy being a supporting actor who
comes in and does something odd then disappears?
Usually the guy in the middle, the main guy, you
have to shave off the rough edges a bit. Youíve got to make it all the
way through and people have to find you sympathetic and all that.
Youíre right; I have in the last couple of years become this kind of
specialty act. I come in from the left. I do something bold and
comic. Then I exit stage right and you never see me again. Itís some
memorable thing. Now at this point itís designed to be a water cooler
moment or a YouTube moment. Itís sort of now my specialty. Again, I
have no idea how that happened to me. I donít know why that should
happen to me. Given what I was on the stage Ė I was always the lead
guy, and mostly in tragedy Ė Shakespeare and Sheridan and all that
stuff. I was playing Hamlet. Now Iím the fool who comes in motley and
gets the bucket dumped over his head or something. (laughs)
Itís what Hollywood wants from me, apparently.
Last year you did the
sitcom Kath and Kim Ė and frankly, I thought you were the best
part of the show. You have done many recurring roles on series, but I
believe that was the first series you were a regular on.
Yeah, it was the first
series regular Iíve been on that actually went to series. (laughs)
Iíve been a series regular on countless pilots that didnít go to
series. But as far as something that stayed on for more than six
episodes, that I was one of the main characters, yes, youíre right.
Did you like the
stability of a regular series gig or miss the opportunity to pop in and
out of different roles?
No, I really enjoyed it,
because Iím a family man now. Itís nice to be stuck in town with a
regular schedule. I feel like I know when Iím going to see my children
and stuff. Thatís all very attractive as far as being a series
regular. Iím sort of doing this thing now on Raising the Bar on
TNT, which is thankfully a dramatic role. Iím happy about that. Thatís
had a similar schedule, so Iím pretty pleased with that. I feel like
Iím getting to see my family more. I liked doing Kath and Kim a
lot. I enjoyed doing that character. He obviously came out of me
somehow, so I find that character funny Ė his take on life and his
enthusiasm and optimism in the face of his blithering stupidity.
(laughs) Obliterating stupidity. I found that really fun to play.
Itís interesting that in a series like that you can actually go Ė and I
had not had this experience Ė to find yourself going deeper and deeper
into this character. Unfortunately, on television the characters
usually start out much shallower. The deeper you dig Ė by the time you
have done the character a year or two, you may get to the level of depth
that is presented in the first scene of a Shakespeare play. (laughs)
So, itís not that one gets deeper than another. They sort of even out
by the time you finish three years of television, I think.
You recently did a
pilot with Henry Winkler, Missi Pyle and Jill Clayburgh. What was it
about and is there any word on whether that series will be picked up?
Right. No, they passed on it. They went with some
other things. I really enjoyed that. That was great. Some of that
show I found quite funny. I love working with Henry. I worked with him
in Arrested Development and he and I really get along. Jill was
great. It was a really nice experience. I wish it had gone. Itís
always the pilots you wish had gone that donít and the ones you hope go
away do. (laughs)
You were saying on Jimmy Kimmel that you
are death for a TV series Ė once you come on the show is doomed. How do
you think that you will avoid being the Ted McGinley of the new
Yeah. (laughs) I donít know. I love Ted,
too. Heís the nicest guy in the world, but I think he feels like I do,
that there is some curse on me, that Iím a show-killer. I get out
there, even as a guest, and a few months later itís gone. Then you
know, maybe that points to another issue we were talking about earlier,
that Iím some sort of flashy object Ė some kind of desperation move
(laughs again) that producers use to wake their audience up or
something like that. I often feel like Iím used in that way.
really liked Fired Up, but I have to admit I found it a little
unlikely that a plain woman like Molly Sims could be lucky enough to win
over a man like Coach Keith.
(Ironically) Yeah, that was completely
unbelievable. I told the producers no one is going to buy this, that he
would have gone with Molly. They said, ďOh, itís just a movie. People
have to suspend their disbelief.Ē So, you know, I took it for the
team. I had to make out with Molly a little bit.
Well, you have to do what you have to do. Do
you still do jazz hands?
Oh, sure. Jazz hands is a skill that shows up in
all my jobs.
Speaking of which you
have The Ugly Truth coming out. I havenít seen it yet. Are you
Katherine Heiglís love interest, too?
Uh, yeah, up until Gerard
Butler shows up. (laughs)
So tell me a bit about
your character and the film.
She plays my producer.
Iím a newscaster. Me and Cheryl Hines [Curb Your Enthusiasm] are
an co-anchor team that happen to be a married couple as well. I had a
really good time shooting that movie. We were often reprimanded for
talking when we should have been quiet. It was a lot of fun to do the
movie Ė and the movie came out great, I saw it the other night at the
premiere. I was thrilled. I actually donít ever consume those kinds of
products. Romantic comedy Ė I couldnít be less interested. I watched
it and turned to my wife and sort of made the face like ďThat was pretty
good!Ē (laughs) ďMaybe I should watch more of these things.Ē
Katie is great in it. Gerry is the nicest guy in the world and also
fantastic. They had great chemistry. I was happy. I was proud to be
You also have
Couples Retreat coming up. Iím guessing you play the counselor in
that film? Whatís the deal with that one?
Yeah. Iím more along the
lines of what we were saying before. I have a couple of short but very
flashy scenes as a couplesí therapist. I think that came because Vince
Vaughn, who Iíve worked with a few times, he likes to improvise and he
and I improvise well together. So he said, ďWhy donít we get Higgins in
for this therapist and throw the script out and see what happens?Ē So
we shot what they had written, which actually was, I thought, good,
fine. I didnít think we needed to do anything. (laughs) I
thought it was funny as it was. But he and I went off on our goose
chase and hopefully mined some other stuff. Thatís in the mold of what
you were saying before, sort of a flashy, supporting comic role.
You mentioned earlier
that you are a family man now. Strangely enough, the role you did that
may have been seen by more people than any other was in the Epcot ride
ďTest Track.Ē Does having a Disney ride get you cool dad brownie points
You know what, I donít
know. I personally have never seen that. Iíve never been there. Itís
interesting; if Iím on the edges of the country Ė in the urban centers Ė
Iíve got nothing. If I step one step into the center of the country,
Iím almost mobbed. At 7-11ís or wherever I happen to be, all people
recognize me from that ride. I always forget that I had done it. I did
it so long ago. I barely remember it. I honestly couldnít tell you
much about it. You probably know more about it than I do. It was just
one of thoseÖ it was a small job that sort of came and went in a day.
You never know. You always have to be careful about those small jobs
that come in a day. (laughs) Iím telling you, I walk into a
mall in any central state and thatís the one. Everyone wants to talk to
you. ďYouíre the Test Track guy.Ē So I am.
What would people be
surprised to know about you?
I think that most people
are surprised to find me not a ďfunny guy.Ē I can be amusing, I guess,
but Iím a rather sober, professorial type. (laughs) I donít
consume entertainment products at all. Films or television Ė Iím just
not interested. I donít take much interest in show biz at all.
How would you like
people to see your career?
I guess Iíd have to work
on that, because before I even got into doing a lot of film and
television, I had had a very satisfying and long and very productive
career as a stage actor. Itís been some time now, but I feel that my
best work happened in that period. Of course, the nature of that is
that I could sell out every night and the number of people that would
have seen that performance is just a comically small fraction of the
number of people that would see me at the GM Test Track. I would love
for people to incorporate those first twenty years into their assessment
and I donít think that will happen. I think the assessment will be if I
were to get run over by a steamroller, he was a reliable, journeyman
comic actor who could brighten up a few small spots in popular films,
you know? (laughs) Itís not quite what I would want, but
actually it doesnít quite matter to me. I know the work that I did all
throughout the other part of my career and I would die a happy man. I
really did what I wanted to do.
This last question you
may have already touched on in the last two answers. Are there any
misconceptions you would like to clear up?
Yeah, I guess those were
sort of answered in that, but I wonder if there is another one. I
guess, on the subject of improv, which comes up a lot, I find improv to
be a very useful tool, but not a particularly interesting product. I
use it in that way. I think thatís part of the reason that Chris and I
have worked together well. Itís not the parlor trick of improv that
interests me. Itís what it can find. Iím not a club comedian. Itís
not sports for me Ė who can come up with a better line? Itís what can
we find by opening this up for a second? Seeing whatís out there.
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