INTERVIEW: Jim O’Heir talks Middle Man, Parks and Recreation

Jim O'Heir in Middle Man. Photo credit: Skott Snider Photography.

Actor Jim O’Heir spoke to me early this afternoon in a phone call lasting nearly 15 minutes.  Our conversation covered Parks and Recreation, Middle Man, and baseball.  He is currently starring in Middle Man, playing in select theaters this weekend.

Thanks for joining Solzy at the Movies today.  How are you doing?

Jim O’Heir:  Good.

When I last interviewed you two years ago, you were starring in the final season of Parks and Recreation and getting ready to go into production for Middle Man.  How different is Lenny Freeman from Jerry Gergich?

Jim O’Heir:  Well, they’re ultimately very different.  Initially, they’re very much alike.  It’s funny when people see the film in the beginning, it seems like “Oh, the Sweet Jerry” at the end of a funeral when his mother passes away and this guy gets very sweet.  Actually, it’s possible even more innocent than Jerry.  Sure, Jerry’s married and has a family, a sweet innocent guy.  Lenny—he’s never been married.  My guess is he’s a 50-year-old virgin who knows nothing of this world.  They’re both sweet men.  They’re both caring men.  They don’t go out of their way to hurt anybody.

Jerry has his life.  He has his job that he goes to every day and goes home to his family that he loves with all of his heart and they love him with all of their heart so there’s that.

Lenny—he does go to work every day but he goes home just to his mother and that’s all you ever know.  His father died when he was young.  It’s explained in the movie a little bit.  He just lived with the mom.  She raised him.  She loved comedy and she raised him on old standards like Bob and Ray, Burns and Allen, Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Burgen, Abbot and Costello, those types of comedians.  To her, that’s what true comedy is.  Because Lenny doesn’t know any better, that’s what true comedy is to him, too.  He and his mom would literally memorize the routines between the team of comedians.  After his mom passes away, Lenny decides to, kind of an homage, kind of just up and his mother told him how funny he would be as a comedian.  He goes off and tries to make it happen.  He is like Jerry—he’s very much there at that point but then Lenny’s journey takes him toward very bad places.  He picks up a hitchhiker and then all bets are off. To me, the film basically just doubts what price you will pay for fame.  Some people will pay the ultimate price.  Some think nothing of it and don’t care.  To know Lenny at first, I don’t think that he would think that he would.  He doesn’t want to go crazy for the price of fame but it’s enticing.  Then things start happening.  In this case, the bodies start piling up and the funnier he comes, the audiences start loving him and that is a drug.  So it comes down to what’s more important in his world.  So yeah, they are very much alike at the beginning but my guess is for Jerry, he couldn’t be more into that world.  He wouldn’t care.  His wife and his daughters—that’s all that matters.  He loves his co-workers but his family is more important.  Fame and fortune will never even be on his radar.

What did you bring to the character that wasn’t in the script?

Jim O’Heir:  Ned Crowley wrote and directed the film.  Ned has known me for a lot of years—literally 32 years.  We did comedy together in Chicago.  Together, we talked about who  Lenny was.  Jim O’Heir is known as a wacky, funny, big guy, character actor.  I’ve done a bunch of things over the years before Parks.  I did a lot of work before Parks.  What I brought—I like to think—Lenny has a bit of a breakdown (inaudible) and I like to think I brought the truth of somebody who is finding what’s happening and still try to keep it all together.  I’d like to think I was able to share with people that battle.  Ultimately, in Lenny’s case, he loses that battle.  I like to think I gave him a nice journey to get ahead.

Ned Crowley has said that he wrote Middle Man with you in mind.  How did you react when he told you about the movie?

Jim O’Heir:  He sent it to me and said, “I wrote this thing.  Take a read and let me know what you think.”  Anytime someone thinks of you for a (inaudible), to this day, I’m like “Oh my G-d, thank you.  That’s so nice.”  So he sent me the script and I read it.  Number one, flattered because this is not the traditional Jim O’Heir script that I would accept.  This was a very dark comedy—dramatic and emotional.  There is a lot of stuff that I would never get the chance to play.  But what I love mostly about it and what warmed my heart is what that said to me, “You can do this.  I know what you can do.”  Ned and I had worked together for years.  He had seen the darker side.  He had seen certain things: family, losses, excitement, and wins—life.  We’ve known each other for 32 years so he was very flattering to me that he thought I could do this.  Until I read the script, I didn’t know if I could pull it off.  I just didn’t know.  The problem was after I read it, I loved it.  We had nothing we could do with it because I was just a journeyman actor who would go from gig to gig in LA.  He’s an ad guy.  Then because of Parks and Rec, my face was out there all the time.  There I was and people would know who I was.  Then he got a call from these producers because he put it out to the world years that I had the perfect guy for the job, Jim O’Heir, and no one cares.  Then he got a call from the producers and they said, get Jim O’Heir attached and make this happen.  So that’s how it all came together.  But yeah, (inaudible), it was very flattering to have to open the script because I was telling people, “If you don’t like me, don’t watch this film because this is 1:40 and I think there’s two minutes where I’m not in it.”  It’s not going to be for everybody if you’re not a Jim O’Heir fan.  For Ned to give me that much responsibility and the trump that I could pull it off, that was awesome.

How much of the comedy material was improvised in the stand-up sets your character delivered?

Jim O’Heir:  There was very little.  Ned wrote some of the worst stand-up material you have seen in my life.  And I mean bad.  It was perfect because Lenny is a bad stand-up comedian.  We had a screening last week strictly for comics just to get their feelings for it.  I wanted to know that I pulled it off.  Did I do your job justice?  (inaudible) I realized something when we were talking about it set afterwards.  There’s only one stand-up routine in the film that I had to do that demands that it was nothing about stand-up.  It’s the first one and it goes horribly wrong.  Because in the stand-up routines that I’m doing in the film after that, I keep telling the story of what happens in real life.  So it came from me playing Lenny describing these horrible things that happened and people think are fake and funny because Lenny’s standing on stage and covered in blood.

Ned basically wrote some horrible material and I just went right along with it.  When you’re doing anything with very little money attached, you have to do what you can.  You don’t get a bunch of takes.  You don’t get to play around a lot.  The script was so tight, thankfully, we really didn’t have to.  That kind of shows where okay, let’s do this, let’s have a fun one on this one, let’s do this, let’s do that.  There’s just no time on anything because we’re shooting in the desert.  I think we did it in 18 days.  There’s not a lot of time to play around.  Any terrible comedy in that film is all Ned.

This past Sunday, you threw out the first pitch before a Cardinals-Cubs game at Wrigley Field, in which I was sitting way up near in the press box.  What was the experience like for you?

Jim O’Heir:  Were you there? G-d bless you.

It was not a pretty game to watch.  Game 3 of a current 7 game losing streak for the Cardinals.

Jim O’Heir:  So you’re a Cardinals fan?

Die-hard.

Jim O’Heir:  G-d bless you.  I get it.  I’m a Cubs fan.  You know what I’ve been through.

Yeah.

Jim O’Heir:  Did you view the pitch?

I was able to view the pitch.  I took a few photos.

Jim O’Heir:  (inaudible) from some angles.  I got a text from Ned actually.  He couldn’t be there—his daughter was graduating.  I got a text from him that said, “Listen, I saw the footage from behind the catcher.  It looked like you nailed it.”  I go, “Oh, okay, if that’s what you want to go with.”  Depending on the angle of where you were.  Nick Offerman did it a few weeks earlier.  He played Ron on Parks and Rec.  I got a really good pitch and I was happy about that.  It hit dirt instead of ground.  I was out there thinking one of two things are going to happen, that it was going to become so horrible that I would hear about it everywhere I go or it would be fine.  It turned out to be fine.  This is something that I don’t think will haunt me.

It could be worse.  You could have been throwing a pitch as bad as the former Cincinnati mayor.

Jim O’Heir:  Oh, was his bad?

His was so bad that he went on Kimmel.

Jim O’Heir:  I’ve got to look it up.  I love it.  There’s been some classic bad ones: (inaudible), Howard Stern, (inaudible), I guess 50 Cent.  I actually practiced.  I mucked it up on the back yard.  Sixty feet, six inches.  I felt at the time that it’s no problem.  There is a difference when you walk out on the field and see yourself on the big screen at Wrigley and you realize “Damn, I’m on that screen.”  Nerves start kicking in.  You get on the mound, which is now higher than you expected because the ground’s been raised.  You’re looking around and there’s tens of thousands of people staring at you and it’s all very overwhelming.  It’s tough.  I’m glad I got through it.

What other projects are you working on right now?

Jim O’Heir:  I’ve got a couple that are coming up.  I did a Steven Soderbergh film called Logan Lucky.  That comes out in August.  I was happy to see I made the trailer so I wasn’t cut out.  That one stars Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Daniel Craig, Katie Holmes, Hillary Swank, Seth MacFarlane, and my dumb ass for some reason.   I wrapped a film called Every 21 Seconds in Chicago a couple weeks ago.  I love it every time I can work in Chicago with Chicago filmmakers.  They are trying so hard and working so hard to make it happen.  I did a film called Heavens to Betsy and that hits Chicago on the big screen on June 29th.  I’ve been busy.  I’ve been making a lot of guest spots on television.  I’d like to do things for Funny or Die, those kinds of things.

Would you like to work on projects in the future with your Parks and Rec co-stars?

Jim O’Heir:  I would do it in a heartbeat.  As we’re sitting here talking, we’re all typing back and forth about something that happened recently.  We still never lost contact with each other in two years.  We still obsess because we lost count.  We were truly a group of people who just ended up loving each other.  It wasn’t (inaudible) or any of that (inaudible).  It was kind of the real deal and I think it shows on screen—our love—and yes, we still constantly contact.  Anyone of us could call us tomorrow, here’s what’s happening and if it’s urgent or something in life that they need help with, I will be there in a second.

Middle Man is only playing in a few select cities this weekend before being made available on demand in September and streaming on Netflix in October.  Any last words before you go?

Jim O’Heir:  I just want to tell people: it is dark, it is funny, it is non-Jerry for Parks lovers.  Check us out if you’re into a dark comedy.  I think it will become one of your favorites.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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