So Who Really Shot "Cloverfield"!?Interview by Jeff Tobin
Millions of people heard his voice as Hud in the blockbuster “Cloverfield,” but only his close friends, family, and viewers of an ABC sitcom may know and recognize TJ Miller. He is okay with that for now, but the
Over the past year, he was picked from relative obscurity to starring in the aforementioned Cloverfield, playing the character of Marmaduke on ABC’s “Carpoolers” and is currently writing and co-starring in two upcoming films while managing to perform standup comedy all over the country.
His life and comedic perspective are fast-paced, bizarre and absurd.
When not shuttling between
Jeff Tobin: How does it feel to go from relative obscurity to starring in a hit movie, to going on David Letterman, and being on a network sitcom?
Miller: It's really strange. The movie is so weird because it opened at number 1 but I am relatively obscure in it. I had a tough time getting into the premiere because they didn't know if I was in the movie or not. It's sort of a weird situation where I am in this very visible film but I am not visible because of the way it's shot and how unorthodox it is. Letterman was really strange and amazing because the weird thing about it was you go through all your life as a comedian and standup, and you may never be a guest on one of those shows. Eddie Brill, the booker for Letterman, saw me and liked me but didn't like my standup so I had sort of written that off. You always dream of doing standup on a late show, so to be a guest on one of those shows before I did standup, it was a surreal experience. It was a real mindfuck, is the more vulgar way to put it. The thing that makes me laugh the most is that in the middle of the interview I say, "I'm on Letterman, this is amazing." He just doesn't deal with it at all. I love that. I think he is really funny.
JT: You have mentioned in other interviews that you improvised a lot in Carpoolers and throughout Cloverfield, so what's your approach going into a scripted shoot?
Miller: With any project, you go in with a basis or skeleton of what you are going to do. I am going to shoot a short film that I wrote and when we started, we were just going with a skeleton script, like a Curb Your Enthusiasm. But then I kept writing and writing and it became a flushed out script. Just because we have a good script, doesn't mean we know what the funniest or most truthful dialog or interaction is going to be. So I really felt that strongly in Cloverfield to make this character Hud react in the moment in a real way. It was a great script by Drew Goddard but a lot of it ended up being stuff we came up with on the spot. That's when I think I am the funniest. I think I can be funny when I write but the funniest is when I take into consideration the character, context, situation at hand and the emotional underpinnings of the scene and just react in a real funny way.
JT: How much liberty did Drew Goddard give you to improvise? Were you hired for the part because of your ability or after that did you implement that later?
Miller: I had a lot of liberty on set both from Drew and Matt Reeves. I was hired because I was the best in my field (explosives) and they had put together a crack team of the best in the business for this mission. I implemented my skills throughout the audition process, during the movie and then afterwards, at the wrap party.
JT: Do writers get offended by actors changing the lines or the scenes or is that just the norm?
Miller: Some times. Bruce McCullough is a great writer because the words aren't important to him. It is the intent of what he wrote. I respect how important the words are to writers, they choose their words carefully but I think improvisation can add a lot and I hope writers respect that too. It's collaborative fool! Film and TVs is a straight up collaborative processssss!
JT: If you prefer to improvise like that on the spot, how do you approach standup?
Miller: Stand-up is different because you can't leave a lot to chance always. It's so dangerous to go up there like that. I have improvised entire sets before performing around in Chicago, NY, LA...but I think that there are too many factors at hand to do it all the time. I like to do a balance. Some of my written bits come out of improv. Standup is kind of a mix. Some of my favorite pieces are ones where I took time to write and do research on.
JT: Are any of those from Blerds.com?
Miller: I would say the giraffe facts is one where I really sat down and wrote. I learned a lot about giraffes just to write that bit.
JT: What is your opinion on the writers strike as both a writer and actor?
Miller: That's a toughy. Side with the writers but crew loose their houses. So who really benefits, but you gots to be down with the Guild. Hard one...
JT: What was your first time performing in stand-up like? Did you bomb or kill? How come adjectives to describe a stand-up comedy performance are so grim?
Miller: Well, I think a big part of it is that stand up is so hard that we describe how it is as how we feel it. How well written was that sentence. That's how mysterious the form is. It is hard core. I killed at the Cotton Club on the South side of Chicago my first time. But after that I bombed at the next venue (also urban). That is the way of the world.
JT: Who are your comedic influences?
Miller: I always forget about the Far Side in interviews. It's so rare that I mention that and it was such a big part in my comedic upbringing. I've read every one of them. Calvin and Hobbes is a big one too. My parents. Steve Martin is a major standup influence. I really like Woody Allen and the Marx Brothers, the Thin Man movie series. W.C. Fields is one of my main comedic influences overall.
JT: Have you ever read Chuck Palahniuk? If so, do you relate to the humor?
Miller: Yes. I relate to fight club. I know want that is. It is some real shit. I've fought entire clubs before. I fought a Rotary Club once. I'm down with Chuck.
JT: When you write sketch comedy or scripts, what is your process? Do you need to create or be in a certain environment? Do you like to collaborate or prefer to work alone?
Miller: When I write I sit down and write dialogue. I let jokes come and then think structure after. For me a story is built around dialogue and people talk before they imagine the consequence. So I look to character's perspective before I look to even context. An entire script can come from one idea for a scene, or an exchange between two characters. Sometimes I think of a title and the story follows, or I think of an ending for something and I write backwards (literally sitting backwards and typing with my arms behind my back).
JT: You have been moving a lot in between Chicago, NY, and LA you’re your projects. What is your most and least favorite?
Miller: My least favorite is LA. Most favorite: New York. Most ambivalent: Chicago.
JT: Why the disdain for LA?
Miller: The disdain comes from the city itself. It's horribly laid out. The traffic...people tell you about how bad the traffic is, and you say “oh yeah, sure, I’m sure it’s so bad you want to tell me about it” and then you’re in the traffic and you want to call someone and tell them how bad the traffic is. It's a lot to take when you are out there. The bars close at 2 AM and that doesn't work if you are a functioning alcoholic. It's not my thing. I am much more interested in New York. I like the pace and energy. One of the most frustrating things about LA is the lack of sets I can do. It's not the traffic as much as the fact that I can't do more than two sets in one night. I could do that in Chicago and I can do up to 6 sets in NY in one night. I'm a bit of a workhorse and I think work ethic is just important as talent. It's frustrating for me to not do the most that I can do. Specifically with standup, you need as many reps as you can get. I am hardly impovising in LA because there’s not a lot of it going on. Chicago and NY are great for it but LA is coming up in the rear for that medium of comedy. And for people who are cool.
JT: What is your favorite medium to perform in?
Miller: I don’t have a favorite medium. I just like comedy. Each of the mediums has their positives and negatives. It just happens at certain levels that there is more opportunity for being seen in standup and more people see live standup than live improv or sketch. My biggest goal is perform in the mediums that reach the most people. That's why I am interested in the internet and new media as a whole because it demonstrates that you can put down little money and reach millions of people immediately.
JT: Then is it more about the artistic integrity and reaching out to people or is fame and money something really important to you?
Miller: No it’s just the fame and money. And becoming a hip hop mogul. Psych your mind. What’s interesting to me is reaching as many people as possible. Fame is the unfortunate side effect of being successful in this vocation. To be well known and to get opportunities to perform, you are going to get recognized and you can become a celebrity. In society, there's some really weird celebrity worship going on and I have a particular problem with that.
JT: You had mentioned with all the fame and with all the recent news with Heath Ledger and Brad Renfro...
Miller: Yeah and Britney Spears...
JT: ...It seems like everyone is going to rehab. You talk about drinking a lot. You mentioned it during the interview twice. You mentioned it on Letterman. It’s in your act. Is that a persona or is that you? Is that something you think could get out of control?
Miller: Well I hope it doesn't get out of control. I don't know what happened with Heath Ledger and I don't know about Lindsay Lohan and the other young celebrities that are out of control, but I think there's a difference between drug use to cope with issues that you can't cope with without chemical solutions. There's a lot to be said about sobriety but there's as much to be said about alcohol and dealing with the tragic nature of life. There are a lot of famous people that have survived and haven't ended in tragedy, but as far as it being a persona, no. Everybody has weaknesses and a part of comedy is exposing those weaknesses and vulnerability. It's a very self-deprecating part of my humor. It's showing a form of drinking (and I am not being preachy or telling people not to drink) but I do recognize what a strange and important part of our culture it is.
JT: You've accomplished a lot over the past year, what's the next goal?
Miller: To get drunk...To just get as drunk as much as possible. No, I'm sort of kidding. Actually the biggest thing I have learned recently is that I never thought I would be an actor on a sitcom I didn't create. And I never thought I would be in a major motion picture horror film-action thriller-genre crossing JJ Abrams project. This next film I am doing is a different comedy than the kind that I am really interested in making. The challenge for me now is to enter a project that may be a little different from what I envisioned myself doing and to bring my comedy and what I am interested in expressing in humor to it. And the big realization is that you can't pick and choose what you are going to do, but to pick and choose what you can do in it. A year ago, if you told me I was going to be in a monster movie, I would be like "Yeah, right, sure get out of my apartment." But I am glad I was and I was proud of what I did. It was a challenge. It was hard to go to work every day because I was going to have to fight every single scene to get in the comedy when I thought it was appropriate because that's not what the movie is about but I think it ended up working.
In Carpoolers, I’m part of a very ABC, very mainstream sitcom but my character is a strange presence within that genre. It's certainly the most absurdist role in the entire half hour of programming.
I was also cast in “She's Out Of My League.” Jim Field Smith is directing and it stars Jay Baruchel (“Undeclared” and “Knocked Up”).
This next project I am working on, "Successful Alcholics" And we're back (laughs)...it's something that I wrote and is more specifically my comedy. Lizzy Caplan (“Cloverfield”) also stars in it. “Successful Alcoholics” started as a skeleton script and I had to keep writing details because the director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts wanted more information and then suddenly it was a complete script. I started with an idea and a general story arc and scene structure and forced myself to write it. Long form writing involves me forcing myself to write it, I have a tough time sitting down and writing for long periods. I think dialogue I'd something you write and then say out loud and them rewrite. That's how I write the comedy of each scene, and once the characters were clear in my mind the comedy came from how they reacted to the situations I put them in. I examined every word and sentence, and I think a meticulous writer makes a skilled improviser that much better off from the get go. Does that make sense? Does anything make sense anymore? Who knows? I don't. But until that's all I am doing, if I can just do what I do in different types of projects, I’ll be happy.