According to Chris Elliott and Maria Thayer, acting on “Eagleheart” is no cakewalk. Elliott has to constantly figure out if he’s happy, sad or mad. Thayer’s relationships with her co-stars apparently resemble the contentious interactions she shares with them on screen, as Elliott and fellow cast member Brett Gelman regularly give her shit. “It’s a hard job,” she insists. But all of that effort is worth it — to viewers, at least: “Eagleheart” is one of the funniest shows on television, and as it embarks on its third season, which kicked off last night on Adult Swim, the show makes a transition from single-serving episodes to something more ambitious — a season-long narrative which, according to Elliott, you could edit into a feature.
Elliott and Thayer sat down with Indiewire earlier this week to discuss their work on the show from its earliest days until now, when it not only seems to be hitting its creative stride, but finding its largest audiences yet. In addition to torturing poor Thayer about a certain Hallmark Hall of Fame film she did, Elliott talked about the challenges of playing the show’s main character, Chris Monsanto, and the pair reflected on the surprising complexity of the onetime “Walker, Texas Ranger” parody, whose layered references frequently go over even their heads.
What’s been the difference in the show with changing the structure from stand-alone episodes to a season-long arc?
Chris Elliott: We shot it the same way that we shot the others, so we shot episodes out of sequence and stuff like that. But I still found myself lost halfway through the season. I did have to ask, like, what happened in the scene before this? Am I happy, sad, mad?
Maria Thayer: Those are your three emotions.
CE: That’s how I act [laughs]. But once we started getting into it, and seeing how these things fell together, there was more of a feeling that we had time to develop a relationship arc with our characters, and that was different. In the other seasons, there wasn’t much of that. There was just working together and some scenes and going home.
MT: It sounds so grim! [laughs]
CE: That’s my personality.
How aware are you of all of these weird references when you’re making the show, and what do you have to do to make sure they’re woven effectively into the rest of the storytelling?
CE: Well, there’s plenty of stuff that goes over my head. I have to ask Jason, you know, “what does this mean?” But more stuff goes over Maria’s head than mine, because there’s a generation gap.
MT: [laughs] I’m a little…
CE: A lot older than me, and she’s starting to lose it a bit. But no, I think it’s so layered, with so much of that stuff, that sometimes you miss them, and you have to be told what something is.
Do you familiarize yourself with whatever they’re referencing? A reference to “Casino” in the first season seems fairly obvious, for example, but in the season two finale, you guys basically parody a Jan Švankmajer film.
CE: [to Maria] Did you realize we did a parody of “Casino” in the first season?
MT: I always get the weird ones, like “Cache” — we did a parody of “Cache,” I remember that. [pauses] It was called “Cache,” right?
How do you attack this material — do you just approach it literally, or do you think about the other layers of the show? For example, there’s an episode that comments on women and men in the workplace where Maria becomes almost feral and as a result she gets accepted more by the men.
MT: It’s a smart question. This is the most we’ve discussed it [laughs].
CE: We haven’t used this side of our brain. But in the course of shooting it, very little, and in terms of the writing, I think it’s instinctual in terms of any kind of message or point that’s being made. But I don’t know that we’ve ever really analyzed the meaning of “Eagleheart” or any particular episode. Even though there are those little messages and things in the show, it’s not deep [laughs]. I don’t think of it that way.
When “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” started, it seemed like it took every convention of sitcom storytelling and then asked, what’s the most irresponsible way to explore that? Do you look at each episode of “Eagleheart” in a similar way?
CE: Some of the process of that comes out of somebody saying “I want to do that scene from ]Casino’,” or, “I would be really funny doing this,” or “Maria would be funny doing that.” Then it is sort of like building a show to get to that point — sometimes it works more seamlessly than others. You know, we did the same thing with “Apocalypse Now” with the old people — with me just hacking my way through these old people making sound effects.
The buildup to that, you never would have thought, well, that’s how that’s going to end, that we’re building to a parody of “Apocalypse Now.” Or that people who love that particular episode would even know that particular reference. To them it was just kind of cool that I took a machete and went through hacking these people. They don’t necessarily have to know the reference point.
How do you look at the conceptual dynamic of the show then? When this started, was it basically a parody of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” or was there a larger conceit behind it?
CE: Certainly when we did the pilot it was just a parody, really, of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and was going to be like a show within a show — a “Larry Sanders” sort of thing. I played an actor playing that character, and then we would do these little scenes, and cut to behind the scenes where Maria was my assistant.
MT: They called me the day before and were just like, “Can you come in tomorrow and do this little thing?”
CE: And you were available, which everybody was very shocked at [laughs]. I was told we were all very lucky. We didn’t have much to do in that, but Maria was really, really funny, and what she did worked. Then Adult Swim liked the show within a show more than the behind the scenes thing. So that’s how “Eagleheart” developed.
But when I got involved, the fellas were fans of my stuff, and the show became a little bit more surreal at that point and left the parody behind — which was sort of the hope. I mean, the first episode of that season, the death punch episode, there’s very little parody of “Walker, Texas Ranger” in that [laughs]. That’s the first one out of the gate and it’s one of the most surreal episodes I think we’ve ever done.
Maria, how much do you indulge the silliness of the show, and at the same time sort of portray the most sensible member of the team?
MT: I’m still totally irresponsible, but not as bad as this one or Brett. I play everything straight. No matter how crazy it is — maybe the more crazy it is — the more straight you play it. We had one of those things, not a parody but the idea of another movie, and I feel like the biggest that we’ve ever done, right?
In season three?
CE: Yeah. There’s a sequence in that we probably wouldn’t want to spoil by talking about it — it was more straight-on parody. But when these guys do parody, it’s not like “Airplane!” or a Zucker kind of approach. It is like Maria said, doing it straight — okay, we are going to do “Casino,” but we’re not going to have something crazy goofy happen. We’re just going to do a really beautiful version, our version of it, with us instead. And certainly that last thing you’re talking about is like that.
So do you see specific differences in season three from its predecessors?
CE: Yeah. Definitely the tone seems… I don’t know what episode you saw.
The first episode, I think, where Monsanto is dealing with the fallout from what happened to Brett.
MT: And the global warming. [laughs] That is a vast episode!
CE: Yeah [laughs]. A lot in that episode sets up the whole 10 episodes. A lot comes back to that first episode, and I think that’s the biggest difference to me this season — how intricate the writing is and how these guys have woven in a lot of branches and it all comes together in the course of these 10 episodes. It does feel like you could edit it together and have actually a little feature, because it holds together story-wise.
So this season is mostly linear.
CE: There are plenty of flashbacks and stuff, and each episode still has its own beginning, middle and end. You’re not going to be lost if you miss one. But in general it’s more linear, I think, than the other ones. There is some time travel and stuff like that this season. Well, I know people are wearing old clothes, and old cars, but I’m still not sure if we were back in time.
Given how silly the show is, do you have a philosophical core for your character? Or is there a continuity to his behavior in your conception of the character that underlines who he is?
CE: To be honest with you, in terms of my technique, no, there’s absolutely nothing that I would think about in terms of this character. But, having said that, this third season, I did have an opportunity to play him a little more guilty, I guess, with a bit of a conscience. But no, I could go on talking about my approach for hours [laughs].
MT: I feel like when I first got this job, I did stuff like that.
CE: You did, really? Like a backstory? This is interesting to me. Are you serious? Do you do that for everything?
MT: Well, something like this that I’m going to spend this much time on, I’m going to be like, well, what is Suzie’s family like?
CE: So that’s what I should have done?
MT: I’m saying it might have helped your performance. I’m just saying [laughs].
Did it help your performance?
MT: No! [laughs] You think that she’s the sensible one, and then she’ll shoot those drugs or she’ll just shoot some random person without thinking about it.
What are your favorite hallmarks of your character, whether it’s a certain behavior or just something that’s become one of their trademarks?
CE: For me, I like playing him kind of Clint Eastwood-esque. There aren’t a lot of levels to him, so it’s fun to play that to me, you know? Occasionally, I get goofy and stupid, but in general, compared to my past 30 years’ work, it’s the most level performance I’ve ever done. He pretty much reacts the same to everything, and it’s always very 1970s misogynistic. And if I did any backstory on the guy, that’s where he’s stuck — he’s stuck back there. But, I forget your question–
MT: What are the hallmarks? I liked that word, “hallmarks.”
CE: Weren’t you in a Hallmark Hall of Fame thing?
MT: I hate you [laughs].
CE: Maybe that’s why you liked that.
MT: That’s why I wanted to bring it up again, because I couldn’t wait to talk about it. [sighs] I don’t want to talk about it.
CE: It was like Santa had a daughter, right?
MT: You are like the worst person.
CE: Like “Daughter Santa.”
“Miss Claus?” [The name of the film is actually “Annie Claus Is Coming To Town.”]
CE: “Missy Claus?”
MT: Both of you! [laughs]. I’m shutting down.
CE: It must be getting ready to broadcast, because that’s a holiday thing.
MT: Of course, I’m sure it is.
CE: You’re the one who brought it up! You wanted to get a plug in for it.
MT: I didn’t. I just wanted to ask–
CE: Well, you did, and we did it. Shamelessly.
Well done. But are there things in your interpretation of the character that the writers have integrated into his or her behavior?
CE: Well, I am cynical and negative most of the time, and that’s definitely played into a lot of my lines and throwaway things, me just not even giving a shit that I’m in the scene [laughs]. That’s partly because they know I don’t, and it’s also because that’s the character. In terms of the three of us, Brett, you and me, you are the most sensible of the three of us.
MT: I was the one that did the character breakdown. I had my research, and I’m sure Brett didn’t.
CE: Mmm-hmm. And you were on a Hallmark Hall of Fame thing.
MT: And I did it for that, too.
CE: Oh God, you didn’t, did you? Really?
MT: No. I don’t think so.
I’m going to look this up.
MT: No! [to Elliott] You’re the worst!
CE: “Suzie Claus.” [laughs] But yeah, I think that dynamic obviously bleeds into the development of the characters. We’re all friends — Michael, Jason, Andrew, Brett, Maria and I — and the way we hang out does sometimes reflect the way we are on screen.
MT: I mean, Brett and Chris would give me a lot of… shit. Sorry.
I believe they would give you a lot of shit.
CE: This is interesting. I’ve never heard this before.
MT: And I felt like in the second season it got worse, and then it became part of the character. Like Suzie would, I don’t know, just do a lot of eye-rolling. So did Maria, probably.
At this point, do you have a favorite episode or storyline?
MT: Of the past two seasons, I just love the death punch. I laugh at it every time. But I like the show so much.
CE: I like this season — and it sounds self-serving, obviously, because we’re about to embark on the third season. But to me, the show has evolved to what it should be. The show has evolved into this real fantastical thing that works on lots of different levels. It’s not like I wish the show had started like that, because it couldn’t have. It had to go through two seasons to get where we are this season, and I don’t know where it goes next. But the storylines that are developed in this season are my favorite so far. I love episodes — I love the “Little Dude” episode that Maria was prominent in. I do like the death punch one a lot. But just looking at this season three as a whole, I think it’s my favorite.
Not necessarily in terms of topicality, but are there conventions of this type of show or storytelling in general that you would like to satirize or deconstruct?
CE: There’s plenty to satirize and plenty to parody, but the relationships that were developed in this third season almost harken back to a 1930s kind of movie. They’re really classic relationships in this third season. It’s not as insane. It’s not as totally out of the blue, and reactions aren’t just funny for being funny. As much as there is satire and parody, I don’t look at this season as having a lot of that in it. I know that we did “Death of a Salesman” already in episode one, but it feels more to me like we’re working around a relationship with these characters.
If it goes any further, that’s where I hope it would go, more than the parody aspect, actually — finding other situations to put us all in, maybe even outside the Marshal’s office completely, which is pretty much how the third season ended up. We’re not the ones actually thinking in terms of parody.
MT: Yeah. Like we could do a parody and not know, you know?
CE: And people could be making fun of us and parodying us and we would not know that also. [to Thayer] Well, you wouldn’t.
MT: [laughs] See what I mean?
CE: It’s awful. It’s not a good work environment.
MT: It’s a hard job [laughs].
CE: Hard on her. It’s a rough, tough time.