Josh Gad speaks in run-on sentences and is funny even in person; shouting at those in our vicinity as we sat down during a SXSW-enabled interview opportunity, telling them to stop eavesdropping on our conversation.
If they’d had listened in, they’d have caught some illuminating insight into an actor whose career path, prior to his new, critically-acclaimed series “The Comedians,” included the blockbuster stage success of “The Book of Mormon,” correspondent work on “The Daily Show,” co-creating the short-lived NBC series “1600 Penn” and, of course, providing the voice of Olaf for Disney’s “Frozen.” Below, Gad told Indiewire about the impact “Book of Mormon” had on his life, how he’s been inspired by Philip Seymour Hoffman and how hard work and study is only one part of his success, via a very unconventional route.
So I find the different things you’ve done fascinating; going from “The Daily Show” to Broadway to then so many other projects, I’m wondering what’s been your strategy in terms of picking projects?
My strategy has been to generally — and along the way, I have fucked this up royally — is to do things that I would want to see. To do things that I feel like, if I were on the other side, I’d be like, “Man, I wish I could’ve done that.” Beginning with “The Book of Mormon,” which a lot of people in my life didn’t think was a smart move. I was offered some significant money on significant television series, and, at the time, I turned them down to get paid nothing to do [“Book of Mormon”], which seemed like a long shot to succeed, by virtue of the fact that it was a very tricky sort of concept that didn’t have any reason to succeed, other than we all thought it was extremely funny.
We all thought it would hopefully connect with a large audience. Did we realize it was going to be what it became? No. So, with those guiding principles, I’ve sort of followed my heart and whenever there’s a project, whether it’s a theatrical project, a voiceover, a movie, I always ask myself, “Would I want to be in the audience watching that?”
What did it do for your career, do you feel, to do “The Book of Mormon”?
Interestingly enough, “The Book of Mormon” is, I think, my crowning achievement. Because the exposure that I was able to get usually only comes with a film, usually only comes with being in people’s homes on television, on millions of screens. It’s very rare that you get an opportunity to do a show for fifteen hundred people in a dark theater, where 500 people can really make out the details of your face and parlay that into success elsewhere. For me, that is such an enormous testament to the power of that show, and it constantly brings me joy because that’s where I got my start — theater — that was my bread and butter. That was what I literally committed four years of my life to studying.
So to have that kind of success off of a platform, like a musical on Broadway, is enormously rewarding and something that I’m always fascinated by. And I was involved in the process from the very beginning, so being on that journey for four years, before we even knew that power of what the show would become, is something that I’m so proud I could have been a part of.
So even while you’re doing “The Daily Show” and working on these other projects, you were developing working on “The Book of Mormon”?
Oh, yeah. “The Book of Mormon,” I got involved in that process in around 2007 or 2008. And the very first reading we ever did was on a bunch of music stands, where Trey and Matt didn’t even know if it was going to be a movie or a show. And I got a call from Bobby Lopez, who of course I would later work with on “Frozen” and many other things, and Bobby said, “I’m doing this show with the creators of ‘South Park,’ would you like to be a part of it?”
And they sent me a demo, and I heard, [singing] “Hello, my name is…” And I was like, this is brilliant. And I heard, “Two by two, we’re marching…” and I thought, “this is so much fun.” And then I got to this song called “Hasa Diga Eebowai” and I immediately pressed pause and I called my agent and I go, “I can’t do this.” And he goes, “Why?” And I go, “I will be shot and killed if I do this.”
Then I sort of took a leap of faith, and I did the very first reading— we did it at the Vineyard Theater around the summer of 2007 or 2008. And, that moment, where the Africans sang that song, and you saw 100 people — this test crowd of guinea pigs — go along with it because they were so invested in the character, I realized we had something very magical on our hands.
With “The Comedians,” is this something you see as a major part of your life going forward? Would you like to see 20 seasons of this show?
I certainly would not want to overstay our welcome. I think that the first season, thanks to the creative team of Ben Wexler, Larry Charles, Matt Nix, and Billy, we have accomplished something that is really difficult to do. We’ve done 13 episodes that are all worthy of watching. And that is, especially in comedy, a difficult task. So, if we can keep up that momentum, even for a little while, I would love to continue telling these stories. I think there’s a lot more storytelling to go.
And for me, it’s just a blast. It’s a blast to get to play a version of myself that is so heightened and not quite in line with who I am and keep the audience at home guessing, “What am I watching right now?” And especially when it comes to the relation I have onscreen with Billy… It’s a balancing act, and it’s something I think is really unique in the television landscape right now.
Going into it, were you at all concerned that it wouldn’t be an equal playing field, between you and Billy?
Well, look. I have now had the opportunity to work with people that I have no business working with in my life, from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” to Trey [Parker] and Matt [Stone], to people like Billy. So, there’s always an intimidation factor, but you go in there guns a’blazing, because you want to impress these people. You want to belong. You want to show that you’ve earned your seat at this proverbial table.
When you say that you don’t feel like you have any business working with these people, is that self-deprecation? Or are you very serious about that?
I think it’s a little bit of both. I mean, I’m somebody who has stepped into shit, you know? And there was a point in my life… Look, I say that half-kidding because I did do the work. I went to study in a conservatory program for four years, I studied theatre, I worked my ass off, I earned a degree in Fine Arts, with the purposes of getting better at my craft. So, I’m half-kidding, but at the same time, I pinch myself every day that I’ve lucked out.
In many ways, it’s 90 percent luck, and the 10 percent is everything else. So, that’s kind of my philosophy, and there was a point, about three years out of college, where I was about ready to go to law school and give it all up. My mother, of all people, convinced me to stay in the business and give it another shot.
So is there a dream role? A dream position you’d like to be in? Like, would you want to host your own talk show, or would you want to continue on doing the things that you’re doing now?
I don’t know necessarily if there’s a dream role. I feel like I’ve lived out so many of my dreams already. I’d like to keep dreaming. There are careers that I aspire toward. There are people like Philip Seymour Hoffman — who I look up to and I hold up on a pedestal — [who] was able to create a career trajectory that was very difficult to put a pinpoint on. He was able to do everything, whether it was theatre, whether it was drama, whether it was crazy comedy. He was able to do it all. That’s sort of what I aspire toward as an actor and performer.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is legendary for his dramatic roles. Is that something you want to push more towards as well?
Oh, absolutely. I’ve sort of started making that push, oftentimes unsuccessfully in terms of the audiences that we’ve been able to connect with. But movies like “Thanks for Sharing,” I’m enormously proud of [and] I’m very proud of my performance in “Jobs.” There are opportunities that I’ve been given to allow me to keep growing as a performer that I’m very much looking forward to continuing. There’s a film that I’m most likely going to do in the fall that is more dramatic. So, yes, I’m very interested in following on that trail.
And that leads me to ask: Is your interest split between film and TV? Is there one direction you want to go in more than the other?
The environment right now, in terms of the industry, it’s a brilliant time because it allows an actor to dabble in everything. You know, the “True Detective” model is a very real model, where you can go off and do four movies and still do 13 episodes of television. For me, I haven’t had to make that choice, and I don’t think I’d like to make that choice. I really enjoy both. Having said that, I would love to go back to theater. There’s only so many days in a year, but all of it interests me.
How interested are you in moving behind the scenes?
Very. I’ve already started dabbling in writing, and I love that process. Obviously I’m a producer on our show, and I co-created “1600 Penn” — I apologize, America — and there have definitely been opportunities that have allowed me to get more involved behind the scenes, and I really enjoy that process.
If someone handed you, say, $10 million right now, what would you go off and make?
A dream car that I could take and drive throughout Europe. [laughs] If someone handed me $10 million right now, what would I make… I have a passion project that I’m sort of working on right now, actually, that I’m not really at liberty to discuss. But I’d probably use it toward that, and I would probably make it the way that I envision it.