When I got Ben Schwartz on the phone, I had to be upfront about something from the beginning. In 2012, I was a writer on the G4 talk show "Attack of the Show," which featured Schwartz as a guest host performing monologues and sketches. I decided to mention this right away, in case Schwartz happened to remember that week, and one specific sketch, which featured his "House of Lies" co-star Josh Lawson. It was memorable for many reasons, but particularly for the madcap energy that the two performers share, off and on the screen.
Lawson was a bit late to the call, but before and after he joined us, we dug into how the Showtime comedy has evolved since its first season, whether or not the cast’s strong chemistry was instantaneous and what it was like to shoot in Cuba. An edited and condensed transcript is below.
Hello, how’s it going?
BEN SCHWARTZ: Hi, Liz. How are you?
Good, good. Just so you know, I was also a writer on "Attack of the Show" while you were there.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, nice! That’s fucking awesome! How fun! How was the transition from there?
Well, I was a journalist before "Attack," and going back to journalism has been a lot of fun. It’s basically the same sort of muscle.
SCHWARTZ: But instead of making a full joke about something, you, like, research it with depth.
Yes, and then afterwards I make fun of it.
SCHWARTZ: Right, and then you make fun of it. [laughs] You get to stretch all those muscles. ["Attack"] was really fun. I enjoyed myself. It seemed like you guys were into it, which made me really excited.
Yeah. It was part of why I wanted to speak with both you and Josh because I remember when we had Josh on as a guest star in the Estonia Internet sketch.
[Skip to 9:30 for Lawson’s appearance in the above.]
SCHWARTZ: Oh my God. I, like, maybe once every year or two, I’ll send that sketch back to him so he can watch it. He made me laugh so hard in that fucking– He’s just so funny. He made me laugh so hard in that sketch. He was so fucking funny… Do you want to do it up? Should we do the interview?
Yeah, I mean, I’ll make it feel conversational.
SCHWARTZ: All right, we’ll see. We’ll see how conversational this sounds.
Well, the thing about getting to observe you and Josh together on ["Attack"] was that you guys had such a natural chemistry, and I know that the whole "House of Lies" cast has done improv together. So I’m wondering, was that something that was almost instantaneous, when you first started in Season 1?
SCHWARTZ: When we first started, it was. The four of us really quickly got along as friends. The first episode we filmed in New York. Half of it was in New York and half of it was in L.A., or maybe all of it was in New York. I remember we definitely had to go to New York and we had such a good time and we bonded together and then, once we got picked up, it was truly off to the races.
For some reason, right off the bat, we were fluid with each other and improvised with each other and it was so fun. That was one of those moments where you’re like, "Okay," because you realize that those three people are going to be the people you spend, you know, what’s turned into the next six years of our lives together. It was such a beautiful treat to be like, "Oh my God. We like each other and we all respect each other and we all can play off of each other." It was a very fun thing.
How often do you meet up with people in between seasons of shooting? On other shows, for example?
SCHWARTZ: I mean, it happens. I feel like it happens more at the beginning when you first get here or when you just first start to get there, when you first start a show because then you get a little bit more comfortable with each other and whatever, but it’s usually intense; intense seeing each other every day for, like, three months straight. Every single day for three months straight, and then usually you don’t see them as much or you see them sporadically and then another intense thing for three months.
But with us, especially those first couple of seasons, we hung out all the time. In between seasons, we’d go over and Cheadle would have dance parties or something like that. Or we’d all just get food or get a drink. It was really special. I don’t think that happens so often. I think when you’re shooting, usually when shooting ends, you know, you’re texting people and you still care about them and stuff. But for some reason, I don’t know. For this group, it was very easy and we loved it. We love hanging out with each other.
Does that have something to do with the fact that you guys are a remarkably small ensemble, in the grand scheme of things?
SCHWARTZ: That might be it. There is that. Like for "Parks [and Recreation]," when I was doing "Parks" and you’re around all these people, you still, like, there’s nine, or eight, or something, people there. We’d still all hang out while we’re shooting, but I think you’re right in the fact that it’s smaller. Truly, me and Josh, the first couple of seasons, a lot of our scenes were together. So, I think you’re right. If it’s just a group of four people and you’re in every day and you’re going to all of the locations with each other, I think there is an even stronger sense of comradery just because you’re with them. Same when you do a movie and it’s like you and two other people that are in every scene. You become close, especially if you like the person. It becomes, you know, a fun thing.
I like the "especially if you like the person," as if that’s not necessarily required for this to work.
SCHWARTZ: I’ve been very lucky. All the projects I’ve done, I’ve remained friendly with just about everybody, you know, or relatively friendly with just about everybody. I haven’t been in that situation yet where there’s somebody that I’m like, "Oh my God. I hate this person." I’ve never had that, thank goodness. But I think if you like the person, you want to be around them, you want to be inspired. I mean, if I could be around Don Cheadle and just listen to him or learn from him every minute I can, I’d do that. He is so funny and so intelligent and he cares about the environment and he’s a good parent. He’s just an incredible role model for anybody who’s looking for one.
PR REPRESENTATIVE: Josh is hopping on now, so he should be on in the next couple of seconds.
Well, now I feel like I have to wait.
SCHWARTZ: You can ask me a question that isn’t about both of us in the next five seconds.
Yes, let’s see. What do you really think of Josh?
SCHWARTZ: Oh my God. That motherfucker. What a stupid Australian piece of shit…. I will talk about him before he’s on the phone: I think he’s incredible and I think what people don’t understand is how– Oh, never mind. He’s picking up.
JOSH LAWSON: [laughs] What were you saying? What were you saying?
SCHWARTZ: I said you can’t spell dumb-dumb without A-U-S-T-R-A-L-I-A.
LAWSON: I’ve got to tell you, you got through that word better than I thought you’d get through. [laughs]
SCHWARTZ: It took me two pauses, if you didn’t feel that.
LAWSON: You sold it well. What’s happening, gang?
SCHWARTZ: [laughs] Joshee, I miss you. I feel like I haven’t talked to you in a couple of days.
LAWSON: Buddy, I know. I’ve been traveling like a fiend, but I’m back. I’m excited. I mean, I’m so ready to talk about Season 4. [laughs] Can’t wait. I love Season 4, baby!
SCHWARTZ: We can’t wait to get into it. Oh, this party’s getting started. I wish this was an audio interview, because Josh and I are about to bring the noise.
LAWSON: Oh, baby. What’s question one? Hit me.
Well, I think there’s going to be an obvious question about what it was like to shoot in Cuba? We can start there.
SCHWARTZ: That’s Season 5, baby! We’re talking Season 4! [laughs]
You guys are very good at talking about Season 4, I’m hearing.
LAWSON: Oh, it’s awesome. It was amazing. I mean, the people were the best. It was such a unique experience. We all had a great time. It was–
SCHWARTZ: [laughing] You go, "Can’t wait to talk about Season 4! Shoot me with the first question, baby!"…
LAWSON: …And then we go immediately into Season 5. Alright, sorry. I was prepping myself. I should have been expecting anything.
SCHWARTZ: Josh, can I ask you an honest question? Did you do any research [on Season 4] before this phone call or no?
LAWSON: No. No.
SCHWARTZ: Tell me two things that happened in Season 4.
LAWSON: Well, okay, um, we had a wrap party, I remember.
SCHWARTZ: Okay, so Cuba was fantastic. We had– I haven’t talked to Josh in a while. Cuba was fantastic. Just the idea of being in that other culture and absorbing it and being there before the onslaught of different American tourists may have come there or visited, it was just incredible. The people were so kind. Our crews kind of melded. A Cuban crew and an American crew melding together — it was really exciting and special.
LAWSON: Yeah, and it felt like we’re the perfect show to shoot there because, you know, the potential changes that Cuba is about to undergo is, you know, the potential Capitalism that may envelop that country, I think that’s the sort of stuff we deal with in "House of Lies," and I think it was such a hand in glove fit and they welcomed us with open arms and it was a joy to shoot there, really.
I want to wrap things up by asking, from the first season, how do you feel "House of Lies" has evolved?
SCHWARTZ: I think for our characters and for the show — I think the show in general — I think you get to see these characters really get shaded throughout the years. You look at Marty, you look at Jeannie, and you see how it started in the beginning and you see all the weight that’s been put on them as characters or all the choices they’re had to make and then you look at Josh’s character, Doug, or my character, Clyde, and you get to see — which doesn’t happen very often with TV shows — you get to see darkness or the shading behind them. You saw Josh’s character go through an entire marriage and then get out of a marriage. You saw me have a girlfriend. You saw me kill my father. All these big things that give weight and shade to show in the characters, it’s really fun.
LAWSON: Yeah, I agree. And I think what’s amazing about Matt Carnahan is I feel like he’s a very bold and adventurous creator and showrunner, and I think that Matt is unafraid to push boundaries each season. I think that gives each season a different feeling, you know? I think we’ve had seasons that are more dramatic than others. I think we’ve had seasons that are more dangerous than others.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I do agree that Carnahan is amazing. He takes big risks. It’s so exciting to be on a show that the storylines are unique and you haven’t seen them before. They tackle different things. Even the settings are different. The idea that we, as characters, get to jump after these big things and take these big risks, I think, it’s amazing.
"House of Lies" Season 4 is now available on DVD. Season 5 premieres April 10 on Showtime. Also coming soon from Showtime…
READ MORE: Watch: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell and Company Give Improv Comedy a Try in Showtime’s ‘House of Lies Live!’