Going into “Young Adult,” Jason Reitman’s new dark comedy, you kind of already have a sensation that Charlize Theron is going to dazzle you as the boozy, emotionally stunted author of a series of young adult novels who returns to her hometown in an effort to woo a former beau. What is more of a surprise is what an impact her costar Patton Oswalt has. You might remember Oswalt for his gut-busting stand-up, or as the voice of Remy the rat in “Ratatouille” or for standing eerily still during one of the openings during his semi-regular stint on “The King of Queens.” But nothing prepares you for the depth and nuance of his performance here. As Theron’s former classmate who was critically maimed in a hate crime, he shows an amazing amount of depth and their friendship, as cracked as it is, gives “Young Adult” its black little heart. We got to talk to Oswalt about how he inhabited the role, both physically and psychologically, what he added to the character, and why he’s so jazzed for “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”
We wondered how Oswalt had initially gotten involved in the project, since it definitely seems somewhat outside of his comfort zone. “This is so pathetic,” Oswalt began, letting out an infectiously self-deprecating giggle, “I was presenting an award at the editing awards a few years ago. So Jason and I started gabbing about movies and we both had pictures of our French bulldogs on our phone. So we bonded over that.” Oswalt started attending movie nights at Reitman’s house, and later when Reitman got the script he contacted Oswalt.
“When the script came in, he said he wanted to see how it sounded, and he had heard that I do a lot of table reads, so I did some readings,” Oswalt explained. “By the third reading that was when Charlize came in and the chemistry was right there. And he said ‘Okay, you got it.’ ”
But landing the role was the beginning of a long and arduous process of shaping the character, since Oswalt has to walk with a severe limp and internalize what that kind of pain will do to a person. “I worked with an acting coach and I worked with a physical therapist,” Oswalt explained. “The physical therapist went over exactly what the wounds were, what the damage was, how I would have recovered from it, how exactly my leg would work and not work.” Just portraying the character could have been damaging to his health. Oswalt said, “It was also nerve-wracking because she said, ‘You’ve got to do these stretching exercises at the end of the day because if you don’t, you could permanently mess up the way that you walk.’ So that was like ‘Oh shit.’ ”
Still, Oswalt found the physical stuff was essential to his performance, on a base level. “I worked so long with this physical therapist – so it would become second nature, it would become this buried thing, and I could think more about the stuff I was working on with the acting coach, which was this guy’s background, how he’s chosen to deal with this and what led him to these choices.”
In order to come up with that character background, Oswalt went out. “I came up with a very long and complicated story,” Oswalt said. “I wrote out the whole accident report, I wrote out a remembrance of the incident. I figured out that I don’t remember everything that had happened because it’s so traumatic. When I was doing research, your brain will often shut out massive traumas when they happen. So I decided that I couldn’t quite remember anything.”
While all of that background might not have made it onto the screen, he was still able to contribute to his character. We wondered if he added anything to the kind of cultural background to the character, since Oswalt has gotten a reputation of being something of a geek and his character in “Young Adult” expresses similar proclivities, including naming some moonshine liquor after “Star Wars.” “I suggested a few things here and there,” Oswalt said. “One thing that I added, and this came from the research, was that in the script the character painted lead figures. And there’s this subculture of people who will cannibalize action figures and recombine them. I thought – what an amazing symbolic psychological dream of his is to have legs that work and a better torso. And he gets to live that out every night at his workbench.”
And although this seems like a huge leap in the acting style of Oswalt (because, well, it is), he says that he couldn’t have pulled it off without a couple of previous jobs, including a pair of performances on a short-lived but tremendous science fiction series. Oswalt said he would have felt ill prepared, “if I hadn’t done ‘Big Fan‘ and I hadn’t done the stuff on [Joss Whedon’s] ‘Dollhouse.’ That gave me a little more confidence. But even with that confidence I felt that this script was so good and so nuanced – that’s why I went to the acting coach. I wanted to do service to Diablo’s script.” (By the way, we now have to pause to emphatically recommend you check out both seasons of “Dollhouse” — Patton is in both — because they are totally fucking brilliant.)
Patton has a whole bunch of projects coming up, including a small part in “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” which he describes as “a very gentle comedy about absolute Armageddon,” and Stephen Sommers’ Dean Koontz adaptation “Odd Thomas” (“I think I’m in two scenes,” he says). But we were more curious to know if he had any immediate plans to team up with his “Big Fan” writer/director Robert Siegel or Whedon. On Siegel, Oswalt said that the director is working on other projects currently but still enthused, “I’d work with him in a second, he’s such a good writer and director.” As for working for Whedon again (which seems likely since homeboy is making movies in his kitchen now), Oswalt said, “I hope so. You can’t just go ‘Hey put me in there.’ ”
We also wondered if he had kept up with his “Ratatouille” director Brad Bird, especially since Bird is about to make the leap to live action with next week’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” “We had dinner together a few months ago,” Oswalt said. “I genuinely like hanging out with them. And he was talking about ‘Mission: Impossible 4.’” This gave way to Oswalt riffing on why he’s so jazzed about the upcoming sequel: “I was talking to someone from Paramount and it was this really reserved, calm person talking about all these movies like ‘Yeah, they’re pretty good.’ And then his ‘Mission: Impossible’ came up and this person said, ‘Man, the stuff he shot in Abu Dhabi is FUCKING SICK.’ So yeah I could not be more excited, for this person to react the way they did.”
He remains skeptical, however, about a sequel to Bird’s “Ratatouille,” in which Oswalt got to play an erudite rodent with an uncanny knack for culinary flair. “I don’t know that Brad Bird is one for sequels,” Oswalt confessed. “If there would be a sequel it would be because he thought of an irresistible story he wanted to tell. I’m totally cool with there not being a sequel if there’s not a great story there. There’s the film buff in me that’s like ‘Don’t do an unnecessary sequel.’ ”
What’s crystal clear after seeing “Young Adult,” is that all sorts of doors are going to open to Oswalt once people get a look at his performance. He’s become very philosophical at this point, saying that he doesn’t know where the next big role will come from, “Of course I just haven’t seen it yet. I won’t know until I see it. That’s what’s fun about making movies is that there are so many creative people. The next thing could come from anywhere. It could come from some big established writer or it could come from someone who randomly sends me their script and I’m like ‘Holy shit!’ ”
“Young Adult” is now in limited release and opens wider this Friday. Here’s a new clip from the film.