Jack McBrayer really is a nice guy, and he doesn’t really care who knows it. The actor, who sometimes gets typecast in roles as generally sweet natured doofuses is in Toronto promoting his work in the upcoming Disney animated comedy Wreck-It Ralph. In the film he plays the do-gooder Fix It Felix, a video game star from the early 1980s who has spent years repairing an apartment building chronically being destroyed by the loutish title character (voice by John C. Reilly). In the film, Felix isn’t only the goody-two-shoes hero of the video game world, but also the only person who really seems to understand Ralph’s desire to leave his unappreciated work behind.
Taking a break from shooting the final season of 30 Rock, where the plays the equally beloved and creepy Kenneth the NBC Page, McBryaer seems to get the nice guy question a lot, and he brushes off notions of typecasting in the nicest and funniest way possible. While
answering a similarly themed question posed by a room full of reporters in the politest way possible, he very unsubtly flips off the whole table (while trying not to laugh, himself) and mouthing that no one will believe us if we say he actually did that.
Dork Shelf talked to McBrayer about the whole saintly character thing, his own video game memories, his wealth of voiceover work, and even a bit about where 30 Rock just might end up at the end of the year.
Before going into this were you a video game fan at all? Was there anything that you remembered playing and enjoying?
Jack McBrayer: I played as a kid, but I wasn’t great at them. I don’t remember ever being super gung-ho about them, but we had an Atari 2600, and I played Pac Man, Frogger, and Burger Time. It was me and my brother and sister and it go to a point where we had to live together and grandma’s house, so they were great ways for us to not kill each other. (laughs) But then we also go a chance to go to the arcades for our report cards days. We would get three tokens for an A, or maybe 2 for a B, so that was one of our biggest incentives for our education. (laughs) But that was the extent of it for me. I’m not really that familiar with current games where you’re a first person shooter or you’re driving over people.
And that’s great for you because you are playing more of an old school kind of character.
JM: Yeah, and for me I was more than happy to do that. I’ll do a character that was created in 1982. That was my heyday.
You’ve done a lot of voicework in the past. Do you find that you prepare differently for this kind of a role as opposed to a live action role?
JM: Yes. I was afraid you were going to say “four different voice roles,” and I was going to say “With this voice that’s all you get, kid.” (laughs) But it really, like anything else, starts with the script. So for the voiceover stuff, it’s a piece of cake. You just read the script. For the live action stuff you have to be prepared if your acting partner has a different interpretation of something, you need to be flexible. But with all of them, you have to know what the director is looking for, but a lot of the time just having the confidence of knowing what I can bring to the table can help everyone to going in. (pauses) Especially me. (laughs)
I hesitate to say that you’ve been typecast as of late, especially thanks to the success of your character on 30 Rock, but you have been known to play a lot of these sort of perfectionist, nice guy characters. When you get a script like Wreck-It Ralph, how much input do you have now since you have played a lot of these roles and you know how they should think and react?
JM: I have to say that those instances are often pretty few and far between when something doesn’t seem right. I think that’s a credit to the movies, and to 30 Rock, and for any thing that I do and any character I play, most people are pretty good at hitting the nail on the head in terms of what they want out of that.
But when something like that does come up… like, every now and then on 30 Rock there will be little things, like a line would say “Oh, Tracy! Here’s a piece of mail for you!” And I would just think that he would call him Mr. Jordan instead. You know, just little things like that which you can pick up on over time. But for the most part, it’s all about the writing. Very seldom do I ever have to pipe up and say, “No, I don’t think my character would do that.”
By that same token does it make you a little bit choosier when something like this comes along?
JM: Absolutely. For example, and I hope this really isn’t talking outside of school, but sometimes people who don’t really know the show have to write promos that we have to do for 30 Rock or whatever it is that I’m working on, and they are trying to capture the voice of the character and they just don’t hit the mark. It’s not really their fault because they aren’t the ones who spend that much time around the characters, but then you have to know how to gracefully draw the line. I see where they are coming from, but with something like 30 Rock they have to know that it’s Tina Fey’s intellectual property. Kenneth is her property, and this film right now is Disney’s intellectual property, so there have to be some boundaries set. You can’t just give any old slop to Jack McBrayer. (laughs)
Do you feel that you ever have to live up to your nice guy characters?
JM: I’m a human being like anyone else. I get cranky and I get tired, but it’s just one of those things where you try to be really flexible, especially in your business where there are a lot of really big personalities. You’re a human being and you’re going to have better days than others. With that being said, creatively I’m always happy to do R-rated comedies or a Judd Apatow project or with Will Ferrell or Adam McKay or any of those guys. I’m always happy to say yes to that. I do really love the fact that you can still find a real kindness in humour, but I’m also okay with laughing at how horrible stuff can be funny, as well. Finding that balance and knowing when to say no to stuff, is also important.
Since you do have that personality and casting of often being a nice guy, do you ever have a desire to play darker or stranger characters?
JM: A lot of people ask me that, and it’s not that I’m exactly opposed to it. I would certainly try to rise to the challenge, but I’m just worried I’m not going to be good at it. (laughs) I like playing the good guy. I really do. You always hear people saying “I’d love to play a villain.” That’s something that I’m just not that interested in. It would cause me anxiety and possibly give me an ulcer. I’m pretty happy just smiling real big and waving all the time. (laughs)
The cast of Wreck-It Ralph is a really big collection of great comedic talent. Did you get a chance at any time to work together with them on this?
JM: I wish I could have done more, but for the most part, it’s just me an a microphone, but for a couple of sessions it was different. There was one session where I got to work with John, and one where I got to work with Jane (Lynch), and those were my favourites because my background is in improvisation, as is Jane’s and John is just so talented all around, anyway. It was fun to just play, and it was also fun because me, John, and Jane were all in Talladega Nights way back in the day, and we’ve been friends from way back, and I’ve known Sarah (Silverman) for a while, too. It was fun just to goof off, and try to match their energy, and to go off the script, because even if we got it the way the directors wanted it the first time, they gave us a lot of free room to move around. A lot of that actually made it into the movie, so I was really excited about that.
I mean, the script has evolved a lot from when we first read it until I saw it. I’ll be honest when I say that I didn’t know most of the storylines, to be quite honest. When they bring me in it’s just for my parts, so I don’t really know entirely what’s going on with Sarah’s storyline, so you just don’t know. In terms of going off the book, though, there’s a scene where Jane’s character and mine get trapped in some quicksand, and we just got to play around for a few hours with various exclamations. A lot of that made it in, and there’s definitely some great outtakes there.
You’ve done TV, film, and theatre now. Do you have a preference of one over the rest?
JM: That’s a great question, because now that 30 Rock is coming to an end, I’ve just spent seven years on a TV show, and I loved it. I love it to death. I would be okay doing more TV and I would be okay doing more film, but I kind of have a little hankering to do a little bit of live theatre and performance. I was always doing plays since high school and I was in Second City, and that’s all live, immediate performance, and there’s something about that where you get that response and that immediate gratification, and that hits my sweet spot. So now that my days are numbered in New York. I’ve actually been making a very conscious effort to go out and go to plays and see live shows and to see if there’s something I want to pursue a little later on. There’s a fundraiser coming up in two weeks called The 24 Hour Plays, where in 24 hours they have 6 writers, 6 directors, and 24 actors, and they all just come together where the writers go off and write a ten minute play, and the directors come in with the script and the cast, and you have all day to rehearse it and perform it at night, and it’s a real rush. Sometimes it’s overwhelming, but it is a RUSH.
I assume that most adults recognize you mostly from 30 Rock, but with the large amount of animated voice work that you have done, have you ever had your distinctly recognizable voice recognized by younger people?
JM: I don’t know if that immediate connection has happened, even though I have done so many children’s things even like Yo Gabba Gabba and The Electric Company where you can see my face. Then you have things like Phineas and Ferb and Despicable Me and Wreck-It Ralph, and things that kids would watch, and there might come a day when a kid might recognize my voice and I feel bad for them. (laughs) They’re going to be so disappointed.
Is it strange sometimes to see your voice coming from an animated creation?
JM: In some ways, it’s even easier for me than watching an episode of 30 Rock. Everyone gets that thing where they hear the sound of their own voice and they just say “Oh God.” It doesn’t really get easier to hear the more you do it. (laughs)
But at the same time, when it’s just your voice on screen there’s a lot less that you can second guess about the choices you made.
JM: Yeah! I can always blame it all on the animators. (laughs)
One of the things that Wreck-It Ralph does really well is that it captures the feelings that a lot of people have to classic characters from things they remembered as a child. When you were growing up, did you have any favourite fictional characters that you gravitated towards?
JM: Besides the really early video games, Saturday morning cartoons really made me thinks about being a kid. The commercials, too, and the products that they sold back then. It all brings about a sense of nostalgia, and I think every now and then everyone deserves a night with a glass of chardonnay and a trip down memory lane. (laughs) But this movie is pretty great with hitting the nostalgia and balancing it with the newer stuff that kids will enjoy. It’s really in the Disney tradition of a fantastic story with an incredible story. They do what they do really well. (laughs) They’re doing okay.
I saw John Lassetter’s name on the project. Did you get to work with him at all on this project even though he was only a producer and overseeing the Disney animators?
JM: Yeah, a little bit. We got a chance to go to the Pixar campus, actually for the first table read. This was two years ago now, because these things take such a long time to make, and we had to go to these events together that are like expos where all things Disney are talked about. It’s a big huge “talk, wave, point, and sign” kind of thing. So just in those few moments it felt good to get his stamp of approval, because that guy knows what he’s doing. He’s a genuine talent, and each thing he works on is different and he has such an impressive track record.
Do you have a favourite character or a project that you would like to tackle in the future?
JM: It’s funny you ask because someone else asked that recently and the one I came up with – and y’all might be too young to remember this – was Don Knotts. He did so many fun things, and I don’t necessarily want to do a remake or a bippic of him, but I was inspired by him. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken and Mr. Limpett. He got to do so many fun things, and he is a person who was, I don’t want to say stereotyped or typecast, but he was very good and consistent with his performances FOR DECADES. That dude WORKED. He was up there with the Andy Griffiths, and the Bob Newharts, and the Tim Conways, and the Bea Arthurs. They were great at what they did and they did it for a LONG time. That is respectable. Maybe doing something like an homage to his work, because if you watch something like The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, that holds UP. I saw it not to long ago, and he was just one of those people who I like to say was just “liquid funny.” Catherine O’Hara who was just on 30 Rock not too long ago was another person who I would say is just the same way. She is treat, and like some people in this world you just know it, and I like that and I’m drawn to it, and I would love to work either with those kinds of people or in some connection with that kind of work.
What is your relationship with the actual NBC pages after playing Kenneth for a while.
JM: (laughs) You know, I was worried in the beginning that they thought I was mocking them. But it’s actually been quite the opposite. Half the time when I am in the actual Rockefeller Centre – we really don’t even do the show there since our studio is out in Queens – I’m just there in my T-shirt and jeans, and no one else really pays me much mind at all, but the pages all recognize me. (laughs) They don’t make a big deal out of it because they’re really professional, but they’ll do one of those head shakes. I was really worried because when I started I hadn’t even taken a tour of NBC before I did this. You just get the hair, make-up, and read the script that they give you.
You obviously can’t get into great detail, but do you have any idea right now where 30 Rock will end up at the end of this season?
JM: I’m sure the writers have discussed it, but I honestly don’t know. It’s a shorter 13 episode season and we’re shooting episode 8 right now. I can’t even describe it because it all blurs together. I’m not trying to get out of the question, but you just forget what’s happening. You shoot out of order and you have a character like mine who just spouts nonsense all the time. I’m not even positive my character is a human being. (laughs) I’m not even positive I’m alive. But, I just don’t know. But the cool thing is that we have the luxury of knowing that it is in fact ending, so the writers can resolve and complete these stories. I think that’s important because so many TV shows get yanked without getting the chance to do that. I mean, Animal Practice just got yanked off the air with almost no comment. We’ve had a show go for seven years and we have the luxury to end these storylines, I couldn’t be happier about that, but overall your guess is as good as mine.
You’re totally going to take over the network.
JM: Or destroy everyone in a huge fiery blaze. (laughs)
Has there been any talk of a follow up to Wreck-It Ralph, and would you be interested in doing it?
JM: Yes! I would be very interested. I just hope it’s one where I don’t get killed off! (laughs) But the thing that you don’t realize about a lot of actors is that sometimes they kind of sneer at the idea of doing a sequel, but guess what? We want to work. We’re always happy to say yes to projects when it’s something that has the potential to be an incredibly fun project. When that’s the case it’s EVEN better. But most of the time we’re just happy to work. When the perfect storm of great casting and great writing comes together and it looks fantastic, you realize you aren’t delusional and you aren’t fooling yourself. You realize that you are good at that.
When you are working on something at home, are you more of a Ralph or more of a Felix?
JM: Ew, that’s kind of gross. (laughs) I’m probably a Felix because I do like neatness and order. I like everything to be in a row. I’m not really great at actually FIXING things, but I’m pretty good at maintaining them once they’re nice. I’m really great at keeping things nice, but if something gets broken, I’m really good at calling an electrician.