Toonzone Interviews Curtis Armstrong on Being the Title Jerk in "Dan Vs."
Some of Curtis Armstrong’s most well-known roles are also his earliest, from the start of his career in Hollywood in the early 1980’s. After a stint at the Academy of Dramatic Art and a 10-year career on the stage, Armstrong made a big splash as Dudley “Booger” Dawson in Revenge of the Nerds , the slightly hapless Herbert Viola in the TV series Moonlighting, and as sidekick to Tom Cruise and John Cusack in Risky Business and Better Off Dead, respectively. Since that debut, he has worked continuously as a character actor in numerous movies and TV shows, including the sequels to the first Revenge of the Nerds movie, “Pig Boy” in the Sci-Fi Channel series The Chronicle, a critically acclaimed turn as record producer Ahmet Ertegun in the biographical film Ray, and appearances in TV shows including Felicity, Ed, Boston Legal, and House M.D.
Armstrong also has several voice acting credits to his name, with roles in the Eek the Cat spinoff Terrible Thunderlizards, Stroker and Hoop, The Emperor’s New School, and American Dad. One of his most recent roles is the title character in the Hub Network’s animated sitcom Dan Vs., where he plays the angriest person in the world. Most episodes of the show hinge on Dan seeking revenge on anyone and anything for perceived slights, often with the reluctant help of his best friend Chris (Dave Foley) and Chris’ enormously patient wife Elise (Paget Brewster). We were able to talk with Armstrong over the phone about his role as the show’s self-identified jerk.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you get involved with Dan Vs.? Was it through an audition, or did they approach you?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: It was an audition. I don’t remember exactly doing it because when you read for these things, you go in and you read and then you forget about it because most of the time you never hear back. So I think it was “Dan Vs. the Wolfman,” and I think they had some of “Dan Vs. the Dentist” in there as well. They called me in afterwards and I read with Dave [Foley]. And several other people, because for both Chris and Elise’s characters, they brought in a number of people I think. I’m a little vague on it now. There are a lot of these things that happen and you don’t remember, but we read and then it happened.
TOONZONE NEWS: I’ve seen a behind-the-scenes video of a table read. Is that common on Dan Vs.? How much preparation and rehearsal do you get to do for an average episode of the show?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Especially early on, the three of us—Paget [Brewster], Dave, and I— would get together and we would do the readthrough around the table with everybody there. Usually what would happen is that we would do that, and then we would go immediately to the recording studio and do the script that we had read the week previously, so that there’s a week lapse between the reading of the script and the recording of the script. That’s always been the system. It got a little bit more complicated towards the end of last year because all three of us were in other projects in different places, so it would get down to either just Paget and me or just Dave and Paget. At one point, I was out of town doing a movie in Louisiana, and what I would do is for the readthroughs, on days when I wasn’t working they would call me at the hotel in Baton Rouge and I would do the read with them over a speaker phone. Then when it came to recording, they booked a recording studio in Baton Rouge and I would go down there and do the recording over the line. That’s what would wind up happening more and more towards the end because everybody seemed to get kind of busy at around the same time.
So there would be different weeks where we wouldn’t have all three of us in the room together. It’s always more fun when the three of us are in the room together. We have a lot of fun on this show. We laugh a LOT. We laugh inordinately, so it’s always more enjoyable when we’re able to make it. But, you know, it does get complicated over a period of months, where everyone can commit to the same four hour period of time once a week. There’s no rehearsals before the table read or anything like that. It’s just…we get the scripts ahead of time, so we can look over them, but we don’t really get much in the way of rehearsal at all.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: No, no. There’s not a lot of improvisation. In fact, I don’t think there’s any improvisation that I remember. Sometimes, things will not be working in the studio and then they will have to figure out a way to make it work. If that’s a problem, then we can come up with something. All three of us have done this kind of thing many times. Dave of course is a great improv actor, and Paget and I have done it as well. So we could contribute if there is a problem, but honestly, that doesn’t usually happen. Usually what happens is if there’s a problem, we will do pickups on another week. They will decide that there is something they don’t like about a line and so they’ll change it at a later date. But basically, there’s no improvisation.
TOONZONE NEWS: Judging by your comments, it sounds like you definitely try to record the show radio-style, where everybody is together.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Yeah, if we can do it, we do. We have occasional guest stars who come in, and sometimes they’ll work with us, but even that is not that often. Mark Hamill came in to do the dentist, and he was with us in the room, but mostly, for example, Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross as Elise’s parents did their stuff on their own. The guests don’t often do scenes with us.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know that you’ve had some training in an acting academy, and your original background was in theater before you went into movies and TV. How did you find your way to doing voice-over roles?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Oh, you know, I tried to do it for years and couldn’t get into it at all. I had worked with a guy a number of times called Savage Steve Holland, and did a bunch of movies with him. He got an animated series.
TOONZONE NEWS: That’s was Eek the Cat, wasn’t it?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Well, there was Eek the Cat, but there was another one called The Terrible Thunderlizards, which was a spin-off on Eek the Cat. Charlie Adler and I were the first men in the world, and I was always creating things that were terrible. Something would go horribly wrong with them, or they shouldn’t be created at all, like I would invent tar pits or lawyers or washing machines. Anyway, it ran for a couple of seasons and it was a really wonderful show. That was my first experience with that, but after that I could not get arrested. I was tending to think it would never happen again…it was just a fluke. But then I started to do some things. I got hired to do a couple of shows at Disney, and that led to a couple of other things, including Dan Vs., which is the most recent thing. But it all came about ass backwards, kind of. I tried to break into it and couldn’t and when I stopped trying to break into it, it worked. So I wish I could say I had some grand plan, but I didn’t. It was just one of those things.
TOONZONE NEWS: As an actor, do you find your approach differs when you’re taking a voice-over role vs. an on-camera role?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: It differs because I don’t do as much work previous to it. I don’t do a lot of rehearsal. I always read the script and I have an idea in my head how I’m going to do the lines, but especially for the stage, you do a lot of rehearsal and a lot of preparation and a lot of internal stuff. It works great for that, but I find it tends to get in the way in voice over. Most of the real accomplished voice actors that I know don’t even read the script before they come in. I think there’s a sense that if you just take it on the fly, you’re better off, and I may try that some day. At the moment, I still tend to want to read them just to have it in my head. It’s a very different process because it just doesn’t require the kind of preparation that live-action stuff does.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know that talking to other voice actors, in some cases, they don’t get a script until they walk in.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Well, that’s true too. That happens sometimes, but not very often. Usually, I tend to get scripts.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: No, no. When I auditioned for it, I was just auditioning as I would with anything. I hadn’t read a script at the audition. I was just doing sides and you can never tell anything from sides if there’s no context, even if they tell you, “Dan is the angriest man in the world.” It didn’t really sink in until I got the part and started reading the scripts, and when I realized who Dan was and who Chris was and especially who Elise was. I was totally unprepared for this whole backstory of Elise, which still hasn’t been explained and which I just adore. It’s one of my favorite things in the show, when Elise gets to do her stuff. All of that stuff was a surprise to me.
What was also a surprise to me was realizing how many things Dan is angry about that I’m angry about, and how much we have in common. It’s kind of frightening. After a few episodes, I began to lose touch with who was Dan and who was Curtis. It was almost as if these people had me in mind from the first, although I know they didn’t. Things like technology or the beach…these are things that make me angry, too, so it feels very real to me somehow. He has a lot of my rage in ridiculous things.
TOONZONE NEWS: Right, but hopefully not the same coping mechanisms for that rage.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Yes, I don’t try to get revenge on everyone because I don’t like something. Plus, there are things that Dan doesn’t like that I love, like Dan doesn’t like Canada, but I love Canada. So it isn’t a complete thing, but he does require a degree of separation of character and actor, I think.
TOONZONE NEWS: Would you say that your take on the character has changed very much from when you started doing him compared to what you’re doing now?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: A little bit, but some of that has to do with what they did because they started bringing in other colors to him, particularly when he got his cat. That changed things, because suddenly, this horrible, angry, nasty human being suddenly has a cat and becomes a complete pushover. That was fun, because it gave Dan something to do other than just scream at people. When he sees the cat, he becomes a completely different person, which is kind of nice.
But as far as anything else, I guess the most important thing has been learning to find levels of rage. It’s a little hard to maintain that level of anger for week after week with no variations. This is something they’ve been aware of, too. You need to…if not make him more human, at least make him more tolerable, so he isn’t just angry and bitter all the time. So when there aren’t other elements like the cat, for example, you just have to find scenes where Dan can be angry, but not THAT angry. Or where he can be mean to Chris, but not as mean as he can be, in order to make him not quite so one-level all the time. That’s one thing that’s been an evolution with him.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, there are a lot of people who relate to this. The funny thing is that I don’t know that it’s a natural fit with a lot of the audience that would be tuning into the Hub usually. It’s a little bit more adult in a funny kind of way. It’s not adult in the kind of way that something on Adult Swim would be, or something on Fox even. It’s not like that, but the people who have come up to me about it are people in their 20’s. Those people just think it is the coolest. I mean they love Dan. They just love Dan. And kids love Dan for the reasons that kids love characters like that anyway, because they’re pure id. There’s no filter on somebody like that, which makes him very childlike. He does things without even thinking a second about them, and so younger children enjoy him for that reason because he does the sort of thing they do, only he doesn’t get in trouble for it the way they do. Older kids and adults are getting into it because there’s just a subversiveness to somebody who arbitrarily decides that he’s going to get revenge on New Mexico or Shakespeare dinner theater. I mean, it’s just so out there, and it’s really funny, and a little subversive. That appeals to an audience that might not ordinarily be watching the Hub, I think. It draws an interesting other element to it.
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of expanding audience, you’ve been doing more dramatic work since your role in Ray as Ahmet Ertegun. Was auditioning for Dan Vs. a step back into comedy?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: (laughs) Oh, no, I don’t have to make an effort to step back into comedy. I think I read for (Ray director) Taylor Hackford because I knew the casting director. I think Taylor had no idea who I was. I don’t think he’d ever seen anything I had ever done, so he wasn’t looking at me from the comic type that I’m usually looked at when I go into a room. People think of Revenge of the Nerds and they think of most of the things that I’ve done, which is comedy. He was just looking at me because he thought he saw somebody who could play Ahmet Ertegun, and so that was really the fluke. I was able to play dramatic characters on stage all the time, but on film and television I tend always to go to comedy, and I’ve never had a problem with it. I don’t wish I was a dramatic actor. I don’t wish to be a comic actor. I just want to keep working.
The thing about Ray was that nobody recognized me. That was another thing. They all just thought it was an interesting performance or a good performance, but they had no idea it was Curtis Armstrong. I looked so different, and it was such an odd movie. The idea of me being in a dramatic movie, nobody would have ever thought of that. There are people I run into still who had no idea that that was me. They think I’m Clint Howard, or something. (laughs) So, I didn’t suddenly start getting a ton of dramatic auditions because of Ray. I was getting the same comic stuff I was always getting.
TOONZONE NEWS: What’s the hardest thing for you about playing Dan on the show?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that’s hard about it. I guess the only thing that’s hard about it is sometimes keeping up the level of anger all the time. Also, finding gray areas can sometimes be a challenge. But I think it would be technical stuff. Last summer, I was doing a lot of work. I was doing a movie, I was doing Dan Vs., I was doing some other animated stuff, and I was doing a television episodic part, which took about 3 weeks to do. So I was doing a ton of work all at the same time, squeezed in. Vocally, that was one point in September or something last year, where I was beginning to actually worry about getting through all of these things with my vocal cords intact, particularly since Dan screams so much.
But that only happened once. Basically, I think that kind of technical thing is really the only thing that I can ever describe as being difficult about doing Dan. Dan is just fun. It’s one of those things where we go in and I really look forward to being there. I really look forward to being in the room with those guys, because we just make each other laugh a lot. It’s difficult to complain about complexity of characters or challenges in anything that you’re doing when you’re having that much fun. It scarcely seems like work at all.
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Oh, gosh, you know, I would say I’ve done a lot worse on-camera than anything I’ve done on Dan Vs. There isn’t anything that seems more outrageous than a lot of stuff that I have done in movies. I would say that with Dan, there are times where I’ll be watching the finished episode and I will just turn and say, “I can NOT believe he is so horrible! I can’t believe he treats his friends like that.” Just the consistent level of rudeness and self-centeredness and nastiness is just hard to believe sometimes. But there was nothing that he’s done…well, he’s blowing up things, he’s trying to burn down things.
TOONZONE NEWS: Fighting ninjas and wolf men…
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: Yeah, all of that, they’re all outrageous, but…I can’t say that there has been a moment where I’ve looked at it and said, “You know what? This is just too out there.” That would never happen. Not on Dan Vs.
TOONZONE NEWS: What else are you working on right now?
CURTIS ARMSTRONG: I’ve got this movie called Flypaper that’s coming out in the next couple of months, I think, and another one coming out called High School, but I don’t know when that’s coming out. Oh, and a third movie that won’t be out until probably next year called Route 32, which is a sequel to an independent movie I did a couple of years ago called Route 30 with Dana Delany. On TV, I guess everything has been on except Curb Your Enthusiasm. I’ve got a Curb Your Enthusiasm coming up one of these months, I’m not sure when.
Toonzone would like to thank Curtis Armstrong for taking the time to speak with us, as well as Crystal Williams from the Hub and Caitlin Settlemoir from BHImpact for setting it up. Dan Vs. airs on the Hub on Saturdays at 8:00 PM Eastern/5:00 PM Pacific; visit the Hubworld website for more details and watch episodes free on-line.