Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen are accomplished actors with decades of experience on the big screen. Both admit, however, that it was quite a challenge to keep up improv-wise with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly on the set of Step Brothers. The two talked to ComingSoon.net about the shooting process and director Adam Mckay explained where the idea of 40-year-old loser step brothers came from.
ComingSoon.net: We’ve been watching you guys shoot this scene and every take evolves and is something different. What kind of improv skills do you have and what’s it like keeping up with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly?
Richard Jenkins: It’s hard. I don’t have any improv experience. It doesn’t mean I haven’t played around with scenes and things like that, but these guys are really fast. It’s been an incredible test.
Mary Steenburgen: I started in improv and went into different kinds of things. I guess I returned to it a little bit in the last few years, a little bit with the Larry David show and just fooling around with him. With these guys, I think my job is more to anchor it a little bit so they can do their thing. If there’s a thing that come funny sometimes then that’s great, but it should never be a competitive sport. First of all, we wouldn’t win. But second of all [neither] would the film. It just wouldn’t work. Someone has to keep the emotional idea of the scene, however crazy, we just have to keep rolling and that’s Richard’s and mine job. We’ve actually done scenes together where we’ve improv-ed and it gets a little insane and we can fly a bit more in those. I feel like in these scenes I’m mostly supposed to just keep the reality going.
CS: In improv though there’s always a structure. Which of your experiences is more structured? “Step Brothers” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?
Steenburgen: They work pretty similarly actually, but I would say Larry [David] is more structured than Adam [McKay] believe it or not because even though with Larry there is never a script, you don’t start out with any lines whatsoever and with Adam you do, there will be scenes where we go so far from what was originally written that it doesn’t bear any resemblance. With Larry, once you get the shape of the scene, you say different things, but the shape of the scene kind of stays the same. With Adam, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you fly through a totally different planet and that’s fun too.
CS: On “Curb Your Enthusiasm” you’re playing yourself right?
Steenburgen: Yeah, I’m playing myself.
CS: So are you really playing yourself, yourself?
Steenburgen: No, it’s like the same self world that Larry and Ted [Danson] both play. It’s not really any of us, but we give it our name.
CS: Are you used to having a director yell out lines to say in the middle of a scene?
Steenburgen: No. He’s so fast.
Jenkins: I’ve had it before.
CS: The Farrelly brothers?
Jenkins: David O’Russell. It’s happened to me before and it depends on how they do it. I always kind of enjoyed it because it just takes the scene and you do a right angle like this and it’s somewhere that whoever is watching the scene [like] Adam says, “I wonder what would happen if it went this way?” It’s sometimes better than being in the scene when you’re kind of doing it. When you have someone watching it saying, “do a right turn here. Let’s see where we go.” It takes you to some interesting places.
CS: How does Adam, a comedy director compare to working with the Farrelly brothers?
Jenkins: The feeling on this set, it’s just a lot of fun. There’s a lot of jobs that you can do that you can be miserable at. Making movies should not be one of them. It’s just a lot of fun.
CS: Can you each talk a little about your characters and how you both ended up with kids this age that won’t leave the nest?
Jenkins: It’s not my fault.
Steenburgen: My character is the ultimate, ultimate enabler. That’s how she ended up with this guy. Even now when she’s trying to push him out into the world, she keeps undermining it. We just did a scene where I go in and give them $20 to go to the movies and tell them not to tell Robert (Richard Jenkins’ character), but that’s pretty much indicative of how she handles everything. She just keeps undermining her own life and enabling him and infantilizing him. Yet, she is sort of terrified that there is something extremely [wrong]. Her deep dark fear is that he has had some sort of brain damage.
Jenkins: That came from an inprov.
Steenburgen: Yeah, that came from an improv. I said it to Adam on the first day and he said to go ahead and do it. So my secret, secret dreadful secret is that I think he was dropped on his head when he was little and that maybe I did it and that it’s my fault and that’s what all this is about. We actually did a really funny improv where I ask him if he’s noticed anything about him. Then he keeps not answering me, but it’s not totally negative so I’m enabling that anything he says I hear as positive. I end up just leaping with relief. So that’s Nancy.
Jenkins: Robert absolutely ignores everything in front of his face for the longest time. It’s interesting because I think they’re both forced to deal with this in ways since they’re together that they probably haven’t when they’re not together. We just rehearsed [a scene] where I realize that my son is going to meet Nancy for the first time and all of a sudden it’s a scary thought. She enables and I ignore. My life is falling apart. It’s really interesting. The fact that they love each other so much and where the relationship goes to in this movie, I think it’s really interesting. I didn’t really see it when I read the script. It’s going to some really interesting places and we find a lot of that with our scenes in the bedroom along talking about them and about us and our dream and then it all turns to s**t.
CS: Are your characters’ former spouses mentioned at all and what kind of affect they have on them?
Steenburgen: Well, actually the only time they were mentioned was in the improvised toast at the wedding. There wasn’t even supposed to be a toast at the wedding, but we did an improvisation where John [C. Reilly] makes a toast to his stepmother in front of me and tells all the reasons he wishes she were here right now. He says, “I know that woman is just probably good for sex, but not for anything else.” Then Will [Ferrell] talks about his father and says he works for some oil company in Iraq and Will is still suffering about the divorce, but it was 25 years ago or something.
CS: Can you talk about how this idea came up?
Adam McKay: We met and had dinner. We had like 60 ideas for movies and none of them were quite right. I went to the editing room the next day for “Talladega” and someone said bunk beds and I was like, “wait, what if they’re adult step brothers” and I called them up and they’re like, “I love it.”
Steenburgen: Is that true?
CS: After “Anchorman” and “Talladega” you could have gone on to do something bigger, but you went smaller. Why did you decide to go with fewer cameras and smaller sets?
McKay: It was because we kept looking at those movies and our favorite scenes were the ones where it was characters sitting around talking. We’re like, “why don’t we do an entire movie of characters sitting around talking?” That was the basic idea. You do “Anchorman” and “Talladega” and there’s the big car thing or the camera is moving and you’re like, “you can’t be funny here.” We wanted to do a comedy in a home and getting to play house with characters too seemed really fun just because they’re more grounded. That was kind of it. No more cars blowing up for one movie. We just want to have them sitting and talking. Talking heads scenes we love and of course once we decided that we have like 50 fights in this movie and stunts.
CS: Can you talk about the freedom of working in an R rated environment?
McKay: It’s probably bad in a way because we love it so much. Literally you’ll do scenes and you’ll say f**k like 30 times and you’re like, “this is too much.” But it’s great. It’s fantastic and you don’t even think about anything you say. You just do whatever you want. Anytime you hear Mary Steenburgen f**k and f**k.
Steenburgen: That’s his favorite thing by the way.
McKay: It just lets everyone go wild without any consciousness of anything.
CS: You were giving different lines to the actors all the time. Are you constantly just making these things or do you have something scripted?
McKay: We’ve done a lot of table rewrites on the movie, worked it a lot of different ways so a lot of the ideas have been kicked around, but then there’s some that nothing beats being there in the moment and you see it happening and you’re like “alright this will be funny.” It little bit becomes a game of you’re looking at it on TV and you know what would be funny is if the character said this right now and then you can actually yell it out and it happens. It’s like 30-70. I’d say 70% on the spot tends to be kind of the tendency. But then they think of some of the stuff too and Will and John so it sort of all balances out.
CS: Do you ever get an actor to refuse to say something that you shout out?
McKay: One time that happened yeah. Someone wouldn’t curse. We were trying to get them to curse. I kept saying it to them over and over again. Cris Collinsworth the wide receiver, the guy who does NFL Today. He came on and he was playing Will’s boss just for two lines and I kept giving me dirty things to say because it was Cris Collinsworth. It was a bit of joke casting for us. An inside joke to Will. He would not curse. He kept changing it every time. So that will happen sometimes or the phrasing is so strange the person can’t say it, but 98% of the time they always say it. Mary is probably the toughest as far as people I’ve worked with.
Steenburgen: I didn’t know not saying it was an option. I’m glad to hear that.
McKay: Real often Mary will do the line well and say it but you’re the one who is going to hell. And Richard does the opposite. He goes worse than what I say. Richard has these great dark emotional pockets in him from Rhode Island. It’s the deadly winters of Providence that keep coming out on set.
CS: Has he ever given you a line and after you’re like I can’t believe I just said that?
Jenkins: I actually said a line and I begged him not to use it.
McKay: Oh yeah.
Jenkins: After I said it I was like, “did I say that?” I said, “oh Adam you can’t use that.” He said, “oh I think it might work.”
Steenburgen: That’s because you actually think about what you say and pay attention to it and I have no memory. When this movie comes out it’s going to be totally new to me because it’s literally like childbirth. Everyday I go home and have no memory.
CS: Would you say this is your most rewarding film as a director?
McKay: Yeah, it’s pretty fun. As far as all of the ones we’ve done there’s no more enjoyable one. Every single day it’s like my favorite scene from the other two movies we did just because it doesn’t matter what we’re doing. I warned our line producer with the schedule. I said, “you know we can improvise on every line of dialogue on this movie.” There’s no line where it’s like “there’s the balloon” and there’s a shot of a balloon. Every single line we turn into a meal so it’s fun. If the movie sucks, it won’t be the most rewarding.
CS: How would you define this movie tonally?
McKay: Obviously seeing what Judd [Apatow] was doing [because] he has a lot of freedom when he stays real. “Let’s try to do one being a little more real and look at all you get out of it without going so absurd. You can hook people in these ways.” Within two weeks we blew that rule. They have a fight where they punch 12-year-olds in the face, dogs attacking people. I was like I’m not going to have dogs in this movie. I always have wild dogs and they’re tons of dogs all over the set.
Steenburgen: They knocked me down.
Jenkins: One of the dogs bit me in the ass.
Steenburgen: He did.
Jenkins: It was a little dog.
McKay: He got a tetanus shot.
Jenkins: I turned to Adam and said, “did you get that on film?” He said, “yeah we got it.” Today I said, this is the scene after, today I said, “maybe I should be limping when I come in.” He said, “I don’t think we’re going to be using it.” I got a tetanus shot.
CS: Do you already know in your mind what take you’re going to be using or do you wait for the screening process to help you decide?
McKay: We screen six or seven times and you shuffle stuff in and out. We had the knife in the leg scene in “Talladega” and we knew it was funny, but we didn’t know it was going to be that funny. So the second I heard that first roar it was like, “dig out the footage” and we started going and we didn’t have a lot. Same thing with this. You just never know rhythm wise what’s going to hit, where you’re going to have to mine more. It could be the smallest thing you’d never think of, but we definitely have our favorites going into. There’s five or six jokes I’m putting into it no matter what or five or six scenes that are going in unless it’s dead silence, they’re going into the movie.
CS: Do you feel like the stuff you don’t use you can just add onto the DVD?
McKay: That’s a huge thing although it seems to be fading a little bit as far as the people who watch this stuff on DVD. When it first came out it was such a novelty, it felt like everyone watched it. I’ve noticed a little bit of a dip where you just get the movie and want to watch the movie. There’s so much TV and Internet, but yes that’s always made me feel better about it. “Anchorman” we could really cut a second movie out of it. We shot more footage on this than anything else I’ve ever done so there’s going to be hours of extra footage.