Interview: Chris Parnell Talks 'SNL,' 'Archer' & 'Five-Year Engagement'

The Avengers fever is still raging in theaters across the world. But if you've already seen Joss Whedon's epic ensemble for the third time and are looking for a different entertainment flavor you may want to check out Chris Parnell in director Nicholas Stoller's The Five-Year Engagement (the romantic comedy Stoller penned with writing partner Jason Segel).

The film takes a lighthearted look at what happens when a couple can't seem to make it past the engagement and into a marriage. Parnell, the phenomenology talented comedian perhaps best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Archer and Suburgatory plays the stay at home dad/hunting buddy of Jason Segel's character Tom Solomon.

We had the chance to speak with Parnell recently about his work on Archer, the competition on Saturday Night Live, and learning to gut a deer for his role in The Five-Year Engagement.

Screen Rant: Your character is a stay-at-home dad, who as a result, is having a little bit of an identity crisis. Do you feel like this has been fairly common over the past several decades? Confusion between men and women about who does what? And who is what?

Chris Parnell: "Sure. Yeah. It’s like evolution, social evolution. It also depends on the animal. Some animals, the women go out and do all the stuff and the men watch the eggs or the babies or the cubs. So I don’t think it’s in any way unnatural. Probably here, in the United States, we’re used to it being kind of a certain way and that’s obviously changing, and has been changing."

SR: Let me ask you a question, because you're one of my favorite comedians, is the secret to really dry humor to absolutely believe what you’re saying or is it to be hysterically laughing on the inside? Or both? Or neither?

CP: "This is my take on it and different people probably feel differently, you don’t ever want to come across as working to be funny. You don’t want people to ever see you trying to be funny. You just want to be funny. And for me, because my whole reason for getting into all of this was because I wanted to be an actor, not necessarily a comedic actor, but just an actor, that’s kind of how I try to approach everything. Just really being in the moment with the other person or people, really listening to them and really communicating with them. I’m successful with that to varying degrees, but if you have a sense of who you are and what the character is, what you’re doing there, if it calls for dryness or whatever, you just try to do that straight ahead. But you’ve got a third eye, out here, who’s watching what you’re doing a little bit, that’s tweaking what you’re doing with any eye toward making it funnier. So I guess I’m contradicting myself in a way. I’m steering in a certain way that I hope will make it funnier. So, I’m not just trying to act it straight."

Chris Parnell with Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan on Thirty Rock as Doctor Apaceman

SR: Would you take on a dramatic role? Have you thought about it or has anyone approached you?

CP: "I have, here and there. I did an episode of 'Ed,' the TV show, years ago, with Horatio Sands from 'Saturday Night Live,' and that was mostly comedy but the characters had a real conflict. We were part of a morning DJ crew and we had a falling out and, so there were some dramatic moments in that. And that was fun to do a different kind of thing. I’m definitely open to doing it. I don’t know how realistic it is that I’ll be doing that much of that. I do the show 'Suburgatory.' It’s quite funny. It’s an amazing cast. Ana Gasteyer, also from 'Saturday Night Live,' plays my wife. And there have been a few moments that are a little more serious and dramatic, but the characters are kind of exaggerated inherently, so playing something just straight and convincingly without any eye to comedy is different than what I’m doing most of the time."

SR: What's Nick Stoller’s directorial style like? From what I understand, he had you guys go off and learn how to do many things, like knit and gut a deer for your role in Five-Year Engagement.

CP: "I taught myself to knit with a DVD. Just real basic stuff. I had grander ambitions about maybe being able to incorporate some of that into the dialogue, but I started to see that there really wasn’t a place for that so much. And also just laziness. I just learned the basics of how to knit. Nick actually sent me a DVD of this television show where these guys are like taking a deer and field dressing it and cutting the guts out, teaching you how to do that, then take it back to someone else who’s skinning it and all that kind of stuff. So that was fascinating to watch. I mean, it was a pretty alien thing to me but I enjoyed it. And we were able to get some of that language from the deer dressing stuff in the movie. That did actually have a direct transfer."

SR: In some of the improvisation? Or was it some of the written dialogue?

CP: Both. I don’t think it was ever actually in the script, but Nick, and Rodney Rothman who was the on-set writer/producer, and sometimes Judd (Apatow) as well, would have alternate lines that they had written beforehand, and sometimes writing on the fly, that they would throw out. And I had some stuff that I had written down from the video that I watched, some lines and things, and so it was kind of a combination of all of that."

SR: You've worked, quite successfully, in ensemble comedies for some time. Do you think you'll rejoin the team for Anchorman 2?

CP: "I don’t know if I’m going to be a part of that or not. Hopefully, but if I’m not I’ll still be excited to see it. I mean, I'd love to see where things go with Ron Burgundy."

SR: I think we all would. There are a lot of Archer fans out there as well. Do you know what the new arc for Cyril is going to be? Is there going to be a new love interest? Can we expect mayhem?

CP: "We almost never know anything. I mean, Adam Reed told me some point during last season, the beginning of season three, that Cyril was going to be a field agent, so that was very exciting to know. And then he gave me another little idea about something else in season two. But beyond that, you know, occasionally he’ll say something, but I don’t know how far in advance he’s writing them."

Archer: Season 2 Blu-ray Cover

CP: You know the thing about 'Archer' is, we all record separately. So you go into this booth and you just try to bring the script to life and bring the character to life, and it’s usually a pretty quick recording session unless I have a lot to do in the episode. There’s a lot of room for a lot of takes, and Adam will sometimes throw out alternate ideas and then I’ll occasionally try to come up with some stuff, but it’s usually pretty solid on the page. I mean, it’s always solid on the page. It’s okay not necessarily knowing. I find that’s often the case. Like even on 'Suburgatory,' I don’t necessarily know much in advance of where Fred Shay is going to go. They might give me a hint. Otherwise I just have to take what I know from the past episodes and what the lines are telling me in this episode and go like that."

SR: Alternatively, I assume that it was a pretty improvisational kind of a set, for Five-Year?

CP: "Yes."

SR: Is that what you prefer? Or would you rather... I could be wrong here, but I feel like on something like 30 Rock, it’s so precise, the language is so precise that my guess is that you’re sticking to the script pretty closely.

CP: "You are absolutely right."

SR: The jokes are built in.

CP: "Exactly. They’re very well, specifically crafted."

SR: So which do you prefer?

CP: "Both are fine. I mean, I love being given a script that is incredibly well written to start with. Like '30 Rock' or 'The Five-Year Engagement.' But with a movie, where you don’t necessarily have the same time pressures you do on a TV show, there’s a little more room for improvisation, or maybe a lot more room. So I like that. The only thing I don’t like, and what I avoid, is if somebody hasn’t—and this almost never happens—somebody hasn’t really written something and they want me to improvise it. They want me to create it, whole cloth. Sometimes I feel there’s a certain laziness that can happen, and again, nothing is even coming to mind of what it would be, and I guess I wouldn’t say if I knew what it was, but it’s like 'no, you write something. You write a story.' And if you want me to come in and try to punch it up or, not even punch it up, just improvise around it, then I’m open to that, but don’t be lazy and just say 'hey, let’s see what you do with this.' There’s a movie that I chose not to audition for because the scene was a big group scene and there was not much on the page for the character I was auditioning for, and I was told 'well, you know there’s a good chance the character will grow in the scene and in the movie, and all this.' And yeah, sometimes that happens. I mean, that happened with 'Five-Year Engagement.' For Brian Posehn and me both. But with this thing, it was just no. It’s like, you haven’t written me something there already. There's almost nothing there. So you’re just wanting me to come in and create all this stuff, and it’s just, it’s too many improv actors competing to get funny material."

SR: That sounds really unpleasant. But there is this belief that 'Saturday Night Live' is incredibly competitive as well and that the actors are vying to get their sketches on the air. Was that your experience?

CP: "It’s not incorrect. But in terms of my interactions with the rest of the cast, from the beginning to the end -- and I think it’s still this way -- people get along pretty well. It’s mostly harmonious. There were definitely much darker days on the show, I’ve heard from other cast members. Former cast members. So I feel lucky in that we all got along pretty well. There would occasionally be a little squabble, earlier in my time on the show, but toward the end, pretty harmonious. Now, the competition comes in because there’s only a fixed number of slots for sketches on Saturday night and so everybody is trying to write something funny that’s going to make it into the show. There was a writer on the show who articulated something that I’ve never heard anybody say before. He was interviewed for a show and he admitted to not really laughing at other people’s stuff at the read through on Wednesday, because why would he? Why would he want to encourage that scene to be picked? And I just was like 'oh my god, that is so cynical. I laugh at whatever.' I mean, I laugh if it’s funny, you know? I guess on a certain level I can appreciate that strategically, but I don’t’ think the cast did that. And I don’t think most of the writers did that either, but maybe I’m naïve, I don’t know."

SR: Do you think you’ll write a feature or a television series? Or is that not of interest to you?

CP: "No, it does interest me. But it takes a certain amount of confidence to commit to something that sized. And I don’t really have that at this point. So it’s something that’s always at the back of my mind. As to whether I’ll ever make a stab at it, who knows. You know, I enjoyed writing on SNL with other people especially. I hope it’ll happen at some point. I’d like to try it. But I really like acting, so as long as I can keep working, in the absence of a need to create that, it’s hard to motivate myself to."

Five-Year Engagement is in theaters now.

Follow me on twitter @JRothC


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