Justin Long on Playing Teenagers, ‘Dodgeball,’ and the Dangers of Viral Fame
Playing younger than he is has never really been an issue for Justin Long. At 22, he played geeky high school student Warren Cheswick in Ed. At 25, he went back to high school for a role, playing geeky high school student Justin in Dodgeball. Now 39, Long has again reverted back to playing a teenager, shaving about 23 years off his age to play a high schooler who soon trades in his geeky, awkward persona for an iPhone and a Snapchat account.
In The Real Stephen Blatt, which recently became the first Funny or Die series to be exclusively released on Amazon Prime, Long and his co-writer/co-director/brother Christian explore what it’s like to be a teen who goes viral in 2017. The series, which consists of eight episodes that run about 30 minutes total, is a satire of a subject that is entertaining to tweens, confounding to adults, and potentially scary for the future of how people interact with one another.
“In a way that I think is ultimately really dangerous,” says Long. But dangerous as it could be, social media stars have also given comedians, writers, actors, and even other YouTube stars enough material that it could be mined for comedy gold for years.
How did The Real Stephen Blatt come together from an idea to a series on Amazon?
We had been down to the Ringling College of Art & Design, which is a great film school in Sarasota, Florida. They’re really brilliant, gifted kids down there. I had spoken at the school and had began talking to them about coming down to direct something with my brother, and they were able to facilitate it and we made this little series. We shot in eight days with a crew mostly of students.
As far as the subject: I’ve been writing for a couple years with my brother and directing was something we wanted to do but we didn’t have the resources really. We shot a few shorts that we paid for, but this was an opportunity to do it on a slightly bigger scale. We were gonna do this series based on a character I played in Kevin Smith’s movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and we had gotten fairly pregnant with that idea until we found out that we couldn’t get the rights from The Weinstein Co., which is a shame because it would’ve been really fun and Kevin was into the idea. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, because we had been kicking around this other idea for awhile. We were fascinated with the world of these kids from social media, “influencers,” who become famous without having any really discernible talent. Just for being famous.
What’s it like to play a teenager after recently turning 39?
It was really fun. I love exploring that because I don’t think I ever got it out of my system, or if it ever leaves anyone’s system. It is something that we have to suppress — our inner angsty teen — and it’s fun to really embrace that side. Teens are really interesting to me. I miss getting to be that and I got to do it in hopefully a comedic way, but I also wanted it to be as real as possible. It was a fun acting challenge. Stephen Blatt goes through three different transformations: There’s the excited version of him when he’s a curious teenager, got along with his parents, just sorta goofy and starting to go through puberty and was excited about the world. Then there’s the zombified Stephen post-getting his iPhone, the kinda angry pubescent Stephen who is kinda cut off from his parents. Then there’s the famous Stephen who is adopting this new voice, self-aware. It’s fun to play three different versions of that guy.
We tried to cast kids who were as close to being teens as possible. They had to be at least 18 for work reasons, but we cast kids who looked on the younger side, and it was fun but you also have to swallow your pride a little bit because then you realize how old you look when you stand next to a kid who is fresh-faced and 19.
We all have our insecurities, but those thoughts tend to be heightened as teenagers. So living in an age with social media, which rewards users simply with feedback from friends and strangers that basically amounts to “I like what you did,” how did that play into the ups and downs for your character?
What we wanted to highlight was how important it is — not just for kids but all of us — what it does to our serotonin levels to get a like or a hit or a positive reinforcement of any kind, but now you can really quantify it in a way that I think is ultimately really dangerous, especially for teenagers who are struggling with the pressures of fitting in and learning about who they are. I can imagine you get lost in that world, and I see the real-world application of that. I live in New York and you see it every day; it’s become exponential the number of people you see on their phones living through this device, through social media. It’s scary but it’s also interesting, and I think, hopefully, we were able to find the humor in it. My brother and I sent it to our manager to read and he was like “Oh, you guys are doing a horror movie. This is some kind of Twilight Zone thing.” He didn’t know I was playing the kid, which hopefully makes it satire. But it read like a Twilight Zone episode. I’ve shown this show to a lot of the guys in the post-production house and some of them have teenagers, and they would say that this is really close to something they’re dealing with with their kids. They’d say it in a complimentary way but also in a somber tone. And I’d say “Thank you and I’m sorry.”
To teens, these influencers are seen as “comedians” that from our perspective as adults seems unusual, because many struggle to see the humor in these viral posts, like from Logan and Jake Paul. How did you empathize or interpret the comedy from influencers that don’t seem all that funny to people over a certain age?
I don’t know how exactly where they’re coming from, we can only guess. We tried to be as clinical about it as possible. I think the best satire is as true to its subject as it can be. Some of this stuff is hard to satirize because it’s satirizing itself already. Some of the guys we’ve been following, it’s funny on its own and you don’t really have to gild the lily any more than they’re already doing. I’d be curious to hear how kids who do find them funny can articulate how they’re funny.
I think a lot about how people are using “LOL.” It’s become so ubiquitous now. I see it as punctuation on texts that aren’t making people laugh out loud. It’s lowered the bar to the point where LOL is supposed to be “laugh out loud” but if you were doing that you wouldn’t be able to write it. Legitimately laughing out loud has that’s lost all of its meaning. I think real outbursts of laughter can be hard to come by and have to be earned and when that word or acronym or emoji is so widely and readily used, it ceases to have any meaning, if it ever did. I wonder what the trickle-down effect of something as simple as that will be. Are the kids watching this stuff laughing out loud or not laughing at all? If not at all, it scares me a little.
Me and my brother really struggled to find the humor in this stuff. I am in no way above low-brow humor, I love it. I love doing it. It’s what I grew up on, the Marx Bros and Laurel and Hardy, physical comedy, Jackass. I think that’s where guys like Logan Paul maybe came from, that world of Jackass. What separates Logan Paul doing splits in a store from what the Jackass guys were doing? I think it’s just a matter of doing it well. That guy Logan Paul got notoriety for doing that. It’s funny to do something like that, as ridiculous as it is, in front of people. But then once they have the fame, the problem is — and this happens with Stephen Blatt — it tricks them into thinking that they have more to offer. More value in a comedic way, or in Stephen’s case, they feel empowered because of this platform to talk about the world and giving life advice. The text underneath these selfies will be these platitudes — “Just keep smiling and things will be okay” or whatever. They feel they have a voice but they have nothing to say, and that idea is really interesting to us. These people with these loud voices and the platform from which to speak don’t have all that much to say. I don’t know what it says about the kids who watch them, I don’t know what kids find funny, no one knows what overall long-term effect this will have on kids and this generation that are being fed this kind of comedy — this content with people just yelling at each other.
You have this great behind-the-scenes with Seth Rogen in Zack and Miri improvising alt lines back and forth. Did you ever take any improv classes?
No. In college we had a really great improv team at Vassar, and I was always too chickenshit to audition. This is still how I feel about it: I feel like I need a script. I really need to commit as much as I can to a script and learn it as best I can, and that’s the best place for me to begin to improvise. Some people do it out of necessity. If the script wasn’t great and they just didn’t bother learning the lines, or for whatever reason they feel like they can come up with better stuff. My favorite place to improvise from, which is the case with Seth in Zack and Miri, it was already a really funny script. That was just kind of once we felt we had that, then we went looking for other things that might be funny as well.
I just did a show with Rob Huebel, who is one of the best improv actors around, and Rob does a similar thing, but he’s so comfortable with improv that he was like “Don’t worry about the script. The script is just a framework.” I don’t think I’m a good enough improv actor to do that. That makes me nervous. I still need to know the lines really well. He was so quick that he was coming up with funnier stuff than what was written. I’ve done a few improv shows at UCB with those guys and it’s different. I’m not like Thomas Middleditch, who is so comfortable in that world. I would like to be one day, I really admire those guys.
Did you feel more or less of a need to improvise on something you wrote yourself in The Real Stephen Blatt?
In the stuff that was all interview footage, we had to shoot that so quickly, but that was the stuff that I felt most comfortable improvising because it was basically just me, we had already shot the interviewer scenes. She was coming up with a lot of funny questions. In that case it was so easy that a lot of that interview stuff led to riffing.
I also think about Vince Vaughn, who is one of the quickest people in the world — he’s a brilliant improviser, and I remember they wanted him to do a lot more jokey stuff in Dodgeball. He was sticking pretty close to the script and I learned a really important lesson from him, which was to just commit to the scene and if something presents itself, if there’s a tangent that respects the intentions of the scene, then follow that path. But the danger in doing too much improv is that you go looking for the joke instead of just happily stumbling on it. I know that sounds really pretentious, but I learned from Vince that you approach it more from an acting perspective. Commit to the scene. I can tell sometimes in movies that people are riffing and are trying to come up with funny lines. Oftentimes they are really funny, but it takes me out of the scene. I see them as a clever, quick-witted actor who came up with a funny line, and not a guy or girl who is going through something that I can believe in. If you’re not invested in it, then the audience won’t be either.
You get to work with Bill Burr on F Is for Family, and he seems like a guy who can be really intimidating to meet because you just know that if he wanted to, he could destroy you with his words in a second.
Vince Vaughn produces that show, and he really respects Bill Burr and I think that’s why; the two of them have such a strong command of language and they’re fearless in their comedy and point of view. I think that’s what makes Bill a great comedian — he dissects and analyzes life from a very strong point of view. I happen to agree with his point of view for the most part and I really love his comedy, I listen to his podcast all the time. My brother and I just made a short and cast his wife Nia in it because we love their repartee on the podcast. In terms of doing the part, he is so fun to curse with. He’s a great swearer. The way he says “fuck,” he really dives into those words. It may get confused with an anger problem, but I think he embraces his anger in a way that I think maybe what you’re referencing, people don’t know what to do with that.
You recently had the opportunity to don the Dodgeball uniform again, alongside the usual suspects. What was it like to slide into that character again after 13 years?
It was so fun that even when I was done shooting my part, I waited just to watch Ben do his thing. It was so fun to watch — White Goodman is one of my favorite characters. It’s just a joy to get to watch him do it again. He kind of fell back into it without missing a beat, and he was laughing about how quickly it came back to him. I got the impression that he really loved doing that character. It would be so fun to do another one. I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing where it’d be like they did it and once is enough, you don’t want to overdo it, but selfishly I hope they do — it’d be really good to do.
I was way too old to play that part. I was 25 when that movie was made and I’m playing a 15-year-old in it. I thought it would be funny if I continued to play him like a teenager and I have this older face. I loved it to the point where I committed to getting that haircut, a very specific Jim Carrey-in-Dumb and Dumber haircut. I forgot just how tough of a haircut that is to have in life. It doesn’t grow in right away, it gets worse and worse. I had them do it, I committed to it, it was a problem for a couple months, but it was worth it. It was a joy just to watch and do that character again.
Can you enjoy watching the movie as a fan or do you enjoy it for nostalgic reasons and the flood of memories that comes attached with it?
It’s twofold. There are some of my movies that I won’t watch, I guess for many reasons. Maybe I don’t think I’m good in it or I don’t think they’re good movies. But Dodgeball is one of the few that I will watch when it is on both because I enjoy it as a fan, which sounds really arrogant, but it also just brings back such great memories. It was such a fun shoot and brings back a lot of really great memories from that time in my life. I’ll watch it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I will do that. Can’t watch Jeepers Creepers, but I’ll watch Dodgeball.