When you see actor Jason Bateman on screen, he's usually playing the nice guy — or at least the nicest guy in the room. On the TV cult favorite Arrested Development, Bateman is easily the heart of the show.
But given the chance to direct a movie, he cast himself as a vulgar sociopath with a gift for coming up with the perfect put-down. The film is Bad Words, and it tells the story of a 40-year-old elbowing his way onto the middle-school spelling-bee circuit, to the frustration of kids, parents and teachers alike.
Bateman spoke with NPR's Audie Cornish about playing an unlikable character, his experiences as a child actor, and why his script was, for a while, on the so-called Black List — a survey of Hollywood movie executives who name the best scripts they've read that haven't been produced.
On Bad Words and the Black List
The scripts that are on that list are great scripts, but there's something about them that keeps them from getting produced. And in this case, I think, it was because it seemed very challenging to the reader to have anybody like this guy, this central character that I ended up playing. He is a guy who's had his feelings hurt. He elects to try and fix his problem by crashing a kids' spelling bee; that has some relevance in his revenge scenario. So there is a deeper agenda, a more sophisticated agenda at play. His execution of that, though, is pretty sophomoric, and so it makes it challenging to make him likable, because he misbehaves quite a bit, especially to young kids.
On why he wanted his character, Guy Trilby, to be as unlikable as possible
I stole that. ... That was the formula on Arrested Development. That was what the show's creator said to all of us in the cast. And that's a stimulating challenge, to say nasty things but somehow behave in such a way, or capture a certain look in camera that shows some vulnerability in the character, or some ignorance, as opposed to hatred.
One of my favorite shows growing up was All In the Family, and Carroll O'Connor played Archie Bunker in such a way that — you know, he said all these politically incorrect things, but he always seemed to earn it somehow, with some sort of endearing look of ignorance or stupidity or whatever it was. He got away with it. So I wanted to take on that challenge, and just as a director, build an atmosphere, an environment, a tone around this character and the other characters, where these type of flawed people would naturally exist.
On what he learned from being a child actor
I was glad that I had that memory to draw upon, because the set can be a fairly intimidating place, or it can be a really boring place. It's a lot. So I would kind of switch off between being [co-star Rohan Chand's] friend and being his director and being his co-actor. ... I had to kind of keep pivoting, to try to keep the experience positive for him, because things can go sideways with a 10-year-old pretty quickly.
On what he hoped to accomplish with his character
I didn't have a certain set of written rules about what this guy had been through, and his back story. I was just nimble about when and where he would be mature or immature, and so oftentimes it was an arbitrary decision about whether I was going to seem smart or seem dumb, or seem scared or seem vulnerable. That's the fun of acting for me, as opposed to deciding exactly how you're going to play each scene the night before, practicing your faces in the mirror, learning your lines.
On learning about film from his father
He was a writer, director, producer, freelance, his whole life. And so, as I was a little boy, or old enough to kind of understand what movies were about, he would take me, as opposed to the park to throw the ball and stuff. And I got a very early interest in what this stuff is, and when I got a chance to become a part of it, I jumped into it full force.
On why Bateman wouldn't let his kids act
I wouldn't only because it is a profession that you can't really help yourself in. In most professions, if you stay at the office an extra four hours every day, you're gonna impress the boss, you're gonna get that promotion, you're gonna get that raise, you're gonna at least have job security. But with acting, if you're really ambitious and you have a good work ethic, and are really good at your job, it might not really matter.