Will Arnett: back in the saddle

The ‘Arrested Development’ star is about to hit Netflix as the hard-drinking washed-up actor BoJack Horseman


When you interview a comic actor you get used to a protocol. You say hello, settle in and then wonder how long it will take for the first of many jokes to land. Will Arnett may take the record: 10 seconds. When Arnett hears that I’m from The Irish Times he quips that he’s had a few Irish times in his day. (More on this later.)

Arnett is one of the best and most distinct comic actors to have been on television in the past decade. Best known for Arrested Development, he dropped out of college and moved to New York to try to become an actor. “When I was starting out there were many moments when I thought, Right, it’s not going to be an actor’s life for me,” he says with a laugh.

“If you want to be an actor it has to be because there’s nothing else that you want to do or can do. I always knew that, in order to get into a position where you get to do the things that you want, it was going to take some time. I knew that would be my path – but you have to love doing it.”

From the late 1990s until the early 2000s he made one-off appearances in high-profile shows such as Sex and the City, Law & Order: SVU and The Sopranos. Life involved countless auditions and the merry-go-round of pilot commissioning that characterises US television.

“When I was about 32,” Arnett says, “I’d done my third pilot in a row for CBS, and, while Still Standing did get picked up, my character was written out. Even though I’d been living in New York for 12 years and auditioning constantly, that was a very tough one to take. There was a period of over six months where I thought, That’s it, I’m done. As tough as I think I am, I didn’t want to put myself through all that any more. It was too hard.”

As disappointment mounted, Arnett was drinking heavily. He says he was out most nights; his reference to his “Irish times” turns out to be a nod to the years he hung out at Peter McManus Cafe, an Irish bar in Manhattan. The cycle of putting himself forward for pilots that were then not commissioned – or, worse, that got the green light only to be dropped soon afterwards – proved too much.

Then, out of the blue, an opportunity turned his life around. “It was a pretty dark time, so I had zero expectation that things would happen for me when I was sent the script for Arrested Development. The producers were having trouble casting the part of Gob, so I reluctantly put myself on tape and then got a call to come out to California. It was as if when I finally let go and didn’t really give a shit, the world opened up.”

Cult classic

Arnett also got sober at this point, and Arrested Development, starring Jason Bateman and Portia de Rossi as his siblings, went on to become a cult classic.

Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job) was the eldest son of the Bluth family, a magician with a failed marriage, a fondness for Segways and a signature “chicken dance” that has become part of TV lore. Arrested Development ran for three series before being cancelled, in 2006. Then Arnett was back to hustling for work.

Was it easier, having worked on such a hit show? “Yes, but frankly the endless cycle doesn’t ever end. It just takes a different shape as you move through it all. As you get older you start to realise how little in control you really are, and once you accept that you remove a whole layer of frustration.”

Arnett is sanguine about the hit-and-miss nature of television, and he says he learned something valuable along the way.

Last year Netflix recommissioned the series. The profile of many of the cast, including Arnett, is now considerably higher, so reassembling them might have proved difficult, or have made resurrecting an old show a regressive move.

“I had no hesitation or apprehension about going back,” he says. “I love the process of that show and the people involved. The crews in TV and film move around a lot and lead a transient life, but so many of the original crew tried to make their way back.

“Also, Mitch Hurwitz is the captain of that show and one of the smartest, funniest people on the planet. This is the only planet I’ve ever been on, by the way.” Arnett quips away as we talk, and is genuine and funny. The week after we speak he confirms on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that there will be a fifth series on Netflix.

After Arrested Development Arnett found occasional film work – starring in Blades of Glory, for example, with Amy Poehler, who was his wife at the time – but he was long in danger of becoming a character actor, an “Oh yeah, that guy!”, whom everyone recognises but few can name.

His role as Devon Banks, the gay executive in 30 Rock – a series created by Tina Fey, a close friend of Arnett’s ex-wife – stole the show. “I’ve known Tina for a long time. She’s a brilliant person with a great comedic mind, and one of the most hilarious people of all time. When she asked me to play Devon it was a no-brainer – and, luckily for me, I happen to have no brain – but I also got to work with Alec Baldwin, who is an incredible performer. Doing scenes with him is like playing tennis with Björn Borg. You’re just trying to keep up. He is a master.”

Distinctive voice Luckily, Arnett

also has an extremely distinctive voice and is much in demand to work on animated films. This year alone he has provided the voice for Batman in The Lego Movie and has roles in The Nut Job and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He says he wasn’t aware of his distinctive voice until people started pointing it out to him. “I looked quite young in my 20s, and my voice didn’t match the way I looked. To be honest, for a while I thought it was really going to work against me. I was almost despondent,” he says, laughing, “but it turned out to a good thing.”

Arnett’s latest role is another one where audiences don’t get to see him. BoJack Horseman , which starts on Netflix next week, is an animated series about a washed-up, hard-drinking actor. Who also happens to be a horse.

Anthropomorphic angst with a lot of gags, it also features Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt and Amy Sedaris. “It was so different to everything else I’ve ever done. It really stood out – and, yeah, so there are animals and half-animals, but because it’s so funny you get over the novelty of that pretty quickly and buy into the writing.”

Arnett’s main costar is Aaron Paul, who played Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad. “We knew each other a little, casually, socially – we never dated. It was hard for him to come off a big show like that, because everyone kept asking, ‘What’s next?’ But he’s not burdened by it, and he’s a really funny guy.”

Arnett has also finally moved out of the supporting-actor role, with his show The Millers. He has come a long way from chicken dancing.

The first series of BoJack Horseman is available on Netflix from next Friday

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