Interview: Curtis Armstrong Talks His Long Career and ‘King of the Nerds’
I grew up watching Curtis Armstrong. In films like Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer, he created some of the most memorable characters and comedic performances ever.
Since that burst of genius (yeah, I said genius), he’s been working non-stop, appearing in dozens of films and TV shows. He’s recurring on New Girl and Supernatural and voices Snot on American Dad and he’s recently partnered up with his Nerds co-star, Robert Carradine, to create, produce and host the TBS reality show, King of the Nerds.
I talked to Curtis about his incredible career, his early theatre work, creating his characters and King of the Nerds!
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.
Follow Curtis on Twitter! King of the Nerds airs on TBS on Thursdays at 10/9c
I just wanna say, you were in every single movie that I worshipped growing up. I mean, Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, Better Off Dead, and then Moonlighting, which was one of my favorite TV shows. So, I mean, honestly to talk to you is just a complete treat for me.
Curtis Armstrong: That’s really nice. I mean, those are the cornerstones of everything basically that I’ve ever done are those 4 jobs. And, you know, they happened within that one decade, which is… it’s sort of amazing. At the time, of course, it didn’t seem to mean that much, but those were the sorts of movies which gained reputation over time and are now much more highly regarded even than they were at the time. In fact, they weren’t that well regarded at the time. I think in general. But as the years have passed, they’ve just become really important to people and I’m proud to have been a part of them.
Risky Business, that was your first film role?
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah.
Because I know you did a ton of theatre before that. Were you in the LA area doing theatre?
Curtis Armstrong: Oh, no, no, no. I was in New York.
I started in Detroit in the theatre, which was my hometown, and that was where I’d gotten my first professional job in regional theatre, was in Michigan. And I’d co-founded a theatre company in Ann Arbor after attending an acting academy for two years. The graduates of that formed their own theatre company and we ran that for about a year and a half in Ann Arbor and then I moved to New York and started working in New York and doing national tours and dinner theatres and pretty much everything. And wound up doing some off Broadway plays, which got noticed, and that was how I started auditioning for films.
That was never in the mix for me, I was never considering anything but stage work, which was what I really loved. But then, you know, Risky Business happened and then it went from there. The director of Revenge of the Nerds was a fan of Risky Business, so Revenge of the Nerds happened and then Savage Steven Holland was the director of Better off Dead and he was a fan of Risky Business. Everything that happened to me in the 80s all came from Risky Business. It made everything else possible.
Were you primarily doing comedies in theatre?
Curtis Armstrong: Everything. I mean, I wasn’t typecast in the theatre at all. I was trained in classical theatre, so I did Shakespeare, I did Molliere, I did Pinter, I did a lot of things. I mean, all different types of things. And then probably the biggest thing that I had done was in ‘79, I guess, I did a national tour of, like, 77 cities over a year of a Pulitzer Prize winning play called Da, which had been on Broadway, by Hugh Leonard. And that was a big deal. That tour was split in half and in between the two tours I did an off Broadway play called The Irish Hebrew Lesson by Wolf Mankowitz and that ran for a while and got some really nice notices. And that was what… those shows were what allowed me to start reading for Broadway plays. And I never did any Broadway plays, I never go into a Broadway play, but the fact that I was reading for them was enough and so they started seeing me for movies.
Have you thought about doing another show? I’d love to see you do something.
Curtis Armstrong: Oh, I think about it all the time, but it’s just hard to do. I mean, the last one I did was about 8 years ago and that was here at the Geffen Theatre. We did a new play by… or, what was then a new play, by Sam Shepard. But it’s been, you know, it’s just hard now. I can’t just go to regional theatres for, you know, 4 months out of the year or whatever. It’s not as easy as it was to do that kind of thing.
Your work is so, so darn funny. Were those roles written like that? Because each of those characters you did were so completely unique. We’d never seen anybody like those people. And they’re classic.
Curtis Armstrong: Well, Risky Business was written exactly like that. There was no room or need for any kind of improvisation or anything. It was just so perfectly written by Paul Brickman. It didn’t require that.
And yet when we went to Revenge of the Nerds, the script was very sort of unfinished in a way, especially when it came to some of the smaller characters, and Booger didn’t really exist in the script much as anything but a sight gag. He was really sort of the nerd’s version of Ogre in the original script. And we spent about 2 weeks working on the script and then we wound up doing a lot of improv on the set as well. And the characters sort of came together that way, but it was a different type of script. Paul Brickman had written Risky Business for 7 years, you know, he took a lot of time with that. And so once we got actually on the set, it was set.
But it wasn’t that way with Revenge of the Nerds and it wasn’t that way with Better Off Dead. If you read what Savage has said about that, he actually does himself a disservice because he claims that nothing that winds up funny in either of those two movies was anything he wrote. It was all stuff that we made up, which is not true. But we did come up with a lot of stuff on the fly, but that’s the kind of director he is. I mean, he was never overly protective about anything and if anybody had a better idea, he would throw out whatever he had written happily. A lot of the stuff in Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer are things that we came up with on the set.
Are you still auditioning a lot? Are you still in the trenches? Or do people mostly call you up and ask you if you want to take a role?
Curtis Armstrong: It’s different. It varies. For some things I have to audition, for some things they just call up and offer it. It depends on the part or what the project is or if I know the people. I never take for granted that everybody knows who I am, Especially with movies. They always insist on it. And with some TV shows like currently now I’m doing New Girl and Supernatural, and both of those… actually, both of those I read for on the same day, which still amazes me. I went in in the morning and read for Supernatural and then had lunch and then read for New Girl and wound up doing both of them.
Turned out to be a good day.
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah, it was a good day. But I think they wanted to see what I did, but they obviously… those people knew who I was. But they, you know, they wanted to see.
Do you like auditioning?
Curtis Armstrong: No, I don’t know anyone who likes auditions. Auditions are horrible. You know, I mean, 9 times out of 10 or 8 times out of 10 it’s a waste of everybody’s time, but it’s part of what we do. I don’t resent auditioning, but it’s not something I look forward to at all.
Yeah. I’m an actor as well and I hate it. It’s miserable.
Curtis Armstrong: Yeah, everyone hates it. I mean, who really… I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who says, “You know what I really love about acting? Auditioning.”
I’ve interviewed a bunch of people. Sometimes they say, “Oh, I love auditioning,” which I think is, you know, they must be on crack or something. I don’t know.
Curtis Armstrong: No. I don’t know. It’s possible people can work themselves into that mindset. It would be great if I thought the best thing in the world was to audition for something. It would be great in a way. But it isn’t.
Were you ever worried about typecasting?
Curtis Armstrong: No. I never was. I mean, I’d always heard about it and I’d always heard people like acting heroes of mine, people like Basil Rathbone or Humphrey Bogart, somebody like that, would complain about being typecast. I think maybe some people feel that huge success in one area with one role or something like that inhibits them or something.
But I think there’s some self-denial in that kind of an argument too. I think that I’ve always been pretty pragmatic about what was going to happen in my career. I never expected to be a star. I always knew I was a character actor and, you know, I never worried about that or resented that ever. As long as I was working, that was the important thing and every once in a while you got a decent job or an interesting role. You worked with cool people. That doesn’t happen all the time, but even if it happens every 6 times, you’re doing well. You know?
So I never thought about typecasting because at the time, I really didn’t think there was much of a future for these movies. This was pre home video even, Risky Business and Revenge of the Nerds. I mean, they came out, but at the time you weren’t thinking, “This is gonna have a long life on DVD.” You figured if it only ran 3 weeks in the theatre it would disappear and that would be the end of it. Maybe you would see it on, you know, on cable or something, but you had no real reason to think that it was going to be, you know, developing a kind of cult following or anything because, you know, I just didn’t think there was room for that. And it was only when they started playing them a lot on cable and then they came out on video and then they came out on DVD and then they, you know, that whole thing started and then you begin to realize that what you thought was something that was going to come and go fairly quickly was now pop culture legend in a way, which was as much a surprise to us as anyone.
I don’t wanna take up too much of your time but I do wanna ask you about your new show King of the Nerds. The show is doing great. How happy are you about that? It’s really good.
Curtis Armstrong: It’s beyond my expectations. This is the thing that I was thinking about, actually, this morning. We watched… obviously we had a show last night that aired and we’re getting down to the last 2 weeks of this season and… and I was… I was marveling at the fact that that was a show that Robert Carradine and I came up with over lunch or something. We had gotten together, and this was 8 or 9 years ago…
Oh, that long ago. Wow.
Curtis Armstrong: Oh, yeah. It was a long time ago originally. And we came up with this idea and we pitched it and people were very lukewarm about it. And our view was, we had our careers, we weren’t gonna get involved in something if there was not, you know, with people who were lukewarm about it. It was just a lot of work and we wanted people who were enthusiastic. So we let it go.
And then, whatever it was, 3 years ago or so, we came up with it again and thought maybe now the time is right. We went to Electus and 5 by 5 Media, our two production partners, and it just happened. I mean, we had one meeting with them and they said, “Please don’t tell this idea to anyone.” They were so enthusiastic and so excited about it and they understood what we wanted even though it changed. It evolved as an idea. The idea that we had originally kicked around evolved over time and it became what it is now, King of the Nerds.
Every step of the way you keep expecting for the whole thing to blow up. Or even if it doesn’t blow up, you expect it to somehow wind up being a disappointment. And it never did and now I look at it last night and I think, “Jesus, it’s just… it’s better than I ever dreamed.” I don’t know about Robert, but for me I look at the show and I think it’s really a delight and I love doing it and it’s connecting with people and it’s just so strange because it’s one of those things. Just like I never dreamed that I would make movies. I never dreamed I would be in a reality show. That was not ever was I ever thinking that.
And, honestly, if people had come to me and said, “Would you host King of the Nerds,” I would probably have said “no” because if it was just a matter of me hosting and being, “Oh, it’s the guy from Revenge of the Nerds and he’s hosting,” that would not have been of much interest. But the fact that it’s worked out so well and is so much fun to do and I love those nerds so much and I love the people that we’re working with and… I mean, it’s just beyond belief.
You’re also an executive producer on it. What are your, I guess, your duties?
Curtis Armstrong: Well, they changed between first season and second season. The first season we were in all of the development meetings, the original meetings, back before we actually got underway, but we weren’t coming up with challenges or anything. That was something that went to people who do that for a living because you have to have a kind of… certain kind of mind to be able to come up with that kind of thing.
We got involved in the casting of it once they had eliminated hundreds of people and they were down to 30 or something. Then they started bringing us into the casting process, but by the time we were filming, I found myself getting much, much more deeply invested in the production end and I would spend, you know, because we had them on camera for practically 24 hours a day. So I would spend just ridiculous amounts of time there sitting with the executive producers helping to write some of the… some of the material that needed to be written like the sendoff, coming up with ideas for each nerd when they left Nerdvana and that kind of thing. So I got a lot more interested in it.
And now, come around to the second season, I was doing everything. I was doing location scouts and budget meetings and challenge meetings and casting sessions from the very early stages. So I became a lot more involved in the show and going to all of the production meetings once we start working.
So a lot, the answer is now because it means a lot to me and I still don’t find it boring, which I suppose the actual executive producers who do shows like this, a bunch of shows like this, for 20 years may find it pretty run of the mill. But I still find it exciting.
And I also really, really love these nerds. I mean, there’s no better word for it.