“When I first discovered acting, it was therapeutic for me… I just loved hiding in other people.” – Garret Dillahunt
From Raising Hope and The Mindy Project to Deadwood, 12 Years a Slave and No Country for Old Men, Garret Dillahunt is an actor who, over his long career, has never been typecast. This streak extends to two of his latest roles, John Dorie in Fear The Walking Dead and Michael and the film, Benched.
In Benched, Dillahunt plays an inexperienced assistant coach who finds himself working under the best Little League coach in town, Don, played by John C. McGinley. At first, the two rarely see eye-to-eye on anything, but as the season progresses and they begin to learn more about each other, they’re reluctant friendship helps both the team the kids and themselves. It’s a sweet comedy about friendship and tolerance and both actors are terrific.
In the interview, Dillahunt talks about Benched, Fear the Walking Dead, the reason he moved from New York to LA and one of his worst auditions ever.
I really enjoyed this movie. It was one of those films where, by the end it was just this nice sort of payoff, you know?
Garret Dillahunt: Yeah, I think it kind of sneaks up on you. I think it kind of did on us too.
How did you get involved in it? It was originally a play, right?
Garret Dillahunt: It was originally a play, which was a real selling point to me and probably to John too, because we are both old theater guys. It’s been a couple years since this all started. But I think I just went in and auditioned. I just went in and met the directors, they were in town. I remember driving to some out of the way location and we met and talked about it and discussed doing this and I went home and then I got a phone call. I think that’s what happened, so kudos to my agent I guess.
Each scene kind of peeled off a little more and more of your characters to where, by the end, I really liked being with these guys. I almost didn’t want it to end.
Garret Dillahunt: Well, that’s good to hear. I think there’s a danger in these kind of movies that they can get a little truthy or a little schmaltzy and I’m hoping we managed to avoid that trap. And I think that if you do, it hits a little harder and there is a little more of a payoff. I don’t know, maybe it really worked. My folks sure liked it and that is one of the rare movies that I have made that they can watch.
How is it to work with John? He seems like an actor who will always keep you on your toes.
Garret Dillahunt: Yeah, I mean I don’t know if it’s me or him, but I seem to get along well with most people. I think I’m not scared. I’m not a coward, or I can see through bluster. I think John is a sweet, sweet dude. I also know that he’s a great guy to have on your side. I’m glad he liked me, you know? It’s kind of like how it went with Martha Plimpton. First impressions are important and once you make a good one, you’re theirs for life. You know what I mean? If you make a bad one, it’s real hard to get it back. And there is something refreshing about that kind of person. They’re honest and don’t care what you think of them, and I think I care what people think probably too much.
But we had a real easy time of it. We’d met before and we run in some of the same circles and it was easy. We played catch before takes, and I wanna do it on every movie now, and we just have a good time. I think there’s a kind of person I really like working with and that is someone that just wants to solve the problem and isn’t precious about it, doesn’t get offended, doesn’t care who comes up with the idea, as long as it’s come up with. That’s kinda how I work too. It just makes for a real easy day that way.
Did you guys rehearse?
Garret Dillahunt: All these small indies like this, you don’t really often get the luxury of rehearsals. So we would certainly rehearse and work at them and shape those scenes before we shot them but it wasn’t the longest shoot. We did a lot in a short amount of time with some really humid weather. And I thought Rob and Roger did a really great job too for their feature debut. I think they put together a pretty sweet little movie.
Which do you like better, a movie like Benched where you know a ton about your character, where you can be subtle about things because the audience doesn’t know about your character yet, or something like Fear the Walking Dead where, at times, you’re learning about your character as each script comes in?
Garret Dillahunt: Yeah. That’s almost a conversation about the difference between film and television, isn’t it? I’ve already done, what, 13 hours about John Dorie on Fear the Walking Dead, as opposed to one and a half about Michael.
You can afford to take your time so much more on television. You can look afford to let things slowly unfold, in fact, it’s almost a necessity then a preference. That’s why so many more actors are flocking to television because you get a real opportunity to tell a nuanced, very detailed story. Hopefully the script is great.
But I don’t know that I have a preference is the thing. My preference is change, my preference is something different than the last, and that could be the genre, the medium… “Let’s do a play, let’s do a movie, let’s do a television show, let’s try this…” You know what I mean? I’m sure you do, you’re an actor… and I think that’s my biggest preference, that it’s just not repeating myself or that it’s a new challenge. I think it’s important to stay awake, otherwise the whole thing starts to get pretty bad.
How do you like battling zombies?
Garret Dillahunt: Well, that’s one of the best introductions I’ve ever had, I’ll tell you that. That was a great episode. There’s all kinds of challenges becoming part of that world. There’s a lot of expectations, there’s a very rabid and loyal fan base that doesn’t like change a lot, so you have to change a lot of minds. You know, it’s a challenge in its own right too, right? Keeps you on your toes, doesn’t allow you to coast. If you’re gonna change minds, you’ve gotta be really good, so… it’s been fun. I like doing something like Benched because again, it’s something very different from that kind of guy.
You mentioned this but Michael in Benched, he just felt like you’d been playing him for years. Is that your NYU training?
Garret Dillahunt: I guess it’s life. NYU was a long time ago now, sadly.
But it’s experience, I’m sure, knowing what works and the kind of things I like to see, not saying it’s easy or I’m always successful at it, but it’s also a testament to Richard’s writing. And I guess our tastes. I’m glad that John and I had similar tastes in what we like and that our directors weren’t in the way of that.
I haven’t directed much. I haven’t had a big itch for it or I’ve just been too busy to consider it, but I do know that my favorite directors are the ones that are able to hang on to the vision they have while still allowing for even a small level of improvisation on our part. And I don’t mean improvising dialogue, but they’re open to a slightly different interpretation than they might have imagined. And they go, “Oh, I never thought of that. I like it and I can still work that into the framework that I’ve constructed.” And those kinds of situations are my favorite kinds of creative experiences. And for these two guys to have done that on their first feature bodes real well for them.
You mentioned theater. You’ve done a ton of shows, any plans to do another one?
Garret Dillahunt: I don’t have any plans not too. The last play I did was maybe three summers ago with Sarah Paulson. We did a play back in New York, and that was fun. And I’m looking forward to the next opportunity. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a workaholic, and I tend to fill my days and in theater often you’ve plan way in advance, and it’s like “Oh, I can’t, I’m busy here to here.” But one of these days I’ll get my shit together and make a plan.
Man, you are a workaholic. I was looking at your resume. You’re a series regular and then you’ll show up as a guest star on another show. You’re never not working.
Garret Dillahunt: I’ve always had more than one job. I don’t remember when that started. I do, I guess, in college, I remember. I was going from play to play to play. When I first discovered acting, it was therapeutic for me, I was running from some family tragedy. I just loved hiding in other people. And I would do my scenes for an acting class, and I would do scenes for the directors in the directing class, and I would do a play in the evening or two. I was constantly running from rehearsal to rehearsal, and I loved it so much and I found safety and comfort there, which is, I guess, a little sad, I found safety and comfort far from myself. But it’s been a habit, now that I’m older and healthier, that I’ve had a hard time breaking.
What did you book that you finally said, you know what, I’m a full-time actor. I don’t have to do any more of these side jobs or anything?
Garret Dillahunt: I don’t know. I don’t know if that ever happened. I went to LA. I remember I had auditioned for a Broadway show. I didn’t get it. People pulled me aside and they said, “You’re the best we saw today, but we’re gonna give it to this guy who’s on a sitcom.” I can’t remember who it was. He was not only making his Broadway debut, he was making his theatrical debut. And I think I’d been in about 50 plays by then, I just said, “Well, shit, if I want to get a lead in a show, I’d better go get a sitcom.”
And I had no money. You know how theater is, you’re constantly digging yourself out of the red, and then by the end of the run you do, and then when the show’s over you start slipping back. You know. It’s a beautiful, tragic existence.
And then I went to LA, back when there were still pilot seasons, and I remember I booked, like, 3 pilots that pilot season. Back when they also would let you know really quick if you weren’t the one, to go get another one. Do you know what I mean? And then I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I need to mix it up a little more to fund my career.” But I don’t know if I ever have felt like, “That’s it! I don’t have to do anything else ever!” Part of you always feels like I’ll just collapse when I’m dead and now they’re gonna find out I’m a fraud.
What’s the worst audition you’ve ever been on?
Garret Dillahunt: I auditioned for some show…
I like how you didn’t have to think about it, you’re just, “Oh, here it is.”
Garret Dillahunt: Oh, yeah. It’s an easy one, and it’s hilarious. It was two scenes back to back. One fairly normal and then the next scene, I was just completely distraught about some relative’s death. It’s written like he’s sobbing like crazy. And I was like “How am I gonna do that?” And I had just found this stuff, this Tear Stick, it’s camphor. It looks like a tube of lipstick, but it’s camphor. And so I was like, “I’m gonna try this stuff.” And so I painted a little bit of it on the back of my hand, right before I went in.
First of all, I didn’t know they were waiting just for me, and I was really late. I thought they were just seeing people. And they said “come between two and five, any time you can make it,” ’cause I was doing something. And I showed up and they were waiting there for like an hour for me, so first I’m mortified because I’m never late.
So then I go in and I do the thing, and I slyly sort of touch that between scenes and I stick it directly in my eye ’cause that’s what i think you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to put it right under your eye and let the vapors affect it, but I stuck it right in my eye. And I couldn’t open my eyes. I had my head down, and I was like “Oh my God, my head, my mind is racing, how am I going to go on with this?” Cause every time I’d crack my eyes, the air would hit them and it would just start the pain. And I finally can look up, my eyes are so swollen, tears are streaming down my face. They’re horrified, they’re thinking I grew up in Saigon or something, I don’t know. I didn’t get the job. I left and I passed through the waiting room, and there was another guy who’d come and he was looking like “Holy shit, what are they doing to people in there?”
But it was awful. It was embarrassing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen those people again.
Benched is in theaters and VOD/streaming beginning August 17th.