Interview: Danny DeVito Talks ‘It’s Always Sunny’ and Committing To Being Your Best

Danny DeVito: "If the audience accepts you in the different genres, then I think you’re really fortunate to go back and forth"

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is in its seventh season and is, thankfully, showing no signs of aging.

Danny DeVito stars as Frank Reynolds and so far this season, his character has been lost at sea with a rum-infused ham, almost marry a crack smoking hooker and start his own child beauty pageant.

Like I said, it’s showing no signs of aging.

Danny started out off-Broadway, then moved to films (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), then on to Television with the classic sitcom, Taxi, and moved to directing (The War of the RosesHoffa). There’s even talk of him going to Broadway with the revival of Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys with Richard Griffiths. How cool would that be?

I talked to Danny on a conference call where he talked about the comparisons between Taxi and Sunny, how TV comedy has changed and how he commits to what he’s doing “until it blows up in your face like an M80 in a bunch of meat.” committing

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It’s Always Sunny airs Thursdays at 10 on FX

Check out our other It’s Always Sunny interview with Rob McElhenney

What attracted you to the role of “Frank”? 

Danny DeVito: The fact that they wrote it so well, first of all.  There wasn’t a role of “Frank” six seasons ago, and then they said they would like me to come onto the show and I said if it’s organic to the piece, and this was—I was the dad of “Sweet Dee” and “Dennis.”  And if it was a character that I’d feel like I could really let my hair down, no pun intended, and allow myself to explore other avenues that were as raunchy or as ribald as I’ve done in the past, but with an FX kind of sensibility.

They delivered on every front.  And not only that, they became my good buddies and now we’re sailing along having a great time.

How do you compare your experience working on Sunny to your time on Taxi

Danny DeVito: Oh.  It’s like—have you ever watched Fringe?

It’s like another universe.  It’s the same thing, in a way, because we don’t have the live audience, but we do have really good writing.  And we had great writing on Taxi.  And this is from an actor’s point of view, we had a great cast on Taxi and we have a great cast on Sunny.  We have people who really care about each other, but it’s just an alternate universe.

It’s a different milieu.  It’s a different whole zeitgeist of what goes on there.

And it’s a different time.  I remember doing Taxi and falling in love with the candy girl who was Rhea, and she was the nice girl, and everybody didn’t know why she was going out with me.  I asked her and she said, “Everybody tells me not to go out with you. The doorman tells me not to go out with you.”  And I said, “Well, why do you?”  And she said, “Louie, you touch me.”  And I say, “Holy ….”  And the standards and practices wouldn’t let us say, “Holy ….”  We had a fight—she had to say, “Holy” and “…” in the same sentence.  We wound up doing it, but times have changed also.

“Frank” makes “Louie De Palma” look like Mother Teresa. And since no one sees himself as the villain in his own story, what is your “in” for playing “Louie”? What do you use to play this character season after season, and is there an ongoing catharsis for doing that?

Danny DeVito: Yes.  I agree with you on every front.  I think that “Louie De Palma” is, like you said, the Mother Teresa—except for the fact that Mother Teresa would not put her mother in a home, just so he could have a party at her house, like “Louie” did.  “Louie’s” getting a pass by being called Mother Teresa, but he had a nugget of brass for a heart.  He had something in there.  There were some sensibilities in there of “Louie.”

“Frank” has it also, but he has a tenderness inside.  But because of the parameters he set up, “Frank” has set up for himself, where he wants to live in squalor and filth and he wants to experience everything that he never got a chance to do, that he always criticized possibly in the past.  But always deep down, really wanted to do that thing where he just put on the Mardi Gras beads and go out and party all night and find somebody who he could buy to have sex with.  He just never did it before.  He was a business man, his nose to the grindstone.  He needed that liberation.  He needed that freedom and it is cathartic.  It’s cathartic for “Frank.”

“Louie” got off on making their lives miserable from the cage, but he did actually care about the characters.  I think he felt Tony Danza was this poor palooka who could never take a punch or throw one.  Marilu was never going to get—he didn’t have high hopes for those characters.  He knew Judd was always going to be a cab driver, never get out of there.  “Louie” was, on the one hand, having a good time making their lives a little interesting.

These guys are more like Lucy and Ethel, where they always have some scheme that—Rob comes in with some scheme and this one’s got a plan and that one’s got a plan.  It’s a breath of fresh air because “Frank” is—they’re half his age and he gets a chance to put his foot on the running board of a wild racecar that he probably couldn’t drive on his own.

Do you find that there is a personal catharsis in playing a character who was so free?

Danny DeVito: Yes.  Yes.  Since I’ve taken this leap into this wonderful arena with Glenn and Charlie and Rob and Kaitlin, I always live pretty much free and always have a lot of fun, but this is really relaxing.  And no matter how much work there is and how much you’re doing in a short amount of time—we only shoot for a certain amount of time, we have 13 episodes concentrated—it’s wonderful getting up out of bed in the morning, going down there, and having a ball.

It’s also affected me a little bit.  I did the thing where I grew my hair for a year or more.  My family thought I was little crazy.  I was braiding it at the table and putting it in a bun when we’d go out.  And now it’s all gone.  I’ve taken it all off and I’m a blonde.

When do you feel like you’re at your funniest and what, as an actor, helps get you to that place? 

Danny DeVito: I think it’s the freedom to allow yourself to go.  We have a script that is written every week.  Let’s talk about Sunny for a second.  We have a script that is really well-written.  They all put it all together.  And then we’re allowed to venture off a little bit.  It’s kind of like an improv, but it’s not.  You don’t call it that.  We just get into the situation and then everybody parries with each other.

Sometimes some of the funniest things come out of—one day, it was the last show that was on, we were fighting over lines and Rob looked at me, and he was so mad.  He said, “I ought to put my finger through your eye, you little …,” something like that.  It was out of the blue and I just couldn’t—of course I laughed my … off, but it’s out of those come the funniest situations, where they’re spontaneous.  But they do write some really great stuff, so it leads you in the path of hilarity.

You spend a lot of time eating.  I guess I should say putting food in your mouth. How do you handle those kinds of takes?

Danny DeVito: I really stuff my face in the show.  I spit it out most of the time, when it’s too much.  But once in a while I’ll just munch during the day and I shouldn’t do it.  It’s not good for the waistline, but it’s a lot of fun to do that.  When I eat an apple when I eat like an animal, that’s a whole other story.

What are your thoughts on how TV comedy has changed over the years?  How it’s changed for you as an actor, being a part of it back then and now?

Danny DeVito: I’m not sure about that question totally—how to answer my take on the change of the comedy itself.  Things have to do with timing, and things have to do with subject, and things have to do with surprise, and things have to do with things like that.  All those things are the template for comedy, because the audience has to be surprised and has to be all those.

Whether you look at any of the comedians along the way, or you look at the television along the way, it’s always that.  Then the times change so things get different out there in the world and the material changes because of it.  Whether you’re mocking something or you’re emulating something that is so ridiculous, that is the way.  Values change in the society and then also your PC, what you call PC, changes—like politically correct or socially correct, or something that is irreverent.  You may have been thinking about it for many, many years, but it just wasn’t its time yet and now—and that is the way I think things have changed.

How do you think “Frank Reynolds” compares to any of the characters you’ve portrayed in your career?

Danny DeVito: I think he’s got—no, he’s an individual definitely.  His character is set up the way his character is.  His situations definitely—when you play characters and they have a certain amount of energy or they don’t have a certain amount of energy, you as an actor, you gather some of that.  That always stays with you because a lot of it’s you.  A lot of my moves and my things that I like to do, may come from within.

Since your range as an actor seems so broad, was it difficult making that transition from feature films back to working in television?

Danny DeVito: I came from—I was in the stage doing off-Broadway work in New York, then I came out and did some episodic television, then I did the three camera stuff.  I actually did movies before that because I did Cuckoo’s Nest, and all that was before those.  If the audience accepts you in the different genres, then I think you’re really fortunate to go back and forth.

I’m just watching Claire Danes now on her show, Homeland, and she’s doing a great job.  That is a different kind of show, but it’s still going from movies to TV.  She’s doing a really good job. Then you look at the old days when it was Travolta went from the TV show to the movies.  So did Clint Eastwood in those days.  It wasn’t commonly done.

And now with all the different medias—the internet medias and the wonderful communications that we have out there in the world—people like to see the actors, especially young folks.  It’s doesn’t really bug them if I see them one day in a movie and the next time I see them they’re on TV or even on the web.  I think it’s pretty free.

What is it like being from a different generation of actors than the rest of the cast?

Danny DeVito: Basically, “Dennis” and “Dee” are definitely like my kids, and so is Rob and so are “Mac” and “Charlie,” in their age.  They’re in their early 30s and I’m in my mid-60s.  How it works is, I know more than they do.  They have to listen to me.  They do everything I say and they wait on me.  And then everything else is the same, nothing different.

And we act together, but if I need something they go get it for me.  They take me to my car.  They make sure I get home.  Take care of the Dad.  They take me out to dinner.  They don’t clean my dressing room, but we have a person to do that.  But, they would because they’re my kids and kids have to take care of their parents.

So far it’s been really nice.  They take care of me really—and it’s fun being with young people.  I don’t think it’s a bad thing for everybody who’s in that generation, the baby boomers or whatever I am, to open themselves up to young folks because I believe—not to sound cliché and like I’m winning a beauty contest—but I believe our future lies with the young people.

In the show the dialog is crazy and the stories are ridiculous, but you and the rest of the cast play it perfectly.  Is it hard for you guys to play most of those situations and keep it seemingly real and not usually over the top?

Danny DeVito: We’re very committed to our mental capacity.  One of the great things is when Rob and Glenn and Charlie created the show, they set the bar.  And there are a lot of these things that they believe, and I have come to believe as well.  I think the Charlie sandwich is like tasty.  I like playing night crawlers.  Honestly, it’s really a great thing.  I do a lot of things, like randomly drink things that—we don’t comply to the “don’t mix” rule.  We don’t do that.  We throw up a lot.  We do a lot of stuff that we’d do in normal life and it’s probably easier for us to do.  I like banging whores—that is in character, that’s not married.

There are so many things—it’s just committing to what you’re doing and getting into it and always thinking it’s a great idea, until it blows up in your face like an M80 in a bunch of meat.

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