“The most important thing in anything, is that you always have to be learning no matter what you’re doing.” – Mike Birgiblia
Mike Birbiglia‘s new film, Don’t Think Twice, is wonderful. Smart, funny and if you’re an actor, bittersweet and poignant. It’s the story of a New York City improv troupe and the strained relationships that happen when one of the members leaves to star in a Saturday Night Live-type TV show. Alongside Birbiglia, the film also stars Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci and Chris Gethard. The cast is terrific and Birbiglia captures such honest performances from each actor, it’s a real joy to watch.
I talked to Birbiglia recently about the film, auditioning and acting and that time he had to memorize a page-long monologue for Orange is the New Black.
You lived in the DC area for a while? Georgetown, right? I’m from that area.
Mike Birbiglia: I did, yeah. A lot of actors came out of there at that time. I was in the improv group with Nick Kroll. When I was a freshman, one of the other theater companies on campus was Nomadic Theatre Company where Bradley Cooper was the star of a lot of the plays.
Really? I had no idea.
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, yeah. So there was a lot of actors who came out of there. And then a lot of writers. I was in a screenwriting class with Jonathan Nolan who wrote the Batman movies and The Prestige. Brendan O’Brien, who wrote Neighbors and Neighbors 2. A lot of working writers and actors came out of there.
So the movie, I freaking loved it. Being an actor, I felt like I knew every single one of those characters.
Mike Birbiglia: Thanks, I worked really hard on that side of it. At one point, Ira Glass, early in the writing process, he read a draft of it… He was so tough, he’s brilliant but he’s really, really critical in the right ways and he was like, “It’s not a movie. I don’t get it.” And I was like, “No, it is Ira. It’s The Big Chill but it’s that in the world of improv theater.” He was like, “Well, if that’s the case, then the characters have to be more different from one another. They need to be differentiated.” And so I spent actually months differentiating the characters in this way that they all played off of each other. The interplay of them was very distinct.
How do you do that? Do you break down each of the characters?
Mike Birbiglia: I do, yeah. And a lot of it is like documents, you know, writing documents about Lindsay, a document about Miles.
It’s that specific?
Mike Birbiglia: Yeah, very much so. Screenwriting is a little bit like poetry in the sense that, you know, it’s not that many words. It’s not that much space that you’re filling in on the page and so you’re writing draft after draft after draft to really have a lot of density because you want to have plot, but not too much plot. You have to have exposition about the characters but not too much exposition about the characters. You want to tell people exactly the right amount of story and it’s hard to calibrate that. A lot of times you’ll go through drafts where it’s like it’s too confusing, there’s too many things going on. And then you’ll go through drafts and you’ll go, “Not enough happens.” The exact opposite. So it’s calibrating those two things.
It also talks about acting careers are creative careers. Should you leave the business, should you stay? Did that thought ever come to your mind? I’m sure you know people like that.
Mike Birbiglia: Oh sure, I mean it did for me.
Mike Birbiglia: I think for everybody it’s just this journey of understanding what do I have to contribute? What am I good at? What am I not good at? What do I have to contribute? There are so many factors.
At a certain point, I actually stopped auditioning for movies and TV. I auditioned for so many hundreds of TV roles and movies and I didn’t book anything. And finally, I started writing and directing Sleepwalk With Me and then when that happened I got asked to be in Trainwreck. I got asked to do something on Orange is the New Black. A lot of these opportunities came from making my own thing. And even now, now that this is coming out, I have to figure out where I’m gonna spend my time. Is it on directing? Is it on acting? Or is it on stand up? I’m not always thinking now whether I should give up or I should quit, but it’s more like where I should spend my time.
One of the things I’m doing traveling the country, I’m speaking to local improv groups. And a lot of the things that I’m saying to these improv groups is like, I think our culture is too obsessed with success in a very singular way. Our culture is obsessed with like, ‘well, if you’re on TV you’re successful. If you’re in movies, you’re successful. But if you’re not, you’re not successful.’ I think that’s a wrongheaded assumption. I think that if it’s your last day on earth and you perform live for 30 people and you improvise a show that made people who otherwise had a hard day at work or hard day with their family make them laugh and walk out with a smile on their face and you die the next day, I think that’s a good way to go out. You know what I mean? I feel like there’s kind of this odd relationship in our culture right now with fame and pomp and circumstance and I hope that trend reverses itself in a way and people respect just the craft of performance. In New York City, you’ll see street performers who are phenomenal and are making people happy, people gathered around them. To me, that’s more enriching than a reality show where people are spinning their wheels and doing nothing and somehow there’s a billboard for that. Somehow we’ve all fallen for that and I don’t think that we have to.
And I try to point out this idea that in our 20s, there’s this sense that you and your friends all have to have the same dream. We all want to do this one thing. And I think in your 30s, after you’ve experienced a lot, you start to realize we don’t all have to have the same dream. We all don’t have to have the same goal and you can’t all get the same dream because that’s only one path. And then the person who gets the dream is often the least happy of anyone you know, that’s what I found.
You create a lot of things. Your films, off-Broadway shows. Being just a guy who walks on set for something like Oranges is the New Black or something like that, is that like a nice vacation for you?
Mike Birbiglia: [laughs]It’s not a vacation, especially with Orange is the New Black because if you notice, my character does a lot of exposition. So, it’s like these long speeches and long pieces of information my character is delivering, so I have to make that feel as loose and not explainy as possible. But, when you get to do scenes with Nick Sandow who plays Caputo, I wish that that was my job 60 weeks a year.
It’s easier though. I will say doing Trainwreck and Oranges is the New Black, it is easier than directing a film. I’m not Geoffrey Rush or something, I’m not doing a 180 transformation.
What’s the biggest challenge when you’re directing yourself?
Mike Birbiglia: I think so much of it is about relaxation. I wrote this in my journal about six months ago and I was re-reading it the other day, I always think that writing in a trance and acting in a trance are the best case scenario. Which is to say that you get yourself into a state of relaxation where you’re not thinking. Don’t Think Twice is of course the title of the film but I really believe in that. You want to get to a point where you’re just reacting. People are saying words to you, you’re saying words back and it doesn’t feel like you’re working.
And so when I direct myself, I’m trying to get the blocking right for camera so that the frame and the compositions are interesting, but beyond that, I’m really just trying to react in a way a human being saying these words would react.
I’m a real student of Seth Barrish, who’s actually a consulting producer on the film and directed Sleepwalk With Me. He played Timothy, the head of Weekend Live. He has taught me the most of anyone about acting. He’s written these great books about acting. He taught Anne Hathaway and Tony Hale, a lot of people. He espouses this idea of non-acting acting, that the best acting is when you feel like there’s no machinery happening. That there doesn’t feel like someone’s working hard. I think the worst thing is that when you go to theater or a stand-up show or whatever it is and you can just feel the work of the performer and it somehow stresses you out as an audience member. That’s what I’m always trying to run away from.
Before you directed Sleepwalk With Me, in the back of your mind, were you also hoping that this would open more opportunities for you on the acting side of things?
Mike Birbiglia: I did not think that that would happen at all. It did. I had no idea that that would happen. I really just wanted to tell that story cinematically and I thought that there was interesting scenes. I thought the surreal dreams combined with the realistic action of jumping through a window, I thought would be really cinematic.
And I’ve always wanted to direct a movie since I was 19 or 20. It took me 15 years to direct a movie which is kind of how long it takes. I mean, there’s very few people who are able to direct a feature film in their 20s, a few people do but it’s hard. No one really wants to let you direct a feature film. No one wants to finance the first time director. Most first time director films are failures by traditional standards. Like Chris Nolan’s first movie I don’t think made money. I don’t think Scorsese’s first movie made any money. I mean, they’re good movies but I don’t think they made money the way some of those directors’ later films made money. So, you have to kind of convince someone to endorse you in this way that is hard. It’s a hard thing to do.
All the things that you do, which do you like better?
Mike Birbiglia: I like them all for different reasons. The most important thing in anything, is that you always have to be learning no matter what you’re doing. The people who I feel have stagnated are people who have had the sense of like, ‘I’m successful. I’m great at this.’ And they sort of sit on their laurels and may be what they’re doing sometimes is focusing on their level of fame and success and not working on their craft and feeling like their craft is sort of done. But I feel like the craft is never done and I feel like we’re always learning. If you’re not learning, then you’re basically re-tweeting compliments of yourself, you know what I mean?
This is my second feature and I hope to make 10 features. I feel like the second one is better than the first one and my goal is that the third one will be better than the second one. That’s sort of all you can hope for. And then you can hope to connect with an audience, connect with people in a way that makes it worthwhile not just for you but for the audience.
Right before you go out on stage for a show or right before you’re about to do a scene, do you get nervous?
Mike Birbiglia: Sometimes I do, yeah. I remember doing a monologue on Orange is the New Black at the end of last season where I introduce the inmates to a lingerie sweatshop operation that they’re gonna have to work for. And I say, “Ladies welcome to Whispers.” And I had to do the speech, it was like a page of text. But I had to do it in front of all the principal cast. So is like Uzo [Aduba], Taylor [Schilling] and all the stars and I’m just like this walk on guy, they had no idea who I am. Nicole Holofcener was directing, who’s like one of my favorite directors and I could just not get the speech, it was actor’s nightmare. I could not get the speech. In my apartment, I got is right 100 times. Every once in a while you have those and you work through it. Nicole just kind of calmed me down. She’s like, “You know, whatever comes out with this, keep doing it and doing it and eventually will get it.” Eventually I got it.
You mentioned that you’ve been on a ton of auditions. What was your worst one?
Mike Birbiglia: I remember performing at a comedy club in Dayton, Ohio at a club called Jokers Comedy Club. I was opening for Mitch Hedberg, the late great Mitch Hedberg. And I was told that I had an audition at ABC for a sitcom Monday morning at 10 AM and it couldn’t be at any other time. So, I had the show Sunday night in Dayton Ohio and I drove all the way back 10 or 11 hours to New York City. All through the night, to the point where I almost died, I almost drove off the road. I almost killed myself. I get to the audition, I’m exhausted. I don’t know my lines and I realized that it’s not even for the writers and producers of the show. It was for the casting director so it’s probably not even going to get to anybody or be seen by anybody. It was just a low point of realizing that like I really have to, first and foremost, just be safe, you know? I gotta make sure that I don’t drive off the road trying to get to a sitcom audition for show that I probably don’t even want to be on. I would describe that as a desperate point in my life, grasping for straws and trying to get anything.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened from an audience member during one of your shows?
Mike Birbiglia: I had a really annoying one recently where someone walked in an hour late to my one-man show. I said, “Hey, I just want to stop for a second and ask you, you just showed up right now. Why would you show up an hour late to a show?” And he goes, “I heard the end was the only good part.” He actually said that. And then at the end of the show, I had this monologue where I say, “It’s important that we understand and listen to other people’s jokes in the context in which they intend to be heard because the world is getting smaller.” Essentially, I’m saying the world is shrinking so we have to be good neighbors, people all over the world are becoming our neighbors because of the Internet. And then I walked over to that person and I go, “Even this asshole.” And it was so great because I hadn’t really gone after him earlier and it was just like this light touch. And the audience went to applause and it was so satisfying.