What other names come to mind when you think of Curtis Armstrong? Booger, Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Zachary Simon, Metatron or maybe Uncle Billy? Even if you don’t recognize any of these character names (and chances are, you probably recognize at least one of them), you would recognize Curtis. He has been working steadily as a character actor since his debut in Risky Business with Tom Cruise in the early 80’s and has appeared in a multitude of movies and television shows, including Moonlighting, Boston Legal, The Closer, The New Girl, American Dad, Supernatural, King of the Nerds and his newest project, Highston, an Amazon Original Series.
Curtis is a funny, intelligent, humble and well-spoken person who was kind enough to spend some time with TNWU this week talking about Highston, which premiered on November 5th. Highston is competing against several other shows for a full season order from Amazon in their annual viewer’s choice contest. Curtis talks candidly about the show, his costars, the writer, directors and the audience, with humor and wit. Read our interview below.
I watched Highston last night and just really loved it!
Oh, I’m so glad! That’s great, thank you. I just really love it. I’ve been so happy with the way it turned out. I’ve promoted stuff before, but I’ve never been as enthusiastic as I am this time.
The show is just so clever and the fact that Highston has these imaginary celebrities that he talks to, gives the show such a wide field of people that you can include in the episodes.
The thing about that is that this is the easiest part about doing something like this. Figuring out, like well, let’s get Jesse Ventura and Madonna. You can do pretty much anything you want, especially with these kinds of people. Sacha Baron Cohen, Bob Nelson and Jonathon (Dayton) and Valerie (Faris), are people with a lot of pull so they can get people. That is really almost the easiest part. The difficult part is making it work as a story and continuing to have the characters involved and evolving. Fortunately, you’ve got Bob who is a terrific writer, but that’s the challenge in something like this.
Yeah, I can see that. As soon as I saw both Flea and Shaquille O’Neal together with Highston in the pilot, I was impressed.
They were both just really wonderful. When I was watching it, the two of them, you know, I’ve seen Shaq on commercials where he’s doing…. Shaq, and they did this wonderful, two-handed comedy bit between the two of them which is really marvelous and they were so into it.
We had like four days of rehearsal before we started filming and Flea came to all the rehearsals. He didn’t even need to! He was just so into it and wanted to be part of the whole process. Flea was saying things like, ‘I wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t say that’. Because, you know, it was Bob Nelson writing about, when Flea’s talking about himself or telling a story, he’s telling it as Flea. So part of the deal when Flea came in was, ‘could I say this instead, could I tell that story instead’. You know that kind of thing. Even offering technical things about what it’s like to be a rock and roll star, what it’s like to be touring and have these different things happen.
Anyway, I was looking at the pilot and all I was thinking was, ‘geez, I’d like to have them back’. But of course that probably isn’t something that would happen. You can’t make them keep reoccurring, but they were perfect choices to introduce people to that world, I think.
They did work well together, along with Highston (Lewis Pullman). It was hard to remember that they hadn’t been working together for years.
I know, it really feels that way and I felt that way too about Mary Lynn (Rajskub) and Chris (Parnell). They had that same sort of…. they’d never worked together before yet they have that same sense of you’re watching two people who have enormous experience working together. It really came out of the fact that they are professional people who, for a change, got a chance to actually come in and work together. We did improv work, we really rehearsed and that’s a luxury that we just don’t have anymore. I don’t think I’ve done this much rehearsal for a television or film job since the 80s. It’s been that long.
I think that all that rehearsing is what allowed you to be so comfortable with each other.
I know! Mary Lynn and I have both done television a lot and she and I, I remember at the very beginning, were talking about it and being very stiff upper lip. Going, ‘yeah, this is really cute. Hopefully it’ll happen. It’d be nice to revisit this,’ and all that kind of bullshit. Then by the time we’re saying goodbye at the end of it we’ve got like tears in our eyes because we’re so desperate for it to work. All the actor pretense falls away and you realize that this is something really special and if it winds up not coming back, it is still going to remain for me one of the truly special things ever.
It was also nice because I had just, and I mean just, found out that King of the Nerds, the show that I developed with Robert Carradine, I had just found out that it had been cancelled. I was, that was seven years of work putting that together and three seasons of actual filming. My heart, it’s safe to say was broken when that happened because I just loved that job. Then, within days, I got this phone call saying you’ve been offered this thing…I mean, it was just like, it’s not supposed to happen that way in my business. You don’t lose something important and then have something else important happen right away. I was just delighted.
It’s that one door closes and another opens (laughs). I don’t know if you can share this or not, does Uncle Billy think Highston is nuts?
No, I don’t think so, but I don’t think Uncle Billy has enough un-medicated perception to really know. I think from his standpoint…. I remember there’s a quote that somebody did with John Lennon back in the 60s when he was eating acid for breakfast and he was saying that what people don’t understand about psychedelics is, you know, they go on psychedelics to change what is normal for them but a psychedelic state is normal for me. It was like he could operate better in an altered state, I mean an extremely altered state, and Billy…. The story I came up with for Billy, because there was no story, and he was just another oddball in an extremely odd family. So, it was at the point where even on the last day of rehearsal, it suddenly came up between Mary Lynn, Chris and me, that we didn’t even know who I was related to. So we asked the writer, who was there, and we said ‘well is he the brother of the man or the woman’, we don’t know. There was no indication of it and I’m not sure that even he had any real feeling about it.
We ultimately decided that he was Chris’ brother, the father’s brother, and I just came up with the writers and directors, of the story that the two of them were a few years apart. I was probably older and was a misfit who was a genius in chemicals – I mean a genius – and was ultimately picked up after high school to work on a government mind control project, as they do. He then spent the next twenty years sampling his own work and was eventually let go by the government with a nice pension and now lives at home keeping himself comfortably medicated and is very happy.
That’s sort of where we went with him because there was no other hint about who he was or what his relationship was with anyone else. It works for me and it’s not like it’s going to be a big deal, you’re not going to see him taking pills all the time, but it’s where I’m going with it and then as far as Highston goes, I think he (Billy) sees Highston as a normal person. The parents are concerned and the other son is concerned because they don’t see…. they think he’s nuts. But Billy’s opinion doesn’t really enter into it because everybody knows he’s crazy.
I did like when Dr. Conway (Kurt Fuller) asks Billy if he thinks Highston is insane and Billy answers, ‘isn’t everybody?’
There’s also that moment when they’re watching television and Highston does turn to him (Billy) and asks ‘do you think I’m crazy’ and Billy says, ‘I think you’re fine.’ Which can be read in a couple of ways. It could be, ‘oh, don’t worry, you’re fine’ or ‘you’re fine (emphasis on the fine)’ you know, I’m not just saying that to make you feel good, it’s true. I tend to think that that’s where Billy’s at, Highston is fine.
Then you have Highston’s little sister (Caige Coulter) who accepts him just as he is and doesn’t want him to change.
That’s the purity of childhood thinking. I don’t want you fixed, I want you the way that you are because she’s able to see beyond what the parents are thinking. When the mother says ‘you need to have whatever is wrong with you fixed. Not that there is something wrong with you, but there’s something wrong with you.’ She also says, and this isn’t an exact quote, something along the lines of, ‘you shouldn’t be ashamed for being who you are, but if someone asks you, you should run away and don’t talk to them.’ It all comes out of this absolute love, they’re just totally unaware. They love him and want him to be better and they’re trying so hard and they’re both a little nuts as well so it’s hard for them. They’re a little eccentric.
I liked the conversation the parents had between themselves in the doctor’s office about who gave Highston better advice…. Madonna or Trump.
When she’s talking about Madonna saying ‘you wouldn’t think that her being so slutty and all, that she could actually gave him good advice about wearing a condom.’ The thing that they cut from that, which I loved, was she said ‘you wouldn’t think that her being so slutty she’d give him good advice, but she said stay in school and always wear a condom.’ Originally the husband said ‘well not always honey, only when he’s having sex.’ (Laughs) And she says, ‘I think that was implied,’ but they cut it for time. I thought it was such a brilliant joke.
So, let’s say the show gets the go ahead and you guys are in production, is there anybody that you’d really, really like to see come on the show as one of Highston’s friends?
Well, I have….no, I don’t think I should say anything about that. It’s not really up to me and once you start down that road it’s easy to become disappointed when things don’t happen. All that really matters is that it (the show) comes back. As far as the audience is concerned it won’t matter because whoever you wind up with is going to be big enough and famous enough to do the job. We won’t always get people who are as into it as Flea was, but that doesn’t matter either, it’ll work itself out.
It could even be funny if some of the D list shows up! They’re just as likely to end up hanging out with Highston as the A list.
Whoever it is, you have to have a sense that they’re going to be able to carry off the style. There’s a very different…. it’s allowing yourself to sort of become free enough to do something like this. On the other hand, if it was somebody like oh say, Mick Jagger, they would be too big, too famous. Somebody like that takes up all the oxygen in the room. You might not want somebody like that. You want somebody like Flea, who is very well-known and very talented, but not such a huge star that they become the only thing the people watch. So, I don’t know. That’s all so out of my wheelhouse. All I’m doing right now is luxuriating in a great part that I’m really enjoying.
The style of it is what I really love because, it’s a weird thing, I’ve been describing Uncle Billy as sort of a mix between Booger and Hunter S. Thompson because it’s a good description. Whether it’s true or not isn’t really that important. But I’m using Booger for obvious reasons and it’s something that when people talk to me they are able to relate to, but what I had to do to get the performance that I gave was go against all of my instincts. I have a tendency to get cast in things that are very… sort of big. I tend to do big, it’s hard to describe it, but I tend to do roles that have a degree of theatricality to them and this is the opposite of that. So I was constantly aware of having to ratchet everything down for something like this and trust that the…. You know, a lot of the theatricality that I’m sometimes guilty of comes from inferior writing and it’s a sort of fallback position if I’m not directed or if I’m compensating for writing or something like that, I fall back on that. It’s a default position, but I didn’t need that for this and that was so great.
I described the show to my sister today as kind of off the wall and different. Not something you see all the time.
That’s the thing, of course unfortunately or fortunately, I tend to think it’s fortunate, it isn’t like everything else. In fact, it’s not really like very many things at all at the moment in television and that’s a good thing. The bad thing is people could look at it and say ‘that’s weird, that’s just weird.’ It’s just off, it’s a little left field but I think most people and certainly the response that I’ve seen so far has been very positive. It does seem that people, for the most part are relating to it well and so all we can do is keep our fingers crossed and try to do the best that we can to get the word out to people.
What would you like to say to viewers who are debating whether or not to watch this pilot?
I would say that at 25 minutes long, it’s not a big investment of time and it’s some of the…I believe some of the freshest, strangest comedy on television right now. You don’t have to…. it’s different and should be experienced by people. It’s not like you’re asking them to watch a three-hour movie which they may come out of hating and there’s a humane quality to the writing, which I think is a benefit right now, just in the world. There’s just a humaneness to Highston which is one of the things that I love the most about it. The style of it, the comedy of it may not be what everyone is used to seeing in multi-camera shows and that kind of thing. It’s different, it’s like watching…it feels to me like a movie in 25 minutes and it is that humane quality that is making it so valuable right now.
There’s also something about the idea of imaginary friends whether they’re famous celebrities or not, that is kind of appealing to people. Wouldn’t you just love to be sitting in a room with a couple of really well-known people who understand you totally and are helping you through a rough time? It’s an appealing fantasy and it’s well written, well-directed and well-acted – what the hell, I couldn’t recommend it more.
I feel the same way! Best of luck to you and the rest of the cast. Our fingers are crossed here at Talk Nerdy With Us.
You can see the pilot episode of Highston for free with your Amazon Prime membership and cast your vote by writing a review.