Jim O'Heir, the lovable loser from the hit television series "Parks and Recreation," takes on a dramatically different role as Lenny Freeman in Ned Crowley's dark, dark comedy "Middle Man." It's set to open at the AMC River East in Chicago this weekend.
Lenny (played by O'Heir) is a throwback to a bygone era. He is a 50-year-old accountant who lived at home with his mother until her death. Inheriting a mound of debt and her antique '53 Oldsmobile, Lenny pursues his dream of being a stand-up comic. The problem? He is not funny. Traveling to Las Vegas to compete on the television show "Stand-Up Stand-Off," Lenny befriends hitchhiker Hitch (Andrew J. West) and finds himself caught up in a killing spree.
It's a homage to the comic greats of the past.
I had the pleasure of sitting down for a casual conversation with O'Heir near Loyola University, his alma mater. At Bar 63 where we met, he couldn't make it 3 feet without being recognized, but he readily stopped to take selfies with patrons.
Throughout the course of almost two hours, O'Heir and I chatted about his beginnings; the early days of "Parks and Recreation" (on air from 2009-15); recently throwing out the first pitch at the Cubs-Cardinals game (he did better than Nick Offerman); being Uncle Jimmy to his nieces and nephews; and his favorite scenes in the new film. Laughing nonstop, while getting to know this grounded Midwesterner, felt similar to hanging out with an old friend.
I think it's unusual for an actor of your stature and caliber to remain so grounded. You even help out local Chicago filmmakers frequently.
I help whenever I can. I've done three [local films] in the last year. I did "Landline," I did something called "Heavens to Betsy" (which is going to screen June 29, and then I did one that I just finished called "Every 21 Seconds" — which is about, I never knew this, every 21 seconds, somebody has a traumatic brain injury. It's a drama, so I was the neurosurgeon. So instead of learning my little funny lines that I memorize easily, I have to learn things like, "Well, we've decided that the left side temporal lobe needs an excision." It was scary.
People sometimes forget where they've come from though.
Here's what I'm going to say about that. You're right. But not Chicagoans. You know Steve Carrell? He's as sweet as he was when he was here. I find that Chicago Midwest people are who they were ... Jeff Garland [for example]. They're all still sweet and fun and want to help. Chicago people are special, a special breed.
You've got the lead in "Middle Man," and this is one dark, dark comedy. Was that your sense of humor back in your improv days?
My humor in general goes dark. I would be told, "This is too much. This is too far." The people I ended up doing the comedy troupe with were all like me, so we were dark. I will also say, the last show we did in Chicago was called "Stumpy's Gang," and it was dark, and it was bloody.
I give [that] credit to my career because we took it to L.A. [and] it opened doors. I've been very fortunate. Since the day I moved there, I lived off being an actor. It was a good thing that I didn't have to wait because people don't like sweat dripping in their food it turns out — so picky — and thankfully, I didn't have to be a waiter.
In "Middle Man" you play the straight guy.
I know. Ned always tells the story: "Halfway through the production, Jim says to me, 'I don't get any laughs in this.' You're just realizing you're the straight man in the film?" And my character does get laughs, but not because he's saying funny lines.
I was always the big, whacky, funny guy. Ned said, "I knew there was always so much more; [and] I wanted to be the guy that put it out there." I've had a few chances over the years to do drama. I love funny, but you want to say, "I'm an actor. I can do this."
You did improvisational comedy, but have you ever done stand up?
I'm terrified of it. Improv is different. ... I don't think I'm stand-up funny. They're a breed unto themselves.
What were the early days of "Park and Rec" like?
The first season was only six episodes ... the show hadn't found itself yet. I even say to people now — which I'm sure the producers would hate this — but I always say if you're starting new, start with Season 2. But always go back to Season 1 because there's some great stuff. The [writers] were finding out who Leslie Knope was. It came across that she was more like Michael Scott from "The Office," which was never the intent. So, they needed to clean that up and they totally cleaned that up, beginning with Season 2.
I'll never forget when Amy [Poehler] said to me -- we were about four or five months before we were done -- she said, "Have you heard about what they are thinking about doing for your storyline?" No. And she starts telling me, and she starts crying, and I start crying because it was so awesome — have you seen the finale?
No, I'm still binging.
Well, I won't tell you, but they gave Jerry a send-off that you won't believe. Just amazing ... and emotional. I won't say any more because I want you to see it.
How did it stay so strong throughout the years?
I was proud to be part of it because the writers nailed it. Mike Shore, co-creator, never left us. What happens out there — the minute a show becomes big or talked about — these show writers get calls from other places. They make more money and they leave. Mike never left us. It was his voice from day one.
When "Parks" ended, Amy and Mike got a call from ... the network, "What do you want to do? It's your call." And Amy and Mike, through tears, said, "We don't want to go out with people wanting us gone. Let's go out on our terms."
Your new film is very different than what you're known for — has a lot of psychology behind it.
Ned and I love when we do Q&As and people say things that we never thought of. ... We are finding that people are still chatting about [the film] after. The film comes down to what price will you pay for fame.
The cast is amazing in "Middle Man." This is an indie film, so how did this all come about?
Ned put the script out there. You would not believe the people that submitted names. ... No one is going to pay their mortgage on this film, [but] they just loved the script. And a good actor wants to do good material. Andrew J. West ("The Walking Dead") made me up my game. And Josh McDermitt who plays "T-Bird" — that scene where I go out to confront him, that was just two actors connecting. We talk about that scene all the time. It was special. That's why you act.
What moments were special to film?
One of my favorite scenes in the film is the where we play blackjack in our heads. I just think it's a sweet scene, and Lenny wins and he's so excited. It goes to show how simple his life has been. It says a lot about who Lenny was. It's heartbreaking.
And poor Anne [Dudek]. Jim O'Heir never gets the love interest role, but I get the girl in this one for a brief moment. So, poor Annie had to lay underneath me for three or four hours one night in the desert shooting that back of the car scene, and I'm like, "I am so sorry, Annie. You deserve much better than this." She, of course, was wonderful and gracious.