In an alternate universe, Rob Riggle may have become a pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps. In this version of Earth though, the Kentucky-born Riggle enlisted with the Marines in 1990 only to leave the corps not long after to pursue a career in comedy (he's still a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserve). It took about a decade, but that career move has paid off. A tour of duty with New York's Upright Citizens Brigade led to guest spots on shows like The Office followed by a high-profile stint as a Daily Show correspondent. These days, Riggle is an established scene-stealer on film and television, popping up in everything from Tina Fey's 30 Rock to Tom Hanks's Larry Crowne. This weekend, Riggle has a small, but crucial turn in 21 Jump Street, playing a kooky gym teacher named Mr. Walters, who crosses paths with two undercover cops-turned-high school students (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) investigating a student-run drug ring. Riggle spoke to us about impersonating a gym teacher, his sketch comedy background and why going to UCB was like attending graduate school.
TWoP: Since you come from a comedy background, how do you approach your screen performances? Do you view them as characters are extensions of your comic persona?
Rob Riggle: Well, I was a theater and film major in college and I studied Method acting here in New York for many years. But yes, I came up doing improv and sketch. Stand-up is really new to me -- I've only been doing it about three years. So when it comes to characters, I read the script and I think about what it means to me: who this guy is, what are the ways I could add to him or heighten him, what his purpose is to the overall story. I do script analysis just like any other actor would. And then I think about my own personal experiences and draw from specific things. You always want to put your own signature things on a character.
TWoP: In that case, was Mr. Walters based on any personal experiences with past gym teachers?
Riggle: Yeah, I had my share of football coaches and gym teachers and guys I'd met in the Marine Corps -- certain alpha types -- that I drew from. I drew on some of their worst qualities and smashed them into Mr. Walters. I wanted to add subtleties of what was wrong with him: Is he crazy or does he have an agenda going on in his head? And I wanted him to have this attitude of one foot in the door and one foot out, because a lot of the gym teachers and coaches I knew were like, "This is a day job, dude. I'm doing this for the health benefits and as soon as my rock band gets off the ground, I'm gone."
TWoP: Working opposite a skilled improviser like Jonah Hill, was there a lot of material that didn't make it into the finished film?
Riggle: I don't think there were any more scenes, but within the scenes we improvised a lot. There's a lot of funny stuff that happened in those moments, but it didn't necessarily serve the story and kept it moving forward. When you make a movie, you have to make choices and usually you will err on the side of keeping the story moving, so a lot of the stuff we improvised didn't make it in. A lot of stuff did, though. It just depended on whether or not it served the story.
TWoP: Since you served in the Marine Corps, the action sequences were probably a breeze for you.
Riggle: I had done some action in movies before and the weapons handling, I'd been doing it my whole life. I qualified as an expert on the rifle and pistol, so I was very comfortable around the weapons. That was never a problem. I was really nervous watching Jonah though, because I was always like "What is he doing? Put that gun down!" [Laughs] Of course everyone was very professional [on set]. We just like to joke about it.
TWoP: With so many sketch comics finding success in film and television these days -- yourself, Amy Poehler, Rob Corddry, etc. -- do you think that form is getting more respect?
Riggle: I hope so. The education I got at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York, I'd put up against anybody. For me, it was a Master's Degree in acting and writing and performing. As an improviser, if you're doing long-form improve like you do at the UCB or Second City, you are performing, you are in the moment, you are listening, you are writing on your feet, you are committing to your character and you're doing it all at speed. You don't get to pause and rewind -- you have to do it. It's like drinking out of a fire hose at first. For those who can stick with it, all it does is enhance all other aspects of your performance. It makes you a better writer, performer and better in front of a crowd. All those skills get put to the test. I think anybody who studies in those schools and comes out, you're doing to see a pretty well-rounded performer. That's my humble opinion, anyway.
TWoP: Because of your experience in sketch comedy and improv, do you find that directors mostly leave you alone to do your thing when you make a movie?
Riggle: It's a trust thing. If it's someone I've worked with in the past, generally they're interested in letting me play a little or listening if I had a thought. If they don't know me, they can be like "Just do what we tell you to do" and I can't blame them -- they don't know me. But every now and then I'll try to slip in a little something so they trust me more. But at the end of the day I understand the relationships. If someone hires me to do a job, I'm going to do the job. I'm not going to screw around. It goes back again to improv. Improv is ensemble work and what you do is serve the comedy, not yourself. If there's a scene going on and you come off the wall to join that scene, you're coming off the wall to add to the scene. You're not coming off to do a one-liner joke, get a big laugh and ruin the scene, because then you've sacrificed the scene for your comedy and that's frowned upon.
TWoP: Besides 21 Jump Street, you're featured in the current animated hit The Lorax and have a few other movies coming out this year. Will we see another season of your Adult Swim show, NTSF:SD:SVU as well?
Riggle: Yes, they're doing a second season and yes I will be back doing certain things on it. That's made by my buddies from the UCB, including Paul Scheer, who created the show. We came up doing comedy together here and we're in the trenches for 10-13 years doing 1 AM shows for nine drunks. Paul asked me to do it last year and I was like, "Of course." It's a fun show made by fun people and you don't always get that. Naturally, I'd love to have the shot to lead in something. It's a tough town, but I'm going to keep plugging away and hope I get a shot. I would love to lead in a movie, let's be honest. But don't get me wrong, I'm still writing for TV and creating things for myself. I just want opportunities to do good things with good people. Other than that, I won't ask for much.
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