Sacha Baron Cohen may be the main attraction of The Dictator, but don't be surprised if everyone who sees the movie comes out raving about his co-star Jason Mantzoukas. Best known as the outrageous Rafi on the FX series The League, the Upright Citizens Brigade-trained comic actor steals almost every scene he's in as Nadal, a nuclear scientist that runs afoul of Cohen's dictator, General Aladeen, in their home country of Wadiya only to emerge as his equal when the tyrant is stripped of his identity and let loose on the streets of New York. On a recent press pit stop in Manhattan, Mantzoukas spoke with us about testing his improvising skills against Cohen, what scenes didn't make it into The Dictator and why he hopes that Rafi never gets his own spin-off series.
TWoP: Unlike Borat and Bruno, The Dictator was shot with a script, but there's still obviously lots of improvisation going on, especially in your scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen. So how much of the movie was actually scripted?
Jason Mantzoukas: They had a set script and we would usually do the scenes as scripted. When we felt that we had that material locked, we would kind of go off and explore and find all kinds of weird stuff and some of that made it in. Like, there's this whole thing about Aladeen learning about nuclear weapons from cartoons and that was all improv. Sacha also has a team of guys he's worked with forever, so not only is there a finished script and we're improvising, but they're also off to the side of the set, writing. So they'd come over and be like, "Here are two different other versions we just wrote of this scene." So we could do that as well.
TWoP: That must make it interesting to see the finished film and find out which gags made it in and which didn't.
Mantzoukas: Yeah, absolutely. Like in that scene about cartoons, there was all this stuff about Popeye that we improvised and when I watched the movie, I was like "Oh no, the Popeye stuff didn't make it in." But then when I thought about it, I realized that if they had put it in, it would have been three minutes of filler. We also had this great bit with J.B. Smoove in a sequence at a funeral home that was a really funny. In the moment, we were tickled by it, but I don't know if it would translate if you saw it in the movie. It's that same way that if you see a gag in an improv show, it feels really funny and present, but when you try to describe it afterwards, it sounds terrible.
TWoP: You and Cohen have a really interesting dynamic in the movie. Usually his sidekicks are around to take his abuse, but you sort of throw it back in his face. How did that dynamic come about?
Mantzoukas: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to play it that way. When I first auditioned, I didn't really have a script. They were being very secretive, so I got just a general understanding of the character and then had to audition with a 20-minute improv scene with Sacha. So as an improvising point of view, I chose to go after him. I decided that I was going to poke and prod at him and that was really fun and it's the kind of chemistry that ends up onscreen. Going toe-to-toe with him made our scenes more electric and funny. There's a classic comedy duo archetype of the foolish buffoon who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and the straight man who is actually smart, but low status and I think we did that well.
TWoP: The League is also heavily improvised. How does that experience compare to The Dictator?
Mantzoukas: It's the same skill set. Jeff Schaffer, who created The League is one of the writers of The Dictator and I think one of the reasons he put me into the mix is because he knew they were looking for a good improviser to work with Sacha. The League is a little more free-form because that really is just a scriptment instead of a script. There's no dialogue written for The League. But I approach it the same on a process level. People know my background and for people who need an improviser, I'm one of the people they think to use if I'm appropriate for the part. In this case, I think it was helpful that I already had a giant bear. [Laughs]
TWoP: Rafi has become a breakout character on The League. How did you develop his personality?
Mantzoukas: The creators were very generous to me. When they approached me to play that part, they didn't have a character in mind, just a storyline they wanted to service. They said, "We want to do a story wherein Ruxin has to admit his wife's brother into the league and they all hate him and want to kick him out. It'll be for four episodes or so -- what type of guy do you want to play?" And I described Rafi exactly as he is and they were like, "That sounds amazing." And again, they were great in kind of letting me explore the character and the rest of the cast is great in that they allow me to come in and basically run roughshod over everybody. I come in and steal as much focus as I can. If anything, over the course of the episodes I've been in, I've just amped him up more and more. It started at the end of the first season when I was fighting girls and started becoming really aggressive. And then in Season 2, I started asking the props department for knives. Then in the middle of Season 3 I was like, "Hey do we have a gun?" Like in improve, it's just a matter of heightening.
TWoP: Do you ever worry about heightening the character to the point where you run out of things to do?
Mantzoukas: No, I worry more that people will tire of his insanity. I think what's great about Rafi is that he is a good spice that's added to the show once in a while. I'm always trying to find new ways to embody that kind of outrageousness. The thing that I love doing with Rafi right now is that he's not just a maniac, but he truly loves the guys and thinks they are his best friends. I love the idea that Rafi loves these guys; he's not just an asshole or a maniac, he's just pure emotion whether it's for good or for evil.
TWoP: You're an established scene-stealer now, thanks to The League and The Dictator. Any plans to write and star in your own vehicle?
Mantzoukas: Yeah, sure. I don't know what it would be. I actually really like where I'm at right now, but I wouldn't mind creating a show where I was the central element, but would still have an ensemble around me. Maybe it's just my improv and sketch background, but I'm a lot more comfortable in a group. I like sharing focus and populating an ensemble. I don't know that I would want to do a show about me. People are always like, "Rafi needs a spin-off!" and I always say "You'd tire of that show instantly!" [Laughs]
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