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Exclusive: Patton Oswalt on Acting, Stand-Up, and Evolving

AUSTIN, TX: Randy Stevens, the Boy Scoutmaster played by Patton Oswalt in the new comedy Nature Calls (which premiered this weekend at South by Southwest), is a funny character with a sadness about him; beaten down by the disinterest of the boys in his troop, living in the shadow of his successful brother (Johnny Knoxville), with little in his life but his love of Scouting — yet tirelessly dedicated to his self-appointed mission of bringing nature into the lives of his young charges.

Though Oswalt’s most high-profile acting roles to date have been in an intense, low-budget indie (Big Fan) and an acid-tongued, big-studio comedy/drama (Young Adult), the leading role in this dark comedy isn’t too far removed from those seemingly disparate turns. “He’s very much a true believer in what he loves, even though he might not have the most amount of skill to realize its execution,” Oswalt told me in a phone interview last week. “So I think there’s a lot in common with some of the other characters that I’ve played: they’re sort of dreamers, they’re almost lethally optimistic about their chances in life.”

It’s a bit of a surprise, considering Oswalt’s background in stand-up and considerable comic chops, that this is his first lead in an all-out comedy. “I’d gotten a few offers before,” he admits, “but I was never offered anything that really excited me, and this one really did… I’d done a lot of supporting roles in comedies, obviously, but the lead to a comedy, especially a more big-budget one — that goes to people with a little more box office draw. So the fact that this was smaller-budgeted and a little more risky… that gave them, I think, the breathing room to go, let’s take a risk on him.”

Patton is taking a bit of a risk too, though. In spite of the picture’s audience-friendly concept and the presence of Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, Nature Calls is not a typical slapstick farce. “Todd’s stuff is really, really strange,” Oswalt says, of writer/director Todd Rohal. When he was sent the script, “I watched his first two films and I really liked them. I said, I like how this guy thinks, and this is the kind of filmmaking I always dreamed of doing: newer directors with way odder visions than just standard, big-budget stuff.”

That pivot, toward up-and-coming filmmakers and unusual approaches, is part of his evolving approach to acting. Though he doesn’t have a master career plan, as such (“My plan would be to try to keep having the kind of luck that I’ve been having”), his ideas about the challenges he’d like to pursue have changed. “When I was way younger,” he admits, “I had some very specific things that I wanted to do. But as I grow older and see so many more movies, I want the next challenge to be something that I didn’t expect and don’t have any precedent with. I mean, if it’s already something I’ve seen objectively, then I’m gonna bring my experience in viewing it to that role — rather than, I’d like to go somewhere where the path is made by walking.”

That same recalibration of expectations and ideas has occurred in his stand-up work. “There are so many amazing people doing comedy right now,” he says, with a sense of genuine awe. “I’m very lucky that I’m living in a time where I really have to up my game to stand out.” Part of that process has involved subtly shifting the focus of his act, which — on early albums and specials — mixed pop-culture riffs, political material, and an absurdist streak. In more recent iterations of his act, he’s experimented both with form (people tend to forget that his brilliant “KFC Famous Bowls” bit opens with a non-contextual dialogue exchange that borders on avant-garde, at least for comedy clubs) and content, basing more and more of his material on his personal life. Some of that is the expected consequence of big changes in that personal life (marriage, fatherhood); some of it is a conscious effort to push himself in new directions as a performer.

“It has to go someplace that’s scary and new all the time,” he insists, “or it’s gonna get really boring. If I keep covering the same subjects, or variations on the same subjects where I already know what the approach is, then it’s not fun to do. So what I have to keep doing is figuring out how to make it more personal and more real. It makes it more interesting for me, and thus more interesting for the audience to sort of see that struggle.”

For now, he’s trying to find the right balance of for-hire work in films like Nature Calls and his own projects. “I try to keep room for stuff, still do stuff that I create rather than just work for hire. I think if you do all work for hire, or all stuff where you’ve got to make it from the ground up, you get burned out either way.” In the meantime, he’s enjoying being at a point in his career where he can mix big commitments like Nature Calls and Young Adult with the pure fun of occasional one-scene roles on TV shows and in movies he likes. “If a friend of mine, or someone that I like, they give me a cool thing… like, I love Community. I love Bored to Death and shows like that. If they’re gonna offer me something like, just one great scene? I actually, really have fun acting — it’s not like a job for me. So if somebody gives me something really odd and different to do, then yeah, of course I wanna do it.”