The twisted mind behind "La La Land"

The star of Showtime's stunt comedy show explains why he's not Sasha Baron Cohen -- or a sociopath

Published February 15, 2010 12:01AM (EST)

Marc Wootton as Brendan in "La La Land."
Marc Wootton as Brendan in "La La Land."

Marc Wootton is not a sociopath. He's a very nice guy who simply doesn't like psychics or racist Minutemen or narcissistic aspiring actors all that much, hence some of the more notorious scenes in his new Showtime comedy, "La La Land" (11 p.m. Mondays), now nearing the end of its six-episode run. Even so, when you watch one of Wootton's alter egos torment his chosen victims with the relish more typically found among house cats and vengeful jihadis, you will wonder about him.

In order to answer our own looming questions about Wootton, we spoke to him over the phone from London, which he says is quite dark and rainy, but there aren't really men in black trenchcoats lurking around every corner, anxious to slit your throat. We don't picture that anymore, though; thanks to Marc Wootton and Sasha Baron Cohen, these days we're pretty sure that London is filled with men in fake teeth and bad wigs, anxious to make us look like ignorant Americans!

If you wanted to explain to someone what the difference is between you and Sasha Baron Cohen, what would you say?

I don't know. I'm a massive fan of Sasha's work. We've worked with some of the same writers. In America inevitably there's going to be bigger comparisons drawn, because ... I don't know, how should I answer that?

Well, the aim is a little different.

I'm kind of exploring character and it feels like the characters are going on a real journey. If you're comparing it to Ali G in the USA, those are interviews. And "La La Land," hopefully, feels like more of a slice of real life, because I'm massively intrigued by people. So I'd hope that these would feel like less sort of crowbarring jokes into a scene, and more letting scenes unfold. I would hope there's an equal measure of comedy and drama, because inevitably with conflict there's going to always be drama.

You seem to go into these things so armed with ways of handling people and confusing them. It's so much more elaborate than just being alarming and weird.

You know, I'm spending quite a lot of hours with those people. That's another difference between Sasha and me that he tends to go into a situation and leave quite swiftly. I spend time getting under people's skin and letting the characters breathe in the real world. So sharing that journey out to those mountains [in the episode where Wootton's documentary filmmaker alter ego, Brendan Allen, films a couple of rock climbers] was a good few hours. Sat in a car, chewing the fat, talking.

That's exhausting! Isn't it hard to stay in character for that long?

No, it's great fun. Because you're getting paid at the end of the day to play and when we're little people, playing is just the best thing ever, isn't it? And then as we get older, we forget about playing.

How do you choose your victims? How do you find the right people to interact with your characters?

It's really difficult. There's no way you can do it without a group. I kind of create the characters first, with the writing team in London. Then we went out and we played around with a few of them. There were several characters, and we sort of refined it down to three. Although, Gary [Garner, an aspiring actor that Wootton plays on the show] was a bit of a last-minute swap-out because there was another character called Robin that we thought we were gonna do, and then when I went and actually started being Robin in the real world -- he was kind of like a man-child and he had these really weird shorts and this suit, a little bit too tight, and everything was a little bit weird. And I had a bowl haircut, like a a child's hair. So I wandered about as that character without cameras -- this is where Wootton's therapy comes in -- I'm just wandering around the streets of L.A., you know, going to into Nordstrom's and hanging out downtown and just seeing what the vibe's like. You have to do this with all the characters, just to make sure that your hair's believable and people are buying the teeth and the turns of phrase. Because if you can't operate like that, then there's no hope when you get two cameras and suddenly the whole crew and, you know, questions could get asked. So Robin failed at that test driving.

So people didn't buy him?

No, people bought him, actually, and were really a bit freaked out by him and thought he was a bit mentally ill. Although, I love a challenge, and if we do any more of these, I'd love to bring that character to life again, because he's really sort of close to my heart. He's based on one of my nieces ... and a bit of Daniel Johnston. Do you know [of] Daniel Johnston (the songwriter and artist)?

Yes, and people's reactions to him were always pretty interesting, if you saw that documentary on him, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston." People were either a little stunned by him or they took him under their wing.

He's got that thing going on. And he's a bit special, if you know what I mean.

The character Gary Garner is pretty great, too, because people seem to really want to help him understand Hollywood and the business, God knows why.

We took some of that innocence, and I think Gary's pretty charming, even though he's a complete douche, he's got that charming edge. As Ruta Lee [a real-life actress who agrees to mentor Gary] sort of points out quite nicely -- she's gorgeous, isn't she, Ruta? -- I love the way she puts Gary into his place and reacts to him in the way that she does.

You want a character who's going to bring that out in people, their nurturing sides and their disgust.

Yeah, I love that. I think that's really important, and I really hope that people get that we don't just want to hit people over the head with a comedy hammer or run into a park and shout at an old lady. It's kind of about meeting people and letting them call me out as an idiot. Because we could obviously edit it to make people look bad. But I'm hoping that people fall in love with Ruta. She almost echoes what the audience is thinking and what they would perhaps say to such a ridiculous person as Gary.

The assistant Gary hires is great that way, too, the way she warns Gary about watching out for people who might take advantage of him.

Yeah, she's great isn't she? I felt awful repeating her comments [as Gary Garner] about [how one guy was wearing a] cheap watch. Those are the times when you're in character, but you're thinking, "God, I feel bad." But then she just went for me, that stuff by the lift, "You are never going to make it!" I really thought she was just spectacular.

People are the interesting thing. When you meet strong characters like that, they're inspiring. And I think, going back to your original question, how do we come up with all those people? It's really difficult. It's not me, it's a lot of clever heads sitting around and going, "OK, what would work with this?" So we pick a few people out who we actually want to undermine. So some people like psychics I've got a bit of an issue with, and, therefore I'd like to think that we've perhaps undermined some of them and perhaps been a little mean to the right sorts of people. And then there are other people like Ruta who go on a different place on the board, and they're people that it's not about going there and upsetting them, it's about them putting my character in his place. 

Now where do the climbers fall on the scale of people you want to screw with and people you want to enjoy?

Oh, god. I don't want to screw with the climbing community! I know the climbing community are probably going to hate me, but, if it's any consolation to them, I spent quite a few hours, which we couldn't show because we had to turn off all our cameras, being heavily grilled by park rangers. It was awful, we were penned in, and we got our comeuppance for being naughty. At the very end of the day, once police had turned up, because there becomes a point as well when police have got you and you've got your ID and it's Brendan's [one of his fictional characters'] ID and you've got Brendan's phone, and you think, Hold on, we're not filming anymore, do I just stop and go, "It's me, I'm called Marc Wootton, and I'm from London"? It's really awkward. And obviously that got to a point where there were charges being pressed and really an inflamed situation, and then I do have to come clean and say, "I'm really sorry I've wasted a lot of people's time here."

So are the climbers standing there listening to this?

Yeah, because everyone's being arrested at that point, so you've got someone saying, "That guy tried to murder us!" and you've got me going, "No, I'm just trying to make a film," and blah blah blah. This one park ranger was a bit angry because, I think it was the end of his day and I think he was probably looking forward to going home and having some food with his family, bless his heart, and my camera crew is standing there, some older guys, grown-ups, and this park ranger is going, "You should be ashamed of yourselves!"

What happened when the climbers found out that you weren't really Brendan?

I think they were really relieved. I did give them a handshake at the end of the day.

Did they think it was funny?

I think they did because they were in a situation that they were wound up by and fearful of, and then there's the release of the realization.

And it's not just people you encounter who aren't in on the joke -- Kiki, Chico the driver, Ruta Lee are all real people who don't know this is fake. Did you tell them afterward, or are they just going to find out when it's on the air?

There's a real mixture of people being clever enough work it out for themselves, and other people who don't question anything. It's kind of up to the field producer [what to tell people]. Sometimes the penny drops for some people as we're leaving, because suddenly there's a bit of time and reflection, and then some people guess and other people are told.

The person you torture the most would have to be the border patrol volunteer that Brendan Allen films for hours. You keep telling him "We have to start over! We have to do another take!" because Brendan wants it to be one continuous shot.

Yeah, he's protecting your wonderful country's borders.

Did you ever feel sorry for him? He keeps agreeing to do 50, 60 takes. Did you ever feel guilty?

Well, no. I know that on camera he comes across as a lot nicer, because you only have the benefit of seeing him on our show, and he's actually been really carefully researched. You could well have a different opinion of him if you looked at the way he talks and treats and speaks to anyone who isn't American in his eyes. Because I'd read all of the material on him, I was very aware of who I was dealing with. There is a point on take 60 where you're thinking, "Does this guy deserve it?" But he is quite a militant fellow. He is a figure that we wanted to poke fun at.

I did wonder if there was a sociopath behind this show, honestly, because so many scenes end with confrontations and tears. I felt a little sorry for some of the psychics in particular, because they all get so fearful and uncomfortable around Shirley.

Well, it's for Showtime, and obviously we're creating it for Showtime's audience. Hopefully it takes a bit of thought to work out. I know what you're saying. I suppose, if you feel sorry for those people who are professing to speak to the dead. I don't know, there's nothing I can do about that.

Hey, there's a clear place for the sociopath on television. Some of the most entertaining people I've known were borderline sociopaths.

There's a big moral dilemma because the people making the show are obviously executive producers, researchers, they're all sensible folk who have a conscience, I suppose. Obviously sometimes there will be the odd person who gets upset or angry.

But they also signed something saying they're fine with being filmed.

Yes, you're picking people who are auditioning for that type of thing. I wouldn't be able to get out of bed and look at myself if we just grabbed some folk off the street and put them through this grueling day of madness.

The show itself is about aspiration. You have these three aspiring characters, and really, every single person who's on camera is in their own way aspiring, too, or they wouldn't be on camera. That's why L.A. is the perfect place for this show.

People find out that my mum's passed away and I've got an inheritance, and one of those producers says to me that for $300 he could get me on IMDB. There are these really weird low-feeders, and as you say, L.A. is such an interesting place, because there are so many people feeding off others, and there's a whole little economic system that exists that's just quite scary, that hopefully we touch on. I hope that people laugh and think and argue and so on. I would love to chat longer but I have to go and… well, work with autistic kids now.

Nice try.

No, really, I know that sounds like a joke, but Wednesdays I work with autistic children! It's true, actually! 

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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