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Reid Scott's "Late Night" writer character "probably thinks of himself as pretty progressive"

Salon talks to the "Veep" and "Late Night" actor about villains, "Venom" and working with strong female leads


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 10, 2019 7:00PM (UTC)

In person, actor Reid Scott is warm, congenial and gracious. In his private life, he loves horror movies and playing with his two young sons. But to the world, he's the quintessential conniving dirtbag — and he loves it. Now that his run as Dan Egan on "Veep" has ended, Scott's gone straight to playing another self-satisfied guy in a tie in the new Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson comedy "Late Night." During a recent episode of "Salon Talks," we discussed man crushes, acting with powerhouse leading ladies and "hiding out" as characters we love to hate.

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Just as "Veep" was wrapping up, you said, "I'm going to miss that asshole." You were this asshole for eight seasons. You are now not the most likable character in this movie, at least to start. You are not the one our sympathies would be with. You are a guy who could do the conventional leading man, good guy roles. What is it about these assholes that appeals to you?

I don't know. As people, they certainly don't appeal to me because they're just horrible. Everyone in "Veep," all the characters, are just despicable human beings. That's sort of the point. I've probably been typecast a little bit, if you need someone to play the privileged white prick.

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Mindy Kaling reached out to you for "Late Night."

She did. I think she thought about how many privileged white pricks that she knows.

I'm carving out my own little niche. I think it's fun. When I first was studying theater and film, I was always drawn to the villain. I never really wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a director. I had this amazing professor who said, "You should really try acting. That way you know what it is you're asking your actors to do." One of the first plays that I tried, and I'm sure I was terrible, was "Miss Julie." I played John, who is much like Dan. He's conniving, backstabbing, two-faced, the whole thing. And I loved it, partially from the catharsis that you get out of doing things on stage, on camera, that you would never do in your real life. The villain was a place for me to hide. It was so fun to put on a character that felt so different than myself and I got hooked.

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Every time a villain or bad guy came up, I wanted that part. I want that part because you lose yourself, and that's when the magic happens for me. With something like Dan, there's nobody worse. There's just nobody worse. He's so, so awful to the point where I actually didn't like him there for a while.

If you did a competition with the characters on "Veep," I would say Selena's the worst.

She's the worst. Someone put out a list ranking everyone. I think I was number two, of which I was very proud.

You would definitely be extremely high up there.

Thank you.

Yet your character also got to develop. You changed. It's not like you just were bad people and you stayed the same bad people for years. You really also all went on different journeys and had real development . Your character got to get kicked down a lot.

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He got kicked down a lot. Which was fun.

But still an asshole.

But still an asshole. You can't kick a good asshole down.

That is the lesson. In "Late Night," you're a different kind of asshole. You're what those of us who do hot takes point to and say,"This is the problem. This is the problem." This guy who is the Ivy League product of nepotism.

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Exactly right.

You've also been in that world of late night, you've done a million talk shows, you've been backstage. Did you just go up to other white guys and say like, "You seem like you might be the problem"? How did you prepare?

It was really fun. Working on a show like "Veep," they're connected in a way. The writer's room in "Veep" is like murderers' row of comedy writers. A lot of the writers came from late night or sketch comedy, "Saturday Night Live." I've had a lot of access to those personalities. No one on our writing staff of "Veep" was anywhere close to as horrible as [my character] Tom started out. Oftentimes in television, the writers are one camp and the actors are another camp, but we were very collaborative so I had a lot of access to the writer's room. I got to be very friendly with a lot of these guys and girls.

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When I got the part of Tom, I told Mindy I was basing it on a few different personality types that I've seen. She actually knew some of these writers too. She said, "Oh my God, that's perfect. He's a lot like that guy, with a mix of this and a mix of that." Also coming from Dan, I basically just had to tone Dan down a little bit. I just had to give him a soul.

You do get to think you're a guy who cares about his brother, who cares about his family.

He's a real guy. He's just out of touch. I think Dan is looking for a way to sort of get the angle or get something over on someone. Tom is someone who's just been blissfully existing in this bubble of privilege his entire life and is very comfortable. Who wouldn't be comfortable in that little insulated, furry, Ivy League bubble?

When Mindy's character comes along, it really shakes it up, and I think he's caught off guard by it despite himself. I'm sure he considers himself to be liberal and considers himself to be open. He writes comedy and he works on a show run by the only woman in late night comedy. He probably thinks of himself as pretty progressive, and then when he's really put to it he finds that he's not. And it turns his world upside down.

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You're playing a character who is a writer on a show headed by Emma Thompson, who is herself an Oscar winning screenwriter. I was surprised at how serious this film gets. It comes at you as a comedy and then stealthily gets pretty dark.

It was something that we talked a lot about while we were making the movie. The cast is incredible, top to bottom. I think everyone is just blown away and very pleasantly surprised by all this success it's having even at this early stage. We all gravitated to the film because it was honest and it was funny. There was a message there, yes, but I think Mindy would back me up on this — the point wasn't to lean into the message.

This is just her story. This is just how it went down for her. She was the only female writer in a roomful of men on "The Office" and that's very difficult. She overcame hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. But the movie never gets preachy. It's just honest. It's just genuine. The moments that it gets very serious, were just born out of that honesty that this is just how it happened. It wasn't trying to sell a message or start a movement. It's just an honest reflection of the workplace in Hollywood.

It's just telling a story, but it's telling a story that not everyone has heard. It's also about race, it's about sexism, it's about ageism. I was really impressed that it really goes there with Emma Thompson as a woman in her late 50s at the top of her game in many ways.

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Being pushed out.

You seem to repeatedly, from the beginning of your career, gravitate towards projects that have very diverse casts, that are very female driven and that are really ensembles. That takes a certain kind of player to be in that world. You are not the guy who wants to be necessarily always vying for the number one spot.

I love that. My parents deserve a lot of credit. My parents are very progressive, liberal people. My mom is a very strong woman. Her mom, my grandmother, was the toughest Irish broad you're ever going to meet. My dad's mother was the first female English professor at Syracuse University and had a very influential hand in raising me. I lived with her in the summers and just would read every book in her house.

I went to Syracuse because of her. I've always had really wonderful women in my life. Strong, intelligent, tough women. My mom marched on Washington for Roe v. Wade. They really walk the walk.

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Early on in my career when jobs came up, maybe because I wanted to be a director, I liked taking the macro view of things instead of the micro. I just wanted to be part of like the best team. Who's going to put together the best story, assemble the best cast and be the most fun? Every actor has a bit of an ego, but I really try to keep that in check and just say, what's the best story to tell? We still live in a time where these stories are very few and far between. Fortunately for myself, I've been able to be part of these stories. Working on "The Big C" with Laura Linney and "Veep" with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and now "Late Night" with Emma and Mindy, I've had a blast working with strong, intelligent women. It's just, it's fun. It's fun.

I like learning things along. You don't want to do a project just because it's a paycheck or whatever. You're trying to grow as an artist and thereby, hopefully grows a human being too, that's why artists are involved in artistic endeavors. You try to go against the grain, do something different, take yourself out of your comfort zone, mix it up.

To that, you are not someone who came up through like the UCB world. You're not like someone who seemingly aspired to a comic career.

I was terrified of it.

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And yet here you are. Here you are where you are really known for a long and very prestigious career in comedy. Do you think that that is your way into these serious issues? It feels like everything that you've done, there is a very dark side as well. Even in "Late Night," there is darkness there. There is a scandal. There are health issues. There's a lot that the characters have to grapple with. It is very dark in the medium of comedy.

I've learned to love it. I think I've always enjoyed comedy. There's something really wrong with you if you don't enjoy comedy. My dad is a huge cinephile, so growing up he showed me everything. My dad has a very hearty laugh and when he would get going I was like, okay, even though I don't understand this, this is funny. But I was under the impression that to work in comedy, in Hollywood, you had to be a comic.

I thought everyone that was in a comedy came up through either stand up or some improv background, and I had none of that. I was always in awe of comedy. When I booked my first job, it was a pilot that didn't end up getting picked up. But it was a comedy. When I got the job, I remember my first instinct was "Awesome, I got a job." Then my second instinct was, "Oh no, they're going to find out that I'm not really a comic and I'll get fired and my career's going to be over before it ever started." I had no choice but to just over commit to the comedy and it worked, somehow. As these jobs go, one leads to another and before you know it, I working mostly in comedy.

I've learned to really appreciate what comedy can do when there is a message there. I love how comedy can defuse the situation to the point where the audience then becomes vulnerable enough to let the message in. When you go to see a comedy like "Late Night," you're leaning back in your chair, you want to be entertained, you want to laugh. I really do think that you open yourself up in a way that you wouldn't if you know this is a hard-boiled movie about this issue. You tense up and you approach the material differently.

With comedy, I think it burrows in surreptitiously in a way that you might not know. You walk away from it saying, "I feel good. I laughed, which is so cathartic, and I learned something as well." That sounds so apple pie in the sky but I think it really works. We're seeing it with this. It's getting people to talk about these issues in a way that they might not otherwise. I think more people will go to see this movie and get the lesson because it's a comedy than they would if they just saw, "It's about gender disparity in the workplace." I don't think you'd get the same audience, but this way I think people are going to find it.

Yet when you were promoting "Venom," you admitted your catharsis is horror.

I love it. I love horror. I grew up in the George Romero era, the Sam Raimi era, of horror. There's so much comedy baked into it. Being scared and laughing are so connected, in general, but especially for me.

The best kind of horror movies bring you to that point where you're going to scream and then you deliver a laugh. I discovered that early on and I love the thrill of being scared. I love the intelligence of, how do you work something funny into such a dire situation? Zombies eating your brains — how do you make that funny? "Venom" was great. Ruben Fleischer, the director, called me up. He's a big comedy guy and he loved "Veep." He said, "This is what we want. We want to bring some funny to 'Venom.'" I was like, "I'm your guy." I don't think people realize how funny Tom Hardy actually is. He's a cut-up and he was totally down to play around, it was really great.

It's a love story between Venom and himself, but also you and him.

Ruben and I talked about that early on. There were two ways to play the character of Doctor Dan. One was the typical two macho guys butting heads and fighting over the girl that they both love. That seemed so uninteresting to us because you've seen it a million times and then it makes the woman powerless, and that's just no fun. Michelle Williams, you don't make Michelle Williams powerless. She's another incredibly powerful woman. We wanted to do something different, so I said, "What if Doctor Dan just thinks that Tom Hardy's character, Eddie, is just great and has a man crush on him and is in awe of him all the time?" What does that do to Tom's character? It puts him on the back foot, because how do you dislike someone who's so clearly likes you so much? It made for this really kind of funny dynamic, which I think worked.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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