Jim Gaffigan’s second act is much richer than his Hot Pockets persona

The comedian spoke to Salon about religion, ghosts, and his dramatic turn in films such as "Light From Light"

Published November 4, 2019 4:00PM (EST)

Jim Gaffigan (Salon Talks)
Jim Gaffigan (Salon Talks)

Jim Gaffigan's newest role is decidedly serious. Gaffigan stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss starring in the new indie drama, "Light From Light," out in theaters this month, which is about the afterlife and humans' preoccupation with it. Gaffigan plays a widower wrestling with his wife's passing. It's just one of many dramatic roles Gaffigan has signed on for that come out this year and next.

Gaffigan's serious turn as an actor, which viewers got a chance to witness in 2017's "Chappaquiddick," is a pursuit the comedian has always been in search of. Only recently, though, Gaffigan admits, has he gotten a chance to explore this side of the craft. Aside from his introspective take on getting into character and contemplating what happens when we die, Gaffigan indulges Salon's questions on Hot Pockets, his legacy as a comedian, and living with his family of seven in Manhattan.

Watch Jim Gaffigan's "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the transcript of our conversation below, to hear more about why he loves acting in independent films, how thinking about Trump keeps him up at the night, and the story about the first time his kids ate a Hot Pocket.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm glad I'm your first stop of the day, so I got you fresh.

Jim Gaffigan: This is like a salon.

Except we don't do pedicures.

No, okay, but it's an introspective, a thoughtful kind of contemplative environment.

Most people know you from your comedy specials and your show, but as we learned already in the film "Chappaquiddick," you are in fact, a fine dramatic actor.

Thank you.

What made you want to take on the role of Richard in your new film, "Light From Light"?

I had loved the script. Also, I wasn't familiar with Paul Harrill's other work, but I watched some of it, and there was a pacing about his films that I thought was really intriguing where it takes its time. I'm a slow-talking Midwesterner, so every time I act in anything, the director's always like, "Can we speed it up a little bit?" Whereas Paul's movies kind of sit, and you kind of ruminate on them. He presents questions in a very slight way.

So, I love movies that present questions afterwards — that you can talk about with the friend that you've hopefully seen it with. That's what I saw in this script. Then, when Marin Ireland was on board . . . I think she's just amazing.

The backstories of the main characters – Sheila, a single mom, and Richard, your role – are left a little opaque and much like you might imagine a ghost. How did you approach the role, without knowing too many details about this guy?

That's what's so fun about a role, is you have this conversation with the writer, director and create this backstory, and create things that you can bring to the character. So, it was kind of a building process. When I'm hired on a film I'm definitely a soldier to serve someone else's vision, but you want to come up with ideas. In the end, it's a lot of listening. Then, you're doing a scene with a great actor and the scene's going to go where it's going to go.

How long was the shoot?

It wasn't that long. This one was probably 16 days. Everyone's there for the right reasons. No one's making money, no one's sleeping in comfort, but you're excited about the creative opportunity.

Is the craft service good?

No, it wasn't. I bring my own little VIAs. Now this is a commercial for Starbucks, but I like strong coffee.

You just live on that?

I'm such a low-energy guy.

So nothing makes a dent?

Nothing makes a dent.

Well, I need less coffee.

That's why we're such a good team.

I think so. I think we're going to need to follow this interview with a morning show.

We take over for Kelly and Ryan.

It's time for them to retire.

They're going down. They're going down. They're going down.

She's had so many co-hosts.


Let's pitch Jim.

Let's just pitch us.

Let's pitch us. All right, so in the film, Richard believes that his departed wife may be haunting their home. As an actor, what was the experience like of having a wife that doesn't actually exist and having to fill in the blanks about her? Was it like a green screen in your mind?

I had gone through a period where, preceding this, my wife had almost died, so it was something that I could tap into. But I don't know, I think as humans we kind of . . .  If we're confronted with spiritual questions we'll go to an intellectual place. Often there is kind of a mystical side to things. Whether you're at a funeral and whether you believe they go somewhere, there is some level of communication.

My mother passed away 30 years ago, more than 30 years ago, and I still feel a certain connection to her and feel a presence. Is that a ghost or is that just the remnants of an emotional attachment? I can't really articulate it. So, there is something about that, that I think a lot of humans . . . Maybe a very stringent, kind of logical person wouldn't go there, but I can go there pretty easily.

Yeah, I also lost my mom almost 12 years ago, and it's more recent than yours, but that tie, that connection that you have, it lingers. It has opportunities to resurface whether as grief or joy, at different times, which I think is really special.

I think it's fascinating how humans, you'll just see on social media some celebrity will pass away and there will be this . . . no matter their human failings in real life, there is this move to – not make them a saint, but – to kind of honor them in the best way possible, which I think is really interesting. Because particularly for Richard, this character that I play, it's a very complex relationship he has with his wife. But I think that's a very human thing to do, right? I mean, I never met your mother, but I'm sure it was complex. Behind it, she's someone that was your mother, so it's very positive I would think.

Yes, absolutely was. We were close.

Now I'm interviewing you. What would your mom think of me?

Of you? She probably would have thought you were funny, but . . . 

Too dirty? She probably would think I was too dirty.

I don't think that would be the critique. My mother was like a hardcore civil rights feminist of color. My father likes to say that she did have a good sense of humor, but between the two of them, dad is the funny one. She was always very conscious, one could never make any off- color . . .  you know, the jokes that are funny, that are not appropriate. Because she would sort of stifle a chuckle and then give you a look. Like, "We don't . . ."

She was in touch with the issues, the importance of them.

Always. So from everything I've read about you and especially your wife, who you've called Shiite Catholic, faith plays a very important role in your life and in your family's life. Did working on the film sort of push you to contemplate the afterlife in a deeper way or had you just, as you described, done that anyway?

It's interesting because I led most of my adult life as an atheist or an agnostic, I never really thought that much about it. But when I entered into this relationship with this woman who became my wife, there were different events that opened me to these things. Also, not unlike many comedians or performers or creative people, I do have this contrarian spirit. To tell my comedian friends that I believe in God is absurd, but then again, if someone goes through recovery there's the notion of a higher power; obviously they define it on their own terms. I don't know. There's part of me that's resistant to any kind of orthodoxy.

So, when I hear myself described as someone who's on some team, I kind of bristle, but there's also part of me that's like, I don't know, inherently, I think humans are monsters. Whatever can kind of guide you towards a path of decency, I think, and that's very individual, it's pretty important to kind of pursue. That's why I'm running for senator.

Which state?

I don't know. I think we're covered in New York.

You know, that's interesting what you're saying about the idea of orthodoxy. I'm very much like you and I was raised ecumenically. There's the Jewish side, and then the Christian side, and then the atheist part and it's all mixed in there. It's an interesting space to be in.

Because you have these personal philosophies that we're kind of touching on, I've always prided myself on being friends with people of different opinions, but I find that just similar to being a Catholic, it's virtually impossible to defend it. In this day and age, I love my friends that have different opinions, but some of the different opinions are so maddening that it's a struggle. Do you know what I mean?

I love having friends that have wildly different opinions than mine if we can have a civil conversation on it, but it's harder and harder. Like this guy who's the whistleblower, Vindman. It's like the way that he's attacked, that kind of s*** keeps me awake at night. It's like, "Am I supposed to be doing something?" That's why I'm kind of like, "You can have a different opinion, but why are we going after this guy?" I don't know, I'm just being honest.

I want to talk a little bit about the disparities between comedic acting and dramatic acting. Generally, you're a comedian and then, you have something like 10 films out this year.

It's a lot, yeah.

And at least four of those are dramatic roles. We've seen you in smaller TV and film roles beginning in the early part of your career. When did you start to make that progression to darker roles?

Let me step back and say there are funny people that love acting and there are funny people that like to be in shows and movies. I really enjoy acting. I love the more complex character and the more complex story, and maybe the more subtle performance is more fascinating and more rewarding to me. Those tend to be dramatic roles. I've always wanted and I've always pursued them, it's just taken this long to get an opportunity to do them.

I know Seth Rogen, I don't know him that well, but he's all about the character, too. I did "Hotel Transylvania 3," but I've never done some of these broad comedy films, but I'm sure they have a blast doing it. I also, I kind of focus on not just creative fulfillment. I try to do stuff that I'd want to watch. So, "Light From Light" is not something that my kids would like, it's something I would like. Do you know what I mean? Whereas, "Hotel Transylvania 3" was fun because I knew my children would watch it.

Is it hard to shift your brain, on set and in your prep work for a serious role, from the comedian's daily work of looking for material?

I think it's a different task, but it's equally rewarding — particularly if you're building a character. That's what's so great about indie films is there is such a collaborative spirit, wher as if you were some half-hour comedy and they plug you in, they're like, "What we need is [for] you to be the dumb white guy who does this." Whereas in an indie film, the more complex the character you can provide, the more rich the story becomes. So, you can bring questions or ideas to the director or the creator of the project and they'll be interested in that. There's a certain independence.

That kind of thoroughness, which I think is pretty important for any type of field really, but I think for stand-up it's really important, but also for acting. There's that element, but also the element of listening. I love being a piece in this broad canvas of work.

Let's talk parenthood. I have two kids, you have many more, God love you. Are there going to be any more?

I hope not. My wife did survive this kind of medical situation, so to be perfectly honest, I would be open to it if it happened. There's certain chapters in your life. There's not a single one of my kids I would turn in. You know what I mean? You're not allowed to turn them in, right?

It has to be said, Hot Pockets is one of my favorite quotables. I'm not alone. I'm sure you're horribly tired of hearing it, but part of that success put food on your table.

It sure did.

But, speaking of food, it's the universal connector. My mom was determined to raise me in your neighborhood, in what is the original East Village, as a healthy kid. So I was fed kind of barfy carob instead of chocolates. To date, I have never had a Hot Pocket. Am I going to live longer?

I think so. By the way, my children didn't have a Hot Pocket until two years ago.

But why did they have one two years ago? What happened?

We rented a house for a week and the people that we rented the house from thought it would be funny to fill the freezer with Hot Pockets. Because in the joke that I did 3,000 years ago, all I do is disparage Hot Pockets. But people are like, "You love Hot Pockets." I'm like, "You didn't listen to the joke, but that's fine." Again, it's all good.

What did your show, "The Jim Gaffigan Show," teach you about yourself and your family? Because it must be sort of an odd experience to watch an iteration of yourself play out on TV, that you also had a hand in creating.

It's a great question. Because I wrote and my wife directed and we co-wrote, there is something about that show where it took so much time. There's a certain balance. New Yorkers, we try and do everything, but running a show that is biographically based, we couldn't outsource it. So, my wife and I, we created this thing that we couldn't have someone else write. Not based on them being talented or not, it was because it was so autobiographical that, the woman that I'm married to in the show is named Jeanne Gaffigan, which is my wife's name. So, she would be like, "We can't have this happen." So, it restricted some of the story, but it also became very personal.

Through the entertainment industry and doing stand-up, you are educated on how you come across. You're educated on your failures to communicate, constantly. So, with that show, I think I also learned that TV's a lot of work and I'm not somebody who's desiring to be more famous.

Like, I turn stuff down where people are like, "It'll make you famous." I don't want that. But if the premise is that'll make you more famous so you can get another role like "Light From Light," maybe I would contemplate it, but in the end I probably wouldn't do it.

Many of us were introduced to you through the Hot Pockets bit, but to be fair, you have shaped this successful career across entertainment. In the spirit of your film "Light From Light," what do you want people to remember you for?

What I would like to be remembered for is somebody who had decent priorities, somebody who worked hard, wasn't a horrible father, took opportunities that was presented to him and a decent guy. I don't know. But you know, it's probably going to be The Hot Pocket Guy on my tombstone or in my obituary, "Hot Pocket guy died."

That's a great epitaph. I mean, who could ask for more?

Hot Pocket Guy. The microwave – "Ding!" That'll be the end.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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