"Space Force" standout Ben Schwartz reflects on pandemic anxiety, career shifts, and Carrie Fisher

The "Sonic" & "Parks and Rec" actor appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss the biggest, weirdest year of his career

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2020 3:00PM (EDT)

Ben Schwartz in "Space Force" (Netflix)
Ben Schwartz in "Space Force" (Netflix)

While most of us still can't even leave the house yet, Netflix is going to the moon. Sort of. Loosely based on an actual Trump-led new branch of our armed forces, the new series "Space Force" stars Steve Carell, Lisa Kudrow, John Malkovich, the late Fred Willard and, as the kind of social media manager you can easily picture at a Fyre Festival, Ben Schwartz. The former "Parks and Recreation" and "House of Lies" actor and writer, who earlier this year headlined the Netflix special "Middleditch & Schwartz" and was the voice of "Sonic the Hedgehog," appeared on "Salon Talks" recently via Zoom to talk about improv, social media and having a career breakthrough in the midst of a pandemic.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Let's talk a little about how "Space Force" came to be for you, because you got this role coming off a big disappointment in your life.

I did this TV show, which I put three years into. It was a pilot; J.J. Abrams, James Corden and Matt Bayton were producers. [Based on the UK series] "The Wrong Mans," [it was] an American version of that. We put it together. I loved it. I was really proud of it. I got to be the lead in this cool movie, this cool TV show opposite Jillian Bell, who's kind of a comic genius. And then it didn't go, which many pilots don't — many good pilots don't. I was a little bit disappointed because I put three years of my life into this and it was prime TV years also, right off "House of Lies" and "Parks."

This audition came up and it was just the easiest thing for me to say, "Yeah, I would love to audition for that." It was Greg Daniels, Steve Carell. So I auditioned, and the process of first audition to rolling cameras was so quick. They did a callback with Steve and in that audition, I improvised with them a bit. And then that was it. I was F. Tony Scarapiducci. A week later we were filming. It was crazy.

Let's talk a little bit about F. Tony Scarapiducci. He is an interesting guy. Describe him to someone who hasn't seen him yet, because he is a very unique personality in this otherwise very rigid, by the book environment.

I think that's one of the reasons why Greg and Steve injected him in there. He doesn't have any military background. He wears his hair how he wants. He's not a scientist, nor is he a spaceman,, they're called, the branch of the military that's Space Force.

In my head, he worked for Urban Outfitters or American Apparel or something where he was the media manager, failed, got fired, and this is his last resort. He somehow thinks that working for the government is now worse.

Then you find out that he's good at his job, but he's just so over his head, because when he makes a mistake for Urban Outfitters, nothing really happens. When he makes a mistake for Space Force, the world hears about it and he could really hurt the country. I think that's a big thing with all these characters. They're all good at their jobs, but they're so over their heads with the responsibility and the repercussions of their mistakes. But he's exactly what you think. He loves Twitter. He's the one who gets the word out. He's the one who tells everybody what Space Force is and he's the one that spins any story for good or bad.

He's trying to do it in a way that is not really the vernacular of anybody else.

Yes. It's great because Steve Carell plays a very military front and forward person who does not know what Twitter is, who barely knows how to use his iPhone. It's funny where my world is this, and he doesn't take it seriously at all. There's a part of me that always tries to impress Naird, Steve Carell's character. Then also there's a part of me that wants to be close to Mallory, who's the scientist, the kind of the hipper dad of the two.

If this were a project that were with different people behind it, acting in it, writing in it, a character like that would be, he's the social media manager and that's it. He's abrasive and doesn't jive with everybody else. But there is a character there. He has a moral compass. He has conflicts. He goes on this real journey. I want to know how that comes about.

I'm so happy you brought that up, for someone who was obsessed with "The Larry Sanders Show," who watched how Larry and Hank Kingsley and Beverly and all of them. They had their characters and the things that, if you watched a 30-minute comedy you know who they are, but they keep growing and changing.

One of the things that we did at the very beginning is that after my first audition I sat down with Greg and said, "Hey, we got to make sure this isn't Jean-Ralphio," which is a "Parks and Rec " character. "We've got to make sure he's more grounded. We got to make sure that he's more human." He was like, "Absolutely, we've got to make sure to do it."

Jean-Ralphio kind of got more and more Muppet-like and cartoonish, which was so fun to play, because I was a guest star and only in it for two minutes, so you don't need as much character development in some of that. But I'm in every episode of this one so it's like, you want to see what happens and how I deal with things.

The coolest thing also is that if we get a second season, I think it goes even higher and stronger because Greg is so incredible at those second seasons as well. You look at "The Office" and "Parks," you see the character development. You see how rich everything is. I think you can really hit great comedy when you have a little bit of drama and a little bit of heart. This is similar in tone to that.

But in the first season of anything, we've got to explain to you who the characters are to begin with before we start making them grow out so you know where they're coming from. We've got to explain what this job is. There's a lot that goes on in this first season.

I think that's something that Greg and Steve put a lot of thought into. I think you see it with Steve's character, with John's character, with my character. Also John Malkovich is in this 30-minute comedy, which is heaven. It's very exciting. That is a big thing that we try to do, that maybe my character starts off a little bit big and the idea is that's how he starts off because he's trying to impress people. And then slowly he finds himself a little bit more, through his fault and then through his mistakes.

When I look at the things that your colleagues, your directors, your costars have said, what comes up again is that people feel safe with you. Your costars feel really safe and they feel that you create this environment of trust. A lot of that also comes from a place of vulnerability that you let yourself be vulnerable as an actor. You have a three-part improv special on Netflix right now. I'm wondering what the correlation is. When I hear words like trust and vulnerability, I think, "Oh, that's someone who's done improv."

I think there's two things. One of the things is that I come from a family that loves very hard and trusts very hard. We care for each other very much. That was all in me coming through. I come from a family who worked very hard to get from not a lot of money to middle-class. We always went to public schools, which we loved, but then when it was time for college, I knew how hard it was that my parents worked to get me there, which is a big deal. I worked even before I was legally allowed to have working papers. I had a job picking up broken 40 ounce bottles at a school, or whatever it was. So that love is apparent in that idea of, I also didn't come from it from acting everyday.

I didn't know this is what I was going to do. I was a psych-anthro major. This is just a dream that I gave a shot at and so it happened. But I think in improv, there is a huge amount of trust. Before each show, it's funny, I'll say I love you to Thomas [Middleditch] and I'll give him a hug. That's the only thing I do. He has problems saying it back so he'll be like, "Okay, okay," every time.

He's Han Solo to your Princess Leia.

I would love to be Carrie Fisher. She's so incredible in those films, and in "Soapdish." Do you remember her in "Soapdish"? I wrote a remake of "Soapdish" with an all Latino cast. It was a script that I got on the Black List, which is this fancy writing list. I love that movie as well.

But the idea when we go on stage, we're going with literally nothing. We don't know what our suggestion is. We're going to talk to an audience member, hope that audience member has something good to say and something that'll warrant a fun show out of. And then for our tour shows, we do shows for an hour and 20 minutes.

For Netflix, we needed to get it under an hour. We're improvising with nothing for an hour and 20 minutes. You've got to trust that person, you've got to be open. The biggest thing is you have to listen as hard as you can, and be able to react as quick as you can. I've learned that from people who are far more talented than I am in terms of straight up acting. They love it because you're always in the moment with them because even if there's a thing or if they go some way, you're trained to just listen and react. I think a lot of the cornerstone of what fun acting can be found through just that. 

It's funny, my dad or my mom will email me, and the stuff that you said is the stuff that they're like, "Hey, people really say that you're open and you care about people." That's the stuff that I get the texts about and they get really proud of.

Not everyone can do that, to have that training where you know that the people that you're working with, if something goes off the rails, they've got you.

Jim Carrey, there's this doc he did when he made "Man on the Moon." I just think Jim Carrey's very smart, one of the funniest guys. He said what the audience wants when he does stand up is, they want to feel comfortable. They want to look at you on stage and know that they're going to be okay. They don't have to worry. Thomas and I, at the beginning of our shows, talk to the audience, show them that we're here to have fun and make people comfortable so then when it's time to improv, they're ready to go and they're excited.

And now of course, the idea of being on a stage and being in a crowd of people is tabled for a while.

It's so interesting. We canceled all of our shows, and then these Netflix specials came out and people seem to dig them. There's been a big appetite for us to go out again. I'm like, "No, we're going to wait until everybody's safe." But I wonder what the next stage of that looks like, because my assumption is it won't be full capacity theaters. It will be months and months from now. Staggered seating maybe, but I'm not quite certain what it looks like.

A lot of people in the acting world are wondering that as well. And we as audience members are wondering. What is the shared experience of watching a movie or watching a show or listening to music if everyone is standing six feet apart, when it's the intimacy that creates that relationship between the crowd and the performer?

Do you think audiences will have an appetite for shows and movies that involve the experience we're going through now, or is it going to be the exact opposite, where we don't want to think about anything that we just had to deal with for the past four months or something like that?

You can't ask me questions Ben, because that's my job, to ask you questions.

Who cares about me?

What's your answer to that?

No way. You can't do that. You're not allowed to do that.

Are you thinking with an eye to, "I want my future work to be acknowledging this" or "I want to take it in a completely different direction"?

I sold this movie with Sam Rockwell and I, that I'm writing right now to Searchlight, which is very exciting because they get nominated for Oscars and win Oscars. I'm like, "I want to write a movie." This is my fifth or sixth movie I've sold to a studio, which is very exciting. But I thought of this idea before all this happened, so I'm running an idea that I had before.

I will say there's a new idea that I'm playing around with with one of my friends now that has nothing to do with it. For me, I feel like I'll search for those movies and TV shows made by those really cool filmmakers that have people like, "You got to check this out," that revolve around this. But all the TV that I'm watching right now is the stuff that makes me escape. I was listening to Disney Classics while taking a shower this morning. I mean Disney Classics, just because it calms me down and makes me excited and happy.

I wonder what it will be like, because oftentimes when I'm writing as an improviser, you think of the unusual thing that's in the room. And that we're all trapped inside and we can't do the things we want to do is that thing.

The project that I'm writing for Searchlight has nothing to do with that. Although now, afterwards, you can make parallels to some of the metaphors in the movie and be like, "Oh my goodness, I guess that makes sense here as well." And same with the new one I'm doing. It's just fun.
I just want to write fun things, because I wrote a dramedy or two that I was supposed to direct right about now. And now I'm like, "You know what? That's why I love 'Space Force.'" "Space Force" is a 30-minute comedy. That's why I love "Middleditch & Schwartz." We are just two goofs making up a bunch of stuff on stage, who had 20 years of experience doing it. We understand how to structure it, make it feel like a fun show. That's what I'm looking for right now.

I want to talk about a little bit of this because you have been having, career-wise, an unprecedented year. "Sonic the Hedgehog," co-starring on a TV show, co-starring in a movie with the legend Billy Crystal, Netflix specials. And now we're all hamstrung.

There are other people out there who are having successes and joys and triumphs in the midst of this terrible moment. I'm wondering how do you do that? How do you appreciate it and feel gratitude for it and enjoy it while you're also experiencing what is a very difficult and stressful time for all of us?

I am much like how my family raised me. The first thing I'm worrying about, is everybody okay? You don't worry about your own stuff. This is all playtime. I'm so lucky to be getting paid to do this. I did "Middleditch & Schwartz," I improvised for 18 years for free before the past two years where we learned that we can tour and make some money.

First thing is you worry about all that stuff. You donate where you can donate, you do however many games I am playing online for charity, whatever we can do. And then I was never very good at enjoying the moment, that's something that I've been trying to get better at. When you listed those things, I'm like, "Holy sh*t, who is that?

It's hard because that's real life stuff. The real life stuff is always going to trump all the fun little things. But it is very interesting because my barometer of if anybody's watching or if anybody's enjoying anything is just going on Twitter or reading people's reviews. Usually your barometer is, you go out in real life and people come up to you or you can see what human beings feel or see, or little kids come up to me during "Sonic," so excited. That stuff is so exciting. So I don't really have that.

I'm not quite certain if it's a positive or negative, but I haven't given myself much time to think about it outside of my neuroses of, is everybody okay, what are we going to do? And the anxiety that I feel is, when is it going to end?

J.J. Abrams has a great line that the best part of the movie is the darkness, when all the lights go down and you don't know what's going to happen. I think there is joy in some versions of the unknown, but I'm finding anxiety in the unknown end of this, not knowing what it ends, when it ends and what it looks like for a bunch of months. So I can't prepare or get myself mentally prepared.

That's the stuff I'm worrying about, and I can't believe how lucky I am. I cannot believe that the timing of this just happened to be the biggest moment in my career is happening during this. But the good news is, I got to make people laugh. The "Middleditch & Schwartz" specials, the responses I've gotten on Twitter or the articles or the critics reviews talking about how they belly laughed or cried, they needed it so badly. That's like heaven. That's heaven to me. I feel like oftentimes when we're on stage we're just two dummies doing stuff. And then you hear how it affects somebody, or like a Jean-Ralphio clip or watching "Parks" really helped somebody through this. Then you feel like you're doing something well. It comes off of my mom being a Bronx school teacher for 50 years, my dad working in therapy, then my dad working in YMHA and my dad helping people out. 

Because you mentioned Twitter, and you have a huge social media following, have you thought about what would F. Tony think of your social media? Would he have some advice for you on how you could spice it up?

I think he would just ask me to retweet branded stuff. I think that's what F. Tony would do. His pathos or his mission statement is, don't get yourself fired. That's all he wants to do. Don't tweet the thing that'll get yourself fired. In the show, that's kind of what he's thinking. And he'll sometimes mess up and be like, "Ugh." I think he would be like, "Oh, this is a funny guy. Let's see how we can make him work for us for no money." 

I think you can find all these fun little ways to play within the confines. That's like independent filmmaking. Usually your restriction of budget, your restriction of sets, your restriction of everything, you'll find these cool little ways to get through certain circumstances. I think comedians and artists will find a way to take this and make the best of it. I'm not saying that it will be better, but they'll find a way to be funny, or find a way to be artistic and beautiful, somehow.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

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

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams