Comedian-Actor Patton Oswalt On The Hazards Of Too Much Nostalgia

Are you the same person you were in high school? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Patton Oswalt explains how his teen years helped craft his career—and informed one of the most outstanding film performances of 2011.

Patton Oswalt has no time to yearn for the past. Not when his current career highlight reel includes selling out comedy clubs on a nightly basis, recording chart-topping stand-up albums, penning New York Times best-selling memoirs, starring in critically acclaimed indie flicks, voicing leads in blockbuster Pixar movies, and acting in whatever-the-hell Adult Swim’s The Heart, She Hollar could be classified as. He seems to have all roads covered; the character he plays in the new movie Young Adult, on the other hand, has all the time in the world.

In the Jason Reitman-directed dramedy, which was released this past weekend in select theaters, Charlize Theron stars as Mavis Gary, an alcoholic teen novel ghost writer whose recent divorce sends her on a downward-spiraling Facebook-fueled mission back to her hometown to reclaim her high school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). The plan hits a bit of a snag, however—turns out he’s happily married with a kid. While trying to get past this little hiccup, Mavis forms an unlikely bond with Matt (Oswalt), an anti-Mavis middle-aged nerd stuck in town ever since a horrific high school bullying incident left him physically and mentally damaged. Comfortable with living out his days brewing homemade whiskey in his nest-adjacent garage, Matt develops a kinship with Mavis over their shared enthusiasm for drinking, trading stories from their glory days, and doing both activities at the exact same time. Written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno), the movie’s hilarious, raw, sad, and proof that Thomas Wolfe was wrong—you can go home again. But why would you want to?

Fast Company spoke to Oswalt about his second go-round as a dramatic actor, how high school life affects current career prospects, and the hazards of a life lived looking in the rearview mirror.

FAST COMPANY: This is the second film you’ve done some pretty incredible dramatic work in it. Was it easier this time out with Big Fan under your belt?

PATTON OSWALT: It was a little easier this time. But still, in Big Fan it was like I was playing in a vacuum, just this guy who is in his own head all the time. In this one, I got to play against other people, and somebody as amazing an actress as Charlize, so I ended up having to really up my game.

Between this and Juno, Jason Reitman has a great grasp on the teenage experience. What does he get about it?

Yeah, the two of those movies, they really understand those years. I think the one thing he really understands is that nobody really graduates high school completely. And that the shockwave of it sometimes can reverberate a lot longer than we can even realize.

In that vein, one of the things the film picks up on is the fact that adolescence has a huge impact on how you turn out—if you’re an asshole in high school, you’ll be a bigger asshole as an adult. What is it about our teenage years that makes them so influential?

I think it’s because the experience is just so highly pressurized. And then you go through that experience when you’re just flooded with hormones, so of course something like that’s going to leave a permanent psychic scar on you.

Does a person’s high school trajectory predict where they turn out in life?

There seems to be two options: It either totally predicts the way you’re going to be, or you’re going to rebel against that and be totally different. Those are the two ways I’ve kind of seen it.

How did your own personal experience in high school affect your own career?

I’m still very much the guy I was in high school in a lot of ways. But then again there’s ways that I’m different in ways that I look back at myself how I was in high school and am like, “Oh boy, I got to change that.” There’s definitely both.

In the movie, yours and Charlize’s characters are mired in the past without being able to let them go. How do you personally feel about the trappings of nostalgia?

I think they’re very dangerous. I think it’s good to have pleasant memories, but you have to live in the present, you have to move towards the future. And if you’re thinking that your past dictates your present or your future, then I think you’re pretty lost.

You’re the classic multi-hyphenate now: stand-up, huge Pixar movies, indie flicks, memoir writing. How do you choose which projects to do, how do you navigate your career?

Well, most of my career has been me getting very, very lucky breaks, not really that I’ve been navigating it. When I have what little autonomy I have, I just try to make the best choices I can.

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