“I didn’t know there were that many laughs in the film,” David Koechner says about his new movie, Cheap Thrills, in which the man who’s best known as Champ Kind in the Anchorman films plays the sadistic villain. “I honestly didn’t. It didn’t strike me as necessarily funny. We weren’t trying to be funny, but you realize there’s all these releases that have to happen. But I was surprised how much humor there was.”
Playing funny, of course, isn’t a new thing for Koechner–Anchorman aside, there’s the recurring role on The Office as prankster Todd Packer, or the countless small parts in movies from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Talladega Nights to Get Smart–but playing the heavy in a gory thriller is. It’s a bold move to go from wearing Champ Kind’s cowboy hat to being the person who makes Pat Healy and Ethan Embry do horrible things to themselves, each other, and random strangers in Cheap Thrills. Every actor likes the idea of playing against type, but how do you take a well-established personal brand as a lovable, occasionally crass goofball, and flip it on its head?
“I love playing in different genres,” he says. “I don’t get a lot of those opportunities, so this was perfect.” Here are some tips from Koechner on how–and why–to find those “perfect” opportunities to play for yourself.
Take the opportunity itself as a compliment.
Koechner’s never played a character like Collin, the rich sociopath who offers two down-on-their-luck construction workers the chance to win a lot of money by one-upping one another by doing outrageous, disgusting, and dangerous things–but he has taken other roles outside of comedy films before, in movies like Piranha 3DD and Final Destination 5. And when those opportunities come calling, he enjoys it.
“Often I’ll hear people say, ‘I think you’d be really good in a drama,’ and I appreciate that. I take that as a compliment, because it means they think I can act, given the chance,” he laughs. “But it’s a delicate thing, because you don’t want to just go straight out and do it.” Going too far in pursuing a role against type, without considering how, can damage the way people see an actor.
“I remember as a kid, you’d watch one of your favorite comics, and if they did something dark, you’d be like, ‘What? Stop it,’” he says. “But this is the perfect project, because it has that human and that dark quality to it.”
Don’t do something you’re not good at just to prove yourself.
There’s long been a trope that said that comedic actors, in order to prove themselves, had to do drama–but for every Bill-Murray-in-Lost-In-Translation thrilling display of talent, there’s a Jim-Carrey-in-The-Majestic snoozefest. That’s not something that Koechner buys into, and he’s equally suspicious of the idea that a good dramatic actor can walk into a comedic role easily.
“They shouldn’t have to prove themselves, because comedy isn’t necessarily–a lot of people can’t do it,” he says diplomatically. “You can be a terrific dramatic actor, but less skilled doing comedy. They’re just not funny.”
Still, if you’re the sort of actor who can just play when given the chance, that’ll be clear, too. “You also find really good actors can just do anything,” he notes. In either case, though, Koechner doesn’t feel the need to stretch for the sake of stretching. “I don’t think in terms of ‘Why can’t I do this?’ Or “Why can’t I do that?’ I’ve got plenty of great opportunities, so I focus on all the good stuff that’s going on.”
When you do get the chance, run with it.
Koechner may not lose sleep over the fact that, say, Scorsese has yet to call him (though Steven Soderbergh did find a small part for him in Behind the Candelabra), but when he got the chance to work with director Evan Katz on Cheap Thrills, he knew that he was going to have to carry this movie in a way he has rarely been asked to do before.
“Evan would tell me, ‘You’ve got to drive this thing. You’ve got to drive it a certain way. You’ve got to know when to speed up, slow down, take the turns. How do you get there?’” Koechner recalls. The performance that resulted is perhaps the strongest of his career, using the goofy charm he’s brought to his comedic roles to contrast with the parts of the film where it has to get darker.
Make sure you relate to the new project.
Part of the reason Koechner’s performance in Cheap Thrills is so strong is that he obviously has a passion for the material. A quick conversation with him about the film leads him to discussions of wealth inequality, the fact that Americans rarely talk about the war, the documentary The Corporation, and more topics that touch on the themes of haves and have-nots that is at the core of Cheap Thrills’ story about two hard-up guys who are willing to go to extremes for a little bit of money.
“I think the movie does a great job of laying it out–one guy is in desperate straits, and the other guy is too. It’s like a slow seduction, isn’t it?” That slow seduction is something that Koechner is directly responsible for on screen, which means he has to understand exactly how it works. “The audience goes along–that’s the best part. The audience goes along with them, little by little. They make the decisions with the characters. ‘What would you do? What would you do for this much money?’”
When you connect with the material, it doesn’t matter if it’s playing against type or not–you’re probably going to give it your all.
Cheap Thrills is available on VOD and is in theaters on March 21st.