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Jim Gaffigan goes dark in his new movie, but the darkness was already there

The ‘American Dreamer’ star opens up about playing a sinister character in between performing stand-up comedy for crowds of all ages.

Jim Gaffigan goes dark in his new movie, but the darkness was already there
[Photo: courtesy of Saban Films]

There are many ways to get on comedian Jim Gaffigan‘s good side, and one of them is never to call his ever-evolving stand-up act “clean.”

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Yes, he avoids f-bombs, and sure, his subject matter tends to be more family-friendly than, say, Chris Rock’s repertoire, but “clean” is a limiting word to describe what Gaffigan’s stand-up actually is, which is: broad. His painter’s palette of topics ranges widely, Gaffigan being famous for exploring every funny angle in everything from Hot Pockets to religious customs to international travel. His demographic appeal is ages 8 to 80, and the venues he fills are vast.

However, even if you were to disregard all that and boil his entire performance style down to a word one might use to describe a well-scrubbed bidet, you’d likely still remain on his good side, because Gaffigan doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“I think the burdens that other people encounter in life are much more severe than me being known as a clean comedian,” he says.

Viewers may find themselves taking the comedian deadly serious, though, when they see his new movie, American Dreamer, an indie film that’s out in theaters today and features his most unsettling, unclean, un-Gaffigan-like role ever. Call it his bad side.

In American Dreamer, Gaffigan plays Cam, a potently disgruntled ride-share driver with a sideline chauffeuring around a surly drug dealer (Robbie Jones). In a fit of desperation one night, Cam kidnaps the drug dealer’s toddler son. That’s when things really start to get dark.

Taking the part wasn’t a matter of the comedian dying to show off his killer instinct in a morally fluid role. It was more about simply wanting to try something new.

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“I was just looking for a character that was layered,” Gaffigan says. “And maybe that was a reaction from some comedy roles I’ve done before where it’s just kind of like, ‘You’re the dumb guy. You’re the good-looking guy’s dumb friend.’ ”

[Photo: courtesy of Saban Films]
It’s not that the performer has never stretched beyond comedy before. He recently played a high-level Kennedy flunky in Chappaquiddick. Years ago, he played one of the 9/11 mourners in The Great New Wonderful. And in between, he played a football coach turned mayor on Broadway in That Championship Season. The same way that as a comedian Gaffigan will do drop-in spots in broom-closet Brooklyn clubs and also play Radio City Music Hall, as an actor Gaffigan enjoys getting out in front of all kinds of movie audiences. He wants to play everybody he can, and play in front of everybody he can.

When he got the script for American Dreamer, he saw a challenge worth taking on. He would be playing, essentially, the supreme embodiment of white male entitlement: a middle-aged man who thinks the world owes him everything, even as he is prone to self-inflicted stumbles on the path toward getting it. Although he ultimately puts himself in an extreme situation, Cam’s overall circumstances are grounded in reality. This complex character was a role Gaffigan could play. 

[Photo: courtesy of Saban Films]
“I knew I could totally get in this guy’s mindset,” he says. “I can identify with Cam because, from an acting standpoint, you can’t have any judgment on why someone’s doing something, even if it’s insane. You have to sit there and go, ‘Yeah, this is what I would do.’ ”

Sometimes, Gaffigan weighed in with director Derrick Borte on how to play certain scenes. At one point, the character runs into someone from the office where he was fired before the events of the movie, and the actor wanted to play him as covering up the truth of his situation: That he’s not doing very well at all. It was a character choice that came from his real-life experience, practically a lifetime ago.

“Cam is very different from who I am, but I was also somebody who worked in corporate America before I left to work in the entertainment industry,” Gaffigan says. “What people don’t realize is that when you leave the security of corporate life and pursue any kind of thing outside of that world, other people either feel sorry for you or they assume a Cam-type situation is happening. You can see it, and it’s humiliating.”

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While the actor had some experiences he could draw on in developing the role, he also had to spend a lot of time on-set just trying to get inside the character’s head. At one point, he disappeared so far into Cam’s head, he freaked himself out a little.

[Photo: courtesy of Jim Gaffigan]
In the scene, which takes place inside a car, Cam desperately needs to calm down a panicked woman before she draws the attention of a man lurking nearby with a gun. At first, Cam is pleading with the woman to be quiet, and then pleading doesn’t seem to be cutting it. The actress performing opposite him, Isabel Arraiza, was game for however far Gaffigan wanted to take the scene.

But that didn’t make it any more comfortable for him.

“I remember this moment in the car where I knew I wanted to go somewhere between pleading and violent, and it got pretty intense,” he says. “There were moments there where I was like, ‘What am I doing to this stranger?’ ”

The role in American Dreamer ended up taking Gaffigan to the dark places he’d signed to go romp around in. He was also able to take some breaks during the three-week shoot in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood to fly off and go perform stand-up somewhere far away. Jumping back into his role as Jim Gaffigan, beloved stand-up comedian, was a welcome return to normalcy.

However, he may have brought something back with him.

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Gaffigan’s latest stand-up special, Quality Time, which he filmed after production wrapped on American Dreamer, gets notably darker than his previous specials did. One bit about a true-crime story ends with a tag in which he asks the audience, “How weird it would be if two weeks from now, it turned out I was a serial killer?”

Did the comedian’s macabre movie role have an effect on his comedy—or was that darkness there all along?

“It wasn’t so much that it influenced my stand-up directly, but everything is kind of feeding everything,” he says. “I know that I’m a very flawed human. No one goes on stage and makes strangers laugh if they’re completely well-adjusted. I think that sometimes people are like, ‘He’s married, he has five kids, he doesn’t curse: He’s normal.’ Sometimes people attach ideas to comics, but they’re not seeing everything. Like, for example, Artie Lange, who people have ideas about based on what they’ve read in headlines, and Jim Gaffigan. Artie Lang is one of the sweetest guys I know, and Jim Gaffigan has demons too.”

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