Film and TV

Community's Dean: Jim Rash

You know who Jim Rash is, you just don't know you know him. He's had minor roles in a number of TV series and movies, and up until a couple years ago, he was probably most known for playing Andrew, the adorable sexual deviant on Reno 911! who kept getting into trouble with his love doll. Now, though, he's got a role in front of his biggest audience yet as Dean Pelton on NBC's Community, which was recently renewed for the 2011-2012 season. He chatted with Art Attack about acting, improvisation, and what it's like to be typecast as a perv.

Art Attack: How did you come to Community? Did you audition? Jim Rash: I definitely auditioned. I was actually late to the party, because they had already started shooting the pilot and so I went on location to where they were. They were shooting -- not at Paramount at the time, though now we shoot at Paramount -- and they were on break and I came into the room to audition for the dean along with a bunch of other guys. At the time it was what it was, like anything. It was a pilot, and you had no idea whether it was gonna get picked up or whatever, and the dean at the time by description was just a guest star, you know, a possible recurring. I had no idea once we got picked up how much the dean would end up getting used. So it was very fortunate.

AA: Was the dean's predilection for, let's say, offbeat sexual encounters present in the pilot or early scripts, or was that something that grew going forward? Rash: No, I think that sort of presented itself a few in. In the pilot, it was very straightforward, you know, just welcoming people to school, so you really didn't get a taste of anything outside of his professional life. I think the one that sort of turned the corner for exploring who this guy was a little bit more was probably the very simple shot of the dean sitting watching that Dalmatian video in the first season and wondering if this was gonna awaken something in him, and clearly it did. [Laughs.] So it started there. The first season was all about sort of this weird Dalmatian fetish, and then it sort of ran with that, and in the second season it became sort of like I guess a subtle furry thing? I think it's called furries, where he dressed up as the bee. And then it really just kept going from there, so it really was one of those things that sort of evolved. Maybe they just enjoyed watching me in different outfits, I'm not sure.

AA: Between this and Reno, there's almost like a weird through-line of you playing some guys with interesting hobbies, and I didn't know if the Community writers had worked that in on purpose or it was more of a happy coincidence. Rash: I think a happy coincidence. Or maybe I exude something that tells people I'm a social deviant at heart. I forget sometimes that Reno was always at some kind of bordello. And I did a recurring on That '70s Show, which was another sexually bold character, and now I'm another sexually mysterious character. So I'm really being a nice beacon for people who might be like that. [Laughs.]

AA: Was there a moment when you realized that Community was really hitting with fans and critics? Rash: I feel like in that first season alone you realized it was this little show that could, that it had this really strong fan base, this core group. And while maybe it wasn't doing the numbers that some of the out-of-the-gate shows like Modern Family were doing, it was a very specific, rabid type of group. I think around the "Modern Warfare"/paintball episode, and the chicken fingers episode with the GoodFellas thing from the first season, it started to really click there. It didn't have to be theme shows -- this season they've proven there doesn't always have to have some kind of special theme, it can be something like those bottle episodes where they were discussing the loss of Annie's pen -- but I think definitely around the late first season it started to find its voice even more.

AA: Speaking of finding its voice: How tight are the scripts? Is there any room left for you guys to discover stuff on set or improvise, or is it all pretty much on the page? Rash: I would say it's a lot on the page, but they're always up for people playing. The writers are great in the sense that from the table to what we actually shoot, it always evolves in such a good way. It's such a testament to the show and writers, because a lot of people think, Oh, you know, they write it, and we just shoot it. But I think for any show worth its weight, the strength comes in the tweaking and the rewriting as you go through it, because everything evolves. There were times when we would shoot and then, from the table to the end, the third act would just completely become this new thing and take us in a whole cool different direction. So I think that was a testament to them.

As far as improv, while there's certainly room for it and people love to play around -- I think Donald Glover's one of the ones who they could put together a string of all his improvised lines, just being a guy who came from 30 Rock as a writer with that brain -- it's always fun to play around like that. But we're also fortunate to have something good to launch off of, you know?

AA: Are you still able to find time to work with the Groundlings? Rash: Yeah, still do. I've actually got a show tonight. It's been great. The Groundlings has been something where for 11 years now I've remained teaching and performing and directing. Definitely when we were shooting Community I couldn't do as much, but I always try to remain active because it's just something that's been such a big part of my career and L.A. experience since I began.

AA: Has the dean's increased presence impacted your time with the company? Rash: Definitely time management changes when we're in production, but because I'm a recurring on Community, there's times when I'm not in the episode, so I have that time to try and catch up and do all the other things that I would like to do. The thing about the Groundlings is we do like four sketch shows a year; in other words, we'll do four runs of about two and a half months of a set sketch show. And you don't have to do every one, obviously, you can take some off. The last one I did was probably about a year ago, and I'm probably gonna direct one of them this summer, which is on the other side of the brain. So it's not a constant thing. It's an easy thing to balance and say, "Oh, I have a little time, I can take on a class." As far as improv shows, I try to keep doing those, and those are always at night anyway, so if I can make it to the improv shows, I just do it, because that's what I love the most.

AA: What got you into comedy? Did you always want to do sketch, or did you ever approach stand-up? Rash: I came out to L.A. probably 1994 or whatever, and I'd heard about the Groundlings, so in general I did go straight there and get into their school program. That took me about a four-year period of going through all the classes before I got into the Groundlings, and that was 11 years ago. So that was a huge impact on my career for sure, just in the sense of (a) being seen and (b) being exposed to the growing world of improv as it's influenced TV and film.

I still have a huge fear of the idea of doing stand-up. I don't mind going down on the ship with a couple people and having a bad night for improv, but going down by myself terrifies me. I don't know how Joel (McHale) or Donald, who do it religiously, can do it. I went and saw them perform in New York, and I'm just in awe of people who can do that. I think if someone pressured me and made me do it, I could, and I would grow to love it and get over that fear. So maybe I need to. But I just thoroughly enjoy the ability to just show up and not have any preparation and just improvise, as opposed to the people like those guys who just hone and hone and hone their material, and obviously are so good on their feet at the same time.

AA: It's almost annoying how fast they work. Rash: I know. Where does that confidence come from? If I have a show -- like, I'm improvising tonight, and somehow, it's in my brain all day, all I'm doing is obsessing about it. I like being nervous for anything, because I think it helps energy-wise, but that's all I think about. So if I was doing what they do, flying all around the country and arriving and doing a stand-up show, I think my head would explode. [Laughs.]

AA: What was the mood like on set when you guys were coming up on hearing about the pickup? Were you worried about getting a season three? Rash: Just relieved and ecstatic, obviously, that the news came when it did. I think you always are cautiously optimistic. You just wanna prepare yourself for whichever way it goes, because you love working and you love this show in particular, and so you're hoping for it. So I don't think anyone sat around saying it was a done deal, because I don't think there is such a thing, but it was cautiously optimistic for sure.

AA:What's your involvement with The Descendants? Rash: I have a writing partner who is also a Groundling; we met and came through the program at the same time. His name's Nat Faxon. He's also an actor. We started writing together at the Groundlings, but then around 2005, we started writing larger things. We'd written a screenplay a few years back, and it got us into some doors and got recognized by some people, one of which was Alexander Payne and his production company. So we went into meet with them, and they had optioned this book called The Descendants. We read it, and they were interested to see if we'd be interested in adapting it. We loved it, and along with Alexander Payne we all adapted the book to what has been shot. It got shot last year with George Clooney, and Alexander Payne directed it, and it comes out December 16.

AA: Is writing something you want to get more into, or do you want to stick with performing? Rash: Writing's definitely something that I love, so I want to continue to do it, and I think the ultimate goal for myself and, I would say, for Nat is to write something specifically for us. We're currently writing a pilot for HBO, and I would love for the acting and writing to converge at some point. Like, this HBO thing could be it, or whatever. We still love just writing in general.

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Daniel Carlson
Contact: Daniel Carlson