Justin Long has benefited from having fans in high places. At age 28, the actor has not only carried his own opposite the likes of Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller but also had filmmakers pen roles designed specifically for him. For his new film Waiting, writer-director Rob McKittrick admits he begged Long to take on the role of Dean, a dissatisfied waiter toiling at a T.G.I. Friday's–type chain restaurant. With his natural charisma and flawless comedic timing, it's easy to see why Long is in such demand—though that wasn't always the case.
Like many young actors looking to break in, Long had a rough time finding an agent. While attending Vassar College, he picked up a copy of Back Stage and began going out for every role he could. Many of them were, he admits, completely inappropriate. "I cannot sing at all," he says. "Yet I would go out for these big musicals." Using Ross Reports, Long called every agent he could find and was repeatedly told to send in a reel—which he didn't have. "It's such a Catch-22: You can't get an agent unless you have tape, and the only way to get tape is with an agent," he says. "Both my brothers are interested in acting, and I genuinely don't know what to tell them about breaking in. So I told them to look in Back Stage and start doing student films and experimental films and do whatever you need to get tape."
An open call in Back Stage seeking a new host for the children's TV show Blue's Clues finally paid off, although the initial audition didn't seem promising. "The first time, I was in there with 20 guys, and we weren't allowed to talk to each other. It was like prison," Long recalls. "I thought they were going to hose me down for lice and give me a jumpsuit. But I went in a bunch of times, and each time I went in, there were fewer and fewer people." He was about to begin his next semester at Vassar when he received a call offering him a three-month holding deal. "They were going to pay me 15 grand or something," he says. "I was broke and delivering pizzas, and it was more money than I'd ever seen." Needing help negotiating the deal, he phoned all the agents who had previously rejected him. When they started to ask him to send in a tape, he clarified he already had an offer, he just needed someone to help him handle it. Suddenly, the agents wanted to take meetings with him.
Long signed with Kristin Barber at Innovative Artists, who later left the business to become a preschool teacher. He is now with David Guillod at United Talent Agency. He remembers presenting two monologues to Barber, one from Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues and the other from Romeo and Juliet. He says he performed both with "a bad Woody Allen" impersonation. But she decided to take a chance on him, and surprisingly, she supported his choice to turn down the holding deal. "All I wanted to do was audition," Long explains. "I was so hungry to get out there, and the idea of signing a deal that would keep me from auditioning for three months was unbearable."
Long began auditioning immediately; within two months he landed a role as a nameless high school student on an NBC pilot then called Stuckeyville, cast by Bonnie Zane. She then recommended Long to her sister Debra, who was casting a teenager obsessed with a canceled sci-fi series in the movie Galaxy Quest. By the time Long finished shooting scenes with Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver in Galaxy Quest, his pilot had been picked up and retitled Ed. Long went from "Student No. 2" to the character of Warren Cheswick, becoming a series regular from 2000 to 2004.
Other roles followed, most notably the doomed teenager in the Jeepers Creepers films, but Long's biggest hit came with last year's Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, in which the actor starred with Stiller and Vaughn as a lovesick high school student. It's no coincidence the character was named Justin: Writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber wrote it for Long after seeing his work in Galaxy Quest. "I remember reading the description, and it said, 'Justin Redmond: 15. Gawky, pale, scrawny….' It was the most unflattering description," Long says with a laugh. "But him writing the part for me was a huge blessing, one I'll never be able to repay. So you take the good with the bad."
That the part was written for him didn't mean Long wasn't worrying every day he would be fired. "I heard the studio wanted to cast a younger guy, and the director really had to fight for me," Long recalls. "When they were casting, I sent them a tape from an episode of Ed where I joined the wrestling team. It was very over-the-top and full of physical humor. I was, like, 'I can do this.'" Even when cast, he didn't feel completely secure: He references actor Eric Stoltz, who was recast in the lead role in Back to the Future, Long's favorite film. "Eric worked, like, six weeks on that movie and was fired," he says. "I heard somewhere the footage is locked in a vault in Utah. I'd love to write an adventure movie, like Indiana Jones going to look for the lost footage with Eric Stoltz."
With hits such as Dodgeball and this year's Herbie: Fully Loaded to his credit, Long might be able to enjoy a little job security. But that's not to say he doesn't still audition for roles; he prefers it. "I feel weird not auditioning for some reason," he muses. "If I get offered something, it's because I've played it before and people know I can do it. So I usually end up wanting to play another role in the movie…and then they make me audition for that." For Waiting, his agent at the time advised him not to audition. "I met with Rob and said, 'Just so you know, I'd love to read for this,'" Long says. "And Rob said, 'Thank God; I was afraid you wouldn't.'" According to Long, refusing to audition isn't an option. "I just think it gives you a bad name and makes you seem kind of arrogant," he explains. "Also, I would feel strange getting a job without addressing any reservations someone might have about whether or not I could do the role." Long admits he enjoys getting to skip some of the steps: For example, he now goes right in to read for the director. "I haven't done a preread in a while," he says. "But I'll still be auditioning for a while, I hope—[unless] they just won't see me."
Still, Long hesitated before taking the role in Waiting. For one, the actor says he's not a big fan of gross-out comedies. "Luckily most of the gross stuff is being said by Luis Guzmán," he notes. "So all that stuff was in good hands." Long also wasn't sure he was comfortable playing the straight man in a comedy filled with colorful characters. "It's very much the unfunny guy, the sane guy in an asylum," he observes. "I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz." Ultimately it was McKittrick's enthusiasm and the challenge of playing a role unlike any of his others that won Long over. "I'm glad I did it, because I needed to prove to myself I didn't have to rely on a spit take or getting hit with something. It was an exercise in restraint," he says. "I learned from Vince how to, more than anything, just play the intention of a scene. In Dodgeball he allows the others to be crazy and hilarious because he's so grounded and real. I felt like that's what my function in this movie was: I was the guy passing the ball to people. And I'm just thankful there were funny people to pass the ball to."
In addition to four other films in the works, Long will reteam with Vaughn in next year's The Break Up, in a role Vaughn recommended him for. "There's no higher compliment," says Long. "People can say, 'Good job,' or whatever they want. But to mean it so much [that] you put someone in your movie, means the world." BSW