The miracle of Arrested Development—the wonderfully twisted and laugh-out-loud hilarious Sunday-night Fox comedy—isn't that it swept the Emmy Awards in September with statues for best comedy, writing, directing, editing, and casting. It's not even that creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his writing team manage to come up with completely original and deliciously entertaining storylines for a flawless ensemble cast of warped characters. No, the real surprise is that, following a freshman season of critical acclaim and rapturous reviews, the series has defied the odds and somehow gotten even better in its second year.
For those who still are in the dark, Arrested Development centers on the über-dysfunctional Bluth family and features a cast of neurotic, self-centered, and just plain cruel characters. These roles are inhabited by a group of talented and daring actors from a variety of backgrounds. At the center of the storm is Michael Bluth, played to slow-burn perfection by sitcom veteran Jason Bateman. Portia de Rossi, whose run on Ally McBeal only hinted at the wicked humor within, plays Michael's selfish twin sister, Lindsay Bluth-Fünke. And, at the head of the ensemble, in a dual role as fugitive father George Sr. and his hippie brother Oscar, the great Jeffrey Tambor sets the tone for the delightfully offbeat atmosphere. The three actors sat down recently in Bateman's trailer—Bateman rarely sat, preferring to prepare coffee for his guests—to discuss the much-beloved, if ratings-beleaguered, program.
Back Stage West: Congratulations on the big wins on Emmy night.
Jason Bateman: The biggest shock of my life, hands down.
Portia de Rossi: The most exciting day of mine.
Jeffrey Tambor: We were ebullient the entire night. And still are. When those words came out of Ellen DeGeneres' mouth, I went into shock. I was up on my feet screaming; I'm still hoarse. Excitement is sort of passé now in Hollywood, but there was much jumping up and down for hours afterwards. It was so important to our show, not only the aesthetic validation, but it helps us, too.
De Rossi: It gave us the breathing space that we needed at the exact time when we needed it. Also it's good to know that, creatively, we can keep doing what we've been doing without interference. Not that Fox has ever interfered with Mitch and his vision for the show, but it's nice to know that it works and it was awarded for working. And why mess with a good thing?
Tambor: The added bonus this year is that the tenor of the critical reception seems to be that we are appreciated as even better than last year. That we've moved up a notch. And that's really important.
Bateman: I think we have.
De Rossi: I do, too.
BSW: When you first received the script for the pilot, did you know you were onto something special?
De Rossi: I did, definitely. Because I did Ally McBeal, I just wanted to make sure that I was going to do something as good as Ally and as groundbreaking and innovative—all those words are really overused—but I just wanted something that excited me. And when I got the script for Arrested, it was probably three or four pages in, and I remember looking up at the wall and thinking, "OK, what do I have to do to get this?" I think it was Lucille's line about how she loves all of her children equally, and then there's a flashback of her saying, "I don't care for Gob." I said, "OK. I have to have this." And I auditioned and did everything I could to convince them that I could play this wonderful part.
Bateman: There was a page attached in front of the cover that said, "Any actors not interested in roughing it—there's only going to be a Honey Wagon, there's going to be very minimal makeup, very minimal lights, we're going to be running and gunning, it's basically going to be a student film, that's going to be the style of this show—don't bother reading. Don't even open up the script." At that point, I knew I would be lucky to be involved in this, because it was something so different.
Tambor: I didn't know that. I was a guest star, I wasn't part of the mishpocheh yet—that's a Yiddish word for family. I came on to play George Sr., and my first scenes were with Jason, and we had such a good time. Apparently I said something to David Nevins, our producer, that he would be negotiating with me to come back. I don't remember saying it; I think he's making it up. But I had such a great time. Then I was walking the streets of Prague, doing a movie, when they asked me to join this dance. I let out a scream, I was so happy. It's the best way to join, and I love it.
Bateman: What Jeffrey did, too, was remarkable. I think he was the first person to talk. First day of shooting, first scene, first line. We had done some very loose rehearsing for a day or so earlier, but I remember watching him because I'd been a fan of his, and the tone that he took with the character—the very sort of non-acting, realistic, non-winking, this is a drama to these characters—he set a tone for the comedy from an acting standpoint that we have tried to carry on to this very day. So it was an invaluable thing to not only have him on the cast but also have him do the first scene. At least from my standpoint, because I was still a bit uncommitted as to what sort of tone the comedy was going to take. Obviously the scripts are written broad and absurd at times, and it becomes sort of a puzzle to figure out how to back into that so that it's not overbearing. He did that for us and continues to be our leader.
De Rossi: There was an energy that first day shooting on the boat that I have never felt before within a cast. From people that have worked in the business forever, like Jessica Walter, to the kids; all of us knew that we were doing something special. I kind of remember looking at everybody as we were shooting in this seemingly haphazard, crazy way; we were all moving around and just embracing this form. For someone who's always worried about not stepping over your mark by an inch and waiting around for all these really long lighting setups, it was very, very exciting.
Bateman: It was living and breathing with these characters. Obviously there were no walls, because we were outside. But, beyond that, there were no marks, hardly any lights, and these hand-held cameras were just moving around, capturing us living. So, right from the very start, it became this very real mockumentary that we try to hold on to.
BSW: Jeffrey and Portia, your characters can do some fairly despicable things. How do you keep the audience caring about them, even at their most unlikeable?
De Rossi: I have to tell you, I don't make a conscious decision to try to make this character warm or likeable in any way. I think it's just the mere fact that she doesn't know that she's being completely inappropriate or absurd; she thinks she's being very kind and considerate. She doesn't know that it's not what normal, considerate people do and think and feel. So I don't worry about it so much. It's in the writing, the structure of the character, the warmth, the depth—it's all there. So I'm just so fortunate that all I have to do is say the words.
Bateman: The writers are good at putting in a lot of ignorance in these characters that allow you to let them be unkind. Archie Bunker was the worst guy in the world, but you didn't blame him, because he didn't know any better. So, as smart as they write the material, they sort of dumb down the characters sometimes so they can get away with saying it.
Tambor: I'm lucky because I have two characters. So whatever I don't do as George, I can sort of pawn off on Oscar. But I don't worry about the likeability factor. I grew up with Jewish uncles, and my uncles threw me into the swimming pool to teach me how to swim, all for the sake of learning. My people sort of always kept their affection close to the vest, so it came out in a certain way. My father was a great man, but I would say to him, "Dad, I got the lead in a play, are you excited?" And he'd wave his hand and say, "I can't stand it." That was his way of saying yes, but it just came in a different way. So I sort of understand that humor, that's his way of saying—not "I love you," because that's treacly—but it's a different system. George is a Darwinian. He's just saying, "I'm raising my kids to survive. Of course I love them. I don't have to tell them."
But we're all just characters who move around the central character of Michael, and we are saved by the performance of Jason, because we're able to go as far as we need. Because that's Everyman. It's brilliantly acted and brilliantly constructed, and what we do, he doesn't do. I don't like Jason personally, but, as an actor, he's brilliant.
De Rossi: What I love about Jason's character, too, is that he's actually really tweaked. The relationship he has with his son is borderline scary. And the fact that it's so subtle, and he does it so well and consistently, he manages to not just be the good guy.
BSW: Jason, on the opposite end of the spectrum, how do you keep Michael from being too sanctimonious or uninteresting?
Bateman: For me, the fun comes from just literally playing the straight guy and knowing how important that is in comedy. There are two hands and, without that, it's the cliché of the one hand clapping. It's a really important component for getting laughter, and if it's not going as well as the other hand is going, then you just don't get … the clap. I apologize for just backing into a pun.
I try to find his funny as many places as I can. Wherever they sort of point me, I'll see if there's room for exaggerating the comedy and hopefully inspire them to flesh out the character. What I love about doing series work is that the character grows every episode, depending on how you as the actor inspire the writing staff. They'll say, "Oh, he's funny playing jealous, so let's write a jealousy storyline next week." So you can kind of interpret lines in different ways and start to define the character more and more.
BSW: You knew the show was something special, but were you prepared for the overwhelming critical acclaim, which people credit with the show being brought back for a second season?
De Rossi: I've never seen anything like it, ever. Usually a well-received show, three-quarters of reviewers would like it. This is unbelievable.
Bateman: There's one guy in Toronto—it's the only bad review I've ever read. He has since written better ones, but I remember he was the lone bad review.
De Rossi: There is a caveat: There's never been a bad review in this country.
Tambor: It is the reason we are here today. It's as if they, the critics, sort of threw down and said, "We like this." And it was great. They were truly with us, and some writers and some publications tremendously supported us. It turned us. I didn't go through the agonies of the pickup like everyone else. Here's a story of my naïveté: My manager kept saying, "It's on the bubble." And I said, "Oh, great!" I thought "bubble" was good. How could bubble be bad? It's such a nice word.
Bateman: What's nice is it's so clearly a specific vision of Mitch Hurwitz, and I can't imagine what it's like for someone to have such a clever and fresh and specific sense of humor to finally get a chance to pursue that by being the head of a show. He's certainly paid his dues, and he got to come in and do exactly what he wanted to do, and it was so specifically well-received. Then the Emmy—well, big awards are often predicated on box office or ratings, and this was obviously not, because the ratings aren't there. So for him and the rest of the writing staff to get those statues based purely on the content, was such a great thing.
Tambor: I was so proud of him; he carried himself with such aplomb onstage.
De Rossi: I asked him, "How were you not nervous, how were you so composed?" And he said, "Well, I was very, very nervous thinking about it, but there was a little factor that helped. I won."
BSW: Not that the show wasn't deserving, but series rarely win for their first year.
Bateman: I thought they had basically appeased us and the critics by giving us the nomination. Especially when Mitch won and the Russo brothers won [for directing the pilot], I thought, "Well, they've given us enough now, we won't get it for the show."
De Rossi: That's what I thought, too. Jason and I were sitting next to each other, talking each other through it. With each new thing, we were, like, "We got that, we won't get this." Then Sarah Jessica Parker won for best actress, and we were, like, "How does that affect us?"
Tambor: Jason is our business arm. Anything that happens, we ask him what it means for us. He's the guy.
Bateman: Well, when you fail for 25 years, you start to figure out why.
BSW: Did you all instantly connect as family from the beginning?
Bateman: With Portia, our story in the pilot was that we were estranged, but that was never my instinct. I don't remember the moment that we met, but I do remember there was never a moment of, "Who's this chick?" She's so not this "actress" who gives actors a bad name. She's just absolutely real. And the first day I met Jeffrey, I said, "Have fun today," and he told me not to tell him what the fuck to do. I realized this guy was going to kill me every day. How could I keep up?
De Rossi: The first thing Jeffrey said to me was, "Are you reading? Oh, no, you can't read." That was literally the first thing he said to me. And I loved him immediately and would sit as close to him as possible so he could abuse me more and more.
Tambor: By the way, I get it, too. Not from my [on-screen] daughter so much, but two of my sons, Jason and Will [Arnett, who portrays eldest son Gob], really give it to me. Once I was doing an interview, and they walked by the trailer going, "Blah blah blah blah, I'm so great." They're relentless. If I ever say, "I just saw so-and-so," Jason will say, "Oh, excuse me, let me pick up that name you just dropped." It's a tough crowd and a great crowd. And it's a tough show to make, so there are no divas here. You have to be in the mood to do this show; you can't come on with your garbage here. And I love it.