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First Person

Working With Judd Apatow on Improv and 'This is 40'

Working With Judd Apatow on Improv and 'This is 40'

Working with Judd Apatow on both “Knocked Up” and his current film, “This Is 40,” was thrilling. People often ask me if it was all improvised. Here’s how Judd works. He starts with a brilliantly written screenplay. He uses it as a solid foundation. On the day, he shoots the draft of the scene he’s written. Then he likes to rewrite and collaborate while the scene is on its feet being performed. He pitches a lot of lines, often while the camera is still rolling. He gives the actors several takes to improvise and play, allowing something inspired to happen in the moment. He gathers multiple options for when he’s editing.

I play Dr. Pellegrino in both films. When we shot the scene in “Knocked Up,” Judd had a medical professional on the set giving me technical verbiage to use while looking at a sonogram. Other than that, I stuck pretty close to the script. After a couple of takes a very generous Seth Rogan said I could feel free to play around with the dialogue. I improvised a little, but didn’t veer too far from the dialogue as it was written.

I work a lot in television, where it’s all about the writing, and they expect actors to stick to the script. I wouldn’t take it upon myself to improvise unless it’s an improvised show, like “Web Therapy,” or unless I was asked to improvise by the director. Recently I worked with an amazing director named, Jason Winer, on an episode of the scripted show, “1600 Penn.” After shooting the scene as written, he asked me to improvise, and we shot a few more takes that way, but that’s so rare in television.

A funny thing happened after “Knocked Up” came out. I played a series of gynecologists, for Eva Longoria, Jenna Elfman, and several others. Finally I sat my agents down and asked them to literally think outside the box. But when I was called to reprise my role in “This Is 40,” I was very happy to don the plastic gloves, and go under the paper gown again.

When we were shooting the first scene in “This Is 40” Judd said he wanted to create a little more chaos in the scene, and he gave my lines to two actresses playing nurses. Suddenly I had no lines. Judd told me to say anything technical. Of course, all I could hear in my head was, “Tim, you know NOTHING about the vagina!” I’m not a real gynecologist, but I wasn’t going to be in a Judd Apatow film without dialogue, so whenever there was a pause I’d jump in with information, and Judd fed me lines.

The next day, with lines memorized for a new scene with Leslie Mann, Judd came up with a different idea for getting the story beats out, and we improvised all the dialogue. That night when I was driving home, I couldn’t remember if he actually told me not to use any of the written dialogue, or had I taken it upon myself to just improvise and not use what was written. I began second guessing myself, replaying the shoot over and over again in my head. Finally I was sick of hearing the inside of my mind spiraling, and I went out and had margaritas with friends.

It's been over a year, and I no longer remember anything I said in "This is 40." What I do remember is that Judd made me feel like a million bucks.

"This Is 40" opens nationwide on December 21, 2012.

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