Jason Bateman isn’t a bad guy at all. He doesn’t even play one on TV. For a few years about a decade ago, his beleaguered Michael Bluth on Fox’s Arrested Development went to near-superhuman lengths to remain “a good guy.” But deep down, something sinister smoldered. The bad guy needed a turn.
“We all have this guy in us,” Bateman said in a phone interview, his pleasant demeanor untainted by any inner evil. “You hope that you can keep this person under wraps.”
Luckily, he found a reasonably healthy outlet in Guy Trilby, the protagonist but hardly the hero, of his latest film Bad Words. On paper, Guy is a bad guy. The film follows the very grown-up Trilby as he exploits a loophole in order to pit himself against grade-school spelling bee contestants in pursuit of settling a mysterious grudge with victory. Along the way, he terrorizes children and parents alike with his imaginative brand of awful, awful meanness. You just don’t threaten to accuse a little boy of having ticking carry-on baggage without some baggage of your own.
“I was adequately confident that I could make him likeable enough, only because I’ve been playing the straight man, the middle man, the put-upon guy, the protagonist for a long time now,” he reasoned. “I knew that you’d need to see some flashes of that, some exposures of his core, to make his prickliness palatable.”
There’s really no doubt that Bateman can handle that sort of challenge. But Bad Words is also his directorial debut, which probably complicated things a little more. Still, Bateman said it wasn’t something he could easily say “no” to.
“I’ve been basically acting mostly for the last 15 or 20 years with the goal in mind of trying to create enough capital, enough relevance, enough of a profile in the business as an actor, so that I can ask for the directing reins,” he explained. It’s worth mentioning that Bateman’s actually been acting for more than 30 years. With time comes expertise, but also a touch of boredom.
“With directing you’re trying to create a completely fake world for the audience and trying to shape an experience for that audience for two hours, both with what they see, and what they hear, what they feel. It’s just – to me it’s just a much more challenging and gratifying creative effort,” he said. “I mean, I don’t want to belittle acting at all, but maybe it’s just because I’ve been doing that for so long and it’s just so comfortable to me [that] I was really excited about the challenge of taking on more responsibility.”
He almost didn’t bother trying to juggle both his own directorial responsibilities and Guy’s nagging demons; Jason Bateman the Actor had a good idea of who Guy would become before his camera, and had a few names in mind. Though after Choice #1 and Choice #2 — he wouldn’t name names — turned out to be unavailable to take on the role, he changed his mind.
“I liked my chances,” he smirked.
That’s not to say that Jason Bateman the Director had it so easy. There was still the issue of tactfully combining horrifying dialogue and a cast of mostly young children. (NB: I wish I could repeat some of the things here for you but, while they’re hilarious, they’re absolutely monstrous. Even euphemizing would make you blush.) To Bateman, that was only a problem if you have a problem with it.
“I think it’s tough for kids to see violence done as well as Hollywood can do it nowadays … but saying a dirty word here or there, or looking at a woman’s breasts? There’s a prudeness in this country at this time [and] this isn’t one of those areas that needed to have too much handwringing about,” he said. “There is a very crude, tactless, generic popcorn version of this kind of humor, and that is not something I was ever interested in making.”
Bateman saw something a little heartbreaking in all of the meanness. After all, it’s clear from the beginning of the film that Guy has been wronged in some way and he’s dealing with it in the best way he know how. It’s more ignorance than malice; Bateman cited Carroll O’Connor in All in the Family. Like O’Connor’s Archie Bunker, Guy Trilby isn’t looking to hurt anyone. He just needs a little tact.
“I’m not that good at a lot of stuff,” Guy confesses in his opening voiceover. “Especially thinking things through.”
Whether you agree or not is really up to you, and Bateman admits that the film is “definitely not for everyone.” But, the strength of one’s stomach aside, it’s tough to dispute that any filmmaker that is this invested, this dedicated to his work is certainly worth serious attention moving forward.
“Personally, I was able to accomplish something that we all try to get to at some point in our lives — and hopefully multiple times — which is being proud of yourself,” he said.
He deserves it; he’s a good guy.
Bad Words enters wide release on March 28, and stars Bateman, Kathryn Hahn and Philip Baker Hall.