Of all the wacky stories in this year’s Oscar race, perhaps none is more unlikely than the fact that America’s bard of nerddom, comedian Patton Oswalt, finds himself a very serious contender to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor—one of this year’s most competitive categories—for his role in Young Adult, the new film from the Juno duo, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. But after years of mocking Hollywood’s foibles as a stand-up, and leading a band of ill-shapen misfits from the sidelines, Oswalt, the cherub-faced comic, may very well have earned himself a seat at the Oscars ceremony against other possible contenders no less notable than Christopher Plummer, Max Von Sydow, Nick Nolte, Ben Kingsley, and Kenneth Branagh.
Before an audience of his friends, fellow comedians, and family in a screening room on the Paramount lot for a first peek at Young Adult, a humbled Oswalt stood in front of the assembled to introduce this major leap into the world of Serious Acting. Addressing the crowd, he said, “Young Adult will open nationwide on Dec. 9. Tonight sit back and enjoy Human Centipede.” Pause. “I need you to see the film the way I saw it.”
The character in question may go down as the most nuanced and heartbreaking portrayal of the nerd dilemma ever committed to film. Oswalt plays Matt Freehauf, a man festering in the literal and psychic wounds of high school, an experience that ended with his being beaten by a group of jocks, leaving him permanently disabled. Wallowing in his resentments while living within sight of his tragedy, Oswalt slams into Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), his high school’s former prom queen and doyen of his tormentors. As obsessed by her youth, in her way, as Matt is, Mavis has returned home to reclaim her now happily married high school boyfriend.
While the film revolves around Mavis’s unhinged stalking of her ex, it is the scenes between Theron and Oswalt, meeting years later from across the social divide, that give the film its ballast, and elevates it from a potentially slight dark comedy to a powerful character piece destined to be revisited.
For Theron, the unflinching journey into a character who concedes not an inch to traditional likability, even as she unravels, might be the bravest and most complex of her career (including her Oscar-winning role in Monster). Oswalt, on the other hand, taking on his first major role in a Hollywood production (he had previously starred in the low-budget indie Big Fan and voiced the title character of Ratatouille) had to hold his own in some very intense scenes against one of the most celebrated actresses of our day.
Walking into the production, Oswalt immediately sensed the daunting challenge that lay ahead.
The first table reads immediately set off alarm bells that his “casual comedian’s attitude” of just walking on to the set and smart talking your way through it would not cut it. “When I did a table read with Charlize, Jason said, ‘We’re just going to read, you don’t need to act.’ But Jason was kinda hinting, ‘We’re going to give you the part.’ So at that point I was really trying. And Charlize saw that, and she was, like, Fuck it, and just gave it right back to me. And I saw how effortless and instinctual she was, and in my head I thought, When I get to the set, she’s going to have all this shit down and be ready to go.”
As intimidating as Theron’s acting prowess was, however, the subtle complexity of the script, in which Oswalt’s character is at once the voice of reason and poisoned by his own demons, was even scarier. “The script was so complicated and so nuanced. It isn’t even a walk across a tightrope. It’s a drunken run across a tightrope. And because I saw all that, I got very intimidated and said I better study up on this and make sure I’m prepared.”
Oswalt hired Nancy Banks, an acting coach, and spent two months poring over the script, studying every aspect of the character’s life and world, as well as living in the leg braces to which Matt is condemned, learning how to walk naturally as someone who walks in total discomfort. Oswalt described the tedious preparation process. “I wish I could tell you something romantic, like De Niro says he would go swimming and look at the crabs under water to get Travis Bickle in his head. Instead, I sat down with this goddamn script and I wrote it out. Nancy Banks is all about there’s no flighty poetic bullshit, you just work the script over and over until it’s second nature. We wrote out the police report, we wrote out the memories Matt had. Think of it, you’re in high school, you’re young, your friends are out getting laid, and you’re in a fucking hospital. All those years are gone. And you’re stuck in this goddamn hospital and they probably do some cheesy Christmas pageant and you’re stuck there.”
Oswalt’s eyes welled up as he remembered the character. As one of America’s reigning nerd kings, he brought to the role a special empathy for what Matt must have gone though. “It wasn’t even bitterness. I really got sad. And it really made me think of bullying and people who are in hospitals and how awful that is when you are aware of the years that are gone. There’s a certain time when you’re a teenager, as awkward and horrible as that time is, I think every kid deserves those years. To have that robbed from you, it’s almost like you had to aspire to the bitterness. The bitterness was there to salve the sadness. I would think about this kid, I just wanted to burst into tears sometimes thinking about him It must’ve been a beautiful day, and he’s walking home from school ... Going to see his friends and he’s got stuff planned. And what if five guys, probably guys you know, walk up to you and you say, ‘Hey guys,’ and they just beat you into a coma. The world’s just gone forever; the way that you look at the world is gone forever.”
“The script was so complicated and so nuanced. It isn’t even a walk across a tightrope. It’s a drunken run across a tightrope.”
On the set, Oswalt found, as predicted, his co-star not only completely inhabiting her character, but working with him in a way that raised his performance and locked them into their edgy, unstable symmetry. Oswalt recalled one particularly intense scene when his character confronts Theron’s Mavis about not only her own obsessions, but her indifference to his pain. Oswalt said, “That scene in the woods where I’m pouring my heart out to her. It was 2 in the morning. It’s freezing cold, it’s hard to get up there. They were shooting just on me. There was no reason for her to be there. I would have been totally cool with her being in her trailer, but she trudged up to those fucking wet, cold woods and stood off camera in my eye line. And she gave me nothing. Nothing. Which is exactly what I needed. In that scene, she let herself be filmed going, ‘No. Don’t give a shit.’ Actors do not want to be on screen not empathizing with somebody. But she said, ‘That’s what this character would do, and that’s what he needs.’ He needs somebody offscreen going, ‘No, don’t give a fuck.’
“And it took me to these other depths in that scene. Originally when I rehearsed that scene, I did it hysterical and crying, but when we shot it, with her there, I was saying, ‘I’m not fucking crying for you.’ It was so fucking perfect.”
At his screening, among Oswalt’s friends and family were scattered a collection of the greatest luminaries of the post-post-modern age, Oswalt’s fellow stars of Twitter—the denizens of the half-world that lives constantly online, throwing mudpies at the unfolding burlesque show of American culture.
Switching from talk about his evolution into a serious thespian to describing his comrades in arms from Twitter, Oswalt’s face lit up. “Shelby Fero was here. An 18-year-old girl, fucking brilliant. She’s going to be Tina Fey and she is a huge part of the whole nerd movement. Shittington UK was here. Kelly Oxford, Jenny Johnson hi5, Rob Delaney and so was Megan Amram.” He smiled thinking of the assembled stars. “It is almost like the Paris expat scheme, but for shut-ins. The Movable Feast now is all done on Twitter.”
While Oscar may claim Patton Oswalt, it’s clear he’s not ready to say goodbye to his nerd life just yet.