New Start

Will Arnett on ‘The Millers,’ ‘Arrested Development,’ and More

The actor’s had a rocky year, but he’s back with a new show—and couldn’t be happier, he tells Jason Lynch.

Richard Cartwright/CBS

This time last year, Will Arnett was filming two television series simultaneously—the fourth season of Arrested Development and his NBC sitcom Up All Night, which was suffocating under the weight of its umpteenth reboot—while coping with the fallout of his split from wife Amy Poehler. It’s an ordeal he’d like to forget. “Last fall, from August till January, were the most difficult six months of my life,” he says. “I had a lot going on, on all fronts. And it was incredibly tough and demanding.”

What a difference a year has made for the actor, who now says he couldn’t be happier. Arnett stars in the new CBS sitcom The Millers (premiering October 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT, after The Big Bang Theory), as Nathan Miller, a local news reporter who finally spills the beans to his parents that he’s divorced. Once they recover from the shock, Nathan’s dad, Tom (Beau Bridges), walks out on his mom, Carol (Margo Martindale), who promptly moves in with her son.

“I’m really, really lucky,” says Arnett, 43. “The opportunity to make a really funny multicam with these people, on CBS, at this time in my life after having a few years of crushing schedules, on a schedule that’s a lot more civilized where I can take my kids to school every day, that is a fucking godsend. I have nothing to complain about.”

That certainly wasn’t the case last winter, as Up All Night finally imploded during yet another bout of frenzied retooling. But there was a silver lining to the show’s ugly demise: Millers creator Greg Garcia, who was beginning to cast his new pilot, leapt into action when he learned that Arnett’s co-star, Christina Applegate, had quit the show in frustration. After getting Arnett’s number through mutual friend Mike O’Malley, “I texted him and I said, ‘I hate to be a vulture, but if things aren’t going to work out over there, I know everybody in the world is going to be clamoring for you. I’d love to get a chance to talk to you about this script,’” Garcia recalls. “That led to meetings, that led to him doing the show, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Why did Garcia—and nearly everyone else casting a sitcom pilot this year—want to land Arnett so badly? “He knows what’s funny, and he pulls it off in an effortless way,” says Garcia. The trait was especially essential for Nathan, a straight-man character Garcia patterned after himself. “I don’t know what makes me a funny character necessarily, but I knew with Will, he’s a guy that brings so much to it, comedy-wise, that that’s OK,” says Garcia. “He’s taking jokes that maybe aren’t the funniest jokes in the world because it’s not outrageous stuff he’s doing, and he’s making them so much funnier just by his delivery. So I was excited about having that kind of guy in the center of this world.”

Arnett says he felt the same way. “Once I read Greg’s pilot, my mind was made up,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for Greg. I think he’s such a funny guy and to each one of his shows—[My Name Is] Earl, Raising Hope—he always brings his point of view that always seems very honest. Of course the question was, did I even want to go right back into something?”

Asked if he felt too scarred at the time by the Up All Night debacle, Arnett laughs. “It’s kind of like, I had a scar forming on top of a scar tissue forming on top of a scar tissue!” he says. “But when there was talk about doing Up All Night as a multicam, I was really open to that prospect. I was one of the people who thought it might be a great thing to do, to kind of mix it up. And then it ended up falling apart, but I’ve always believed that some of my biggest laughs watching anything were from multicams.

“I know it became uncool at a certain point to like multicams but I’m sorry, last time I checked, All in the Family was a great show, Cheers was a great show, Cosby, Family Ties, Seinfeld, Friends, Will & Grace, the list goes on and on. These are all multicam shows! So we all have very short memories when it comes to that. It became almost like you weren’t cool if you weren’t doing a single-cam. And maybe I was part of that because I did a bunch of single-cams. But I don’t give a shit, I’m not a snob in that way. If it’s funny, it’s funny.”

The demise of Up All Night, however, was anything but hilarious. By the end, the network was spit-balling all sorts of outlandish scenarios for soldiering on with its core cast: Arnett, Applegate, and Maya Rudolph. “What happened was that everybody had the best of intentions and the lines kind of got crossed about where it is that we wanted it to go,” Arnett says. “It’s a domino effect, because you all have to be on the same page and trust each other that, yeah, we’re going in this direction. And when you start to get that feeling that, oh wait, this person is going this way and this person feels this, there’s just no way. It got to a point where I thought, even if we were to write the greatest reboot of the show—and let’s say it was just Maya and me, and we shoot it and it’s the funniest thing—there will always be the shadow of the original thing and what happened. And you’ll never be able to shake that off. It’s hard enough to launch a new show and get viewers interested and invested, and it became apparent to everybody that we’d never get out from under it.”

Surviving the events of the past year has been almost like a badge of honor for Arnett, which is in part why he says he has “such strong feelings” about Season 4 of Arrested Development, which many criticized as disappointing, especially its stilted new format, in which the show’s main characters were largely kept separate from each other. “I’m in awe of the pure talent of [creator] Mitch Hurwitz. I know that this is going to seem absurd because I’m so close to him, but I think history will show that he’s an American treasure,” Arnett says. “I think that Season 4 is very ambitious, very bold. Nobody’s ever tried to tell a television comedy in this way before, and I really enjoyed it.

“I know that people were upset that it wasn’t Episode 14 of Season 3,” he says. “It was something different, and it took a while to put the pieces together. And it was a slow build, but at the end of the 15 episodes, it’s so rewarding when you understand the bigger picture, this big story that’s going on. Honestly, I’m in awe of it. And my prediction is that two, three, five years from now, people will say, ‘Wow, it was much better than we thought it was!’ I really do think it’s going to take a while for people to appreciate it.”

That said, Arnett vows, “We will all be together in the next one.” But will the “next one” be the Arrested movie that Hurwitz talked about for years or another season on Netflix? “I’d prefer to do another season,” Arnett says. “I don’t think that doing a movie is the be-all, end-all, and I don’t know why we set that up as the gold standard. I think this show lives in that format on the small screen. You want to live with these characters, you want to live with their stories. I want to see Tobias do something and I want to see why he’s doing it, where it came from, where it gets him, how it affects Maeby, how it affects Buster … that’s really important. That’s where this show is at its strongest. And everybody involved in the show is all pretty much on the same page.” The earliest a new season could start shooting, Arnett adds, is next spring.

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As much as Arnett loved returning to the role that first made him famous, he’s aware that it took several years for audiences to shake their original perception of him. “After Gob, I felt like there were a lot of jobs that I took where people wanted me to emulate or copy that performance,” he says. “I’ve always been attracted to characters that are inherently flawed, or who are super-disconnected and absurd. But when people say, ‘You always play the asshole,’ I point out, ‘Well, Gob wasn’t really the asshole. He’s insane, if anything. Devon Banks on 30 Rock was crazy ambitious and competitive. Even on the short-lived Running Wilde, Steve Wilde was a billionaire, but he was actually a really nice guy.’ I always felt like ‘asshole’ was a lazy assessment.”

“But I did recognize that there was kind of a pattern there where it doesn’t matter what you think, it’s what the perception is,” says Arnett, who finally tried to change things up when he signed on to Up All Night, and then The Millers. “I really responded to it because it was what I was going through at the time. And certainly that changed a little bit of how people saw me. And then doing The Millers, where I wasn’t playing one of these characters who is living in some absurd world, who is much more grounded. It’s a role that I shunned a lot before and didn’t understand how I could find a way to make it funny. Now I get it. Maybe it just took me a while to be ready for it. Maybe I had to get that other stuff out of my system, I don’t know. But I’m comfortable with it now.”

(So comfortable, indeed, that he agreed to play a divorced man even though he knew it would focus attention on his own real-life split. “It was certainly not something I was looking for,” Arnett says. “I wasn’t trying to draw attention to that aspect of my life in any way. But it was in the script. Maybe part of me subconsciously identified with it, I don’t know, but it’s a testament to how much I wanted to be a part of Greg’s thing that I was OK with that.”)

His Millers TV mom, Margo Martindale, agrees that audiences will enjoy seeing Arnett in a new light. “In this, which I think is different from other things he’s done, he has a vulnerability that’s really lovely to see,” she says. “It’s not a side you’ve seen, but it’s there.”

Arnett will be tapping into yet another unseen side—world’s coolest dad—for his upcoming film projects: next August’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (as Vernon Fenwick, cameraman to reporter April O’Neil, played by Megan Fox) and The Lego Movie (due out February 7), in which he voices Batman. “Yeah, I’m trying to seal my iconic stature in my house,” says Arnett of his two sons. “My kids are really excited. We spent the last three and a half months in New York. I was shooting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they came to set all the time. They’re really into the Turtles. My youngest son brought his nunchucks and would work his nunchucks like Michelangelo with the stunt guys. Hilarious! And of course I’d be shooting with the Turtles all day, and then I’d come home and they’d say, ‘Can you play Shredder?’ which is the bad guy. I’ve been inundated with the Turtles!”

Turtles, like Up All Night and now The Millers, is just another case of life imitating art for Arnett. “I did Up All Night, which was a show about a couple in their late 30s to 40 who are having a baby, and that was a reflection of what I was going through at that time. And now I’m doing this,” he says. “So hopefully the next thing I do 10 years from now after The Millers will be a show about a guy who’s had the No. 1 TV show for the last 10 years, and doesn’t know what to do with the money!”