The SNL Alum Discusses the Improv Poker Comedy, The Grand.
Chris Parnell has carved quite a niche for himself as the go-to guy of oddball characters. He played a dizzying variety of unforgettable characters during his lengthy run on Saturday Night Live from 1998-2006 and has been stealing scenes in movies like Anchorman, Hot Rod and Dewey Cox ever since. Parnell currently has recurring roles on 30 Rock as Dr. Leo Spaceman and he plays a high school principal in the new comedy series Miss Guided.
reelz.com sat down with Parnell for an extensive interview recently to discuss his latest role as Harold Melvin in The Grand. Perhaps the most memorable part amongst a plethora of great roles in Zak Penn's improv comedy, Melvin is a number-crunching social reject suffering from Asperger's Syndrome.
Like all of his characters, Parnell went the extra mile researching and preparing for his role, from becoming a better poker player to learning what goes on inside the head of a person suffering from Asperger's Syndrome.
JEFF OTTO, reelz.com: I understand you had pages and pages of notes on Harold Melvin. Tell me a little bit about those notes as far as the work you did to create this character.
CHRIS PARNELL: Yeah, the shape of it was there already as far as his social dysfunction and all of that. I just felt like I didn't trust myself to be funny when the cameras were rolling. I have an improv background but I'm not in shape. I don't get on stage regularly and do it any more. I just felt like I needed to do my homework and create as much of this character as I can on paper - both in terms of the lines like the Dune stuff and in terms of the look like the hair and the goofy science t-shirts. The wardrobe department helped come up with all these nutty t-shirts. It helped.
JO: Did the Dune part come from someone?
CP: I actually knew that part because I'm a Dune fan. And then the other stuff, I would just try to come up with lines... Funny lines that I could fall back on or launch off from... I know it helped because I think I would have just floundered otherwise.
JO: Harold struck me as this less endearing version of Rain Man.
CP: (Laughs) Right, and he's a little higher-functioning that Rain Man.
JO: Were there other people that you thought of or had scene that you based him on?
CP: There's not a person, not consciously, but a lot of it came from reading this book "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time." The producers sent me some paperwork and they mentioned the book so I went out and bought that. That was everything. I would have been kind of lost without that. The whole story is told from the point of view of this boy who has Ausberger's Syndrome. And it's told so well. It's a really good book... I knew it was something within my wheel house [when I read it] because I can be socially awkward...
JO: Were the little factoids, the percentage numbers he gives on the various poker hands all from you and were they accurate?
CP: Those were accurate and I did not make those up because I would have to be a real poker genius to do that. We had a guy, Andy Newman, who is a poker player and knows a lot - a poker expert, really... I had to memorize [the numbers]...
JO: You are not a very experienced poker but you were able to hold your own. How did you prepare?
CP: You know, I read Phil Gordon's great introduction to poker book which I read. That helped immensely. And then I watched some of the poker tournaments on television and then I got online and played a little bit there. I bought a poker program for the computer and then I played one or two live games against the people in the movie.
Before the game at the final table, I had probably played poker three times in my life... I have some friends that have little home games. They know I'm just not into it. I have an immense amount of respect for the game and those who play it well, but there's sort of a disconnect in my brain... There's so much savvy and the bluffing. There's so much psychology to it that it just kind of wears me out.
JO: And yet it almost seems like you'd be a natural player considering you are so legendary for never breaking character.
CP: I think if I wanted to put a lot of time and energy into it, I could be an okay poker player, but... Honestly, that final table game was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do as an actor. It was one of the most challenging things, to be in character, to try to come up with some dialogue and then also try to play poker for real against a table of people who do play with some regularity... I was very uneasy with the whole live poker game.