Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kevin Sussman from The Big Bang Theory talks candidly on writing, evil empires, and George Clooney

Stuart (played by Kevin Sussman) is on the right
I know most of you who follow me on twitter (or who read my blog) know that I love The Big Bang Theory. It's currently on hiatus for the summer. The season finale last week was pretty good (not the best) but Sheldon and Aimee broke some new ground. For the record, the best season finale was Penny's "walk of shame" out of Leonard's bedroom with Raj coming out afterward and Penny saying to Sheldon, "It's not what it looks like" thereby creating a riddle for Sheldon that lasted until the next season.
This awkward scene of Raj and Penny made for the best
season finale thus far in the CBS comedy.
Anyway, despite the fact that I thought it would be crazy wonderful if Stuart (the comic book store owner played by Kevin Sussman) and Rajesh Koothrappali managed to become a couple, it was not meant to be. That being said, I also never thought I'd get the opportunity to post an interview with Kevin Sussman. But I guess my audience is bigger than I thought because Michael Bivona, the Media Director for sent me this guest post on an interview they did with Kevin. And it actually made me squee!

And how could I say "no" to that? I love Kevin Sussman more than I like Wil Wheaton. So if you too are a fan of the comic book geek guy on BBT, read on:
Kevin Sussman Speaks
"Big Bang Theory" star on writing, evil empires, and George Clooney.

Kevin Sussman has become a ubiquitous presence in TV and movies since he was first cast in the Barry Levinson feature film Liberty Heights in 1999. He is perhaps most recognizable as Walter on the one-time ABC dramedy,Ugly Betty. Kevin’s character "Stuart Bloom" on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, is now a series regular, and he recently guest starred on Showtime’s mini-series Weeds with Mary Louise Parker. And, along with writing partner and collaborator (Big Bang Theory co-star) John Ross Bowie,wrote a sci-fi comedy about two slackers working onboard an evil space station, Dark Minions, now an animated stop-motion TV pilot produced by Amazon Studios.

We recently talked to Kevin about his acting career and his successful foray into screenwriting.

Before we talk about your acting career tell me about your most recent success co-writing with your Big Bang Theory cast mate, John Ross Bowie.
We originally wrote Dark Minions as a live action thing and the major networks all turned it down because they all thought it was too “high-concept." That was the first time John and I had sold a script; actually, SONY optioned it and we were taking it around.  Everybody loved it but they were afraid of it. We learned really quickly what a broadcast network is willing to buy, which is basically two things: shows about friends in their 20s or a quirky family.  If you go outside those areas, you have a much more challenging road ahead.

How did the show evolve into a stop-motion project? We pitched the show to Amazon as an animated thing, and they suggested stop-motion. We love stop-motion. [British stop-motion film] Coraline is one of my favorite movies and I love the hell out of it…and I see everything that comes out in stop-motion. I was delighted. I didn’t realize it would be possible to do something as time consuming as “stop-mo” for TV. Ross Shuman (the director) had worked on Robot Chicken and the studio that did Dark Minions, Shadow Machine that created Robot Chicken.  But Robot chicken was only 11 minutes, unlike Dark Minions which is a full-length show.

But you and John had already sold a couple scripts
The following two seasons we pitched and sold shows, The Ever After Part and The Second Coming of Rob—one to Fox and one to ABC. They were family oriented and both were never made once we got through the development process, and the networks had nerfed the edgy stuff.  But, when we were doing The Second Coming of Rob they were starting to animate Dark Minions and building the sets and puppets…it was so great. To see all of these artisans constructing the mini set and sewing tiny clothes was amazing. Shadow machine was so into the script and everybody was so excited.  So, while we were getting frustrated with the network, John and I would constantly say to each other, “can we just get back to playing with our space puppets now” which is what we wanted to be doing.

What was the evolution for Dark Minions?
You know the scene in Star Wars when they’re invading the Rebel ship…and there’s this stark white, modular hallway. And I always thought, “What’s in all of those cabinets in the hallway? Do people use those?” and I wrote a scene about troopers marching by and a moment later a guy who's half-dressed comes out of a door, and goes to one of those cabinets and takes out some Cheerios and then goes back into the room. I sent that to John and he added another scene to it with the same exact tone. 

So he got the joke?
He got it immediately and we agreed to outline it and come up with a story: two guys who get jobs onboard an evil space station that don't agree with the politics, but one's got student loans to pay, and the other doesn't have a college degree.

Do you do the voice work first on something like that?
We did all the voices first and videotaped us (for scenes that had some physicality in them) so the animators have stuff to reference.  But it’s such a slow process. Normally, when you’re working on a show you get to see the dailies….on this if they’re lucky, with several different animators working at the same time you get five seconds a day…so, rather than dailies we had weeklies and at the end of the week, the cast and executives come and watch on the big screen, a minute or two of animation and it's really cool to see this stuff come to life.

What’s your history with John?
Sometimes we get mentioned online in the context of Big Bang Theory, that we met on Big Bang Theory. That’s not true. But, we’ve known each other for years when we were two geeky guys winding up on the same commercial auditions. We were those guys, working in tech settings in the corporate world. Nerds.

What kind of job did you have?
I worked at Chase Bank and Fuji Bank in the World Trade Center actually doing everything from admin assistance to basic programming. Excel and Word to I.T. stuff—just real hardcore nerd shit.  John was doing similar stuff down the block. When you’re an actor in New York, you are either a waiter or you learn Excel. 

Did you guys get together on lunch breaks? Did you hang out?
We sort of were acquaintances in NY but we’d run into each other at auditions. We really didn’t connect until I moved out to L.A. and started working on Ugly Betty.  I became good friends with Anna Ortiz (who plays Ugly Betty’s sister) and she’s good friends with John’s wife Jamie Denbo. Then we became actual friends, as opposed to acquaintances. We had already written a couple of scripts together before we coincidentally got jobs on Big Bang Theory. I'd auditioned for Chuck Lorre who had created Big Bang Theory. He originally offered me the role of Barry Kripke which John ended up getting because I was working on a movie at the time. The next thing Chuck had for me was the comic book guy. Coincidentally, He had no idea that I had worked at a comic book store for years. I worked at Jim Hanley’s Universe (comic book store) in Manhattan. It’s weird how things turn out, because had I been available for John’s role, John would have gotten the comic book guy part (I tease him about it).

It sounds like it’s a pretty effortless collaboration.
It would be impossible to do if either of us had a big ego in terms of criticism; neither of us do…we try not to be harsh…John and I work in an almost,old-school, very respectful, deliberately diplomatic way in terms of criticism of each other’s work. Not that there’s no ego, sometimes the writing is better because there’s a healthy competitiveness. When we hand something back and forth, one of us will tweak a joke to make it funnier. There’s a little bit of one-upping each other that is fun, and productive, but we also try not to hurt each other’s feelings.  

Everyone over at Big Bang Theory must be very proud of you guys?
The writers on Big Bang are really supportive of us—they tease us and say they’re going to show up and start acting in episodes of Big Bang. But they also offer comforting advice because they know how hard it is to work in the system.

Were you an improv guy like so many actors who book parts these days on sitcoms?
I know it doesn’t show but I am a traditionally trained actor. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Art. And then I studied under Uta Hagen, a renowned actor who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  John’s at Upright Citizens Brigade in an improv group with Rob Courdrey and he’s amazing at it.  I think that as collaborators we work so well, because we approach writing totally different, in that regard. He’s quick and you can see his improv background. He will take anything I give him and go with it—so I try not to give him crap.

But the formal theater training must help with scene structure…
Oh yeah, I’ve had to read endless plays and I suppose that informs my writing (fundamental stuff like characters and conflict or that every scene needs forward momentum. I also have read a lot of books on writing, probably too many. Drew's Script-O-Rama is a gold mine for somebody that wants to go into screenwriting. It’s basically a database of shooting scripts. It’s an invaluable and essential resource.

When were you able to act full time and say goodbye to those nefarious day jobs?
I was working at Fuji Bank at the Word Trade Center doing Excel spreadsheets. I got along really well with the Japanese guy who actually offered to take me on as a permanent employee and give me health benefits, which I didn’t have. He knew I was trying to be an actor (every once in a while I’d put some costume on at lunch and go uptown for an audition). And then a week later I booked my first TV show,Ghost Story—kind of like a "B" version of Tails from the Crypt. So, I had this dilemma about whether to take the job or take the step and keep acting. I felt so horrible about Toro Tanaka. (laughs). 

Do you know if he was in the World Trade Center on 9-11?
I don’t think so because I once looked at a fatality list and didn’t see anyone that I knew from Fuji. He was probably back in Japan by then because he would have been rotated out of there. What a horrible thing. Fuji was located on the 80th floor...

I was watching David Krumholtz being interviewed on Kevin Pollak’s chat show and he mentioned working with you on your first big film Liberty Heights.
Yeah, David, Adrian Brody and I hung out a lot and Barry Levinson made it so we could spend a lot of time together. We had a great time, a lot of laughs Brody, Krumholtz and I… I remember at the end of the film when we were saying goodbye David Krumholtz said, “I’ve worked on a lot of movies and when they’re done everybody says, ‘we’ll keep in touch’ and we never do, so let’s not even do that.’”  (laughs)

So, you’ve never seen him since?
We have, and that’s the irony. 

So, when did you finally move to LA?
I moved out there when I booked Ugly Betty.

You’re recognized a lot for Wet Hot American Summer.
I was a last minute replacement for Wet Hot and I came in towards the end. But that movie is so beloved for people who have a sense of humor.

Were you able to bond with George Clooney on Burn After Reading?
Yes, the guy is so grounded that you almost get the feeling that he’s doing himself a disservice (laughs)… “Don’t forget now, you’re George Clooney you don’t have to waste your time hanging out with me…you must have better things to do. When people ask me who the coolest celebrity I’ve worked with it’s an easy answer. Clooney for the win.”

That was a very physical scene and he tackles you.
And, also technically difficult because he had just been in a motorcycle accident and his back was fucked up. He was doing something most stars don’t do…which is do something physically painful, over and over, just to help the collaborative effort.  That was the striking thing about him… weirdly selfless for a guy who could have a black SUV whisk him away at a moment’s notice.

Do you often reflect on having worked with Joel and Ethan Coen, two of the most beloved filmmakers out there?
When I talk about my experience on that, it’s usually in terms of experienced directors’ versus inexperienced low budget directors. The Coens are the experienced directors. They show up, having already worked everything out shot by shot and they’re pretty hands off with the acting part of it.  The better directors have spoken to me less.

Did you experience the same direction from Steven Spielberg?
Yes, same thing with him and Roger Michell (Changing Lanes), the ones who get the best performances are the ones who say the least. If I feel they trust me, it relaxes me and I’m able to take risks, in the moment, As opposed to stuffing my concentration with added tasks the director wants me to do even though it’s not coming from me organically.

What does your summer look like?
So much depends on if Dark Minions gets picked up and if it does my summer is going to be about writing episodes. If not, it’ll be about trying to develop something new, probably for TV, and then the acting thing as well. Since Big Bang doesn’t pick up until August, I’ll do what I usually do, kick around and see if I could show up in somebody’s movie. 

I gotta see this. I'd never heard of it 'til today.
So did you guys like the interview? As an existing fan of Kevin I learned so much, am going to look up Dark Minions, and just really appreciated this view into his life and the writing process. I'm glad no one he knew died in the World Trade Center. Oh and according to the YouTube trailer, Dark Minions can be watched for free on Amazon Instant video.

Have a great Wednesday.


  1. That is fascinating. My family only recently discovered Big Bang Theory, and I knew nothing about this actor other than his role as the comic book store guy.

  2. I'm also a HUGE Big Bang Theory fan.

  3. Cool they let you post the interview as well. Stop motion is a lost art - cool that they are using it. And I thought I saw a trailer for the Dark Minions movie two weeks ago...?

  4. I am related to a very Sheldon-like character (and know many others like him) in real life so I've been a fan of BBT since the first season aired.

    It's bizarre what a following BBT has developed, so long after it first aired. But I'm happy to see it become so successful. Great interview and Dark Minions looks like one to see in the future!

  5. @Alex: No it's not an exclusive. It's an email blast to popular blogs. But I rave about BBT all the time so it's a natural fit for me unlike other email blasts I get from similar ppl. If it were an "exclusive" I would have said so in the title. It's just a guest post that I don't have to write (kinda lije a promo for a book tour).

  6. Nice interview. I love Big Bang theory. :)

  7. Pretty cool stuff. I've always felt bad for his character on the show. Comic book guys can have it pretty bad, but he has it worse than most.

  8. We don't get BBT over here, but it's on my list of series to stream. Awesome you got to post the interview--hot stuff! :D

  9. This was a great interview. I don't watch BBT but this guy's a real talent. Will check out Dark Minions too.

  10. In addition to being funny, Kevin's character adds an element of realism to the program. He's lonely, geeky and awkward. Raj is many of these things also but he has a support group to lean on.

  11. I liked the interview and the fact that he knows Excel! :)

  12. I'm sorry to say I've never seen Big Bang Theory. Geesh, running away in shame again.

  13. Awesome, Michael. I'd be squeeing, too. Big Bang is a fun show and I loved Weeds. I was trying to figure out how I missed the finale... oh yeah, I went to see Star Trek that night. I'll catch the episode soon enough, I'm sure.

  14. What a great in-depth interview! I had no idea the comic book owner/actor was also a writer. I love Big Bang so I enjoy having this background info.

    As for the networks' bland tastes -- today in the NY Times Maureen Dowd rips the networks for being bland and cautious and repetitive. I'm almost surprised that an intelligent comedy like Big Bang got the green light.

  15. WOW. SWEET! I don't watch BBT, but I know I'm probably the only one in the country who doesn't.

    I know about stop motion though. And Coraline is about the coolest movie ever. Loved, loved, loved it!

    Great one Mike! :-)

  16. Cool interview. Now to go and check out Dark Minions...

  17. Minions! I love Minions--well, the Despicable Me variety. I'll have to check out the Dark kind too! :)

  18. TBBT is one of my all time favorite shows - EVER! I missed the season finale but it is currently on my DVR so I will watch it tonight. Penny's walk of shame was definitely AWESOME! LOL.

  19. That's so cool that they sent this too you! How fun!

    My friends tell me that I'm the Penny of our group. It makes me laugh.