Kyle On: Jerry O’Connell

I sat down with actor, writer, and good friend Jerry O’Connell to talk about his extensive career in Hollywood, how he makes it work, and how he went from being part of a ragtag group of 4 misfit boys in Stand By Me, to a similar group of 4 misfit grown men 27 years later in his new show premiering this fall on CBS, We Are Men.

How’s your new show?
It’s going well. It’s called We Are Men on CBS. It has Tony Shaloub – it’s guys who got divorced who now live in temporary housing.

Kyle Langan interviews Jerry O'Connell for The Tiny ProtagonistSo tell me the story: how did you get started? Did you fall into acting…?
Well I was in that movie Stand By Me when I was a kid.
And that was just a big cattle call and I somehow kept getting called back and called back, and there was a stage actor who lived on my block, In Chelsea, NY, and my mom told me to practice the script with him. And I got the part. It was luck. And it was funny, because my dad told me not to tell anyone that I was doing the movie because it would probably never get released because it was an independent film…and then it did pretty well.

Were your parents pretty supportive?
Yeah. Growing up in Chelsea they were pretty artistic, my mom was an art teacher and my dad was an art director at an ad agency. But it wasn’t like child stardom for me because the movie is kind of more popular now that it was back then because it has that nostalgia element working for it.

How did your life pretty much change after that?
Not much. I mean, I was in public school. I was 12 when it came out and I think it was more of an adult movie, so older people were more into it. It wasn’t like being on the Disney channel. It wasn’t like my peers knew I was in a movie. It was strange because my parents’ friends were into it, so I was popular with them.
Now that I’m older I can understand it more. It was more the memory of making it and hanging out with those other 3 guys that was cool for me.
And also, the fact of being on a set – there’s always people around, always action – I always liked sets. My dad worked on commercials and I liked going to visit him on set. And even today. Even if you’re working on the smallest project, all the action is right there: getting your shot, getting your day, getting those scenes. There’s something super exciting about a set.

And I think you told me before you did extra work to get back into SAG?
Yeah! That’s so funny. You have to get so many hours to get your SAG card and I needed extra hours. I’ve done extra work. I tell ya, man, with extras, the show I’m doing now, there’s always different party scenes and the extras are just as important as we are in these scenes because of the atmosphere we’re trying to convey. Listen, I think extra work is a great way to get in the business because there isn’t a ton of pressure on you, and you get to see what’s gonna happen: who’s going to yell, where the camera is. It’s a good way to feel everything out.
It’s a good learning experience.
I’d call of it more of a prep course. It can be a daunting place. A lot of people yell on set. It’s a good way to scope it out. Gets you used to the atmosphere.

If you want to get in the business and have just a little bit of talent, it will come. You just have to stick with it.

Do you audition now in your career or do you wait for offers and have connections that help you to get roles?
I audition a lot. The one thing I always give advice on when you audition is to be off book. I know it’s just an audition, but memorize it. Typically what they do in casting sessions is if you play the scene one way, they’re going to ask you to play it a completely different way to see if you have an ability to take direction. It’s something that casting directors and directors and producers do so that when you get out on set, you’re going to actually listen and take direction. A lot of people memorize a part and then that’s the only way they play it because they’ve worked it out with an acting coach or something. You should memorize it to a point where you can internalize those emotions and not even think about them – instead think about the direction you were just given. That’s why I’m a big believer in being off book. And it’s tedious memorizing. It’s one of the most boring parts of an actor’s job. I did a play last year and I had a couple monologues and for weeks I would just memorize. It’s non-stop.

Do you do any writing?
Yeah, I wrote a movie a couple of years ago called First Daughter with Katie Holmes. I write a little bit here and there. You know, I went through a period where I had to take a break from writing. I was going through a rough patch. I took a bunch of UCB classes, which helped and were great. I’m slowly getting back into it. I’ve never worked on a sitcom like this, where it’s a quick 30 minute episode and it’s inspiring how the writers can cram a story into 30 pages where characters have complete arcs. It’s fun to see. I still write from time to time.

Kyle Langan interviews Jerry O'Connell for The Tiny ProtagonistAnd what is your character like in We Are Men?
I play the guy who still has anger issues with his ex-wives. He’s in denial and thinks he’s gonna get back with her. Tony [Shaloub] is more zen and it’s told from the point of view of Chris Smith’s character. I play the angry emotion of getting divorced and it makes for some great comedy.

Is the show single camera or in front of an audience?
It’s single camera, so we do a lot of location stuff. It’s fun, it’s interesting. It’s from the How I Met Your Mother people and it’s a whole new world for me and I’m really enjoying it.

And going off of that, I know you’ve done series work before, but when you’re about to go into pilot season or the first season of a show, how do you mentally prepare for something like that?
I gotta say, going back to it, getting the dialogue down 100%. Because there are so many outside factors when you perform it. If you get the base of everything down you can do whatever you want from there.

When you’re choosing a project to do, do you look for anything in particular?
First, I wanna enjoy it. It’s good if it goes both ways; they want me and I want the project. When I did Mockingbird Lane, I wanted to work with Bryan Singer. He’s one of the greatest directors of our time.
That was such a cool show.
I know…

Do you like drama or comedy better? You’ve done so much of both.
Because of We Are Men, my head is in comedy. But it goes back and forth. My favorite actors are the ones who bounce back and forth without missing a beat at all.

Has there ever been a point in your career where you’ve had scheduling conflicts? Or something was particularly frustrating about the business?
There was one time when I was doing a TV show and I got a movie and they wouldn’t let me out to do it, so that was kind of upsetting. There are worst things in the world than not being able to do a job because you have a job. I’m fortunate. One should be grateful to have a job so I can’t be too upset about it.

Kyle Langan interviews Jerry O'Connell for The Tiny ProtagonistWhat is it like being married to another actor [Rebecca Romijn]? Do you guys take turns working?
We usually take turns because we have kids and we can’t work at the same time because we gotta watch our two crazy kids that you know quite well.
(laughs) I do!
It’s fun being married to someone who does what you do. You get to talk shop with them. Run lines with them. I run everything by her. She’s great.

And I’m sure you guys understand each other a lot better too than people who aren’t in the business.
I don’t know if it’s that we understand each other as much as it is understanding what we’re going through, whether it’s good or bad. It’s a good support system.

The business changes all the time. I’m 25 and I’m sure it’s changed a lot since you were 25. Now someone can pick up a decent camera and make their own project. How do you feel about that?
It’s awesome. I mean, it’s great. It’s going to change everything. The more people that have the ability to pick up a camera and tell stories through sight and sound, the better. That’s what it’s all about. Technology has become so much more accessible to everyone and it’s wonderful. I can’t wait.

I know it’s cliché, but do you have any advice to give to young actors or writers?
Stick with it. I’m sure the rent is due and the bills are coming in and you probably have student loans that you gotta pay off, but try and figure out a way to stick with it. Because if you have a little bit of talent, just a little bit, I don’t care if you wanna do cinematography, costumes, choreography, acting, screenwriting – if you have a little bit of talent, it will come and you just have got to stick with it. It’s not an easy business. It’s not for the faint of heart. But just stick with it.