Patton Oswalt on His ’12 Years a Slave’ Audition, ‘Walter Mitty’ Role

Oswalt has journeyed from “horrible” to one of the great character actors working today

Patton Oswalt walter mitty
Michael Lewis

Patton Oswalt is many things to many people. To most, he’s known as the funniest comic working today, whose routines will never allow you to look at “Star Wars” or KFC’s Famous Bowls in the same way again. To others, he is an outstanding dramatic actor, having delivered powerhouse performances in films like “Big Fan” and “Young Adult” as well as on the FX series “Justified.” To the child in all of us, he will always be Remy, the culinary rodent in “Ratatouille.” Then there’s Oswalt the performance artist: the man who once stood perfectly still for three minutes during the opening scene on “King of Queens,” has elevated Twitter to an art form, and penned thoughtful, moving essays on everything from heckling to the Boston Marathon bombings.

Even Oswalt admits that his fan base is becoming “more complex” every day. “I know people who like ‘King of Queens’ might not rush out to see ‘Big Fan,’” he notes. “Someone will tell me how their kids love ‘Ratatouille’ and I want to say, ‘Look for my standup — but make sure your kids don’t hear.’”

Oswalt’s latest film is a perfect showcase for the dramatic and comedic chops he’s honed over the last decade of acting. In Ben Stiller’s fantastical “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Oswalt is a dating service employee who becomes a phone friend and adviser to office drone Mitty as he embarks on a wild adventure for the first time in his life. For all the buzz surrounding Scarlett Johansson in “Her,” Oswalt is just as impressive in delivering a largely vocal performance that creates a full-fledged character.

The insightfully critical Oswalt would be the first person to tear into “Walter Mitty” if its unabashed sentiment didn’t work, but he admits the first time he saw the film, he was reduced to tears. “I think it’s really courageous these days to go for the heart,” he says. “It’s brilliantly constructed, technically gorgeous filmmaking, but the emotion sneaks up on you. It’s a Kubrick-level of technical wizardry, but you know, Kubrick could be cold at times. Ben uses this beautiful technology to smuggle in this surprise where emotionally you’re like, my heart’s just been punched right now.”

Oswalt is a lifelong film buff who so admired acting, he didn’t feel he “could operate in that world” and chose to focus on standup. But when he “stumbled into” the role of Spence Olchin on “King of Queens,” he used his co-stars for on the job training. “I learned so much from watching others work out scenes and will forever thank the show for not firing me in those early seasons when I was such a horrible actor.”

Film roles began to follow, many of which Oswalt jokes he took just to gather material — such as Wesley Snipes communicating through Post-It Notes he signed in character on the set of “Blade: Trinity.” But after his dramatic turn as a lonely sports fanatic in “Big Fan,” bigger opportunities arose. Oswalt is fairly certain that without that film, he wouldn’t have landed the role of Matt, a man who still bears physical and psychic scars from a brutal beating, in Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult.” For the first time, Oswalt worked with an acting coach, Nancy Banks, for the film. “I had always been a little leery about people doing extensive character bios and really delving into a character’s background,” he notes. “When I worked with her, I suddenly saw how it could all really pay off.”

Oswalt estimates that half his roles come as offers, while the other half are through auditions. And unlike most actors, he doesn’t mind the audition process. “First and foremost, I don’t want to be wrong for a movie,” he says. “Secondly, as a film buff, I love sitting in the waiting room and looking around. Like I’ll see Bruce McGill and I’ll think, ‘Wow, there’s all these great characters actors and I feel like I’m slowly joining their ranks.’”

Oswalt adds that it keeps him on his toes, much like working an open mic does as a comedian. “I bet I would become the worst actor in the world if I didn’t audition occasionally,” he says. “It’s like if you were a comedian and everyone laughed, no matter what, your stuff will start to stink. You have to go on the road now and then and try out new things and be with a crowd that wants to see something new. It makes you keep your stuff good.” Oswalt never stops live performing; he’s appearing Nov. 14 at “Radiolab” and Dec. 1 at “Patton Oswalt and Friends,” both in L.A.

And though the busy Oswalt is in demand, there is one role it might surprise people to learn he went out for and didn’t land — that of one of the kidnappers in “12 Years a Slave.” Notes Oswalt, “I didn’t get the role but when I saw the guy who got it, he was great! So I never get too down about not getting a part. Casting people know what they’re doing. You want to be in a good movie, but you don’t want to suck in something great. They got the perfect person to play that role.”