‘The Tick’ Star Griffin Newman Opens Up About His First Big Break as an Unlikely Action Hero

Variety's Sonia Saraiya sits down with a friend who happens to have become famous for a Q&A about heroes, auditions, and making it

When I first became friends with Griffin Newman, he was an actor whose biggest screen credit was the guy Kevin Costner spills coffee on in “Draft Day” — and I was a freelancer with no idea if I’d ever get a full-time job. Since then, things have improved for both of us, and with Newman’s new series “The Tick” debuting on Amazon, I’m in the unprecedented position of recusing myself from a review. (My colleague Maureen Ryan will be covering it instead). With that caveat, I thought it might be fun to chat with my friend about how much his life has changed, and how jumping from being a fan to having fans is a unique transition. I talked with Newman about his upcoming role starring as Arthur Everest in “The Tick” — a role that has already generated fan enthusiasm — and now that he’s making rent, his most fervent desire: an action figure of himself.

So I watched the first four episodes of “The Tick.” And my first thought was, “Wow, Arthur is a lot like Griffin!”

Yeah. He is very similar. There were all these parallels, between Arthur trying to become a superhero and with me trying to become an actor who could play a superhero. You know? That amount of self-doubt, and the amount of criticism from people around you.

That thing that everyone always quotes — the definition of insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results — you can argue that point until the end of time. It’s a little blankety for my taste. But that’s what show business is, you keep on doing the same thing over and over again hoping it’s going to work sometime — especially when you’re struggling to make your mark to convince anyone to let you do anything. That’s what it is. You’re going for audition, after audition, after audition, and it’s like a bunch of blind dates that don’t go anywhere. You have to be insane. You have to be somewhat delusional to keep doing it, because everything around you is telling you to stop — and that’s even if you’re wildly successful. There’s just a certain amount you have to swim through.

I’m a neurotic, small, fragile person, and so most of my life has been, or most of my career — since I dropped out of college nine years ago and started auditioning — most of what I get to audition for are characters who are the butt of the joke in one way or another. Playing a lot of people who are there to prop up the lead, or allow them to dunk successfully, and maybe you get a bit of vindication at the end.

I would always, growing up, get so angry when I felt like I saw a character like that in a movie where I felt like the actor was making fun of them, too. I feel like that happens a lot, and I think it sometimes happens from a place of ego. Well I’m cooler than this guy is. So I need to play more of a dork.

What became my north star, was like: OK, I know what I look like. I know what I sound like. I’m not delusional. I want to work, but what I’d like to do — what would make me happy — is if I was able to take those parts and dimensionalize them a little more than I think other people do sometimes. I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I’m going to do it well. I don’t know if anyone will let me have the chance. But that was always that very specific ambition of mine. And what I’d been used to hearing, for most of the last decade, is OK, that was good, but you have to make it a little funny, a little like it’s a sitcom.

I read this script. I was a fan of the previous versions, but Arthur had always been a little more of a comic relief character — a character I found very funny, but was always an archetype, in the same way that the Tick was. Then I read this, and it has this whole backstory, this whole examination of psychology. And I went like, oh I know how to play that. But I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to go in there and they’re going to go, “Lighter, a little lighter. Remember it’s a comedy, remember it’s a comedy.”

I had that moment where I went like, “Should I just be strategic? Should I just play it the way they probably want to see it?”

The industry can be egocentric. It can make you focus on yourself instead of on the narrative.

Very much so. As a child I just watched stuff and I would go, like: Why is that bad? Why didn’t they just make it good? Or see people who have these super-inflated heads and go, How does that happen? Is he just a jerk? Then you step into the industry and it’s scary because you see those paths immediately. They’re like water slides. You take one step and you’re gone, you’re down it.

So I went like, “No, I’m going to do my thing.” I did my thing. And everyone went, “Oh.” Then Ben [Hedlund, creator and showrunner] reached out. We met and talked just about all the stuff that we’re talking about right now. He’s a very philosophical guy, who’s equally interested in the macro and the micro. He loves thinking of the large implications and he loves focusing in on the little details.

And we just talked about comedy. He said, I need this to be a guy that the audience is very worried about, but really rooting for. So he can’t be the butt of the joke. He has to be funny and there are jokes that he has to sell and there are jokes around him but they can’t feel like they’re selling out the integrity of this guy.” I said to him, Look, I know how to do that. I don’t know if I can do everything else the show requires. I don’t know if I can work the number of hours you need me to work without passing out from exhaustion! But I know that’s the one that I spend a lot of time thinking about.

Whatever Arthur was struggling against in his world was always very close to whatever I was struggling against trying to do this part right — trying to do right by this character and right by the history of this character, and hopefully do something a little different with it.

For a while your most well-known role was as the guy Kevin Costner spilled coffee on in “Draft Day.” I guess there was also a small role on “Vinyl,” and later an arc on “Search Party.” But for a while, “Draft Day” was kind of it.

It’s quite a journey. Everyone saw that performance and went, “This guy is going to be a superhero.” What an obvious stepping stone.

“The Tick” is such a weird superhero story. There’s a line the Tick says at some point — “mano-a-monomyth” — I had to write it down because it made me laugh so much.

At times it feels like a fever dream. There’s just a density of ideas going on and you can’t tell which things you’re supposed to take at face value.

There’s so much in “The Tick” about being a fan of this type of story, which I know that you are. And Arthur is a super-fan, even, at the beginning. He’s following all these people, he knows their mythology, and then he’s suddenly among them.

The show has a pretty classical hero’s journey, but it feels weird because I think we’ve been given a lot of broken hero’s journeys, trying to apply the hero’s journey to Tom Cruise, or Marvel characters. Right?

Yes, totally.

It doesn’t really work. I think Tom Cruise broke something in a certain way. Tom Cruise is this weird guy who you always root for, even though the arc of every great Tom Cruise movie is, here’s a guy who’s the best. People around him question whether or not he’s the best. He overcomes and proves them wrong. There is weirdly something vulnerable about Tom Cruise as an actor that makes the movies work, even though every Tom Cruise character, on paper, is a bully. I’m not only putting this at the feet of “Top Gun” [Laughs.] But I think over time people have gotten the wrong lesson from it. In a lot of superhero movies where you get to the refusal of the call moment, you just feel like they’re slowing down the story for no reason. You look like Ryan Reynolds. Why wouldn’t you do this? The whole first third of this movie, every situation, has been about how capable you are. Why are you doubting yourself suddenly?

But Arthur really is someone who shouldn’t be at the center of a story like this. The hope is that anyone watching will understand — yeah I know where this guy is going, because I’m looking at him right now and he’s going to get killed the second he steps out into battle. Aside from the fact that physically I am not equipped to be in a show like this — which is where a lot of the comedy comes from— it also is just that he’s a guy who has been essentially told his entire life, Hey, don’t aim too high. He experiences this traumatic event. It functions as this big trigger, this catalyst for complete psychological collapse. And over the years he’s been institutionalized, he’s been medicated.

What Arthur has been told the entire time is — don’t aim for great, you are not capable of greatness. Just be good. Just have an apartment, pay your bills, and have a job. You should be happy with the fact that you’re not a disaster. He has no reason to believe that he can make it. And Dot [Valorie Curry] — who I think is a really interesting character — is very supportive of him, but also pragmatically has every reason to believe that he’s stepping headfirst into danger, that he’s going off the handle, even once she knows who the Tick is and sees that he’s real. The first half the season is him convincing himself that he’s a hero. And the second half of the season, which will be coming out next year, is a little more of him having to convince everyone else that he is a hero.

It must be very interesting to cross the line from an engaged and passionate fan to the other side, where you are attracting a lot of fans. You were just at Comic-Con. What is that like?

It’s the most loaded question, and something I’m honestly trying to wrestle with on a day-to-day basis. Because it’s a very weird thing to be on the other side of. It helped me in certain ways, because when doing a scene I would go: What would I want to see out of the show right now? I was always just trying to find that pitch of what felt fundamentally like Arthur to me, and then trying to match that with Peter’s pitch so that we could harmonize because that’s a big thing that fans are going to accept or not.

But I was also always trying to think about it in those larger ways. I love, as an actor when you’re doing a type of scene — this type of scene that establishes this, or this type of emotional scene that we’ve all seen — and are finding little moments to throw it off the hump.

To make it different, you mean?

I think often, the way to make it different is to throw in a greater sense of specificity or honesty into it. Sometimes it’s literally just doing the opposite, or doing something that’s one degree away, just because we’re so used to it. You see so many movies and TV shows that I feel like are referencing other movies and TV shows more than they’re referencing real life.

I did this movie a couple of years ago, and there was a moment at the end where… I don’t even know how to phrase this in a way that doesn’t make me want to vomit. But the guy gets the girl, the girl gets the guy, we end up together, and we have this moment where we kiss and then we look at the sun setting. They wanted us to put our arms around each other. I put my arm around the actress and I put my head on her shoulder. The director came out and went, “OK, that was funny, but you can’t do that.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well that’s not what the man does.”

I got so frustrated. I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything because I couldn’t afford to get fired. I could barely afford my rent that month. I was taking whatever job I could get. But it was such a frustrating thing to me. Not just that he was that narrow-minded, in terms of the roles that characters need to play, that genders need to play. But also, just, why do you feel the need to stick that strongly to what’s come before? As someone who always really sparks when I see a moment like that in a film — and how those moments can often speak really loudly… you and I are people both overanalyze movies and you see these little moments where you go, I don’t know if that was intentional…

… but that was exciting.

And then it reverberates across the entire thing in one way or another, and sometimes it’s the way someone cocks their head, sometimes it’s the way they phrase a line. The scary part of that is knowing that you’re being part of something that will be scrutinized thoroughly, that will be studied that much. There is a fan base who is going to really pick apart everything you did.

What was the most fun scene to do?

The one I weirdly keep on coming back to, and it’s not a fun scene per se, it’s the scene Dot and I have in the pilot where she’s picking me up from the police station and drives me home and is just trying to keep me on a straight line — and I’m just fighting to get her to believe me and take me seriously and trust that I can take care of myself, that I know what I’m doing. It was fun to do because they weren’t stopping us. We kept on going like, I can’t believe we’re getting away we doing a scene like this on something that is a comedy.

What were you getting away with? Just the fact that it was so serious?

Yeah. Well, I think there are funny things in that scene, but we’re playing it really real. And not worrying about — OK, there are too many pauses, we have to speed it up and make it punchy. Or there hasn’t been a laugh line in two minutes, we need to throw something in there. The dialogue scenes are so great, and we have such a focus on dialogue in the show, that it doesn’t make the action sequences then feel like obligatory punching.

Last question: I know that your campaign to make yourself into an action figure is very important to you.

Yeah. I love toys. I think they’re the best, super cool. I love collecting stuff, probably because I’m an obsessive person. I love characters being depicted in physical tangible forms or things like that, these totems. It just feels like a certain benchmark of a kind of pop culture resonance. I’ve never been part of anything that has come even close to stepping into that. It’s certainly not any character I’ve played. But from the moment at casting, I was like, oh s—t. This is the property that has a lot of toys in the past and this is a superhero, it’s a costume, it’s a really cool-looking.

It could happen.

It could happen! I spend a lot of time online tweeting at companies and asking if they’re making some. A: I think that’s the greatest strain of narcissism I have, is being able to have a totem representation of myself. But B: Not to inflate this too much, but I have a sense that it wouldn’t be made unless people actually cared. There was never going to be a “Draft Day” toy, never [laughs] but this is very possible.

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