Glenn Howerton is no stranger to playing deeply flawed, egotistical characters.
In “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” which he co-created for FX, Howerton’s character of Dennis Reynolds spent 11 seasons thriving on a narcissism so deep it helped him create a system for seducing women. (Season 12 saw him have a rare moment of growth where he seemed to want more out of life, but it remains to be seen if that will stick.)
“AP Bio,” which Michael Patrick O’Brien created, sees Howerton stepping into the role of a former Harvard professor named Jack who takes a job teaching a high school biology class — and promptly proceeds to act superior to everyone he works with.
Howerton acknowledges a “fascination” with characters who have big egos but says that it is ones with fragile egos that really interest him.
“Maybe it’s me getting my own demons out in a way. I found that when I was younger and less secure as a human being I maybe lashed out because my ego was damaged because I was sensitive and I cared what people think,” Howerton tells Variety. “You start to put on this front that you don’t care and that you’re superior to everybody else, and I’ve always found it an interesting challenge to make a somewhat reprehensible person relatable or rootable — to find out what makes them tick [and] to explore what causes a person to be that way and find the humanity in them.”
Ahead of “AP Bio’s” series premiere, Variety spoke with Howerton about who Jack is versus who he wants people to think he is, the relationship dynamics between Jack and the other teachers in the show, and what the success of this show could mean for “Sunny.”
After working on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” for so long, where you had behind-the-scenes creative control, how has it been to act on a show created by someone else?
Mike was really collaborative through the entire process, and he had a tremendous amount of respect for my background as a writer. But it is very much Mike’s show, and that was important to me. If I had asserted myself too much as a writer, as a producer, it wouldn’t have worked. He and I have slightly different sensibilities, and that’s what I wanted — I wanted to work with somebody I thought was really, really funny and really, really smart but had a different sensibility than I do so I could stretch myself. And there were things that I disagreed with, that he and I butted heads on — and I mean in a purely creative way — and there were a few times I lost some arguments, and when I saw the finished product, I saw he was right. I’m happy to lose those arguments to somebody who has a really strong point of view. And then there were also times when I would bring things up and he would say, “That is funnier, we should change this.” He’s a perfect example of somebody who has a strong point of view and a very strong sense of knowing what’s funny and what isn’t funny but who doesn’t have a big ego about it. So if you come to him with an idea that’s better than his idea, he’ll change it.
Jack certainly doesn’t want to be at this high school when the show starts, but will we start to see him growing or being changed by the experience?
On “Sunny” the show always remained the same in that the characters never grew — with the exception of Mac coming out of the closet or what happened to [Dennis] at the end of Season 12. We realized we needed some change just to keep things interesting if we were going to keep going, which we are. With “AP Bio” the characters will change, to a degree. It’s how they deal with that change. You’ll see [Jack] internalize things — you’ll see him struggle with his own facade — but it will probably take a long time before he lets those cracks show. He wants people to see him a certain way, and he wants to be able to see himself a certain way, so if something comes up against that, he’ll deny it’s happening, but you’ll see it happening.
What is most driving Jack early on in the season?
His dream job is the head of the philosophy department at Stanford, which is currently held by his, I would say former best friend, but he would probably describe as still his best friend. So he knows he has to destroy this guy to get his dream job. But in the meantime, you’ll see him slogging through Toledo, Ohio, trying to make the best of the situation he can.
Jack isn’t fooling everyone with his facade. How important to the comedy is striking a balance with different character relationships?
There are different dynamics. I think it would have been a mistake for Mike to just have Jack getting away with walking around acting superior to everyone he works with. It works with a lot of people, but I love that it doesn’t work with the three other teachers on the show, Stef, Mary and Michelle [played respectively by Lyric Lewis, Mary Sohn and Jean Villepique]. They just don’t buy his bulls— at all. They’re weirdly able to see right through that facade, and instead of disliking him for being narcissistic and egotistical, they just think he’s hilarious. It’s like having those three sisters: you lived in your hometown but then you moved to New York City and you became the greatest in whatever field, but the second you go back home, your sister’s like, “Yeah, dude, I remember when you used to wet the bed.” He tries to be superior to these teachers, but they’re just not having it at all.
And then there’s Principal Durbin, who seems like he could be an ally for Jack if Jack got out of his own way. How did you and Patton Oswalt build your working relationship?
They’re both at odds with each other and also weirdly have an affinity for each other at the same time. It’s an interesting rivalry that I’ve never really seen portrayed this way, and a lot of it was just in the writing. But it was really weird [because] I fell into a rhythm with Patton as an actor immediately — it was as if we had been working together for years. Working with him, I just knew who this guy was — I can’t explain it, I just knew what it was. It clicked right from the beginning [and] I found it very easy to adlib and improvise with him.
How important is improvisation to you in order to keep things feeling fresh?
It’s certainly always my goal to make it feel like a line is coming out of my mouth for the first time, even if it’s the 50th time, but some of that is — I wouldn’t say improv as much as ad-libbing. This is going to sound all corny and actor-y, but it really is true. When you’re staying the same lines over and over again, you can sort of get into this hypnotic state where you’re not really there anymore, you’re just kind of going through the motions. I’m always changing things because I’m trying to get a reaction from the other actor — because getting a reaction from the other actor keeps me present. If I can’t find new ways to say the line that means I don’t really know what I’m doing. So in a way it’s a way of me checking in with myself and making sure I understand the intention behind what I’m saying — and it keeps it fresh and it makes it funny and it allows for surprises to happen.
What aspect of Jack have you most enjoyed getting to explore?
I really, really like those moments where he’s at his dead mom’s apartment. I have theories as an actor about the character that I haven’t even necessarily run by Mike — to me, [Jack] would say that he has to live in his dead mom’s apartment, and as the season goes on, it’s weird how he talks about his dead mom like it’s no big deal. He’s very flippant about it — it’s almost like he doesn’t give a s—, but my theory is he actually does. I think he misses his mom, and I think he doesn’t have to live there; I think he chooses to to be close to her — even though he hates that fact and if you were to ask him, he would say, “I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m going to get out of here the second I can. This place is depressing and awful, and I hate it here.” I think he would mean it when he said that, but I don’t think he wants to leave. I think he needs to be there. I think he’s mourning, I really do.
Will Jack be presented an opportunity to actually change his life or leave this place and realize he’s not ready to take it?
I don’t want to give anything away, but the concept of what you’re saying definitely plays into the season. That area — that feeling — definitely gets dealt with in the first season.
You did mention there are plans to continue “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but how might those plans be affected if “AP Bio” is renewed?
Doing two shows is a little bit of a juggling act so there could be scheduling issues that could come up, but that’s the case whenever you’re doing anything, but no even if this show gets picked up [for a second season], it would not prevent me from doing more “Sunny.”
“AP Bio” premieres Feb. 1 at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.