Best known for his popular podcast WTF with Marc Maron and for his role on Netflix’s GLOW, comedian Marc Maron has been branching out as an actor over the last couple of years.
In his newest film, Sword of Trust, Maron plays Mel, a pawn shop owner in Alabama who attempts to help a couple sell a sword to a group of conspiracy theorists who believe it proves the South actually won the Civil War.
Along with Sword of Trust, Maron stars in the stand-alone film Joker later this year, which features Joaquin Phoenix as the title clown. Maron also has roles in the crime-drama Wonderland, directed by Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) and starring Oscar nominee Mark Wahlberg (The Departed), and in the U.K. drama Stardust about musician David Bowie’s first trip to the U.S. in 1971.
During an interview with me last month, Maron talked about expanding his horizons as an actor, the difference between film reviewers and film critics and why moviegoers who aren’t necessarily comic-book movie fans should be excited about Joker.
You’ve received acclaim for your role in GLOW and you do an amazing job in Sword of Trust. Was acting something that came second nature to you or did you have to hone it as much as you did with stand-up comedy?
Alongside comedy, I always wanted to do it. I did it a bit in high school and college. I would take classes here and there. I don’t know if it’s second nature, but I think I have the ability to be present and not notice there are cameras around me. I’ve been working kind of hard to learn more about it. I’m comfortable doing it, so it’s a mixture of natural ability and just learning on the job.
I’m sure as a stand-up comedian and as a podcast host, you have to be on your toes when it comes to what the audience or the guest might throw at you. Would you consider that practice for Sword of Trust since it’s a film that had more narrative freedom than most movies?
Sure. With most of my stand-up [comedy], I create it in real time on stage through talking. I can improvise like that. But that’s usually on my own. Certainly, the podcast has taught me how to listen better and engage my empathy with other people. As I act more, I went out of my way to have more actors on the podcast to get free acting lessons.
Well, the acting lessons seem to have paid off in your new film, especially the scene in the back of the moving truck. Where did that come from? Was that soliloquy you give all from your head? It was very touching.
Well, apparently this movie was all improvised, but there was an outline. There was a story in place. For that scene, the direction on the page was, “Get to know each other in the van.” [Director] Lynn Shelton had some backstory points that were somewhat similar to my life. Then there was this whole other element that I just had to create in the moment. But I’ve become pretty good at creating memories for the people I’m playing and locking into them and believing them. That was nine hours in a van. By the end of the day, I was at the end of my rope. It was hot and I was angry. The last shot of the day was that close up. I was really able to connect to the story emotionally.
Is there something specific you’re looking for when a script comes across your desk? Has that changed since you first started taking these acting gigs?
I really didn’t do much acting [before]. I didn’t really pursue it as a job. I was a comic. I really didn’t have an agent. I really didn’t like auditioning. It was too brutal. Acting is always something I wanted to do, and I’m grateful that I am able to do it, but I don’t have to do it. It’s not really my job. But I like to do it. In terms of projects, I want to take more risks as an actor. But until I feel really confident in doing that, I look at things to see if I can see myself in the part and whether it’s in my wheelhouse and how long it’s going to take and who I’d be working with and what are the chances of it actually happening or being finished. There’s a lot of little things that I look at. But I don’t have to do it, which is a nice place to be. The ability to say no and not worry about it is definitely a gift.
I know you don’t have to act, but I think you could definitely use Sword of Trust as a calling card moving forward if you want to show directors that you have range.
I hope so. I always wanted to do my own TV show and act as somebody who wasn’t really me in a TV show. Both of those dreams came true. The other thing I wanted was to have a solid, small part in a movie that would really showcase what I’m capable of. I thought it would be in a big movie, but it turns out to be in this nice, little movie that Lynn made. Yeah, I hope that it gets me some interesting opportunities to act. That would be exciting.
One of my favorite podcasts of yours – and I’m being biased because he’s my favorite director working today – was the one with Paul Thomas Anderson. Are there any directors working right now that if they called you up and offered you even a small part in a movie, you wouldn’t hesitate to say yes?
[Anderson] is definitely one of them. I think David O. Russell would be fun to work with. Obviously, [I’d like to work with] all the directors we’ve grown to know and love in our life, but there’s a lot of new people doing work that … I look at their movies and I think they do amazing stuff. I’m pretty open. As long as it’s collaborative and has big minds behind it and big creativity in it. I’m sort of excited about doing that kind of stuff.
Something I didn’t know about you until recently is that you minored in film criticism in college. How do you see that landscape today? Do you think it’s over-saturated?
There’s a difference between a review and real criticism. When you read thorough criticism that puts the conversation about the film into the context of art and film and literature and genre expectations, I like reading that stuff – if it has some depth to it. There are probably enough film reviewers around. I think real criticism is a different animal. I think there is always room for that.
How do you confront reviews of your own work? Do you read them? Ignore them? Do you take them to heart?
If someone is smart and they’re thinking about the film, then maybe I can learn something about myself and my performance from that. I’ll only take things to heart if they make me look at it in a different way. I’ve always learned stuff from smart people who have the ability to be honest and whose opinion is founded in something logical or intelligent. I don’t Google myself or anything. Certainly, I’ve been offended by things that are just mean or nasty or condescending. But if someone is smart and they have a point, I’ll take it to heart and think it through.
Well, you definitely have a lot of smart people as guests on your podcast. As engaging as I’m sure each of them are, is there a topic that might come up where you would immediately feel out of your element? Would you slink into your chair for 18th century Russian opera?
I don’t slink into my chair, but I certainly – at some point in my life – realized that it’s better to say, “I don’t know,” than to pretend like you do. Generally, I won’t slink into my chair. I’ll say something like, “I don’t know much about that. Can you tell me what I need to know so I can learn something?”
Do you still enjoy the podcast aspect of your career as much as you did when you started a decade ago? Or has it become a chore as most things do if you do them for a long time and aren’t loving it as much as when you first started?
It’s a job. We have a schedule to meet. We post two new shows every week. I find that anytime I get tired of it … I talk to new people and I never know what’s going to happen. I always get the same amount of anxiety and dread and nervousness behind every conversation. Every conversation is a new thing. Almost none of them have I not been completely engaged or interested to have. Talking about myself at the beginning, sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to say. But we just keep doing it because there’s no reason to stop. No matter how much I get tired of it, I still love talking to the people that I talk to.
In the past, you’ve said you do limited research on your guests. Do you still work that way?
It depends on how interested I am and how much research I have to do. I like to be familiar with people. Sometimes I go out of my way to get a deeper handle on people than I used to. But I still don’t write a list of questions.
I’m not a big comic-book movie fan. I loved Logan, but I’m not going to die if I’m not the first one in line to see Avengers 12. That said, I am very much looking forward to Joker. Why is someone like me, who is not invested in comic-book movies, so excited about this particular one?
I think it’s because there’s a different approach to [Joker]. It’s not a cape and leotard movie. There are no flying people in it. I think it’s because of the way [director] Todd Phillips approached the character of the Joker – with a certain amount of license around an origin story movie. I think he took it on as a gritty character study of a mentally ill person whose journey through life molded him into this character who compromises his sense of morality and becomes this monstrous presence. I think there is a bit more intimacy and grit and humanity to it. I think it’s going to be an exciting movie.