I had the opportunity along with my fellow pop culturists to interview none other than Chris Parnell who voices Agent Cyril Figgis on FX’s Archer. You may also know him from his character Dr. Leo Spaceman on 30 Rock, my personal favorite, or maybe even from his current stint on Suburgatory as Fred Shay. Aside from being talented and hilarious, Chris Parnell is busy with a capital B. What makes him so sought after? He is engaging and humble and seems to be a consummate professional to boot. Completely the opposite of my phone interview with his co-star H. Jon Benjamin, Chris Parnell was surprisingly straight-laced and reserved. A little bit of his signature, dry humor snuck in though. Read on to learn more about one of the funniest men on television today.
Interviewer: As I understand it, everybody on Archer and most animated shows…record in isolation. I know that you have a background in sketch and ensemble comedy with…Saturday Night Live, so being in a booth alone recording lines for ‘Cyril,’ does that ever present a challenge for you? What is that like?
Chris Parnell: It’s a little challenging, in the sense that it’s very easy to go in there and then just do the lines in a variety of ways without actually connecting to the lines, to use a little actor speak, so I have to remind myself to try to be present while I’m there. I sometimes picture the other actors there with me and try to imagine that I’m really speaking to them. Adam Reed will, if it’s a long back and forth kind of sequence I’m usually on the phone with him in KC, or Matt Thompson, and we will read back and forth, I’ll do my part and he’ll do the other parts.
But I’ve also found, having recorded in more group kind of situations, especially if it’s scripted like Archer is, you probably don’t have the lines memorized anyway, and so trying to actually look at or make contact with somebody while you’re reading these lines, yes, there’s a certain energy that can happen there that is helpful and it probably in some ways makes it easier. But once you get used to it, it’s fine. I enjoy it. Time wise, it’s fantastic. If we recorded it all together in a room it would certainly be a lot of fun, because we actually all really like each other, but it would take a long, long time. And this way I’m usually done in less than an hour.
Interviewer: What has been the most enjoyable part of playing ‘Cyril’?
Chris Parnell: I guess watching it after it’s done, because usually between the time we record it and the time that it airs, or I see it on DVD or something that FX will send me, I’ve probably forgotten a decent amount of it. So to actually then see it animated and see the facial expressions and the things that the animators do with ‘Cyril,’ it adds a whole other dimension to the character. I bring as much as I can vocally and acting wise to it, but they add a whole other level to it, so that’s really fun. I like doing voice over stuff. I like acting obviously. But to do a voice over character like that you don’t have to worry about what you look like, you can just be ridiculous physically and focus all your energy into this vocal performance, and that’s kind of freeing in a certain way, so I quite enjoy that.
Interview: What do you look for in a screenplay, whether it’s television or a feature screenplay, and maybe if you can say which scripts you’ve read that really, really jumped out at you and seemed great to you over the years?
Chris Parnell: The truth is, if I’m going to get a part it’s often because somebody offers it to me. I’ve certainly gotten things that I’ve auditioned for, but I think about Anchorman, that was brilliant and fantastic and I felt lucky to be a part of that. Misguided, a show I did for ABC a few years ago, which I actually did have to audition for and was able to make it through to that even though it was very short-lived, that was a great script. Every 30 Rock script is fantastic. Suburgatory, the show I’m working on now, that was happily an offer, even though I came in later on as just a guest star this season, it made me laugh, and I guess that’s what I look for. Archer, when I read it, it was just so dense with nuance and specificity and comedy and all these characters that he just weaves into this little compact, tight 30 minute thing, I guess actually less with commercials, but at the end of the day I’m hopefully going to laugh at it, assuming it’s a comedy, which is most of what I am going to audition for or be offered if I am.
Lately, I’ve got a little part in 21 Jump Street and The Five-Year Engagement that are coming out in the spring and I got into those through table reads, but when I read them I was like, oh yes, these can be really funny, I knew who some of the actors were and could picture those. But I got those parts due to doing table reads, which I wish I could get all my parts that way that weren’t offers. But it also helps too if I know who has been cast in it thus far, who the leads are or whatever and then I can picture that actor doing it, and that makes it come to life a lot more in my mind.
Interviewer: With the breadth of your comedy experience and with all the different things that you’ve done so far, do you still find that you’re shocked or surprised by how outrageous some of these Archer storylines are?
Chris Parnell: Adam does surprise me sometimes, yes. Part of it is not being used to having these kinds of freedoms of what is said and the content and the subject matter and all that, that you can do on a late night table show like Archer, versus what we can even get away with on Saturday Night Live. The censorship on SNL, the NBC censor was a lot more censoring than what happens on Archer. And so that’s always a little bit of a surprise and a delight to see what comes up in that. But honestly, not much surprises me, and now certainly having a pretty good sense of what Adam is capable of and his sense of humor and what he can get away with, there’s not too much that surprises me on that anymore. But I guess I sometimes read it, and although I’m not shocked, but I am like, oh, okay, cool, nice. I wouldn’t have thought you would have gone there, but it’s cool.
Interviewer: Can you talk about working with the Funny or Die people? I’m often wondering how do they get all of these main actors to come in and shoot these elaborate shorts for Funny or Die? I assume you don’t get paid. How do they even afford it? I’m totally fascinated by the process that those guys have.
Chris Parnell: Well, you know, obviously I know Adam [McKay] and Will [Ferrell] and I know Mike Sera, who runs it, but to be honest I haven’t done that much for Funny or Die beyond what has been done for the HBO Funny or Die series. For one thing, obviously it’s a venue for people who want to write their own stuff, write little bits and things, and it’s a way to get that out there in a way that a lot of people are actually going to see it and it’s going to go on a website that people respect and enjoy and see a lot of very funny material on. Then sometimes you’ll have actors who are more known for their dramatic work who get a chance to show a comedic side to themselves, and so I think that’s probably really rewarding for them. At a certain level it’s potentially exposing yourself, especially for a dramatic actor, to people seeing you in a different light and maybe even to a bit of a different audience.
I think it’s just fun. They’ve got a great setup over there. They know what they’re doing. It’s really kind of amazing what they’ve built in such a short period of time, but they’ve been so smart about it and they’ve got this great ability to put these productions together in a short amount of time. They’re not like big budget, but they look good, and people can come in with a script and say, hey, would you guys be interested in helping me to make this for Funny or Die, and then it’s like, yes, and here’s how we’ll do it. They’ve got this fantastic production team going on there that just facilitates the making of these videos and things in a very efficient way. I think they’ve got their writers there, but a lot of people are bringing in their own material and content, and yes, it’s a great model that they’ve created, and people have responded to it really well.
Interviewer: A bunch of people ask about “Lazy Sunday,” but a question that really truly is burning deep inside me is, if you could steal a smooch from any guy in Hollywood, who would it be?
Chris Parnell: I want to try to give an honest answer. Who would I steal a smooch from? Maybe Ryan Gosling. He’s a pretty striking guy. I don’t know if I’ve kissed Will Ferrell before. I might have at some point. But I would certainly do that again, or for the first time, if I haven’t already. I’m attracted to funny men and studly guys like Ryan Gosling. I just don’t get the opportunity to steal a smooch from them that often. It’s usually in a comedy sketch or something like that if I do. Unfortunately, I’m limited to kissing women, and just really specifically my girlfriend.
And on that note the interview ended, I just don’t think anyone felt there was a worthy follow-up to that question. I truly enjoyed interviewing Chris Parnell and hope we see more of him in as many different shows, movies and whatever else might come his way as possible. Long live Dr. Spaceman!
Tune into Archer on FX Thursdays at 10PM.