B.J. Novak is a Basterd, and an Inglourious one to boot.
That newfound status came with his role as Smithson “The Little Man” Utivitch, one of Lt. Aldo Raine’s (Brad Pitt) squad of Jewish Nazi-hunters in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and it has made “The Temp” from The Office into a golden boy behind the scenes of the hit show. How did he make the leap from sitcom writing to scalping soldiers for one of the best directors working today?
“He seems to watch everything, which is crazy,” Novak said of Tarantino. “He had watched The Office, he was specific about some jokes and comic timing he liked between me and Mindy Kaling. I know he liked that specifically. I don’t know exactly how Hollywood works – every agent takes credit for everything. I don’t know what list I was on or what casting director or what favor what agent pulled or whatever, but they said Jewish-American actors in their 20s, and I guess all the Apatow guys were busy, and I must have showed up on some list, you know? I just know sometimes your agent calls and sometimes he doesn’t.”
That doesn’t mean it was an easy deal to get done, even if Tarantino liked him. “When I first heard about it, it happened to be shooting during an Office production break, which felt like destiny,” Novak said, “but then the schedule changed and it felt like destiny had hit a roadblock. There had been a Ryan plotline that had been floating around about making a play for Kelly and then running off to Thailand, and it seemed like that might be a good time to cash in that idea. Fortunately, it worked – partly because it was a funny, creative idea and partly because I hadn’t really ever asked for a favor like that and I’d been working with that group for a long time. This wasn’t a career move, this was something personal. They could tell.”
Even though Novak only has about ten lines in the film, everyone knows that even small parts in Tarantino movies can be the most memorable, and everyone involved with The Office knew that. “Right before I left to do the movie, one of my friends – Brent Forrester, a writer on The Office – said ‘you are going to be a part of film history. I don’t care how big or small this part is. I don’t care how good or bad this movie turns out. Tarantino is film history and you’re going to be a part of film history.’ I kept that with me the whole time. That wasn’t going to be taken away from me. I thought this would be a great movie and I thought the part would be really fun, but regardless, I do think his movies hold a special place. And when I came back to The Office set, Steve Carell – all these other people have these huge movie careers and they had been working with me for years and years, and I was different to them now. I was a guy who had done this magical thing. They still ask me all the time ‘So when Tarantino this, so what did Tarantino say…’ you know. You can be a really big movie star, you can do any type of project, but there is something special about even a small or medium-sized part in a Tarantino movie. Playing even The Little Man in this movie would be a big man in anything else.”
Of course, that’s not to say it was a cakewalk. “We writers are so trapped in this airless little room in the worst part of the worst part of the Valley. I think they thought I was on a yacht in the south of France with Brad Pitt the whole time. They didn’t think of lonely cold nights in a Berlin hotel room.” Pitt, though, proved to be a leader by example, teaching valuable real-life lessons to Novak like Raine teaches the Basterds how to “be cruel to the German.”
“From Brad Pitt, I learned ‘don’t let anything bother you,’” Novak said. “He has more distractions in his life than anyone I have ever seen, and he never wore it in public. When he was with you, it was all about the scene, it was all about you, it was all about what was going on. It was not about the thousand headaches and distractions and fake rumors and people who wanted a piece of him. I thought ‘man, if Brad Pitt can keep his cool and keep from complaining or being too big for this or that, there’s no way the temp from The Office is ever going to pull anything like that in his life.’”
Novak learned a lot more from Tarantino, who once again proves himself as a modern master of cinema with Basterds. “Don’t be afraid to trust your instinct,” he says. “I mean specifically to not write things to please other people if it doesn’t please you is the lesson I learned from Tarantino. Don’t just try to be a working writer, try to be an artist. If you liked this film or not, you can tell that Tarantino is an Artist with a Capital A, and there aren’t that many people like that or who even aspire to be like that right now. It’s kind of old-fashioned, and I loved it. I loved being around it and I want to have the courage to try to do that myself. There are other obstacles that you face when you try to be an artist – pretentiousness is a deadly one – but it’s trying to do something great. I quite simply admire Quentin Tarantino for trying to be a great artist and not just trying to be a rich filmmaker.”
Tarantino isn’t the only guy Novak puts in this rarefied air, because he’s not forgetting where he comes from. “Ricky Gervais is someone who I would consider an Artist with a Capital A. Did something so different and could not be more humble and normal and wonderful. I don’t think he considers himself an artist, although he aspires to do great, bold and brave things.”