You might know Fred Armisen as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. You’ve probably seen him playing feral foreigners in moves like EuroTrip, Anchorman and Cop Out. You definitely should be watching him in Portlandia, the breakout indie TV comedy hit he created, writes and stars in. But did you know he also voices characters in video games?
We grilled Armisen about character acting, cross-dressing, gaming and whether the people of Portland love him or hate him …
You and Carrie Brownstein come from such different backgrounds — you from Saturday Night Live, she from a riot girl band — I’m curious to know how you got together and started doing comedy?
Well, we kind of knew each other a little bit, we had some mutual friends. We met and I knew as soon as I met her that we’d have a friendship. We knew we wanted to collaborate on something together, but we really didn’t know what that collaboration would be. We thought about music, but that just seemed way too obvious, the idea of us sitting together and jamming. We didn’t want to be those people — it didn’t seem original. So we came up with the idea to do some videos — just weird, short videos that didn’t necessarily have any jokes in them, but they were just our own thing. As soon as we started shooting those, we put them on a website called Thunder Ant, and we were able to pitch that as a show after a couple of years. I guess it just sort of happened, and became its own life form.
The characters in Portlandia skate a very fine line, because the satire feels loving, but can also get pretty vicious — do you feel affectionate towards them?
Absolutely. I don’t think we’re being vicious — for us, I guess we’re just trying to honour these people. They’re not that different from us. Anyone I’ve played on the show is just a version of me. I really don’t feel like the characters are the opposite of me, or that they do things I’d never do. They have traits that are mine, too. We deliberately don’t change our voices that much for the characters – except for when it comes to Nina and Lance, obviously. They sound like us most of the time. Even if they look different. If we’re skewering anyone, it’s ourselves. We have a lot of affection for Portland and all these people who have this kind of lifestyle.
I really like it when you and Carrie cross dress as Lance and Nina, but those characters are so creepy and weird … do you feel a little dirty when you do it?
Sometimes it feels a little weird. It’s like, in my mind, I think I look like an attractive girl, a real woman, and then when I see photos I’m like, oh my god. It’s weird to get into. The characters are pretty defined, and we have fun while we do it, although it is one of the weirder ones.
You’re based in Portland yourself, right?
I spend most of the year in New York, but then in the summer, from June to September or whenever, I’m in Portland.
You guys portray a satirical version of Portland, but a lot of people don’t seem to get it, and complain that you’re not representing the real city. Do people approach you a lot with that?
People are always very nice. I’m just glad that people watch it … I could never assume that people would want to watch it. It’s a really nice thing. It’s funny, because it seems like people in Portland appreciate it. I haven’t heard one negative thing from a person on the street. People say, “oh, I have this bakery for cats, a cat food bakery, do you want to do a show here?”. I get approached by people like that, and businesses, people who have these very eccentric, Portland businesses, but they’re all very cool about it.
You’ve just been renewed for a third season of 12 episodes, which is twice as long as the first season — do you feel any pressure to produce more?
Well, the first one was kind of … the quickest answer is yeah, I do feel pressure. I want to get it right, and do something good. We don’t want to overwork ourselves, but we want to make the best show we can, to be entertaining and funny. I have my fingers crossed that we can try to focus on making it good.
Will you guys be introducing a lot of new characters in the third season?
I think some. I think we’ll be bringing back a lot. We had some new characters in the second season, so we’ll be exploring those a lot more. We’ll have some new ones too, I think.
The sketches that you do in Portlandia have a very improvised feel to them — how much of what we see is scripted versus improvised?
I think about 70% is improvised, maybe more. We have a blueprint for a script, we look at it and get the general idea, then we just go from there and improvise as much as possible.
You have had some great guest stars — Aubrey Plaza, Jason Sudekis, Nick Kroll. How informal is the casting process? Is it just friends who want to come join you?
Yeah, for the most part. There are a few who went through the regular channels, agents and all that stuff. For the most part, it’s just been us hooking up with friends, people mentioning that they wanted to be on. Jack McBrayer said that at one point, and we were just like, “hell yeah”. It’s informal, and that’s quite a nice way to be. I mean, after you’ve spent a whole day shooting, you kind of just want to hang out with your friends, so doing the show this way is a really good way to do that.
Is there anyone you’d like to have in future?
There are many. Some of them are stupid dreams, just because I want to work with my heroes. I wish I could get everyone from this band called The Damned on, or Hugh Cornwell, or John Waters or Woody Allen. There are all kinds of people. There are also actors. People like Griffin Dunne — just people we like or we think are cool.
The Damned would be quite old men by now …
Yeah, it would still be so cool though. We had Steve Jones from The Sex Pistols come on. You know who would be the ultimate, is Ralf Hutter from Kraftwerk. The main guy. If we could get that guy, that would be the coolest thing ever.
You’ve had Heather Graham and Kyle MacLachlan, both of Twin Peaks, on the show — do you have your eye on any more Twin Peaks people?
We’re huge Twin Peaks fan, in particular Jon Krisel, our director. I hope that we can get more in the future. We’re just at the writing stage now, and all of these things come together at the last minute, but we’re really crossing our fingers.
You have a real gift for impressions — is that something you’ve done since you were a kid?
Yeah, I mean, always, ever since I was a little kid. I’d do impressions of the people around me, of neighbours and stuff. I don’t know why, I’d do it just to entertain my parents or something. It’s just something I’ve always liked to do. That’s really nice of you to say.
At what point did you realise comedy could be a viable career?
In the late ’90s I would say. I’d been doing music my whole life, but the more I did comedy, the more I was able to do it for a living. The biggest success I ever had was with comedy, and I guess it just became evident to me that comedy was the path to take. I’d always loved comedy, and I’d always loved television, and I guess I just turned around at a certain point and realised that’s all I was doing, and it’s still all I’m doing. I love that every day I get to do it.
In general, you cross racial lines for a lot of characters — the waiter in The Dictator, the Venezuelan guy in Parks & Recreation. What draws you to those kinds of characters?
My parents are both … foreigners, and so I think a lot of the people around me when I was a kid were foreigners, people who were new to the United States. I really don’t know what it is. I think it’s as simple as just taking influence from the people I grew up with. My mom’s Venezuelan, my dad’s German, and I lived in Brazil for a while growing up. I’m just guessing, I don’t know what it is, but I guess I’ve just always found impressions really fun to do.
I saw on your IMDB page that you’ve done voices in Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV — I love those games but had no idea you were involved. What’s the story there?
I’m in love with those games, you know. I don’t even play that many games, but I’ve always really loved Grand Theft Auto. It was always a dream of mine to be able to do a voice for one of those games — for me, that’s as big a deal as being in a movie or something. I love Grand Theft Auto so much. I played a couple of different versions of it, you know how there’s a new version every couple of years? Anyway, I found that David Cross was in one of them, and I just thought … what? I have to do this too. From there, it was just a simple case of me approaching them and harassing them until they would let me be in one of their games, so from there, I did Grand Theft Auto IV and then Red Dead Redemption. I love that game, too.
Red Dead is incredible. It’s one of the most moving and lyrical games I’ve ever played. It must be a great feeling being able to play the game and hold it in your hands and know you were a part of it …
It’s the ultimate, it makes me so happy. I get so self-conscious watching myself on TV and in movies, I can’t really do it, but in the game, it’s just like … It’s just such a cool thing, I love it. Those games are such a true art. The way they make a whole world, it’s just so skilful in how they do it.
Where should I listen out for you in Red Dead?
Where am I hiding in the game? There’s a sort of northern part, which I think is supposed to be the Midwestern United States — it’s sort of a city up there. In every town that you go to, there’s a pharmacist, and it’s sort of hard to find, like you don’t really find it all the time. It took me a little while. But yeah, I’m the pharmacist up in that northern city. My guy will sell you medicine and talk to you and gossip with you and stuff.
The next time I play it, I’ll seek you out …
It’s such a beautiful game. I can’t get my head around how they made all these canyons and sunsets. It’s scary, too, because everywhere you go, you get attacked by animals all the time. I guess that happened a lot back then? You have to be careful.
I’m so excited now to go back and play it now …
Yeah, it’s funny, because usually I don’t really like to talk about the things I’ve done, but I love that game so much I could talk about it all day. It’s such an emotional game, with such an emotional plot.
Oh yeah, I mean, the last few hours of the game, when John goes back to the farm because he just wants to lead a normal life, but his past just keeps catching up with him — I actually got a little teary.
Yeah, it’s just such incredible stuff. How do they do that in a game? How do they draw that much emotion out? It’s a real art form, it’s incredible. I can’t even believe it, or that I was lucky enough to be involved.
*Alasdair Duncan is a Brisbane-based author, freelance writer and music journalist