LOS ANGELES, Dec 25 — A behind-the-scenes look at the coming comedy Why Him? is available on YouTube. The video features a lot of hugging, the smiling faces of stars Bryan Cranston, James Franco and Keegan-Michael Key, and, often, a happy, playful vibe. When asked if the on-set atmosphere of Why Him? ever turned circuslike, Key, sitting alongside Franco and Cranston, paused for a second. “A circus?” he said in a thoughtful, measured tone. “Hmmm. Yes, that’s about right.”
In what’s basically an upended version of Meet the Parents (which was co-written by John Hamburg, director of the new film), Why Him? tells the story of what happens when Ned Fleming, a buttoned-up dad (played by Cranston) and his wife (Megan Mullally) are forced to spend Christmas with his cherished daughter (Zoey Deutch) and her surprise new boyfriend, Laird Mayhew (Franco), a tattooed, unfiltered, wacko tech billionaire. Wearing floating mutton chops and a zanily blissed-out expression, Key straddles these sane and insane worlds as Gustav, Laird’s combination house manager, parkour trainer and guru, desperately trying to help his well-meaning boss endear himself to his girlfriend’s gobsmacked family.
Recently, Cranston, 60; Franco, 38; and Key, 45, got together at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about Why Him?, free-form flights of improvised dialogue, and a bit involving Key, Cranston and what happens when a grown man is stranded in a very high-tech bathroom. These are edited excerpts from the conversation:
The scene where Bryan’s character is seated on a malfunctioning paperless toilet — should we get that out of the way?
KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: Originally, we weren’t going to be in the same room. So I spoke to John and said: “He’s in a compromised position. Let’s inject a little more schadenfreude in it.” So we did two takes of that scene. One was 46 minutes long. The other lasted 23 minutes. And the long-suffering John Hamburg was very patient. There were literally three usable minutes between the two takes. It was impossible for us to stop (laughing).
BRYAN CRANSTON: He’s being very generous when he says “we.” Mostly, it was “me.” Even if you read it on paper — “Gustav comes into the bathroom and leans over” — there’s nothing inherently funny about that description. But in the actual execution of it? I will say it right in front of him (points at Key). He was trying to make me laugh.
James, you offered up the idea of your character being shirtless when he first meets his girlfriend’s parents. Where did that come from?
JAMES FRANCO: The second job I ever did was a teeny movie with Craig T. Nelson. And I remember him saying to me (grumbly voice): “My daughter brought home this guy, a rock star. And he shows up at the table for dinner without a shirt on. And I said to my daughter, ‘Can you tell It to put a shirt on?” (Laughs) I wanted to do something that’d be the biggest possible kind of red flag for Ned.
You also Skyped with a real-life video game designer named CliffyB. What was that like?
FRANCO: He was really, really smart. But he cursed up a storm, just interlacing all these smart, interesting things he was saying with all these curse words. He was like, “You should look up pictures of me on the internet when I first got big.” And I did. When he started getting attention for his designs, he’d go to these conventions dressed as, like, a snowboarder-pimp. [Laughs] And I was like, “Yeah, that’s the character.” Or at least he was on the surface. But what Bryan, John and I really felt was that as crude as Laird is, he really loves this girl. Without that, it would just be Bryan’s character and my character undermining each other, just a Spy vs. Spy movie.
You’ve all played the straight man as well as ones who are totally unhinged. Which is more challenging?
CRANSTON: A lot of time you’ll look at films and go, “The straight man? That’s the harder role.”
KEY: As a straight man, there’s a higher degree of subtlety. You’re the reactor, doing the majority of your work in silence. People go: “Hamlet? It’s such a herculean task.” Hamlet might be the easiest role in the play. He gets to say everything he’s thinking and feeling in the moment while everybody else lives in furtive-glance land. So James got to move from impulse to impulse, and then all the straight people have to react.
FRANCO: (Mock defensive tone) I’m sorry. So you’re saying I had it easy on this? (Laughs) I’ve played straight men a lot. In Planet of the Apes, the ape — Andy Serkis — goes through a much bigger change than my character does. Or in Milk, I play the boyfriend. And I thought about how badly I’ve seen a movie get screwed up when the straight man doesn’t want to be the straight man. When there’s two crazy people, there’s no balance. So in Milk, I decided, “I’ll just play the devoted boyfriend.” That’s what I always think when I play the straight man, “Just do your job."
KEY: Stay in your own lane. Tell the story. Be the best possible straight man, and you’ll get the clown next time. It’s just a string that pearls are being put on. You’re still a pearl. You just don’t get to be the diadem in this particular movie.
CRANSTON: Wow. Diadem. You worked it in! (Reaches into his pants pocket) I owe you 20 bucks.
KEY: (Laughs) I promised him: In the first interview of the day, I’ll work in diadem. For the next one, it’ll be truculent. — The New York Times