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Improv helps Ben Schwartz move from bit player to star

Actor and comedian Ben Schwartz has had quite the year - with tentpoles, comedy specials and a new Netflix series under his belt.

CARMEN CHAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

By THOMAS FLOYD | The Washington Post | Published: May 28, 2020

Before Ben Schwartz and Thomas Middleditch stride onstage to do long-form improv, the comedy duo, at Schwartz’s behest, always share a hug. “I love you,” Schwartz utters every time. “OK,” Middleditch often responds, not exactly saying “yes, and” to the gesture but sheepishly acknowledging his affection, nonetheless.

“What’s nice — though he had to drag me there, because I’m a man, you understand — is it just implies this sense of trust,” Middleditch says of the ritual. “That’s very Ben. He’s a real sap, but he’s a lovely sap.”

Middleditch isn’t alone in highlighting Schwartz’s sincerity. “You feel safe with him, and you like him,” says Billy Crystal, who starred with Schwartz in the film “Standing Up, Falling Down.” Greg Daniels, the co-creator of Schwartz’s next project, Netflix’s “Space Force,” says the actor “just generates comedy at you like a hurricane — but he’s also very vulnerable, and he just wears his heart on his sleeve.”

Raised in the Bronx by a music teacher mother and social worker father, Schwartz had the virtues of honest work ingrained in him early. Before he was booking roles, selling scripts and packing theaters, he interned for the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe and worked as a page for the “Late Show With David Letterman,” pitching jokes for the monologue on the side.

Nearly two decades later, Schwartz, 38, is still hustling. “Standing Up, Falling Down” and “Sonic the Hedgehog,” in which he voices the central speedster, hit theaters in February to favorable reviews. Last month, Netflix released a trio of acclaimed “Middleditch and Schwartz” improv specials. And the first season of “Space Force,” which he appears in alongside Steve Carell and John Malkovich, launches May 29.

“I’ve just worked my butt off,” Schwartz says. “Being an actor or writer, as a kid, it was like me saying I wanted to be an astronaut. I knew nobody that did it, and it didn’t feel like a real thing. So I feel really lucky that I’ve gotten this far.”

Many TV viewers still recognize Schwartz as the endearingly inept entrepreneur Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which he recurred on from 2010 to 2015. He also was a series regular on the Don Cheadle comedy “House of Lies,” which ran for five seasons on Showtime before concluding in 2016.

“After that,” Schwartz recalls, “I was like, ‘You know what? I really want to try to be the lead of my own show.’”

That aspiration steered Schwartz to the Showtime pilot “The Wrong Mans.” A remake of the British action-comedy series, which starred James Corden and Mathew Baynton, the American version cast Schwartz and Jillian Bell as its leads, with J.J. Abrams attached as an executive producer. For Schwartz, the three-year process of developing the show, shooting the pilot and awaiting a series pickup came with a catch: It prevented him from pursuing work as a cast member elsewhere on television.

“I took myself out of auditioning for television shows,” Schwartz says, “because I couldn’t be the lead of ‘The Wrong Mans’ and something else.”

Last summer, Showtime finally arrived at its decision — and passed on the series.

“It was heartbreaking for me when it didn’t go because I really believed in the project. I really believe that Jillian Bell is a genius, and I loved our team,” says Schwartz, who also was a producer on the show. “Once it doesn’t go, I look back at those three years and I’m like, ‘Man, did I make a mistake by devoting so much of my time in television to this?’ Because now that it’s in the rearview, I have nothing to show for it.”

Within days, however, Schwartz pivoted. Daniels, best known as the mind behind “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” learned that “The Wrong Mans” wasn’t moving forward and promptly offered Schwartz an audition for “Space Force.”

A farcical imagining of the Trump administration’s new military branch, the series orbits around stubborn but sympathetic Space Force chief Mark Naird (Carell). As the show cast the role of F. Tony Scarapiducci, the Machiavellian media consultant who needles Naird, Daniels knew Schwartz had the comic elasticity to pull off the part.

“It’s kind of like the relationship of this stoic oak tree and this little willow branch that blows in every direction,” Daniels says. “Ben is perfect for that because it would be almost impossible to write the number of lines that you need for that kind of relationship, but Ben can just improvise endlessly.”

Following his “Wrong Mans” letdown, and the responsibility that came with producing the show as well as starring in it, Schwartz relished the comparative simplicity of his place in the “Space Force” hierarchy.

“You show up as an actor, and you get to say Greg Daniels’ words and you get to act with John Malkovich and Steve Carell,” Schwartz says. “It was exactly what I wanted coming off of three years of developing and it not working out.”

If Schwartz felt handcuffed because of his commitment to “The Wrong Mans,” one wouldn’t know it from his prolific and eclectic run of recent projects.

He says his title role in “Sonic the Hedgehog” involved 20-plus recording sessions and hundreds of ad-libbed quips, as he brought his comic sensibility to the lucrative tentpole. (“I’ve never been the name of a movie before,” he says in lingering amazement. “It’s never, like, ‘Jean-Ralphio: The Movie.’”) December’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” also featured jokes penned by Schwartz, after Abrams asked him to punch up the film’s comic relief.

The modest dramedy “Standing Up, Falling Down,” on the other hand, opened in limited release a week after “Sonic.” Starring Schwartz as a down-and-out comedian who bonds with Crystal’s alcoholic, pot-smoking dermatologist, the film sparked an ongoing friendship between Schwartz and one of his acting idols. Last month, Schwartz even visited Crystal and shot hoops on his backyard court — as the comedy legend observed from 10-plus feet away, per coronavirus guidelines. All the while, the actors bantered about ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance.”

“It was heaven,” Schwartz says. “I got to shoot around by myself while someone I’ve looked up to my whole life watches in the background, like a cool brother.” Schwartz also spent the past few years honing his long-form improv shows with Middleditch, which they regularly perform on tour and at Los Angeles’s Largo at the Coronet nightclub. Setting out to bring exposure to the form — in which the improvisers use a conversation with an audience member to create a spontaneous 50-minute sketch — they filmed four shows last year in New York. Netflix released three of those performances in April, showcasing the duo’s knack for threading together freshly spun characters and narratives.

“He always gives me credit for coming up with weird characters,” Middleditch says. “But I would say that they don’t mean anything if Ben’s not there to give them purpose for the story that we’re telling. A lot of improvisers and comedians have superpowers, and that’s definitely one of his.”

“It’s such terrific work,” Crystal adds. “When it hits, it’s great, and even when it misses, it’s fun because it’s dangerous. This is by the seat of their pants. This is taking control of the plane without taking it off autopilot.”

After “Space Force,” Schwartz’s next project is a role in the Disney Plus film “Flora & Ulysses,” set for release later this year. Currently, he is using quarantine to write a Searchlight Pictures movie, which he will star in with Sam Rockwell. He was preparing to start production on his feature-length directorial debut in June before COVID-19 concerns shut down Hollywood. Once the industry reboots, he hopes to continue his live shows with Middleditch and re-enlist for a second season of “Space Force.”

Reflecting on how the “Wrong Mans” detour rerouted his career, Schwartz shares no regrets. Even when he’s not onstage, he remains an improviser at heart — and he knows better than most that improv is about taking chances.

“A lot of this art form is living and breathing and making mistakes,” Schwartz says. “The biggest thing I’ve learned for myself from all of this, starting with improv, is you get out there, you take a risk, you fail, you learn from your risk, and you repeat.

“The more you do that, the more likely you are to find your voice.”