Rank #1: 15. Matt Damon
When a kid tells you he wants to be an actor and starts holding regular meetings in the high school cafeteria with his “business partner” it’s kind of cute. When they establish a joint bank account to fund New York audition trips and the occasional arcade game, well call it naive. Unless you are Matt Damon and said business partner is Ben Affleck, then call it a no Plan B laser like focus on a goal. One that spawned the Academy Award winning script for Good Will Hunting. What started as an attempt to write themselves into acting jobs garnered Damon not only accolades but also some early lessons about fame, career choices, and the industry he was determined to be a part of. It also enrolled him in a 20 year on the job master class with the best film makers of our generation including Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh, Francis Ford Coppola, and Gus Van Sant. Along the way he also developed an uncanny ability to disappear into any character and become someone believable different in every film. So what could possibly be next? Damon tells Off Camera why no matter what it is, it will be something that he absolutely loves. So pull up a chair and listen in.
Rank #2: 02. John Krasinski
As Jim Halpert, John Krasinski embodies The Office’s most beloved Everyguy, but his middle-achiever alter ego belies the actor’s impressive and accomplished resume. At just 33, he has written, directed and produced both television and feature films with some of the industry’s most talented heavy-hitters.
Krasinski shares his own version of the waiter-to A-list story and talks about staying true to his artistic path despite periods of self-doubt. An avid and humble student of experience, he discusses what he’s learned from his work with industry veterans such as Sam Mendes, Gus Van Sant and George Clooney. Krasinski talks to Off Camera about wrapping the final season of The Office, the value of supportive parents, and about his newest film, Promised Land, which he co-wrote, and co-stars with Matt Damon.
At one of the most interesting junctions in his career, an actor who’s arguably done it all looks ahead to what he hopes will be next.
Rank #3: 36. Dax Shepard
Actor, writer, director, thrill seeker, and comedian Dax Shepard joins Sam to talk about risk, both the real life kind on a motorcycle and the kinds he took to become the actor, father, and husband he is today. He also shares the gift of perspective and gratitude that he’s learned from his “current wife” Kristen Bell (his words folks). Pull up a chair and listen into this honest and revealing conversation.
Rank #4: 176. Dax Shepard
In fact, his entire podcast is inspired by his fascination with true happiness. “A lot of us go through life thinking, ‘I would be happy, if…’ ‘I would have self-esteem, if…’ ‘I would know contentment, if…’ But those are illusions that most people don’t get to find out are illusions.”
Dax had the dubious honor of learning that lesson first hand. Early in his career, he had all of the status markers and money that he thought would make him happy, but none of that prevented him from reaching one of the lowest points in his life, magnified by his demoralizing addiction to alcohol and drugs. Huddled in an airport bar, sucking down Jack and Cokes, Dax took a moment to evaluate his situation. “My whole life I thought, ‘Man, if I had a million dollars…’ Well, I had a million dollars, and I couldn’t get on a flight to fly 35 minutes from San Francisco to L.A.” It’s with that wisdom that Dax asks his celebrity guests, “You’re rich, and you’re famous. Did it cure all of the things you thought it would?” In general, it doesn’t.
Dax’s honesty is contagious—he brings it out in his guests and the people around him. It seems like his superpower is curating human vulnerability and talking frankly about the messiness of life, and that’s why he’s one of my favorite people to talk to.
Dax joins Off Camera to talk about the misnomer that is "rock bottom," the magic osmosis that makes his marriage with Kristen Bell work so well, and why you shouldn’t compare yourself to your neighbor’s seemingly perfect life.
Rank #5: 05. Robert Downey Jr
“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’" -H.L. Mencken
Henry Louis Mencken and Robert Downey Jr. did not cross paths in life (though it’s fun to imagine that conversation), but the essayist’s quote is an apt description of the actor’s approach to life. Downey’s restless intelligence is reflected in his ability to express several contradictory points of view simultaneously, making sense all the while. He can be direct one moment and elusive the next, often spinning off on seemingly unrelated tangents. But like watching a juggler on a wire, being in Downey’s presence is a riveting experience.
For someone who almost from the outset was deemed “the greatest actor of his generation”, the majority of Robert Downey, Jr.’s career has been filled with big commercial flops, “critically acclaimed” flops, very public struggles with drugs and more than a little jail time – all of which have landed him squarely in some of the biggest blockbuster films in recent history. It’s an unlikely hero story, but then Robert Downey Jr. is an unlikely hero.
With the release of the final film in the Iron Man trilogy, it’s ironic to contemplate that the studios also didn’t see him as a hero, least of all an action hero. Downey disagreed. At once supremely convinced of his own talent and extremely humble, he fought hard for the role of Tony Stark when the studio flatly refused to even let him audition. He prepped intensely, though for other roles he admits he’s just as likely to wing it.
Downey is an enviably comfortable resident of the gray area we all inhabit. He is (somewhat) remorseful about his jail time but without resentment towards the upbringing that arguably introduced him to the lifestyle that led him there (“I choose to see it in a positive light.”) His years in the industry have left him clear-eyed and cynical about the business; yet he remains full of enthusiasm and curiosity about his art, and he’s deadly serious about bringing the best of himself to the set every day. He’s an obsessive analytic who’s inclined to let his gut make most of his decisions. On any multiple-choice personality test, Robert Downey Jr. is ‘all of the above.’ Maybe that’s what keeps us watching.
Rank #6: 26. Will Ferrell
Just mention Will Ferrell’s name or glance at a picture at him and chances are you are already smiling. But the really funny thing is that it’s not necessarily because his best known characters are so gosh darn lovable, you see Ferrell never bought the conventional movie truism that comedic leads have to be likable and he went on to prove it perhaps most pointedly with the iconic Ron Burgundy. In fact, he doesn’t even think comedy has to particularly funny to be hysterical. While working a number of regular jobs like valet and bank teller, Ferrell did stand-up in small comedy clubs. Clinging to his father’s surprisingly helpful advice that his ever making it would be a long shot, it was just that take it or leave it approach that allowed him to pursue his unique comedic style free from the angst that might have otherwise crushed it. It might also explain a small sadistic streak that underlies his performances. If you don’t like what he’s doing, sit back and enjoy it anyway, or else. In Sam’s chat with Will, he describes his stomach churning, knee buckling Saturday Night Live audition and the even more daunting experience of joining the legendary show at one of it’s lowest points. He also shares his writing process, stories behind some of his best loved impersonations, and his long and sometimes perplexing film resume.
Rank #7: 138. Bill Hader
As a high school kid growing up in Oklahoma, Bill Hader received a progress report from his French teacher that had remarkable foresight: “Bill is very funny in class. He’ll probably be on Saturday Night Live one day. He has a 37% in class though. He will not be speaking French.” Bill had a natural gift for doing voices and impressions, and years later, he would indeed join SNL. For eight years, he brought memorable characters to life, including fan-favorites like his exasperated Vincent Price, the lecherous Italian Vinny Veducci, and Weekend Update correspondent Stefon. As one of the most talented cast members on the show, it’s hard to believe Bill when he tells me that it was never his dream to be on Saturday Night Live. After his eight-year stint on SNL and roles in a number of films (The Skeleton Twins, Trainwreck, Inside Out), Bill’s finally realizing his dream with Barry, his upcoming HBO show about a hitman who really wants to be an actor. Bill directs, writes, and stars in the show, and because he favors truthfulness over funny gags, it’s one of the most unique shows on television: “In comedy, it’s so easy to come up with gags and little bits. It’s a lot harder to make a person’s emotional journey make sense.” Bill Hader joins Off Camera to discuss storytelling in Barry, struggling with anxiety on SNL, why he waited so long to pursue his dream to become a filmmaker, and why everyone in town thought he was on drugs in high school.
Rank #8: 146. John Mulaney
John had a knack for wordplay and joke rhythms as a kid, but he started fleshing out his skills when he joined Georgetown's improv troupe, a breeding ground for comics like Nick Kroll and Mike Birbiglia. Discomfort and anxiety plagued John early on, but joining Birbiglia's standup tour helped him overcome the awkwardness of being on stage. As John says, "Mike absolutely turned me into a comedian. The tour was life-changing; I wanted to do standup every night after that."
John also spent six seasons as a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live, and he was the brains behind fan-favorite sketches and characters like Bill Hader's Stefon. The job came with a lot of responsibility, but John loved it. He says, "I was like a producer of live TV at 25. Once my sketch was picked, I would go around to every department, discussing with them how it would look, the costume, set, everything you were hoping for."
These days, John's making us laugh with his standup. His Netflix comedy special John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City offers a hilarious glimpse of his childhood and family life. When he's on tour, John spends his nights onstage talking about the things that make him absolutely crazy or delight him. Looks like his Ricky Ricardo dream lives on.
John joins Off Camera to discuss mining his life for comedy, why the best approach in life is one without expectations, and why we all need a little bit of Street Smarts in our lives.
Rank #9: 168. Matt Damon
For as long as Matt Damon can remember, he wanted to be an actor. So much so that he started his college essay with those very words. But before all the accolades and success, Matt was just a kid from Cambridge, MA who loved playing sports and watching movies. His chances of becoming a pro athlete came up short (both literally and figuratively), but he was determined to make a career out of acting after the seed was planted by an influential theater teacher and nurtured by his best friend and fellow cinephile Ben Affleck.
They had no road map for success, but Matt and Ben had an advantage over their teenage peers—they just wanted it more. They took the train from Boston to New York regularly for auditions, using money drawn from their communal acting bank account to cover expenses. Eventually, one of those auditions turned into a small part in the 1988 Julia Roberts feature Mystic Pizza, but Matt’s “big break” proved to be elusive. He auditioned for the eventual Academy Award winner Dead Poets Society but was rejected in favor of Ethan Hawke, and the cruel reality of the industry smacked him in the face when he was working at the local movie theater the following summer: “I went from the possibility of being in this great film to the guy tearing the movie ticket and watching people come out crying because they’re so moved. That’s the range in this business.”
So Matt and Ben decided to take fate into their own hands and write a great film that they could both star in. That was how Good Will Hunting and the acclaimed acting careers of Matt and Ben came into being. It’s been 20 years, and Matt’s career is still going strong.
As our first two-time guest, Matt joins Off Camera to talk about his acting mid-life crisis, the gamble that almost cost Matt and Ben Good Will Hunting, the invaluable wisdom he’s gained from directors, and why the Boston Red Sox and specifically Fenway Park carry so much significance for him.
Rank #10: 188. Seth Rogen
Rank #11: 37. Jake Gyllenhaal
Jake Gyllenhaal has become somewhat synonymous with beyond-brutal physical transformations for movies like Nightcrawler, and more recently (and even more brutally), for the role of boxer Billy Hope. But after crying three times over a first-draft script for Southpaw, he knew it was worth taking some punches for. He’s no masochist, but calls any work needed to tell the story of characters that fascinate him a joy. Gyllenhaal is the kind of actor who knows not only that his character bears a certain scar or walks a certain way, but why. He’s become known for going deep, and seems embarrassed and proud in equal parts about how seriously he takes his work; the same guy who’ll spend five months in a boxing ring or memorize an entire script just to sound as robotic as Louis Bloom will also tell you the best analogy for acting is Super Mario Brothers. Level One, to be specific. Though much has been made of his on screen metamorphoses, his most profound change in recent years is one we didn’t realize we were seeing. After coming to wide attention and critical acclaim in films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain, he found himself in the enviable position of being very young and very successful in Hollywood. That’s when everyone in the business will tell you exactly which projects and path will guarantee you a lucrative career. And that’s when Gyllenhaal stepped back and decided it was time to listen to his own voice about what he wanted to do and what his work would say about him. The results are sometimes perplexing (Enemy), or darkly comic (Nightcrawler), but always worth watching. And for Gyllenhaal, richly rewarding – the spoils being the experience, worldview and friendships he takes with him from every role. From Southpaw, he learned that a mere five pounds of pressure is all it takes to knock a guy’s brain against the side of his skull and put him down, if you know just where to land it. It’s the kind of instinct that told him just how to play one of the most touching and terrifying scenes in that film, and the same instinct that now guides the career he’s designing for himself. In this episode, Gyllenhaal discusses his work ethic, how he chooses and prepares for roles, and why he’d like to see someone else take a shot at playing them – really. It’s an esoteric conversation, but don’t worry; you’ll love it even if you’re not into Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen or Wild Geese.
Rank #12: 96. Courteney Cox
So no one told her life was going to be this way. Except Friends director Jimmy Burrows, who took Courteney Cox and her fellow cast members to dinner in Vegas, telling them to enjoy the last time they'd ever be able to go out together in public without causing total pandemonium. For Cox, who never had a master plan, it was the start of what was arguably the most successful 18-year run on series television, after which some actors might welcome a break and a margarita or two. Others might freak out just a bit. You probably know what camp she falls in. We talk to Cox about her meteoric acting career, what it's like to simultaneously finance and direct an independent film, learning her craft on the fly, and how none of it would have ever happened if Brian De Palma had actually listened to her back in 1984.
Rank #13: 72. Mindy Kaling
Ever since banging out plays on her mom's typewriter at age six, Mindy Kaling wanted to be a comedy writer. That line of study wasn't on offer at her college, but Dartmouth taught her at least two things: If you hole up in your dorm and deconstruct Woody Allen films, you discover what works. And, in a town where there's nothing to do but drink and sled, almost any crazy play you writer can pack a theater. It can also launch your Hollywood dream career quicker than you ever imagined. But when the first show that hires you is getting creamed, and someone else is cast in the pilot you wrote for you, about you, and named after you, well, that's when you see what you're really made of. Here, Kaling plays herself in a conversation about that first fateful play, race and gender in comedy, and why it's totally cool to love your parents.
Rank #14: 129. Neil Patrick Harris
Step right up to the Neil Patrick Harris Show! He acts! He sings! He dances! He writes! He hosts! He magics! But the showman behind the curtain is… pretty much the guy you’ll meet here. And that’s okay – now. In the public eye since age 15 and saddled with an unshakeable teenage M.D. alter ego, he was unsure of who he was, and unable to stop worrying whether people thought whoever that might be was a jerk. He sought help in a forum most celebrities would do anything to avoid, but NPH likes challenges. And once he felt free to embrace them full-throttle, it opened up roles from über-bros to an East German rock star with something to teach him about self-acceptance. As it turns out, though, the kid who never wanted to dance in public is still a misfit. But now that kid’s a storyteller who’s out to convince us that’s the best possible thing you can be.
Rank #15: 50. Aubrey Plaza
When the notoriously poker-faced Aubrey Plaza says that she’s wanted to be an actor since she was 13 and thus isn’t surprised it’s happening, or that perhaps the universe responded to her acting daydreams, you have to wonder, does she really mean that? Understandably, Aubrey Plaza used to hate the word “deadpan,” as associated as it’s become with the detached, almost unreadable delivery she’s cultivated as characters like Julie Powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed and perhaps most famously, Parks and Recreation’s wryly impassive April Ludgate. Then her Ned Rifle director Hal Hartley cast the term in a different light: maybe it occasionally serves a character to drop lines with a certain lack of personal involvement. Though no one expects much from a zombie in the way of emoting, The Guardian said of Life After Beth, “…Plaza steals the show with one foot in the grave, her rotting heroine ricocheting between adolescent snarkiness and cadaverous rage…” When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of equanimity to put a line out there and let it sit without telegraphing what we’re supposed to think about it or how we’re supposed to react. If that means viewers remain a bit off balance, all the better to hold our attention while we supply our own context. But back to those comments. She was (we’re pretty sure) quite sincere, though Plaza herself likely had more to do with moving her career along than the universe. Philosophically, she seems to fall somewhere between fatalism and determinism. When her mom introduced her to Saturday Night Live, young Aubrey decided it was her dream job. When she looked up cast member bios and saw standup comedy as the common thread among her idols, she went promptly into improv, and later actually interned at SNL. Shortly after, she started growing the career she’s still building today with drolly arresting roles in films like Funny People and About Alex and The To Do List, often playing younger, still-at-that-awkward-stage characters. Perceptive viewers of her arc on the recently-ended Parks and Recreation might have noticed Plaza’s very intentional efforts to add layers and different choices to April Ludgate, without any overreaching departures from the essence of her character. Now able to poke her head up take a look around after six seasons on Parks, Plaza plans to continue her attempt “…to be considered a well-rounded actor, not a weirdo.” That starts next year with Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Given her peppy, workmanlike embrace of masturbation (The To Do List), doll parts (Playing It Cool), and, um, quirky guest appearances (any number of talk shows), she’s demonstrated she’s unafraid to attempt almost anything, including being herself – no small feat in her line of work. If part of the outrageousness allows her to remain a bit of an enigma, we can live with that. What we most want to see is what Plaza does next, because if there’s one thing that’s obvious, the woman’s capable of almost anything.
Rank #16: 118. Nick Kroll
Any number of things can fuel success. There’s talent and ambition, the usual suspects. But don’t discount fear, insecurity or being a wise ass, either. Check all of the above for Nick Kroll, but also add the belief that a career you love can’t be handed to you by anyone other than yourself. He’s created some of the funniest characters in modern sketch comedy for Kroll Show, two of which escaped to the surprise hit Oh, Hello on Broadway. Not all his ideas are brilliant (kale lollipop, anyone?), but Big Mouth, his new animated show about puberty (yes, puberty), may be his best yet. It’s definitely his most personal and brashly original. And likely his most disturbing. It’s also really, really funny. But when someone comes along to give voice to one of our most common, unsettling and hard-to-talk about human experiences, maybe laughs are just icing on the cake.
Rank #17: 160. Elizabeth Olsen
The nepotism critique motivated her to prove her worth, but that turned out to be the easy part. Elizabeth’s a hard worker by nature. After all, you don’t get dubbed NYU’s notorious “Rehearsal Nazi” for nothing. And very soon, people started taking notice, and Elizabeth started getting roles, including the one that led to her breakout performance in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Since then, Elizabeth has conquered the world of independent film (Wind River, Kodachrome, Ingrid Goes West) and the blockbuster world of Marvel’s Avengers franchise as superhero Scarlet Witch.
Elizabeth is the kind of actor who loves the work and the craft, and she’s also the kind of artist who wants to take risks. In her newest project, Sorry for Your Loss, a Facebook Watch series that explores grief, she plays a widow trying to piece her life back together—not easy subject matter, but as you’ll see, Elizabeth will rise to any challenge thrown her way.
Elizabeth joins Off Camera to talk about the biggest lesson she’s learned from her family, why she may be one of the few actors who likes to audition, and why she’s the most Zen type A person you’ll ever meet.
Rank #18: 132. Jenna Fischer
As Pam Beesly on The Office, Jenna Fischer worked her way into the homes and hearts of Americans for nine seasons. As herself, Jenna charmed her way into the hearts and minds of the entire staff here at Off Camera with her endearing humility and self-deprecating nature. Born and bred in St. Louis, Missouri, Jenna grew up far away from Hollywood or New York City. But from the moment she took the stage as Toto (the dog) in The Wizard of Oz, she knew she wanted to be an actor—everything else be damned! There was only one problem: she had no idea how to engineer an acting career. Sure, you can go to acting school and learn how to act, but nobody tells you how to get an agent, how to deal with rejection, what's it's like to bomb in an audition, or how to navigate screen actors guild vouchers. With a little delusion (reinforced by some magical thinking by her mother: "If Oprah did it, so can you!") and a lot of perseverance, Jenna established herself as a working actor, but it certainly it didn't happen overnight. She struggled for eight long years as a starving artist before she got her big break as Pam Beesly on The Office. And although she had a nine season run on one of television's all-time most popular shows, Jenna still didn't take her career for granted, believing, "You're always one horrible performance away from not getting the next job." So what did Jenna do? She wrote the book that she so desperately needed in her formative years, The Actor's Life: A Survival Guide. And it is like no book about acting that has preceded it. It is filled with advice about the important minutia that actors need to survive, but more importantly, it is a handbook for survival, a testament to perseverance, and a hilarious accounting of her early years hustling jobs in Hollywood. And as an added bonus, it even teaches aspiring thespians how to deal with getting fired, which is exactly what happened to Jenna while she was writing the book. Jenna joins us to talk about that experience of getting fired, her undeniable chemistry with John Krasinski, sneaking into an SNL party to meet Molly Shannon, and dealing with self-judgment and social anxiety. In other words, required viewing for every struggling artist out there!
Rank #19: 71. Vince Vaughn
It's a funny thing, how we're taught from a young age to wait for permission-to be excused, to have a cookie, even to pursue a dream. But what if there's no one around to grant it? Early on, Vince Vaughn decided not to ask for permission to skip school for auditions, to talk to the ladies, or to move to L.A. to be an actor. That just-do-it approach worked well for creating his breakout in Swingers, and his hilarious turns in films like Old School and Wedding Crashers. Vaughn joined us to share the stories behind some of his most iconic films, his decision to take on more dramatic roles in True Detective and Hacksaw Ridge, and the importance of challenging what you know-especially when you're already pretty damn successful. When you combine a well-documented gift for gab with a philosopher's spirit, this is the conversation you get. Enjoy, and take some notes.
Rank #20: 126. Sam Rockwell
Sam Rockwell will tell you it’s not good enough to be good in a movie, and it’s not good enough to be good in a good movie. You’ve got to be good in a good movie that people see. After years of being good in good movies that enjoyed most of their success in the afterlife, he’s hit the jackpot with this month’s buzz-generating Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. As a cop who goes “from Barney Fife to Travis Bickle” before we know what’s hit us. Rockwell reminds us that “professional actor” is not an oxymoron – just a rarity. Given how often his performances teeter between loose and completely unhinged, the studious, technical approach behind them is surprising. Rockwell’s reverence for his craft and a generation of actors and films we may never see again signals a depth that still demands – and will doubtless reward – further exploration.