If you had to picture T.J. Miller, you'd probably imagine him in some sleek tech lounge or perhaps a gaming dojo, thanks to his most famous role as delightfully arrogant entrepreneur Erlich Bachman on "Silicon Valley." Not for our phone interview. No, for that, the comedian's out and about in a different, perhaps unexpected locale.
The middle of an Indiana cornfield, to be exact.
The big, lofty, open space of quiet nature fits nicely with some of our conversation as it heads a bit into the comedian’s interest in philosophy. "I’ve been reading philosophy since I was in high school," he tells me, prattling off names like Ionesco, Stuart Mill, Epicurus and Nietzsche. "A comedian likes the question of life. That’s why we’re all laughing at it."
That being said ... chatting in some random Midwest cornfield is also completely and utterly ridiculous – even more so when Miller, eager to prove he’s gone full "Field of Dreams," sends me a photo of himself amongst the foliage, complete of course with a lovely bedazzled corded phone.
But that’s much of Miller’s comedy in a nutshell (or cornhusk, if we want to belabor this lead): part big-idea philosophy mixed with a lot of big-laugh, goofballish absurdity. That concoction is actually how he describes his recently announced HBO stand-up special, which tries "to arrive at some incoherent presentation of how I think comedy is really more important than ever."
"People have been saying that forever," the comedian says. "It just is, though; we’re in sort of a post-religious, post-meaning society, and people are like, ‘What are we to make of this?’ And my opinion is: Let’s laugh about it as we find out." He gleefully adds, "Hell, Appleton knows what I'm talking about," a shout-out to a town he likes so much, he recorded a song about it.
Appleton, and the rest of the world for that matter, certainly has been tuning into what Miller's talking about – whether it’s been on "Silicon Valley" or appearing in "Deadpool" or voicing animated goofballs like Tuffnut and Fred in "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Big Hero 6," respectively, or even one of his earliest big-screen roles, our poorly departed camera guy Hud in "Cloverfield."
With a crowd of deaf ears of corn listening in, we talked about a few of those roles, dying painfully (in movies) and why he loves Appleton – and Wisconsin as a whole – so, so much.
OnMilwaukee: You’re a huge Appleton fan. Where did that love come from?
T.J. Miller: I love all things Wisconsin – Appleton especially. But I just do. I just feel like there’s something about Wisconsin. Obviously I love drinking beer, and cheese is one of my favorite things in the world – cheese curds being the tip-top of that. I haven’t played Milwaukee much. I played Madison a couple of times, and it’s great, but it’s a college town – which means it’s great, but it’s still a college town. So for me, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Appleton, those are like real cities – not talking sh*t about Madison, although it is the little B*TCH OF WISCONSIN!
Appleton, I’ve found, is just this weird intersection of Midwest sensibilities and then intelligence but also self-awareness, the ability to make fun of yourself. It’s just people that have a good work ethic, they work hard, they drink and play hard, they love sports and they love to laugh – at themselves, at each other. It’s not necessarily like New York, where it’s like, "Eh, look at this f*ckin’ asshole"; it’s not Los Angeles, where it’s like (puts on disinterested voice) "Oh, ‘sup man. Oh yeah, cool, yeah, that’s great; oh yeah, no, that sounds like a great project."
It just has a great sense of humor about itself; that’s impossible to find in San Francisco or Portland or a number of other places. So I love Wisconsin, I just love it. I mean, I did a song about Appleton; that’s how much I love it.
Some people could interpret that song as, "Oh, he just found this random small city and is mocking it," but you really know it.
It was the first place I headlined. It was someone from Wisconsin who was like, "Oh, you’re really funny. I’d like to support you and help you maybe get to where you feel good about what you’re doing." It’s amazing. I owe Wisconsin a lot with respect to that.
I have to ask you about "Transformers 4" and your death in that movie. You die hard in that movie. What did you think when you first saw that on screen? Like, that’s a brutal death for a PG-13 toy movie.
It is, my friend. But have you seen "Cloverfield"?
I have! You die pretty rough in that, too. You die a lot in movies.
More rough than ("Transformers 4")! Yes, it’s brutal. I’m burning. I become steel. Who knows, I might come back as a Transformer. It’s a disaster, one way or another. It’s disgusting. I’m flaming; my face is melted. Kate, my wife, actually looked at it and said, "You know, there are upsides to that. Your jawline would be a little less determined."
But if you’ve seen "Cloverfield," the death in that – oh my god. They made an exact replica of me, so I see myself dead at the end of that movie. It couldn’t be more real. That is particularly disturbing.
Yeah, because you get chewed and dropped and all sorts of stuff.
Yeah, I’m chewed, chewed, dropped and then the camera falls and hits the ground and sees my face. And it goes in and out of focus with the blades of grass and my face because there’s no difference any longer between me and nature! I have returned to Earth as just the Earth’s scrap metal. In "Transformers 4," I really am scrap metal!
You’re working on "Ready Player One" right now with Steven Spielberg. What’s that like, working with a director of that legendary stature?
I don’t know if this is right – Kate might have a better description of it – but mine is you can’t imagine what it’s going to be like, and then once you’re working with him, you’re like, "Oh, this is exactly what I would’ve expected." You know? You can’t imagine working in that environment, and then when you do, you’re like, "Well, of course; this is Steven Spielberg. This is why his movies are so great."
Because for him, it’s very fun. At the very beginning, the first day I worked with him, he yells, "Alright, let’s get going. We’re doing it; we're reliving our childhood!" So he’s having fun. It’s about having a good time. He makes the noises. We’re doing motion capture, so it’s f*cking weird. I’m in a suit with a god damn weird helmet with lights and cameras. I’m in a motion capture suit! I look like an idiot. It’s very disturbing. But as you’re running around and being shot at, he’s like, "Pew! Pew! Bang! Bang! They’re behind you, now go! Whoa, watch out!" He’s having so much fun.
At the same time, he’ll be like, "OK, it’s a Cheetos moment," and he’ll kind of walk over to me and be like, "We’re Cheetos brothers; you want Cheetos?" And I’ll be like, "Yeah." So he started saying, "Every time T.J. and I have to take a break, we may need Cheetos. Maybe a Cheetos break." He’s just silly; he’s very funny.
He praises you so absolutely when you do it well, and then when you don’t, he kind of is like, "OK, OK, let’s do it again; a little more color to the voice," or "Let’s pace it up," and he waits until you’ve gotten it. And then he’s like, "That was great! Print that! That was great! That. Was. Great. That was a great take!" And he’s so nice and so real. It’s very collaborative. It’s the most collaborative. It was quite the experience. And he kind of taught me about comedy. He doesn’t consider himself a comedy guy, but he taught me about comedy because he knows so much about narrative.
What did he teach you in particular?
Pace it up. And throw it away. That’s it.
Why do you think "Deadpool" was such a massive success? Was it superhero fatigue or something else?
I’ve got two reasons. One: Ryan Reynolds finally had a goddamn mask or scar tissue prosthetic over that f*cking disgusting face of his. And then two: Nihilism is upon us, and we’re ready for the anti-hero to return or come and forever stay. And then lastly, because people are tired of superheroes. They’re sick of it, and "Deadpool" makes fun of it. It’s an instance of satire being the answer. If the comic book is box-office poison for a genre factory, then "Deadpool" is the antidote.
It also had a great following of the comic itself. I don’t know; it was unexpected. I certainly thought it would open to 40 or 60 – 60 being the best – and it was R-rated too, so people tired of seeing the same thing over and over, it’s great. I love it, and I can’t wait to do more. If superhero movies are here to stay for the next 10 years, then I’d like to be involved with the one superhero franchise that’s kind of like, "F*ck a bunch of superhero franchises."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.