A Conversation With… David Cross
Actor and comedian Davis Cross is best known for his roles in Arrested Development and Todd Margaret and his searing stand up comedy routines. With his eye for detail and his unwavering insistence on truth, Cross is someone who doesn’t miss a thing. His latest stand up tour, Making America Great Again, is winding up after 89 cities across the globe. He took time out of his country respite to talk with Michael Mundy about film, writing, stand up and what he does upstate for fun.
MICHAEL MUNDY: David, you wear many hats—you write, you direct, you’ve also produced in some form or another. You do stand up and acting as well. Do you have a favorite?
DAVID CROSS: No—I like all of them. I think the most fun is stand up. It’s the most immediately gratifying. The hardest thing and the most satisfying—when I’ve completed something—is writing. I think directing is fun too. You get to put your stamp on something. You’re definitely part of the process from beginning to end. The idea of creating something where there was nothing is the most difficult and one of the most unrewarded—in the sense of what people get accolades for. It’s certainly harder than acting. Acting is probably the easiest part of what I do. That’s not to say that I’m a great actor. It’s just that, for what I’m doing, it’s the easiest. I’ve only seen acting as sort of a paid vacation.
MM: You can just kind of walk in.
DC: It’s by far the easiest thing. Stand up is hard. It’s fun and it’s rewarding but it’s really hard. Writing an entire idea and making sure it works. It’s way harder than acting or directing.
MM: Your movie Hits (2014) was an idea you had. You seem to nail so many aspects of life upstate in that film in such a small space of time. Why did you choose to film it here?
DC: I had several ideas for a movie but I chose one that would be the cheapest to do. So, I knew I could shoot it here and call in a lot of favors. We shot at Baker’s Tap—I know those folks. I had a lot of locals in the film playing small parts. I stayed here, and some of the production stayed here during pre-production. I wrote that specific idea up knowing I could make it for under a million. So, that’s why I chose that idea, but again, it was really fun to write. Those Brooklyn hipster characters are really fun to write and work with and I had specific people in mind.
MM: Sounds like a lot of fun.
DC: It was very much fun. It took me about two years to warm up to everybody here and for them to warm up to me. I’ve been here for over eight years now and I know people here. I helped Shane and Curtis open up The Lake House down on Mohican Lake—financially I mean. I love it here. I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect to anybody here. I’m also from rural suburban Georgia. I grew up in Roswell and didn’t move into the city until I was fifteen or sixteen—and even then I was still on the perimeter.
MM: City being?
DC: Atlanta. So I know that small-town life.
MM: You did a lot of that in your stand up comedy tour a while ago, Shut the Fuck Up You Baby. You talk a lot about rural towns. I was sensing that you have an eye for the dichotomy of people existing in the same area.
DC: The general unease and suspicion that everybody has…
MM: Totally. Like in Hits, there is a scene where a guy walks in and there are people talking about shotguns. And then there were all these really great pauses. You seem to get how to pace things and pull things out of silences.
DC: Some of that comes from the frustration of working in TV comedy. I don’t think there has ever been anything edited as quickly as Arrested Development. Certainly working in a sketch, you don’t get that kind of moment to breathe. It’s one of the things that I love about certain British comedies. The Office was so great because they have those moments and you just don’t have that on American television. Fifteen seconds of silence equals half a car ad. So that’s always something that I’ve always appreciated.
MM: You allow your actors to do their thing.
DC: I come from a very improv appreciative background. Often, I think that’s why I’m hired. I kind of bring that skill to a role. And I understand from being on the other side of it—doing Todd Margaret—that you can only have so much room for improv. It’s gotta be whatever it is—26 minutes and 30 seconds—because you have a story that you have to get to. But with Hits, I just let the camera run. I hired people specifically knowing their skills in improv and their desire to do that. There’s a whole other movie that was on the cutting room floor, that we had to lose because they were too funny. It changed the story. But there was some amazing stuff that those guys did. All of them were really, really good and I just hope the camera got it.
MM: You pulled a lot of talent in for Hits. Were they all friends?
DC: Yeah, they’re all friends. There were a handful of people I didn’t know. The two guys that played the cops, the state troopers, I didn’t know the two kids. Jake Cherry and Meredith Hagner I auditioned. But pretty much everybody else I knew. All the Brooklyn hipster people, all of them were friends that came up for a few days. Matt Walsh, Carlson, Michael Cera—these are all friends, who had four, five, six days to work on it.
MM: What was it like working on it?
DC: It was so much fun. Every bit of the process. I think pre-production wasn’t as much fun because our budget was so low. I wasn’t quite used to it. We were limited just being up in Sullivan County with places that could work. So those two things were a little frustrating. But actually shooting it was so much fun. Not having to get up at 6 a.m. and go to hair and makeup, and sit in a trailer, and do rehearsals, and then sit around for an hour before the camera was ready—I mean that was actually a treat. If the first shot was for 7 or 7:30 a.m., I could roll in at 7:15 and be fine. I could show up on set in a T-shirt and shorts. I loved that. I didn’t have to shave. I didn’t have to worry about any of that shit. I didn’t have to memorize lines. That was awesome.
MM: One of the things that stood out the most when watching your stand up was the courage you expressed —like calling out George W. Bush as the worst president in history after 9-11 when no one else did.
DC: It’s very strange. I hear that occasionally about certain things and it’s certainly not a place from courage. I don’t feel courageous doing it.
MM: You’re very honest, which I think takes courage.
DC: Sure, I’ll say that. That’s an important part of my life—not just my stand up. And it’s reflected in that. To an annoying degree, my wife will tell you, I won’t even let people exaggerate around me. I think it’s less about me being courageous and more about other people being pussies. I would put it that way. I don’t think there’s anything courageous in a stand up comic. All you’re doing is making jokes and that’s not a difficult thing to do. I find people who come up with material or have an idea and then say, “Nah, I’m not going to do that right now,” to be just shockingly pussy. If those are the things that you believe in and you have that joke but are going to wait a year—that to me is an odd way to live your life.
MM: So honesty is obviously very important to you.
DC: Yes, very.
MM: That’s the beautiful thing about an artist because that’s what makes artists interesting. For me, the most interesting artists are the most honest ones. I think people can assume that one who is involved with acting and Hollywood doesn’t necessarily have to deal with that kind of honesty because they kind of go to the masses and get away with their own personas. How do you navigate that world and yet still remain true to yourself?
DC: Well, I don’t really navigate that world. That’s really less of what I do. It’s something that I do occasionally if I’m lucky enough to get an offer for something. But those things don’t come very often. I’m not doing anything that requires that kind of level of honesty and bearing your soul that you’re suggesting. And I don’t live in L.A. I haven’t lived there since 2001. I only lived there for 9 ½ years. It’s just not a world that I’m in too much. I mean look, half the shit I do is in London now. Three seasons of Todd Margaret and now I’ve got this new project pending for Sky, and hopefully, I’ll be doing that. I’m in L.A. way less. Bob and David and Arrested Development, that’s it.
MM: What do you enjoy most about working on projects like Todd Margaret?
DC: Occasionally, it would be the acting because you’ve got such great people to work with. I kind of wrote it, so I do what I want in a sense. Not being a dictator or anything like that, but if I wanted to mix it up and switch it up, I can do that. I don’t have to be the one that I’d have to consult with. I think there are moments where you find it in the writing and the editing that can be really fun and satisfying. 80 percent of the writing is difficult. There’s a whole—like—logic shit we had to deal with because everything took place the next day. Literally, there’d be a scene we write and we’re like, “Oh wait, it’s Sunday and that means that this thing wouldn’t be open and he wouldn’t have access to that.” Or, “Wait she’s cross-town and there’s no way she can get there in time. We’re going to have to rewrite this idea.” Shit that nobody gives a fuck about, except for the writers, you know? But we did care so we had to work on it—those things are not fun. But coming up with a riff, and riffing on those moments, with the writers—two great writers— you just make yourself laugh like for an hour. That’s fun. And editing, always love editing.
MM: What’s in editing?
DC: Well you create. You find stuff you didn’t. You’re at the very end of the creative process. Literally. Often, you’ll have a scene that isn’t working, or more often, this is the case, “Shit, we didn’t get the shot.” Whatever the thing is and you don’t have it, and you’re in editing and you’re realizing there’s a big problem and you’re trying to figure out, “How do we get from this point to this point?” We don’t have the shots and there’s only so much you can do with ADR (automated dialogue replacement), which Arrested Development did all the time. You don’t want to do that when you can avoid it. In editing, you can sit there and have those moments where you discover a way to make something work. It’s almost like detective work. If you’ve ever played those Room Escape games—to escape the room, you’ve got to figure it out. You’re like, “I can put this here and do this here.” You’re solving a big problem in a creative way and adding to the story where this thing didn’t exist. You can actually make this whole other scene that you had no intention and that never occurred to you. And that’s a really fun process.
MM: What are you looking at or thinking about these days? What’s pissing you off? What’s making you laugh?
DC: Well, we’re in an election year, for most people, that is preeminent in our consciousness. It’s all over the TV. All over the Internet. And unfortunately, in America, the election cycles start two years before the actual election. That’s really what it has been about. Not to say it hasn’t been a fascinating year worthy of our attention. It’s pretty crazy and unprecedented. Like every election, people have very serious opinions about things. That’s not unique to this election. People on one side hate the people on the other side. But outside of that, it’s the usual suspects—just hypocrisy, authority figures and people who are voting against their own self-interests and things that are kind of obvious and frustrating. People that believe they’re helping when they’re actually hurting. That’s my take on a lot of progressives and liberals on the left—and social justice warriors are meanwhile, making things infinitely worst.
MM: You can be perceived as being really critical of people, but it seems like you also have great sympathy for people.
DC: Some people. (laughs)
MM: You seem to pay such close attention to the people you make fun of—that warrants some sympathy.
DC: Those are feelings that are shared by people. The things that I’m describing are traits that people I love and respect have. I’m talking about family and friends, and if I do any bit of in-depth soul searching, probably myself as well. You know, I don’t hate my friends and family, and I have respect for them. I’m not contemptuous of them. But, those are things that I see. I guess it comes down to willful ignorance, in so many ways.
MM: On whose part?
DC: Everybodys. The people I’m criticizing, myself. There’s that thing that so many people have, where they just don’t want to know the ugly truth and are ready to dismiss things away. They dismiss the intellectual side of it and embrace the emotional side of it. Often, much to their detriment. Sometimes that’s what I speak about.
MM: And you’re not going to let them get away with it.
DC: Well I’ll certainly address it. And that’s really where a lot of the religious stuff comes from too. There’s a nice little chunk in this current set [Making America Great Again.] It’s something that fascinates me and I can’t ever imagine a set where I don’t at least talk about it in some way. It’s fun.
MM: How far along does a set evolve for you?
DC: Well this tour, Making America Great Again— I’ve never done a tour this extensive in my life. This tour was 86 shows, all across the United States. I’m not even including Europe and Canada. I mean, 86 in the US. I think the most that I’ve done were 29 cities and probably like 32 shows in that time. So this is almost triple the kind of tour I’ve done. It’s very extensive and it’s evolved quite a bit. The set that I recorded in Austin in late April is vastly different than the set that I started with on January 26th in San Diego. And the set that I’m about to do is already different from the set that I did in Austin. Because stuff has expanded and you don’t want to be up there for an hour and a half or two hours— that’s self-indulgent. I try to keep it to an hour fifteen and then there’s an encore. So I’ve dropped tons of stuff on the way, tons. And as other bits have expanded, I’ve riffed on an idea and that becomes part of the set. That’s probably the coolest feature about stand up. It’s organic.
MM: I have to ask you a few softball questions. What do you do for fun up here?
DC: I’m really not as active as I thought I would be. I’m not kayaking every other week. My wife and I go on hikes. We have a number of friends here now. There are a handful of regular bars we go to and we’ll meet up with people. It’s corny as shit, but I like getting in the car and driving to the farmer’s market in Callicoon. I smoked a pork butt yesterday—that was the better part of my morning, afternoon and early evening. You know, we got this swimming hole down here and we’ll go.
MM: It’s more about relaxing.
DC: It really is. And just kind of getting into this headspace of how life moves up here and enjoying that. I mean fuck it. For fun, I’ll walk down to Peck’s and go get a River Reporter and a lemonade and walk back. That’s my fun.