In "Saving Mr. Banks," B.J. Novak plays Robert Sherman, one half of the brother songwriting duo -- along with Richard Sherman (played by Jason Schwartzman) -- that created some of the most popular Disney songs of all time, from "It's a Small World (After All)" to all of the songs you remember from "Mary Poppins." Of course, as we see in "Saving Mr. Banks," a new film that tracks the development of that 1964 classic, their work on "Poppins" wasn't easy, considering that the author of "Mary Poppins," P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), was dead set against her creation becoming a musical. (That becomes quite a challenge for the Sherman brothers and their boss, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks.)
Novak spent so much time on "The Office" -- as a member of the cast and as a writer -- that it's almost weird to remember the show has finished its run. Or, as Novak put it, he didn't have to go back to "school" this fall. Though Novak is obviously proud of his work in "Banks" -- plus, it just has to be fun dancing around with Schwartzman and Bradley Whitford (who plays "Poppins" co-screenwriter Don DaGradi) -- he still, by default, considers himself a writer at heart. And a writer, yes, who also has a mysterious role in the upcoming "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," which he sheds some light on ahead.
I know we get to hear the audio later as proof, but when filming, did you ever think, P.L. Travers couldn't have been this bad?
I actually thought she wasn't that bad. I identified a lot with anyone who has a strong point of view about their writing.
Your character thought she was bad.
My character thought she was bad, but I think there was probably some very, very subtle or minor connection between the two of them. I think when you are hard-headed about your writing, you identify with that in others. It's a level of respect even if you want to kill the other person. I felt that filming it, anyway.
That's interesting. I didn't think about your writing background in comparison to this...
Oh, yeah. Those tapes reminded me to a frightening degree of bad nights in a writers room, you know? Not that much has changed in Burbank in the years in-between. It sounds exactly like that sort of tense slog of rewriting when smart people don't see eye to eye. And what the movie, I think, captures so well is that not only the intricacies of that battle -- the intellectual battle -- but that movie reveals why those battles are so fierce. It's because of the emotional battles people are really fighting. People are really defending the emotion that inspired their writing.
Did Jason Schwartzman get cast first or did you? I always wonder how this works when the characters are brothers. Like, if it were, I don't know, Chris Hemsworth, do you still get cast?
[Laugh] I don't think I would have been Robert Sherman if Chris Hemsworth was Richard Sherman. I agree with you. I do think think that we were very much cast as brothers. I know Jason was cast first. And when I tell people that we're playing brothers, everyone just can't help but smile. It just feels right. We looked right together; we had a dynamic on and off set that just came very naturally. Whenever I tell people who I'm playing in the movie, I say, "Jason Schwartzman and I play the Sherman brothers." I really do feel that we were cast as brothers -- and you can see that on screen.
It's a shame Robert died last year.
I would have loved to have met him. I think he would have liked it. I was very aware of his ghost as we filmed because everything I knew about Robert made me think he would be picking the film apart in Heaven, you know? "Who is this guy they got to play me?"
"I never said that."
"I never said that! My hair didn't look like that!" I felt he would be happy with it. And I was surprised, also, talking to the real Richard Sherman how multifaceted and warmly he saw the relationship.
Is it weird the first time you see Tom Hanks as Walt Disney? It's like doubling down on icons.
It was incredible. I really believe that Tom Hanks and Walt Disney have some overlap to their souls. They are both these larger than life American figures who, at the same time, feel completely "everyday." The first time I met Tom Hanks, I had this incredibly weird feeling. As soon as he said, "Hi, B.J.," I felt, I knew I knew Tom Hanks. Like, all of these years, I knew he was seeing me, too. And I think that's how people felt about Walt Disney. We were filming and it was the week before the Academy Awards and people were talking about what their plans were and, you know, in the makeup trailer I asked Tom, "Oh, where are you going to watch them?" And he's like, "I'm going to watch them at home, invite a couple of people over," something like that. And then later I thought, For all I know he's presenting Best Picture. How did I think he'd just be another guy in jeans? But he didn't think that question was weird. And this year he might well win one.
You are an enigma to me. I can't figure out if you want to be acting or writing.
I definitely am a writer. Someone said this about James L. Brooks because he does so many different things, but if you woke him up and shook him in the middle of the night and said, "What are you?," he'd say, "I'm a writer." If you woke me up at 3 a.m. and shook me and said, "What's your job?," I'd say, "I'm a writer." You know, it's just who I am. And I think, often, the characters I play -- not always -- but often they have that quality to their soul, too.
You're in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," but we really don't know who your character is. Is it a secret role?
No. I'm in a couple of scenes. Yeah, I was never told whether or not I could say. I can say that I work at Oscorp. And I am someone from the comic books, someone from the original. So, yeah, I'm somebody. I wouldn't say I'm pivotal, but I'm not an extra, either.
That will be my headline, "B.J. Novak: I Am Somebody."
[Laughs] Yeah, I am somebody. Right next to Jesse Jackson.
Is it nice not having to answer "So, what upcoming can we expect on 'The Office'" when you do interviews now?
Oh, wow. Yeah. That's completely true. Once I did a long interview about charity -- I was promoting a charity that I was helping out -- and the last question was "Who do you want to replace Steve Carell?" And I said, "Maybe Danny McBride" and the entire story was just about "B.J. Novak wants Danny McBride on 'The Office'" -- [laughs] they didn't even mention the charity. What is it like not having that come up next? I guess it's a little wistful to think of it that way. I loved "The Office," but, maybe, also I'm a little free to not always be going back to school in the fall -- to realize that summer vacation is actually going to be the rest of your life.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.