The standout film at South by Southwest last week was "Don't Think Twice," Mike Birbilgia's directorial follow-up to 2012's "Sleepwalk with Me." Birbiglia returns to the mercurial stand-up comedy scene, casting himself and five other performers -- Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher and Chris Gethard -- as a talented but stagnant New York improvisation troupe. When the tight-knit sextet loses the lease on their home theater and one member lands a gig on a "Saturday Night Live" analogue, they must contend with the seismic shifts that uproot their makeshift family.
"Don't Think Twice" starts as a laugh riot, but it steadily morphs into a bittersweet and surprisingly poignant rumination on maneuvering through life's unlikely paths. The day after the movie's euphoric premiere in Austin, The Huffington Post sat down with Birbilgia and Jacobs to talk about success, Lena Dunham's influence on the project and how Nicolas Cage could possibly be envious of Tom Cruise.
Last night's premiere was rapturous. You must be so happy.
Mike Birbiglia: Oh, my God, I drank so much last night. I woke up with such a headache. Now I’m paying the price. I feel asleep by, like, 2 a.m. or something, but I have my 10-month-old baby here, and my wife. But I feel great. The response was so emotional. The moment the film ended, the six of us were backstage literally just crying. It’s borderline embarrassing.
Was it easy to decide which six people would play these parts?
MB: No, it took a long time. I was kind of casting it in my mind over the course of writing it, which is like 18 months of rewriting and rewriting. I went through 10 or 15 drafts. Tami and Chris and I improvise together a lot, so I had a sense that they would play those parts, assuming that the financiers who came in didn’t bump them out in some way. That was always on the table, and I would have to say to those guys, “Someone might take on this project and say we can’t finance this person or this person.”
Because they want bigger stars?
MB: Yeah, and I can fight that, but I don’t know if I’ll win. And I did fight it and I did win, so I was lucky. It felt like a real group of people because we are real friends. And then with Gillian, Lena Dunham, who’s a friend of the project, read the script and said, “You should really try to get Gillian Jacobs,” and I watched all of Gillian’s stuff and thought she was brilliant. But I’d never seen her play anything like this part. Lena was like, “Gillian Jacobs can do anything.” She put herself on tape and her boyfriend filmed her doing some scenes, and I was blown away. My wife and I watched it 10 or 12 times.
Speaking of Lena Dunham, the thank-you list that rolls at the end of the credits is massive and has so much star power. Jimmy Kimmel, just to name one.
MB: Yeah! It’s funny you point out Jimmy Kimmel. Two years ago, I remember being at his house. He’s been really supportive of my career, and he loves “Sleepwalk with Me.” He always wants to talk about “Sleepwalk with Me.” So he asks, “So what’s the next movie?” I go, “It’s new. I’m writing this movie about a group of friends and one of them gets cast on ‘SNL' and the rest of them don’t, and it’s about what happens when you have to figure out what to do when life doesn’t go as you planned it.” He goes, “I fucking love that idea.” And it was a real vote of confidence from a master, where I realized I was on the right track. It wasn’t like, “OK, cool,” you know what I mean? It wasn’t like, “Yeah, keep going with that.” It was like a snap, like, “I get that. I get exactly what you’re doing. You should do that.”
How much of the movie is scripted? I imagine it must be hard to script improv.
MB: It is. The performance improv is both scripted … [to Gillian Jacobs, who is walking across the room after leaving another interview] Are you in?
Gillian Jacobs: I’ve been absorbed into this.
GJ: [Laughs] Hi!
Are you also in hangover land today?
GJ: I don’t drink, so no, I’m just hungry. [Jacobs proceeds to eat soup.]
MB: [Laughs] “I’m just hungry.” The performance improv is a mixture of scripted improv and real improv. Everyone came to town two weeks early and we did intensive improv workshops with Liz Allen, who’s a guru of improv. But just to protect people’s experience of the movie, I don’t like to say that this was improvised or that wasn’t. If I had my druthers, there wouldn’t be movie trailers, or they’d be very vague.
GJ: Kind of like they used to be, in the ‘70s. Have you ever seen those trailers where you’re like, “I have no idea what this movie is about”? It’s just random lines.
So, the exact opposite of most trailers today. Gillian, even though you’re new to the improv experience, I feel like this character is far more aligned with you as an individual than your work on, say, “Community” or "Girls" or “Love.”
GJ: I don’t think you’re wrong. [Birbiglia laughs.] And it’s interesting because Mike has said that Lena suggested I do this part and he watched my work and said, “I’ve never seen her do something like this,” and I similarly felt like, as an actor, I had not been given a chance to play a part close to myself. I felt for a long time that everyone I played has been very distant from me and I can relate to them in different ways and through core emotional needs in my own life, but I felt like Sam was much closer to me as a person. Even my agents who came last night were just so excited to get to see me in a part like that.
MB: They were so blown away.
GJ: Yeah, it was really nice because you want to, as an actor, think, “Oh, I can play anything.” But every once in a while, you want to play something that’s a little closer to home, so it was a fun experience for me.
By now, you guys have found categorical success. You both have wide followings, but I’m sure there are still moments where you feel inferior. We all do. So do you still find yourself Googling your more successful peers, like your character in the movie?
Is that something you can ever let go of?
MB: I think in my lowest moments I’ve Googled my enemies. I don’t think I’ve done it recently. I don’t think I’ve done it in the last six months that I recall. But sure, it’s happened.
GJ: It’s interesting because there’s a tradition in the theater where you’re not supposed to read reviews and that you don’t acknowledge them to your cast mates or at the theater. I remember when I first started “Community” I was horrified that people would even mention our ratings because that, to me, felt like, “Oh, you don’t talk about that. What if somebody doesn’t like to talk about the business end of it? You shouldn’t mention that on set." And over time, I loosened up about that.
That’s especially interesting for “Community,” which was always one step away from the chopping block.
GJ: Oh yeah, our ratings were always tanking! Because what if that means you are in such a bad headspace that you can’t be in the scene?
MB: Oh, sure. That’s so interesting.
GJ: So I kind of got away from that theater background, but recently I’ve felt like, you know what, there’s something valuable to that. I’m going to do the work, I’m going to trust the director and my collaborators, and I’m going to know my own opinion of it, and I’m going to leave it at that. I’ve been really trying to step away from engaging a great deal with that stuff. But I think it’s interesting, too -- [to Birbiglia] I don’t know if you feel this way, but at different points in your career, you feel like you’re losing out to the same person, and that person shifts like every five years.
GJ: It kind of changes, and then you have the moment where you realize, “Oh, somebody feels that way about me.”
MB: It’s unbelievable.
GJ: It’s hard to look back and realize, “Oh, I’m working now.” I used to not work, but I’m working consistently.
MB: I think Gillian and I both have this odd experience where, when people ask us, “You guys are successful, how do you feel about playing these characters who are unsuccessful,” we’re like, “We’re successful?” We are today. That’s how this business is. I feel like I might not be successful tomorrow or next year or in five years from now, and that’s okay, actually. I talk about it to my wife all the time. And sometimes we talk about how we’ll get a house in the country and call it a day. We’ll write books or something. It’s not up to you.
GJ: But also, the work of life is becoming a better person so you’re OK with that.
And, of course, you don’t know how you’ll respond if that moment actually hits, but do you think you would have said that when “Sleepwalk with Me” came out, Mike?
MB: Since “Sleepwalk” came out, so many people -- a couple hundred people -- have come up to me and said, “I became a stand-up comedian because of ‘Sleepwalk with Me.’” To them, I was like, “Oh, that’s great.” And in my mind, I’m like, “That’s not what the movie’s about.” The movie is about finding your voice as a human being. And yeah, I hope that works out for you, but if it doesn’t, that’s OK. I hope that allows you to get to who you are as a person because that’s what Mike Pandamiglio, the thinly veiled Mike Birbiglia character in “Sleepwalk with Me,” did. Stand-up became the way he understood himself. This movie is kind of an answer to that, like, “Guys, we don’t all have to have the same dream. We don’t all have to achieve the same brass ring.” And it’s literally impossible that we could, and the person who does get the brass ring, it’s probably more than he or she bargained for and it’s probably not what they thought it was going to be.
Do you guys know people who have gotten that brass ring and …
MB: Yes! I’ll answer that immediately. Yes!
GJ: You know, you see people grapple with success in different ways, and some people have an innate ability to handle it, and other people, it really can spin them around. I think you’ve got to just focus on being a better person day to day in your life. You are focusing on what you need to work on separate from your career and your craft -- just you as a person. I feel like when I have that at the forefront of my mind, I’m feeling happier about life, because I feel like I’m making progress as a person. When it’s all about my career and what I don’t have and what I didn’t get and what didn’t do as well as I thought it would, then that’s just a bottomless hole inside yourself.
MB: I heard this story on a podcast about this screenwriter who wrote a bunch of Nic Cage movies and “Beautiful Girls." On this Brian Koppelman podcast called “The Moment,” he told this story about being with Nic Cage in the ‘90s, in his trailer in Arizona for a movie. The trailer was bigger than the screenwriter’s apartment in New York. This is after “Leaving Las Vegas” -- I think he’d won the Oscar. It was a year after, and they’re watching a TV commercial and Tom Cruise comes on and he goes, “How am I not Tom Cruise?” And you just go, “Oh.”
GJ: You have an Oscar!
MB: And of course, across town, Tom Cruise is going, “How come I’m not Nic Cage?”
MB: At that point? At that moment in time?
GJ: Do you know how many of Tom Cruise’s co-stars have won Oscars for movies opposite Tom Cruise?
MB: A lot, right? Probably Paul Newman for “The Color of Money.”
GJ: A lot. You’d be shocked at the number. It’s a ton.
[We checked: In addition to Newman, Dustin Hoffman won for "Rain Man" and Cuba Gooding Jr. won for "Jerry Maguire." Co-stars who were nominated when Cruise wasn't include Jack Nicholson ("A Few Good Men"), Holly Hunter ("The Firm"), Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai") and Jamie Foxx ("Collateral").]
MB: I’m sure, and I’m a hardcore Tom Cruise fan.
GJ: He’s incredible.
MB: He’s incredible. I feel like actors appreciate Tom Cruise, in some ways, more than non-actors appreciate Tom Cruise because you realize that a lot of people will dismiss him sometimes. Snarky people will be like, “He’s just playing himself,” or whatever. It’s like, “OK, then you do it. You make ‘Jerry Maguire.’ You be that part. Good luck with that.” I couldn’t do it.
GJ: I could do it.
MB: I’ll name you 500 actors who are really good actors who couldn’t do it.
GJ: Geraldine Maguire. It’s very different. [Birbiglia laughs]
“You had me at hello” would have a whole different meaning.
MB: “You had me helloooooo.”
Mike, your character's apartment is borderline unlivable because he's so underemployed. Have you guys lived somewhere as bad as his place?
GJ: Oh, worse.
MB: Yeah, worse. Much worse.
How much worse?
MB: I don’t know how they call it an apartment.
GJ: I slept on a chair that folded out into a bed for over a year.
MB: Like a futon kind of thing? Like a body-size futon?
GJ: But the mattress was smaller than a single bed.
MB: So you’re basically in a medical gurney.
GJ: Yes! It was like a gurney low to the ground. That’s what I slept on. And everything in there was just things that had been left by the previous tenants, so I had a stool and I had a bookshelf.
MB: And I lived on an air mattress in Queens for two years. I couldn’t afford dressers for my clothes.
GJ: Yeah, I had my clothes on a bookshelf.
MB: I say in my show, “Thank God for Jokes,” “In New York, when you’re broke, everything’s low to the ground.” You roll off your air mattress, grab your pants from the floor, you cook noodles on a hot plate, one falls out of your mouth, you’re like, “It’s not that bad.”
"Don't Think Twice" is currently seeking a distribution deal, but Birbiglia mentioned at the SXSW premiere that he'd like to tour to promote the movie this summer. This interview has been edited and condensed.