“It’s not the flashier part ever,” says the actor/director Jason Bateman of the “straight-man” role in comedies that he has specialized in on screens small and big for the last 15 years as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “That role gets his or her laughs, but it’s not the person you’re shelling out your money to go see. I’m not being overly humble here: Who’s gonna go see ‘a Jason Bateman vehicle’? You know, you go see ‘a Will Ferrell vehicle.’ And I would die to play Will Ferrell’s straight man! Will Ferrell will still sell tons of tickets and be incredibly funny without a straight man — but with one, the clap becomes louder because you’ve got two hands there.”
Bateman has been in the biz for nearly 40 years. In the 1980s, he was a child star whose face was plastered on the bedroom walls of girls across America. Then, after fading from the scene in the 1990s, he re-emerged in the first decade of the 2000s as an adult and, specifically, as Michael Bluth, the only sane member of a big family, on Arrested Development (the first of his straight-man roles), which aired on Fox from 2003 through 2006. Its first season was recognized with the best comedy series Emmy in 2004; Bateman’s work on its second season was recognized with the best actor in a musical or comedy series Golden Globe in 2005.
Now, in 2018, the 49-year-old is poised to land best actor Emmy nominations for two different shows, both of which hail from Netflix: the rookie drama series Ozark, which he also executive produced, directing four of its 10 episodes (Bateman has already received best actor Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for his work on that show); and Arrested Development, which was revived at Netflix in 2013 and returns to the streaming service Tuesday (he has previously received a total of two Emmy, two SAG and two Golden Globe noms for his work on that show).
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Bateman was born in Rye, New York, and raised between Boston, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. The son of an airline stewardess and an independent writer/director/producer, he gravitated towards acting at a young age and began doing it professionally at just 10, quickly landing work on Little House on the Prairie (1981-1982) and then ascending to full-fledged child stardom through Silver Spoons (1982-1984) and Valerie, which was later renamed The Hogan Family (1987-1991). His older sister, Justine Bateman, followed him into the business and made a name for herself on Family Ties.
Bateman acknowledges that, for better or worse, he was a “fearless and cocky and confident” kid. One by-product of that, perhaps, was his interest in directing, which he was given the opportunity to do for the first time on three episodes of The Hogan Family when he was just 18 — making him, he soon learned, the youngest person in the history of the Directors Guild of America to receive a directing credit, and planting the seeds for his desire to return to helming years later.
As he hit his 20s, though, work of all sorts largely dried up. “That was a really challenging 10 years,” he says, admitting that he fell into booze and drugs while trying to live the sort of carefree life that his contemporaries had enjoyed years earlier when he was already working. For a time, he volunteers, “I was living in some sort of semi-deluded notion of who I was or what my position in the marketplace was,” but eventually it sunk in that his best days might be behind him. “I was really close to literally liquidating what little I had left, putting that cash in a duffle bag, and going down to the Tom Bradley Terminal [of LAX] and looking up at the ticker board [and just leaving town to start over somewhere else]. I really fantasized about that.” Instead, he stuck around and began shadowing James Burrows, the legendary helmer of multicamera TV shows, figuring that he might be able to reinvent himself as a full-time director.
Then, out of the blue, Bateman received an invitation to audition for the pilot of Arrested Development, a Mitch Hurwitz comedy series that would be single-camera and mockumentary-style, both rarities at the time. “I did realize that it was something special,” he says, not least because, as he puts it, “Arrested Development was my sense of humor at that time.” At that first meeting about Arrested, Hurwitz realized Bateman was the right man for the part of Michael, and it wasn’t long before Bateman officially had the job. As the lead actor on a comedy series on a major network (Fox), it, in essence, brought his career back from the dead.
While Bateman’s prior TV experience had been on multicamera shows, which are shot more or less in-sequence in front of live audiences, he found that he also loved working on a single-camera show, even though it is shot more like a movie with no audience at all. “There’s a laugh that you can get when there’s no audience there, but there’s a camera there, by not winking,” he explains. “It’s a quiet thing. It’s a shared thing with an audience member that you don’t see, you don’t hear and you’re never gonna meet. It’s a real sort of private kind of line of communication that you have through that camera, into that TV, onto that person on the couch. There’s anonymity to it, whereas with the studio audience, it is not only implied, but it’s there. You have to hold ’til they’re done laughing. So there’s an extra energy that they bring that you need to infuse your performance with, and it’s a different thing — it’s a different thing to write and it’s a different thing to perform.”
Thanks to Arrested Development‘s reception from critics and awards groups, if not its ratings, Bateman was a hot commodity once again, and this time, he decided, he was not going to take it for granted. “When I stopped doing drugs and drinking, it was a year after we had been doing Arrested Development,” he acknowledges. “Arrested had become something that I saw was providing me an opportunity to hit the reset button.” He began working in movies, too, ranging from Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009), both of which were directed by Jason Reitman and nominated for the best picture Oscar, to a host of comedies that asked him to play a variation of his Arrested Development straight man, such as The Switch (2010), Horrible Bosses (2011), The Change-Up (2011) and Identity Thief (2013). Asked if he felt frustrated at being called on to return to that character time and again, he emphasizes, “It was never frustrating. It’s actually a large part my own doing. I turn down more opportunities to be the antagonist, as opposed to the protagonist, to oversimplify it, than certainly my wife is comfortable with me doing.” He adds, “I don’t take anything away from actors that like acting, but I am really attracted to something different.”
Bateman is clearly happy to be a part of Arrested Development‘s return to Netflix — “It’s at its perfect place,” he says, ruling out any possible feature film version in the future — but what he loves most these days is directing. He recently helmed two features, 2013’s Bad Words and 2015’s The Family Fang, which is what led him to Ozark. When he first learned about the project, which centers on a Chicago family man and financial adviser who becomes indebted to a Mexican drug lord for whom he had agreed to launder money, he inquired about directing it, drawn to the idea of what he saw not as a TV series, but rather “a 600-page movie.” Initially he was told that it had been offered to a group of directors with much greater experience than his, but his representatives fought for him to get a fair hearing, and once he did, he got the job. Bateman hoped to helm all 10 episodes of the first season, but scheduling made that impossible, so instead he directed its first two and last two episodes. Between those assignments and also serving as one of the show’s executive producers, he was able to shape its look and tone, he says. And as its lead actor, playing a character who is put through the emotional wringer, Bateman was able to stretch himself in other ways, too. He will continue to do so on its second season, which is now in postproduction. For all of this, he is grateful. “Things continue to be fortunate for me,” he says, “as I knock on wood.”