Of Good Character: Curtis Armstrong
Known for an array of noted TV and film performances — from Moonlighting and Supernatural to Revenge of the Nerds and Ray — Curtis Armstrong talks staying power, what an actor's job really is and pitching King of the Nerds.
Curtis Armstrong is always, always working.
Warm, approachable and disarmingly self-effacing, it’s almost as though this prolific character actor and television producer considers his accomplishments a fluke. But they’re anything but.
The classically trained Detroit native — who has racked up an impressive range of roles in well over 40 big screen films and television programs, such as movie classics Risky Business and Ray, TV favorites Supernatural, New Girl, The Game, Boston Legal, CSI, American Dad and more — first became a fan favorite thanks to his noteworthy performance in 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds.
Ever since Armstrong portrayed Dudley “Booger” Dawson in the cult comedy classic, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this summer, seems he’s been performing nonstop.
In 2013, he added host and executive producer to his list of credits when he co-created the reality competition series King of the Nerds for TBS with his friend and Revenge of the Nerds co-star, Robert Carradine. The show’s third season kicks off early next year.
And Armstrong keeps proving that his talents stretch far beyond likeable nerd Booger.
The same guy who delivered a pivotal, dramatic turn as Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegün in biopic Ray (along side Oscar-winning lead Jamie Foxx) keeps amassing new legions of fans as the wicked and vengeful angel Metatron on The CW’s beloved fantasy drama Supernatural.
When the series returns for a 10th season on October 7, 2014, Metatron will be back to wreak more havoc.
Currently in production on King of the Nerds, Armstrong took a break to discuss the art of acting, the power of the written word and how he’s become one of the hardest working men in Hollywood.
Your career spans 4 decades. How have you managed to work so much?
I don’t know, man. I don’t really. In the last, 3 or 4 years, I’ve been working in one form or other pretty much constantly. And it’s an amazement to me.
I’m not saying that there are not going to continue to be days where I’m not working.
There are going to be plenty of days when I’m not, as there always have been.
I was just really fortunate to have come up in a time (the early 1980s) — once I got out of stage work which was where I really started — (when) there were a lot of movies coming out that just had legs in a way that maybe even the people who made them weren’t expecting them to have.
For example, the first movies — Risky Business and then Revenge of the Nerds and Better Off Dead — movies like that, they were not movies that had a future necessarily, if it hadn’t been for the advent of technology. That kept them going.
When I was growing up, you saw a movie when it was released. If it was really exceptional, it got maybe a re-release.
But aside from that you were pretty much stuck with seeing it on the “late show,” you know?
And suddenly there’s all of this technology, like home video and then DVD and cable. Cable was huge in keeping all those movies alive.
So, looking back on it now, for many of the people who believed in those movies and really worked hard on them, those movies have lived way beyond anyone’s expectations.
And all these new platforms keep new fans discovering the original Nerds.
As far as Booger (of Revenge of the Nerds), that was, that was one of those things where we were working on a movie with sort of the half-finished script. There were new writers working on it. And we were hired to do it.
For those of us who were not Bobby Carradine or Anthony Edwards, we were all in these very minor supporting roles and sort of expected to come up with stuff.
And that’s what we did, with the writers, over the first week we were there. (We were) just going over all this stuff, coming up with ideas about who these people were and what we could do with them.
Have you found that kind of freedom with any other productions over the years?
No, not in quite the same way.
I mean there’s a lot of movies where you can have — as they say — the freedom to “have fun with it.”
And that is frankly a phrase that really kind of grates me because having fun with the written word is not my idea of what my job is.
How do you think your colleagues came to adopt that approach?
Since the ‘80s, stand-up comedy has become, sort of what rock and roll was in the ‘60s.
And I think one of the things that happened was (filmmakers) would come up with scripts with the idea that they would get people who were good at improv, ideally. You know, stand-up people and so on.
And they could plug them into this movie and basically patch up whatever weaknesses were in the movie. But I was brought up in a pretty traditional discipline.
I learned sort of the classical English theatre techniques, with the idea that I was going to be a stage actor.
That was my dream. My dream was not to make movies or to be on a television show.
Where did you train for stage?
Academy of Dramatic Arts, which was located at Oakland University right outside of Detroit, my home town.
They had a whole staff of people from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and other schools in England, who had relocated to this place.
There was a very well-known regional theatre also on the campus. So the idea for them was that they would come, they would teach this intensive 2-year course, and during that time, they would also appear on stage in whatever they wanted to be in basically.
And that was, that was where I got my start.
One of the things that you learn in an environment like that is that you are at the basically at the service of the written word.
That’s beautiful to say that you’re in service to the written word.
It’s not your job to make it funnier. It’s your job to interpret what you’ve been handed in a way that makes it funny, or not, whatever the thing is.
The idea that “we’ll just throw out this script and see if anybody responds to it and can make it work” would be sort of like me showing up for work one day and saying: “You know, I didn’t bother memorizing the lines, but you guys can probably shoot around me and make it work okay, right?”
Like, hey let’s just have some fun with it?
Yeah, exactly! That’s a sentence that you never hear an actor say to a director: “Oh, come on. Let’s have fun with it!”
I think for sketch comedy that’s, of course, absolutely, no argument.
It comes out of the cult of improv and sketch writing, you know? That if you have the personality and the quickness, you can make something that is not complete better.
But when you’re working on a script, and it’s supposed to be an acting job… I don’t mind the misunderstanding about it. It’s just, it is a different thing.
You referred to me as a comedian and it’s something that I’m often referred to, but I’ve never done stand-up comedy.
Did you come up with the idea for the King of the Nerds series or did someone else bring it to you?
No, this came out of our heads, meaning Robert Carradine’s and mine.
We’ve remained friends over the years and we get together periodically for lunch or something. And we were talking one day.
We both have kids who are either in college or, at the time, going into college. We’d been talking about the expense of college and that sort of thing.
The two of us have had good long careers — Bobby’s even longer than mine — and nevertheless, there are times where it just dries up and there’s no income.
When those times come, that’s when you start thinking: maybe I should have stuck with writing. Or maybe I should have finished college, so I could have a degree and teach. Those kinds thoughts.
But I think it was Robert who one day who said, “You know, we should come up with a nerd reality show. Base it sort of on Revenge of the Nerds.”
So we came up with an idea for it and pitched it.
This was back in the days of Beauty and the Geek. That show was about to come on the air and a lot of people — as soon as they heard nerd reality show — went, “Well there’s already Beauty and the Geek.”
And, you know, we tried valiantly to explain that this was not Beauty and the Geek.
Just wasn’t the right time?
I think it was a combination of factors. But basically it was not the right time.
So we forgot about it for a few years. And then Bobby called up again one day and said, “You know, we should try again.” So we tried again.
And this time? The whole zeitgeist had changed because, in the meantime, there were all these movies coming out about nerds. About Bill Gates and all of that stuff.
Nerds have become subsumed into our culture in a way they hadn’t been when we first tried years before.
The Big Bang Theory was happening and all that. So suddenly it was “OK! Yeah!” And it sold immediately.
We joined up with 2 companies, Five by Five Media and Electus, which is Ben Silverman’s company. Because they have experience in unscripted television, they were able to really help us in the nuts and bolts of the thing.
We had ideas for the show, which just weren’t doable. But you don’t know that because unscripted is an area neither of us had ever gone in.
So then, once – once TBS picked us up, then it became a matter of developing the show over a period of time with them.
They helped us enormously, figuring out how to make this really work.
Talk about how different the world is in 2014 than in 1984 when you made Revenge of the Nerds?
It’s hugely different.
I mean, when I was young, and I was nerding out about my own particular passion, there was really nobody to share them with. Unless you happened to meet somebody at school who was in to what you were into.
We never had an idea that there was a future to the nerd culture as it existed then.
Two things were not in play: There was no Internet and there was no big Comic-Con culture. And that’s the difference, you know?
Now you can play games with a kid on the other side of the planet in Beijing, just by picking up a device.
Yes, that’s right.
And then Comic-Con is huge because of what it’s done (to attract) non-nerds, who may be showing up to the convention because maybe they’ve heard somebody’s there that they want to see.
And suddenly they’re remembering the comic books that they used to collect. Or here’s some interesting games that they’ve never even heard of. And there’s some character actors from the ‘60s there.
And suddenly people who never really thought of themselves in terms of being nerds are suddenly realizing the fun and the challenge and the beauty of some of these things.
The more that (nerd culture) mixes in with general pop culture, the more people are open to the idea of outsiders, of the people that they may have mocked and teased when they were in school.
They see all of these wonderful things that these people have been into for years and suddenly it’s different.
It’s a valuable, form of pop culture.