Courtesy Netflix
Courtesy Netflix
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Fill 1
March 22, 2016
Online Originals

Actor, Uninterrupted

Even a 10-year hiatus can't stop David Sullivan of Netflix's Flaked.

David Sullivan is in a really good place.

Not only is he happily co-starring in the Netflix series Flaked with Will Arnett, he has a happy, healthy 10 year old son, and is feeling on top of the world.

Sullivan gained attention in his first professional acting role in the Sundance Best Picture winner Primer in 2004. He was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for best debut performance for the role, as well. Not long after that, he discovered that he was going to be a father, and made the choice to be a full time dad, working only occasionally for the next decade.

Now the East Texas native is starring with Will Arnett in Flaked, as Dennis, best friend to Will Arnett's Chip. Set in Venice, California, the series follows Chip as he finds his way through sobriety, romance, and friendship.

Sullivan recently talked with about his unusual career path.

Hi David, how are you?

David Sullivan: I know people probably say this a lot, but I honestly couldn’t be better. It’s so awesome. I probably shouldn’t have done this, but last night I stayed up all night to watch the entire series. I’m feeling really, really great. It’s a really great feeling right now.

Well, I haven’t watched the whole series yet, but I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve seen. You’re doing a great job.

DS: That’s great! I think the series will get the exact audience we want. It’s such an interesting show, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And that’s very rare in today’s entertainment landscape.

So often, you have shows, you have movies, or you have web series, you have different forms of media, and it’s usually like something that you’ve seen, because they’re saying “What’s successful, what good idea is a success” and they compare it to a lot of different other shows and types of entertainment, and ours is none of those. So, I’m so excited.

That’s what drew me to it. It’s not full-on comedy, it’s not full-on drama. It’s somewhere in between. And it’s real. That’s the thing that really fascinated me. I love those characters.

DS: I totally agree. It was funny. In reading the script, when I first got it, there are jokes in the script, and it’s funny to me, and I’m like, “Oh, OK, I get this, and obviously, knowing that I’m working opposite Will Arnett, and I’m thinking, “This is going to be a riot.”

And when we were shooting it, I was having the best time ever, and then when I’m watching it, within the first… I probably shouldn’t be saying this… but in the first 15 minutes I was a nervous wreck because I knew that there were jokes written in there, but then nobody in the audience was laughing, and I was like, “Oh no!”

But then I realized, wait, no, this is like real life. What these people are seeing on screen are these real characters, and very rarely in life do we set up jokes and execute them. So, we were having fun and these characters just happen to be lighthearted, funny characters. And you fall in love with each and every one of them.

That was my experience exactly, and I haven’t even seen the whole series yet.

DS: You’re in for a really cool ride. You’re going to find yourself saying, “Why am I watching this? And why do I want to know more about Chip’s accident? Why do I want to know more about Dennis’s relationship with him? Why do we know nothing about London yet? It’s episode three, what’s going on?”

There’s just so much story that in this short, four-hour series, this eight episode series. There’s so much story packed in there, and once you get to episode three and four, you’re gonna learn so much more information. I’m really excited for you. You’re really gonna be in it.

Well, I’m really excited to watch it, because, as I said, even after the first two episodes, these characters are just… I grew up with guys like this.  I know guys who are buddies, and they argue and they have a good time together, and …

DS: Absolutely. And that’s what’s missing in TV now. I think people love seeing friendship, and people love seeing people connecting. And on TV, it’s oftentimes, “OK, what’s something funny that we can have these two guys talk about or these two ladies talk about or what’s a funny scenario."

And in our series, we don’t have to do that.  That’s the beauty of working with Netflix as well. We don’t have to worry about ratings. We don’t have to try to please everybody. We can tell a story that we love, and since we have the medium that we have, we can have liberties with the things that we actually like to talk about.

Which I think is human, which I think is what you pick up on. It’s a very human comedy.

Exactly, exactly. What I really latched onto is the day-to-day. It’s life.

DS: It really is. It really is. And the cool thing about that is, when I first moved to Los Angeles from my small home town in East Texas, I moved to Venice.

First of all, being from Texas, if I’m going to move out to Los Angeles and pursue this crazy dream of mine, I’m gonna be near the beach. And then I go to Santa Monica, and oh my gosh, can’t afford this. I’m looking at Malibu, and I’m saying, “There’s no way that normal people live here."

And I find this little spot in Venice, and the place 10-12 years ago is not the same place it is now. And [the show] actually touches a lot on that. And [we have] Wally Pfister, he’s a brilliant cinematographer and now director in Christopher Nolan’s movies. He won [the Academy Award] for Inception.

He’s brilliant in the way that he’s able to capture Venice and make Venice a character in this story. It’s just phenomenal. Every shot is gorgeous. And with him directing the first two and the last two episodes, it really raised the bar for all the directors that we worked with. So, having Venice as a character in this piece and to capture it so well is a huge bonus.

I’ve only been to the boardwalk in Venice…

DS: You’re missing out! You didn’t walk the canals? There’s so much more to Venice. It’s way different now than it was 10 years ago. And it’s funny, a couple of people I was talking to after they saw the first couple of episodes were saying, “I want to go visit Venice!”

And I said, “Yeah, it’s pretty romantic how we introduced her, and how we were able to live in her world for a while.” So, yeah. it’s gorgeous. 

And are you still living in Venice?

DS: No, I don’t live in Venice anymore. I lived in Venice for a couple of years, and then I started auditioning, and that’s when I realized, whoa, Venice is it’s own little environment and its own little world.

I’m thinking I have an audition, and it’s 12 miles away, I can get there in 20 minutes. No, you can’t. Going from Venice to Burbank at 11:00 in the morning, forget about it. So, I had my love affair with Venice the first couple of years, and then I had to move a little bit closer to Hollywood and the Valley and somewhere a little more centralized. But I loved it there.

It’s unfortunate, because I would love to live in Venice, but I work in North Hollywood, and it’s just too much.

DS: Exactly. There’s no way you could do that. It would just drive you bananas. It’s not fun.

But that’s something that’s told in this story as well. People live their whole lives in and around Venice, and that’s what I really see in Chip’s character. He has become this big fish in this small pond.

You find out later that people want him to run for city council. You find out later that he’s kind of the voice of the city. You find out in later episodes that people come to him for advice and for help, and he’s carrying around this persona as somebody who’s looking out for everyone.

But then - and this is what’s awesome about Will Arnett’s acting - you still see that there’s something else going on with this guy. Whether you see him lying to somebody’s face or you see the wheels turning behind the eyes.

That’s what was so awesome about working with him. He’s such a great actor and it’s great to see him doing something like this, because this is something that he’s never really done before. And I really, really love this role for him.

Had you known Will before the show?

DS:  No. I met Will at my final audition. You hear actors talking about horror stories in auditions. I’d auditioned a couple of times for the role, and it came to the point where I was going to be reading with Will Arnett, and I’m like, “OK, this is awesome. I’ve been watching this guy on my TV for 10 years. Netflix, obviously gave me the final season [of Arrested Development],” and kind of idolizing this guy, but mostly looking up to this guy and holding him in such high regard.

And then I’m going to be reading with him and I’m thinking, OK, cool, I’ve had chemistry readings before. But what he does, is, I walk in the room, I say my hellos, and he stands up, and he stands right next to me. 

And it scared me to death. I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Here’s this 6’3”, handsome, tanned comedy genius standing right next to me, and I’m expected to act in front of these eight strangers right next to you?” In the ones [chemistry readings] that I’ve had, they’re usually off camera, or they’re right next to camera, but he’s standing right next to me, and here I am playing these scenes out and, I gotta tell ya, the first scene was not great.

The first scene, I somehow fumbled through my lines. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for some reason, and somehow I got through it. And I remember them saying, “OK. That was great. Thanks a lot.” And I was on my way out the door, and I said, “You know what, guys? Maybe we could do one of these other scenes. What do we think about maybe the scene where I get to do this…”

And there was a five-second pause in the room, and it was the longest five seconds of my life because, as an actor you want to get in and you want to do your job and get out. And then I’m sitting in the room with Mitch Hurwitz, obviously Will Arnett, Peter Principato is in the room. I have Wally Pfister in there. I have all three people in casting.

Everybody just looks at me, and here I am, this actor that nobody’s ever heard of, and I’m telling the entire room, “Hey, maybe we should do another scene.” And they all kind of check in with each other, and Mark Chappell, the other writer and producer says, “Yeah, let’s maybe do another one.”

And then we did another one, and then we did another one, and then we did another one, and we’re just laughing and we’re trying new things and it was one of those moments where I thought, wow. That was a pivotal moment in my career, cause now, obviously, I’m going to be on a Netflix show. It’s really, really kind of surreal at this moment.

Wow. Well, that was a pretty gutsy move.

DS: Yeah. You know, so many times as an actor, you know when you do good work, and you know when you can do better. And I don’t know how many auditions I’ve gone into and I think, “You know, I did a good job.” And I walked out of the room. 

For some reason, this one, I felt the support, I felt the love, I felt the camaraderie in the first five minutes of being in the room. So, it gave me the confidence and the… I shouldn’t say the courage, because you have to have courage just to be an actor - but to speak up and say, “You know what? I want to do something else.” 

I’m so glad that I did, and obviously, I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

Well they made the right choice.

DS: Well, after watching it all last night, I couldn’t agree more. [Laughs} It’s really something special, and I’m grateful to play a part like this on TV, because so often in the past Ive done a lot of darker roles.

I’ve done a lot of drama, and comedy is so fun to do and you’re constantly playing and you’re surrounded by the funniest people ever. And I grew up surrounded by the funniest people, so I just had the best experience.

That’s wonderful. Speaking of gutsy moves, the information I was given said that you got nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and then took a decade off to raise your son.

DS: That’s right. That’s exactly right. I have a 10 year old son, who turns 11 in August, and that is kind of what has shaped my career. I was able to pick roles that I really believed in and roles that really spoke to me.

But it’s hard. It’s hard being a father, and it’s hard especially being a father when you’re unmarried.  As I said, I lived in Venice when I first moved here, and within the first week that I lived here I met my son’s mother. And living in Venice, well you’ve seen how beautiful it is there. In the surroundings and the beach and everything, we fell in love hard and fast.

And we started to get to know each other really quickly, and then we started to learn that, well, maybe we’re not as… Well, I don’t want to get into all that. Basically, I met his mother, and she moved back to the East coast, and I found out two months later that I was going to have a child.

And so I flew out there, and I spoke with her and her family, and we had long talks, and sometimes they were very intimidating talks, because her father is Italian, Catholic, hard-core East coaster. It was very intimidating, but we figured it out, and I have a beautiful son.

At the time, I was scared to death, thinking I am an unfit father, but now, it’s the most amazing thing, he’s the most amazing thing to me in the world.  So, yeah, it’s hard, it’s really hard, but it’s so, so worth it.

When he’s with his mom, he’s the happiest he can be, she’s the happiest she can be. When he’s with me, I’m as happy as I can be, and right around the time I start to get tired or right around the time we start to run out of things to do, he goes right back to mom, he’s happy as can be, and he’s a really happy, special kid. I can’t imagine my life without him.

Probably this is too much of a generalization, but I don’t know too many actors who would put life ahead of their work. I applaud you for that. It’s wonderful.

DS: Thank you so much. It’s one of those things that I still struggle with. When you want to be the best at what you do, regardless of what it is, be it acting, be it an accountant, an architect, if you really, really want to be the best, you have to dedicate the majority of your time and energy and efforts to what it is you do.

And I knew I was a pretty good actor. I never really thought that I would be the best actor, but I’d always be good. But when I was faced with the choice of being a father or leaving my son on the East coast and coming back to L.A. and just diving into acting, I thought, “Wait. He was brought into this world for a reason, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that i am at least as good a father as my father was to me.”

And yeah, it’s been a really important decision for me. Actually, you know, it wasn’t a decision. It was something that was given to me.  And I accept it lovingly, and gladly, and willingly. I’m very lucky.

That’s great.

DS: Well, once you meet him, you’ll be like, “Well of course you love your son, because he’s the most fantastic kid ever.” So, really, it’s kind of normal. How could he not love that kid? He’s the best thing ever.

Well, before they’re born, you don’t know how cool they’re going to be.

DS: No, you’re exactly right. But it wasn’t even a decision for me. It was, life is presenting this to me now, and this is how I’m going to handle this.

Well, it sounds like you made the right choice, and your talent is carrying you through even without diving in full force. You started out winning awards.

DS: You know, it’s so funny because the film that I was nominated for, it won Sundance, it won the Grand Jury Prize, best picture at Sundance. That was my first time to act.

And I knew very early on. I did a couple of one-act plays in high school, where you’re onstage for 11 minutes, and I played characters who were 50 years my senior. But I knew, I guess I learned really early on, there’s no way the audience is going to believe me as a 65 year old man if I don’t believe I’m a 65 year old man.

So, I had a great teacher in high school, Margaret Hill, who really opened my eyes to the idea of playing pretend and the idea of really living in a different world or a different set of circumstances. And I was able to adapt to that.

So with Primer, I was cast as this software, entrepreneurial genius. And David is not that at all! But Abe, my character, is that. So I just adapted my same schooling.

This is a fantastical journey that these guys are going on, and there’s a lot of trust that the audience has to put in these characters. There’s no way that they are gong to trust them or believe them if the audience doesn’t believe that these people know what they’re talking about.

So, I became very close with the writer-director of Primer, maybe a little too close. We almost lived together for the entire month of shooting, pre-production, weeks before and after, we got really close.

I think my performance speaks for itself. You all of a sudden believe that this guy is this genius, this guy is this knowledgeable about manipulating time. And that’s a hard thing to believe when you see a movie.

So really early on, I just adapted to really living in this place. And in this new world that Will Arnett and Mark Chapell created, it was just me living in the truth of Dennis.  They wrote such a fleshed-out character that it's, I don’t want to say easy, but it was much easier to adapt and to start living in that world because of how clearly they wrote this guy.

It does all come down to the writing. The writing in this show is so brilliant. I keep using the word “real,” but it is. It’s genuine.

DS: It really is, and I think Will and Mark, they found out early on that Netflix was going to come on board. And so, when you’re doing a show for Netflix, you don’t have to follow the same structure that you would have to follow in doing a show for ABC.

They kind of approached it as, “OK, we’re going to do eight episodes. If we cut it down to half-hour episodes, this can be like a four hour indie movie. And, if you add in episode breaks, people will come along for the journey.

And that’s what was beautiful about the story, and that’s what’s beautiful about Netflix. You give the power to the consumer, you can watch all eight episodes if you want to, which is what I did last night. It was a beautiful, well told story from beginning to end.

It’s kind of unbelievable that these two guys did this. They had a lot of guidance and a lot of help from the Arrested Development writers. Mitch Hurwitz was a big help in that room. Mark and Will really created a brilliant story that has twists. It’s crazy.

When you think of a Will Arnett show or a Mitch Hurwitz show or whatever, you’re not thinking about introducing a fatality in the first 20 seconds of the show. But yet, that’s what they did. They mention a car wreck where a kid is killed. And you’re like, “Wait, what am I watching here?” 

And then you learn that people are dealing with alcoholism. And then you start learning about these secrets.  And then you start wondering, wait, what’s really going on here? Who is this person? What is this persona they’ve created?  And so the writing has to be there. And obviously, it was. And it really shaped a really good tale.

I know you’ve done a few guest roles on regular network television. Do you see the future of entertainment broadening with the introduction of Netflix and Amazon and all of these new platforms for creativity?

DS: Yes. Yes, because, something that a lot of people don’t learn in life is when you try to play to the crowd, or when you try to please your audience or when you try to make sure that everybody else is happy with you, you lose yourself. And when you start to lose yourself, you’re losing the real story that people actually want to know about.

Not that network TV is losing quality, but I think there’s so many people that they’re trying to please that the story is becoming more and more diluted. I think with platforms such as Netflix, the story doesn’t have to be diluted. The story can be just that - a great story.

And you don’t have to worry about the ratings, and you don’t have to worry about how many people are clicking. You get to say, “Do I like this story? Yes. Do I want to see this story told? Yes. Will people like this story? Well, if I do, they probably will too. “ So, I’m going to get in business with people whose stories I’ve enjoyed in the past, and I’m going to allow them to tell their stories.

So, I really think that cable TV did the same thing for network TV 10 years ago, with HBO coming out of the gates with such phenomenal TV that people had never dared to tackle. And now I think Netflix is really the pioneer of doing what The Sopranos did for HBO and cable TV so many years ago.

They’re going to start allowing really talented storytellers to tell really interesting, compelling stories. And I think network TV has to find a way to do that as well.

They’re going to have to keep up, or even catch up, really.

DS: Absolutely. I think with Netflix just coming out of the gates with House of Cards, it was “This is daring entertainment!”  This is pushing a lot of boundaries.

In the first five minutes of House of Cards, you see our lead character murder a dog. What the heck am I watching here? And then, for some reason, you’re glued. And you’re sucked in.

And because of shows like that, because of the boundary pushing that Netflix is doing, people will have to catch up. And hopefully they will use stories like ours and like Orange Is the New Black and so many of these great shows that Netflix is pumping out.

They can start using those as templates; there really can be change.

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