Mad Men was pretty funny for not being a comedy. Think Roger Sterling barfing oysters, the stratospheric incompetence of Miss Blankenship, or the immortal Pete Campbell retort, "Not great, Bob." In many ways, the series's frequent tonal shifts predicted the current state of television, bursting as it is with shows that straddle the line between the light and the heavy. Considering the way he's able to seamlessly slip between genres, it's no wonder Rob Huebel once auditioned for the part of Don Draper before landing on the current dramedy torchbearer, Transparent.
You know Rob Huebel. He's popped up as a highly punchable prick in movies like I Love You, Man, and sitcoms like, well, pretty much every sitcom that exists. (Seriously, his IMDb page runs longer than most ancient scrolls.) While comedy may be Huebel's bread and butter, lately he's been testing his range in movies like the new indie Night Owls and his regular role on Transparent, whose second season recently premiered on Amazon. In fact, the latter role does for Huebel what Punch Drunk Love at least temporarily did for Adam Sandler. It takes an actor's familiar archetype—in the case of Huebel, some flavor of smug jerk—and gives him context and humanity. Now it's easy to imagine his entire menagerie of dickish characters containing shades of his Transparent persona, Len Novak.
It's a good look, too. Genre-blending has become all the rage on TV, with shows like Orange Is The New Black keeping Emmy voters on their toes about which category it should be nominated in, the Duplass brothers bringing their fluid vibe to multiple HBO shows, and one of the world's most beloved stand-up comics making a show sometimes completely devoid of laughs. Mad Men may have been set in the 60s but it was ahead of its time.
As for not nabbing the part of Draper, Rob Huebel has no illusions that he should have been cast instead of Jon Hamm. "The show would've gotten cancelled probably after six episodes," he says. Co.Create recently caught up with the performer to talk about the roles that readied him for his turn in Transparent, along with a vivid description of one day on set in which it turned out no jokes were required.
Like countless other current comedy stars, Huebel got his start at New York's Upright Citizens Brigade theater. While there, he started out in a style that helped him play it straight later on.
"A comedy scene can't really have two weirdoes in it. It doesn't make any sense that way, so you need someone to ground it and call out what's unusual about this person and this scene," he says. "Early on, I got pretty good at doing that and I felt pretty comfortable doing that. And then I realized that you get just as many laughs doing it because you’re really the voice of the audience. As the straight man, you have a lot of control over the scene and at the beginning that was really appealing to me, to be able to control the scene a bit more. But then as we went along and started shooting videos and we [Aziz Ansari, Paul Scheer, and Jason Woliner] made Human Giant, it all got spread around and I eventually got to be the crazy character too."
While coming up in New York, Huebel did a ton of commercials, which would now seem hilarious precisely because they were not at all hilarious at the time.
"Before I really got any funny ads, I did a string of serious ones," he says. "It's really embarrassing. One of the first ones I did was for Aetna Insurance and I played a young dad and it was a parent/teacher conference at school and my wife and I were sitting there with our child and I guess our child needed glasses and he couldn't see the chalk board. And so the teacher is telling us, 'You really gotta get his eyes checked.' And I think I had one line in the commercial. I was like 'Yeah, I'll get them checked.' It was just super straight and not funny at all. And it ran and ran and ran and ran and all my friends were like, 'What the fuck are you doing in that insurance commercial?' But it was a learning experience, just being in some kind of scene where there were no laughs at all."
After a string of big and broad roles, Huebel got his first opportunity to play against type in the most prestigious project he'd ever been attached to at the time, Alexander Payne's Academy Award-winning film, The Descendants.
"What was weird about it is when I saw that movie in the theater with people, there's a part where George Clooney is asking us the name of the guy that his wife was having an affair with and my wife and I are sort of pretending like we don't know or I'm lying to cover it up, and all of a sudden I come out and tell him the name of this guy that his wife was sleeping with and it got a big laugh in the theater and I couldn't figure out why, because when we shot it it felt very dramatic," Huebel says. "I think it was just that my guy was sort of betraying his wife to salvage his romance with George Clooney. And I think that a lot of guys related to that. 'I'm gonna turn my back on my wife for a second and try to help my best friend out.' So that got a laugh, even though I didn't realize it was intended to, because the whole movie was fairly dramatic. I should have just quit the business right after that. It's never gonna get any better than shooting in Hawaii with Alexander Payne and George Clooney."
There's only so long you can play a certain type before creating expectations that you can only play that type. But that doesn't mean you can't change those people's minds.
"I love playing assholes and I love playing douche bags, but I’ve done it so much over 20 years that in the back of my mind I always wonder, ‘Oh no, is this gonna take someone out of it?’" Huebel says. "Because Transparent is so good, I don't wanna be the guy that's like ‘Oh I know him from that comedy thing.’ I don’t want to take anybody out of it. But I think it just depends on how you present yourself. Nothing about that show feels inauthentic. It feels very plausible, it's very grounded. I think if you can just sort of blend into that world and not really go for huge jokes, it can't be distracting. A lot of what I've done in the past is just playing an attitude really hard for comedy. But I’m trying to drop that for this show and just be a more grounded, real person."
Having a background in improv gives performers the instincts to hold their own in a world where the creator doesn't always stick the the script. Since Transparent mastermind Jill Soloway works that way, Huebel fell in line right away. However, below he recounts the story of a time when his instincts betrayed him.
"One thing that's really cool about Transparent is that the writing is already so great but then a lot of times when you get on set, Jill Solloway will say something like ‘Don't worry about what we wrote, just say it how you would say it.’ So that's really helpful, acting-wise, because then you're not memorizing words, you're just going to live in that scene and say things and do things the way you would do it," Huebel says.
"That big dinner scene in the first season was scripted, but then we improvised around it. The whole scene changed when Jeffery [Tambor] did something that was really interesting. The first several takes, I came in and started yelling and Jeffrey sat there. He was sitting down at the head of the table the whole time and just watching this meltdown I was having. And then at one point he decided he would stand up and like reach out to me more physically, like open towards me and kind of welcome me into the room, and it really changed the look of the scene and it changed the way they shot it."
"I remember him kind of just opening up his body a bit with his arms and with his hands, sort of like talking to me more compassionately and not yelling at me or judging me, just seeing that I was having a meltdown because his character was in front of my kids and my kids had never seen [Tambor's character] Maura and that hadn't been cleared with me. So Jeffrey just did a little physical something different that changed that scene. And then dialogue-wise, I remember improvising some stuff in that scene that didn't make the cut and I'm so glad it didn't because it would have ruined the whole scene."
"So I have that whole meltdown and I pick up a knife and I start waving the knife around and talking about, 'Why don't we all just cut our dicks off and go live on an all-female planet.' It’s really out of control. And so then Jeffrey, as Maura, stands up and tells me that things are changing and I either need to get on the boat or get off the boat, something like that. When we were shooting it, there was a long pause afterwards and then he said 'Why don't you sit down and have some food.' And I remember that I improvised the line, like with a totally straight face, 'No thanks, I already ate at Taco Bell.' And I walked out. And at the time we all laughed and everyone was like, ‘Oh that's hilarious that this asshole would've eaten at Taco Bell.’ But then of course Jill got in the editing room and was like, 'No, we don't need a joke at the end of that beautiful scene.' You can't build to an emotional scene like that and then undercut it with some dumb joke. Or you probably shouldn't, at least."