Sundance Interview: Domhnall Gleeson and Martin Mull on A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Martin Mull plays National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney in present day in A Futile and Stupid Gesture. I hate to break it to you, but Kenney did not make it past Caddyshack in real life. This is some of the film’s artistic license.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Henry Beard, Kenney’s partner at the Harvard and National Lampoon. Both actors spoke with us at Sundance where the Netflix film premiered. A Futile and Stupid Gesture premieres Friday on Netflix, and of course I asked Gleeson about Star Wars too!

WLE: Is having a food fight actually fun?

Domhnall Gleeson: No, it’s absolutely disgusting.

Martin Mull: I couldn’t agree more.

A Futile And Stupid Gesture

Domhnall Gleeson: When I was a kid, the notion of having a food fight, first of all, the waste involved, we would’ve been like, “What the hell are you doing? We worked to get the food on the table. If you throw it at your brother, you’re not going to have a good day.” There was fish and stuff there. Why the hell?

Martin Mull: To me, the closest we came to a food fight was fighting over food.

Domhnall Gleeson: Exactly, reaching for the last whatever.

Martin Mull: Going to get the last lamb chop and getting a fork in the back of your hand.

Domhnall Gleeson: Yeah, yeah, that’s a food fight where I come from.

WLE: For people who know Doug’s story, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to ask: how did you approach playing him at an age he never got to?

Martin Mull: Well, I pretty much thought about who he was at the age he got to, what we do know about him and what I did know personally about him and friends around him, etc. To the best of my knowledge I thought, “I don’t have to prepare a whole lot” because I think our histories were similar enough, albeit different, that I’m pretty much what he would’ve ended up being, which is a cynical old bastard.

WLE: Are you really?

Martin Mull: Probably.

Domhnall Gleeson: That’s not my experience but there you go.

Martin Mull: Well, I try to put on that veneer.

Domhnall Gleeson: Okay, I’m not going to get in the way of that. Yes, he’s a cynical old bastard.

Martin Mull: I mean, there’s certainly no questioning the word old. Bastard could be up for grabs and I do have my moments of cynicism.

WLE: I was most questioning cynicism because maybe those aren’t the roles for which I most remember you.

Martin Mull: Well, but I’m thinking that’s when you see me professionally. What a person is off stage and what they are on is quite different.

WLE: Were any of the self-referential moments of the narration hard to pull off?

Martin Mull: I didn’t feel that I was ever pushing the envelope for the film’s sake or stretching the truth as to what really did happen or what didn’t just for dramatic value, no.

Domhnall Gleeson: Also the script was so good, I think there’s a whole branch of the meta-narrative type thing where you comment on the way that you’re telling a story generally that is very uninteresting to me. When it doesn’t have heart and it doesn’t have soul and it’s jus showing that it’s clever. I thought what Colton and Aboud did brilliantly with the script was have those meta moments, but it makes sense and it has heart to it. It works for the film, not for the writers. I think that made those moments to me really sing as opposed to saying, “Oh, look at them being clever.”

Martin Mull: It was a little different than somebody doing a documentarist thing, “I’m standing here next to Stonehenge built many, many, many years ago.” You can do that kind of thing in your sleep but this had to be the character as well and I think it extended character a little bit. Will was phenomenal.

A Futile and Stupid Gesture

WLE: Henry Beard isn’t one of the more public figures of National Lampoon. Was there material for you to look up?

Domhnall Gleeson: There was. There was not a lot of filmed material that I could find. He was filmed for the documentary which I think is also on Netflix and is very interesting. There was lots of photos because he was in some of the photos of the magazine. They were such a phenomenon that there was press and stuff to be done. Colton, Aboud and David Wain had also interviewed him over the radio to talk about his relationship with Doug Kenney. So they sent me the tape of that which was really, really helpful and I e-mailed him just to let him know that I was going to try and do it in a human way and it was not going to be him because it can’t be. You can t represent all of somebody in a film. It’s impossible to do. You can do a version of them. He’s way smarter than I am so he didn’t need anything explained to him, that’s for sure. But it made it easier the fact that he was not a public figure.

Martin Mull: Something I find very interesting, especially in the character of Henry Beard, I am personally addicted to television shows which show people in extremis, i.e. My 600 Lb. Life, First 48 with these murderers. Which is finding how far can people stretch what they are and still be basically bipeds on Earth. You need a center point and I think what Henry serves in this film is this is a man who stretched himself quite a ways certainly intellectually. He is no dummy by any means. He is quite sharp. He is quite acute and yet you had this other fringe that is taken way off to the Great Wall of China. I think he serves a great purpose in defining them. He is in essence every man but he’s not every man because there aren’t many men like Henry Beard. So you can be that extreme and still have more extreme, which I found fascinating.

Domhnall Gleeson: Exactly, he’s a genius for an everyman’s perspective. I also decided early on that Henry was always the funniest person in the room but never needed to prove it which I think is a nice way to think of him. He didn’t need a laugh to know he was funny. I think he knew he was funny so he didn’t need to always be looking for the laugh.

WLE: What did National Lampoon mean to each of you?

Domhnall Gleeson: My answer is short so I’ll go first. It just didn’t have as much of a cultural foothold in Ireland as it did here and it was slightly before my time, so that’s my answer.

Martin Mull: My answer would be it was a passport. It was a passport to being able to do more of what I was doing at the time. It was the seal of approval that yes, you are allowed to make fun of this. Yes, you are allowed to do this. Yes, you can go that far. This isn’t just underground crap. This stuff is sold on the newsstand right at the corner of 46th and 7th. It’s public knowledge and no one is suing anyone that I knew of. So it just gave me the green light to go on and be quite crazy.

WLE: Did it influence Fernwood Tonight?

Martin Mull: The attitude probably had an influence there which was let’s take something that wasn’t necessarily sacrosanct but it wasn’t necessarily something that was assumed to be the area of great comedy which was the local $1.98 talk show out of some small town in Ohio. There again, it would be tantamount to doing The High School Yearbook which was not something where you automatically think, “Oh, this is a great source of humor.” So in that respect I would have to say yes.

WLE: Domhnall, was there a minute in >The Last Jedi where you thought Kylo might turn good and you would be the main villain in Star Wars?

Domhnall Gleeson: Oh, and become a good guy? No, the moment would’ve been more where he’s lying on the ground and it looks like I may kill him and I get to be the big bad guy. But no, I think deep down, I think even Hux knows that that’s never going to be the case.

WLE: Have you met with J.J. Abrams for Episode IX yet?

Domhnall Gleeson: No, I’ve e-mailed with him and said hello and all the rest of it, but J.J. knows what he’s doing. I can’t wait to read the script.

WLE: Are you the human in Peter Rabbit?

Domhnall Gleeson: I am a human in Peter Rabbit, yes. Rose Byrne is also a human in Peter Rabbit so we’re the human element and all the other guys did voice work.

WLE: Did you get to see the finished rabbits?

Domhnall Gleeson: No, I think I’ll see that in about too weeks.

WLE: Was that a fun family friendly film to do?

Domhnall Gleeson: It was tough. We were out in Australia and it was like 40 degrees Celsius, running around in the most extreme heat chasing a rabbit that doesn’t exist for three months. I am very, very pale and very, very, Irish so that wasn’t the easiest thing in the world but I hope it turns out well. I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

WLE: Martin, I had an interview with Chris Elliott and his daughters at Sundance so I remember your episode of Get a Life. Do you have fond memories?

Martin Mull: I have extremely fond memories of that. I played a Johnny Carson style talk show host who wins a dream date with Chris Elliott and we end up sleeping together. That was just such a treat to work with Chris. Topping that almost was getting to meet his father, Bob Elliott because I grew up with Bob and Ray as the gods of comedy. I just thought they were the most brilliant ever. I got to tell you, it’s interesting sitting here at 74. My part in this film is a dead man and then I’m listening to this guy over here who’s got three or four new movies coming out, working his ass off, etc. It’s not fair. This aging thing, it blows.

WLE: I still see you a lot. Do people still offer you funny roles in their films or shows?

Martin Mull: Yes. I have a pilot I did for Fox with David Alan Grier and Vicki Lawrence and Leslie Jordan. That should be a lot of fun. Someone’s doing a documentary on my life at this point. If there’s not a tombstone, what is?

WLE: Have you sat down to do the retrospective interview?

Martin Mull: No, all I’ve had to do so far is draw up a list of television shows and movies that I’ve been in. I came up with roughly about 140 things.

Domhnall Gleeson: And you’re saying I’m working a lot?

Martin Mull: Yes, you are. Yes, you are.

Domhnall Gleeson: How dare you, 140?

Martin Mull: But you’re current.

Domhnall Gleeson: [Laughs]

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