It wasn't that long ago that Patton Oswalt was best known as a stand-up comedian and for his sidekick role on the long-running sitcom The King of Queens. Last year, his Broadway debut was cancelled after a dispute reportedly related to his inexperience (more on that later). Now he is earning kudos and even Oscar buzz with what could be a career-defining performance in Jason Reitman's new film Young Adult. Oswalt plays Matt Freehauf, a guy in his late 30s still bearing the emotional and physical scars of a violent beating by high-school bullies.
"The role was so well written, the movie was so well written, and all I could see were the ways it could go spinning off the tracks if the wrong tone was hit," said Oswalt during an interview at the Whistler Film Festival. To prepare, he worked with an acting coach and a physical therapist. "I got kind of intimidated by the possibility of wrecking this thing."
Matt is the disabled, truth-telling foil – and friend – to Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary, a gorgeous but emotionally damaged ghostwriter of a series of young adult novels. Unsatisfied with her personal life, she travels back from the big city – Minneapolis – to her hometown to recapture the heart of her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). The fact that he is now married with a newborn does not dissuade her.
"I'm cool with it; I mean, I've got baggage too," Mavis tells Matt shortly after returning to town.
"I would keep all of this to yourself," he replies. "I would find a therapist."
Both Reitman (who reunites as director with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) and Oswalt are film buffs, and Reitman invited Oswalt to the Sunday film screenings he holds at his Los Angeles home. Around that time, Reitman got the script for Young Adult. Eager to hear it read out loud, he asked Oswalt to participate in some early table reads. When Oswalt read with Theron, the chemistry, Reitman has said, was off the charts. Oswalt was offered the part.
"I got this movie the way a squatter gets an apartment," Oswalt, 42, told an audience during a tribute at Whistler.
His performance, he says, was elevated by his co-star, the way you become a better chess player when you face a good opponent. For one scene in particular – where Matt describes to Mavis the high-school beating and the effects he lives with 20 years later – Theron came through during a freezing, middle-of-the-night shoot.
"She gave me the best thing another actor can give you, which is nothing," Oswalt said. "She stood off-camera, didn't have to, didn't need to be there, stood in my sightlines and she barely listened to me. On purpose. And she knew what she was doing. She was like 'this is going to get an even bigger performance out of him, if I'm watching him and he's talking to me and I just don't give a [damn] and he can see that nothing's landing and it's not connecting.'
"Most actors do not have the [guts]to do that. They do not want to be seen onscreen being shown not listening to someone who needs their ear and not empathizing with someone who is ripping themselves open. And she was so willing to go down that road."
Oswalt tells the story in the lobby of his Whistler hotel, overlooking a snowy Christmas-card-worthy scene outside. He's funny and thoughtful (and profane), and his conversation is filled with film references.
"This looks like something that James Cameron would make on a computer, it's so gorgeous up here," he says, looking out the window.
The winter mountain beauty is in stark contrast to the suburban strip-mall drudgery depicted in Young Adult, which shot for a month last year (squeezed in between Retiman's and Theron's busy schedules) mostly in upstate New York, which subbed for the fictional small town of Mercury, Minn.
Oswalt himself grew up in the "stable, dull" suburbs of northern Virginia, but unlike Mavis, his memories are positive.
"It was great, especially because it was such a blank landscape that it forced you to really kind of imagine and dream or die. And I just kept dreaming of stuff beyond the borders."
His achievements have exceeded even his wildest suburban dreams. Oswalt now has a rich career: actor ( Big Fan, Ratatouille), author ( Zombie Spaceship Wasteland), stand-up comic.
Oswalt didn't want to talk about last year's planned Broadway revival of Lips Together, Teeth Apart. There were reports the production fell apart because co-star Megan Mullally ( Will & Grace) demanded Oswalt be dismissed from the cast because of his lack of stage experience. But when asked whether he sees the Young Adult accolades as vindication for the theatre fiasco, Oswalt laughed.
"If you go looking for vindication in this business, you're going to end up really upset and really disappointed," he said. "There's no vengeance, there's no vindication, because if someone didn't like you or someone had a problem with you, you doing good is not going to make them go 'wow, I was totally wrong.' It's more like 'wow I guess this business is really [messed]up if you're doing [well]'"
Young Adult opens in theatres on Friday.