Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Clark Duke has literally spent most of his life in front of the camera. At just 7 years old, he was a cast member on the John Ritter sitcom Hearts Afire, and after some years away to do things like “go to school,” he was back, going from early online success Clark And Michael to hit movies and TV shows like Hot Tub Time Machine and The Office. Now, the writer-actor is returning to his first love, directing, with the ’70s-influenced crime noir Arkansas. The A.V. Club spoke with Duke for a Random Roles interview, and were rewarded with stories about everything from the supervillain lifestyle of his Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn to getting drunk on camera with Rob Corddry during WrestleMania.
CD: The trick of it was the acting and directing at the same time. So I tried to kind of give myself a shorthand and a way to quickly get into it, and be able to compartmentalize somebody asking me, like, “Hey, is this light okay?” And then immediately getting into the character. So for me, I did that through the wardrobe, and the hair and makeup. I mean, I actually didn’t wear any makeup, but I changed my look a little: grew a mustache, put my hair up in a bun, and wore all this jewelry and bracelets—something like putting on the armor of this guy, kind of switch my brain over. So days that I wasn’t acting, or even days that I would finish acting and then just be directing the rest of the day, I would change clothes just to make the mental shift happen for me. But I think it worked for the most part.
AVC: This isn’t exactly a small story for directing your first feature film. You’re jumping around in time, you’ve got these various narrative tricks, and so on. Did you know early on how ambitious this was going to end up?
CD: Yes and no. I mean, I hadn’t directed a feature before, so I think I had convinced myself it wouldn’t be as ambitious as it was. Because in my head, I’m thinking “Oh, Swin is like the fourth lead. It’s not that big a deal. You can play him. It won’t be that hard.” But the reality was he’s in almost the entire movie. Yeah, it was ambitious in that you need time and money to do a bunch of different locations and just a big number of scenes. I think we had 175 scenes in the movie or something bananas like that.
So, to me, it’s ambitious physical production-wise, but in my head, it’s a character piece, you know? It’s just a lot of people talking. So the stuff that was ambitious and hard kind of snuck up on me, and I didn’t realize until it was too late and I was already there. [Laughs.] I mean, the main thing is just, you always need more days—and this is every indie film, not just mine. But you just need more days. You need more time. You can kind of do anything, you just need time or money, and usually we had neither.
AVC: What was it like for you to corral all these people: Wayne Coyne from The Flaming Lips, Michael K. Williams…
CD: Well, it was awesome, first of all. I think the fact that I’ve been acting so long and have done movies with Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams and all these heroes of mine—I think it probably was good, because it made me not as fazed by having to deal with big movie-star actors. And being an actor, I think you immediately have kind of a leg up as a director, because you understand what the work is, and what the problem is they have to solve, and how insecure you can feel—what you need and don’t need from a director. I mean, this just just based on my own anecdotal experience. But I know what I would like to have from somebody.
But the other truth is everybody keeps saying, “Oh, was it hard to direct all these big actors?” And the reality is no. It makes your job so much exponentially easier. Because you don’t need to tell John Malkovich much, you know what I mean? You can just be like, “Hey John, I had a couple thoughts.” And I’ll give him these big, vague kind of notes, and he’ll just nail it immediately. And it was the same with Vince Vaughn and Liam Hemsworth and Vivica A. Fox and everybody. When you have actors that good, it makes your life so easy. Like, I’m not sure I could have acted in the movie and directed the movie if it was a cast of unknowns or non-actors. But the fact that it was the cast it was almost made the movie logistically possible to do.
CD: Oh, man. It was wild. The show ran for three years. And it was John Ritter and Billy Bob Thornton and Markie Post. Even the supporting cast was awesome—Beth Broderick and Leslie Jordan and Ed Asner were on the show. I loved doing it. It’s these great kind of bedrock happy memories I have from childhood, to be honest. Ritter was so great. Like, Ritter’s best friend is still my entertainment lawyer to this day.
I haven’t watched them in a long time… it was weird. Like, yesterday on Instagram, Leslie Jordan was talking about the show, and this is the second time in like 12 hours that I’ve thought about Hearts Afire for the first time in a while. So I don’t know. Everything has taken on a little bit of a “This is your life” quality. Because I’ve been working on this movie for like 10 years, and it’s coming out on my 35th birthday next week.
AVC: That’s nice timing.
CD: Hearts Afire—the thing is, it instilled in me a real love of doing multi-cam, which I didn’t realize how much I had missed until I did the last seasons of Two And A Half Men 25 years later or whatever. And I was like, “Oh yeah, this is the greatest. This is the greatest job in the world.” It’s just got that great feeling of, you’re putting on a show. One funny thing is—I guess I’m like 6 or 7 years old on Hearts Afire. People thought I was reading cue cards. People would always ask my mother: “How’s he so good at reading cue cards?” And it’s like, I wasn’t reading cue cards. I was memorizing my lines. I was a fuckin’ actor. I was always indignant about that. [Laughs.]
CD: After Hearts Afire was over, my family moved back to Arkansas where I’m from, and [I] went to the rest of middle school, high school in Arkansas. But I knew I wanted to be a movie director. That’s what I wanted to do since I was 12 years old. I wanted to go to film school. So I went to film school at Loyola Marymount University out here in L.A. Clark And Michael was my thesis film; the pilot was my thesis film. And Michael [Cera] had done the first season, I think, or was shooting the first season of Arrested Development at the time. So he knew a friend of a friend that worked at CBS—because they were friends with, like, the Moonves kids. We ended up selling the show to CBS. So that was basically the restarting of my having a career, thankfully. But it was interesting, because like I said, I went to school for writing and directing, and everybody keeps asking, now that I’m promoting this movie I’ve directed, “Oh, what made you decide to start directing?” And the reality is this is what I’ve been trying to do the whole time. I’ve been trying to make this movie for like 10 years.
But acting in Clark And Michael kind of set me up to have the acting career, which is awesome, and I’ve had a blast doing. Me and Mike wrote those, and I directed and edited them. I thought that was what I was going to do more as an adult, so making Arkansas was sort of the most fulfilled I’ve been since Clark And Michael. I was chasing that feeling again. And I’ve actually been rewatching them recently, just because I started posting them on Instagram. And they’re still funny. Clark And Michael is still really funny. I was shocked that something I made while I was 21—I’m not, like, deeply ashamed of. They still really make me laugh.
AVC: Clark And Michael is the first place a lot of people saw you. After it came out, did it feel like things started to change pretty quickly in your career?
CD: Not as far as walking around, people recognizing me, because I think the reality is, to this day, not that many people have seen that show. I mean, just the numbers on YouTube—whatever it is, 15 years later, they’re not super high. But it did change it in that, because of Clark And Michael, I got an agent. Professionally, yes, it did seem like some switch had flipped overnight. As far as me being recognizable? No.
Greek (2007-11)—“Dale Kettlewell”
CD: I have mixed feelings about Greek, if I’m being totally honest. Because I made some of my best friends in the world—Jacob Zachar and Danny Weaver, who was also on the show, are still two of my best buddies. Jacob is actually in the opening sequence of Arkansas; he’s the guy that Liam [Hemsworth] ties up in the closet. And Danny did the EPK on the movie.
So I had a blast, and it was fun at the time because everybody was like 21, 22, 23 years old. But, to be honest, I immediately knew that, “Oh, I should not have done this, probably. I’m not really happy here.” Because this is coming right after Clark And Michael. I wanted to be writing and directing stuff, and instead I found myself on this soap for teenage girls. I asked them to write me off the show, and they wouldn’t do it. I just ended up stuck on that show for a really long time. [Laughs.] It ran for five years. And I really liked all the people; like I said, we’re all still friends, the cast.
But that was kind of rough, because it kept me from doing—there were a couple of movies. They reached a point where they were, like, “You can’t go do any movies. You’ve got to stay here.” And it was frustrating because I would have, like, one scene an episode. I wasn’t like the main character on the show. I would literally work one day a week. So it was just—I don’t know. Like I said, it’s hard for me, because I’m not mad that I did the show, and I don’t have any ill will toward the show, but it was kind of a frustrating time of my life, to be honest.
AVC: It’s a little bit ironic, then, that it ended up being such a beloved show to its fanbase. I assume when you do get approached, it’s often by Greek fans.
CD: Yeah. It’s funny, because the “getting approached by people” kind of comes in waves by demographic. With Clark And Michael at first, I remember people would literally yell, “Internet!” I’ll never forget that: More than one person yelled “internet” at me, from across the street. Like, not only did they not know my name, they didn’t know the name of the show. They just knew where they watched it. Then, when Greek came out, all of a sudden, college-aged girls know you, which is a really specific demo. So yeah—now, it’s girls my age that were in a sorority ten years ago. That’s kind of the demo who recognize me from Greek.
CD: I love Kick-Ass. I was a huge fan of all Mark Millar’s comics since, I guess when he started on The Authority when I was in high school. So I was very aware of the movie, or just of Kick-Ass in general, before it happened. The way I got that role is, Matthew Vaughn wanted to have a table read, just to hear the script out loud. So I read that part of Marty at the table read, and then he was just immediately, [English accent] “Oh, well fuck all. You’re Marty.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” Like, “You’re sure I can’t read for like one of the other roles?” And he’s like, “No, no, no. You’re Marty.” [Laughs.] So that was it. That’s how I got in there. But I love that movie. That movie is fucking awesome.
And Vaughn is such a wild character. He’s basically a Bond villain in real life. Like, he flies a helicopter to work. I don’t think people realize how cool and rich Matthew Vaughn is. [Laughs.] He’s married to a supermodel and he flies a helicopter to work each day and directs these movies. And he hates agents and just finances his own films out of pocket with, like, Brad Pitt. I just think he’s the coolest. I was like, “I want to be you when I grow up, Matthew.” I think he got a kick out of it.
AVC: Did you nerd out over Mark Millar on set?
CD: A little bit. I actually talked to Millar a couple days ago via email. We still keep in touch. I geeked out a little more, I think, meeting John Romita Jr. than I did Mark, because for some reason with Mark, I was just immediately comfortable talking—even though you can’t understand a big part of what he says, because his Scottish accent is so heavy. But we immediately had so much common ground to talk about, just being life-long comics guys. And I was such a specific fan of his era of stuff. Like, the kind of post-Grant Morrison, Bill Jemas 2000 Marvel—Millar and [Brian Michael] Bendis and [Ed] Brubaker and all those guys. That was so specifically the height of my comic reading and fandom. But John Romita Jr., I was like, “Oh, you drew the X-Men, bro.” [Laughs.] I got a kick out of meeting John Jr.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)/Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015)—“Jacob”
CD: Hot Tub Time Machine is the one. You asked about Clark And Michael, did my life feel different after it came out—the first Hot Tub was the thing where it did actually feel a little different afterwards. Because even though I don’t think the initial box office run lit the world on fire, that was kind of the tail end of when comedies could still have a life on, you know, theatrical and then DVD and then on cable and that whole thing. So that movie ended up being one of those movies that seemingly everyone on earth has seen. Even just the phrase Hot Tub Time Machine kind of became pop culture lexicon. Like, I’ll be watching NBA games, and hear commentators make jokes like, “Oh, Vince Carter must have got in the Hot Tub Time Machine last night.” So yeah. That was the one that really felt like a big life-changer.
AVC: You and John Cusack, Craig Robinson, and Rob Corddry seem like four guys with very different comic rhythms. Did you gel as a group?
CD: Yeah, we really did. I’m closer to Corddry than I am probably anybody else. I still talk to all of those guys on a pretty frequent basis. Craig I was also on The Office with, and we did the second movie together. We all were really tight.
I think the first one is kind of brilliant. I mean, just casting John in that role is an example of—this is a famous thing— casting is 75 or 90 percent of acting. And I really think that’s true, because when you have a movie star, you have connotations and baggage, good and bad, that you carry with you as a viewer. And John playing the part of a guy that was looking back fondly on when he was 20 in the ’80s… that’s pretty brilliant. There’s kind of nobody else that can play that part. Because, it’s like you’re seeing John Cusack saying, “Oh, I really miss Say Anything.” That’s really cool just for like the collective audience. And I think that’s why the second movie doesn’t really work as well.
AVC: Is there a particular memory that stands out for you from filming? I can’t even imagine watching Crispin Glover work.
CD: Wilder than watching Crispin work was watching Crispin not work. Like, you’d see him in the hotel gym, and he’d be wearing a velvet, black Prada tracksuit and stuff. I have so many great memories from that. Honestly, I would say the most fun times of my life were making the first Hot Tub movie in Vancouver and making Sex Drive in Miami when I was 21. Because it was the first time I’d been in a movie that scale. It felt big, you know? We’re on the side of ski mountains, and we had like 100 extras in period outfits. High Fidelity was one of my favorite movies growing up, and still is. And Gross Pointe Blank, and, you know, Cusack and [Hot Tub director Steve] Pink were kind of the architects behind those movies. So that was really exciting.
And then Chevy Chase, who was my actual acting hero. The first time I met Chevy—and all Chevy scenes were with me in the movie—the first time I met him, I said, “Hey. I just want to say this up front so I don’t vomit in front of you. Like, you’re my actual hero.” And then Chevy responded by, like, stirring my drink with his finger and going, “How’s that drink? Is it good?” Because he’s Chevy Chase. But the whole week he shot, me and him went to dinner every night, and would just drink wine and talk. That will always be one of the coolest, best weeks of my life, that I think about a lot to this day.
AVC: Also, you went on WWE Raw to promote that film.
CD: Yeah! Not only were we on Raw, it somehow ended up being the Raw after WrestleMania, so they had to fly us out the night before, and we got to go to WrestleMania, and sit right behind the announcers. So me and Corddry, you can watch that WrestleMania… I think I was 26 or something? It was in Phoenix. But you can watch the broadcast back, and you just see us getting drunker and drunker behind the announcers. [Laughs.] Because the show is like eight hours long, and you’re just sitting there drinking beer. That was awesome, because I had been a huge wrestling fan since childhood. But like a lot of people, I had drifted out of it in the years between Stone Cold and The Rock kind of going away. And then, probably whenever around that was, like 2009 or 2010, especially when I guest-hosted the show, I met a lot of the guys. And it’s like—oh shit, these guys are all my age. Like Dolph Ziggler and The Miz and I’m still good friends with both of those guys to this day. The Miz until a year or two ago lived like three blocks from me here in L.A.
I’m Dying Up Here (2017-18)—“Ron Shack”
CD: I love the second season of that show. I think if the second season would have been the first season, the show might still be on. It just felt like it figured out what it was tonally by that point. I signed onto that role knowing that I would only be on it a couple seasons. That was always the plan and the arc for that character, was to die. Because it was loosely built around the nonfiction book I’m Dying Up Here—you know, the real Comedy Store and all that stuff. But Richard Lewis’ best friend and partner jumped off the roof of the Hyatt next to The Comedy Store and killed himself. So my character was sort of modeled around that guy, and Angarano’s character was sort of modeled around Richard Lewis.
One thing that was super fun about the show is me and Michael Angarano have been friends since we were kids. He was also a child actor. So we lived at The Oakwood together, and [we] used to literally watch wrestling and share a tutor and all that stuff. So I’ve known him my entire life, and that was really amazing, to get to do something with him. That felt pretty surreal after all this time.
I had got really burned out on acting in general, to be honest. Because you kind of get put in this box where once you’ve played one thing, you’re kind of only on the list of stuff that’s similar to that with casting people. So I had reached a point where I was sick of it. I was like, I just don’t want to do this anymore.
But I will say that being on that show and playing that guy, I was excited to get to play something that I hadn’t gotten to play before. Not just to show other people, but to prove to myself, to see if I could be a dramatic actor. I had a blast, and it really made me like acting again. And it made me want to act in Arkansas, especially the second season where I just had way, way more to do.
CD: I love The Office. I mean, the British Office was sort of the main influence on Clark And Michael. When I was in film school, I was making shorts, but hadn’t really figured out what my tone was or what I really wanted to do. But when me and Michael saw the British Office, I was like, oh, that’s it. So it felt very full circle for me to end up on the show. It felt really cool. And I was such a big fan of the show, like everybody else, the British and the American version.
When I found out I was on the show, it was pitched to me that “[John] Krasinski and Ed Helms are probably leaving, but we’re going to bring you and another new guy,” who ended up being Jake Lacy. Actually, Dakota Johnson was in the finale as my love interest, and we had a whole storyline that got cut out. And then six months later, she’s in 50 Shades Of Grey.
But I thought I was going to be on The Office for a while. I didn’t think it would just be the one season. I thought they were going to keep the show going, which I would have loved. I would still be on The Office right now. [Laughs.] Because that was a blast. It was also such a super well-oiled machine by the time I showed up. I mean, I can only speak to the one season I was there, but it was such an efficient production by that point. It was so easy just to show up and work on. Fun. And I love Rainn Wilson—other than Rob Corddry, I don’t know if I’ve ever had more fun just acting with somebody.
Two And A Half Men (2014)—“Barry”
AVC: Speaking of shows that you were on in their last seasons, you had an eight-episode stint in the final years of Two And A Half Men.
CD: [Laughs.] Yeah man, I was Barry. I’m the cleaner. I show up and turn the lights off.
I’m going to be honest: I had never seen Two And A Half Men before I was on Two And A Half Men. But I had such a good time doing it. I really, genuinely like Ashton [Kutcher] so much. I liked the producers so much. I have nothing but good things to say about my experience on Two And A Half Men. [Laughs.] It really lit this fire: It reminded me how fun multi-cam is. I’m going to do another multi-cam. I don’t know if it’s this year, in ten years, or whatever, but long-term, that’s the fuckin’ best job in the world, man.
I want to comment on just how great Jon Cryer is. As an actor, I got such a kick out of him at the table reads. Just watching him take dialogue that at first glance, I’d be like, “Ooh, this line is fuckin’ rough. How is Cryer going to do this one?” And he would wrestle the line into submission and make it funny just out of sheer performance. Like, it really didn’t even matter what the dialogue was. Cryer could pull a diamond out of that coal no matter what. He’s major league. Watching him, I was super-impressed.
Veronica Mars (2019)—“Don”
AVC: Almost the entirety of your scenes in Veronica Mars had you appearing via webcam. Was that a film-all-by-yourself-in-a-room-for-two-days situation?
CD: Basically, yeah. I’ve been friends with Kristen [Bell] forever, for over a decade, at least. And she just texted me, “Hey, would you come do this role?” And because it was her, I just said “yeah” without really having any more information than that. [Laughs.] I would basically show up one day a week for a few weeks. And I would shoot the scenes at the same time as her and Patton [Oswalt], but they were on the other side of the stage. And they still, with a webcam, remoted us in from the other side of the stage. [Laughs.] So it was literally me sitting in the room. Or not even a room. It was me sitting against a wall at the back of the soundstage for like—it was a two-hour-a-week job.
AVC: Was that another Two And A Half Men situation where you hadn’t seen the original? Or had you seen it before?
CD: I’ve never seen it. [Laughs.] I haven’t seen the ones I’m in, I haven’t seen the original. [Laughs.] Not out of any dislike or reason, I’ve just never seen it, if I’m being honest. But I like Kristen so much. Was the season good that I’m in? Was it good?
AVC: Yes. You can feel comfortable knowing that it was a good show you were on.
CD: It was kind of fun and surreal to do, too, because I was putting together the plot as it went along, based on what my character was saying. So then, when he’s brutally murdered at the end, I was like, “Holy shit! This show is wild.”