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Jason Bateman speaks the language of comedy as director and star of 'Bad Words'

Jason Bateman
Jason Bateman
Focus Features

Jason Bateman makes his feature-film directorial debut with the subversive comedy “Bad Words.” Bateman also stars in the movie as Guy Trilby, a 40-year-old cynic who finds a loophole in the rules of The Golden Quill national spelling bee and decides to cause trouble by hijacking the competition. Contest officials, outraged parents, and overly ambitious eighth graders are no match for Guy, as he ruthlessly crushes their dreams of victory and fame.

Jason Bateman at the Los Angeles premiere of "Bad Words"
Getty Images

As a reporter named Jenny Widgeon (played by Kathryn Hahn) attempts to discover his true motivation, Guy finds himself forging an unlikely alliance with a competitor: awkward 10-year-old Chaitanya Chopra (played by Rohan Chand), who is completely unfazed by Guy’s take-no-prisoners approach to life. Here is what Bateman had to say about “Bad Words” in an interview for the movie.

What made you decide that “Bad Words” would be your directorial debut?

I have been acting for the last 10 or 15 years specifically to try to create enough relevance or position or access in the community to be able to direct, because it’s a position that allows me to use everything I’ve learned over “x” number of years.

What can you say about the humor in “Bad Words”?

Its sense of humor, I’m embarrassed to say, is right in my wheelhouse. Mean stuff and dark stuff make me laugh, as long as it’s delivered in a way that is somewhat redeemable or comes from a place of ignorance, as opposed to hatred. And that was kind of the burden or obligation of whomever would play that main character, the one I ended up playing, because everyone else said no.

Can you talk about the spelling-bee culture, as portrayed in “Bad Words”?

This is a spelling-bee world. And what is really the world of the spelling bee? With all due respect to people who love spelling bees and participate in spelling bees, I think it is safe to say that this can be a somewhat eccentric group. Again, it kind of lent itself to pushing that a little bit further than people we see every single day.

As a director, how did you want to film that culture?

Unwisely or arrogantly, I think of the kinds of things that would make it interesting for me, as a viewer, to see. And then try to create those things or execute those things in a way that’s believable, and I leave it up to the smarter people, the more responsible people to tell me, “No, that would never happen” or “That’s not consistent with this world.”

So Andrew [Dodge, writer of “Bad Words”] was there, and he let me know when we were kind of going off the rails or outside of what he knew to be what those people are. And we’re allowed to take license. If it’s too similar to what we see every single day, then you’ve wasted your money. I try to go to see things that are different from what I can be exposed to in my regular life for free. You’re paying 15 bucks for something, you know?

Toward the end of “Bad Words,” it’s revealed why Guy Trilby wants to enter all of these spelling bees for kids. What can you say about his motivation, without giving away any spoilers?

Early on in his life, he had his feelings hurt. And then, a little bit later on in his life, he figured out what was behind all of that. And what he does in this film is kind of right that wrong or make himself feel better or revenge or whatever you want to call it.

So he’s not a prankster. He’s not some arbitrary sh*t disturber. This is somewhat of a cathartic effort on his part. Only later does he realize that that is something that he shouldn’t have done.

How would you describe the Guy Trilby character?

He finds a loophole in one of the national spelling bees, the second-best national spelling bee. And this loophole allows him to participate with these eighth graders, because I’m not in eighth grade. I look incredible, but I’m not that young.

He joins, dominates, and is vicious to these little kids — not because he hates little kids but just because he’s not the kind of guy who wastes a lot of time making sure that everybody loves him or likes him. And when provoked, he’s like a dog that’s not been properly trained. He will snap back. And it doesn’t matter how old that person is, he feels that they deserve it, and he’s going to win.

Did you have any concerns about making Guy Trilby likeable on any level?

It was necessary to play the character in such a way that he could say these nasty things to these kids or these parents and for you to not hate him, because you don’t want to hate the main character. You want to try to play him in such a way that you empathize with him, even though the reason, the motivation, the rationale for what he’s doing is not revealed until the beginning of the third act.

What advice did you get from “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz that helped you in making “Bad Words”?

On “Arrested Development,” Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, said that his job and the writers’ [job] was to write these characters as despicable as possible, and the actors’ job was to make them as likable as possible. So somewhere in that cocktail might be something interesting to watch.

Did anyone inspire you on how you portrayed Guy Trilby?

One of my favorite shows growing up was “All in the Family.” And Archie Bunker was a guy who said some thing that were very un-PC and hateful on paper. But Carroll O’Connor was able to play the character in such a way where it looked like it was coming from ignorance, as opposed to hatred.

I think a lot of that was performance. So I tried to show that my character was wounded and a little unsure at times, and to show that vulnerability. It’s a little more palatable to hear these vicious things and, hopefully, as a result, laugh.

How would you describe the character of Chaitanya Chopra?

He wants to chat, and he wants to make friends, and he thinks it’s such a hoot that there’s a 40-year-old participating. He just thinks that’s the greatest thing ever. How cool must this guy be?

He’s kind of this innocent, untainted person, who represents the antithesis, the opposite of my character. He is all sun and no fear and no judgment. And my guy is dark and bitter and wounded.

So eventually, I give him a little bit of a spine. He eventually thaws me out a little bit, and we end up pleasantly, predictably become kind of friends, but it’s an interesting journey on the way there.

Can you elaborate on the relationship between Guy Trilby and Chaitanya Chopra?

They start to feel like they’re kind of peas in a pod, a little bit, but nothing too schmaltzy or treacly. My guy is a huge cynic, as am I, so it was an interesting process, kind of dealing with the writing of the script and also the execution of those scenes and directing Rohan’s performance to make sure that it didn’t get too sappy, because we don’t need that. There’s stuff on other channels for that.

How did you handle directing the kids in the scenes that had very adult, profanity-filled content?

Well, I started acting when I was 10. And I remember pretty clearly what it was like being on the set and how I liked being treated as a kid. And it’s pretty similar to the way you want to be treated by an older brother or an older sister.

You want to feel like a peer. You don’t want to feel like a little kid or a little brother. And so you treat them a little bit like an adult. You show them some respect. You’re not showing them your favorite episode of “The Wire,” but there’s sort of a camaraderie there.

What can you say about the Jenny Widgeon character, played by Kathryn Hahn?

Each spelling-bee participant needs a media sponsor, a newspaper sponsor. And Jenny Widgeon is Guy Trilby’s newspaper sponsor. She works at an online paper called the Click and Scroll — not a great paper, but qualifies as a paper nonetheless.

She is writing an article about this wack job [Guy Trilby] and what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. She can’t figure out why. She keeps pressing him. He knows she’s a necessary evil.

He can’t participate [in the spelling bees] unless he’s got somebody, and so he tries to keep her at kind of arm’s length. She is written beautifully as someone who is altogether professional and wanting to do her job, but she’s got a little bit of a sloppy domestic situation, and that kind of leaves her susceptible to Guy’s limited charm.

What is your definition of comedy?

I think it’s just a matter of surprise. I think that’s what comedy is. I’m not a comedy scientist, but I think each time one laughs, it’s because there’s something unpredictable, there’s something that catches you off guard. And oftentimes, it is a surprising window into someone’s humanity and vulnerability.

What did you think of some of the big words that were used in “Bad Words” spelling bees?

I don’t remember any of the words. I just remember trying so hard to spell them. The sad part is that they were written on very, very big cards for me to read, just behind the camera, and I still couldn’t get it. And my eyesight is pretty good!

How would you summarize your experience of directing your first feature film?

The part about directing that really stood out for me was the part that I had hoped would stand out for me, which was this incredible sense of privilege to be responsible for all of these skilled technicians and craftsmen that make up a crew. It’s an incredibly complicated process to create a fake world.

And that world should look like it’s perfect, like it’s not complicated, that that wall is real, that these clothes were not bought by somebody else. It just takes so many decisions and so much execution and so much preparation to create something that the audience will give you no points for.

For more info: "Bad Words" website

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