Most people recognize James Urbaniak as the intellectual indie-film icon from Henry Fool and American Splendor, while others probably think of him as the voice of Dr. Venture on Adult Swim’s The Venture Bros. and The Accountant from the (now defunct) series Kidnapped (not to mention the foot fetishist from Sex and the City). Theatergoers remember his critically acclaimed performance in 2005’s Off-Broadway hit Thom Pain (Based on Nothing). And bloggers around the world have been jacked into his wildly imaginative LiveJournal Voucher Ankles for quite a while now.
So it was only a matter of time before Gothamist sat down with the inimitable Urbaniak for a wide-ranging conversation at a corner café in NoHo. Topics ranged from his forthcoming film releases (including a new Hal Hartley picture), his Vespa accident in Istanbul, and the obsessed advertising copywriter who's out to get him.
2006 seemed like a busy year for you. In addition to your twins being born you had the release of Chicago 10, Fay Grim, Death of a President…
Yeah, I’m in Death of a President. And there’s a bunch of films coming. I have a little part in The Nanny Diaries. And then there’s a movie called In Bloom with Uma Thurman, I have another small part in that. And I have a slightly bigger but still smallish part in Across the Universe, which is the Julie Taymor Beatles jukebox musical.
Who do you play in that?
The manager of a rock singer. It’s a musical so everybody sings but one of the characters is actually a singer. It’s about these young people in the sixties; they’re all archetypal characters or vaguely based on historical figures. So she’s sort of a Janis Joplin-type singer, and I’m sort of a vaguely Bill Graham-type music impresario.
Do you sing in the movie?
I don’t, unfortunately.
Do you audition for roles in musicals?
No, I can sing in a character actor sort of way. I enjoy singing.
I know Legally Blonde is coming to Broadway and since you were in the sequel to that…
That’s right. No, I’m not really the Broadway musical caliber singer. I don’t do that thing. Though I suppose it would be fun to play a little character role where you don’t have to belt in the Mandy Patinkin tradition.
Have you seen any theater recently you’d recommend?
I saw the David Hare play with Bill Nighy, The Vertical Hour. Because Bill Nighy is God.
I didn’t see that but he was supposedly phenomenal.
Yeah, I wasn’t nuts about the play but I loved him. I will be seeing the Foreman show; I try to see every Foreman show every year. I’ve only missed one since 1988.
Have you ever worked with him?
Yeah, I did a Foreman play in 1996. And that was one of the defining creative experiences of my life. It was called The Universe. That was a big deal, that was great. He’s a fascinating guy. You’ve seen his shows, I assume.
Every one since Paradise Hotel.
So the revelation I had working with him was how specific he really is. His shows are a little different now because he’s not really featuring actors in the same way. The last couple of shows aren’t so much about these sort of Foreman protagonists doing stuff; they’re these sort of peripheral people on stage. The first one I saw was called What Did He See? It was at the Public and starred Will Patton, Rocco Sisto and Lili Taylor. And that basically blew my mind and I decided I wanted to be in one of those. And several years later I got to.
Working with him is really interesting because when you see the stuff it ostensibly doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. People are doing these crazy things; they’re not traditional characters and you wonder, "How do you approach that as an actor?"
And the first week he would say, “You don’t have to do anything this week, I’ll just tell you what to do. James you just go touch the chair there and spin around.” And then the second week we would run through what he had blocked the first week and he would say, “Why are you touching the chair?” And you would say, “Because you told me to?”
And then you’d realize that he was trying to make logical sense out of these very instinctive things he came up with the first week and that it was all about coming up with very specific ‘actorly’ reasons why you were doing this and that. Even though the universe of the play was very crazy and not realistic, it was all about breaking every beat down and then breaking the beats into beats.
So by the end it became, “You’re going to the chair, maybe you want to touch the phone, no you’re going back to the chair.” Which is basically just a recipe for good acting. Because what it taught you was that you can’t take anything for granted you have to have some reason. As long as you and him know what it is – and Foreman may have had his own reason and you may have had your own – it didn’t matter if it was the same reason all the time. As long as you both had a reason why you were doing this stuff it would resonate.
Which is how his performances have this wonderful reality; even though it’s not realistic it’s this world that quivers and vibrates and is full of tension. And because the whole world of the play is so crazy you’re forced not to take anything for granted. And that teaches you when you’re doing a more traditional play not to take anything for granted either. So surprisingly his stuff is very actor-oriented, even though he has this reputation as this sort of mad puppet master.
But it’s hard to commit to doing one of those. When I did that I was a young actor who was temping during the day and my own little theater company was working downtown. I wasn’t making a living at this and I had the opportunity to work with him; he saw me in some stuff downtown. And that was the first time I got paid – very little – but, you know, it was sort of my first professional acting job. But now that I’ve carved out a living doing this it’s hard to commit to half a year to work with Foreman. But maybe someday when I’m rich and famous I’ll decide to take a breather and work with Foreman again. I’d certainly love to.
So The Venture Bros. is green-lit for two more seasons?
Well, officially for the next one and unofficially for the fourth season. But apparently Cartoon Network or Adult Swim or whatever are behind the show. So that’s very exciting. I love doing that.
And you appeared on a panel at the comic book convention last weekend?
Yeah, it was really fun, everyone was really sweet. You know, that’s how I got into the whole blogging thing. Jackson Publick, the guy who created the show, had a blog. He doesn’t update very often but it’s sort of a back-stage journal about the Venture Bros. He has a lot of readers, a lot of people write in, and it’s a way to communicate with people, so I thought it would be kind of fun to start my own LiveJournal about my career, as sort of a through line. Although actors have a lot of downtime, so the blog becomes about various other things. (Laughs.)
Yeah, I want to get to that. You posted something on your blog about the convention and you said the best question came from a kid?
I don’t know if you’ve seen the episode, but there’s an episode called “Are You There God? It’s Me, Dean.” The Venture brother Dean experiences testicular torsion, which is where your balls get twisted around. And this happened to Doc Hammer, the co-creator of the show. So it’s sort of a very special episode of The Venture Bros. based on this actual experience.
They made this very dramatic dramatization of that condition and then at the end of the episode, we have this P.S.A. that says, “To learn more about testicular torsion, visit the Scrotal Safety Commission.” Which of course is a made up website they created that is basically all based on fact but is written in ridiculous, ludicrous language. It’s hilarious. But the kid, this 11 year old boy, asked us, in all seriousness, “So in that episode were you paid by the Testicular Torsion people to talk about that?” And everyone laughed and this kid just kept this blank expression. And we explained that it is a real condition but the website is make-believe. But he was a sweet kid.
Going to sleep at night thinking about all the horrible things that can happen to one’s testicles.
Well Jackson Publick said, it is real, it is out there, and it is under your bed. The kid was great. Afterward he said to me, “I hope people don’t want to beat up my dad because he lets me watch the Venture Bros.”
Have you seen Fay Grim?
I have; it’s really great, I loved it. You know, it’s a very personal thing for me, but I found it very touching to see the old gang back up there. We’re all a little bit older; Simon’s not as crazily gaunt as he was, he’s a little fuller of face. Prison food, you know. His character’s been in prison.
It takes place ten years later?
More or less.
And Jeff Goldblum is in it?
Jeff Goldblum plays a CIA agent. It’s a sort of espionage caper where the gang kind of runs around the world trying to find Henry. And Jeff Goldblum thinks Henry is in with the terrorists and that his notebooks contain code that’ll help whoever deciphers them take over the world. So it’s just a further expansion. When Hal first made that movie his previous films had been wonderful small movies that took place in these communities, usually on Long Island, and Henry Fool was a very deliberate attempt for Hal to sort of expand the canvas and write this sort of novelistic film that actually wasn’t just about this community but reflected what was going on in the country at the time.
And so [Henry Fool] was shot in ‘97 or so, that’s why the internet figures into the story; one of the characters has been canvassing for a politician. It’s stuff that interested Hal that he wanted to explore that was just cultural stuff that was going on: politics, the internet, other stuff. And so the sequel is addressing international relationships and terrorism and the world now in the same way, it’s like the canvas is even getting broader because now it’s not just the country, it’s the world.
And you shot part of it in Paris?
Well, I didn’t get to go to Paris, unfortunately, but it was shot in Berlin, Paris and Istanbul. And I went to Istanbul and Berlin and shot a little bit in New York.
Didn’t you have some sort of accident in Istanbul?
I did. There’s a scene where I ride a Vespa through the streets of Istanbul with Parker [Posey] on the back. And it was always going to be a ‘process shot’, where the Vespa’s attached to a trailer and they drive through the street and photograph me. And we wanted to get some shots of me just going down the street. So they got a Vespa – I had never been on a Vespa before – and I had the stunt coordinator go over it with me.
We practiced in a parking lot, there was no problem. Then the day we were going to shoot it we went to the street. The streets are very narrow in Istanbul, in fact so narrow that if another car is coming down the street someone has to yield. Before I got on it the guy said, “One thing about this Vespa” – it wasn’t a new Vespa – “the steering’s kind of wonky, you gotta kind of move with your body. If you just move the handlebars the bike gets thrown a little off balance.”
So I zipped down the street pretty quickly. I saw a car coming from far away. I immediately decided to pull to the side and moved the steering apparatus just the way the guy told me not to. And basically I felt the bike immediately tipping over. It wasn’t a big deal; it was a few feet. I landed on my hand. I scratched my hand and my arm, the bike made a big clatter – it looked worse than it was. And I went back to Hal and said, “Well, I just fell off.” And he said, “Okay so we’re not going to do it… Do you want do it?” And I said, “Well, if we don’t have to…” He said, “No, no it’ll be fine.” And then he loved the way that the process shot looked so it didn’t matter.
But yes, I fell off a Vespa in Istanbul. That’s where acting takes you. I got cocky. And you know if it was just me in the shot I might have even considered doing it but he actually wanted Parker on the back of the bike. And I thought, well, I’m not going to risk injury or death to Parker Posey. Please! I’d blacklisted from the independent film community.
That’s your bread and butter. You’d henceforth be known as they guy who’s been gunning for Parker since day one.
Yeah, “The crown is now mine!”
Voucher Ankles is so much fun to read. I tried to find out – and maybe this is glaring ignorance on my part – where the name of the blog comes from.
Did you find out?
No, I never found out.
Voucher Ankles is a quote from Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) by Will Eno. There’s a line in the play where the character is talking about a dream he had of a girl and she was saying a word she liked, like ‘voucher or ankles’. It’s a non sequitur in the play. And when I started the LiveJournal it was like a week after I left Thom Pain. When I was doing Thom Pain I would come home – this was kind of how the journal started – and I would unwind. It’s a very intense show, it’s an hour, so I would be kind of jazzed up when I left the theater.
And you didn’t have a cast to go out with.
Yeah, there’s no cast to go out with. I’d go out with friends now and then but I had found these fan sites about The Venture Bros. And I found it amusing to create a user name which was not my own and I would write in and talk about the show. And they’re very smart, funny people, you know, it’s got a wonderful audience. And I’d start chatting on these Venture Bros./Adult Swim boards. But people didn’t know it was me. And now and then I would just come up with funny stuff that had nothing to do with it, if I had a funny thing to write or amusing pictorial juxtaposition. So that was sort of the pre-Voucher Ankles longing. So after doing that for a while the show closed.
After nine months?
Something like that. Maybe seven. Anyway, over half a year. So it was around that time I thought I should start my own little blog which I could say was me. Thom Pain was fresh in my mind, I wanted a name for it and it just made sense. And I cleared it with Will Eno, I said, “You don’t mind if I call my blog Voucher Ankles do you, after these two words in Thom Pain?” And then later Will called me up and said, “Hey, so I was reading the Vouch…” [Laughs.] So now I often refer to it as ‘The Vouch’. It’s just a non-sequitur blog name; it doesn’t mean anything. But now my readers are the Voucher Anklets.
Do you think it satisfies some part of you in a sort of Kaufmanesque way, where it lets you express yourself –
Kaufmanesque as in Andy or George S.?
Take your pick.
Any Kaufman fits, I guess.
Well, it’s funny you say Kaufmanesque because there is a theatrical element to it. You know, there are these flame wars that I have with people, all of whom fascinatingly have these LiveJournals that are obsessed with me. I’ve been over this many times. I’ve never come out and said it’s make believe. Sometimes there’s no acting to write about so you create a little drama… Let’s put it this way: I have some clever friends. There may not necessarily be a paranoid advertising executive who decided to sue me and got fired and went on a downward spiral, or a psychotic woman who believes I represent everything that’s wrong with American culture and is writing a book about me. Who are the others?
Well, that was obviously fake. That was because I got a new Mac and it had this built-in camera with effects so you could do a mirror effect. So I found I could take a mirror picture of myself to make myself look fat and I thought that was funny. So I was just playing around with it and I thought it would be funny if I said this is my brother.
But, yeah, the thing is, no matter how absurd these characters and situations get people still believe they’re real even though I all but come out and say, “You know, we’re just kidding here people. Just having some fun.” The phrase I often use when I refer to them is ‘my possibly imaginary nemesis’.
He’s the ad man. That all started because I had an actual audition for a Verizon commercial, which you may have seen, it was on a lot, but I didn’t get it. It’s the very old routine where a guy is onstage reciting something and the director is talking to the stage hands [behind the actor] who are putting up a curtain and the director says, “Higher!” and the guy goes, [in falsetto] “To be or not to be!” And the director says “Lower!”, and the guy says the line in a lower voice; the director says, “Back!” and “Come forward!” and finally the guy falls off the stage.
It’s a very old routine; Albert and Costello did it. I remember they brought everyone into the room before the audition and explained the premise so it was clear to us and I thought, “Doesn’t everyone know this?” So I went home and wrote about how funny I thought this was and made a snarky comment about how this makes it easier for the copywriter – to do this old routine that’s in the public domain and you don’t have to come up with an original idea.
And so Josh Emery wrote in a comment saying, “I am the author of the commercial, I am very offended that you have suggested I am a plagiarist, etc.” And I wrote, “Well it’s a very old routine.” And he commented, “Yes, it’s a very old routine but my family invented it because my family were French vaudevillians! And I’ve been waiting to use this routine! And when my agency got the Verizon campaign I realized this was the moment when I could share my family’s routine! So your suggestion that I’m a plagiarist is outrageous and I’m suing you!” And it went on like that. Now, if that seems real, then… And it just got crazier and crazier.
Josh Emery subsequently got a LiveJournal of his own and ultimately, we read from his blog, he got fired from Verizon –
Well, he got fired from his marketing company for billing them in his pursuit of Urbaniak.
Then his LiveJournal accounts got stranger and stranger; he got some sort of eye infection and couldn’t see properly so the text was all scrambled.
Yes, and for a few weeks he just posted pictures of cats. He sort of devolved into a sad, Beckettian character; little monologues about going to the Dairy Queen and everyone’s out to get him. But after about six months I had to do a post called Josh Emery: The Complete First Season, where I just had to post links to all the major Josh Emery episodes.
Now, I’m not saying he’s fake but I will say that I have other clever friends in the arts who also experience a lot of downtime so sometimes it’s nice to have some peripheral outlet for your creative energy while you’re sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
Enough said. We’ll let Josh Emery be a lesson to anyone else who may have you in their sights.
He’s a broken man. There were entries on his blog that were so despairing about his ruined life and you would come on and leave gloating comments. And then other readers would comment like, “Jeez, James, you don’t have to kick the man when he’s down.”
When people would say things like that I would write comments like, “I would never say things like that about an actual reader of my blog.” It’s all I can do to say, “We’re just kidding around here, people.” But my clever friends and I have a gift for playing things close to the vest, that’s part of what makes it funny. Clever friend, I should say. There’s one person who will remain nameless who’s had a hand in some of these flame wars.
Is it someone you’ve worked with?
It is. It’s pretty easy to guess, actually. I compared it to professional wrestling once. Two guys come out, there’s a conflict, people are entertained. Who’s to say it isn’t real? Something happened up there. It’s kind of irrelevant whether or not it was real.
What matters is that people were able to kill twenty minutes at work.
Exactly. During the Josh Emery contretemps someone wrote in and commented about how she used to date Josh Emery and wrote a very detailed account of their romantic history. It was hilarious – that was McBrennan, this woman who lives in California who has a LiveJournal. I’ve become a regular commenter on her blog and she on mine. It’s funny because we’ve never met – she lives in California and is a writer, a wonderful writer. And she went to a film festival and met someone and, as she wrote to me, my name came up and she said, “Oh, I know James.” And then she realized that she only knew me as a blog friend and that she didn’t really know me and she was really embarrassed.
And I wrote back to her and said, “Actually, I know you better than the person you mentioned; I’ve only met him a couple of times. I’ve actually communicated with you.” It’s this weird thing where I would almost consider her a friend and yet our relationship is based solely on writing to each other’s blogs. But I had a post once where I joked about Voucher Con, which would be our convention in Vegas. I found a movie still from the ‘50s with a bunch of young people and identified them [as Voucher Convention attendees]. One was Josh Emery.
And Karen Strang was in there, right?
Karen Strang’s an interesting one because if there is someone behind Karen Strang… Her journal is kind of difficult to follow because sometimes she’s in the Josh Emery tradition of being obsessed with a bizarre, utterly unprovoked vendetta against me and sometimes she writes thoughtful cultural pieces about unrelated stuff. So Karen Strang is kind of confusing because sometimes she’s not crazy and sometimes she is. I’m not always sure how to react to her, it always seemed very clear to me that Josh Emery was, you know…
She’s definitely more nuanced.
We’re pushing the envelope as to what an imaginary stalker can be. You know, I did some Oscar live-blogging and someone commented [old man voice], “Well, if Jack Black and Ellen DeGeneres are your idea of entertainment, then watch the Oscars! Me, I’d rather watch Scorsese when he was good! I’m going to watch a DVD of Taxi Driver!” And I thought, “Well who’s this grump?” So I clicked on it and it was a LiveJournal user called ‘Low Life’s Dad’. His avatar was a grumpy old man and every post was about what an idiot his son was and how his son was going to a psychiatrist. And there was a link to the psychiatrist’s LiveJournal page and the psychiatrist had all this stuff about the kid and his father. It was hilarious. So I’m not the first person to create imaginary LiveJournal alts. So I wrote back to the guy and commented: “Yeah, also there are some kids on your lawn.” And we had this back and forth. So I was quite excited to see this other person had created this whole universe of characters. I don’t know if he has help like I do but it’s sort of hard to resist.
Do you think it satisfies a basic human need to live multiple lives?
It’s rudimentary instantaneous drama, it’s storytelling. That’s the business I’m in.
You do so much film and TV; have you thought that it might be easier to live in L.A.?
I’ve thought about it and, actually, as you know, my wife and I have twin babies and we live in a very small apartment, and we’re going to have to move eventually. So it’s on the table as an idea, I’ll put it that way. Our best friends are out there so it’s certainly a possibility. But we’ll see. You know, there’s more TV and film; you can only do so many Law & Order episodes. I know that if I do move there I’ll immediately get a really good job in New York. The best way for an actor to get a job is to go on vacation or schedule something.
(Image of Urbaniak by Eronanke)