Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies is a quiet, reflective movie that follows Olivia Wilde’s Kate and Jake Johnson’s Luke as they circle around the obvious: they’re perfect for each other. The only problem is that they’re both oblivious and in relationships with other people, Ron Livingston’s Chris and Anna Kendrick’s Jill, respectively. The brewery-set drama is full of great performances and palpable emotions that come together to form an honest and lovely film. We caught up with former podcast guest Ron Livingston to talk about the new film, working without a script and why he never does a repeat performance.
Nerdist: The tone of this movie is interesting, because you can tell right away the movie is not really about what’s said. It’s about what’s unsaid, and you guys are doing a lot of great work without a lot of dialogue. How did you prepare for a role like that?
Ron Livingston: You kind of can’t prepare for it, I think. I’ve never done a movie that didn’t have a script before, so I wasn’t exactly sure how to prepare for that. What I decided on was that I was supposed to be playing a guy that was a music producer, so I did a lot of research on the Chicago indie rock scene, basically so I wouldn’t shit my pants in the course of an improv, (if) somebody asked a question about music producing or the Chicago indie rock scene and I wouldn’t have any idea what to say. As it happened, it doesn’t really come up in the film at all, outside of maybe one or two little moments, but there’s something about having done that homework that you feel like, okay, I’m not gonna be caught with my pants down if the conversation goes there. The rest of the stuff, you’re just like, I guess we’ll just wing it.
N: You, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde are all very funny, very talented people and knowing that you you guys were improvising and ad-libbing most of the scenes, you could have easily turned off and made a very different film with the same premise and material. Was there any worry there on your part where this movie might have taken a quick turn to the witty and the sharp?
RL: No, and I think a part of it is that we’re not really comedians. By comedians, I mean sort of stand-ups. Jake, I guess, has a strong improv background, and I think Anna’s done some improv, but there’s a difference between improv as an acting exercise and improv that we all think of when we think of sketch comedy. It’s just a different animal. The one you’re kind of looking to loop back and hit the punchlines in it. It’s an amazing form, but this is something different. It’s really more about an hour-and-a-half narrative structure where they’re trying to tell a story about relationships. There’s two movies that Joe referenced in the beginning, Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice and The Heartbreak Kid. I’m a huge fan of Elaine May’s Heartbreak Kid. In fact, I probably… the first ten years of my career I spent just directly ripping off Charles Grodin.
N: This film has a very human center and lots of interactions where people just respond differently based on the circumstance.
RL: Yeah, Joe’s a real student of behavior. His movies are less about what people are saying and (more about) what they’re doing with their hands while they’re saying it. What their body language is doing or the awkward pauses that they take, what happens when the cell phone rings. So in a way, the dialogue really becomes secondary to what’s happening. It doesn’t actually really matter what we’re saying. It’s about what we’re doing, so that makes it a little easier. We’re not worrying about the dialogue as much. Just open your mouth and trust what’s gonna come out.
N: There’s something about your character I find interesting. In a lot of your films, you tend to play a character that is a catalyst for change in others. I don’t know if you kind of feel that way, but many times your role is the kind that spurs change in others
RL: Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it that way.
N: In this film, you’re also doing the same thing, but it’s one of those situations where you know right away everyone’s gonna be better off. It just takes your character taking a leap to go through a very tough situation. The movie is such where you’re constantly wondering how it’s gonna work out, because there is no easy answer in a situation like this. Building up that tension in a movie like that, it was very interesting. Is there something that you guys talked about, the pacing and your character, being the person who’s kind of causing this shift and driving it, even though it’s clearly Olivia Wilde’s through story but you’re kind of the person driving that change in her?
RL: We didn’t really talk about it. We didn’t talk about it at all. [laughs] That’s one of the things that I think is a hallmark of Joe’s process. It’s funny, because you hear him talk about his movies and he’s very intellectual, you know? He’s very in tune with the history of film, and he’s got great ideas. He doesn’t like to talk about ideas on set. He kind of likes to roll the camera and see what happens. The kind of notes he would give (were) very specific things like “She’s gonna put her drink up on the table. Just pick up a coaster and put it underneath it.” Rather than having a conversation about “I think Chris is very persnickety. I think Chris has a thing for…” He just tells you one thing to do that it really does all the acting by itself. Once the beautiful girl sets the drink on the table and the guy has to go get a coaster and put it under it, to me that’s kind of the genius of Joe. He’ll distill the character down into one little piece of behavior, and he’ll just give you that note and then leave you alone to figure it out what it means to you.
N: You have a lot of projects that you’ve done where it’s very easy to look at it from multiple perspectives. There’s never just one tried and true, “this is exactly how it’s gonna play out.” What draws you to projects like that?
RL: I get bored easy, is part of it. I don’t like to do the same thing twice. I think it’s ultimately something that brought me to film rather than theater where I started out. There was a part of me that, once you hit the scene and nail it and something happens, I kinda wanna do a different scene. I don’t wanna play the same scene again for three months. I want to move on and do the next thing. It’s been a little bit that way with projects too, probably to the detriment of my career. I feel like, just as I started to maybe get some traction or some opportunity… As soon as something works, I don’t want to do it anymore.
RL: I’m trying to talk me into casting me into something that I have no business doing. It’s been a lot of fun that way. It’s kept it novel. It’s kept it interesting. If there is a through line, it’s a little bit about what you talked about where I feel like movies are a little bit about how people change and grow from minute 1 of the movie to minute 87. I’m always kind of interested in stories that illustrate that. I’m always kind of interested in how wherever I’m working on maybe matches in a weird way matches with whatever I’m doing in my real life. Like I just did The Conjuring, and everyone wanted to talk about whether or not I believed in demons and ghosts, which makes sense. That’s a lot of sense, but for me that movie was about family and being a dad because that was what was going on in my life at the time. To me, it’s a little bit about finding a personal connection to the story that I’m working on. Whether that personal connection lands for anybody else, it just keeps it interesting for me. And relevant, you know? Even if it’s not relevant in anybody else’s life watching the movie, it makes it relevant for me.
N: We loved the short you premiered at Comic-Con, The Sidekick.
RL: Oh, yeah.
N: What are the odds of getting to see you in a cape again?
RL: Boy, I don’t know. There’s another one, where like I say, before I’m done I want to do at least one of everything. I’m getting a little old in the tooth for the superhero movie and haven’t gotten to do one yet. When Rob Benedict called me with the offer to do Captain Wonder and The Sidekick, I jumped on it and I had a ball doing it. I thought it turned out fantastic and he’s brilliant in it. Plus, I got to work with Lizzie Kaplan again. So, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If history’s the judge, I don’t know who’d put me in a cape again. God Bless Rob Benedict for doing it once.
Drinking Buddies is in limited release in theaters and available now on VOD. For more with Ron check out his video interview with our own Dan Casey on the Nerdist Channel and hear him on The Conjuring episode of the Nerdist Podcast.