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Joel McHale Took a Huge Risk Playing Chevy Chase

The former 'Community' star takes on his former co-star in Netflix's 'A Futile and Stupid Gesture.'

Jason Bailey

Netflix

When I sit down with Joel McHale to talk about his new film A Stupid and Futile Gesture—which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival this week before debuting on Netflix Friday—I have one question right off the bat: Does Chevy know?

I ask this right away because A Stupid and Futile Gesture is a biographical comedy/drama about Douglas Kinney, the comic mastermind who co-created the National Lampoon and co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack. One of his frequent collaborators and best friends was Chevy Chase, whom McHale plays in the movie—and McHale and Chase spent four years working together, somewhat contentiously, on Community. "I called him to let him know, 'David gave me the role, and it's going forward,” McHale recalls with a grin and a nod. “He was very happy that Doug Kenney, who was his best friend at the time, is finally getting the due that he deserves. As far as me playing him..." His voice trails off a bit. "He kind of laughed, I think."

Chase is right about Kenney’s long-overdue spotlight, and A Stupid and Futile Gesture is generally a risky proposition; after all, it’s not often that there's biopics about people who audiences will likely require an explainer on. Everyone knows who Winston Churchill and Thurgood Marshall and Tonya Harding and P.T. Barnum are—but even the director of A Stupid and Futile Gesture didn’t know much about Douglas Kenney before this project came his way. "It vaguely rang a bell from having watched Caddyshack and Animal House 7 billion times, but I didn't know really who he was,” says David Wain, alum of The State and director of Wet Hot American Summer (and its various Netflix offspring) as well as films like Wanderlust and Role Models.

“I knew that Doug Kenney, was the guy who played Stork." But he wasn’t familiar with Kenney’s background or influence until producers Jonathan Stern and Peter Principato brought him Josh Karp’s book A Stupid and Futile Gesture (which takes its title from one of Animal House’s many quotable lines). "I was like, 'Holy shit, who is this guy?'” Wain recalls. “He's basically the starting stone of all this stuff…It also was an opportunity to tell a real story about a real life that has dramatic elements and opportunities to stretch as a filmmaker. I was very excited to jump in."

Not that Wain took leave of his satirical sensibilities: A Futile and Stupid Gesture isn’t a Walk Hard–style parody of biopics, but it's aware of the conventions and frequently breaks with dramatic norms to send them up. Will Forte stars as Kenney, but Martin Mull co-stars as the older, wiser man Kenney never became, wandering through scenes and breaking the fourth wall to offer up wry commentary like, “Yeah, so these actors don’t look like the real people. Do you think I looked like Will Forte when I was 27? Do you think Will Forte looks 27?”

"We wanted to pay homage to the magazine, and the sensibility of that," Principato explains. "We didn't want to do a traditional biopic—we wanted to do something that would reflect the material we were talking about." Wain concurs: "We knew that we wanted it to be in that mold based on the fact that Doug Kinney himself was a rule-breaker, and that we want to be rule-breakers.”

But few things in the movie are as self-aware as casting McHale as Chase—though Wain insists it wasn’t stunt casting. "I just thought he was so impressive, and I've been a fan of what he'd done before. He's smart, and a real actor. I had to just make the leap that if this guy thinks he can play Chevy, then he probably can. We all just were blessed when he walked on that set and he was Chevy."

McHale is more modest: “I don't know why David thought of me, other than he might've guessed that Chevy and I were the same height." But for McHale, the challenge was real: No matter how much time he’d had to observe Chase’s verbal and physical peccadillos up close, he didn’t want to just imitate him. His directives to himself were simple: "Don't do an impression. Capture the essence of his personality—and to have that amount of confidence is pretty remarkable, at such a young age."

McHale also reasoned that he was playing a different man than the one he already knew. "I always saw him as a legend, so it's easy to separate my personal relationship with him and go, 'Right, this is the guy that I knew growing up.’ I knew every word to Fletch, I watched Modern Problems, Vacation, and European Vacation endlessly, and obviously SNL. That wasn't hard to connect to."

But squaring away the personal relationship was the tricky part. Whispers from the set of Community indicated that Chase was not exactly the most beloved member of the company; indeed, Chase himself frequently voiced his unhappiness with the show and the way it used him. When I ask McHale about those stories, he's the very definition of diplomatic. "If you read his interviews about the show, he didn't like the hours, and he didn't wanna be there that long. He would definitely... let that be known."

But he also emphasizes, "When they cut the show together, he popped off the screen... People would say, 'That's Chevy being Chevy,' and I'd agree with that. I still talk to him! You can make an argument that he could be tough, and there's a lot of tough actors around, but when you watched him on the show, you got gold."

(To the unavoidable question about whether we'll ever get the "and a movie" half of the #SixSeasonsAndAMovie Community equation, McHale insists, "I want there to be. I say this every time: Dan has to write the script, and then all the actors have to be available. Dan is obviously making Rick and Morty, and it would be great." This is the point at which he begins to speak directly into the microphone, almost pleadingly: "Dan, I would love for you to write the script. It would be great to be in, and I'd love to do it.")

So has Chevy seen it yet? "I called him last week ,and it was like, 'The movie's done, and I hear it's great.' It'd be really bad if I was like, 'Hey, the movie's done, it's a real pile of crap, so... I'm so sorry.' But I sent him a link, and I'll be very curious to see what he says." You and me both, Joel.

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