It’s not unusual to hear that Jon Lovitz is the funniest part of a movie. It’s more so to discover that that movie isn’t a traditional comedy — it’s “Casino Jack,” George Hickenlooper’s caper-like take on the downfall of Jack Abramoff and the director’s last before his death in October at age 47. Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, Abramoff’s partner in a scheme to buy a casino cruise line in Florida. Unlike lobbyists Abramoff (played by Kevin Spacey) and his protege Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), Kidan is not in the business of self-delusion about his own nature. He’s a former mattress salesman with mob ties who likes strippers, cocaine and frank talk, and in a story in which so many of the figures involved have convinced themselves that their greed somehow works toward the greater good, Lovitz’s character is a breath of fresh air, an unabashed, amusing sleazebag. I got a few minutes to talk to the former SNL member about “documentary film acting,” faith and his stand-up work.
Adam Kidam isn’t as familiar a figure to the public as Jack Abramoff, how close did you feel you had to stick to him as…
…a real guy? I didn’t, because, like you said, there was hardly any stuff. I went on the internet, and there were a couple of pictures and footage of him walking, so I used that. I read the story, a couple quotes of his, everything that happened, but mostly I based it on the script and worked it out with the director, George Hickenlooper. He died, it’s horrible. He really made the movie, and I just — I feel very grateful that he left in all my scenes. You plan a whole character with all the scenes in mind when you read a part, and then you go to the movie and they cut a lot of the scenes, and you’re like “Uh? Now that’s not funny because they cut that, and no one know why I’m doing that…” With this, he left them all in, which I’ve never had before — I was thrilled. I got to make a whole guy.
I did the movie “Happiness” with Todd Solondz, and he was great to work with, but in the script I had three scenes — the first scene, one where I dropped the girl off and a third where I commit suicide. And I go “This is going to be dramatic, what’s more dramatic than that?” And then they kept the first scene and cut the other two. It’s his movie, his story to tell, but I was disappointed that the other two got cut, because then it would have been a character with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Did you see the sequel, “Life During Wartime”?
I haven’t seen it, but I know Paul Reubens [who took on the role Lovitz played in the first film]. He actually called me and said “You know, I feel weird and honored, I’m playing your part.” I’m like, “What, are you kidding? Paul, I’m flattered you’re doing it.” I went to the Groundlings when I was 20 — someone recommended me to go and see him, Pee-wee Herman. He said he kind of imitated me [laughs].
How did you approach acting in a film that’s more of a drama than is typical of your work on the big screen?
I actually studied straight acting for ten years, I was a drama major at UC Irvine, here in New York I did an Oscar Wilde play. But when I was 25, I concentrated on the Groundlings. So I know acting, I just decided to concentrate on comedy. Ralph Levy came to [my acting] class to teach comedy for a summer, he used to produce and direct “The Burns and Allen Show,” “The Jack Benny Show.” I did a scene for him, and he said “Where’s all the stuff you did at Irvine?” I said “It’s the same?” “Of course it’s the same!” You do all the things you do in drama, and add the comedy on top of it. You the actor know it’s funny, but the character should be oblivious.
I hadn’t done a movie in a while, we’d be on the set and George kept saying “That’s good. Less, less.” And I finally said “You want me to do documentary film acting?” And he goes, “Yes.” Which is a term I kind of made up — how can you act in a documentary? I said that because he had made documentaries, and he knew what I meant, which was — you’re watching a documentary, and they’re interviewing, say, a farmer, and he’s having a tough time, he might lose his house, you’re like “Holy shit!”
If you said that guy’s an actor, he’s not really a farmer, well, that’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. You can’t tell the person’s acting, but at the same time you’re riveted. And that’s what film acting is, and it’s really hard to do because the camera picks up everything. That’s why there’s very few great actors — and I’m not talking about myself. [laughs] There’s Kevin Spacey, he was amazing. You have ten different things that you want to bring to each scene, you attempt that, but he does it.
As he plays Abramoff in the film, the character is a performer too. He’s convinced himself, rationalized away all the terrible things he’s doing.
Right! That’s why I say he’s a fake Jew.
Yes — he’s very devoted to his religion, but doesn’t absorb any of its moral lessons.
Exactly! Judaism especially is about trying to do the right thing morally. That’s why you have the Torah and the Talmud, which is 12 books of scholars asking questions — what does this mean, in a moral situation? What do you do? And then they have the Mishnah, which is 64 volumes of questions about the Talmud, it’s endless. That’s why I say “You fake Jew, you’re saying you’re all moralistic but you’re not,” but he keeps justifying it. In the movie — I don’t know the guy personally.
I know you’ve gotten into stand-up, and you have the comedy club in Universal City. Can you tell me about that, particularly coming as you have from an improv background?
I used to do Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce’s routines in my dorm. When I got “Saturday Night Live,” Dennis Miller goes “You could be a stand-up!” It was something I always wanted to do. About seven years ago the movie roles were drying up, and I said to my agent and manager “Can you get me work? I’m going to run out of money in a few years.” I wasn’t broke, but… They go “Why don’t you sell your house?” That was their answer. And one was building a mansion and the other was moving into one. So I thought, I have a better idea, I’m going to learn stand-up and fire both of them.
It motivated me to do something, to face my fear of something I always wanted to do but was too afraid to. I would get on stage and my heart would be pounding in my chest. I went to The Laugh Factory and said to Jamie Masada “You got to force me on stage. I want to do this.” He said “Okay, you’re on in 20 minutes.” It was the only way I could do it. Everyone was 15 years younger than me. But Dane Cook is at that club all the time and he was very supportive and encouraging, and that helped a lot.
Who’s working the stand-up circuit these days that you think is worthy of attention?
I did a Showtime special where I got to present four guys and I think they’re all great. Ian Bagg, Daryl Wright, Al Del Bene, who’s currently opening for Dane, and Quinn Dale. The special’s called “Jon Lovitz Presents,” and those four guys… they’re all great.
“Casino Jack” is now playing in theaters.