Matt Walsh turns off the funny for 'Into the Storm'

RedEye's Matt Pais talks to the Chicago native actor/comedian about pretending to be scared of a tornado, "Sharknado" and what he would have told his future self in high school.

Matt Walsh isn’t an obvious choice to star in the action-drama “Into the Storm” as a tornado-chasing documentary filmmaker. So to audition his dramatic abilities, the suburban Darien native—best known for co-founding sketch comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade and roles in “Veep,” “Ted” and “Old School”—pretended his house was a disaster zone.

“It was my wife filming me underneath the dining room table, ‘cause there’s a scene where a roof falls in,” the 49-year-old Hinsdale South/NIU grad and Second City/Annoyance Theatre/Improv Olympic vet says at the Four Seasons Hotel. “[The characters are] underneath debris, and [my character is] trying to take count of his crew and trying to make sure the footage is salvageable, so he’s sort of taking charge. So we shot that.

“I guess that proved I could be serious. Thank you, honey, for helping me get the job.”

How much did you complain about the weather while growing up in Chicago?
Just the cold. I went to Northern Illinois, and I remember a couple winters, January when you come back right after Christmas and it’s 30-below and the power goes out or something and you’re just stuck in the house for two or three days. Crazy. The cold is just bananas. Especially in January.

Are you a good sport about that?
When I lived here I wasn’t a wimp about it ‘cause I used to walk to school through snow and everything, so I was totally used to it. It’s all about layers, guys. Layers, layers, layers. I used to put plastic bags on my feet and then put my boots over ‘em. Wear [something thermal] underneath and then cover the head and hands and you’re fine.

Was there anyone on set during “Into the Storm” that didn’t have a similar upbringing—
Was a wimp?

Yeah, wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the rain and wind machines.
No, I think, fortunately. We probably would have beat them up if they would have complained. We had this scene in the sewer at the end of the shoot for two weeks, and we were all soaking wet and cold and the crew works harder than you and they’re cold. ‘Cause if you’re talent, they put a robe on you between takes. They take care of you.

Does the robe have your name on it?
No, it doesn’t have your name on it, but they try to keep you as comfortable as possible. So we had it the best of anybody on the shoot.

What was the biggest challenge for you in dealing with the weather created on set? Was there anything that was scary for you?
There was never any danger. I got to drive this wicked vehicle called the Titus, which is like a 10-ton pickup that’s converted into a tornado-chasing vehicle. Basically a tank. So that was awesome. I got to drive that and beat the heck out of it. The challenge I think was because the tornadoes were going to be created in [post-production], you’re interacting with something that’s not there. So it’s trying to understand where it is. In the beginning of filming, the first couple days, I always wanted to point so the others actors knew what we were looking at. The director’s like, “Don’t point. Don’t point. You don’t need to point.”

“The tornado’s right there!” “We know!”
Yeah, so that was my first instinct. And I think trying not to laugh at times ‘cause it’s so absurd. You’re surrounded by green screen walls, and there’s always wind and rain, 100 mile-an-hour fans, constant rain. This tornado was represented by crew members in raincoats ‘cause they’re trying to stay dry, and then they have a broomstick with a tennis ball, and the tennis ball is the tornado [going up and down] like a merry-go-round pony, and you’re in the vehicle and you’re trying not to laugh and you’re trying to be scared. So that was a challenge. As the movie went on, you learned how to interact with the things that aren’t there. And I did a little bit of that on “Ted,” so I had some experience.

Was there ever a moment that because of those challenges people got confused because you weren’t pointing?
There’s one scene where I think there’s like six tornadoes, and that was bananas because you have to look at six different locations at the same time and there’s a little walkie-talkie because the director couldn’t be right next to you ‘cause you’re driving. So that was like, “Look right! Now keep driving! Now look left!” That was a little crazy, but I think it all worked out obviously.

What is the impact of a movie like “Sharknado” on both disaster movies and comedy?
[Laughs.] Probably more on comedy than anything. I think “Sharknado” is one of those fun things to talk about because it’s so intentionally cheesy. It’s just a water-cooler type event. It’s in the zeitgeist. The joke’s in the title: “Sharknado.” So I think it has more impact on comedy. I think people enjoyed the ridiculousness of it as opposed to the science.

What do you think of that, as a comedian? I don’t prefer things that are trying to be bad on purpose.
I’m in the same boat. I don’t begrudge anyone for liking “Sharknado.” It’s a diversion; I’m sure it is ridiculous. But I agree: If something’s trying too hard to be bad, it’s not my sensibility. I guess I don’t like kitsch or camp as much as I like subtler comedy. I like broad comedy, but broad comedy doesn’t fall into the genre of “Sharknado.”

Sort of on a similar note, in “Into the Storm” you have two amateurs who are trying to become YouTube stars and film footage of the tornadoes. YouTube is filled with people trying to be comedians. What do you think of that outlet for rising in the world of storm-chasing and comedy?
Yeah, there’s a lot of amateur storm-chasers out there, especially in states like Oklahoma and Arkansas. People want to get near a tornado because they do get a little money for their footage. But I don’t recommend it. You really need to be smart around a tornado because they’re very unpredictable and extremely powerful. So I don’t advise anyone getting near a tornado, ever. And as far as comedy goes, I think the paradigm has shifted. When I came through comedy, it was all about stage time, hitting the boards, doing the work, getting up in front of an audience, and you get seasoned that way. And now people who are a hit on YouTube, if it’s just in their bedroom and it’s a two-camera sort of diary every day, they can catch on and a get a million followers.

All it takes is one thing.
And they can sort of leapfrog that process. The challenge is they might get into a situation where they weren’t ready. I feel like you can’t replace human interaction, especially in comedy ‘cause you need to hear where the laughs are. And you need that experience. I went through Second City and Improv Olympic and the Annoyance and real theater, and I had a ton of seasoning before I was fortunate enough to get on TV, and I think sometimes people jump the line. Which is good because you get to a place where you can earn a living, but you don’t have the skills, and I think you can’t supplant experience in front of an audience. I think you really need to do both. But that said, if I was an aspiring comedian I’d say, yeah, get on YouTube, get on Twitter, learn how to write and learn how to edit ‘cause those skills, making your own things is so much easier. You don’t need someone to rent the camera for you anymore. You don’t need someone to give you $1,000 to make a movie or whatever it costs. You can do it on your own. So yes, learn editing, learn computer software, learn animation; you can animate things on your computer because that allows you to do things yourself.

In the movie, high school students make video time capsules. If you made a video at that time speaking to your future self, what would you say?
“Matt, don’t do ‘Into the Storm 5.’ ‘1,’ ‘2’ and ‘3’ will be good. ‘4’ you’ll make your paycheck; you’ll finally make the money you deserve. And ‘5’ you know is going to suck, so just do ‘1,’ ‘2,’ ‘3’ and ‘4’ ‘Into the Storm.’”

Plus:
How often he comes back to the Chicago area: “My mom still lives in the ‘burbs, and I have four siblings in Naperville, Willowbrook, La Grange. So we come back for Thanksgiving and sometimes other holidays, and we always have a classic summer vacation where we go to the Chicago Riviera, which is usually Michigan or Wisconsin. When I do get downtown I got to see Lollapalooza four years ago now; occasionally I come back for a festival. I did the Chicago Improv Festival this year which was really cool. I’m usually just in the airport, so I always get a hot dog and Garrett’s popcorn. But if I have time I’ll go to Twin Anchors for ribs I’ll go to Lou Malnati’s for pizza.”
It’s unlikely he’ll ever open a UCB in Chicago, since one of the founders would have to live here: “It’s the sort of thing you need to babysit like a restaurant.”
A wild and sensible prediction for the Bears this year (Walsh has a Bears-related podcast at beardownpodcast.com): “Sensible prediction: If Cutler doesn’t disappear for more than two games, or doesn’t have a down game, which he inevitably seems to do, I think we’ll go deep in the playoffs. A ridiculous prediction is we win the Super Bowl.”
When he’s asked to say something that shows how much he knows about weather: “Oh, you son of a bitch. Well, you need an updraft of about 70 miles-an-hour to create hail situations. In other words, if you have a 50 mile-an-hour wind updraft you will not get hail. You need about 70 miles-an-hour to carry hail up into the sky and have it drop. And tornadoes can converge. Vortices of tornadoes can converge into one vortex. That’s never happened before, but it happened in the movie and then it happened in real life. And also fire tornadoes are real. A tornado will carry anything in its path, and there have been instances where something caught on fire and it turned into a complete funnel of fire. And I believe high pressure systems create tornadoes. I don’t know about that. I take that one back.”
Other movies in which he’d like to see the monster replaced by a tornado: “’Godzilla,’ I think a tornado could do well. ‘Jaws’ could be a tornado in the water. Or a whirlpool. Maybe Frankenstein could be a doctor creates a human-sized tornado from a smorgasbord of human parts. ‘Frankenstein’ could work. I don’t think Dracula could work ‘cause it’s too subtle.”
Who’s more likely to make a reckless decision, politicians or storm-chasers: “I think storm-chasers. Because I think politicians make very thoughtful decisions, even though they compromise. It’s all about compromise, and oftentimes they sell out their core principles to get re-elected or to get a little bit of legislation that they like. They’re forward thinking. They say, ‘If I make this decision, what will happen?’ In storms and tornadoes, the recklessness is just adrenaline and impulse and hunch, and that’s why they’re more likely to make a bad decision.”

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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