The stars of the summer's rowdiest studio comedy on the set of a party and a party of a set
Russell Brand has the perfect last name.
"Get Him To The Greek" is a perfect movie star vehicle in terms of conception and timing and opportunity, and there's a good chance it's going to do exactly what it's been designed to do and kick Russell into a different level of movie stardom.
There is a major difference between a movie star and an actor. Sometimes, movie stars are great actors. Sometimes they are not. Doesn't really matter. Movie stars are personalities that audiences will go see on the flimsiest possible excuse just to spend time with the personality. Good movie star movies are built to give a movie star an excuse to do something, preferably with another movie star, that is fun to watch for a while and that fulfills whatever promise its premise makes. "Get Him To The Greek" is the story of Aldous Snow (the same rock star character that Brand played in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") and the American junior record executive Aaron Green (Jonah Hill not playing the same character he played in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall") who is assigned to bring Snow to America for a heavily-promoted concert appearance at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles.
The joke is simple: Aldous Snow is decadence incarnate, Pete Doherty-by-way-of-"Arthur. And this isn't a guy who likes a few too many cocktails, either. In "Marshall," the character was portrayed as sober, reformed, all of his energy chanelled into chasing girls instead of drugs and alcohol. It's part of the public face he wears. In "Greek," Snow is off the wagon, back on the prowl, abusing himself with abandon. And that's what makes Aaron's just so difficult, and it's also what looks to be a major source of humor in this gleefully R-rated comedy, one of several that Universal is making right now.
This writer was invited to visit the set as part of a group visit, but had to reschedule. The result was a long Friday spent alone in Culver City on the Sony lot, where "Get Him To The Greek" occupied a full-sized penthouse suite from a Vegas luxury hotel where they staged a massive party designed to lay waste to the luxury they built. In addition to Hill and Brand, the scene required the presence of veteran character actor Colm Meaney, playing Snow's reprobate father, and Sean Combs, who plays the key role of Sergio Roma, the record company executive who employs (and terrifies) Aaron Green.
When speaking to writers who were part of the group visit, a warning was issued that they had waited for several hours to talk to Sean Combs, only to leave the set empty-handed at the end of the night. That's no comment on Combs in particular. One of the truths of interviewing talent on-set for a film is that you're interrupting their work day, and it doesn't always work for the film for the interviews to happen. Still, getting that interview with Sean Combs became a priority during the set visit, and later this week, the full story of interviewing the man known first and foremost as Diddy will be a featured part of our complete "Get Him To The Greek" coverage.
Upon arriving onset, the first visible part of the soundstage has been transformed into an extras holding pen. And with Russell Brand prowling the set beween takes, it was like a fully stocked pond just waiting for him to unleash his own private Aldous Snow. Located next to the craft service tables, the extras "lounge" was a bunch of folding chairs thrown up in a semi-circle between several other departments.
Video village, the section of the soundstage that was set aside for the director and the producers and whoever else needs to sit and watch what's being done, was off to the side of the penthouse set, at the bottom of some stairs. The set was surprisingly large, a full 360-degree build. The reason for all the extras sitting outside the set was evident when walking inside, as the entire set needed to be occupied to create the impression of a debauched party in full swing.
Russell Brand stalks the set like he owns it, like it really is a party thrown in his honor, and when the unit publicist grabs his as he walks past between takes, he lights up, leaping right into playful interview mode. When asked about working with Jonah Hill again and how their chemistry is the second time around, he replied, "We began a very passionate, very sexual affair on the first day of rehearsal, which has now erupted into jealousy, incrimination." Jonah walked past and glanced over as Russell blew him kisses.
Asked the same thing about Sean Combs, who was sitting on the set, waiting for the next take, Russell explained that what was essentially a small role to send Aaron on his mission evolved completely during the first table read when writer/director Nick Stoller and producer Rodney Rothman got a look at him in action. Referring to a phrase that Combs was using daily at the time on his Twitter feed, Russell laughed. "He's locked in. God is great."
The unit publicist dragged Russell's actual official chair over for him to sit in, and Russell checked it out, amazed to see it. "This is the first time I've ever sat in this," he said. "It's very comfortable."
Brand was still fresh off the incident on English radio that's now known as "Sachsgate" and spoke of how liberating it was to leave that behind and embark on a different career. Asked if he always expected to move into film acting, he replied, "Oh I hoped it would happen, but it’s obviously a great joy that it has. I trained as an actor before I started doing standup in the U.K. and then from standup I went into TV presenting and the TV presenting... I got really successful through that. And that happened to be the time I got successful. Then my standup became more popular again and then I started to do like shows where I was hosting stuff like MTV and met Adam Sandler and came over here and met Judd and all that sort of stuff. But it was always my hope that I’d be able to do films , and I owe it, really, to the work we do in the U.K. with the people that produced my radio show, which was obviously very successful until it was banned forever." The thought of that sent him into fresh peals of laughter.
He explained more about Sachsgate, concerned that it would be tough to understand from an American perspective. "Do you know the show 'Fawlty Towers'?" he asked. "I've not met that many people who like 'Fawlty Towers' more than I do. I know most of the episodes by heart. I love John Cleese. And I love the actors on the show, particularly Manuel, who was played by Andrew Sachs. I picked on him on air because I think he's so great. The whole thing was a lot of chaos." Brand prank-called Sachs, a beloved English TV personality, and told him about sleeping with Sachs's granddaughter. The incident derailed Brand's on-air career as well as that of his co-host Jonathan Ross.
Even on the set of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," there was already some talk about an idea for an Aldous Snow-based sequel, and asked if he'd been part of those talks from the very beginning, Brand explained. "When we were in Hawaii, Nick said to me, 'Would you like to do a film? I’d love to do another film built around you.' There was talk of it not being Aldous because Jonah was in 'Sarah Marshall,' and since he wasn't going to play the same character..." In the end, the confusion was deemed to be worth the chemistry they two obviously had, and the opportunity that Snow provided to Stoller as a writer. "Obviously, I love working with Nick Stoller and I love working with Jonah and Judd’s amazing, you know? And it’s just sort of great to get an opportunity to play a character that I love playing and to get into real trouble and to have to do it when he’s battling drugs. It's more fun, more mental, a sexier plot, crazy metropolitan locations... you know, it's just been a dream, really."
The day before the set visit, Michael Jackson had passed away, and already the talk had begun about what sort of medical extremes might have led to Jackson's death. In the sequence that they were shooting, every one of the main characters appeared to be extremely high on one substance or another, with Jonah's character suffering the most extreme reaction to it. Without giving away the entire sequence, it's safe to say that fans of "Pulp Fiction" should find Aaron Green's reaction to adrenaline particularly hilarious. Asked if "Get Him To The Greek" uses the real-life excess and enabling of the music industry to have fun, Brand confirmed that was a big part of what he found interesting. "Just yesterday, I had to do something... it really took me back to wilder days of my own. It's lucky I have all of that to draw upon. Colm Meaney is playing my dad and he's f**king brilliant. I had to go all psychotic, and I just remembered a time where I did that once, where I was laying in some treatment center and they wanted to do some aggressive therapy thing and call up these memories that I'd buried. They said, 'Oh, you’re always in control. You intellectualize everything. You don’t express yourself emotionally.' So they gave me this exercise to do, and I lost it and I smashed up a chair in the room. They wanted to get me certified and put me into a hospital. So I remembered that day and I called that memory up and used that despair and the way I beat myself up. "Why did you take drugs?' People generally take drugs because they’re f**king miserable, you know? And in pain. So even with a six-year margin between my own personal using and now, it’s still taxing emotionally in some places."
Madatory hospitalization following a drug-induced meltdown is hardly the typical stuff of comedy, and asked if he considers the material dangerous, he actually considers the idea before answering. "I think it’s atypical certainly. I think some of the territory is dangerous, yeah. I mean, that sort of addiction and sadness and enabling and self-destruction... yeah, there’s some interesting areas. I think that perhaps in standup comedy, that’s the sort of taboo that Richard Pryor would try to attack. But I can’t think of a comedy movie that’s been operating in those kind of territories too much." Since he was involved in the development of the script, the question seems almost a given as to how much of his own family background influences the way Aldous Snow was raised. "There have been many conversations with Nick when he was writing it and what sort of things would really upset you if your father did them and what’s your relationship like with your mother? What was it like when you did drugs? What are some of the crazy things that you did? The idea of doing some set pieces in the movie like making a friend go and score drugs for you... I did that. And getting sperm on a …. well, you'll see. There’s other stuff later, you know, stuff that’s in my book, and it made its way into the film."
At that point, his involvement in a remake of "Arthur" was just a rumor, and it sounded like something else that was being tailored specifically to his personality. "Yeah, from now on if things go well, I’ll be in the inaugural stages of projects and be able to set up a template. 'Arthur' looks like it will probably be the next thing I do. And another comedy that I wrote with a friend of mine may happen at Paramount. So, yeah, whatever I do now I’ll have more authorship over it." A conversation about the original "Arthur" and the unique fit it offered to Dudley Moore didn't seem to phaze Brand's confidence at all. "I think some attitudes have changed towards alcoholism. That would have to be reflected and I think I’m very different, class-wise. I’m from about 15 miles away from where Dudley Moore was born and though Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s comedy is a huge influence on stuff I’ve done, I think what I do is kind of different. So, yeah, I think it will be distinct but it’s very early on. We haven’t made those kind of decisions yet."
Conversation paused for a moment for a series of takes on a scene between a tripping Aaron and a tripping Sergio, the two of them bonding over their extreme highs and a fur-lined wall in the penthouse. Every single take featured an ad-lib from Combs and a different reaction from Hill, and every single take got a huge laugh as soon as cut was called. Combs was just as sharp and just as funny as Hill, and scored points off the crew over and over. Brand shook his head, amazed after one particularly wicked ad-lib from Combs. "I love that man. He’s quite self contained, but he’s a very engaging and charismatic man. When he wants something to be done, he can bring that about with incredible focus. He’s got a way with him. It’s very funny to see him reach a point where he can strut and laugh at his public persona. It’s very, very enjoyable and I think that could be one of the most interesting thing about the film, seeing his performance. I really do."
As Russell was called to set for a different scene, Jonah wandered over, eager to share his opinion about how great Sean Combs is in the film. He also wanted to explain the recently-announced remake of "21 Jump Street" that had just been announced. "Mine is nothing like the show," he promised. "It has nothing to do with the original show except cops undercover in high school." He seemed particularly interested in the fate of the just-released "Land Of The Lost," which he agreed was a good attempt at making something personal out of something pre-sold. "I just loved the idea of going back to high school with an agenda. It felt like the greatest idea like a 'Back To The Future' to me, that aspect where you get to relive your life again, but knowing so much more. But without any sort of time travel conceit. You could go back and do what you didn't do the first time. I loved it the moment it came up. Michael Bacall is writing it. It's really interesting so far, but I promise... if it's not interesting when the script is done, I just won't make it. I promise you, you know?"With that, Jonah was called back to set, and the filmmakers settled in to review the last few set-ups and to explain exactly what it was they were up to.
Tomorrow, writer/director Nicholas Stoller and producer Rodney Rothman lay out their vision for the film, and we look inside their particular professional process and why it may pay off on an uncommonly rowdy film when "Get Him To The Greek" is released on June 4. Thursday, Colm Meaney is an inspired choice to play Brand's father in the film, and we'll discuss how he got here and what he's got planned for Brand. Then Friday, Sean Combs may or may not give HitFix an exclusive interview about playing Sergio and his induction into the Judd Apatow school of improvisation.
And make sure to check out the gallery of new images from the film that we've just posted.
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