Interview: 'Community' star Jim Rash on The Dean's sexuality, directing and moving to Yahoo
The cast of "Community" has come a long way from where they were when the comedy premiered on NBC in 2009 to where they are now as "Community" begins its latest rebirth on Yahoo. Not to take anything away from the career arcs of Gillian Jacobs, Danny Pudi or Alison Brie, but Jim Rash's journey from comic day player perhaps best known for a resemblance to Moby to beloved supporting performer, Oscar-winning screenwriter and acclaimed indie director seems like the biggest leap.
As the cast of "Community" has shifted in recent years, Rash's Dean Pelton has become increasingly central and as Rash's creative profile has grown, thanks to "The Descendants" and "The Way Way Back," he was able to write an episode in The Lost Dan Harmon-less Season.
The sixth "Community" season begins on Tuesday (March 17) on Yahoo and Rash has been able to add TV directing to his resume as he and Oscar-winning writing and directing partner Nat Faxon helmed a pair of episodes this season including the Dean-heavy second installment.
I sat down with Rash two weeks ago to talk about the different historical layers of "Community" and whether we're on "Community 2.0" or "3.0" or "4.0" this season, as well as his experience directing on the show. We also discussed the particular and unique creative environment that has allowed nearly every cast member to seek outside writing, directing or producing opportunities during various "Community" hiatuses. And we talked about what his plans are for when "Community" inevitably ends.
Click through for the full Q&A...
HitFix: In your mind does this feel like it’s "Community 2.0," 3.0, 4.0, 5.0? It feels like there are all these historical layers to "Community." Do you distinguish between any of them in your mind?
Jim Rash: Yeah I guess they’ve all sort of had a journey of their own so I definitely think it’s building off of if Season 5 was 5.0 this would build off of that. So I feel like it is the renewed spirit that I felt like we had last year with Dan’s return has sort of continued. And it just feels creatively in a great place but also, even with new characters, true to form of how it worked when Jonathan Banks was on. They have a great way of just sort of folding them into the world without having to spend so much time, that the characters just sort of hit the ground running. Yeah it’s got to be 5-point-something more.
HitFix: But you don’t in your mind sort of think of the Chevy time as being one era and then when...
Jim Rash: No, I think it sort of goes through that whole thing. I think while yes, there’s this change at the table, like literally, I think "Community’s" been able to survive those changes without losing what it was in the beginning.
HitFix: The Dean was sort of a marginal character and then increasingly more central do you look back a different way at those first couple of seasons where Dean just popped up periodically?
Jim Rash: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, I think Season 3 is when I became a regular and I like that I went from certainly coming in there almost, if you will, to propel story as far as present to the group what they would be dealing with many times, whether in costume or not costume. But now I feel like what was nice is to see that he’s sort of given up on even worrying about the barrier or the line to cross between being administration and students and sorta become fully on, maybe they’d say a little bit unwanted friend, but in his mind these are his friends. And even when I was just popping in, you know, Dan and the writers, even with our larger cast from Magnitude to Vicki, you know, to Garrett to Leonard. All these people, it’s like despite whether they just pop in, it’s always an impact and it is part of the story.
HitFix: Now is this a character who can ever reach a "too big" point?
Jim Rash: [He laughs.] I don’t know! I hope no one tells me. No maybe I am. No, I guess you’re just lucky when you play sort of that character on the outskirts of where "grounded" is and you get to play just a little bit of hovering with one foot off the ground, or two probably in my case, or hovering way above it. The sort of larger than life and heightened. But I feel like again as long as Dan continues and they give us that heart and understanding of who these people are I think you can always enjoy the insanity. Because, come on, the school instantly turns into a disaster area an hour after a paintball thing starts. So anything can happen.
HitFix: For you as an actor was there a process of unlearning that you had to go through in the early process of just tearing down those walls and going, "Okay, there’s no such thing as too far" that you had to learn at any point in the craft?
Jim Rash: As a performer? You know I think I always enjoyed being able to walk on the line, the line that allows you to be both a little bit larger and heightened and keep one foot sort of grounded in some kind of reality. So I enjoy those things and yes, I think it’s a nice balance obviously, you know, as an actor I’d love to be doing all types of things that sort of ground me more, but I’d love being sort of this guy.
HitFix: Do you think you could put yourself back in a box though for whatever comes?
Jim Rash: Yeah I would hope so. I mean maybe no one will want to see it or no one will let me get back in the box. [He laughs] But I think it’s part of the reason, getting involved with I’ve always been into writing and writing and directing and I’ve always, when that time comes, I’ve always been trying to write for something down the road for myself to show my voice and my side. So I hope that people will allow me to go into that box again.
HitFix: You haven’t with your writing at least so far done the thing for yourself. So is that something you see as being very close on the horizon after this?
Jim Rash: Yeah whenever the day comes that people won’t let us play anymore at Greendale, I mean that would be the next thing for me personally. I’ve certainly already started writing for myself. I mean that’s how we started, Nat and I wrote pilots for ourselves. But the market is changing so nicely in the sense that it’s both networks and cable and all these people embracing writer/performers. You know Louis C.K. and all these type of shows. And when we were trying to do it, it’s not that it wasn’t but it was just a much harder uphill battle. They wanted you in the room, in the writers’ room.
HitFix: Presumably having that Oscar thing probably has to have some caché.
Jim Rash: Well if that’s what I have to do I will do it.
HitFix: Do you have a sense of what that Jim Rash-scripted Jim Rash vehicle looks like in any sense? What you want to give yourself to do?
Jim Rash: I would like to show range for myself. "The Way Way Back," the first scene was autobiographical, the very first scene of the movie and that was ripped from my headline. So I always feel the most attachment to the things that I’m close to. So it definitely would be something that I would pull from my own personal life which I think allows me to give more sense of while the character hopefully is spun-off of me, but it’s something that’s sort of what I like to do which is pretty much just the balance of comedy and drama because I like f***ed up stuff. That’s how life is.
HitFix: Well "Way Way Back" didn’t get *all* that f***ed up.
Jim Rash: Not f***ed up but the emotional core I’m talking about like the idea of pulling from something, a moment of being told you’re a "3" on a scale and then taking that and finding what that journey is about. Certainly not f**ed up. No one got shot. I did not say that and we didn’t like give an expose and, you know, the underlying drug scene going through it. No I just mean pulling from personal pain I guess in a way of exploring those things.
HitFix: I'm struck by how many of you guys on "Community" have gone on in hiatuses is do your own creative endeavors. Gillian had her documentary that just premiered. Danny had a documentary. What do you think it is about this cast that has given all of you guys the confidence or additional confidence to go off and do these things?
Jim Rash: Yeah I don’t know. I mean I like to think that we all went in there with that sort of something we wanted, you know, whether it was enhanced or birthed by being around what we all felt was a passion for a show that was very creative and that we enjoyed the writing. Because Donald was already well into what he was doing as Childish Gambino. And I don’t know. It’s like with the "30 for 30," Ken did one too, and Joel was already got his feet in many things. So it’s just been one of those things where I think we came to the party and it just happened to be that way.
HitFix: Do you guys talk about these outside things at all?
Jim Rash: Oh yeah. I think we all try to celebrate each other. I think you spend so much time together and this is a pretty close cast. That’s pretty much what we spend our time talking about is each other and doing bits.
HitFix: But you realized fairly early on that there was sort of that common kindred spirit.
Jim Rash: Yes. It’s not always a cage. You work with a cast that can either be a mixed bag and just the way it is. But this has been a very close-knit group and I think it’s, again, it’s attributed a lot to everyone I think as humans, you know, human beings. But also like what we felt like we were doing, and also being on the outsiders fighting to be seen. But there was a nice core group of people who enjoyed us.
HitFix: Now you wrote an episode in the...
Jim Rash: Fourth season. The gas-leak season.
HitFix: However we describe it. The Other Season. The Outlier Season.
Jim Rash: Yes, yes. I wrote one there which I was proud of but, you know...
HitFix: I think most people thought of that as being one of the highlights of the season.
Jim Rash: Well thank you. I loved getting to do it despite obviously we were in a transitional period, but it was a blast and then Nat and I directed two episodes this year. So we directed what would be the second episode and I think the fourth. I don’t know which...
HitFix: And how does that change the process for you?
Jim Rash: It was awesome. I mean I was nervous just because ... Not nervous because obviously I know the show well enough and I’m already a fan of what Dan and the writers are going for and we’re all hoping to do. And it was a safe, wonderful environment in the sense that we’re six seasons in and that kind of thing. But you still want to do good by the page and so we were the first to shoot actually. So we shot the second episode first. So any stress I had was only because we had somewhat of a new crew this year. And so we were breaking them in. And by that I mean, you know, they were new to the sets. And so you get to a place where everyone understands the sets, you know, "They like this light this way." But Dan really wanted to return to the look of the Season 1 and give us sort of that film look that we sort of started with. And so that was exciting and our crew was amazing and fast. And then also I just happened to be sort of heavy in those episodes so it was sort of the stress of like -- Nat obviously is more than capable of being on the other side watching my face but giving me notes. No, I’m just kidding. [He laughs.] I can’t deal with his notes -- but that was also the stress but we dealt with that on "The Way Way Back" too.
HitFix: Now are these episodes sort of big concept episodes or are they smaller, the ones that you directed specifically.
Jim Rash: Yes, they’re more character-based grounded stuff. It was good. We got to introduce Keith David’s character. We got to introduce Britta’s parents, Martin Mull and Lesley Ann Warren, in one episode. And then we got to do a really good Ken one which is basically a sort of "Karate Kid." And he’s great in it. So we lucked out.
HitFix: How many times did you have to watch the original movie for that?
Jim Rash: We did watch key scenes for sure, but it’s already burned up here because I mean how many times have I seen "Karate Kid"? in my real life? Often. It’s one of those HBO shows you go like, "Oh, I’ll just watch it." Not in a bad way just like it’s on, I’ll watch it.
HitFix: Okay. So are there sort of very conscious of homages that you got to do? It’s a play, right?
Jim Rash: It’s a play. It’s a play of you can see in the quick moment a trailer that was out where he’s playing Mr. Miyagi and it’s a little bit of a "Whiplash"-type breaking him down and it’s wonderful. And then the other half of the story is actually a Dean story which deals with his sexuality which is nice. So we got to deal with my sexuality and Chang’s sort of growth which was very good.
HitFix: How conclusively is the Dean sexuality dealt with?
Jim Rash: It’s not. It’s complicated. It’s basically everyone else wants it to be less complicated and he can’t let go of how complicated it needs to be.
HitFix: It seems to me that maybe he’s in love with Jeff but that does not necessarily mean that he’s gay.
Jim Rash: No he feels like while as he says, "It’s heavily in the mix," there’s more going on.
HitFix: Did it line up with what you had been playing all these previous seasons?
Jim Rash: Yes. No it's not like... I didn’t flip the page and go like, "Wait, we need to reshoot season one through five please because everyone’s going to realize I’m just like the worst actor." No luckily it fit. It’s very clear that, he from the very beginning when he proclaimed with dalmatians, is not wanting to be in a box so to speak... Talking about getting into a box.
HitFix: Now what is the thought process for you guys now regarding if this is the right way to be sending the show off into the world, if this is the right way to be sending the show off into the movie, if this is the right way to be sending the show off to Season 7?
Jim Rash: I think they’re always smart to like we’ve always been open-ended. We’ve had a conclusion that could be a conclusion but, because we always get resurrected, it feels like you can always... I mean I think Season 5 as far as starting, you know, this new path with the table being an advisory board it’s obviously something that’s very much continued in Season 6. So I feel like because it’s reinvented itself already in season five with the "Repilot," as it was called, it feels like it can be exactly what it needs to be. In other words we can go seven, we can go eight, we can go to a movie, any of that stuff.
HitFix: Just a last question since you mentioned that you were the first one to be the director in the Yahoo environment was there anything where you looked at and clearly said "Wow, this is something there’s no way we could have done on NBC" or did it feel like you were shooting the same show?
Jim Rash: Well I think on the page, Dan didn’t want "Community" just to become something it wasn’t. In other words it wasn’t about us suddenly released of anything like language barrier or cussing, anything that made it feel like, "Now you’re just doing it because you can" and even with length, you know, I think we obviously have the benefit of if you want to go certainly longer than a network television which is down to like I think 19 minutes and some change to tell a story to, roughly in the 24. But I think for him it was, "Whatever that story needs to be up to a certain point we’ll do it." That’s what it is. So, you know, a little wiggle room to not be, to not lose some gold because of commercials or breaks. So I think if anything people [will think] it looks great, the way it’s lit and shot," that was there I think in the first season, not that the other ones don’t have wonderful stuff. It felt like a return a little bit.
"Community" premieres on Yahoo on March 17.