In the tradition of such character comics as Sacha Baron Cohen who has made a career out of playing Borat or Ali G, English comedian Marc Wootton brings three of his very unique characters to Los Angeles and films the interactions between the characters and the unknowing public with often hilarious results. In Showtime's "La La Land," Wootton plays psychic Shirley Ghostman, aspiring actor Gary Garner and egocentric documentarian Brendan and, even when people get frustrated or angry, Wootton never breaks character to inform the people that they are part of a television series. To get inside the head of the comic and how he mingled with old Hollywood legends like Ruta Lee as well as how he reacts when people get angry with his character, our Jim Halterman called overseas to talk to Wootton about "La La Land."
Jim Halterman: I've lived in Los Angeles a long time so I know it's an easy place to make fun of but what are your impressions of the city having come from the UK?
Marc Wootton: I think it's more that it's such a fantastic menagerie of interesting people. There's a quote "if you tip the world on its side everything loose ends up in Los Angeles' and I think there's kind of an interesting collection of eccentric people and a lot of them are striving to be in the entertainment industry. There's a real mixture of spiritual and then really hard, nasty business stuff going on, too. I just find it really intriguing. I love dropping characters who are a fish out of water into that incredibly intriguing world and hopefully it's a recipe for an interesting show. There's an arc that runs across the series and also there's an arc in each episode and I hope that at best you'll be laughing and clapping and smiling and at the worst it will at least be interesting people.
JH: Gary interacts with actress/dancer Ruta Lee in the first two episodes and...
MW: She's in every episode! She's wonderful isn't she?
JH: How did such a staple of the old Hollywood era become involved in "La La Land?"
MW: She is probably my favorite person in the whole series. I think she's just such a proper Hollywood icon. She has a star on the Walk of Fame. She's old school proper talent. She can sing and act. She's someone who has done her fair share of stuff on Broadway and internationally but I loved, as well, how she would put the character Gary in his place. Various things happen throughout with Gary and Ruta but [by episode six] she becomes incredibly annoyed with him and at the end of the series Gary decides to leave Ruta's place because he feels that it's all a little "When Harry Met Sally' and he thinks it's dangerous when a man and woman get this close. "We're friends and should always remain that way' and she's like "Jesus! Do yourself a favor!' By that point she just can't stand me and she still is, I don't know, charming enough to say "You have a lot going for you but you're not going to make it as an actor and you've to get rid of this arrogance! I can't do this! You go on with your life and I'll go on with my life' and we part ways. She's a yummy character! She's someone that we really didn't want to undermine or kind of ridicule because I think it's important especially with all this reality hybrid television to have the joke on me as much as possible instead of on someone else.
JH: Gary says to Ruta that "acting is lying' and that's essentially the core of what you're doing, right?
MW: [Laughs.] Yes, it is. It's good to pretend, isn't it? You pretend to be another person and, you know, some of us forget how to pretend.
JH: Brendan, the documentary filmmaker character seems to be modeled a little after Michael Moore. Is that where you drew the inspiration?
MW: There's a whole wealth of people. There's a guy in England named Nick Broomfield and he's a documentarian and I actually met him for dinner about making a film and by the end I realized I was going to do a Nick Broomfield kind of character. And then, I suppose, Morgan Spurlock and Mr. Moore and looking at all of those people who tread that incredibly difficult line of trying to make something that is going to change the world but is also going to raise their profile. It's a tricky business and I think Brendan probably doesn't have the intelligence to really do any research or do anything. He's the kind of person who would read the back cover of "Fast Food Nation.' He just wants the shortcut to winning that prize instead of the long haul of really making an interesting documentary. And then there's a bit that makes me laugh with those guys when they feature themselves like "Look at me, I'm the savior' and their ego gets in the way sometimes of making a balanced documentary and occasionally with some of those things you think "What is this really about? The story itself or the documentarian talking about themselves and how they feel.' I suppose Brandon is the bad parts of all those people.
JH: In the second episode when Brendan keeps eluding to the climbers as father and son when they're not and one of the guys gets really irate. How do you handle that when someone loses their temper like that?
MW: Again, I felt bad. In that particular thing, it was that thing that some documentary filmmakers are guilty of which is they go in with a very harsh, preconceived idea of what they want to achieve and what they want to get and then they manipulate their subjects into a corner and pretty much show them what they need to make a name for themselves and the point they're trying to make. It doesn't perhaps reflect the truth of the real situation which is what I'm hoping to show and that guy was clearly not having any of it.
JH: Do you get nervous when someone gets that irate or are you committed to the character and going with it wherever it goes?
MW: I'm pretty committed. It's not brain surgery or anything that clever but I do get quite into the character, I suppose, but not too crazy where I insist you refer to me as Brendan but of course you get a little nervous. There have been a few times doing this series where things have gotten pretty crazy.
JH: And then there's Shirley, the less-than-honest psychic, who we see taking a client's credit card to pay his hotel bill. I loved the all-white suit and the wig.
MW: That's my real hair! You rude man! [Laughs.] What we do is film the characters in blocks and we start with the one with the most facial hair, which is Brendan with the huge beard and big brown hair. Then I have my beard shaved off and then I go into Shirley mode so I dyed my actual hair but the funniest thing is on weekends and evenings in Los Angeles when I'd go out with ridiculous bangs and I looked like a freak. I'm wearing these normal clothes but I've got the most ridiculous haircut, which I'll have for 2-3 weeks and then with Gary I have my hair dyed again.
JH: Assuming the show is successful and people get to know the three characters in the show, do you have an arsenal of other characters?
MW: There's nothing funnier than real people and consequently when you're out and about in life you meet some really interesting people. The character traits that you see kind of form new characters so all the time there are new characters being created, if you like. I think when we went to Showtime there were several different characters before we pared it down the three. There was a blind French chef, there was a childcare expert who was a guy who was quite militant and was going to be the new Dr. Spock and take the whole childcare industry by storm. I'd also love to see these characters continue a bit, especially Shirley. At the end of the season, Shirley goes to see an exorcist. He gets himself cleansed and it's a quite famous exorcist named Bob Larson and as he's getting cleansed, he's punching me in the chest with a Bible�and then Shirley is kind of this hollow version of what he was. I'd love to take him into that whole preacher world, actually.
"La La Land" premieres tonight on Showtime at 11:00/10:00c.